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Archive for February, 2010

Last Day

In just two days I grew to love San Francisco like home, so I felt sad that I had to leave the city so soon. For the last day I had left to see the areas that were right out the door, so I got out early to join the SF Guides tour around Chinatown at 10am. The SF Guides walking tours are a great chance to gain some insight on the area’s history and legends coming straight from the locals, but like anything free, they could be a hit or a miss. I joined a small group of people in Portsmouth Square where San Francisco pretty much started. For a bit I followed around an old lady, listening to her well-rehearsed monologue, but after 20 minutes,  in which we probably moved 100 meters,  I was utterly bored. And then I thought… Forget about it, I am back in China now… and I know how to do that on my own.

Even though Chinatown is tightly hemmed in between downtown and the North Tier area, there is nothing like it nearby and definitely could not compare to the Boston Chinatown. Immigrants from China would move to this part of town, and for all practical reasons continue to leave a Chinese lifestyle with its of the culture, traditions and social norms. The streets are narrow and crowded, full of a riot of Chinese signs and a myriad of small and big shops offering inexpensive but outstanding food.  Trying to stay away from the touristy Grant Street, I was navigating this labyrinth and in one of the little back streets I found a map engraved in the stones that would reveal the back alleys of the whole Chinatown. Just a few steps from it on Ross Alley was the Golden Gate fortune cookie factory and the aroma of freshly made fortune cookies drew me in. As I stepped in, I was confronted by a barrels of fortune cookies of all shape and sizes and I saw those treats being made right in front of me by the agile fingers of a few elderly Asian ladies. Continuing down Stockton St, I saw a little Chinese bakery full only with Asian people, so I knew it must be good – I had the most delicious shrimp and veggie dumplings I have ever tried there.

Walking down the Columbus Avenue, I felt the upscale Russian and Telegraph Hills hovering over me. When I finally hit Broadway, I immediately knew I was already in North Beach with its Italian restaurants and little flags waving around or painted on the flagpoles. Formerly an Italian neighorhood, it still retains tha flavor in its wonderful and authentic restaurants and architecture. I really wanted to get in the beautiful St. Peters and Paul’s church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio got married, but instead of a wedding there was a funeral coming out of the beautiful white building, so I headed straight up the Telegraph Hill. I slowly but persistently climbing up the tree-covered and very steep hill trying to get to the 210-foot Coit Tower right on top. I took the time to walk around the lobby of the tower, decorated with depression-era frescoes in the style of Diego Rivera by various artists (some even apprenticed under Rivera), before I took the elevator up those 10 floors. Gazing through the little arched windows at the top, I felt face to face with the downtown buildings, the surrounding neighborhoods and the docks at the bay. Back down on Columbus Ave, I was ready to reward myself with a nice lunch in one of the many Italian bistros, and I stopped at the Cafe DeLucchi for an amazing treat of gravy totes (tater tots smothered with country sausage gravy, cheddar cheese, scallions, poached eggs and sourdough toast)…  highly recommended.

I strolled through North Beach some more making may way to Embarcadero to take a ride on the historic F line serviced by restored old trolleys. The old school streetcar dropped me off downtown for a short shopping spree, before I made it home for the last time in the late afternoon. Only Daniel was around working on his computer, and I felt sad that I had to leave this place. I climbed up to the roof deck for the last time to enjoy the fresh air and one last view of the whole San Francisco before I packed up. Back in the guest room, there were multiple letters waving and shouting thank you from the walls to the newcomers. Writing my own letter to Tyler and the roomies, I thought that maybe next time I visit, my words will greet me from the ceiling… I really hope I come back…

Before I went to the airport I met Ryan for one last drink in the Bay. I did not wanna lug my luggage around so I stopped at the nearest hotel and kindly asked the receptionist to hold my bag for me before I headed to the Gordon Biersch Brewery. As Ryan was still not out of work, I had a headstart with their sampler while enjoying the free internet. The rest is obvious –  recent stories and long memories shared with my fellow SASser over more beer… than last pictures in the warm night under the San Francisco moon and off to the airport….

…. If you are going to… Boston…

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Day 2

I woke up and immediately felt anxious to go and explore the city again. I silently sneaked out of my bed and quickly got ready to hit the town. I started off at Nob Hill also known as Snob Hill among the locals, where the wealthy live a classic downtown lifestyle. Stony mansions or spire-like condos give an air of old San Francisco on this very tall hill revealing million-dollar views of the bay. Snapping pictures of the fancy houses, hotels, and low-rise condos, and the cars parked at 90 degree angles, I made my way to Russian Hill. I was excited to see some Russian grocery stores, maybe grab blini or pelmeni, but instead I found myself in yet another upscale residential area, that actually had nothing Russian in it.

After more ups and downs those notorious hills, I finally reached Lombard St, or the crookedest street in the world. I wondered at this engineering marvel, born out of necessity in order to reduce the hill’s natural 27% grade, which was too steep for most vehicles to climb, and was definitely not a pleasure to walk.

