Saturday, April 18, 2015

leaving San Francisco

This morning, I glanced out just at the hour of the sunrise and noted that wisps of fog penetrated deeper into the Bay. The fog will lift, but the morning will be particularly cool.


I zip up my fleece. (By late morning, I'll have tucked it away into my bag.) One more pic from the hotel room. How about a selfie, taking in the windows that are such a heavenly asset here?


I have a series of flights today. To Salt Lake City. To Minneapolis. And finally, very very late -- to Madison. But do I have time for anything in the city? I must be at the airport before noon. Is there a walk I can take?

At such an early hour, on a weekend, I expect the city to be very quiet. But I've done the big walk already -- hugging the coast, then cutting through the heart of San Francisco -- so where to today?

I've been thinking I want to visit the bakery, Tartine. My daughter put me on to their cookbook last Christmas and I thought then that if ever I was in the city of its origin, I should pop in. The trouble is that it's in Mission District of San Francisco -- a hefty walk from where I am by the shore (estimated at just over an hour) and not an especially pretty walk: it cuts through a rather down and out area of town, before hitting another area of mild gentrification. I could take the subway there, but the point is to walk.

I hoist up my backpack and sling the bag of spare clothing over my shoulder. San Francisco has many faces. I'm about to explore some less well presented ones.

First, I cut through the rather empty-ish downtown.


But within a dozen blocks, the architecture changes. I begin to pass closed storefronts and the number of homeless or down and out men (mostly men) increases exponentially. I pass an AIDS center and a Red Cross center and hotels that should not be called hotels. I wonder if real estate values plummet and rise, like a see saw going from the favored to the disfavored. There is not a single commercial venue that I would willingly enter. (Safety is not a concern: I'm walking along a main drag. No one is interested in my presence. For a minute I consider the possibility of being regarded as also without a purpose or shelter. Why else walk through here loaded down with two bags? I have long put away my camera.)

I can't really comprehend this kind of disparity in a city such as San Francisco. As I gradually leave behind this sad neighborhood of sad looking people, I pass a clock on a building that appears to have some Twitter connection. Five young people are doing some jumping jacks and high kicks, right there on the street. Warm ups I'm guessing, before they break into a run. Cyber, high tech types -- I'm sure of it. Do they run through here on the way to work? Do they notice? Do they jump over the people on the street?

Of course, I am like them, not in terms of cash value, but in terms of life's good fortune. I'm looking not for food and sustenance but for a prized bakery, for God's sake!

From there I turn south and now I'm in the Mission District, so named because of the presence of San Francisco's oldest standing building (late 1700s) -- the Mission San Francisco de Asis. This building:


I think I visited it in the past. I have little interest in going inside now. You have to pay. Too, there is such controversy about the role of missions in California -- whether they brought education to the indigenous populations here (a good thing) or merely used the local people as slave labor, suppressing what remained of indigenous culture. But really, I often don't enter buildings I'm supposed to enter on my touristy walks. And now I stare outside at a sign posted in the grassy strip bordering the church: it says to please keep your dog off, because there is rat poison in the grass. For some reason this just strikes me as absurdly wrong and so I move on, with only the one photo to take away with me.

The Mission District homes are interesting. I see signs of Latin culture and there definitely are the punk hangouts and music venues, still ever present, but with the boom, along came the money and many (though not all) houses have taken on the fresh look of something not so middle class.


Still, it is an interesting neighborhood and the mixture of cheap an punky with a little more pricey seems to work for now.

I am finally at the Tartine bakery. I see there is a line snaking out the door. That's fine -- I have time. Some people come to buy cakes and pastry to take home (bread is sold later in the day, just before dinner), but many, like me, want to eat something on the spot. There are a few tables packed into the small room where the sales take place and there is a wooden counter along the window. No one stays long -- it's not a come and chat place, it's a come and eat and move on kind of situation.

