AROUND THE WORLD – 2007 Week 2

San Francisco

Monday 27 August Day 8

The check in chick for flight A319 to San Francisco requests us to remove our shoes for xray purposes. I am fearful they are checking for sneaker quality or blisters but I get away with it.

San Francisco (SF) is to take your breath away. The City Hall which rose again from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake and fires is delicately finished with infills and extremities of gold leaf and surrounded symmetrically and sympathetically by administration buildings, theatres, courthouses, the veterans buildings and impressive sculptures which celebrate their pioneers.
The forecourt is a park, city block size which the LA City Hall could only dream about. The parks have no seats, a problem we had noticed in LA, when suddenly the penny drops. Park benches merely provide housing for the homeless. Funny thing though, there is a conference on in the Bill Graham (not Billy Graham) Centre next to the Square with its main theme as Homelessness.

In the main street, Market Street, we see five people begging in the first two blocks. A 50 something woman has been able to cobble enough together to buy lipstick and her hair is combed.

Many of the homeless live out of shopping trolleys. Just as some of us get by in a one bedroom bed-sit and some in five bedrooms with ensuites, some of the homeless get by with a knapsack and some with a shopping trolley packed to the rafters. One man had two cats on the upper storey shielded by an umbrella fixed to the end of the trolley.
The sight of some of these people talking to themselves and to thin air suggest that mental health is a significant part of the problem.
I don’t like to travel over here to criticise their country. There is so much to admire in what the Americans have achieved, but I would hope they could set aside a larger portion of the billions they use for showing the rest of the world how it should be done, to provide for their own disadvantaged.
The same could be said for the country I know and love but we are travelling a little better in this department.

Tuesday 28th August Day 9

At breakfast a guy from Alberta regales us with stories of the success of his end of Canada, the money it now makes from oil sands, the mining of which has become economic with the increase in the price of oil over the last few years. I try to bring his wife and children into the conversation but fail. I suspect he would have noticed that we had a foreign accent but it didn’t prompt any questions from him.
Denise puts a band aid on my blister and I bite my gun belt like Charles Bronson does when Steve McQueen digs the bullet from his shoulder with his Bowie Knife.
The organized tours of SF concentrate on the city area, Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Bridge, the Cable Cars, Haight Ashbury and many attractive inner city and residential areas. Occupying an area bout seven miles by seven miles, freeways are few.

In the afternoon I walk down Market Street from 7th Street. Gradually I realize that I have never seen such architecture in a single street. SF has so many buildings, not just in the main street, that seem to be saying “Hey look at me”, but not in a boastful way. Many buildings are decorated with motifs, projections, variations, sills, arches and so on and there are few of the vast slab areas seen on many modern buildings. The streets on the eastern side meet Market Street at 45° giving two streetscapes for the price of one at each intersection.
I follow Market Street down to the Clock Tower near the Bay. Usually when I go to cities I watch people – can’t help it – but I realize I have walked many bocks and not seen a face, only architecture. At street level, some of the shop fronts are closed, some drab and part of the main street is a red light area.
I am wasted on the retailers as I rarely go inside the shops but Bloomingdales is so beautiful it deserves to have me spend some money in there. I’ll go there tomorrow. Maybe they’ll have some sneakers.

It’s unhealthy for a 60 year old to be this excited about tall buildings. I am worried Denise will bring up the subject of you-know-what envy but many of the buildings are only five and seven storeys so they will be the envious ones.

I would suggest that Architecture Students from Uni of Canberra should be given a thesis year in SF, fully paid. The only proviso would be that they return. I wouldn’t want to live here for fear that over time I would grow used to it and not appreciate it.

I want to walk back along Market Street but decide to drop down two blocks to Howard Street. I start to notice the people again. Along 6th Street between Market and Mission I feel decidedly uncomfortable with a lot of seemingly drug and alcohol affected people yelling abuse back and forth.

We have been told that 33% of the SF population is Asian. I hadn’t noticed up to now but that seems right. In LA it seemed that everyone was going somewhere. Here it seems like everyone is from somewhere. LA claims to be the most culturally diverse city in the world but SF must be up there. London, in a couple of days will be interesting.
The cable cars are icons of SF. They travel up and down steep hills, picking up and setting down people in the middle of intersections where the ground is level. They are pulled by an underground cable at 9 ½ mph. Much of SF is actually flat and push-bikes abound, but the steep areas have become famous through car chase scenes in movies.

The cable car takes us to dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf. Entertainment includes a blues band, the kind where the singer’s eyes focus on an out of focus spot just the other side of infinity, a spot only blues singers can see. After dinner we stop for caricatures of us by a street artist, followed by the highlight of the trip so far.

An African-American with a grey beard is sitting on the footpath, back to a rubbish bin and concealed by two bush branches he is holding in front of him. As unsuspecting pedestrians approach, he throws back the branches and roars like a bull. The victims are of course scared witless but better still, those in the know who are standing nonchalantly down wind of the action crack up hopelessly. One victim who drops a dollar in his can is greeted with “It was funnier than that man!!” while another is greeted with “For your next holiday man, why don’t you go to tight-ass New York”. None of the victims died of fright but a few of us come close from laughter. When you’re on holidays, laughing at someone else’s misfortune is the finest form of humour.

