Thursday, 4 September 2014

San Fran stumps

We have walked so far today that our feet are like tiny stumps. My thighs feel like they're bowing out like a Japanese woman, and Nathan says his feet ache up to his knees.

Rule number one when visiting San Francisco: bring a pair of decent shoes because you're going to walk. Everywhere. And every walk will involve a hill with a death-defying gradient!

The day started in North Beach, which is the Italian district of town much associated with the Beat poets. The ghosts of Karouac and Cassidy are everywhere you walk, particularly at the world famous City Lights bookshop. I believe City Lights was the first American book publisher. They also risked ruin by publishing Karouac's book of poetry, Howl, which was instantly banned because the conservative 1950s American society considered it obscene.

City Lights (quite rightly) takes itself very seriously... To the extent that it would be almost impossible to find a trashy novel there, and each of its cavern-like rooms are filled with academics and bohemians who don't seem to smile all that much! It's also the only bookshop I know which plays music. And why not? We bought an autobiography of Harvey Milk, the brave, openly gay San Francisco politician who was assassinated in the late 70s. It felt like the right book to buy in this city and the right place to buy it!

Washington Square Park is a wonderfully eccentric place in the early mornings. In every corner, hordes of people stand in groups doing Tai Chi. Most of them are impossibly old... and Chinese. I sat and watched a group of eight elderly women doing disco Tai Chi to Boney M's Rasputin which was being played on a tinny little stereo. They had all the moves. It was quite marvellous.

We had breakfast listening to music from Tosca in Cafe Pucinni. A mushroom omelette and potatoes with toast and jam. Utterly delicious.

From Washington Square, we trekked up the impossibly steep Telegraph Hill to look at the gloriously Art Deco Coit Tower; a 1929 folly which resembles a fire hose, and was built at the top of the hill to remember Lillie Hitchcock-Coyt whilst simultaneously "beautify" San Francisco. It was from the top of this hill that Nathan caught his first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was also where we saw our first San Francisco parrots: green birds with red heads. They're not native here. Very much like the parakeets on Hampstead Heath, they must have escaped from a zoo at one point, and decided it was a nice enough environment to breed in!

We walked down Telegraph Hill via the spectacularly beautiful Filbert Steps. Essentially they're a set of wooden steps which snake their way between wooden houses and wonderful eccentric gardens which simply cling to the side of a cliff. The smells as you walk down are stunning. The fresh scent of pine trees. The rich aniseed-cum-curry aroma of Fennel. The flowers are simply stunning: the bright pinks of bougainvillaea, mixed with plants and flowers I've never seen before. One tree seemed to be sprouting pumpkin flowers. Remarkable.

At the bottom of the hill we encountered the Levi Strauss building, which was the home of the first ever jeans factory. There's a little exhibition in the foyer featuring 150 year-old pairs of jeans. Jeans with amazing stories. Who'd have thought an item of clothing which I've never worn could be so interesting? Who'd have also thought that Levi Strauss has one of the best records of human rights of any American employer. They were the first organisation not to segregate black and white workers and the first to raise funds for the fight against HIV, when everyone else was trying to pretend the disease wasn't happening. Hats off to Levi Strauss.

Many of the company's employees were outside in the courtyard. There was a van which was giving out merchandise relating to a(n obviously highly popular) basketball team. There was a huge queue. We both laughed when we noticed every single one of them was was wearing a pair of Levi's. The only company in the world which can't tell you off for wearing jeans in the market place!

We walked from the Levi factory up Market Street then Folsom Street (famous for its leather bars)... This particular walk must have been at least five miles. One of the highlights of the day was definitely being able to show Nathan the Castro, San Fran's bustling, thriving gay district, where every lamppost, every shop, and even every house displays the rainbow flag. Towering above the district is the largest rainbow flag I've ever seen. It billows proudly in the wind.

We both felt such pride to be there; so moved by and grateful to the people who built that particular community. We had lunch at a cafe called Mistique and I had a delicious halloumi sandwich, which is the first halloumi I've ever eaten in the States. The water here tastes a little funky, however... A bit like chlorine. They fill their drinks with ice, and subsequently everything tastes like a swimming pool!

From Castro we walked up the steepest hill I've ever encountered which was a road lined with stunning Victorian villas and palm trees. Palms trees, in fact, where squirrels play. Imagine that? Squirrels in palm trees is a sight which I never thought I'd see. This particular road took us up to the pine-covered Buena Vista Park. The clue is in the name of the park. We snaked our way, accompanied by humming birds and giant yellow and black butterflies, in an upward direction along dusty paths through tall trees to an open space where the views of the city are quite sublime. The paths are filled with professional dog walkers. One pair of walkers had 20 dogs between them, and two enormous plastic bags filled with dog poo, which they were throwing into a dustbin. I guess that's one of the prices you pay for walking dogs in such large numbers!

In San Fran, no two houses are the same. Most are painted in glorious colours. All have wonderful gardens lined with flowers. It's a riot of colour. Truly. It takes your breath away.

To celebrate the joy of this city's architecture, we tramped for another few miles to visit the Painted Ladies, which is a row of highly-coloured Victorian villas on the edge of another park. These houses are so famous that they have appeared in something like 70 films. Actually, by San Fran standards they're not all that, but it was lovely to see them, and even nicer to stop for thirty minutes, lying on a soft lawn listening to a hippy chick with a guitarist playing jazz standards and easy listening music on her flute. Beatles songs, Carole King... The guitarist could only play bossa nova. Every chord had a sneaky added major seventh and then we realised that he was only ever playing two chords. It's amazing how most songs will sound like jazz standards when played on a flute with a guitarist playing in this manner!

From the Painted Ladies we staggered (via a coffee shop) to Corona Heights, a curiously rugged hill top above the Castro with the best views of San Fran I've probably ever seen. We'd had non-stop sunshine all day, but by this stage a fog was rolling in and engulfing the North of the city. Up there, on the exposed rocks, the wind was incredibly strong. In one direction, the streets of the city stretched for miles, bathed in glorious late afternoon sunlight. In the other, nothing but banks of fast-moving clouds, rolling in, covering the sun, giving everything a curious sepia light.

We returned to the Castro for a bowl of soup, and another bout of people watching. The gays of San Fran gave us much to discuss. There were some fabulous trans-people and a shed load of drugs casualties! By and large, however, the gay scene here seems very open and friendly. And, of course, the English accent helps!

We took the trolly bus back to North Beach, which was a somewhat edgy experience. There was a screech and a bang at one point when the bus came off its electric cables. The driver did an emergency stop, turned all the bus lights off, went outside and casually fixed the problem. Later on, one passenger decided he didn't much like the driver, and there was a mega-display of trash talk, the driver giving as much as he was given. I was expecting a gun to be drawn at one point, but both parties seemed content to use the word "mother fucker" repeatedly. There was a little girl on the bus who seemed very upset by the exchange, which I felt was very sad, but we spoke to the driver afterwards who said it happens every day.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting comments about birds on Hampstead Heath. I saw fairly friendly bright green birds with red legs which I assume escaped from the zoo. I've tried to find out what they are but no luck yet.