San Fran Tastic

Trip Start Oct 15, 2007
Trip End Aug 24, 2008

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Flag of United States  , California
Saturday, December 1, 2007

Having finally found somewhere for the car to sleep overnight, we found the place where we would be staying. Emmanuel, our host, buzzed us in, and came down to meet us, carrying a laptop which he was just off to throw out. Yes, we thought that was weird. Characteristic, as it turned out.

Having buzzed us in, Emmanuel did not stop buzzing for the whole of our stay. The man lives on nervous energy. Pretty much straight away, we were sat down, briefly quizzed, then fed a frantic, meandering, seemingly endless story about his life, his opinions, his origins in the French Alps, his opinions, his having lost crates of stuff on recent relocation to the US from Norway, his opinions, his computer based consultancy work, his opinions, his previous guest who outstayed his welcome, his opinions, his tendency to ramble on about all sorts of stuff before maybe eventually getting to the point (yes, he digressed from his digression to inform us about how readily he tends to digress), his opinions...Kirsty interrupted to point out that it was well gone 9 o'clock, we'd been on the road since dawn, and that despite his (much earlier) offer of taking us out to find food, we were still on his damn couch in bewildered silence. She did word it slightly more tactfully than that and briefly, he paused to gather his coat and herd us out, before resuming the commentary on his world. It's maybe worth pointing out at this juncture that he's quite opinionated.

We eventually settled on a Thai place (well, Emmanuel did, having run around various other restaurants and dismissed them) and had some fairly nice food. Despite his agreement with us that the convention of routinely tipping all restaurant staff regardless of service quality is ridiculous and clearly renders tipping for exceptional service meaningless, he was quite insistent that we tip, because that's just how it's done here.

Very simply, regardless of local convention, we don't tip unless we experience service above and beyond the waiter's job description...otherwise they're just doing their job, for which they get their wage. He agreed with all this, but felt able to pull rank and insist that we had to tip, because he lived there and we didn't so we didn't get it. We were staying at his house though, so we couldn't really stand up for ourselves too much.

Having returned to his flat, we made a mistake of mentioning our flight from Los Angeles, which prompted Emmanuel to try and organise bus tickets and a complex chain of connecting metros and shuttle services to the airport. Frantically. This was obviously intended as a helpful gesture, but was unbelievably irritating. We were tired, we wanted to sleep, we're perfectly capable of sorting out our own transport, and to be honest, would prefer to do so without the world's authority on bloody everything breathing down our necks.

Finally, we went to bed on the lumpy futon. When we woke up, we had showers (red towel for Kirsty, blue for Jacob because she's a girl and he's a boy.....) and headed out to return our car to the rental place. This included driving down Lombard Street, known as 'the crookedest street in the world', despite not actually even being the most crooked in San Francisco. However, it's a well known landmark so it was still pretty cool to actually drive down it. We finally found the rental place (Emmanuel's frantic direction giving technique notwithstanding) and returned the car, then headed out to explore San Francisco.

Our first stop was a bookshop which we used to find out where tourist information was. We walked down to the tourist information place and got ourselves some maps and some 3 day passes for the public transport system. After a fruitless attempt to get the (primarily German speaking) volunteer at the info office to give us information about leaving San Francisco, Jacob suggested hiring a car again for the journey to Los Angeles, so we went back to the car rental place. They had run out of cars (!), but they gave us the names and addresses of their competitors (notice the difference between this and our last rental experience) and we went and got some quotes. One would rent us a compact car (actually quite sizeable by UK standards) to Los Angeles for about the same price as the bus journey would be. The bus also would have arrived in the wrong part of LA at 3am, leaving us to get across to the airport for our 7am flight. And we wouldn't have been able to take the coastal route and stop to take we decided we would take the car option again.

All sorted, we went to Haight Ashbury, the centre of the hippy universe. No surprises that this was high on our list of places to see. We wandered for a while, looked in some of the shops and sat in the Golden Gate Park enjoying the sunshine.  We also witnessed a large poodle, immaculately groomed and wearing a bandanna around it's neck, standing on the boot of an open top, red sports car. Such a beautifully camp sight.

