Sunday, September 27, 2015

We’re not in San Fran anymore

Honestly. I can’t decide if I’m busily occupied or overwhelmed with busy-ness. But blogging hasn’t even registered on my “To Do” list for, like, months. I’ve had a hard enough time fitting paid writing into my schedule, I wasn’t even remotely interested in writing “for fun.”

Except that I’ve now blown two of my rare writing days doing very little, and finally realized I don’t know what to write. I think this is what they call writer’s block. I’ve never had it so bad.

So, to somehow make up for it, or maybe just to get some words down, I’ll unroll the ol’ blog page and see what falls out of my brain.

It seem only appropriate, though it’s three months later, to share the highlights from the remainder of our trip West. These will appear in non-chronological order, and will depend entirely on what sparks my memory and what photos I like enough to share.

There was a half-day on Alcatraz, which was more interesting than I’d expected, if only for the ferry ride across the beautiful bay.



Selfie time!


I had no idea there were gardens there, which have been maintained and restored. Made for pretty pictures.



Also, nobody tells you most of the place smells like bird guano in the summer heat. Birds, birds, everywhere.




Requisite shot inside the cell block.

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There was our day trip down the coast to Monterey, to visit the aquarium, a bucket-lister for me!


Miss Chef has a thing for sea otters, so that was one of the first exhibits we stopped at.



Having visited many an aquarium, including the amazing 6-million gallon tank at the newer Georgia Aquarium, I was a little underwhelmed at how typical the exhibits were. And then I stopped at the kelp forest exhibit. I think my jaw may have dropped, and I know I got a little teary-eyed from utter delight.


This is a fraction the size of that Georgia tank, but the huge strands of kelp swaying in the artificial waves and the natural schooling patterns of the fish make you feel like you are standing on the floor of the bay. I was surprised to remember I was perfectly dry and not in a submersible or something. Amazing. I came back again at the end of our visit, just to soak in a few more minutes of sheer bliss.

We may or may not have spent a lot of money in the gift shop there. Miss Chef does have an astounding number of sea otter themed shirts now, though.

For our foodie friends back home, one of the biggest highlights was our day in Napa Valley and our evening at the French Laundry.


Entrance and cellars to Schramsberg, one of the oldest wineries in the valley. Those bottles are stacked about 14 rows deep, if I remember correctly.


Our tasting room was very dramatic. And delicious.




We only visited 4 wineries, but managed to end up with 14 bottles plus two memberships in wine clubs.


Sending those bottles home in climate-controlled shipping was so prohibitively expensive we ended up buying the packaging and checking them as additional luggage. Every bottle made it safely home.

That afternoon we took a short nap in order to stay awake through our dinner at the French Laundry that night. Our reservations were at 9:15! When we arrived, we had to wait about 10 minutes in the courtyard, which was no hardship.


It’s hard to describe the experience of dining in America’s most famous restaurant. I was surprised the menu wasn’t more innovative, but Thomas Keller is interested in doing pure, quality food grown nearby, rather than pushing the envelope. The service was impeccable, and not in any way intimidating. The servers were warm, though professional, and took care of every detail with poise. One detail: when you leave the table for the bathroom, they don’t just fold your napkin, they bring you an entirely new one. Laundry, indeed.

Something about the place keeps you from pulling your phone out to photograph every dish, though you know your Facebook friends are dying to hear how dinner went. Too bad for them. I took only two pictures inside.


This is what I posted for my Facebook friends. You get to keep the laundry pin that comes with your napkin, and it becomes kind of a talisman for Those Who Have Been.



I stared at one of these across the room for an hour or two before figuring out these weren’t stylized initials or Russian characters. They are laundry instruction symbols! Get it? (Machine wash, no bleach, iron)

We didn’t leave until after 1 am. Along with copies of the menu, we also got some goodies to take home.


So long Napa, you were very good to us.

At some point, we also had dinner at Chez Panisse, where Alice Waters kick-started the whole local-food movement, way back in the 70s. Well, that’s Berkeley for you, I guess.


That was one of our better meals—totally classic French-inspired. Old school, but still fresh and interesting. I also broke the world’s record for painful bladder stretching on the way back via Bart. Half a bottle of wine plus lots of water will do that to you.


With all the amazing food we ate and places we visited, many people asked upon my return what my favorite part was. The answer has to be, just about everything. California is so different from everywhere else I’ve been, I loved getting a feel for a completely novel landscape and climate.




Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in midday fog, from Alcatraz ferry


Huge fields of strawberries and artichokes on the way to Monterey.


Sonoma Valley, which looked more like wine country than Napa Valley.

I was also delighted to forge a stronger connection with my family out there, getting to know my aunt and uncle as an adult, meeting one cousin for the first time, and hearing some old family stories from a different point of view.

As for the most memorable thing I ate? I think that would have to go to the pain au chocolat from Tartine Bakery.



As usual, the end of the trip arrived before we were ready for it. I took a few last shots from the plane as we headed away from the sun, back to the eastern side of the continent.


Some mountain or something, probably east of San Francisco. Notice how dry the land is.

And that, my friends, is that. Now it’s fall in North Carolina, and we’re already planning our annual mountain getaway next month. In between, lots of work, volunteering, special events and full schedules. One of these days I may catch up with myself. In the meantime, hope y’all enjoyed this vicarious vacation. I know I did, just now.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

San Francisco Day 2

Looking at my photos, I have to admit this day was mostly about food. But in our defense, it was Saturday, and that always means farmers market morning, even on vacation! We had been admonished by foodie friends not to miss the one at the Ferry Plaza, so off we went.

