San Francisco and Big Sur

It’s been an age since my last post, but I can proudly say that I have absolutely not been idle.
Well…clearly in the discipline of creative writing I have been spectacularly idle, but in this life and in the act of living it, I claim to have been a most energetic champion of the cause.
In my defence of neglecting my blog, part of the reason that I’ve not laid pen to paper has been because I’ve spent much of the past six months stamping upon grounds already stomped.
I over-wintered in one of my favourite (and previously posted) places on earth, Chiangmai, and I re-visited one of my favourite (and previously posted) cities – New York.
In my three months in Chiangmai I jumped from high rocks into clear blue water. I hiked along fast flowing rivers that snaked through thick jungles. I ran like a gazelle around athletics tracks, honed my tennis game, drank buckets of whiskey, basked in the sun and generally lived the finest of lives.
The stand out highlight though of this memorable time was meeting Alicia, a most rare and wonderful woman who, thankfully, happens to think I’m OK too.
Never before have I felt so blessed by the gods.
In Alicia I found a like-minded soul (and a damn fine looking one at that) who shares my love of life, matches my energy and finds as much joy out of life’s simple miracles as I do. To me she is as refreshing as that first splash of cool afternoon rain on a blazingly hot summers day.               I will admit without shame that I followed her around like an adoring puppy, probably looking quite pathetic to onlookers, but I didn’t care.
If they were honest with themselves, they’d probably admit to being green with envy.
I took Alicia through the mountains and jungles of Northern Thailand on my scooter and up to Pai. We swam in those lovely crystal clear mountain streams and walked through the forests and jungles, chattering about this and that and generally having a ball in our own little world.
We travelled down to Bangkok together and explored every nook and cranny of Chinatown.
Those people eat some weirdness I tell you.
We treated ourselves to a night in Bangkok’s rather swanky Shangri La hotel. The view looking over the city and the river from our ‘way up high’ room was breathtaking.
After I said goodbye to Alicia at Bangkok airport I shot back up to Chiangmai for more of the good life before jetting off on a wonderful 10 day trip to New York to see…you guessed it…Alicia.
I was back in New York, one of my top three, and the city did not disappoint.
Despite the Arctic weather we had a wonderful time and I was getting pretty damn attached to her.  Sigh :-)
By now, some of you may be wondering why this post is titled ‘San Francisco’ and not ‘Alicia’.
Patience dear readers. We’re on our way. I promise.

The next stage in my journey was due to be a month on an idyllic yoga retreat in the Spanish countryside with….yes….Alicia, but at the final hour I had to upset my plans and haul ass off to Burma for a month of work in the Bay of Bengal.
By the time that I finished my work off Burma, Alicia was bound for San Francisco and so I shot off like a rocket to the west coast of the US to meet her.

A short but noteworthy interjection here – I flew to San Francisco via Tokyo, and at the very smart and ridiculously clean and tidy Haneda airport, I used one of those super advanced, digital, all singing all dancing toilets that the Japanese are becoming increasingly well known for.
Without going into too much detail, I can confirm that nobody, and I mean NOBODY, poops in greater style, comfort and sophistication than the Japanese.
Believe me folks, if you had to be an asshole you’d want to be a Japanese asshole.                    Oh yes.