We took a streetcar (or "tram" in English) to Fisherman's Wharf and had a wander around Pier 39 and listened to the sea lions barking - it was dark so we couldn't really see them. We decided to do the American thing and went to the Hard Rock Cafe for food, only to discover that it started in Hyde Park Corner in London. Still, the food was good and Kirsty ended up with takeaway as she couldn't finish it all.

We headed back to Emmanuel's, where he talked for a while. We also watched some of a Bill Maher comedy show before finally getting to bed late.

The following day, Jacob decided it was time to shed his winter plumage. Since Canada, where it had been bloody cold, he had been taking advantage of his hairy genetics and growing himself an organic scarf. Having migrated south, it was getting a little hot, so after attacking it with the scissors on a Swiss Army knife and destroying three razor blades (Wilkinson Sword is no match for a month of Thrall beard), he was once more neatly trimmed.

After going up to the roof to take some photos of the views, we went to an internet cafe. We had some of the best coffee either of us have ever tasted, but it did make us a touch jittery, which made for interesting typing.  After that, we went back to Fisherman's Wharf. We bought a crab from one of the stalls, had it steamed in front of us, and went and sat on the pier eating it. The crab was delicious, the views (Alcatraz, the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, the sea lions and Fisherman's Wharf) were fantastic and the seagulls were persistent in their attempts to mob us. Sitting by the docks with fresh crab...we were pretty much asking for it really.

All full of crab, we found a small park and decorated our hair with a variety of flowers. We couldn't go to San Francisco and not wear flowers in our hair, really, now could we? We did get a few funny looks...and one guy nearly fell off his bike.

We then went to see if we could go to Alcatraz. The tickets were all sold out for the day, but we bought tickets for the following day and got a tram to Castro and had a look round. Castro is the gay centre of San Francisco...which pretty much makes it the gay centre of the world. Huge rainbow flags flying from the rooftops, f-a-a-a-bulous looking fellers pottering round little boutiques; wonderfully, wonderfully cliched, and really, really nice. On the tram on the way there, a swarm of police cars with sirens blaring had come racing past us. We encountered them again in Castro, surrounding a bank which had been sealed off, presumably having just been robbed. There was nothing exciting to see though, so we went to see what else was around.

We spent a fair amount of time in a Tibetan clothing shop, trying a few things on and generally admiring the pretty things. Showing a reasonable amount of restraint, we left without purchasing anything (however nice it may have been, Jacob doesn't really need a Buddhist monk's jacket) and headed back to Emmanuel's for the evening.

When we arrived, Emmanuel was in the middle of dismantling his friend Maggie's laptop. He was completely surrounded by pieces of both her laptop and a spare keyboard he was using for bits. We picked our way cautiously across the floor to the couch and chatted to Maggie for a while, before Sylvia, another couch surfer, arrived to stay for the night as well. Maggie went home and we went for food. We felt like we were being pressured into going out for a meal, which we were not really up for. Living on a world traveller's budget and having eaten out a few times of late, we were feeling the pinch a little, and a barrage of insistence that we go out for a meal made us feel quite uncomfortable. The prospect of another evening in a restaurant with Emmanuel was also quite hard to stomach. We explained that really, we'd rather stay in, and, despite Emmanuel's assertion that there would be nowhere open in the whole of San Francisco to buy food, we went to a little shop (about two minutes from his apartment) where we bought a tin of soup, which we heated up back at the flat. Bizarrely, Emmanuel insisted on covering the bowl with a sheet of kitchen roll instead of a plate whilst microwaving it. His reasoning was that he could wash and reuse the kitchen roll (as opposed to washing and reusing a plate), thus saving water......What???

Another evening of discussion, most of which was based around Emmanuel's opinions and beliefs which include such wisdom as "95% of Americans are actually classed as poor, because they have car loan debts. This is not their fault, Americans have to have cars that are too expensive for them to afford". We, speaking sense and pointing out that if you haven't got any money, you shouldn't buy any expensive stuff, were told we didn't get it, we didn't understand the culture, and that Americans couldn't possibly buy knackered old cars to get from A to B, because of how important the car is in American culture. So, financial stupidity is justifiable when you really fancy a nice car, apparently.

