A holiday in San Francisco

This might turn into rather a long post, but do please at least look at the photos. If you click on them, they'll be larger and you can see more here.

Alice, my girlfriend, and I went to San Francisco last week on holiday, largely courtesy of some air miles from my father. San Francisco is a lovely city. Beyond the Golden Gate Bridge (of which more later) there is the TransAmerica pyramid as a landmark and Fisherman's Wharf is fun to visit. With the possible exception of Pier 39, it's not excessively touristy and there are parts that are just nice to walk along. Pier 39, though, does have sea lions. We didn't make it to Alcatraz but here's a gratuitous picture.

I'm afraid that this post will sound like I'm bitching. Alice and I had a lovely time in San Francisco. We were lucky with the weather and there's a lot to see and do in a very pleasant and friendly city. The city somehow feels that it works (in a way that Dallas does not) and it's easy to move around. The public transport works and, as an added bonus, there are cable cars. These run off a cable running underground and are a lot of fun to ride on. It's a good city to be a flaneur in; lots to see, some decent coffee shops and restaurants and a general feeling of comfort and unhurriedness.

LA airport is bloody awful
The staff at LAX all wear name badges with 'Dave 01421' or 'Alice 63920'; people are reduced to a number so that complaints may be easily made against them. This was probably an idea dreamed up by some exec in an office who'd never been near the shop floor as a means to facilitate praise and complaints. The human tendency is to notice the bad more than the good; the numbers would be used a lot for complaints, mostly because LAX, built for the 1976 Olympics, was never finished and it shows. Our first port of call was Los Angeles. Air pollution cannot escape LA as the city sits in a bowl. As we flew into LAX, adding to the pollution, coming back from San Francisco, we could see a grey haze floating beneath the cloud. LA is not an attractive city from the air.

Anyway, you're never going to receive a warm welcome at an airport but an efficient one works just as well. We were near the front of the immigration control queue - I felt sorry for those at the back who had a long wait - but were still standing around for a while and I felt like shouting that when to Jumbo Jets arrive around the same time, you need more than six immigration officials.
We then had to queue again to go past a point where someone looked at the customs declaration for a second time and, bizarrely, to queue to leave the building. Queuing is a generous description for the ensuing mess up a ramp and around a corner. A couple of LAX staff were trying to sort
things out but after two long queues people were not in a charitable mood.

Then things became annoying. We went to the AA desk with our e-ticket number because we were flying AA to San Francisco. Logical, no? No. AA were codesharing that flight with Alaska Air but had neglected to tell us, anyone else or put it on the displays. A walk to another terminal and Alaska told us that we had to go back to AA as we should have had paper tickets. AA passed us onto BA, with whom we booked the flights, who swore blind that we had been sent paper tickets. $150 later, we were reissued our tickets on paper that must be worth its weight in gold at those prices. When we came back and handed over our tickets to the AA desk at SF airport, we were told it was an e-ticket and not a paper ticket. Anyway, we made the Alaska Air flight but had it not been delayed we would have missed it.
It is worth looking at the TSA Pledge. There is one thing missing from this: 'efficiency'.

Customer service
People were polite and so on, but were hamstrung in what they could do. The politeness,
however, is the standard. Where a bartender in the US might say 'what would you like, sir?' their UK counterpart might plainly ask 'what do you want?'; neither is ruder or more polite as it's just the way things are done. I suppose it's a bit like this blog; flowery language and subclauses don't change the ideas beneath any more than the query of the US bartender. We booked to go on a bus tour of Muir Woods to see the redwoods and then go to some vineyards in the Sonoma valley. It ended up that the tour we wanted wasn't on offer any more, and we ended up going on a (very good, as it happens) tour of the Napa and Sonoma valleys. People at the tour company's office were polite but I would rather they'd been efficient.

Why is all cheese in America the same? We stopped at Sonoma town for lunch on the tour and ate at the Cheese Factory. Can anyone tell me why the half-a-dozen varieties of cheese they had on offer to sample all tasted the same? Has anyone ever really expressed a preference for Monterey Jack over American Sharp Cheddar? I can't believe there's not a market for something other than variously-packaged, slightly bland cheddar. Brie, perhaps, or even stilton. I don't believe that the American palette is averse to different cheeses but the invisible hand of the market seems to have banned all trace of camembert, wensleydale and roquefort.

