The trick is to keep breathing

Trip Start Oct 05, 2005
Trip End Apr 06, 2006

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Flag of United States  , California
Saturday, February 25, 2006

So onwards and upwards to sunny San Francisco! Or not. I arrived to driving rain, a hostel that thought it was a nightclub - oh yes, that's right, it was a nightclub - and a dodgy area that for all intents and purposes was Mexico. But minor details, minor details.

I was sharing a room with three Aussie girls who had spent so much time together, they had become one. You know how some people tell each other every single thought that pops into their head, no matter how inappropriate and uninteresting, in a stream of consciousness-type way? (Do they call that being married?) Multiply that by three and add an Aussie accent. Actually, they were quite a good laugh. You just needed to add beer.

The Mission district was a challenge to begin with, due to the aforementioned, but after two days I turned a corner, literally, and found Valencia. This was the road for me - veggie restaurants, cool cafes for beard-stroking philosophical debates, whacky bars, a bead shop, and an Independent Pirate Supply Store. Shame I was leaving on day three.

Decided to give the whacky bars a shot, for research purposes more than anything else, and to bid the area farewell. Our mission in The Mission was happy hour, which was a tough one to crack, and my accomplices were Jonny Severn, a computer games designer from Leamington Spa (particularly skilled in the application of irony) and his American room-mate Greg (good with a mobile phone).

Phase one began with a gloomy racket coming from a door that had "The Makeout Room" written on it in big plastic 80s fish-and-chip shop-style lettering. Jon goes in to case the joint. Gives us a nod. Greg tiptoes in behind. I follow, peeking over his shoulder. It was the pickled head behind the bar that first made me scream, although there were many things in that room that should have been taken out and burned at the stake. The gloomy racket was an experimental one-woman act called "Naomi", who was bent over the mic, wearing only a satin slip, her Apple Mac beside her, and her five friends jumping about on the dance floor. Jon and I couldn't get out fast enough but Greg was all over it. I caught him Googling Naomi later that night, the dirty dog.

Phase two was the "Latin American Bar" across the road. By this point we really needed a beer. As if things couldn't get more surreal, there were dozens of cuckoo clocks on the wall - all set at different times - a mannequin covered in feathers, pāpier-maché animals dangling from the ceiling, a plastic doll's head on legs, a barman that looked and acted like he'd just escaped from Alcatraz, and, I'm hoping, to justify the name, three huge oil paintings of Chihuahuas on the wall. What worried me most was that Greg thought all that was normal.

Decided the Mission bars must be having some sort of freak-off, so finished the night with the Aussie girls, watching what they called an emo (emotional rock) band at the Elbo Room. I could have sworn the main guy was playing a Fisher Price kazoo.

Left the Mission and moved hostels to one in town. All was good, except I was now sharing a room with a teeny tiny Scottish girl who reminded me of an Ewok and who didn't understand a word I said, which I thought was rich given that her accent was as think as a caber. Our conversation (there was only one) went as follows:

Me: "Hello! Where are you from?"
Her: "Hmmmm?"
Me: "Where are you from?"
Her: "Glasgedinburghschtoklasnkdsjnbskdjgnsj"
Me: "Oh nice, Scotland"
Her: "Hmmm??"

The sun had, by now, put in an appearance, thankfully, so I spent my days walking round seeing the sights - Chinatown (found a fortune cookie-making factory), Telegraph Hill, old Beatnik haunts, Alcatraz - and hanging off streetcars when my legs got tired.

Jonny Severn and I decided to hire a car one day and drive round the wine country. After enquiring at all the big faceless companies (Avis, Thrifty etc), I spotted an old Ford Escort sitting outside a building marked A1 Rentacars, and decided that was the one for us. We pushed through the swarm of flies outside the door, and wandered in to what looked like the set of Columbo. The manager even looked like him. He was as mad as a hatter. He asked me how the Queen's ravens were. Anyway, after a couple of centuries of tomfoolery and a library of paperwork, he finally handed us the keys, and we were off.

[As we're approaching the Golden Gate Bridge at 70mph]
"Jon, have you driven a car in America before?"
"No, but I've played Grand Theft Auto, and that's actually set in San Francisco. So it can't be tooooo different, can it?"
"Nah. You're practically a pro..."

So we zoom over the bridge to the green green hills of wine. First stop Sonoma, a ridiculously pristine town that Jon was convinced was fostering KKK tendencies. Next stop Domain Chandon near Napa for some champagne-tasting. The bar was housed in a brand-new building with manicured lawns and ponds and fountains, and beautiful views of the hills. If this were the UK, Barratt Homes would have been on it like a shot. The champagne was fantastic. I had to do all the tasting, though - Jon was a spoil sport and didn't want to drink and drive. He just ferried me around like an old lush. Just as I hit rowdy stage, he called it a day.

On the way back we noticed a big dent in the side of the car. Neither of us could remember if it had been there before or if we had hit something along the way. It was worry number one. Worry number two came when we started going over the Bay Bridge and, on my suggestion, took an empty lane that bypassed the heavy traffic waiting to pay the toll. I thought this was hilarious (that might well have been the champagne). Jon was brick-shittingly silent. It went on for ages, us cruising alongside all the other stopped cars, on the wrong side of the law, before feeding us back in on the other side, two hours quicker, and $20 richer. In my defense, the lane was marked for San Francisco, and not once did it say No Entry. The Americans really need to sort their signage out. I got very excited at the thought of us being on Police Tonight. Jon thought it more likely we might see ourselves in jail. I'm still to this day waiting for his email to say he's been deported.

On my last day I took a tour to Yosemite National Park in a vegetable oil-fueled van. Normally I'm averse to tours, but this one was good, and I was very happy to see snow for the first time in aeons. It was only a few patches but it warranted five-year-old behaviour all the same. I would have made a snowman if I'd had the time and a carrot.
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