Since one of my multiple jobs back home is with a small bakery, I had to check out the variety offered here. In summary, there was a lot of it.



The seasons are different here than in North Carolina, but there are also some crops I’ve never seen at our markets back home any time of the year.



Artichokes are a type of thistle, and I guess this is what happens when you don’t harvest them in time.



After working our way through the whole place, we took a long walk up to Fisherman’s Wharf, made stop in a cheesy souvenir shop, then we met up with my older cousin. He had offered to drive us around a bit, so our first point of order was a short trip across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.



And while I hate photos of myself, and this isn’t an especially good one of either of us, here’s proof that we were there. Also, if you look closely you can see evidence of the excellent sunburn I was working on that day.



After our photo op, Miss Chef was dying for a good burrito in the Mission District, and my cousin had a favorite dive to take us, called El Farolito. There was a short line, but we food fanatics enjoyed the show while we waited. (This is where the video was supposed to go, but YouTube isn’t cooperating, so you just get a still photo.)


For the rest of the afternoon we walked a bit around the neighborhood and down Valencia Blvd, then eventually drove home to change for dinner and pick up a couple of other diners. Our destination tonight was Zuni Café, right on Market Street.


Now this was the day after the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, and the beginning of San Francisco’s Pride celebration, so along the way we saw lots of rainbow accessories, pink tutus (on both sexes), and the occasional body paint in lieu of actual clothing. All in good fun, if often accompanied by a slurred word here or a stumbling gait there. Anyway, I thought the hostess stand at the restaurant was charming.


As to the food, we had also been admonished to absolutely order the roasted chicken, which is cooked and served atop fresh, schmaltz-soaked bread. One order is supposed to serve two, so four of us got two orders. Which (to skip ahead a bit) fed the family for the next several days. Loooots of leftovers.


And here’s the happy dinner gang: me, Miss Chef, my younger cousin who I’d met for the first time an hour before this photo was taken, my older cousin and his girlfriend. And my ripening sunburn.

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The remainder of the evening’s entertainment came in the form of the streams of revelers along the sidewalks as we got stuck in traffic. More tutus and body paint, more stumbling gaits, but all in good cheer. I was just glad I wasn’t driving!

I’m breaking this down into daily segments, so if you want even more, here’s Day 1.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

San Francisco Day 1

For Big Trip 2, we were gone 10 days: 2 days of travel and 8 days of adventures. I took 364 pictures. We ate at…um, a lot of notable restaurants, including Chez Panisse and the French Laundry. Needless to say, this one earned the right to be called a Big Trip.

So let the fun begin.

Here’s our home away from home, ie my aunt and uncle’s house on the south edge of the city.


Theirs is the yellow house on the left, at the start of a nominal slope. In the distance to the right is where you might see some of the city itself, but it turns out they live smack against the base of Mt. Davidson, one of the foggier areas of town. The character and weather in this city can change completely from one block to the next.

Our first activity of the day was to walk up that mountain, at least part way. We navigated our way on foot through charming if confusing curved and sloped streets lined with cheek-to-jowl blocks of homes. It didn’t take long for the gardener in me to go all agog at the unfamiliar flora along the way.


The impression of being in a very different natural world was confirmed as soon as we entered the footpath to the top.



We didn’t go all the way up—there was no point with all the fog—but we did find some interesting scenery all the same.




Great place for a cabin-in-the-woods horror flick, eh?

After we wended our way home, my aunt, who is Thai, took us out for some pretty authentic dim sum. The menu and ordering routine would probably have confused us without her guidance, but we ended up with a table full of interesting flavors. Which is exactly what we wanted.

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After lunch we wanted to go to the Ferry Building, so my aunt dropped us off at the most convenient underground Muni station (Muni covers underground, buses and aboveground trams; Bart is kind of like the RER in Paris, designed for suburban commuting. The famous cable cars are a separate system.) That stop happened to be at Castro, the heart of San Francisco’s gay community. And this happened to be the day after the Supreme Court made its historic decision regarding same-sex marriage. Needless to say, there was a tangible spirit of shared jubilation here.




We strolled the area for a bit, then hopped the Muni to the terminus downtown and found our way to the Ferry Building, home of the city’s biggest farmers market. This was Friday afternoon, so the real fun wouldn’t be ‘til the next morning, but there are plenty of daily vendors to peruse.




What a great slogan—to the point!



Miss Chef was mesmerized.



Of course we bought two.




There were other things to look at besides food, like this sweeping view of the Bay Bridge.



We walked a bit along the piers and got a nice view of the city skyline.



Then we cut inland and dipped our toes in Chinatown before picking up the Muni again.




This was one of the few nights we did not have fancy-pants dinner reservations, and my aunt was planning to cook a simple Thai meal for us.



One sign you might be in the kitchen of a Thai cook:



Most of the family gathered for dinner, including one of my cousins and his girlfriend.



Spicy green beans with tofu, and garlic prawns and calamari. Look at that beautiful presentation. Simple, huh?


Once again I have clogged a page with an overload of photos. So I guess I’ll do the same as our last Big Trip, and break this down day by day. Besides, it’s about bedtime here now, and I have to be at work in the morning. Oh yeah, back to reality! That’s ok, our air conditioner is on the fritz, so I’ll be happy to be in some cooled air for most of the day. Adventures never cease around here…