Fog city heart; Big Smoke
Maybe it’s the cool and windy sun, maybe it’s the communal excitement of a city full of people finally feeling the spring, but London feels a lot like San Francisco right now. This time last year, tomorrow to be exact, I left for a month by the bay, a trip that changed everything for me and all those other cliches. Every day I wrote about how much I loved it, before going home with a list of resolutions for how I was going to carry the SF spirit with me. Looking at it now I can confirm I’m on the yoga wagon, I’m progressing on the work stuff, I’m doing pretty well with getting those adulthood routines down too (sidebar: now that I’m no longer constantly late I’m finding lots of other people are … if that’s not ironic then it really should be). “As you get what you give, I’m hoping London will provide for me too, if I let it,” was the last thing I wrote before heading back to the UK, sick from having to leave let-it-carry-you San Francisco for fight-for-it London. But I remember knowing what I hoped for would probably be possible, and it was - because in many ways, these past 12 months may well have been the best year of my life. In London.
[San Francisco double exposure by Aaron Durand]
“But there’s no part of San Francisco I can’t appreciate: the bay, the bridge, the other bridge, the pedestrian variety of Telegraph Avenue, the fresh food, the vintage signs, Chinatown, the pastel row houses, the sun setting behind Dolores Park, the sailboats in the marina, the just-sprung-from-the-institution meanderers of the Tenderloin, the first sight of the Golden Gate as you drive down the 101 and think: How can anyone stand to live in a place this pretty? Don’t it make your heart explode?” [Sloane Crosley]
Bay Bridge becomes world’s largest light art installation; San Francisco kills me all over again.
LETTERS FROM THE START-UP FRONTIER
*** The Early View is the series I wrote on the UK technology start-up community for Megabuyte, the specialist sector newswire. Published between September 2012 and February 2013.
*** Letters from the West Coast is the series I wrote about start-up life and tech trends in San Francisco, published in Megabuyte in June and July 2012.
* The magic in the Valley. What is it about Silicon Valley that makes it such a dynamic place to start a business?
* The social revolution. How social tools are changing how businesses collaborate and create.
* The innovation cycle: The agony and the ecstasy. The trouble with innovation and keeping the start-up spirit alive.
* The view to Britain. How is Britain’s technology scene viewed from the West Coast?
San Francisco: Three travel articles
Boots’n All: ‘Leave your heart in San Francisco’
“‘Other cities may surprise you, but in San Francisco you surprise yourself.’ This was the bold assertion from the poster at the airport, which I read bleary-eyed after the 10-hour flight from London. San Francisco is a point on the map, I thought cynically, not a trip down the rabbit hole. Or is it?”
Viator: ‘On the real hippie trail in San Francisco’
“San Francisco’s […] main attractions aren’t the bridges or the cable cars, but a feeling; maybe it’s in the water, maybe it sneaks under the door while you are sleeping. Out here on the foggy peninsula, something’s up. People actually wear flowers in their hair, as San Francisco does a surprisingly good job at living up to its substantial reputation: hippie paradise, rebel haven, magnet for idealists, non-conformists and the occasional nut-job. Simply walking down the street will give you a decent fill of the San Francisco hippie flavour, with chatty strangers, talented street performers, wafting smells of various substances, as well as general friendliness and curiosity.”
Also, Lionheart Magazine issue 3, due out this autumn, will have a piece derived from my San Francisco diary, entitled ‘Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair’. [Edit: It’s here.] I’m telling you, it’s neverending.
Fog city heart
The schedule at Yoga Tree yesterday only said “vinyasa”, not “transformational experience”, so I was not at all prepared for what was about to happen. First of all, the room was heated, something I’ve never been keen on trying as I find flowing yoga styles to be sweaty enough anyway; secondly, our teacher Elise kept us in there for nearly two hours, pushing us to a point where more than one person went diving for their mats to wait out a few poses until they could breathe again. But somehow I was managing to follow, as I stretched and pushed and sweated more than I have in my life. By the end I had lost all perspective on space and time but I felt so oddly energised, so charged. I left the studio in a buzz, suddenly ravishingly hungry, feeling like a disciple of a new religion. Hello world, I am a yogi.
Ely and I went to Biscuits & Blues in the evening, where the Fat Tuesday Band whipped up a storm of New Orleans classic funk and blues, accompanied by the undeniable Edna Love. And today the wind has taken a break from whipping through the streets of San Francisco, luring us outside in shorts and skinny cardis. I picked up food at Tu Lan (Those imperial rolls! I could live off those.) and headed out to the Legion of Honor. I wasn’t sure why as I wasn’t really in the mood for classical art, but the idea had kept surfacing over the past week so clearly I was supposed to go. This is the sort of reasoning I do now, after a month out here, where it’s not just me making the decisions but a city that seems to never let me down. And this time … the Legion of Honor is a beautiful building with a neat collection of European art, including some great works by Auguste Rodin. But the reward for going all the way out to Ocean Beach came once I decided to hike out to Land’s End. Standing out by the Legion I could see the little lighthouse, down in the distance, and encouraged by the novelty of my twinge-less ankle I started climbing. The labyrinth I had in mind is by Mile Rock Beach, built in stone where the peninsula reaches the farthest into the ocean. In the spirit of my reconnected hippie roots I walked through the maze to the centre, sitting down in the middle to the most spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was deep red against the blue sky today, and I don’t know what it was that happened next but it felt like magic.
“Let me just wrap this up by telling you a little something about magic. Everything in my life up to this point I created with my mind. I pre-visioned it, and now here I am, living in the painting that I drew with my mind’s eye. Everything is going to plan, and I’m pleased. I created it with my head, and then with my hands, feet and mouth. There’s nothing magic about magic.” [Molly Laich wrote this, but I wish it had been me.]
I’m leaving San Francisco today. My month of magical thinking is coming to an end, and I was hoping I’d feel like going home by this point but I really don’t. I hear summer has finally come to London though, which is a blessed relief, but I have caught a travel bug big time and oooooh. I never thought I wanted to go off on my own before, and as a card-carrying introvert I never thought I’d enjoy talking to strangers and meeting new people as much as I do now. Maybe it’s this city, these “49 square miles surrounded by reality”, that’s working their spell on me. London has such a sassy way about it, it’s so sharp and cool, and this place is anything but. I have loved being in a city where you can reach out and dream a little, where people believe in a little magic and when you say that you do, what you get in return is a knowing nod.
Some things I will change once I get home:
* I will do yoga, twice a week. This is the most important thing, and I believe the key to everything else.
* One day a week I will work exclusively at steering my work in the direction I want it to go.
* I’m putting in place a few routines to deal with stuff that’s boring, such as timekeeping, cooking, cleaning and washing my hair, so I can stop fussing about it.
* I’m taking some of this city’s beautiful spirit home with me. San Francisco gave me a fantastic experience, just when I needed it. And as you get what you give, I’m hoping that London will provide for me too, if i let it. The triangle inked into my arm is just in my line of sight.
… I am on the airplane now, after a last coffee at Caffe Trieste, a last sandwich from Molinari’s, a last trek up Ina Coolbrith Park and even one last free ride on the cable car back to the hostel. I walked quickly to the Bart station, thinking that I have to leave now before I start to cry. In this endeavour I’m afraid I failed. I was the last person to board the flight, running down the corridor as I heard them cancel the bag removal order, and then to twist the knife, the plane did the most spectacular low fly-by over the cloudless San Francisco peninsula before we headed east. This month could not have been more perfect if I had dreamt it up. I’ll be back soon, but I make no guarantee that I’ll be able to leave again. San Francisco: if you want me, I’m yours.
Bird of paradise
Tien Hau is the oldest Chinese temple in the US, built in 1852. It is located on the top floor of what looks like a residential building in a Chinatown alley, and this is not a place to sit in quiet contemplation. This is a working temple, where busy ladies sit along the wall folding paper, which visitors buy to burn in the fireplace. The ceiling is covered in red and gold lanterns, with dangling messages attached, while every surface is covered in icons and incense. The smoke fills the temple before escaping out the open door, taking the prayers along with it.
You can’t stand on a corner looking contemplative for long in this city before someone asks if they can help you, or alternatively, if you can help them. In Chinatown, an old man who saw me standing on the curb asked if I was looking for somewhere to eat, and when I said yes he offered to show me somewhere. He thought I was brave to come to San Francisco alone, but he came here alone once too, from Hong Kong. “This city gives you wings,” he said, as we walked up to a little restaurant on Stockton. He used to be an engineer, then an English teacher, and now he teaches philosophy and theology in two languages; “Oh if I had kept diaries I’d be famous,” he said, cracking up. He pointed me to a seat in the restaurant and came back with a plate of food for me, and as I ate we talked about books and languages. I asked if he had a family but he has other priorities: “For 31 years I have not held a lady’s hand. I like to be in the library, but I would come home and she would ask, are you married to me or to the books?” He leaned forward, his eyes lighting up: “I like ideas.” The trouble with people is that we all come from such different places, he said: “You are the kite, they are tugging at the string. They have to work hard to keep up with you.”
