Runaway Strategy: Plan Francisco

Trip Start May 05, 2011
Trip End Sep 08, 2011

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What I did
Trivia-ised, walked, sauntered into Harvard, danced, discovered an airport I actually like, reunited! wandered, partied (hard)

Flag of United States  , California
Friday, August 26, 2011

I left my heart in San Francisco. Unfortunately, this proved to be rather bad for my circulation...

Salutations from the Californian coast! I The land of sun, sea, sand...well, actually, not so much sand. Haven't seen any of that yet. And only sun part of the time. At the moment, yes; but it has been rather misty here. But there is DEFINITELY sea. I've seen/almost fallen into it. And as for the weather; well, I had a report from the 'rents today, and I think I've still got one up on the British summer. Just about. Hooray for travelling/running away temporarily!

It's been a busy week. For those of you who are geographically keen, you will see that I have once more crossed this vast continent. I am aware that this sems odd. Trust me, there is method in my routeplanning madness. I have dropped into Bahw-ston, survived a thunderstorm by hiding out in Harvard, reunited with friends (in part unintentionally) in SF, and I've made a few new ones. I've also made a rather cast-iron promise to visit Salzburg one year from today (totally unintentionally). As I said, busy week!

And I guess it all started in another country, in the midst of another language/culture/groove. Because - last time I wrote, I was on my way out of Montreal, the hipster-frenchman capital of the Western hemisphere. I very nearly didn't make it out of Canada that night. With only an hour to spare, I was convinced to join the hostel pub quiz, to test my triviatical skills. I would have been fine for time, except that I got through to the quiz final playoffs, and despite my protestations that I was going to miss my bus, the quizmaster/receptionist refused to allow me access to my bags in the storage room until a winner had been decided. It was a tense final (which was complicated slightly by the necessity of asking quickfire questions simultaneously in 2 different languages), but in the end it descended into a test of world capital cities, which my friend Wes won. I don't begrudge him it; after all, there's no way I would have had time to drink away the $10 bar tab prize!

Having finally escaped the hostel, I jumped on a bus headed south to the border, and once again almost failed to get away. At the border, my US immigration official tormented me with about a billion questions, all relating to my lone traveller status, my ridiculous route, and my potential-terrorist good looks. All a bit hard to deal with at 2am! But we all finally got through, and the bus sped away to Boston.

Boston was (for the most part) spectacularly sunny and ridiculously hot. I can see why people may migrate south from Canada despite losing healthcare benefits. And on the first morning, I found myself on the campus of Boston University (where my summer-only hostel was based), dazed, confused, exhausted, but blissfully warm. I didn't have much time to bathe in the golden sunshine, however, because before I knew it I was meeting up with Zoe, a friend from Michigan that I had met in Chicago. Exciting news: she's moving to Boston! We had a mini-party (with iced-tea) on a park bench before she sped off to NYC. (DISCLAIMER: this was not in any way affiliated to the Tea Party Movement in America. Despite my earlier statements on healthcare. (!)) It was fun to meet up again, and great to keep in touch. I've made so many awesome new friends on this continent, and I intend to keep them!

So, armed with some advice from Zoe, I headed out to see the city. I walked half of the 'Freedom Trail' (Americans have such hilariously patriotic names for everything), which - according to my recollection, mainly involved hanging around in eighteenth century graveyards. The trail was actually rather good, in fact, because it allowed me to see a large number of beautiful, eighteenth century, Georgian brick buildings (so unusual in America), and to reconnect with American history. It also took me through the marketplace, where I was able to sample some delicious 'Bahwston clam chowda' in a bread bowl (highly reccommend it), and led me towards the Boston contemporary art institute. Though the art institute was actually a little bit rubbish, and had a slightly simplistic exhibition, it was free on Thursday (the main thing), AND there just happened to be a free concert outside. So, with a bit of a bohemian edge, I was able to enjoy my first night in America's grand old city.

The next day, I headed out with map in hand and with a clear plan. Karl, an Australian from my hostel dorm, accompanied me. Our mission: take on Cambridge, Massachusetts, and see if these newfangled imitators really deserved this grand old name. On the way, we allowed ourselves to be distracted by a giant inverted globe (fashioned in 1935) in the First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston branch. That was pretty cool; nonetheless we resisted attempt to convert us (despite the huge scale, bright colours, and amazing accoustics that the 'mapparium' provided). Continuing on our mission, we finally made it to Harvard; just in time for the most intense thunderstorm I've seen in a while.

