On a mission in the hills

Trip Start Sep 02, 2007
Trip End Sep 16, 2007

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Flag of United States  , California
Friday, September 14, 2007

The anniversary of 9/11 pretty much passed me by. I thought I would see and hear more references to it, but I only talked about it over lunch with my colleague Michele. Then I realised that I didn't watch TV (I haven't watched it at all my time here) and found out if I had, I would obviously have seen a lot of programming dedicated to it, including repeats of news coverage from six years ago.
I got up stupidly early to get into office at 7.30am for a conference call with the UK. I'd been given the keys to the building and opened up the shutters and the front door. As I entered I could hear the timer from the alarm system buzzing. No one mentioned an alarm! I looked around not knowing what to do. As I had come in the building, a couple were getting into a car outside. They had smiled and were just about to set off, but saw that I didn't have the code. The woman ran in, I think she was a cleaner, and showed me the code off her key fob. She didn't speak English. I didn't even know where the control panel was. She pointed wildly in the direction of the stairwell. I was quite panicky by now and just as I reached the panel the alarm started to go off - that deafening all encompassing sound that means you can't think straight. I couldn't concentrate to read the instructions on the panel and I gesticulated wildly back to ask for her help. She ran over, deactivated the alarm and peace descended on us. I tried to express how grateful I was. The timing was so lucky. A few moments later and they would have driven off and I would have been standing there helpless with the alarm going off waking the neighbourhood, waiting for the police to arrive.
Because I'd come in so early, I left the office early to fit in more sightseeing. I headed to the Mission District, the oldest settled part of the city. However, most of the buildings were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Now it is the Latin American neighbourhood with a shed-load of Mexican restaurants and lots of good bars. It's quite a rough area but attracts artists and is up and coming with trendy young professionals. I was here to see the murals which cover many of Mission's alleyways, houses and walls. But first I stopped at a taqueria (Mexican fast-food joint) for lunch. The murals were in a huge range of styles, mostly along political or social themes, but there were some great fantasy scenes as well.
When I'd got my fill of public art spotting, I got the bus to nearby Potrero Hill. This is a genteel and much quieter neighbourhood sitting atop a steep hill. I was going to find Vermont Street (see gallery) and its hairpin bends. I got off the bus and needed to get one block across and one block along. I could have gone straight ahead and then left for a block, or turned left straight away and then right for a block (2 sides of the same square). On the map both routes looked identical. I chose the former and set off up a steep hill, puffing to the top, to turn left down an even steeper hill, ending up at about the same level as when I started! It's easy to choose the wrong route in this city. If I'd gone the other way it was virtually flat for both blocks.
I ascended Vermont Street by its flights of steps and walked through residential streets over the top of the hill to see the view of downtown from the other side. This was one of the top 5 viewpoints in the city according to my guidebook, but I wasn't that impressed as it was marred by overhead cables and telephone wires. I think I've been to too many stunning hilltop vistas and am getting complacent. Back in Mission I ate dinner at a Caribbean tapas restaurant. 
The next day I went to visit the impressive Grace Cathedral after work (see photo). There was a world music concert happening that evening and while I wandered around they were setting up, sound checking their instruments and voices. Tabla sounds great in an echoey cathedral. In the grounds there is a labyrinth and I watched a couple of new agers slowly walking its twisting path, contemplating life (or more likely what they were having for dinner). Some really steep streets lead down from the cathedral towards my hotel and I spent a while watching the cars going up and down. I'm fascinated by the topography of this city.
The following evening, I dined at a Moroccan restaurant. It had all the gear - low tables with cushioned seating and stools, hookah pipes, ornate arches, indoor water features, intricate metal lanterns, orange blossom water poured into a silver basin to wash your hands before and after you eat, and a belly dancing show. I sat two tables along from an English girl and we ended up joining each other for dinner. Amy had graduated from Durham this summer was on holiday with her family in the States, before going travelling to Central & South America on her 'second gap year' (she took one before her degree as well). She had also just finished a TEFAL course, with EmbassyCES (the language school I am working at), in Cambridge. Small world! On her return from travelling she is going to Japan to be an English teacher. I wish I had such exciting plans when I was 22. It was interesting because she asked me 'What do you want to do?' It took me my surprise because no-one has asked me that for years. At some point it changed to 'what do you do?' It was good to think about the answer to her question though. As president of her University's Belly Dancing Society she was up and shakin her thang as soon as the invite to join the dancer was thrown open to the restaurant's female customers. I had a bit of a tussle with an enthusiastic waiter but remained firmly seated!
On my last day at work I sat in on an English Language class. It's something I'd wanted to do for a while because language teaching is a core part of the courses I promote to international students at work, but I have never actually experienced one. The students were intermediate level and had a test in that class. I took it too. It was really interesting to see what grammar they were struggling with, what they were having difficulty pronouncing, and equally how good their vocabulary was. Plus, I learnt what a preposition is!
For lunch I got pizza. I would say in the UK, pizza sizes are usually 7-9" small, 9-12" medium, and 12-15" large. In the US, 12" is small and large is 18"!
On my last evening I went out for drinks with Michele, and Sarah who works in the office at the school. She took us for happy hour cocktails at a little bar a few blocks from the school... in an area that has a lot of transvestites. Wow - amazing people watching! One girl had lipstick so exaggerated that it was literally right up to her nose. Sarah, who lives just up the road, told us the 'lip liner queen' is well-known by residents.
After a few rounds, Sarah and I carried on to dinner at a Thai restaurant and then walked around looking for a bar towards Union Square, where all the designer shops and big department stores are, and China Town. In our wanderings I got to see some more of the city. After one more drink in a nice locals' haunt, I reluctantly called it a night. I hadn't yet packed and had a reasonably early pick up to the airport the next day. I felt melancholy about leaving as I walked back to the hotel. It feels like it's been an eventful two weeks. 
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