The line moves ever so slowly forward. I notice that iPhones and tablets make for an easier waiting time...


Too, you move past the window that looks into the kitchen. That's kind of fun.


Once inside, I'm in a tizzy. What to eat??? I don't have any meals planned for today. I don't want a sugar overload. Here's a display case:


I smile at a young couple who obviously want to eat it all! (And they do, they really do.)


In the end, I decide against the brioche, the pain au chocolat, the morning bun. I pick  (organic!) muesli with (organic!) yogurt for the healthy part and then the very lovely (organic!) strawberry tart for the indulgent part. I eat standing up, by the window, but that's okay. I'll have time to sit on my various flights later today.


It is a lovely breakfast/lunch. I pick up a simple brownie for Ed. We'll probably share it for dinner (in addition to the free Luna bar and apple from the hotel that I 'm saving for the flight home).  Tartine deserves its exalted reputation! (I notice that the line is even longer as I leave in what is now the late morning.)


So what should be the last photo from the Bay Area? How about of these quiet blocks of the city -- I like them best, both in San Francisco and Berkeley. You can see what's blooming here now!


It's an easy BART connection from here to the airport. And soon, on this beautiful spring day, I'm on my way to Salt Lake City.

I include photos from above because I always feel so lucky when the skies are clear and I can see the country below me. So many of America's cities have more similarity than difference (San Francisco is not one of these), but when you look at the landscape, you understand that we live in a vast and differentiated place.

Here's the Bay area again -- the fog again rests over the Golden Gate Bridge, in contrast to the Bay Bridge (do you see both of them?).

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One last look and we turn our attention inland.  The approach to Salt Lake City is fascinating. I don't think I have to explain what's what...

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I was eight years old the last time I passed through Salt Lake City. It was on a road trip with my parents and we saw the USA in our Chevrolet (well, not really ours, but close enough). I had my first salt water taffy. I remember little else. Now, I can't take my eyes off the lake and, of course, the mountains.

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And now I am on the last two legs of my trip -- to Minneapolis and then to Madison. I'm posting from up high. Travel has changed greatly in recent years. I have to say: and that's a good thing.

Friday, April 17, 2015

SF - Berkeley

A longtime Ocean reader may remember how much trouble I sometimes go to just to catch a sunrise. I am in love with sunrises, even as I know most people find sunsets far more beautiful. For me, a sunset is melancholy. A sunrise brings with it an opportunity to face a new day with a smile.

This morning, I have, without question, the easiest sunrise capture of my entire life. I could have taken this photo (just before the sun cracked the horizon) from my bed.


I do get up, take two steps to the window and watch the most glorious day's beginning.


After, I crawl back into bed and contemplate the beauty of the mildly misty morning.

But not for long. I'm still on Wisconsin time. A sunrise at 6:30 here really feels like 8:30 to me and I am never in bed at that hour. Too, I can see how northern California really inserts that healthy living bug under your skin. I am to meet my Mom in the late morning. Shouldn't I use these early hours to do something invigorating? Perhaps join the hoards jogging or biking, or doing something equally energetic?

Oh! I live up to that challenge alright! After taking a large swig of the orange water in the hotel lobby (it's either that or cucumber water -- both always available; I asked if they believed cucumber water to be especially healthy - they answered that they were following the lead of spas and places that made a point of studying these things)...


...and I set out.  It is a glorious morning! Still nippy in the early hours, but absolutely dazzling!


I hug the shore and walk. And walk. And walk. Past the piers where the ferries come in, past seemingly deserted piers, too. Walk. All the way to Fisherman's Wharf -- a set of commercial amusements that I find significantly less interesting than New York's Coney Island and much more tacky than Boston's Faneuil Hall. Think: the hugest multistory Applebee's ever (among other dining pleasures) and Ripley's Believe It or Not.

It's a little tamer to be here in the early morning. And if you stray toward the water, you might catch the racket the seals are making here...