Finally, I landed at San Francisco and passed through immigration without the usual stringent barrage of defensive and suspicious questioning that I had become accustomed to when visiting New York.
It was refreshing not to be interrogated like a suicide bomber and I was already feeling California’s laid back and hospitable atmosphere. So yes, for all you suicide bombers out there trying to get into the US, head for the west coast. Much easier than the east.
Tee hee.
Alicia was waiting for me and we hopped into a taxi and started a 45 minute drive to the Nob Hill Hotel, so named one must assume because it’s in the heart of the Nob Hill district.
Don’t ask me how the ‘Nob Hill’ district was so named.
Hills are something of a theme in San Francisco. They are everywhere and they are steep.
Remember all those American car chase scenes that were so common in the 80’s where the speeding cars are ramping over crests of hills and plummeting down the other side?
All shot in San Francisco.
Anyway, the Nob Hill Hotel was only a one night stop before we checked into an apartment in the Marina district for ten days.
The Marina district was wonderful. Full to bursting with great restaurants, cafés and bars.
It was also within walking distance of the Presidio which is a beautiful park and campus full of big stately trees and manicured lawns. It used to be a military base and the mandatory canons with barrels stuffed full of litter guarded the imposing entrance.
In the Marina district we ate at a different venue every night and we didn’t have a bad meal. If you’re ever in the area, the restaurants Umami and A16 are not to be missed.
Those of you who know me know that I am something of a burger connoisseur and in Blackwoods on Chestnut Street, mere steps from our front door, I found the world’s best burger.
For all you burger lovers out there, go to Blackwoods and order the 1 percenter burger. Waygu beef infused with maple syrup. Sixteen dollars and worth every cent. In our ten day stay in the Marina District, I ate four of them.
But for food in general, San Francisco is an outstanding gastronomic destination.
With its spicy Asian and creamy European influence it was every bit as good as New York or Paris.
Now I’ve often thought sushi to be a tad overrated and something of a fad, but after half a dozen stupendously outstanding sushi feasts in San Francisco, with cap in hand I humbly changed my mind.
If it’s good sushi, I LOVE sushi. And with its relatively close proximity to Japan and hence its Japanese community and its ready supply of fresh Pacific seafood, San Francisco is sushi lover’s paradise.
I guzzled down steamed monkfish liver and flying fish eggs amongst many other exotic delights. It must be said that Alicia, a fellow foodie, did help me here by guiding me to make the right choices on the menu, something for which she had an uncanny gift in any cuisine that we ate.
The only bad food I had in San Francisco was when I visited Fisherman’s Wharf on my own because Alicia had to work.
The Wharf is a well known tourist destination down on the old docks where boats to Alcatraz as well as trips around the bay could be boarded.
Dozens of shops sold marine theme shit at exorbitant prices and tricksters and beggars milled in amongst the gullible, fanny-pack wearing crowds.
I ordered a pot of crab – awful. I ate shucked oysters – gaggingly foul. And yet the worst was to come. I had a steaming bowl of San Francisco Bay Clam Chowder, a famed local “specialty” that presented itself as a bowl of jail-house slop so grim that to describe it to you would depress us both.
But I still had a great time at the Wharf and I recommend that you go too. It is rampant, shameless tourism at its most effective and I loved it for that very reason. I’ll never go back though. Probably.
Oh, and lastly, watch out for the local sea gulls. They are so fat, greedy, smart and brazen that they could probably carry away your first-born, dangle him from a nearby street lamp and ruthlessly ransom the little tyke back to you for a lifetime supply of fish burgers. Blatant hyperbole maybe, but you underestimate those winged bastards at your peril.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
With a kilogram of the Wharf’s worst stinking slop in my stomach, I decided the best remedy would be to walk back to our apartment in the Marina district.
With its wide and often tree lined streets and pavements, San Francisco is good walker’s territory. The weather was fine and although I felt for the first time that I could sympathize with a pregnant woman, I was high on life and my adventurous spirit was firing.
An hour later and just approaching the edge of the Marina District, I walked by the playing fields of the Marina Middle School.                                                                                                               The kids were playing baseball. Two games were in progress on adjacent fields. I walked into the grounds and took my place on a rickety wooden grandstand in amongst a crowd of proud parents.
I spent two hours there doing my best embarrassing dad impression and I loved it. It was just like a hundred movies or television programs that I’d seen.
I cheered and jeered and clapped and laughed as though my very own children were hitting home runs (or not, as was more often the case) to the glory of their team and family.
The only thing I didn’t do was eat a hot-dog, though I think I can be forgiven this time around. Baseball is a curious sport.
Lots of talking. Lots of long breaks. Lots of singing and chanting and standing in huddles, presumably to discuss tactics and strategy. Lots of back-slapping and high-fiving and “let’s do it” and “let’s rock and roll” and other shows of encouragement and team spirit.                             Not so much action in baseball though.
Hardly any action at all, in fact, if the game that I watched is a fair representation. Which is why I guess so many of the children were… let’s just say…. rather amply proportioned.
What action there was, one had to wait ages for. And when it happened, it was over in an instant. Cast your eyes up to the sky to admire a cloud and WHAM BAM! it was over and you’d missed it. Then you had to wait another eternity.
When I arrived the game was in full swing. When I left two hours later the game was in full swing.
God knows how long those parents sat in that stand.
We visited the city centre a few times and even spent a few nights in different down-town hotels. Pfff.
Boring. High rise sky scrapers, shopping malls and the usual suspects of multi-national chain store sameness. Bleh.
One thing that the city did have to offer (if only temporarily) was an opportunity to see one of my favourite paintings, Vermeer’s Girl with Pearls along with a dozen or more previously unseen (by me at least) Rembrandt’s and other Dutch masters of the era. Breathtaking. Having recently studied an art course, I got to swagger from painting to painting, proudly talking Alicia through the finer points of focal point, tenebrism, scumbling and composition.
She politely humoured me.
Also in San Francisco at the time on loan from their respective home base in China, was a handful of Terracotta warriors in amongst an extensive collection of artefacts from the very same tomb. I was astounded to learn just how vast was this ancient site and just how little of it has actually been excavated. It beggars belief.

