Sunday, January 18, 2009
It’s been nine months since I was last in San Francisco. That’s the longest I’ve ever been away from the City by the Bay.
While I’ve done my fair share of traveling in the interim, there’s nothing quite like landing at SFO. That’s not least because the runway goes right out into the water and I always feel like the 747 is going to magically grow pontoons and glide right into the bay. But more than that, I love landing at SFO because it’s home. The golden hills in the distance, the beautiful and highly underrated Bay Bridge to the east, and the city skyline all start to pull at my heart, reminding me that all this time I had left it in San Francisco.
As the plane descends, I realize that I even miss the ugly “South San Francisco the Industrial City” sign that’s so big it can be seen from ten thousand feet up. And the B of A building, where I spent two long years chained to a desk on the 44th floor. And the Port of Oakland, that ugly mass of buildings on the other side of the bay that makes driving across the Bay Bridge less inspiring than driving across its International Orange rival to the north. It’s good to be home.
The purpose of my journey home was to attend a wedding of two friends from my boyfriend’s kickball team (yes, you read that right), but I was lucky enough to stay in San Francisco for a week. Before I tell my tale, though, I have to make a quick digression in order to honor my current home city, London. I have to talk about the weather.
I always thought that San Francisco’s terrible weather was the city’s worst kept secret. The torrential rains in winter, the thick fog in summer, and Autumn, that terrible tease, with its few short weeks of warmth that give way to chilly November nights. Speaking of nights, no matter how warm it gets during the day, the temperature drops 20 degrees every night, such that tank-top-and-skirt weather becomes snow-boot-and-North-Face-parka weather in the span of about 15 minutes. Worse yet, the temperature a mile in any direction from our little peninsula is guaranteed to be 20 degrees warmer on any given day. It’s so extreme that my mother, who lives just 30 minutes south of the city, has to call me to ask what kind of clothing she should wear when she comes to visit.
But I was wrong about non-San Franciscans knowing this strange quirk about my city. Despite the famous claim that “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” Londoners always seem to think that I was crazy to leave “sunny” San Francisco to move to rainy London. Not so.
Well, not until this week. Maybe the fates were doing me a favor after making me endure the coldest weather London has seen in centuries the day before I left. Or maybe it was just pure luck. But whatever it was, I was fortunate enough to enjoy 75+ degree weather (non-Fahrenheit people, that’s 24+ C) every day that I was there. Now that’s what I call a nice welcome home.
Ok, enough with the weather talk.
This being my first trip to San Francisco in nine months, everything in the city seemed new to me. And not just in the sense of seeing it for the first time. I really mean new. New restaurants, new shops, new friends, new buildings downtown.
The night I arrived I stayed true to a vow I made to eat Mexican food or sushi for every meal that I was home. My friend picked me up from the airport and we had fish tacos at Pacific Catch, my favorite hole-in-the-wall in the Marina. Afterwards, we went to The Grove, my favorite coffee shop. I walked inside to discover that they had completely remodeled the interior. It was all new.
The next morning I discovered that it wasn’t just I that saw new things. My family dog—the giant 90 lb beast that he is—sniffed at me disinterestedly as if I were a new acquaintance instead of an old friend. I need to come home more often.
Later that day I went to the dentist. (Yes, I wait until I go home to go to the dentist. You don’t have to watch Austin Powers to know why.) My dentist is the most high-tech human being on the planet, and there’s always something new in his office. The first time I laid eyes on a CD was in his office, and the first time I experienced the thrill of a new electronic plaque-removal device was in that same place. Good-bye old scraper thing; hello whizzing, screeching, water-gushing, teeth cleaning gizmo!
The new device was thankfully the only new thing I discovered at the dentist (no cavities for this lady!), but he still made sure to tell me I was staining my teeth from drinking too much tea. And to think I barely even drink a fifth of the “moderate” five cups a day recommended on the PG Tips box!
That evening I went to a party at a family friend’s house to watch the Florida v. Oklahoma game. I love American football, but I haven’t watched a single game since I moved to London. The whole season was almost over, and the rankings and players were all new to me. Luckily, the fresh Dungeness crab we had for dinner was my old favorite. Love that California crab.
The next day my boyfriend and I set out for wine country. We just can’t go home without making a trip up to that beautiful region. We skipped uber-touristy Napa and grabbed some tacos al pastor for lunch at a taqueria in Sonoma (so far I had eaten Mexican food for all but one meal!) on our way up to Healdsburg. We didn’t really have a plan, so we drove around and found three new wineries to try.
Our first stop was Twomey, where the friendly staff gave us extra tastes of all the wines. We then went to De La Montanya, where we decided that the owner, who photographs female members of his wine club (as well as his wife) in boudoir attire for the labels of many of the bottles, was most definitely an amateur pornographer.
After that we headed up to Jordan, a huge fortress-like estate on the top of a hill overlooking the valley. The staff looked at us like we were day laborers when we showed up without an appointment. However, as the tasting room was all but deserted (January isn’t exactly the high season, especially in a recession), they were more than happy to take our money and give us a sip of two of their wines. We loved the Cab, and got a bottle to take home with us.
Dinner that night was nothing new, but as Zushi Puzzle serves up the best sushi on the planet, I have to mention it anyway. From live scallop to Kobe beef, from the giant Sales Force Roll to the butterfish-smothered Butterface Roll, we reveled in the amazing fruits of Chef Roger’s labor and wondered why we even bother eating sushi in London.
