Category Archives: San Francisco

Ich Bin Ein Californian

The pilot sounded giddy, like some waiter stoked about what the chef was concocting in the kitchen, as if the weather forecast was this awesome meteorological entree he couldn’t wait to dish up. And he was right. It was the smoothest transcontinental flight I had ever been on. Ever. The seat belt sign was barely on. The skies were clear and blue the whole way. I almost enjoyed myself. I almost felt my faith in flying restored.

We said goodbye to that fuzzy green humidity suffocating the Northeast and made our way west to San Francisco where you wear sweaters, hats and scarves in August. Even today, I’m wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa eating hot soup while 2,900 miles east, my backyard chickens sweat in their coop and my cat hides in the shadows to stay cool.

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We’re renting an apartment in the Cole Valley neighborhood, which is a seven-minute walk from Haight Street, still very much alive with hippies, hipsters and homeless. Tour buses cut through all this, as does the voice of some guy on a microphone explaining Haight-Ashbury’s colorful history to an audience of white people wearing normcore without irony. I was hat-shopping there Tuesday when some guy on the street shouted to the tourists on the bus “You’re being lied to!” That’s the beauty of walking around the streets and just hanging out. You see, hear, smell, sense more. We’re among the rows of Easter egg-colored dollhouses, Victorian- and Edwardian-era buildings hugging the hills, where there’s plenty of sensory stimulation. Originally, Mike’s employer was going to put us up in a chain hotel in the touristy parts of town because that’s near corporate offices and that’s why we’re here, but after some online hunting, I found this great, third-floor walkup that saved the company about $1,200, and now everyone is happier. The more I travel, the more I lean on individual rentals than hotels; it offers greater authenticity and, quite simply, it costs less. Hotels distance themselves from their surroundings, they are their own little gated communities; apartments are integrated with their environments and you get to savor a city in an entirely different way.

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The accommodations are as integral to this trip as California itself. After 10 days in the city, we’re off for a return visit to Big Sur where we’ll sleep in a nest, which makes me giddy. I’ve been chatting with the artist who made the nest, and I may get a chance to watch him work next week because he does things to eucalyptus branches that you didn’t think could be done. Even the birds seem impressed. So we’re going to go check that out.

It’s always wonderful to sleep in your own bed, but I’m feeling way too at ease in our temporary housing, as if my daughter and cat and chickens should all come here instead of us flying back east. But I’ve known for a long time I’m a closeted Californian living in the New York City burbs. Last night, Mike and I took the trolley to the beach. The line ends and you literally run out of America because the Pacific is right there. There wasn’t much of a sunset because it was so cloudy, but it was still beautiful. We watched surfers flirt with the current and the current flirted right back; it was like overhearing some sultry conversation at a bar. To surf with so little light takes guts. That means understanding the waves without having to see them, listening for nuance in undulation. I loved eavesdropping in on this. I once tried surfing off the coast of La Jolla and nearly threw up from seasickness. I envy those who ride waves. Later, we walked through the gray, past several broken sand dollars covered by beaten-up beach. My husband remarked that it was very difficult to find an unbroken sand dollar and seriously, just seconds after he said that, I reached down and picked up what looked like a perfect one, unmarred by beachgoers and their hyper dogs. Mike rinsed it off in the ocean and was impressed. No chips, no cracks. It felt like finding a lucky coin on the ground. It’s now on our windowsill drying in the sun. I look at it and think, “Soon, California. Soon.”

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Why Travel?

It’s been a bumpy year for freelance work so far. Projects have fallen through for different reasons, everything from someone assigning something to someone else while my editor was on vacation to a grant wrapping up to budget freezes. Belt-tightening is the wrong time to think about travel, and yet, that’s exactly what I am doing. While I follow up with clients about invoices and hustle for new assignments–cornerstones of any freelancer’s day–I check out hotels in Quebec City and flights to the Bahamas. It’s not the most prudent thing to do (granted, I haven’t purchased anything yet), and if my daughter were an adult doing this I’d advise against the Expedia surfing.

There’s no support group for this kind of behavior. Wanderlust can be obsessive, but is not always compulsive (at least it isn’t for me), and it doesn’t fit in with other shopping addictions or fall neatly into any DSM-V categories (I checked). I’m relieved I fly to San Francisco on Saturday even though I hate flying, for a trip gives me somewhere to go and something to do besides checking email for work-related updates. Travel provides a break from worrying about the future.

I’m tagging along on one of Mike’s business trips and had enough frequent flyer miles to grab a free seat on a Boeing 757; he’ll be at the office, the kid is at camp, and I have San Francisco to myself. I haven’t been this untethered in over a decade. My guess is I will alternate between skipping down the Embarcadero and balling up under the hotel bedroom covers with my laptop and a few books. What will eight days of uninhibited silence and maid service do to me? I’m about to find out.

