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San Francisco Is Beautiful

16 Aug

(And other Week 1 observations from an East Coast transplant)

Dolores Park

Last Thursday morning I hopped on a Virgin America flight and moved from Boston to San Francisco, with two suitcases of clothes, my laptop, a frisbee, the July 23 issue of The New Yorker, a Timbuk2 shoulder bag that my sister gave me, and a neon green bike helmet. 

Have you ever flown Virgin America?  It’s bliss; it’s the closest a not-rich American like me can come to feeling like they’re doing all right in life.  You walk on the plane and it’s like you’re at a spa run by Thievery Corporation.  The overhead lights are purple.  Some real chill electronic music is playing in the background, and a cool breeze is flowing from above (or below—perhaps both).  The leather seats (in coach!) are comfortable, the leg room is spacious, the red pocket (which includes an inner mesh bag) is perfect for holding a magazine and a Moleskine and a water bottle, the latch on the tray table works perfectly, even the little red puke bag is cute.  By the time they play that wonderful animated safety video (“In the .0001% chance that you don’t know how to put on a seatbelt…”), everyone on the plane looks like they just got a massage.

The purple lights dim, and it’s time to sleep—or use the sauna— your choice.  I sleep, and when I wake up I read Junot Díaz’ piece The Cheater’s Guide To Love, which makes me feel slightly nervous about being single while all my friends are getting engaged and married, but his line, “When winter rolls in, a part of you fears that you’ll fold—Boston winters are on some terrorism shit—but you need the activity more than anything, so you keep at it…,” reaffirms my decision to move to California.  Junot Díaz is raw, brutal, and real; his prose oscillates between the casual and the prolific so naturally, so easily, that the conversation you just had at the bar with your boy, the conversation on the street between two nobodys, instantly becomes poetry. 

Then the pilot gets on the mic and says, “We’re about 30 minutes early as we make our descent into the San Francisco area.  That’s how we roll here at Virgin America.”  Indeed.  And I’m in California. 

People here are so nice, everyone is happy in San Francisco.

The first thing I notice about SF is that everyone here is so nice, so happy to be here, so happy to be alive.  Now, to be fair, I’m coming from spending the most of the previous 29 years of my life living on the East Coast, so a happiness comparison may be unfair. 

First, the Virgin America flight attendant strikes up a conversation with me as we’re making our descent, welcomes me to the Bay, and says “you’ve finally seen the light my friend, you’re gonna love it here!”  Then, when I’m getting my bags at baggage claim, a very attractive young woman strikes up a conversation with me, welcomes me to paradise, and offers to watch my bags while I check to see if my friend Zeb is there to pick me up.  When Zeb arrives he gives me a huge hug, and I throw my arms up in the air, kiss the sky, and scream “I LIVE IN SAN FRANCISCO!” and another group of three (attractive) women give a rousing applause and respond, “Welcome, welcome to San Francisco!”  What is this, a fairy tale?  Have I died and gone to heaven?  (Yes.)

Usually, when I land at Logan Airport in Boston, I am greeted by a bitter bus driver yelling, “Get the fuck on the bus kid!  Next staaaap, South Station!  I didn’t have my ahhhh Dunkin ahhhh Donuts coffee this morning, and the Red Sox have lost three in a row, go fuck yaself!”  No such harshness in SF, only love. 

I never know what to wear.

Fog on the San Francisco Bay Trail

Weird does not even begin describe the weather in San Francisco.  Microclimates = what the fuck.  When I got off the plane at SFO wearing jeans and a t-shirt, I wished I had worn my cut-off shorts because it was 75 degrees and sunny, absolutely perfect weather.  Then, Zeb drove me up to Twin Peaks to check out the view of the city and the wind was brutal and I was like dammit, where’s my flannel shirt?  An hour later, we were sitting in the sun on a bench in Golden Gate Park and I was hot again and had to roll up my jeans. 

When we got back to my house in NoPA, the fog started to roll in and it felt like a storm was coming and I had to bust out my hoodie and slippers, my body was freezing.  Then, the next morning I had coffee sitting in the warm California sun, and it was once again, 75 degrees and sunny with a breeze.  But, sure enough, later that afternoon, the fog rolled in and I put on my fleece again.  So, yes, as the San Franciscans say:  always bring a jacket with you, always. 

San Francisco is beautiful.