Saturday was wedding day. When normal people know that they have to fit into a dress later in the day, they usually don’t eat much earlier in the day. My plan to act accordingly was foiled when I went on a sample-binge at the Ferry Plaza Famers’ Market, met a friend for orange cinnamon French toast at Ella’s, then subsequently ran into my boyfriend, who was on his way to Ocean Taqueria, our favorite Mexican place in San Francisco.
My regular stomach was stuffed to the gills, so I found some spare capacity in my “dessert stomach” and devoured half of my boyfriend’s giant taco. Good thing my dress had a loose-fitting waist. Too bad I had a terrible stomach ache for the rest of the afternoon. I think I have a serious gluttony problem. Living in London—a city not known for having the best food—is probably the best thing I’ve ever done for my health.
The wedding was another new experience for me. I had driven by St. Dominic’s church a million times before, but had never been inside. It was a beautiful church for an equally beautiful wedding. Afterwards, we went to the Irish Cultural Center out in the Sunset for the reception. Another new place. It was great to catch up with old friends, make some new ones, and dance until jet lag wouldn’t let me dance any longer.
On Sunday my boyfriend left town, so I had some new found free time on my hands. I went to a post-wedding brunch, had lemonade (too hot for tea!) with a former co-worker at the Grove in Pac Heights, and then had girls’ night with a childhood friend.
Monday morning my mother came to visit and we went to the newly re-opened Academy of Sciences, where we saw everything from an albino alligator named Claude to a mock-rainforest to the new planetarium. It was definitely an improvement on the old aquarium they had there when I was a kid.
I met another former co-worker for lunch at Mixt Greens in the Financial District (they don’t have any of my favorite salads anymore!), who told me that there are so many new people, teams, and procedures in our group at Goldman that I would barely recognize the place. It was hard to believe that so much had changed in two and a half years.
For dinner I got back on track with my Mexican food vow, and met a friend at Mamacita in the Marina for margaritas, guacamole, and some good chilaquiles. She told me lots of new news about friends of ours from childhood and caught me up on her new job.
Tuesday I met a friend from Brown for lunch at Zuni Cafe, one of my favorite San Francisco establishments. We caught up on alumni news and I found out that he’s working at a startup with a friend of mine. Small world. After lunch I took a quick stroll through Hayes Valley—nothing too new there—before heading to the de Young Museum to see the new Yves Saint Laurent exhibition.
That night I went to the third general meeting of the year of the Spinsters of San Francisco, an organization that I’m an inactive member of but still try to stay connected to. I was surprised to see how few faces I recognized, but had a great time meeting new people and going out for drinks at Le Club and Laiola afterwards.
On Wednesday I had an early-ish lunch with two of my former co-workers from my hedge fund days. We caught up over sandwiches at Blue Barn Gourmet, a little restaurant that was new right when I left San Francisco last year. We discussed the future (or lack thereof) of the hedge fund industry and they filled me in on all the funds that had either blown up, wound down, or just outright closed their San Francisco offices. Thanks, credit crunch.
Wednesday afternoon my mother came up again and we went to the San Francisco Zoo, a place that I overdosed on as a child and refused to go back to for about fifteen years. But I couldn’t refuse a trip to the zoo with weather as warm as it was. To explain: the zoo is in the Antarctic micro-climate zone of San Francisco, which means that it’s foggy and freezing there even when the rest of the city gets its rare day of warmth.
The grounds and buildings had been completely re-done since I was last at the zoo, such that the whole thing seemed new. It was fun to see a lot of the animals I had just seen in Namibia and South Africa, as well as some lemurs from Madagascar and tigers from India (minus the one that was killed last year after it mauled a visitor that was suspected of antagonizing it).
In the late afternoon I headed over to Berkeley to have bubble tea with another friend from Brown who recently moved back from London and started a new job that week. Our lives have been strangely intertwined since we graduated from college, and we somehow manage to meet up serendipitously whenever we travel through one another’s home cities.
Back in San Francisco, I met up with another friend for dinner. This time we were trying a truly new place: La Mar Cebicheria Peruana. I had read in Conde Nast Traveller that it was just opened by an up-and-coming Peruvian chef and that the food was world-class. I had to try it.
My friend and I spent so much time talking that the waiter had to come back three times before we even ordered wine, which was a Monterey Pinot that was surprisingly good. The server said it was their sommelier’s own blend.
When we finally ordered food, we got two cebiche dishes to start, one halibut with onions and pepper, the other tuna with avocado and cucumber. Both were excellent. We were less impressed with our main courses. My friend ordered lamb at the suggestion of our server and didn’t care for the giant mass of meat they brought to the table. I ordered Alaskan Halibut on a bed of yucca. The fish was dry and the yucca bland. We should have stuck with the cebiches.
Thursday morning I packed my bags and headed to my mother’s house to drop off her car, go for a walk, and have one last bite of Mexican food before returning to London. As my plane lifted off, I waved good-bye to San Francisco, to the golden hills and green waters of the Bay, to my friends and family, and to my home. Hopefully it won’t take another nine months for me to make my way back for a visit; if it does, I’m afraid the city will seem so new that I’ll have trouble recognizing it.