This post comes about five days after it was intended to, due in large part to poor organisation on my part, and in small part to the understandable lack of internet available in campsites between San Francisco and Los Angeles. We are now in a hostel on Hollywood Boulevard, LA, after a couple of days driving down the stunning Highway 1 from San Francisco. But that is not in this post. This is the Week 1, San Francisco post. We had a fairly busy first seven days (more excuses) and I am struggling to decide what to include and what not to include. Feel free to let me know in the comments at what point you switched off.
We arrived on Monday and stayed for the week with Gillian’s school-friend Zoe in Palo Alto, just south of San Francisco.
On Tuesday and Wednesday we expended a lot of energy and shoe leather getting to grips with the public transport system and exploring a bit of the city, including Chinatown. San Francisco’s Chinatown being as famous as it is, we had expected it to be somewhat more artificial, and for the residents and businesses to make more of an effort to capitalise on the tourist trade. There is of course the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, established 1962, where you can watch ladies, who look as though they have not moved from their stations since the factory opened, fold messages into cookies; and buy fortune cookies in all varieties from traditional to deluxe, dark-chocolate, x-rated, ‘adult’ fortune cookies. Apart from that, and the odd sign telling visitors the history of Chinatown, the most Western thing we encountered was a busker playing ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ on an Erhu. Instead, the restaurant we ate in (Cafe New Honolulu), was run and patronised almost exclusively by Chinese Americans, and the same goes for the majority of the shops we entered. Our experience of the smaller Japantown was largely the same; the Japanese population in San Francisco is much smaller than the Chinese, and it was noticeable that within the guidebook-stated bounds of Japantown the vast majority of the people we saw were of Japanese descent, but we do not think we saw any Japanese people outside that relatively small area.
On Thursday we visited Alacatraz Island, the former fort, military prison and federal penitentiary. Something which should not surprise us anymore about being in America is the enthusiastic almost-too-friendly customer service in cafes and restaurants, and the sing-song train announcements. What we really were not ready for, however, was Ranger ‘Awesome’ Helena from the National Park Service, whose job it was to welcome us to super-cool Alcatraz Island on Thursday, and who set out the rules for the island as if she were welcoming us to a Spring Break party in her parents’ house and asking us not to jump on her their bed. She also encouraged us to use the super-exciting hashtag #cellfie, in case we were not already feeling nauseous after the boat crossing, and yet when she encouraged us to give ourselves a round of applause for having the great idea to visit amazing Alcatraz, we were apparently the only ones squirming on the inside. We therefore turned down the Ranger Helena Guided Tour/One Woman Show and took the excellent audio-guide round the old prison block, and the beautifully tended gardens on the island. The prison was shut down in 1963 due to funding issues, but after spending time on the island I feel that it could as well have been shut down for human rights abuses: to be incarcerated in a maximum security prison while being subjected to the sights and sounds of lively San Francisco every day, just a short mile across the bay, must have been a form of torture equatable to any hot metal implement.
On Friday we hired bicycles. The plan was to cycle to the Golden Gate Park (not, confusingly, next to the Golden Gate Bridge), a long, thin, strip of parkland akin to New York’s Central Park, before heading across the Bridge to Sausalito and then getting the ferry back to San Francisco. It was a glorious day, and two things quickly became clear: we did not want to spend the morning cycling up and down San Francisco’s many steep hills to get to the park; and progress anywhere within view of the Bridge was going to be slow, as the ever-photogenic Art Deco masterpiece proved far too tempting, from every slightly different angle, for me and my new camera. Instead we went straight across the Bridge, fighting through the hoards of tourists, both on bikes and on foot, down to the stunning historic town of Sausalito where, I am not in the least ashamed to say, we spent all of our time eating deli sandwiches and ice-cream, before the scenic ferry ride back to San Francisco.
We took Saturday off in order to attend a Eurovision Brunch which Zoe was hosting. As the guests began arriving it quickly became clear that we were letting our continent down in terms of our knowledge of the workings of this institution. Those US citizens who had never been to Europe were understandably bemused, but some who Zoe knew from university in St Andrews, and others who were themselves European students studying in the US, were veritable Eurovision aficionados. We had representation from all over Europe, and spent an enjoyable few hours scoffing into our turkey bacon, turkey sausages and tater tots – California’s best answer to the full English.
Sunday saw one of the big events of San Francisco’s calendar which, by chance, Gillian had spotted in a guidebook and signed us up for. Bay to Breakers is a fun run-cum-rolling street party, where anything goes – from the tortilla wrap fight at the start (which happens every year but which no-one can explain) to the countless old men who see the event as an opportunity to walk across town stark naked. At 104, it is the oldest consecutively run footrace in the world, and spans 12 kilometres from the Bay to the Pacific Ocean. An estimated 50,000 people took part (many do not register, just join in the fun for part of the course), wearing anything from the most outrageous fancy dress to nothing at all, and ‘running’ the course in anywhere between 33 minutes and eight hours. When we boarded the special train from Palo Alto at 6.15am and found ourselves sharing a carriage with a ‘marching band’ consisting of around 10 students in band uniforms, two recorders, a trombone and a lot of half-empty beer bottles, we began to get a sense of what was in store, and the day did not disappoint. Suddenly any worries we had about San Francisco’s elevation profile seemed irrelevant. It was a hugely enjoyable day and we hope to be back in the future.
Bay to Breakers concluded the San Francisco part of our trip, but we will return to Palo Alto for a couple of days before we fly out at the end of the month, when we hope to see more of the city than the bus stops and train station. The city is about 30 miles south of San Francisco – about 45 minutes by Über (who uses taxis anymore?), or anything between an hour and a half and three hours by train and bus. It is in the heart of the Silicon Valley, with Hewlett Packard and Skype based in the city, Facebook just to the north and Google to the south – as evidenced by the number of driverless cars that can be seen roaming the streets. The other prominent institution in the city is Stanford University, and with the combination of ‘tech’ and academia it is perhaps no surprise that Palo Alto is among the most educated cities in the US, as well as being one of the most expensive places to live. This latter characteristic may explain the relatively poor public transport system: most city buses run half-hourly at best, and not after 10pm; trains to San Francisco are similarly infrequent, and the Bay Area’s ‘Clipper Card’ system takes a lot of getting used to. We knew that public transport was not so much of a priority in the US, but we have found it frustrating nonetheless – as do the older and poorer Palo Alto citizens – non-techies and non-students – who feel neglected by the city authorities.
Rather than public transport, the California State Primary election on 7th June is understandably the hot topic. Candidates made several appearances in Bay to Breakers (a particular favourite was a papier mache Donald Trump surrounded by a brick wall, all mounted on a runner’s back, with a sign saying ‘Let’s build a brick wall around Trump’); Clinton and Sanders supporters especially were out in force. We have also been enjoying some of the letters and opinions in the free Palo Alto Daily Post, the like of which it is difficult to imagine being written, let alone printed, in the UK. One, for example, expressed support for Trump’s immigration policies in quite inflammatory terms, while another wondered if Trump’s victory in the Republican primaries showed that God had decided to leave the election to the voters.
So there we are – week one in 1500 words. There is plenty I have missed out, and possibly plenty I should have. In summary: having a great time, still talking to each other, and yes, Mum, I still have my passport and am changing my socks every day. And to prove it is all still going to plan…