A few blocks away I officially entered the touristy San Francisco, the Fisherman’s Wharf, which despite its redevelopment into a major attraction 30 years ago is still home to many active fishermen and their fleets. Encompassing the northern waterfront area of San Francisco, the Wharf reveals picture worthy views of the Alcatraz island that is actually quite close to the shore. It also offers multiple shopping and dining opportunities, and I took the time to stock up on souvenirs and enjoy lunch – clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl in the Boudin Bakery. Pier 39 combines a little bit of everything and is also a home to the private floating Forbes Island restaurant which could be reached only by a boat. I stopped to enjoy the views of California sea lions that hauled out on docks of the pier and seemed not to mind the starting rain.

I cursed myself for forgetting my umbrella that I dutifully brought from Boston and for a moment considered going back to pick it up, but then I looked at the sky and with the eye of an experienced meteorologist observed the clouds that revealed to me that the rain was going to stop soon… a lucky guess I know.

I headed to Ghirardelli Square to meet with Vaida and of course enjoy a well-deserved dessert of their famous sundaes. We went in and out through the various doors to pick up more free samples 🙂 and finally settled with ice cream and coffee by the chocolate making machine where the magic brown liquid was flowing like a river. Then we walked by the Ft. Mason to the Marina – the Yuppie heaven with sunny, wide streets with charming four-storey mid-century apartment buildings. We caught a break at the Marina Green, where the neighborhood comes to fly kites, jog, sunbathe, and enjoyed a direct view of the Golden Gate Bridge where we were heading.

Tired of walking we hopped on the 28 bus just a block away from the beautiful gardens of the Palace of Fine Arts and finally headed to the Golden Gate Bridge. After a good amount of pictures, we sat down to rest and stare at this engineering marvel sticking out of the fog in bright red, before we jumped back on the bus to the Golden Gate Park. The park is configured as a rectangle, and it reminds a lot of Central park with the grid system streets around it, but apparently is 20% larger than its sister in New York. We got off somewhere in the middle part of the park and made our way through peaceful meadows, tiny glens and delicate scenery to all the museums in the eastern end. We passed by the Strawberry Hill, now an island with electrically powered waterfall and surrounded by the Stow Lake and its myriad of rowboats and pedalboats that could be rented at the boathouse, and hurried to make it to the Japanese Garden before it’s closed. It is the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States and with its tea house, beautiful small pagoda and Zen garden, reminded me of walking through the gardens of Kyoto.

Nearby was the De Young Museum, that had an amazing exhibit of native American arts. What was the highlight of the museum though is the Hamon Tower, from the top of which the glass-sheathed observation level looks down at the classic symmetry of the Music Concourse, and the undulating “green roof ” of the California Academy of Sciences. Beyond, vistas stretch above the treetops, from downtown’s skyscrapers to the Golden Gate Bridge. Tired from the day’s experiences we decided to pick up a bus home, walking by the Conservatory of Flowers, one of the world’s largest conservatories built of traditional wood and glass, and patterned after the Kew Gardens in the UK.

Hiba and I kept calling each other all day, as we wanted to meet up and walk around together, but we kept missing each other. Finally we managed to figure out the logistics, and at the end of the day while Vaida went home, I met up with Hiba and her friend in Union Square. After this very long day we all decided to indulge in espresso and amazing desserts (oh, that Tiramisu) in the modern Italian atmosphere of Café Bellini.

When I finally made it home, I once more crashed on the couch completely exhausted. By the time I caught my breath, I had to get ready for the next adventure. Vaida had been invited by other couchsurfers to some birthday party and wanted me to join her. I was a bit skeptic at first, as I was tired and was waiting for a call to meet my friend Ryan later, but at the end I gave in. Thus we found ourselves in a big warehouse in the heart of SOMA – a very funky invigorating area, full of inventive multimedia software shops and experimental theater groups. It was hard to find our host as there were ten permanent residents having their “rooms” in the warehouse +/- several longer term visitors. The party itself was fun and full of all kinds of people dancing and playing music with funky hairs or suited up and very open to make new friends… the alternative San Francisco.

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The last month has not been very good fоr my weekend nightlife or catching up on sleep. Waking up at 4.30am to go hiking two weekends in a row is really not my thing as I am anything but a morning person… and yet I woke up at 6am again last Saturday (Jan 23) dragging a small stuffed backpack, tired and with red eyes, but this time headed not to some faraway mountain but to the airport. Finally, I am on my way to San Francisco to scratch not one but two (if lucky three) facts from my 2010 list.I have always wanted to go to San Francisco as somehow I knew I’m going to love it…I just knew it. People, would describe it as the Boston of the West Coast (compared to LA being the NY) and I love Boston and good weather so the match was made. Moreover, this was the perfect trip to scratch the second fact from my list. Being the unofficial capital of couchsurfing, San Francisco was the best place for my very first CS experience staying with my host Tyler and his roommates….but more on that later…

After 6.5 hours in the airplane that I luckily slept through, I arrived at SFO, chugged a cup of coffee and with a big smile on my face that probably made me look a bit crazy (or retarded), I started my journey to the city of San Francisco, humming a familiar melody… I had exact instructions how to get there and the airport was pretty easy to navigate, so soon after I was at the train station waiting for the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). When planning my trip, I sent multiple messages to let my friends in the area get ready for my forthcoming arrival, and then while waiting for the train I started calling everyone and scheduling them in my busy itinerary.