Or, you can gaze toward the foggy bay and contemplate Alcatraz.


Or, you can poke your nose into a warehouse of a crab distributor. Ship these to your friends back home!


I continue along the shore and up the path toward Fort Mason, where theoretically you could come face to face with the Golden Gate Bridge. But on this morning, like on many mornings, you have to accept the fog's domineering hold over the Bay.


And now it's time to turn back. I look at my little map. My, but it's a long walk back! And I still need my breakfast. And there's this pair of cheap sneakers I want to pick up off of Union Square and darn it, whose idea was it to put so many hills right in the center of this city?


I go up and down Russian Hill (with that crooked street that everyone loves to photograph)...


Then up and down the hill in North Beach and here I finally do pause for a far less expensive breakfast at a local cafe where, too, they still draw hearts and flowers in your coffee cup.


I have the local (organic!) yogurt and granola (also organic!) and berries along with my cappuccino.


Up Nob Hill, down Powell Street and finally to the sneaker store and now three hours into my walk, back to my hotel where I dump everything and quickly go back to the main drag where I catch the BART...


... to Berkeley.

Yes, Berkeley, where the cottages are so very interesting to look at and the flowers bloom profusely -- despite the drought (my Mom suggests that Berkeley has less of a drought problem than central California, though of course, all these regions are very interdependent).




My Mom and I have a lot that we must discuss and review, but we still take time to visit a neighborhood to the south, where we do some minor strolling and window-shopping and where, too, we sit down to a Mediterranean salad lunch...


Back at her home, we talk, and we visit with her best pal too, and finally, as dusk brings again the cool air from the sea, she and I go to a local Italian place to eat a dinner that we've eaten several times before -- always the eggplant parmigiana dish for her, because the taste for it has stayed on her palate for a long long time.

I leave you with just one last photo of a flower we passed on our way to dinner: a jasmine, as fragrant as you could wish for on this lovely April evening. Yes, pungent with the aromas of another world, another time.


Thursday, April 16, 2015


It's funny to be just a few hours off from your home time zone. You get caught in the confusion of when to call or write and, too, you get called at hours that are more fitting for that zone rather than this one. All this to say that I pushed the clock at both ends of the night, resulting in a significant reduction of sleep hours. I blame myself.

Though I am spending the morning in a frenzy of San Francisco activities, it is entirely appropriate to give a Berkeley title to the post, because my focus is on that place across the Bay, that progressive, university, hippie, free spirited town with a reputation that spans the globe.

But first thing's first. I pack my shoulder bag and check out of the great dame hotel off of Union Square and check into the quieter, gentler sister (also Kimpton) hotel -- the Harbor Court. Rooms that were not available a few weeks ago are suddenly available and at a discount. I am in luck: the hotel by the Bay has been a favorite retreat for me at the end of full days and it will be that again for the next two nights.

I also grab a light but not insignificant breakfast at the Blue Bottle. This (originally) Oakland coffee roaster has sprouted many offshoots here, but they give support to the notion that not all chains are noxious intruders onto the cafe scene.

I order my cappuccino, my organic yogurt (I'm in California) and home made granola and wait, looking at the Californians that appear to me to be so sweetly Californian.


The waiters here are friendly and they still bother to put that heart on your drink.

I eat outside. Glorious sunshine!


My computer is in my backpack to take to Berkeley, my change of clothing is in the shoulder bag to leave at the hotel. As I head for my changed hotel, I make a mental note of what's where. Hey, but where is my backpack, the one with the laptop in it?? Not on my back! I actually look over my shoulder to make sure. Oh hell, I left it behind. Underneath the outside cafe table.

If you know how many very poor, often homeless, and so often with mental illness people walk the streets of San Francisco these days, perhaps you'd worry along with me. And here I have to admit that this is one reason why I find San Francisco so troubling: it is so expensive. There is so much wealth in the Bay Area. How is it that we just step over the homeless and get accustomed to their presence at every corner?

