Seated across the table from her 15-year-old sister Natalie, in a Chinese restaurant in Venice Beach, spunky, pretty redheaded Tiffany is talking about her plans to go traveling through Europe just as soon as she graduates high school.

“I’m going for two months,” she says, tucking her long hair into a black wool newsboy cap. “About high school, I’m just ready to get out of there. I don’t need to be sheltered anymore.”

Natalie interrupts her sister and interjects, “Get real.

“I am being real!”

Lowering her brow, Tiffany, 17, looks firmly at her little sister, “Just be happy you are here, okay?

They both start cracking up.

Tiffany, who is wearing a green baby doll dress and Converse All Stars, has been to Paris once before, during a 10th-grade field trip with her French class. She loved it.

“Most of the other kids were girls. They were younger than me and crazy,” she recalls with a roll of the eyes. “They really just wanted to get drunk. [They] kept coming to me like, ‘Tiffany, buy us some stuff.’ I was like .?.?. ‘I don’t think they check IDs over here. I think anyone can get plastered.’?”

It can be noted that Tiffany, who at this exact moment is pouring herself a second cup of tea, has very good comedic timing.

“I saw a 5-year-old smoking a cigarette on the Champs-Élysées. I was like ‘What?!’?” Tiffany smirks, and then adds, “She was wearing lipstick.”

How do you know she was 5?

“Because she told me.”

Was she standing on the street by herself?

“No. She was with some 21-year-olds. I was like, ‘Oh, is this your daughter?’?” And, they were like, ‘No. She’s our friend.’?”

How do you think that girl got there?

“Probably walked,” Tiffany shrugs. “Maybe she rode her bike. They have a lot of mopeds there.”

Critical of the Bush administration and any war for oil, Tiffany believes that traveling can help a person cultivate a global perspective. Especially if one hopes to be compassionate and an intellectual, which she does.

Are you saving up money for the trip?

“I saved $400,” Tiffany says, reaching for her fortune cookie.

How much do you need?

“Five thousand dollars. But I can do that. I might be getting some extra shifts soon.”

Besides swim team and Advanced Placement classes at her public high school, she has a weekend job as a busgirl at the same restaurant her mother has worked at since Tiffany was 4 or 5. All five of her siblings have worked there too: Her older brothers have parked cars and worked in the pantry, her older sister bused dishes and even Natalie, the youngest, has helped out a few times.

“Working in the restaurant is really hard,” Tiffany explains, cracking her cookie. “But if I ever have kids, it’ll be the first job I have them do.”

“Totally,” agrees Natalie. “All good, smart people work in restaurants. Like painters and writers.”

Tiffany and Natalie’s parents are divorced. Their mom, who put herself through college waiting tables, has a degree in religious science and is an enthusiastic student of life. Their dad is a successful businessman. All of this — and the fact that last year one of Tiffany’s best friends drowned in Mexico — may or may not have something to do with the fact that she spends time thinking about things like intelligence versus intellectualism and wisdom versus book smarts.

“I know a lot of people who are street smart and I know a lot of people who are book smart, but still very naive and arrogant. I am not book smart. I am more of an intellectual than intelligent. I can think, but sometimes I need help.”

In actuality, Tiffany does read. She’s a lover of fantasy novels, and not just Harry Potter.

“Right now, I don’t know if I am changing for the best or for the worst,” Tiffany says.

How can you be sure that you are changing at all?

“Sometimes I think differently. Like, the other day I saw that my mind was different. I used to walk around and see people and think, ‘Are they looking at me?’ And, now I am like, ‘Does it really matter?’?”

You were worried if people liked you?

Really worried. I used to be like, ‘What can I do for you?’ Now I want to do something for you becauseI love you. I used to do something for you because I had to, you know?

The girls have paid their bill (leaving a generous tip) and are now making their way toward the beach. Tiffany returns to her original train of thought, “About school: I’m just waiting to get out.”

Why? Do you feel like the other kids at your school don’t get you?

“It’s not about ‘They don’t get me.’ It’s more that I’m trying to get them. Some kids are trying to be nonconformists, but they’re being conformists with all the other nonconformists, right? I want them to know I won’t scorn them. I want them to feel comfortable.”

Tiffany and Natalie have reached the boardwalk. The air is crisp and chilly and the path is almost vacant. A group of punk kids and a couple of homeless people are gathered in front of a pizza stand up ahead.

As they move closer to the kids, Tiffany slips into a sing-songy, deeper register, as if she were some TV news commentator.

We’re walk-ing down the boardwalk. Shit’s hap-pen-ing. We got the fuck-ing punks out thinking, ‘Where can we get some weed and, go tag?”

Spotting a stray, Natalie squeals, “doggie!”

Tiffany continues her commentary, now making fun of her sister, “This dog-gie is gon-na eat me.”

Soon a homeless man is asking for money and explaining to the girls that he didn’t drop the bombs on Iraq. Tiffany, who has attended a few protests in her day, apologizes that she doesn’t have change but hollers back as they walk away: “We love you!

Two boys in bondage pants pick up their pace in order to say, “Hello, ladies.” Once they get a few feet away, Tiffany tells her sister that one of the boys went out with a friend of theirs from school.

“He knows everyone,” she whispers. “He has teeth missing and everything.”

LA Weekly