Wednesday 29th August Day 10

Breakfast is at a small family deli down the road. The retail industry probably runs courses called “On the creation of atmosphere in the retail environment” or words to that effect. Why don’t they just send them all here. We suspect the family is Middle-eastern (they are Italian, Laurie) and work all day, every day. The big bland chains can’t match this. I keep thinking I’m in New York even though I’ve never been there.
Bus tour drivers are a special breed. Some are frustrated actors or singers who become the main attraction themselves rather than presenting the attractions. Some are different. We take a trip to Muir Woods, north of the bridge, to see the Redwood (sequoia) forest and to Sausalito on the northside of the Bay.

On leaving the forest to head for Sausalito, the driver starts to tell the story of John Muir, for whom the wood is named, as he negotiates the winding road. The story probably took 20 minutes and was beautifully and sensitively delivered. It was obvious everyone on the bus was spellbound.

For a long time I have had a theory that Americans are more articulate than us. We tend to speak in unfinished phrases, with subjects, verbs, predicates and clauses entangled, entousled, truncated and unnecessarily paranthesised (this includes me), giving full stops and commas identity crises. We lack the lilt and flow our language can provide when beautifully presented. Even those Americans who appear to be uneducated can display a wonderful turn of phrase.

I am writing this in a Laundromat and have just heard one young girl say to another “We were like going out for like six months and when I pushed the issue, he was just like, whatever”.
I don’t have a rubber to rub out the last few paragraphs so will just leave them in. I bet the word ‘like’ never realized it was going to evolve into some pseudo, pop-up punctuation mark.
We have dinner tonight at a French restaurant (more Rosé) and the waiter is from Turkey. His family is still in Turkey, but businesses have struggled there since the Iraq war started.
After dinner we go to Bloomingdales as promised earlier. We have a coffee and play spot the Caucasian. I spot Denise and Denise spots me. I don’t last long in Bloomingdales. Everything glints too much.

Thursday 30th August Day 11

After breakfast at our favourite deli, we settle into a quiet day before catching the plane at 5.20pm. I spend the morning writing at Union Square, a popular tourist, shopping area which has tables and chairs. The police apparently don’t allow the homeless to sleep here.
After lunch we bus to Mission Dolores and take photos inside their oldest building and their newer cathedral built after the earthquake. The mission was established in 1776. A huge number of the headstones in the small graveyard are Irish. We relax down by the waterside near the clock tower, sleep on the grass in the park and didn’t even get moved on by the cops. The plane leaves on time.

Friday 31st August Day 12

Let’s say Friday 31st August starts as we get on the plane to London at San Francisco Airport. This will be another of those trick days where the plane will flick around the world to meet up with the sun coming round the other way. We have those little TV screens on the seat back-rests. As the movie image quality is bad I settle back to watch our flight map unfold. The American place names on the map trigger a competition between the US and us on the beauty of the indigenous place names we have both adopted – Albuquerque, Shoshone, (rhymes with pony) Yosemite (emity) for the US and Coonabarabran, Diamantina and Mutitjulu (put a jewel oo)for us. It’s probably a draw.
As we head for the UK, my mind flicks to English heroes of mine. Peter Sellers, Sir Francis Chichester, Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker, the E-Type Jag, Stirling Moss, Manuel and Coen Ovett.
Five hours sees us north of the Great Lakes and heading across to Greenland. We just miss the southern tip of Greenland but are close enough for me to claim I have been there. Probably within the first line of breakers anyway. Probably need your flannelette cossies there. A wink of sleep would be good. My knee has left a bruise on my chin. All it would have taken Mr. Boeing, is one more inch, maybe two. Why is the passage between Iceland and Greenland called the Straits of Denmark? Has Denmark been told? Sleep’s not all it’s cracked up to be anyway. Just try shifting onto my left cheek for a while. At least I won’t need to have a hip replacement. Just replaced it with my coccyx. What’s Mr Boeing’s address? Maybe just try putting both legs along the corridor. “Oops, sorry ma’am, let me help you up with that. I’m going to see the Queen.”
Ah, breakfast. My favourite. Rubber bun with plastic ham.
Heathrow at last!

