Tag 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.




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.


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.”



A Short Meditation on New York City Dog Pee

New York City smells of dog pee. This is a cyclical event and very similar to the time when it’s ok for women to wear white pants, usually beginning around the Fourth of July festivities and wrapping up around Labor Day weekend. Everyone who lives and works in this area knows this. There are who-knows-how-many-dogs being walked across the Big Apple at this very moment, pissing everywhere, not caring whether it’s Fifth Avenue or some unlit corner in Alphabet City. And while dutiful dog owners have their little plastic baggies in hand, ready to swoop and scoop poop, there’s nothing anyone can do about dog pee. Even long after hot city sidewalks soak it up, the heat hits—and it hits hard—followed by the stickiest humidity the Northeast can deliver, and before you know it, you can’t smell anything but dog pee even if you’re back home in your own house, your own yard, feeding backyard chickens.

Anyone who can afford to leave New York City during peak summer months goes somewhere else. They go to the Hamptons or Fire Island or the Jersey Shore, where a third of the male population is named Anthony. We go to California.

Is the dog pee smell really that bad, you ask, that you have to go 2,700 miles west just to escape it? I think we lose the dog pee smell by the time we drive over the George Washington Bridge, but really, the yearly summertime schlepping to California goes beyond getting away from too much urine, not feeling safe wearing flip-flops around the city, or seeing too many people wearing black even when it’s 90 degrees out. Perhaps it’s more about what we want rather than what we don’t want, that coveted California lifestyle, the freedom to wear flip-flops anywhere as Californians do, the predictability of knowing it will be sunny just about every day, where avocados are priced at seven for a dollar and are so plentiful, Los Angeles bartenders mix avocado cocktails and guys in aprons scoop avocado ice cream.

Next month, for two weeks, I get to pretend I’m a Californian. I’m stupidly excited about this. I’ll be in San Francisco buying groceries, taking the BART, eating sushi here more than once because it will be near my apartment, perusing the shelves at City Lights, ignoring shuttle buses teeming with Google or Facebook employees. Yeah, I’ve been reading about how San Francisco is changing. Money has a tendency to ruin things: relationships, childhoods, cities. Since my 20s, I had a thing about living in San Francisco, and then the job opportunities brought us to Seattle, then to Washington, D.C., then to New York. To know a city deeply, you need to know its smells. Seattle always smelled of fish and coffee to me, which isn’t that bad as far as urban scents go. D.C. always smelled of dry-cleaning and power. Really. Power has a smell. It’s very musky. In a few weeks, I will have the chance to figure out San Francisco’s smells. I’m hoping it’s baked sour dough, although that could just be optimism talking. Maybe after all these years, I dodged a bullet. Maybe there’s a San Francisco smell and Mark Zuckerberg is financing the cleanup right now. I haven’t been to San Francisco since 2012 when I froze my butt off one late-August day, but perhaps the city has gotten too classy for me and lingering smells of any kind just aren’t tolerated anymore.

It’s just as well. I find myself more drawn to SoCal dreaminess anyway. My eyes have shifted to Los Angeles, which, like New York, is a place where a crappy coffee shop can peacefully coexist with an amazing coffee shop, where the mediocre and the really effing-awesome can be found on the same street, just perhaps with less dog pee in L.A. I haven’t quite figured out L.A.’s smells yet (feel free to enlighten me), but I’ve always liked its energy. New York City is the wrong kind of kineticism, there’s a stress addiction here I find exhausting. When you stack eight million people on top of one another, things get tense, which leads to pet therapy to alleviate stress, which leads to dogs being walked and peeing everywhere. Spread folks out on a beach like a blanket, surround them with salty sea air and mountains, and, well, maybe things slow down a bit, long enough to enjoy a crappy cup of coffee or some avocado ice cream.

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.


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.

Getting Our West-of-the-Mississippi Fix

In the thick of another hazy morning in downtown Los Angeles, my thoughts were clear. We had spent too much money on travel in 2013, and I knew we had to change our ways. A two-week summer trip that combined Los Angeles with Monterrey would be expensive (and totally awesome, but expensive), and if 2014 was going to be our year of a self-imposed travel diet, of putting money towards upgrading our old house and following “the rules” a bit more by spending less and saving more, then we needed to skip California in 2014. We had been flying out West almost every year for a number of years, and it was time to take a break I told myself, looking out at the Hollywood sign and the stillness of the palm trees outside our apartment window. I didn’t want to skip California, but I thought we should. My husband agreed. Our daughter was disappointed. For years she had referred to this corporate apartment in downtown Los Angeles as “our summer home,” as if it were some charming, private chalet in the mountains, not a two-bedroom in a high-rise. Everyone concluded California wasn’t going anywhere (or so we hoped), so we’d be prudent in 2014, and return another year.

And so what happens? I’m flying to San Francisco next month, and I’m flying to Colorado next week. And it won’t cost me a thing. I had enough frequent flyer miles for both trips, and Mike’s company is paying for the hotel in San Francisco because he will be working from their Golden Gate office. And relatives have been kind enough to put us up while visiting Colorado. The travel gods were generous.


We’re returning to Fort Collins, Colorado, later this month to see family, welcome a new baby (theirs, not ours), and hang with Mike’s super cool literary agent, the Divine Miss Sara Megibow. Fort Collins is a pristine place criss-crossed by bike paths. It is a beer snob’s paradise, and one of the few American towns I’ve come across where I can get Himalayan food. Fort Collins’ secret of being so awesome and clean and friendly has gotten out, and the long-timers there seem annoyed because they don’t want more people moving there wrecking a good thing, and they don’t want Fort Collins to become the next Boulder with its boutique-y ways and soy latte lifestyle (for the record, I love Boulder). Speaking of Boulder, if you live there or you’re passing through on July 2, swing by the Boulder Book Store . Mike and Sara will be hosting an event, and discussing Mike’s second book.


Two weeks after that trip, we’re back in the sky heading west again to San Francisco, a city I tried to unsuccessfully move to, yet the jobs led us elsewhere. Mike will be there for work, aka his day job, and I’m tagging along because I had the frequent flyer miles. I plan on jogging along the waterfront, hanging out on the beach again like I did during that freezing August afternoon in 2012, giving vintage store shopping a go (I lack the patience to pick through all that clutter to find the “find” but I’m going to try because I like vintage things), and eating so much Japanese food it will feel like I’m back in Japan (gosh, I LOVE that country!).

So I will get my yearly California fix after all with a side of Rocky Mountain awesome. And the main floor of our house is getting painted and a few minor nips and tucks in household renovations are being made this summer. Not bad for a travel diet.

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.