Perhaps my favourite part of that day was the fact that, as we approached Harvard's gates, we saw new freshmen with bright smiles, which totally contrasted with the ominous crack of thunder over our heads. What a welcome! (Hopefully not pathetic fallacy.) As the heavens opened, Karl and I took cover in the closest building...which just hapopened to be the place where they were inducting new freshmen. They mistook us for undergraduates, and it was soooo tempting to lie and get a Harvard uni card (they were making them right there)...I resisited the urge. They may have charged me fees, after all, and I'll have a hefty enough education bill next year as it is!

I did, however, use my British charm and my 'the other Cambridge' connections to get access to the Widener Library - the Harvard University library, and a fascinating structure, donated by a mother to commemorate her Harvard-graduate son who died on the Titanic (the building was intended to house the library of books that he left to Harvard). Interestingly, this library building can't be extended, or it reverts to the possession of the Widener family (which would make for some really awkward real-estate - it's in the centre of the Harvard campus). So, to solve this problem, Harvard have spent millions extending the library UNDERGROUND. Interesting. If pointless.

Anyway, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was very beautiful in spite of the rain. To complete the day, I headed out clubbing that evening (after eating a dinner of shark), thus allowing me to claim masterful knowledge of Cambridge nightlife on two continents.

I completed the Freedom Trail on Saturday afternoon. This time: fewer graveyards, more boats. Most prominently, the USS Constitution, or 'Old Ironsides' to its friends. Since it was pretty successful in smashing up British ships in the war of 1812, I guess this does not include us. I also climbed the Bunker Hill Monument, which confusingly commmemorates a battle that was fought on Breeds Hill, and which the British won. I think Americans have been punishing Brits ever since for this result by making them climb up the Bunker Hill Monument - a hollow obelisk that almost kills pretty much everyone who scales it (in the summer, in any case). But it was a nice view, and I awarded myself an immensely chocolately ice-cream afterwards.

The journey to San Francisco was an epic one. It was also an immensely boring one. I will not dwell on it or go into any depth. I will simply remark upon three things. 1) Laguardia Airport (NYC) deserves special honours. They set up cots for poor tourists spending the night in the immensely boring pre-departures zone. 2) My flight was slightly enhanced by sitting next to a man who appeared to be video-editing a cheapo internet-tv version of 'Pimp my Ride'. And he was English, so it was good to see cars whizz down the left hand side of the road again. 3) As I went through airport security, I was randomly selected for additional checks (if you ask me, it's prejudice against the blond!) They swabbed my hands...and found out I had traces of nitroglycerine on them. Which is interesting, because I couldn't really remember having handled explosives in the last 24 hours. After a quick pat-down, they let me through. Still curious about where that TNT is supposed to have come from...

When I landed in San Francisco, this remarkable, uber-liberal, Californian city, I was in for a bit of a surprise. I knew that I would be meeting my friend Sylvia (from Girton; she is accompanying me to Burning Man festival next week, and has been staying in SF with her boyfriend, Stephen). Reunions were on the cards. But when I got to the hostel and logged on to Facebook, I discovered yet another old Girtonian in San Francisco. Chris Patrick - an OLD friend, and an ally in pretty much every Girton dramatic production - had publically announced he was in the city. Great, I thought - I'll send him a message and see whether he wants to meet up at some point. Turns out he was online. Great; I let him know we were in the city, and he seemed pretty keen to meet up. So I told him that I was staying in 'Adelaide Hostel', and asked him whereabouts he was staying. The same place. Ok, so that was freaky. The next question was obvious: what floor are you on? Ground floor. Same as me. Right. Can you hear the movie in the other room? Yes. As it turned out he was sitting about 2m behind me. So - impromtu reunion, then!

Chris joined me when I met up with Sylvia and Stephen that evening, and we all hung out together over the next few days. Despite crippling exhaustion, I managed to join everyone at Vesuvio (the Beat poet bar) for a drink that went on well into the evening. None of us were budding poets, alas, so there was no impromptu beat session or jam. But we at least looked poetic. Which is all that really matters. On Tuesday, we all headed down to the latin distict (The Mission), in order to procure parts for mine and Sylvias' Burning Man costumes (I bought some pretty freaky looking biohazard goggles, which are apparently pretty necessary in case of sandstorms). And there, we discovered the ONLY cheap part of San Francisco. Seriously. Along with a load of latino-culture murals, that almost (but not really) brough back memories of a simpler time (2 months ago (!)). Hooray for giant wall paintings of the Virgin Mary (usually dancing the salsa).

Later that evening, we transversed the hills of San Francisco - from Nob Hill, to Russian Hill (interesting names, possibly reflecting American antipathy for hills - unfair, the hills were there first) and I finally began to lower my guard and to fall for the city. A LOT of people had told me such wonderful things about SF. But it's very Californian, which isn't particularly my style. Also, it's really lacking in history. Nonetheless, it has both pine trees and hills (and beautiful architecture when you get out of the centre), so it is startng to win me over. As the sunlight danced on the corners of the buildings, so assymetrical, built over one another in a fatastic, colourful metropolitan labyrinth - well, let's just say I began to forgive this emarkably young city for its optimistic immaturity.