Next on our list was Big Sur (not ‘the’ Big Sur, as Alicia constantly had to reminded me.
Big Sur is to be found only a few hours drive South of San Francisco and this little jaunt was to be my favourite part of the whole trip.
Big Sur is a stretch of gloriously striking Pacific coastline that is among the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen. Think redwood forests and imposing mountains with steep cliffs dropping down onto white sandy beaches which are lashed by rolling waves coming in from the icy blue Pacific.
It is magnificent!
Alicia and I hired a log cabin in a forest of giant redwoods and spent three days driving up and down the Pacific 101 highway, stopping off to explore, hike and sunbathe.
We scratched about for life in rock pools, foraging for starfish, crabs and fish. Relax – all were returned unharmed (if slightly traumatised). Alicia did yoga on the beach and I tried to compete with my rudimentary handstands. We drew circles in the sand with our toes and took photographs of each other standing in front of some of the most amazing panoramic backdrops. We walked and walked and picked powerfully flavoured wild strawberries as we walked. We marveled at flowers, cooled our feet in clear flowing streams and Alicia walked into a live snake. She didn’t flinch.
It was a magical time for me and for the first time in my life I considered it conceivable to live out my days somewhere other than Mousehole.                                                                               At the very least, I will be back.

Our return to the big city found us in another apartment, this time in the Castro district. Now then, what to say about the Castro district and where to begin?
The Castro district is the gay district in a very gay city. It is gayer than a pink flamingo at a West End showing of Mama Mia.
(Apologies to all those Mama Mia fans out there but come on, it’s pretty gay.)                              In the Castro district, virtually naked men and women regularly stalked the streets in protest and defiance of public indecency laws.  Nobody paid them any attention. It was vibrant, fun, colourful and very safe, though I did cling closely to Alicia when walking past certain bars, but perhaps I’m just flattering myself here.
Great restaurants, cafés and bars were everywhere. Outnumbered only by the sex shops. Let me tell you something, these gay guys are up to all sorts.
At one point Alicia and I were in a café and searching for a surrounding wifi signal. The top three networks listed on my smartphone were – debauched, dribble and hot load. But then subtlety isn’t really part of the charm of the Castro.

I left San Francisco and Alicia with a heavy heart.                                                                             It’s back to work for me. The South China Sea beckons. Gotta get them oil fields a’building.
But who knows where we (yes it’s official, I am now a ‘we’) will end up next.

Are YOU going to San Francisco?
Sorry, couldn’t resist.

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