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But after San Francisco, I’ll be out of freebies, which means if I want to go anywhere, I’m going to have to do it the old-fashioned way with cold, hard cash, something that has been in short supply. I love my life and am not complaining, but writing isn’t exactly a lucrative line of work (my college professors did warn me about this), and the publishing industry is having some serious growing pains. Carving out an income as a freelance writer in an age when everyone is being advised to learn code (there is computer coding camp for kids) and train to become a computer engineer is not easy. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the 2012 median income for writers and authors was just under $56,000. That’s great if you live in rural South Dakota (is there an urban part of South Dakota?), but not so great if you live almost anywhere else, particularly the overpriced New York City area. I have a front row seat to watch the deappreciation of my profession. The Internet has cheapened the written word. Book advances are down. Dollar-per-word rates have barely budged since I began freelancing fifteen years ago, even though the cost of food, gas, and a roof over your head have all gone up. It’s the wrong time to travel. However, as things temporarily dry up, I feel even more compelled to grab the family and book a trip. My accountant, who has asked me for vacation recommendations, is probably shaking his head right now.

24 Hours in San Francisco – Beanies & Bikinis (Pack Both!)

Mark Twain once said “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” The typical summer day in San Francisco rarely tops 70 degrees. The day we were there the thermometer sputtered to reach 60. We drove up from Los Angeles and added layers with each passing hour during the ride. When we got to San Francisco, our heads were cold. It was late August and 58 degrees. Just 18 hours earlier, we had been boogie boarding in Santa Monica on an 85-degree day.

We had 24 hours in this fantastic city so what did we do on a chilly, overcast, dreary Saturday? We hopped a trolley and headed to the beach!

Walking along the waterfront and historic (and never dull) Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghiradelli Square, we saw every garment being worn, from shorts and flip-flops to heavy coats and scarves and mittens. We saw men swimming in the bay wearing wet suits or speedos, and women of all shapes and sizes grabbing a few afternoon laps in the bay in nothing more than a bikini. That’s right. While we purchased touristy-knitted animal-shaped beanies along Fisherman’s Wharf–people swam in San Francisco Bay’s funky cocktail of freshwater and saltwater protected only by a strip or two of polyester.

And that’s what I love about San Francisco. It’s a city of contrasts. It’s rowdy in Union Square and serene at the Japanese Tea Garden. It’s 58 degrees and freezing on a Saturday night so folks swim. It’s sunny and 70 degrees the following day so people sit at a cafe with a hot coffee. Freshwater mixes with saltwater. East mixes with West. My visits here are always shorter than they should be. No matter how many times I come by, I’m always underdressed and thrilled to be in town because every street corner offers something unexpected.

What to do when it’s below 70 degrees?

There’s always people-watching along the bay. We did. We also enjoyed decadent hot cocoa at Ghiradelli Square, though (dare I say this publicly?) it was too decadent for this chocohalic. The shopping was fun and I spent probably way too much time and money at Gigi and Rose where I bought a beautiful, sparkly, citron-colored scarf because that’s my weak spot when I travel: scarves. Gigi and Rose sold jewelry by Amano Studio, a Sonoma, California-based company, so now I’m hooked on them, too. I really, really wanted to grab some snacks and souvenirs, from Boudin Bakery, like a giant sourdough crab,but the line never let up. Next time. After freezing our tails off by the water, we spent the night at the beautiful Westin St. Francis hotel. There are the new and historic sections to the hotel. We stayed in the historic section and had a room overlooking Union Square where people gathered in sleeping bags to watch an outdoor movie that night. We stayed very much indoors and the hotel served us milk and cookies. Westin St. Francis also had the best soap–white tea aloe, green leaf-shaped silky smooth bars of soap. I get giddy just talking about it. While I loved Westin St. Francis’s hospitality (and its soap) Union Square itself is too much of a retail mecca for me. I’m not a mall gal at home or on the road.

What to do when it’s above 70 degrees:

Feeling lazy? So are the sea lions on Pier 39, but tons of sightseers come by to watch these creatures laze in the sun. It’s not a bad way to spend 15 minutes, plus there’s a carousel and other boardwalk goodies nearby.

Our leisure Sunday morning continued with kite-flying along the bay. Not too far from lazy sea lions, is San Francisco Kites. This will go down as one of my favorite family vacation memories. We bought a blue macaw kite, unwrapped everything along the beach, and really the wind took the toy and did the rest. I often complain about the chotchke plastic junk that families buy for their kids, but this kite was a piece of plastic worth the investment. We had a fantastic time and barely moved a muscle because bay breezes just grabbed our kite and danced.

Cloudy or clear, San Francisco is always radiant. If you’re not outside enjoying its bay, its gardens, its parks and mountains then you need cognitive behavioral therapy. I could have spent all day at Golden Gate Park, home to the Japanese Tea Garden (a great place to relax), a rose garden, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, Shakespeare’s Garden, and an AIDS Memorial Grove. Again, next time, and with the giant crab sourdough bun in hand.