Eating out
Talking of food, we had some great meals out, largely due to the strength of the pound against the dollar, and Plouf and John's Grill come recommended. The seafood in San Francisco is great - lots
of clams, mussels, sea bass and swordfish. I know American food is often knocked for being poor quality (as above) but there are some really good restaurants around. Plouf on Belden Place was a lot of fun. A French restaurant, it had a good menu and a wine list with new and old world wines and a cheery French waiter (the French for clams is 'palourdes') who did seem very happy with his lot in life. Clams and mussels provencale were great - I forget what else we had, but the shellfish was very good. Belden Place is a side street with restaurants all along. It's slogan is 'Where the locals go'; I don't know how true this is, but there were plenty of American accents and its location in the financial district makes me think that it's aimed at the business community. Anyhow, a meal with wine and the works for two came to about fifty quid total. If anyone can tell me more about Belden Place (if any San Franciscans are reading this...), I'd love to know. We went back to Belden Place, to an Italian called Tiramisu. While it was fine, I was annoyed because the first waiter claimed there was no house white and was generally snotty; the second one (who appeared, I'm guessing, because the other didn't want to deal with us) explained that there was a house chardonnay, pinot grigio and something else. Anyway, he brought a bottle and it was fine. Decorations a bit dodgy - supposedly Pompeii-esque murals with cracks added. The thing with the first waiter annoyed me - it made me feel ill at ease and that the restaurant didn't want casually -dressed people in it. The pretention and, frankly, snobbishness wasn't great. John's Grill, which features in The Maltese Falcon, was great. It was what I'd call classic American cooking at its best - simple ingredients of good quality, well cooked. Steak, chips and creamed spinach, plenty of a good rose and definitely worth going to. Book ahead though - it was busy.

We did things other than eating...
You can very easily see why Berkeley sustains a left-wing population. On a fine day, sitting on its lawns, walking through its woods or using its amazing facilities (the student union and centre are probably half the size of the entire LSE) makes you want to do more than just live to work. Seeing the privations of some in the Bay Area while you were a student at Berkeley would provide a spur to want to do something about it.

I did get a kick from thinking that Adelstein and Bloom would have walked on those paths at one point. Yes, many fine minds, but those two are important to me. I bought myself a homburg at a shop in Berkeley. Not, sadly, from Mars Vintage Thrift.

The richest country in the world
I mentioned the privations of some. There seem to be a relatively large number of homeless people in San Francisco. I hope this doesn't come over as strange, but here goes. I wish I was both a better and more confident photographer of people, hopefully in the Steve McCurry style of rapid, unposed, intimate photos. You can't do a huge amount individually, but I really felt that few people actually saw the homeless; everyone seemed so used to bypassing the homeless that it was automatic. Maybe some photos of people living on the streets of a wealthy city in abject poverty, with little or no healthcare or prospects of a job or housing, would move people a little.

You do sometimes see a lot in the features of people. A lot of the homeless in San Francisco had unkept, matted hair and weather-beaten faces that can give good, expressionful shots. Some, though, by their clothes and the style of their actions, unaccustomed to the streets, and a greater despair in their eyes, gave the impression of having recently lost their homes. Certainly, foreclosing and repossessions are increasing sufficiently in the US that the papers are predicting a subprime lending bubble collapse. Maybe it was an attempt to maintain dignity in a situation that many would consider to be impossible undignified that made it different.

Maybe it's the nasty feeling that there, but for the grace of God, go I; a lot people on the streets have histories of mental health problems.
There is a local version of the Big Issue, the Street Sheet, that has potential, particularly as mainstream newspapers aren't great, to provide a distinctive coverage of news, perhaps including municipal news, that could make it a better seller; for now, it seemed to concentrate to much on homelessness issues. The idea is to give the homeless and formerly homeless a voice; this could be done while making more money for the vendor. As an aside, I met a chugger who was collecting for a charity that did microfinance in Colombia, Ecuador, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh - and the US.

The Golden Gate Bridge
I went, with camera, to the recreational pier to take pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. The Bridge is a fascinating structure. It has a definite beauty in the curve of the cables but it is the way in which it closes the Bay, adding a finality to the land before the Pacific, that has allowed it to become a loved piece of architecture. It was initially opposed as it would have spoilt the landscape. The way in which it connects to the land is interesting - it's different at each end - and the girders in the supporting towers make fascinating patterns.

I managed, I think, some decent shots of the bridge with the sun setting behind; after all, it's pretty straightforward to take a decent photo given the setting. I actually enjoyed taking pictures of the birds more. I think there must have been an updraft of air in front of the pier as a lot of birds were flying and gliding along just in front of me. It's quite wonderful to have birds flying past a few feet in front of you. You start to see the attraction to prisoners of keeping birds; they give a sense of freedom and being able to 'shake the surly bonds of earth'. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this will save you more of my prolix.

MoMA in SoMa
We went to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) which is in South of Market (SoMa). I wasn't sure about some of the collection (Alice was sure that some of it was a wind-up) but they had a really interesting room on design of objects like typewriters, chairs and coffee makers. All very mundane items, but with the potential to be beautifully designed. The website for MOMA has a good interactive guide to various artists called Making Sense of Modern Art. It has given me a few ideas that, if I have time, I might work on.

I'll sign off here. We had a great time. After a few weeks of work that were pretty soul-destroying, it was good to be able to spend some time with Alice and to rest. Unfortunately the lines under my eyes are returning already. I'd like to go to Muir, Sausalito and Yosemite and so may well pass through San Francisco again.



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