Monday, 3 September 2012

... been to San Francisco

All set for summer in SF ...
The first thing you notice about San Francisco – especially if you're arriving from simmering post-hurricane NewOrleans – is that it's waaay colder than the rest of the States (Alaska possibly excepted) in August. The breeze and mist from the famous bay are the reason for the sudden drop in temperature: Bex and I arrived in our shorts and t-shirts and were shivering by the time we got to our hostel. It really is like going to a different country, climate-wise, and the wide range of cheap hoodies in the Union Square Walgreen's is testament to the foolish assumption of many tourists that America's always warm in summer.

We're staying at the oldish and quirky Dakota Hostel on the corner of Taylor and Post, in a third-floor room with an amazing view (and soundtrack, especially at night) of some of SF's busiest streets. The room is largish, comfortable and old-fashioned, with a big cupboard and an ensuite containing a claw-foot bath (yes, really!). These advantages are compensated for by a massive old 80s cabinet TV which only has two channels – football and FX. Bex reckons it's a bit like somewhere Bukowski might have stayed: I think it's too nice for that, and am imagining a Boho Breakfast at Tiffany's-era Audrey Hepburn.

Our room with a view ...
But what's indisputable is that SF is very much more like New York than anywhere else we've visited on this trip (even than Boston) – partly because of the population density, partly because of the architecture and partly because of the high hipster quotient. All of a sudden the availability of tourist T-shirts which anyone might actually consider wearing is much higher (as opposed to in New Orleans, where you have to hunt them out in indie boutiques).

However, the number of indie boutiques as opposed to national chain or high-end restaurants and shops is correspondingly low: on Union Square alone there's a Macy's, a Saks, a Niemann Marcus, Tiffany's, Balenciaga, etc. etc. - all the same stuff you would see in NY or indeed any international city (London, Paris etc.) Apart from the cable cars, which are unique to SF, fantastically olde-worlde, and pretty expensive (to ride and for the city to maintain). Luckily, they're so cool nobody minds.
Actually cooler - but not sure it's a cable car. A trolleybus?
In some ways SF is a great shopping city, especially if you stray away from downtown up into North Beach (where there is an incredible art supply shop and lots of indie coffee places) or alternatively take a wander down Market Street to the Mission area, where there are tons of cheap(ish) thrift and vintage shops. Furniture, knick-knacks, vintage clothing by the pound at Clothes Contact – they've got it. But be warned – it's bloody miles to walk there, so it's best to hop on the Muni ($1.75 per trip) and get off at 21st or 24th Street Mission. Bex and I were knackered after three of four hours out – most of it spent on the hoof. However, the shops in the area are really worth visiting, especially if you have an eye for a bargain or are on a budget.

Pretty Mission Street houses!
However, all was not peachy for the first few hours in the city after I tried to use the cash machine at the airport only to discover I couldn't find my wallet. Cue 2 hours of me miserably cacking myself and imagining terrible worst-case scenarios; the last time I'd definitely had it was in Nashville, so if someone else had it (rather than me having left it somewhere in one of our two Memphis or three New Orleans hotels) they'd have had a week to whoop it up with my uncancelled cards. Shit, shit, shit.

The absence of wallet then prompted a couple of £1-a-minute phone calls to cancel both cards (worth it for peace of mind – I consider it an idiot tax, for my having lost the thing in the first place). Then there was some cap-in-hand work to be done: Bex will be lending me spending money for the rest of our stay. Such a shame to have lost the wallet, though: not only had I had it for about 5 years, my Oyster card was in there too :( Still, if that's the worst that happens I'll be fine. Fingers very much crossed).

Thank God for tiny doughnuts
So anyway, minor crisis dealt with, we wandered the city centre for a few hours, picking up some tiny doughnut things called poppers(?) for dinner (me) and a salad for Bex – SF is also much more veggie, vegan and picky-eater friendly than the meat-tastic South – and stumbling across a wedding party on Union Square. There are a couple of giant 6ft hearts on the northwest and southwest corners of the square (maybe on the other corners too, I didn't see) for people to pose in front of and that's what they were doing. Sweet.

They left their hearts ...
We fancied seeing a movie, so having drawn a blank at the AMC (kids' films or third-rate horror didn't appeal) we went to the ENORMOUS six-story Westfield Centre – yes, it's a chain, who knew? - and caught the Nick Cave-penned bootlegger drama Lawless. This was pretty damn good – much better than the new Total Recall (which we saw in Boston): despite featuring the ever-slappable Shia LaBoeuf as the youngest of three booze-running brothers, Tom Hardy as taciturn alpha-male Forrest and Guy Pearce as the creepy eyebrowless lawman nemesis more than made up for him. Recommended.

The next day we went on a rather fantastic free tour of the city, guided by “Wild” Wes Leslie, a bowtied ukulele-playing local historian who writes and sings songs about the various locations you visit (which include the St Francis Hotel, a secret underground tunnel entrance in the aforementioned awesome art supply shop, a fortune cookie factory, City Lights bookstore, Chinatown, Washington Park and North Beach). Anyway, it took about 3 hours (you set off at 10am), the weather was beautifully warm – for a change – and it wasn't too hilly, so it was a tour well worth taking. Tip generously if you go, and you'll get a free CD :)

I'll leave you with a couple of videos I took on the way: (don't worry, I paid my 50c for the privilege of filming the fortune cookie place). The Ah Toi mention in the Waverl(e)y Place song refers to a legendary Chinatown brothel madam who successfully sued her customers when they tried to palm off brass shavings as gold dust (a legitimate method of payment during the Gold Rush). Enjoy!

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