My speed date with San Francisco


The USA is a big place, with a total land mass of 10 million km2 (4 million mi2) and a population of 325 million people at the time of writing this post. I was reminded of this fact when I flew there from my sunny patch in Sydney last month. San Francisco and its bay area was my destination, to visit family, the vibrant city known for its year round fog, hills, pretty wooden houses and streets veined with cable car tracks.

The city of San Francisco is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on its eastern side and San Francisco Bay. A maze of cars, traffic lanes, people, shopping centres, food outlets, churches, warehouses (crossing the San Mateo Bridge for the return flight in my sister’s car two weeks later I felt I was leaving one country for another, so vast was the body of water beneath us).

The bay area measures 11,300km2 (7000mi2) and has 7.1 million residents, urban sprawl interspersed with rural agriculture. California is colloquially known as the ‘food bowl’ of the USA, and is the fifth largest metropolitan district. My 45 minute rides on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) from Fremont station into the city proper gave a sobering view of industry: portside shipping containers and cranes silhouetting the landscape; warehouses that sort used clothing, car yards and car washes, RV hire; rubbish recycling stations; abandoned buildings covered in graffiti; community gardens; dust bowl school grounds – evidence that California has been in drought for 6 years. This also explains the backdrop of golden hills where I could imagine the dry straw coloured grass crackling underfoot were I to explore them (I have earmarked that adventure for my next visit).

Sydney was formally recognised as being a sister city of San Francisco in 1968. To my mind Sydney is more the littler sibling in the relationship. Make that a very little one, way down the pecking order of the English speaking family. Though natives of the bay area where I stayed may argue the toss that we in fact speak the same language. The usual response to my questions were: ‘Pardon me?’ ‘Can you repeat that please?’ I was surprised at how much the locals liked my accent. I thought I sounded awful; my sister, now a permanent denizen of San Francisco (and who sadly now feels so far away) doesn’t want to lose hers, so positive is the experience for her.

Cars are cheap to buy. And to run. A neighbours had 6 cars in their driveway, one for each member of the household. People are a lot more polite behind the wheel than I am used to in my southern city. Is this because of the excellent organisation of the road system? Though I admit to being perplexed when I saw drivers U-turning at traffic lights. It’s legal in the USA. And necessary, everywhere being very wide apart. Despite my sister’s enthusiasm for the ease of driving around I wasn’t tempted to actually get in the car and do it myself! I was out of kilter enough after my long haul flight, feeling that I had popped up into a Dr Zeuss book where life was being played out in reverse.

I’d arrived in Upside Down Land.

There is signage everywhere you go reminding people to conserve water. Yet toilets flush like a mini tsunami. It appears the ½ flush option hasn’t reached this part of the world yet. And there are squirrels to negotiate when one is cycling or driving round the suburbs. Those little critters can stop traffic.

Californians are polite. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Nice to meet you!’ ‘I hope you enjoy your stay’, a trait that sits side by side with a marked reserve. There is an invisible line between them and me and how much they are prepared to talk about themselves (I also noticed this when visiting New York two years ago). So I take note and remind myself not to be too eager to ask questions (which is the default position for this writer!) They are curious about me but not overly so.  And they know how to skirt around the personal stuff. Australians generally have a tendency to overshare. I admit I am a culprit here!

For most of my 2 week visit I was happily holed up in the bay area suburb of Niles, famous because Charlie Chaplin made movies there. It is a picture book hamlet of quaint wooden historic houses bordered by those round golden hills. More recently developed streets display Brady Bunch style faux ranches with pebble features, neat lawns and a sense of order about them.

I didn’t expect Bougainvillea and Crepe Myrtle trees to be growing in such abundance in this quiet neck of San Francisco’s bay. Seeing groves of common eucalypts filled me with a sense of de ja vu.

I ventured into the city a few times on the BART. It is a 15 minute drive from my family’s house in Niles to the station at Fremont (the last stop on the line). I bought a newspaper and asked for directions from a rheumy eyed vendor in the financial district. Not far from his kiosk a young male was sprawled out in a sleeping bag on the pavement; not an uncommon sight for this city.

I joined a small mob of tourists on an open top double decker bus tour to get a quick lie of the land (highly recommended!). We took in Cow Hollow, the Marina, the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge and the park of the same name which I have also earmarked for further exploration on my next trip). Haight Ashbury – where Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix lived and where I will definitely be returning for a more relaxed inspection – City Hall. Norman our guide liked the sound of his voice a bit too much and in the end I disembarked in the Tenderloin district before our tour was done.

He did shed some interesting facts: for example that there are 93 Starbucks outlets in the CBD alone, yet only one motor registry. Our bus drove past it and there was a queue snaking all the way through the carpark. Also that the most expensive real estate is in the Pacific Heights area and prices have fetched up to US$65 million for a property.

