Summer in America's oasis


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Category: Travel Date: 05 Aug 99

‘This city’s sense of old world elegance, its absence of showy, new, big, ugly America, is even more surprising, considering the city has been rocked by major earthquakes’


‘The city’s Museum of Modern Art is a stretcher of minds pushing creative boundaries and an eye into the soul of California’


“Head up to San Francisco’s Twin Peaks on a summer evening when the city is not shrouded in its famous fog and you’ll see a postcard-perfect view: rows of Victorian houses stretching over more than 40 hills, a curvaceous bay speckled with sailboats, two of the world’s best loved bridges and, if you’re lucky, a few harmless shreds of fog coloured in shades of red and pink by the setting sun as they glide through downtown skyscrapers. No other city in the USA can offer such a seductive sight. And yet if you ask San Franciscans what their city has to offer few begin with the singular image. There is so much to love about this town.”

Tom Downs, author of San Francisco.


I can never get over the invention of the aircraft. A hundred years ago they would have thought it a fantasy of a crazy mind. You step into this machine in Washington where it’s a broiling 103 degrees and after being suspended in air for four hours, you walk out of the machine into another city, where you brace yourself against the cool 60 degrees and watch your breath materialise in a white shaft in front of you - swift and powder white as cigarette smoke.


San Francisco is the oasis of America. It is the city of Mrs Doubtfire in which most of us have seen Robin Williams racing up and down its round streets and across the famous suspension bridges as he switched from male father to woman maid with broom. The film was made for this city among dozens of others including The Graduate, Dirty Harry, and Basic Instinct. It’s a city of possibility, free spirits and expansive minds - created out of the discovery of gold, rooted by its Spanish and Portuguese colonisers, but its aura endowed by intellectuals, writers and, in the sixties, by flower power revolutionaries, the Beat Generation.


It is among America’s most liberal cities and the gayest in the world with a large, vocal and politically powerful gay population. It is home to authors such as Alice Walker, Isabelle Allende, and the notorious Jim Jones, who led a suicide pact in Guyana in 1979.


I was sold on it from the time I stepped onto a tramcar which took us, rattling down its tracks on rolling hills flanked by Gothic Victorian houses complete with balconies, towers, chimneys, bay windows and turrets. At every crossroad we caught our breath at the view of the glittering coast beneath curling hills. The tramcar is not the most comfortable way to get around this city which also has a limited subway service and better bus service, but it is the most quaint. It is a Victorian invention and preserved as one. The cars are turned by hand by liveried drivers and conductors, and no matter how late, or how cold, there is always a queue to get on one.


You can, if you’re carefree, eager, stand outside and let the evening air sting your cheeks and whip your hair into your eyes. Or you can sit primly inside, as the Victorians must certainly have done, in corset and feathers or top hat and cane, and send yourself back in time and nod graciously at the people next to or opposite you.


Swinging one arm on the outside of the tram, I also spied the pretty church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe Demaggio got married, went bumping past outdoor cafes, art galleries, smart shops, the hoity Nob Hill area with its triangles of summer flowers on the most crooked street in the world. This city’s sense of old world elegance, its absence of showy, new, big, ugly America, is even more surprising, considering the city has been rocked by major earthquakes, the biggest in 1906 which brought it to its knees in a crumbling heap and left 3,000 dead. It is a comment on the resilience of the people here, and the fact that good taste and aesthetics matter to them just as much, if not more, than digging for gold.


We get off in the last stop: the Fisherman’s Warf area which has the holiday atmosphere of a fair crammed with seafood restaurants, from which emanate salty fried smells of clams, salmon and lobster; junky tourist shops, vendors and music. After succumbing to clam chowder soup, we walk on the boat which takes us for an exhilarating sail on the coast, which gave us many views of the symbol of this city - the magnificent orange Golden Gate Bridge which is nearly two miles long, with 746 feet-high suspension towers.


We didn’t have enough of it from below. We had to be on it. Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge in a car filled with the pits of summer fruit - red cherries, peaches, nectarines - and a half bottle of pickled artichokes, we sit bumper to bumper with a snake-chain of cars, reflecting bright sunshine ahead, winding ahead as far as the eye can see.


We look up to see painters suspended high on the bridge. They paint all year round, using up a thousand gallons of paint a week and by the time they finish the enormous bridge, it’s time to start again to keep it shiny and fresh. (The Bay Bridge is not as ornate but just as indelibly stamped on this city’s landscape.)


The bus ride to the Golden Gate park (where we bumped into a rock concert, sixties style, a natural history museum, an enormous rose garden and a mini valley completely shaded with pine trees) was memorable since it summed up the city for me. On our way there, a tall thin man in a dress and hair sticking out of his stockings got on and proceeded to do his make-up. In our section were an ancient Chinese woman, a young student type and two elderly white people. Nobody looked, except us, who stared openly, fascinated with the careful application of lipstick on thin lip.


There is a great deal of room for tolerance here, a “live and let live” mentality. (Unlike Trinidad where if you are spotted in a grocery with a grocery cart in front of you and a list, people ask, “Grocery shopping?”) On the way back, I get an offer for marriage as my reward for helping up an old black man carrying a saxophone, who dropped dead drunk in front of the bus driver, to his seat. A reminder that this is a city of the blues.


The city’s Museum of Modern Art is a stretcher of minds pushing creative boundaries and an eye into the soul of California. Here you find not just the classic modernists and cubists Klee, and Kandinsky, and Picasso, but also work by contemporary artists in photographs, sculpture, and moving modern art in video and film.


A large mass of cloud loomed ahead of us one chilly evening as we made our way to Chinatown. The children and their father were beside themselves with glee. But there was another treat in store. A kind proprietor allowed me to take the children upstairs to a private area of his restaurant to use his bathroom. Here we stumbled into a Chinese wedding party. Dragons breathing fire decorated crimson walls. A Chinese singer sang in what appeared a lament, a strange, moving cry for the homeland which brought forth visions of paddy fields and cherry blossoms. Graceful couples in exquisite embroidered silk danced, completing the vision, which appeared more like a dream than modern day reality in America. This, I told the children, was the closest they would get to being in China, except I was proved wrong when we passed the red pagoda gates of Chinatown into the Chinese fruit and trinket markets where we were spoken to only in Chinese. Here you can find a rare authentic spice or the tiniest carved tea set, and trinkets from the ornate and tacky to the exquisite. If you want to bargain, brush up on your Chinese. The only thing better than browsing here is having your palate teased by the row of restaurants decorated by cooked ducks and chicken, and live fish and seafood just waiting for your pointed finger to become your meal.


But whether you are sitting in a café with the view of the bay, or browsing in an artists’ fair, drinking in a bar, going to the opera or sitting in the grass making daisy chains amongst the roses, San Francisco yields unexpected surprises. The reason? The people. It is a city of immigrants, like most of America (more than 30 per cent of its population is Asian), where people are held together by a common thread of tolerance and enterprise, the tools of survival. But those qualities in the city’s people has done more: it’s made San Francisco what it is today, elegant and interesting, America’s oasis.


Next week: LA - Disneyland and Universal Studios.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur