Every person I spoke to in advance of coming to San Fran gave me a version along the lines of “it’s one of the best cities in the world”. I’ve just spent eight days here and tried my best to find truth in what they said, but in spite of my best efforts, I came up short.
It’s not that I haven’t travelled before and it’s not that I’m a US virgin. Nor is it that I expected Neverland. Visiting a city is like a relationship, it requires give and take, and definitely an open mind. I tried to understand the place, I scratched and scratched at the surface, but after seeing the despair and human detritus on the streets on the first journey downtown from the airport, I found it hard to shake that memory. Homelessness driven by mental illness, displaced war veterans and drug addiction is the cancer waiting at every corner and in every darkened doorway and under every highway bridge, that scars the place. Of course, I’ve seen a version of it in Chicago, Vegas, NYC, Rome and Dublin, yet somehow, the volume here was on a different level, or maybe I was more sensitive to it for some reason. Getting older maybe. Being increasingly conscious of ever-being the solo female traveller perhaps. Je ne sais pas.
My highlight, apart from the San Francisco Writers Conference, was making a fifteen hour round trip to Yosemite National Park. Yosemite was epic in every way. It’s like a park on steroids in which glaciers threw huge boulders across the valley floor and tore the faces from mountains leaving massive stone cliffs that stretch all the way to the Gods and arouse every rock climber who sets his eyes on them. Giant Sequoias reach up and continue on for infinity, their leaves possibly winding up as the surface of heaven’s lawns. A thousand waterfalls cascade from the mountains and unless you’re made of stone yourself, the place will overwhelm you. You may cry, you’ll definitely say wow a few times but Mise Éireann here’ll admit that I did look at a few waterfalls and say “it’s nice but it’s not quite Powerscourt” (thankfully under my breath). I even got to tick one off my bucket list when I made my wish at Bridalveil Falls on the eve of Valentine’s.
Lo and behold, on Valentine’s Day it was on the cards to be coming true – thankfully, I had my own escape from Al Catrazzo (his name was Alberto Casazza but you’ll give me that one I’m sure?). Not that I have anything against pint sized Californian Italians. They’re perfectly normal looking on a barstool (after a few beers with the jetlag and the 15 hours Richard Attenboroughing your time away in Yosemite), it’s just they’re the opposite of sequoia proportions when they stand up. Anyway, Tom Thumb disappeared into a mouse-hole and my wish is still out there in the ether.
I went here and there in San Fran, down Pier 39 and Embarcadero, stayed in Chinatown, which was colourful and took a spin down crooked Lombard St, which if you’ve ever driven the road from Kingscourt to Baileboro, really isn’t that crooked by comparison. I enjoyed spening a crazy evening down in North Beach with a heap of wonderful folk I met in (jaysus, morto over admitting this) an Irish bar of all places. I was looking for an Italian restaurant but the lure of somewhere called Bar Nua was too much to deny. Tar éis cúpla deoch it felt very much like a sean bhar, with old friends that I felt I’d known forever. Muintir na Gaillimhe, I blame you for my hangover but thank you for the absolute mightiest of craic.
The SF Writers Conference was held in Nob Hill, the Killiney or Montenotti of the City. Great exercise for someone with a rear end the size of mine, though sadly it hasn’t diminished any since I’ve been here. The conference was full of wonderful people, most of whom where locals, some of whom flew in from LA, San Diego, Texas and Michigan. I flew the tricolor and a fab writer from London carried the Union Jack. We mixed extensively, in spite of the innate tendency in most writers to be quite introverted. It was damn hard work, meeting new people at every session, roughly every 45 minutes, then rotating again at lunchtime and on and on. It was tough but worth it. There are so many wonderful writers out there with a wonderful attitude toward the craft and towards each other.
I learned so much, loved meeting warm and kind-hearted locals, gave a poetry reading, listened to some amazing poets on the night, and bought ten books. So combined with the fifteen I brought over, less the eight I gave away, gives me … a sore shoulder, but I have an eleven hour journey to get through now, so I’ll enjoy a couple of them mile-high. I acquired and donated a rake of business cards, and look forward to keeping in touch with the great people I met.
In the cab to the airport (shared cab), I met a wonderful lady from L.A, who was full of chat and the joys of life after spending the long weekend alone in San Fran – her first time here. She liked it (and spent some of her time considering whether there will be further chapters in her relationship with her Irish boyfriend), but was interested to hear my thoughts on the city (and the lad). Naturally, I paid respect where respect is due, the locals are absolutely great people, but I couldn’t help but admit that those sad shadows crawling about the streets, is a recurring image of the week and one that I can’t really reconcile with. She said that L.A is pretty much the same, so perhaps I’m just being too judgmental in my assessment of the place. Regarding her buachaill, I gave him the thumbs up. “Stick with it” the advice of the Irish jury, “I think you could be in for a happy ending”. She said she would and we swapped numbers. I’ll keep in touch to see when I need to buy the hat.
San Fran to me is Glasgow on stronger drugs. Hills, deprived souls and mad yokes at every turn, but with beautiful, colourful, friendly locals to boot. To everyone who said it was “the best city imaginable”, I may never consult you for travel advice again, but thanks.
Next stop Dublin.