Chinatown was another adventure, on my 2nd visit (episode 2 of my ‘speed date’) – a treasure trove of street upon street of bric-a-brac, souvenirs, fabric, antiques, framed calligraphy, Chinese grocery stores, restaurants. It kept going, like an optical illusion. English language took a back seat here. I also remembered for my return trip to take a heavier jacket. The weather can turn chilly at short notice.

The sophisticated Ferry building and Embarcadero shed another light on this city of many faces, in stark contrast to Fisherman’s Wharf with its obese tourists, overflowing rubbish bins, long queues and smell of fried food. But the busking was world class. The iconic Transamerica Pyramid building near Jackson Square stood out on my map like a treasure chest, X marking the spot to indicate the serious business precinct of uptown.

Receipts are longer. The GST is added at the checkout, and where applicable the tip. In some instances I noticed an ‘employee benefits tax’ had been added on too.  It got to the point where I wondered whether I should be tipping or not, for example the overly helpful assistants in Macy’s at Union Square. Is that the expectation? Or are they being genuinely nice to me?

Ok I will admit I felt like the country cousin at times!

I can confirm the minimum wage in the USA is US$8. I saw this documented on a staff noticeboard at Oakhurst, where we stopped for supplies en route to Yosemite National Park. This begs the question: how can people afford to live? Apart from gas, cars and clothing, other commodities are on par with my part of the world that I could see. One has to pay for quality food here, the same as Sydney, though my green-fingered sister in-law grows arguably the best tomatoes I have ever tasted.

A visit to the local farmers market in nearby Newark is a Sunday routine for this family, where colourful pyramids of fresh produce is piled high and being spruiked by smiling growers – mostly Hispanics who have driven for up to 4 hours from their farms that very morning to set up their stalls. Orchids (at around US$15 each – so cheap!), cilantro, chillies, corn, beans, okra, potatoes in every hue imaginable to name a few.

I witnessed the racial divide when attending a professional baseball game in Oakland, the Seattle Marines versus the local Oakland team. My sis had scored us VIP tickets through her work. We were waited on in our seats by staff of Negro descent. We ensured that we left a good tip. I couldn’t help noticing that the crowd in our enclosure were mostly white.

My 2 week stay was punctuated by 4 nights at Mariposa, near Yosemite National Park. We bundled up 2 vehicles and 4 people, leaving cats, chickens and my sister-in-law’s abundant vegetable garden to the neighbours. The 3.5 hour journey due west (which stretched into 5 with lunch and comfort stops) afforded me a view of the ‘food bowl’ in action: row upon perfect row of grape vines, fruit, olive and nut trees playing tricks with our eyes as we sped past. Still blinking, we would touch on the outskirts of an urban city, its mega mart the flagship indicator.

Yosemite National Park didn’t fail to disappoint and deserves a blog post of its own. Our visit was strategically timed with the end of the official summer break. Though we still jostled for parking, and trying to take photos without wandering tourists in the frame proved difficult. I could imagine the flux of people in high season. Seeing woodpeckers, skunks, chipmunks and deer in their habitat and sequoia trees dating over 3000 years in age still fills me with a sense of wonder. Stripping down to our underwear and taking cheeky dips in water falls and rivers was a highlight (we ensured that the other more sedate tourists were out of view!).

My very active niece kept me delightful company when I wasn’t busy being a tourist. I highly recommend spending one’s vacation looking at the world through the rose coloured glasses of an 8 year old! My memory is a warm fuzz of cooking, craft, cycling, swimming, assembling Lego, playing the piano, jumping on the trampoline. I can still see her ahead on her bicycle, pink tassels on her handlebars flying, her butt marking time as she stood on the pedals, looking back over her shoulder every now and then to ensure Aunty was following. Our destination was the Hacienda, a private pool a few blocks from home for paid up members only. An oasis!

Her energy left me breathless at times and ready for bed when she was. Why walk down the hallway when you can tumble turn / cartwheel / run? I will miss her ability to be totally in the moment, her singing (when she doesn’t have her head in a book – reading it upside down – no sitting conventionally for this one!) and her curiosity for everyone and everything. In short a joy to be around.

On my return flight to Sydney I was reminded that there is nothing glamorous about long distance travel, unless you can afford the ‘big bucks’ seats up at the pointy of the aircraft of course. The fug of unwashed passengers at close proximity, their personal detritus strewn at my feet, queuing for the amenities like bleary eyed sheep in the middle of the night, the smell of mass produced food.

Delayed connections and lost baggage added to my woes, but I reminded myself that when you travel you have to be prepared for anything to happen (actually this was the sage advice of my sister who does a lot of travelling for her job). I have already started a savings account for the next visit so it can’t have been too unbearable!