I notice that people, local people do reach out in small ways. I've seen a young guy break his sandwich in half and hand a part over to a man who was drinking left over soda from a cup dug out of a garbage can. At the Blue Bottle, they gave baked goods to someone who asked for food. (Then they asked the beggar to please please not bother the customers.)

I run back the several blocks to the Blue Bottle. The backpack is there, unnoticed. The down and out people walk by, searching for the person who will reach into her purse just to have them move on.

My new hotel staff is ever helpful, I dump my sack of clothing and walk along the Bay shoreline, toward the Ferry Port and now very fashionable marketplace...


...turning in toward downtown (such breathtaking skyscrapers!)...


... where I catch the BART train to Berkeley.

Ah, Berkeley! If the Harbor Court Hotel's presence near the calm waters of the Bay soothed my soul, it was soothed twice over as I came out of the subway station and walked along the quiet, residential blocks toward my Mom's apartment in the senior center that has been her home now for so many years. I mean, look with me! Do you want to know what's blooming in Berkeley right now? Here you go!




Beautiful clumps of flowers in front of very simple homes (that I know cost three times what you would pay anywhere else)!




My Mom and I have things to take care of, but we have plenty of time for pleasure and guess what our first destination is? A children's clothing store in North Berkeley! My Mom has always generously clothed my girls as they were growing up (she sewed all their summer sundresses when they were little and later shopped grandly with them in preparation for the school year) and now, even on her most meager pension, she continues to find pleasure in searching for just the right outfit for Snowdrop!


We spend a beautiful hour looking at baby outfits and very earnestly comparing the virtues of one sweater and playsuit over another.

We are out in the sunshine again. It's lunchtime and I let my Mom take the lead in meal decisions and as she is reviewing the options, she points out that we are standing right in front of Chez Panisse and that maybe we should go there.

We had gone there before, years ago. With family. And just the two of us. Alice Waters, the proprietor, was the one who, many decades ago, gave me faith that there would be a food movement in this country in the direction of fresh and honest. I've heard her talk, I've studied her books, I've applauded her work on school lunch programs.

We go in. The wait isn't too long. The price -- well, if you pick just one item and have just one beverage, you wont quite need a lottery win to eat here.

We have a wonderful set of minutes (or was it hours?).


Back in her little studio, we attend to matters of her computer, of papers, of various thisis and thats and it isn't too long before the sun is very low and it is time for dinner -- this time in a very simple old Vietnamese restaurant, which she tells me had been here even in the years my Grandma lived in Berkeley.


The staff there recognize at once that my Mom and I are a mother daughter team. I make them guess my Mom's age. It's a great question, because it leads to the truthful admission that she is 91. No one believes it. This time, they bring staff from the back room to admire her from up close, as if she were an incarnation of some mystic forces (my Mom tells them -- exercise, it's all in the exercise; she is modest that way. It's not only the exercise).

I whisper my apologies to her for having created this fuss. She shrugs and tells me -- I'm used to the surprise.

I take the train to San Francisco, she takes the bus back to her apartment. She could take a cab -- Berkeley provides coupons for seniors -- but she tries to stay independent. She moves slowly, but surely.

In my new hotel room there are three windows. On one wall there is a mirror so that it actually looks like there are six windows. If you look outside, you see the bridge. I will always love this view for all that it does for those of us lucky enough to fall asleep in its presence.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Travel disrupts the normal, but my normal includes so much travel that it becomes rather ordinary: I put on my travel mindset and, like listening to rather dull, inconsequential music, I go through the motions of packing a bag, eating a last fabulous breakfast (this part's not dull!)...


... tidying spaces and getting them ready for days of solo Ed use (yep, there's a difference!), going over lists of things that must be done, both in California and Wisconsin and finally riding to the airport with Ed, and catching the flights to Minneapolis, then San Francisco.