I think it’s called synchronicity, this feeling. That’s what Ely said as I was going on about how everything seems to be happening faster, like when you are on a bike and it’s soaring downhill and you feel completely in control, and the lights turn green when you want them to and everything just flows. We were having food at Burma Superstar in the Richmond last night, arriving at pensioners’ dinnertime in order to beat the crowds that invariably form outside, swooning over the tea leaf salad, the mint chicken, the beef curry. It’s manna from heaven, this place. That tea leaf salad! I have no words to describe what goes on on that plate, just that it came from the earth and has been touched by magic. But the synchronicity. Usually when I feel like things are speeding up it’s not a good thing, as I’ll be constantly scrambling to catch up, but now … maybe it’s because I’m in full holiday mode, having officially given up on doing any work until I get home, meaning I have nothing to do other than to walk around and ponder these things. I’m a little amazed at this holiday feeling, even though it was sort of the plan, but it’s been so long since I’ve thought about other things than work that I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be able to put it away. But as they say, a little freedom is a dangerous thing. I’m in Maxfield’s House of Caffeine again, by way of Dolores Park, about to go over to Yoga Tree in Castro for another vinyasa class. Happiness is a sunny day. But right now all I can think about is how I want to go on the road, on and on, because a month is just enough to show me a flash of what it could be like. I never thought I wanted to go travelling on my own, but now, as I’m plugged in and the impulses come thick and fast, the thought has taken root.
Yellow, blue and international orange
It seems I am heading into full wind-down mode. “Sitting on the dock of the Bay, watching the tide roll away,” that sort of thing. A great many good songs are turning out to be about San Francisco. Today went by in a big, sunny shrug: another jeans-clad meeting in the morning, pottering about downtown, and then drinks with Kasey from Oklahoma at the Owl Tree. This city gets cold when the sun goes down, but it warms up into the evening, which tonight was all rooftops, stars and sliver moon.
“But since I am neither a camera eye nor much given to writing pieces which do not interest me, whatever I do write reflects, sometimes gratuitously, how I feel.” … I’ve been reading my Joan Didion book after carrying it around with me for over a week meaning to get around to it, but this city has had me so distracted, so charmed. She is such a beautiful writer, though. I hope that reading her will make me better, by osmosis or some such thing. I’m in the Mission again, which is where I keep feeling like going, slouched into a sofa at Ritual Coffee Roasters. My afternoon beer, in the shape of a local brew called Fat Tyre, is sinking me into the ground, but I feel oddly connected, if that’s the right word. My new triangle, nestled into the crook of my left elbow, is slowly losing its inky crust, becoming a part of me. I feel the way about this tattoo as Martin Amis did about the title of his book ‘London Fields’: “There are two kinds of titles - two grades, two orders. The first kind of title decides on a name of something that is already there. The second kind of title is present all along; it lives and breathes, or it tries, on every page. … [This] is the second kind of title.” Most of my tattoos are like the first kind, as they represent something that has already happened. Even if they didn’t at the time, they do so now. Maybe the triangle will slip into the past too, somewhere down the line, when I’ll be absent-mindedly fingering a new shape, cooing over its meaning. But for now the triangle is very much happening: the climb, the push, the reach; not what I can get, but what I want.
The weather is the same every day: a windy sun, coating the city in yellow and blue haze. My eyes seem to be lightening, but I think it’s just my hair changing from the sun. Time is blurring as I am slowing down, leaning into it, but at the same time I feel so aware. I went to Sightglass Coffee in SoMa, which is hands down the most beautiful coffee shop I have ever seen. At Yoga Tree in Hayes Valley I stuttered through a hatha flow class, jittery from the caffeine, but it still left me in better shape than it found me. I am cultivating an addiction. And speaking of which … I went with Ely, who is passing through San Francisco before going to live in Canada, out to the Marina in the evening, to witness the birthday celebration of everybody’s favourite landmark. The fireworks soared across the span, raining white stars into the bay, before the sky exploded into orange to celebrate 75 years for the Golden Gate Bridge. And even now, hours later, I can feel it in my bones, just how much I love this city.
One day, if I do go to heaven, I’ll look around and say: “It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco”
Oooh I am very much in love this city today. It’s sunny, I’m slouching around in shorts and everywhere I go is playing such good music. The brat kicked off a bit this morning about having its serene little world disrupted by the influence of other people, but what can I say; after twenty days of virtual solitude I am reassured to discovered I am a social creature after all.