That night, we slept on the floor as Emmanuel had agreed to host 3 people, despite only having a double futon. As Sylvia had a conference in the morning, we offered to take the floor. Sylvia was up early the following morning and Kirsty, having also woken up, went and did the laundry. Jacob woke up to clean clothes about an hour later.

We went out to Fisherman's Wharf for our boat to Alcatraz. Arriving on the island, we were informed of various guided tours and decided that we would take the one about escape attempts. There wasn't much time before the tour started, so we went and watched the video about Alcatraz and it's various uses over the years. Oh no, it's not just a prison. It started out as a lighthouse, then was used as a military fortification, then a military prison before its most famous role as a high security prison. After the prison closed in 1963, the island was occupied by Native Americans from many different tribes, who claimed it as Indian land in protest against government policies towards Indians, which aimed to end all Indian reservations and assimilate the Native Indian population into the mainstream and relocated them from the reservations to the cities. The symbolism went along the lines that the first thing visitors to the western US should see was Indian land, as the first people in the western US were the Indians. The protesters stayed on the island for 18 months before being forced off by the government, but the policies of ending Indian reservations and relocating the populations were stopped and hundreds of thousands of acres of land were returned to their original Native American owners.

We went on the escape tour, which was interesting. There were several escape attempts during the prison's history, and although there are no known successful ones, some of the bodies of people who escaped and were listed as presumed dead were never found. Every year until the prison closed, a Christmas card was sent to the governor, signed with the initials of one of those presumed lost. No proof of anything, but it's nice to believe it.

After the tour, we went to the prison building and took the audio tour - an impressive little set up: you're given a digitally recorded guided tour on a headset, narrated by a former senior guard, which you can pause at any point and thus take photos at your leisure. The forty-five minute tour took us over two hours. The prison is a sinister place, as you may expect. The whole place still feels opressive and depressing even though it hasn't been a prison for over forty years. It's a cold, damp and miserable place. Oddly fascinating to see, but not pleasant in any way.

Back out in the sunshine, we got the boat back to the mainland. We took the tram back to the Market Street area and went to the post office to post some stuff back to the UK. After persuading the member of staff that it really wasn't necessary for it to get there quickly, we wanted the cheapest way, she gave us a different envelope to package our parcel in. Apparently a brown paper bag and micropore tape wouldn't withstand the rigours of international shipping. Kirsty has a pack of cards whose box, held together with micropore, has withstood an east African rainy season, five years of living in a rucksack and is still going strong, but this, apparently, is not good enough for the United States Postal Service.  Having done this and queued again, we finally got to send our parcel.

We decided to take the cable car back to Fisherman's Wharf and get something to eat. The cable cars are the first and last permanently operational manually operated cable car system in the world. The cars run along a track, propelled by a cable below the street level. The cable is continuously driven by a powerhouse, originally steam powered but now electrical. A gripman uses levers which control giant sets of pliers, gripping the cable and propelling the car. They coast over junctions and grip different cables to allow them to take different routes. They were invented by a man who witnessed a horse drawn carriage being overcome by the gradient of San Francisco's hills, toppling over backwards, killing various people and the horse. After a short while, there were cable cars all over Europe and North America, but they were gradually replaced by trams. Still, all in all, a really clever idea.

At the Wharf, we went to a little restaurant for food. We then got another cable car and a bus back to Emmanuel's place. He was out, but buzzed us in to the flat (his mobile is linked to his buzzer). We asked him if we could use his computer whilst he was out, but he said we could when he got back. He returned a little while later with a friend and they played Scrabble whilst we checked our Couch Surfing requests for Mexico City. After a bit, two more Couchsurfers arrived. These were Charles and Christine, French Canadians from Montreal, and tonight, they were to get the floor space. Interesting to hear a Frenchman and two French Canadians bloody-mindedly trying to understand each others versions of French when they could have managed more easily in English.

We packed up our bags and went to bed, ready to be up early the following morning to go and collect our car and drive to LA.
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starlagurl on

What a hilarious blog
Your host sounds awesome, where did you meet him?

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