“Colourful, dirty, lots of dog poo, lots of trees.” I asked the children what were their first impressions of San Francisco, and this was their answer. They’re not wrong either. Although also hills. I’m surprised they didn’t mention those. I knew about the hilliness, and people had warned me, but nothing prepared me for the steepness of the hills. And there have been several people spotted jogging up them. Actually running.
That is another thing about San Francisco – the general interest in health and wellbeing. I haven’t seen much of the infamous American obesity here; and there’s a lot of organic food stocked in the shops, and the portions in restaurants really haven’t been so very large, though the takeaway “children’s” pizza son had could possibly have fed our whole family…
I do like San Francisco, based on the two and a half days we have so far spent here. “It’s real,” I said to husband, who looked confused, because “it’s real” doesn’t say much about a place other than that it exists.
I shall explain.
The city is colourful, unique, beautiful in places; properly dirty, unkempt and uncared for in others. It is liberal, fun loving, kind and welcoming; but is currently at the centre of a shocking homelessness crisis, so clearly is economically wavering. It’s a proper seaport city, with a richness in its population and an openness of mind.
My favourite things so far:
- The road traffic system! I love this. At most intersections, no-one has right of way. So every car approaches the crossroads and has to stop to look for other traffic; there then occurs a sort of dance of cars, as the more laidback drivers give way to the more assertive. Not only that – as the cars approach the stop line they give way to pedestrians crossing the road. I love this. It’s so the norm that there is no aggression from the drivers and no fear among the pedestrians. It’s a brilliant sharing of the space.
- Not only are there hire bikes stacked up around the city, there are hire electric scooters. For grown-ups. Adults. On scooters. Electric ones. Like, going to work and doing grown-up stuff. Or sightseeing. The children are infuriated that these scooters are for over 18s only.
- Oh, the architecture. I love the buildings. They are chocolate-box pretty, and I am building up a huge photographic portfolio of all the houses we pass. Yesterday we wandered along Pacific Avenue, one of the roads where the gazillionaires live. I had my gob open most of the time. (I can’t get over the fact I’m in the USA. I have never been here before. Every time I say to myself, I’m in San Francisco, I start giggling. Seeing the sorts of buildings I’ve only previously seen on television makes me feel as though I’m on a film set.) But the big mansions are not the prettiest of all the homes, and son and I have been oohing and aahing at all the pastel colours and towers, and porticos and stucco (whatever that is). “My favourite thing to do is admire things,” said son, gazing on a blue townhouse. What I admire is the imagination behind the design, the lack of conveyor belt architecture that we see in Britain. British housing design is embarrassing my comparison.
- The wildlife. I’m sure the natives think we’re a bunch of nutters, because we have been entranced by creatures they must just take for granted. On our very first night I spotted a hummingbird, and was so excited I almost cried. I never thought I’d see a hummingbird in my lifetime. This fleeting sighting was followed yesterday by a proper lengthy display from another hummingbird, which was only a metre away from us, darting at the trunk of a tree to spear insects and grubs, its wings a blur of motion, its quick, sharp movements and changes of direction unnervingly precise. Cycling through Golden Gate Park, a high-pitched chatter overhead made me look up in time to catch sight of an eagle being chased away by smaller, nagging birds. And a slight movement at the corner of my vision made me stop in time to see a tiny dainty rodent (don’t ask me what it was), poking its head out a hole in the ground, it’s wee nose twitching for scents, and then darting underground again. It kept up this yoyo behaviour, popping up to see and smell me, then darting down again, for about five minutes, and we all stood round entranced by its cuteness. Anyone passing wouldn’t have had a clue what we were looking at.
So. We arrived late Saturday afternoon, after something like 12 hours of flying. (I watched The Greatest Showman, Ladybird and Blade Runner: 2049 on the flight. I think high altitudes do something to my emotions because I couldn’t stop crying at all three films.) We are staying in an AirBnB apartment in Pacific Heights, in the north of the city. The children are delighted that it is a mere 100 metres (uphill) to the nearest park. Our very first impression as we stepped out the taxi from the airport was of dog poo. There is a lot of it. Our journeys through the streets are accompanied by warning choruses of “Mind the dog poo!”
That first evening, we dumped our things in the apartment and went for a walk in search of dinner. Ironically enough, we ended up in Japantown – ironic because Japan was where we spent five weeks last year, and it was is if we were being drawn to that culture again. We stopped off in “San Francisco’s best Japanese restaurant”, a claim made by the restaurant itself, and one which clearly wasn’t true. I mean, it was alright. I had a bento box of battered prawn, sushi and gyozo, which was edible but not mindblowing. I’m hopeful that it isn’t San Francisco’s best Japanese restaurant. What if San Franciscans have a meal there and leave thinking that it was truly representative of Japanese cuisine?
Anyway, we kind of regretted going out for dinner, not because of the food, which was fine, but because we were starting to feel the effects of the flight and the difference in time. We staggered home, and to bed, only for daughter to wake with a spring in her step and a song in her voice at four o’clock the next morning. Will the jetlag impede on our sightseeing plans? Find out in the next instalment…