As I was waiting for my class to start at Yoga Tree I realised I’ve been away from yoga for three years. That is an embarrassingly long time to be meaning to get around to something. Jeremi with an i ran a hardcore little vinyasa session, which the hilly peninsula has left me capable of following but still has me horrified at how inflexible I’ve become. Yoga Tree runs dozens of classes a day all over this paradise city, and I’ve pre-paid two more in order to try and nail down a habit before I go home. I have a strong feeling that yoga is the key to a lot of things for me right now, not just for the sake of some calm in what I have realised to be an insanely crowded London, but also because it’s really hit home how my previous lack of fitness was making me tired. I was stuck in winter, cardigans pulled tight, moving slowly. This city makes me want to be good to myself.
Down on 24th Street the murals come thick and fast in the so-called El Corazon de la Misione. There is so much colour in this city, especially down in the Mission. Now I’m at Ritual Coffee Roasters on Valencia Street, another contender for the prototype of the freelancing world. I’ve got a bag from La Taqueria by my feet, and it’s still sunny outside at 7.30pm. … After a couple of weeks here I wondered if I was beginning to wear out the reasons I keep wanting to come back to San Francisco, whether it belonged to a younger version of myself. But now I know that what I needed to do was to peel off another layer of the onion, to get more engaged with things, take part and get to know people. Now a new San Francisco is happening to me, it has the same flavour as before but it’s fresh and new. I know what it is, this feeling, because I have fallen in love with a city before. I know that it is too late to stop it and I have no choice; it will happen all over again. I will leave my heart in San Francisco.
On Jessie Street
One of my favourite things about this trip has been that there has been no rushing. A few times I’ve had meetings or departure times, but mostly I have been free to doodle along at my own pace, no need to make any decisions or compromises. I didn’t realise before how much I hate to rush, and how much I childishly rebel against it. So I’ve always thought I was naturally a bit lazy but here, with no agenda, I run around like … like a person who runs around. And I’m starting to hit the part where I start thinking of what I want to change when I get home. As far as I can tell yet, this time it’s about being deliberate; doing things because I want to and not because I think I should. Oh and going back to yoga, for good this time. So say we all.
Other things from yesterday:
* The Pinecrest Diner, with Ornella after the burlesque show. This is a 24-hour establishment with blond wood, low light and padded booths, very Nighthawks at the Diner. We ate American food at midnight and now it’s on my hips.
* The Japanese Tea Garden in the Golden Gate Park. I like this place, with the bonsai trees, the pagodas, brown rice tea and mochi, and the big Buddha.
* The Columbarium. This little stately home for cremated remains was built in 1898 in what is now a quiet residential area. It is full of stories in a way a cemetery will never be. The round building, painted in purples and greys, has four floors of niches for the dead and their favourite belongings, complete with messages from (and sometimes dedicated room for) those who are still alive. Photos, stuffed toys, trinkets, a passport, a teapot, Pride flags, masonic crests, flowers, letters: “Jeannette, you never have to worry about leaving San Francisco! Love, Michael” It’s remarkable, but I’m not sure I like this trinket-laden approach to the great beyond. I don’t think it’s very … European. But I guess it’s up to each of us.
* At Blue Bottle on Jessie Street in SoMa, drinking my first glass of cold-brewed iced coffee. I’m not sure it’s any better than hot-brewed on ice, but it’s definitely more caffeiney. I’m writing this at 5pm and it’s basically all I’ve done today. Except that I spent an hour at the Spic’n Span launderette, and now the sky is blue blue blue. I hear the weather in London has been rubbish pretty much the whole time I’ve been away, and I am so grateful I didn’t have to deal with that. It would have been lacking in grace. Speaking of which, I found a picture taken of me just before I left the UK, and I look grey. A certain summer child really needed the light. … I’m grateful for that too.
* John Irving, literary legend, was interviewed by Michael Krasny on the stage of the Herbst Theatre on Tuesday night. And if anything’s going to make me want to read long stories again it’s going to be John Irving. In One Person is his 13th novel, and I really look forward to it as it sounds excellent. Irving always starts his books with the final sentence, and while he doesn’t like talking much about his current projects he told us the ending of his next book: “Not every collision course comes as a surprise.” Irving speaks like he writes: he’s long-winded, opinionated, hugely intelligent, and funny in unexpected ways. He wrote his first four novels part time, and he said he found it really hard to make the transition to full time author when he was finally able to do so financially. His thoughts would wander after three hours of writing, but eventually he learned how to write for eight hours a day. He didn’t say how, so maybe it’s the purview of geniuses. But I am hopeful.
* And now it’s tomorrow - Day 21 - and hostel change again, I’m in Starbucks waiting for check-in to open, and then Ornella and I will go to Tu Lan and then down to the Ferry Building and sit and look at the Bay Bridge. I’m listening to Jack White’s Blunderbuss, which continues to blow my mind, increasingly so, with every new track. On and on and on.
“We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost - not necessarily in that order.” [John Irving, In One Person]