Alamo Square Park

If anything, the constantly changing weather only increases the natural beauty of this city.  To watch the morning fog fade away to bright blue sky, on my morning run in the wild jungle that is Golden Gate Park, is a joy.  There is beauty everywhere you look (everywhere you look): the painted Victorians, the palm trees, the eucalyptus trees, laying out in the hot Mission sun starting at the city from Dolores Park, the fog obscuring all but the bottom third of the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field, the bikers zooming through the Panhandle, smiles on the faces of couples spending Sunday morning at Thorough Bread & Pastry, the avocado in my garlic shrimp burrito at Little Chihuahua (a gringo burrito, not a real burrito, I was told, but call me a gringo, it was delicious), the piece of mint perched on top of my cup of Philz coffee (no coffee has ever given me such a rush—I nearly ran down 24th St. like a mad man after three sips), the green compost bins in front of every house on trash day, beauty is everywhere in San Francisco. 

Nobody asks “what do you do?” 

Having spent the last three years living in Washington, DC, I grew accustomed to answering the requisite, “So what do you do?”  If you ever happen to find yourself anywhere in the Dupont Circle vicinity, it may take someone less than (not joking) five seconds to ask what you do.  In fact, I once met a woman in DC who asked me for my business card before she even shook my hand, before she even got my name, as if actually even meeting me was dependent on what my job title was. 

Not so in SF.  People just say hi to you and what’s up, and through the course of talking about what neighborhood you live in or where you used to live or what you’re interested in (walking around, climbing, biking, blogging, eating good food, gardening, coding, Beck, apps) you maybe get into “what do you do,” but that’s like 15-20 minutes into the conversation.  What someone does for money does not define them or their reason for being.  People out here would much rather talk about what they care about, and so would I. 

I have no idea what to call my neighborhood.

I live two blocks North of the Panhandle, in what, according to Google, is now called “NoPA.”  However, when I told a San Franciscan that I lived in NoPA, she rolled her eyes and said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s just what bourgeois people call it since there is a delicious restaurant called NOPA and the gentrifiers don’t like saying Western Addition.”  But then when I told another local that I lived in Western Addition, they were like, “Dude, you don’t live in Western Addition, you live in NoPA.”  Another friend just told me to play it safe and say, “By the Panhandle.” 

Call it what you will, it’s amazing, I love its mellow mood, the painted houses, my wonderful roommates, the smell of eucalyptus, and that I can basically step outside and be inside Golden Gate Park.

San Franciscans take their bikes and their bike signs seriously.  (Helmets, not so much).

I knew people in SF were into bikes, but I’m not sure I realized just how obsessed they were.  Everyone has a bike.  Everyone.   And not only that, everyone knows the bike routes, and the bike signals.  Riding on The Wiggle, a bike lane marked with bright green paint, which zig-zags for a mile from near my house in NoPA to Market St., following a posse of seven random bikers, all experts who used the correct bike signals and wiggled in unison, felt so progressive, so badass, so post-climate change, that I couldn’t help but wonder if I had suddenly been teleported to The Netherlands. 

I also noticed that while my biking companions each were riding $1000+ bikes and sporting $100+ Chrome shoulder bags, only two of them were wearing bike helmets.  The East Coaster in me nearly commented:  “Excuse me, hipster biker dude.  Your bike is a lot nicer than mine and you are intense with your biker bag, and you kind of scare me when you ride so fast.  But you might want to spend $30 on a bike helmet so you don’t embarrass yourself.”

But I didn’t, best to keep things West Coast when on The Wiggle. 

Garlic shrimp burrito at Little Chihuahua

To Spain With Love

6 Jul

AND, WE’RE BACK!  My apologies for not posting in so long.  The entire What’s Up Smiley office (myself, Moleskine, dancing shoes) took a siesta from social media and spent most of June traveling around Catalonia and Andalucía, Spain, laying on the beach, drinking vino tinto, and watching the Euro Cup.  Several highlights from the trip included: 

Cap de Creus Natural Park, Catalonia. Photo by Kevin Haas.

-Driving along the Costa Brava, the rugged coast of northeast Spain, parking along the side of the road, and walking down a cliff to a desolate cove near Tossa del Mar to jump naked into cool, crystal clear green water, followed by a picnic lunch on the rocks of Penedès vino tinto, pan, tomate, queso manchego, olives, and jamón serrano so delicious my Jewish self wondered why the hell I had been avoiding ham all these years.  Turned out the cove was not so desolate, and was a featured stop on a local boat cruise, so at least fifteen people were fortunate to see three (handsome) young men enjoying themselves—that a woman snapped a photo of my pale white buttocks was reaffirming. 