The BART took me to Powell St and after staring for a bit at the driver who was manually rotating the cable car, I headed uphill to my final destination on Washington St. I was going through the downtown area, which was busy with people shopping on this sunny Saturday, which apparently was the first non-raining day for weeks… lucky me… I was glad to recognize Union Square on the way up Powell, as I was supposed to go back there to meet Sungyon a bit later (my former Lopez roomie, SF native, who is moving to to Paris). When I say up, Powell had a very slight slope that was not bad at all for my back bearing the load of my clothes, and I was wondering why my host Tyler told me that those 10 blocks will take me 25 minutes… and then I saw it… When I reached the cross section with Sutter, I saw the Powell ahead – more than 45 degree angle steep, and even my winter hiking experience did not prepare me for conquering that summit.

I had called my host Tyler to warn him I was on my way to his place, but as he was running a bit late, I found a nice café on Washington St right across the Cable Car museum and less than a block away from the house I would be staying. The café was really cute with free Wi-fi and magazines and quite good-looking visitors, so I took a few layers off and sat down to catch my breath and chug another cup of coffee, until Tyler came back with some groceries. He showed me around his apartment and the amazing roof deck from where he gave me my very first tour of the city. After chatting for a bit I was too excited to explore the city and headed out with a copy of “Tyler’s Awesome Guide to San Francisco in One Very Long Day.”

Going down Powell was definitely a lot easier and faster, and I jumped down the street like a 5-year old to meet Sungyon in Union. After some hugging and happy laughter, I kidnapped her from her friend and two of us headed to Market St and towards the Embarcadero. We had quite some catching up to do and shared stories about sneaky kisses and travel adventures over yet another cup of coffee right by the ocean, next to the big clock tower of the Ferry Building. Next we decided to go to Castro to have dinner with her friend later, and slowly started walking down Market St, passing through the Financial Center, the Tenderloin and by the Civic Center on the way to Church Street. It was a long walk that was alternating beautiful houses, fancy buildings and some quite sketchy areas that forced us to brisk our seps and stay close to each other. Those were still quite interesting, with the highlight of this trip, being the sight of a man in a wheelchair being dragged by his dog up and down the street; they looked like having lots of fun while flying passed us.

When we got to Church St. we began to notice again nice Victorian houses and happy people around us, as well as multiple rainbow flags flapping around, as Castro is considered the capital of gay America. There were a lot of small and inviting non-chain stores and cozy restaurants, as well as some stores with quite suggestive names like “Does your mother know?” We sat down for a small cup of coffee and cookies (wow, i should cut on my caffeine intake) in a cute coffee shop and bakery before we headed to Sungyon’s friend’s place who lived in one of those gorgeous houses.

After a while I figured it would be nice for me to head back home and hang out a bit with my roommates for the next two days, so I had to say my last goodbye to the future Parisian and of course promised to crash her amazing apartment which is just a block away from the Jardin du Luxembourg. I took the Muni back to Powell and secretly feared the hike up to Washington St, but at least it was warm and full of people outside. I got home to meet Tyler and his real roommates Daniel and David, as well as my CS roomie Vaida from Lithuania with bright orange hair. I just crashed completely exhausted on the couch, but still had the burning desire to open a cold beer, so I asked for directions to the nearest liquor store. Unlike Boston though, in San Francisco beer is just a grocery, so I headed to a nearby convenience store just a few blocks away, completely forgetting the city I was in… omg those hills… after 15 minutes in which I wished I never drank and I promised to quit smoking and all other vices, I finally made it and victoriously headed back with a pack of Anchor Steam and a cigarette in my mouth. The rest of the evening quickly passed while playing beer pong, in which I really sucked – a living proof of the lack of real college experience at MIT. Vaida, on the other hand, was kicking the guys’ butts like nothing after a couple of rounds, even though she was playing for the first time.

After multiple unsuccessful tries to even hit the triangle, I retired in the corner licking my wounds and beer until Bruck and Ammar (fellow MIT 09ers) called me to meet up after they made it from Redwood City. I headed to the Mission to have some drinks with my fellow graduates in a tiny but very fun bar called Double Dutch. I waited in line for a bit and managed to make friends with some of the people around me… everybody was so nice and friendly… one of the guys who made it in before me, even saved me a spot in the line to the unisex restroom, as I was dying by that point. The night could not be better – old friends, good music and a couple of gin tonics. Hiba (fellow 6er) joined us a bit later on the tiny dance floor under the rhythms of 90s and 00s hits mashed up by this really cool girl DJ who made me feel like I’m back in Europe. The night finished with an eventful ride home by Ammar who after a couple of drinks was driving like crazy in the SF streets at 3am.

It was a long day but I was still full of excitement when I lay my head on the pillow on the top of the bunk bed. Vaida came back maybe 10 minutes later, and after sharing some gossip and fun stories I was finally ready to go to dreamland under the sounds of that familiar song coming from her computer.

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