When you tell people you are going to San Francisco for the first time, whether they have been there themselves or not, they give you a wistful look. “Oh! You are going to have such a good time!” they say. A northern Great Plains girl, my associations with San Francisco were the 70’s TV shows “The Streets of San Francisco” and “McMillan and Wife.” Also Rice-a-Roni. Of course the Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars. I imagined Fisherman’s Wharf to be a place where boats pulled up with their fresh catch and sold it to wandering passersby who had flowers and baguettes (or more probably, sourdough loaves) tucked into their market bags. As a person well into my adult years, I am savvy enough to know how naive my childhood impressions were. Also, since childhood, other cultural impressions of the area have surfaced, such as the gay rights movement and the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
My first impression of the San Francisco area was the thrill of driving the winding hilly roads around Muir woods, and the disappointment of not stopping there because the parking lots overflowed to roadside parking that extended a mile beyond the entrance. My husband navigated and I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to our hotel, Marriott on Fisherman’s Wharf, along which route I discovered that San Franciscans communicate by car horn. I don’t think any honks were directed at us, but from watching other drivers I could see that hesitation or confusion is not well tolerated there. Learn fast, or get out of the way. Cyclists, who aren’t well tolerated in other areas I have driven (ahem, looking at you–rural outskirts of exurban Minneapolis/St. Paul) have apparently earned the right to cohabit the streets there, but then, if you are fit enough to climb the hills of the city and experienced enough to descend them without killing someone, you have been there awhile. We were happy to pull into valet parking. Almost immediately we headed toward Fisherman’s Wharf, two blocks away, to see what was up. The noise and the crowds were building around us as we approached the waterfront, when Mr. W’s cell phone rang. It was his uncle, calling to tell him his (maternal) Grandma Marian had died unexpectedly, and asking him to pass the news onto his brother and father. This was a seismic shift; foundations were rocked. Physical fatigue and emotional aftershocks colored the rest of our stay. One second before we had merely been tourists, now we were Outsiders, viewing the colorful city through the bittersweet lens of fond remembrances dislocated 1400 miles, and a feather light caress of mortality’s scythe.
The rest of this post could be quite maudlin if I dragged a lot of words into it and I hate that, so here is my San Francisco in a nutshell:
- Fisherman’s Wharf: amazing people watching, and what a spectrum of race, culture, age and style choice. Could have sat and watched all day, but I needed a warmer sweater. Restaurants, bars and shops? Meh.
- Ghiradelli Square: empty when we were there. Looked nice, but we aren’t big shoppers. We can get most of the same stuff back home without worrying about the packing. An okay place to look around while we waited for the cable cars to get back online.
- Cable cars: remarkably unreliable. There were two breakdowns on different turnarounds the day we rode. The grips running the brakes vary a lot in comportment. Our first driver I wanted to invite out to dinner, and the second one I wanted to curse out to his face. I was a little emotional, I think.
- Spicy Shrimp and some Hot & Sour soup at City Chopsticks helped restore me a little. We just got off the cable car randomly.
- When we looked lost, strangers stopped to ask us if they could help us. One friendly soul was definitely of French origin. We met Brits everywhere.
- Union Square: more shopping, bigger crowds.
- Restaurants: we practically burned out our smartphones checking restaurants out on yelp! and TripAdvisor. I was going to ask my facebook folks for a recommendation but it wouldn’t load. In the end we ate some pretty good food, nothing spectacular, but the biggest hit was honestly the cheap coffee and rolls at Coffee Adventure near our hotel. The mocha I got the first day was not quite hot enough, but the raspberry or almond croissants were enormous and we both ate for less than one meal just about anywhere else.
- Before heading to the airport on Tuesday we stopped at Golden Gate Park, and enjoyed the simple but stunning Japanese Tea Garden before the crowds hit. The quiet and the beauty was exactly what we needed at that point. We also visited the De Young Fine Arts Museum and loved the observation tower that overlooks the city. At the entrance, a young woman walked up to me and handed me an extra ticket her group had for the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit. I had seen the CBS Sunday Morning piece on the exhibit and was excited to go. Mr. Wordtabulous was excited that I had only one ticket so he could get some alone time and not have to see all the fashion. I tell you, ANYONE would be amazed by that exhibit, and 98% would love it. There was not as much explicitness as I expected based on the warnings. I may have to buy a book on the exhibit, because there was that much awesome in it. Go, I urge you, if it comes to a city near you. Beauty, message, craft, humor, darkness and light…truly art.
So it took a day or two, but in the end I too loved San Francisco, just not for the reasons I thought I would, and with a special poignancy from the sadness we carried with us.