Tuesday was Chris's last day on his immense 6-month travel odyessy, so we were determined to celebrate (and to force him to do so as well). Whilst Sylvia and Stephen headed to the science museum, Chris and I set out towards Golden Gate Bridge. In the sun, initially (the menacing fog soon encroached), and then in the not-so-sun, we battled our way to the bridge, only to see...well, not a lot, actually. A few pillars. The fog was so heavy, it completely shrouded that legendary teracotta-red structure (and let's face it, there aren't many famous red-teracotta monuments). The fog cleared slightly, though, and thankfully we got some good photos of part of the bridge arising out of the white oblivion - only to dive back in to the murky white depths.

Back in the city (and in the sun), whilst Chris disappeared off to pack, I checked out Fort Mason: an old US Navy installation, that has been convered into a museum complex and contemporary art space. I dropped into the visitor centre, and asked about the history of the fort; the lady on the desk gave me a quick spiel, and then, as I turned to leave, she asked me: 'Where are you from?' "England." "Oh, well in that case, you may be interesed in an exhibition of designer seats strewn around the fort's grounds." What - does England imply a love of sitting down?! Clearly; and she's not wrong to make that assumption. It was one of the most comfortable and tactile-ly interesting exhibitions I've ever viewed. Well done San Francisco.

That evening, we headed out for a HUGE meal and cheesecake to celebrate Chris's last night, which we ate on a balcony atop a skyscraper (apparently, this was the less popular option - Americans prefer to be inside when it's foggy, but the super-tough Brits were not budging from the idea of eating al fresco). Soon after, at Chris's suggestion, we headed to an Irish Bar, where we watched an immensely entertaining piano duel between two rather hilarious pianists who took requests (the rest of us requested 'Should I Stay or Should I Go' by The Clash on Chris's behalf). I never knew that you could do a guitar solo on a piano. I'm still not convinced (the drunken Irish stag party, who were sharing space, seemed to disagree). It really was pretty darned hi-larious. And a great way to see Chris off.

I met Sylvia and Stephen at the de Yonge gallery in Golden Gate Park on Thursday morning(ish), and we topped up on our culture quotient, before I left them to enjoy a romantic afternoon (well, there are only so many dates that I can crash in good conscience), and headed into Haight Ashbury. As San-Franciscians say, you can't hate the Haight. It's an incredible conglomeration of alternative cafes, bookshops, vintage clothes stores, with a nice side of freaky-lookin' folk tramping the pavement. Haight is where the hippie movement began; and though it is now supremely capitalist, it is still a fun walk. If only to make you feel good about your own hairstyle. I bought some luminious green braces to complete my BM costume, and skipped out of Haight, through Castro, and straight home to enjoy a $5 dinner at my hostel.

Now, reading this blog, you may have noticed that food coimes pretty high on my list of priorities. I sat down, with 10 minutes to spare, STARING into the kitchen. I clearly share much in common with people who have similar food-related priorities, because those who sat around me - the hungry and intent - ended up coalescing, dancing on the tables, and drinking and chatting long into the night. I was not drinking, but I met a host of fantastic people. Of course, THEY all got insanely drunk, but even the immense level of imebriation does not totally explain why - at 3am - we all decided (or were informed) that we were to meet, one year from today, in Salzburg. Cripes. Sounds like a cult. Fortunately, none of us is particulary cultish, and we had a great time, so I think that this is unlikely to end up in some crazy suicide pact. Also, we have a facebook event. So it can't be bad.

Awakening today, after 6 hours of sleep (at 11am), I cursed my luck at missing out on breakfast. Fortunately, all was not lost; after a delicious panini; I had a laundry blitz and then took off to explore the city. I found the best, quietest, flourishing, most invigorating part of San Francisco, in a series of walkways and gardens hidden behind the Coit Tower. I meandered back through Chinatown (getting a rather disturbing free fortune cookie along the way - 'Your capacity for love will help a small child'...right...) and arrived in triumph for yet another delicious hostel meal. Tonight looks like another potentially wild night - we'll see about that - and I'm looking forward to my last few days in this crazy, hilly, Californian town.

This is, by the way, my penultimate entry. Very early on Monday morning, Sylvia and I are off to Burning Man - an eight day art festival in the middle of the Nevada desert, with no water and even fewer American news channels. It will be paradise (admittedly an arid, sleep deprived paradise, but I can't complain). And then back to the real world. Well, Oxford. I look forward to my next (and final) blog, and to filling you in on my crazy exotic fortnight. See you all on the other side...
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