I leave a greening Wisconsin behind...


...cross this vast continent which, from the air, always feels even more vast...


...and arrive in the somewhat parched but green nonetheless California. It's rare that the incoming flight gives such gorgeous views of the Bay, but this time it does and I'm grateful for it.


I should mention that I am lucky, because an agent at the airport kindly agreed to put me on an earlier flight. I was to have no time in the city tonight, but now, instead, I have a late afternoon to roam the streets, in search of that, which makes San Francisco such a popular place, for locals and visitors from all over the world.

My own history with this city is very long. I have had family living in the Bay Area since I was very young and indeed, my grandma chose this to be her home for her senior years and my mother is following in those footsteps. I never saw this as a city to love or hate -- it's just the place where one American branch of my family chose to settle.

It is, of course, far nicer than many places where a parent might choose to retire, but it is distant from where I live and so a trip here is a major production. More major than, say, going to Chicago.

I'm staying at the Triton -- a very funky hotel just by Chinatown. All my recent San Francisco stays have been in hotels that form the Kimpton group and in this way I feel I am returning to a family of hotels.  Here's my room -- nicely in the corner, so with light. The wallpaper is a print of pages from a novel. I wonder if I would recognize it if I read it. After all, you wouldn't do a wallpaper of something obscure... Or would you?


In the (really funky) lobby, there are hula hoops. Just because.


I did not plan a walk or a destination and now, flush with more time, I consider the possibilities. Walk. Randomly. The park is too far, the obvious recommended destination -- Fishermans Wharf -- nah. So I walk the streets, which here are often steep...


...and I smile at the fact that California always meets your images of what California is like. You know, sunglasses.


And a love of the sun. Which appears to be always present.


Eventually, I cannot stand feeling so hungry anymore (it's been a while since that bowl of oatmeal) and so I look at the menus of the handful of recommended (by the desk clerks) fresh and honest eateries around me. Expensive.

I go to a Chinese place. After all, I'm hugging Chinatown.


I read the menu and retreat. The concept of fresh an honest -- so California, yet so elusive!  I'm getting in that fussy state where I am very hungry, but I don't want to make a mistake. (A mistake = spend too much money on food that's not good... It's surprisingly easy to do.) Finally I go back to a place that seems both simple and immensely popular. E & O Asian Kitchen. So much is it popular, that there's only one spot open and it's at the bar. Perfect! Even though I am a bit of an odd shoe here. I'm too old, too not California, too in love with the porch at the farmette and Pouic Pouic on the other side of the ocean. I'm not like her -- I'm not wearing a beautiful little black dress and if Ed were here, he would not be like him, behind her, with cufflinks clasped just so.


Still, I don't mind playing the outsider that I am. I order two appetizer dishes and a complicated drink that's fizzy and refreshing and one of the dishes is just superb and exactly what I need. (This one: with the shrimp the herbs the fruits the cucumbers the Asian flavors; the second one of chicken satays is fine if a tad boring.)


And then I drag myself back to the hotel. It is my 10 p.m. and their 8 p.m. and I still have a post to write and emails that deserve a response.

Except my funky hotel is having a funky problem: the internet is not working. I give them some time to diagnose the issue, but as the minutes drag on, it becomes clear that they haven't a clue and neither do the engineers and so it is time to tell them that this wont work for me: I have to check out.

It's handy then to be in a hotel group: there are sister hotels in town and one has rooms and yes, it will be the same price. But this new one, the Sir Frances or some Drake person -- it is so not my type of hotel! Larger, older, once glitzy now just tired (as I am). The hotel staff beam, thinking this to be an upgrade, as it's their flagship hotel, but I feel like I should use their functional internet to find another place tomorrow.

For now, I put off thinking about hotels and concentrate on writing. And I remind myself that the sunshine today was brilliant and this is nothing to sneeze at

San Francisco does know how to look at the bright side of the equation. And that's a good thing.