 -Waking up with the sunrise after falling asleep with the stars, camping in the woods near Cap de Creus Natural Park, and reading The Hunger Games as daylight broke in our makeshift tent (which consisted of a transparent plastic paint tarp tied by rope to two trees for shelter—Katniss would have been proud), followed by a morning swim in the soothing Mediterranean Sea and breakfast on the beach (crackers, queso manchego, tangerines).

-Enjoying an evening sunset throwing a frisbee with my friend Kevin in the company of Gaudí’s tiled love seats in Parc Güell in Barcelona, only to run into a kid I grew up with that I hadn’t seen since high school—he was in town for the Sonar Music Festival and kindly put us on the guest list for his DJ set the following day.  The next night, it was two in the morning and I had been dancing on the beach for about five hours to Soul Clap, and received an invitation to attend a music festival in Budapest later this summer (no, I don’t play music at all, but my new Hungarian friends insisted I did or should and told me I had to come to Budapest in August, all expenses paid). 

-Standing in awe while drinking “cerveza birra amigo” in a plaza in Barceloneta as a baby (seriously) not more than one year-old, who five minutes after breastfeeding from his mother, proceeded to throw fire crackers several feet away from me to celebrate Festival de Sant Joan, Barcelona’s summer solstice celebration.   There were at least a half dozen moments that night when I nearly hit the deck scared shitless, having to remind myself that the constant explosions were not bombs or gunshots and I was not in a war zone or season four of The Wire, but children (and their mothers and grandmothers) were lighting off the loudest fireworks I have ever heard to celebrate the longest day of the year.  With all due respect to the Fourth of July, Sant Joan puts Independence Day to shame—with constant (literally constant) lights exploding on every block and in every plaza in the city from dusk to dawn. 

-Falling asleep under the cool afternoon shade of a palm tree in the pristinely beautiful gardens of La Alhambra in Granada, dreaming of the geometry of ancient civilization, water dripping slowly from the fountain of life, turquoise mosaics, stars and crescents, artists carving stories into arches, and endless fields of Andalusian orange trees. 

La Alhambra, Granada. Photo by Smiley.

While daydreaming in Granada, I imagined about living in a world that once was, and how we would live our lives today if today were like back then, so intricate and so precise and so enchantingly beautiful.  What would we design?  What would we build?  How would we live?

Perhaps time would move more slowly, perhaps we would move more slowly, perhaps we would pay more attention to detail, to ourselves.  Often on my trip, whether at La Alhambra or La Sagrada Familia, I noticed American (and Chinese) tour groups being shuffled, hastily, from photo op to photo op.  I constantly wondered why they were moving so fast.   Where were they going next? There is no “next” after La Alhambra, that’s it.  It’s the encore.  It’s perfection. 

These people were not even taking composed or thoughtful pictures; they were being shuttled from guide book highlight to guide book highlight so quickly that I wouldn’t be surprised if most of their photos were blurry, and had the tour guide or other random tourists in the foreground.  “Honey, this is La Sagrada Familia.  Antoni Gaudí started working on it 1883 and they are still working on finishing it and will be for at least another fifteen years—and we were there for about twenty-five minutes, and here is a photo of some overweight dude named Jack (or was his name Barry?) wearing a hideous ‘NASCAR’ T-shirt, completely blocking Gaudí’s sun-kissed stained glass windows.” 

I think if he were around today, Gaudí, or the 14th century builders of La Alhambra, might tell us to slow down and stop moving so quickly.  Stop looking at your phone.  Turn off your phone.  Be quiet.  Be still.  Breathe.  Listen.  Listen to the arched walls of this place, listen to the space and the light and the math and the design and the wisdom and the greatness and the blue blending with the orange connecting with the green intersecting with the star with the water with the trees.  Listen to yourself. 

Travel quenches a thirst for life that nothing else can provide.  It allows you to experience ancient civilizations and beautiful landscapes for the first time, as if you were the only person on the earth, as if the entire universe existed just for your pleasure.  Hopefully I can create travel’s powerful sensations of slowing down, being present, living in the moment, listening to my surroundings, and listening to myself, in the course of my day-to-day life back in the brutally-fast-moving Estados Unidos.  Or maybe I’ll just move to Granada, eat free tapas, and daydream under the palm trees until the polar ice caps melt or the World Cup begins.  

Mosaic in La Alhambra. Photo by Smiley

 

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