London

Our London hotel room is about the same size as a walk in a wardrobe in LA and we’ll need to install pedestrian lights along the side of the bed. We have dinner two blocks away in Queensway. Hope they can cook fish and chips in England. Wow! They can!
Saturday 1st September Day 13
The centre of London on a Saturday is a cavalcade of tourist buses and every tour guide has a PhD in History. Charles Dickens wrote this down that street, Tennyson wrote that down this street. Oscar Wylde has performed in this theatre, Phantom of the Opera opened in that theatre. Florence Nightingale did much of her nursing down here, Marilyn Monroe spent her seven honeymoons down there. Maggie Thatcher lives up here (but must be out because the policeman’s gone) and 10 Downing Street is down there. Downing St used to be open to the public but now the end of the street is fenced off. (Denise blames Humphrey). This is the Hotel where Peter Sellers died, that is the street where the Beatles lived. Up there is where Samuel Johnson invented a dictionary. Down there was the war office where Winston Churchill did this and that. Over there is the new MI5. This is where King Nigel III was beheaded and that is Oliver Cromwell’s favourite fish and chip shop. Don’t ever do the bus tour until the jet lag is done.
The bus trip has been swirling in ever decreasing circles until it has disappeared up the Tower of London. We’ve done so many circles that my north point is shot like a magnetic compass at the Port Kembla steelworks. Every time we cross the Thames it is flowing the other way. I’m overawed, overcome, overwhelmed, overdone and we clamber off the bus at Buckingham Palace. Denise points out that a three feather motif on a column beside the road represents the Prince of Wales.
Everything in London represents something, everything else is in memory of something, every other person has a statue for him (except me) and whatever’s left over is buried in Westminster Abbey. In this part of the world for the past couple of millennia, countries have been conquering the daylights out of each other and each victor and his accomplices now stand on plinths all around the city with pigeons on their heads.
My thoughts lie more with the conquered than the conquerors. I realize it is a topic which shouldn’t be trivialized but I sometimes wish the conquerors and aggressors were a little further back with the Mandela’s and the poets a little more to the fore.
If I had a dollar for every monument in London I could afford Kensington Palace.
We get back on the bus and get off again for lunch at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. There are no speakers. These days I think they’re all in the Internet Prat Rooms.
One more try at the bus but by now I couldn’t tell the Houses of Parliament from Piccadilly Circus, Big Ben from Nelson’s Column and Westminster Abbey from London Bridge. Next time just try the Monopoly Board – one ring road, four right-hand turns and straight to the pub.
We give up and walk, only to find that the whole world is having its holidays on Oxford Street. One and a half miles of shopping and 40 shoe shops. Don’t even think about it. We are carried along the footpath like salmon going upstream to spawn, occasionally getting separated as one of us is washed back downriver.
Time to go back to the hotel and work on the jetlag.

Sunday 2nd September Day 14

One of the advantages of jet lag is that your best thinking and reminiscing is done during broken sleep.
1 am.
Yesterday was 1st September which we think of as Spring back home, which reminds me in a round about way that on flying the Pacific I thought about crossing the equator but completely ignored the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. I know the equinox is actually the 21st September but this is advanced thinking for a (non-paying) member of the flat earth society like me. At Uni I hoped, as a conscientious objector to the spherical earth concept, that I would be able to get exemption from the subject Spherical Trigonometry but Universities can be very unenlightened. I faced this issue by adopting the philosophy of being a believer when it suited and a non-believer when it didn’t. This method hasn’t worked in the ice-cream vs cholesterol debate as fear of death wins every time.
I am simply hoping that the airlines, whose designers haven’t come to terms with the distance between a human being’s knee and hip, can get me back home to the other side of the earth, regardless of the earth’s shape.
3 am. Cup of tea sounds good.
Back home with the summer equinox approaching, the daffodils will be in flower, the grevilleas, callistemons and banksias will be thinking about it and our new red flowering gum will hopefully be having its first display this year. The silver eyes, eastern-spine bills, red wattyl birds and crimson rosellas will be drunk on spring and no-one will give a rat’s where Charles Dickens wrote his first book.
8am
Maybe we’ll avoid London today. Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park link with Green Park, Buckingham Palace and St James Park to form a huge green haven from the mayhem all around. The walk from the NW corner of Kensington Park to Speakers Corner in Hyde Park displays the usual array of joggers, dog-walkers, meanderers and walkers using that modern dork style of arm pumping. But Hallelujah Brother,– Speakers Corner is in full swing. The prat rooms must have shut down.
The first four speakers, in spite of their best intentions are not helping Jesus’ marketability at all. The speaker from the Socialist Party of Great Britain is yelling “Lenin was not a socialist. I’ll tell you what Lenin was. He was a …..”, only to be cut off by a heckler with “Arr. Mate. This is worf payin’ for”. Another speaker opines “And who fought in the Civil War. I’ll tell you who fought in the Civil War. Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Calathumpia.. and why? Because their bleedin’ leaders sent them. That’s why! And what happened? The English army mutinied. That’s what they did!”
The biggest crowd was held by a Muslim man who claimed “Why have we Muslims in the Middle East got problems? Because we are gutless, that’s why. In the last five years the Middle East has earned five trillion dollars from oil and where has the money gone? To the despots and dictators and we haven’t had the guts to rise up against them.”
With a recharged battery I set off back up through Hyde Park and find a vast inland sea of paddle boats surrounded by picnickers, skaters and overfed ducks.
The parks are cleverly designed with paths which lead in diagonal fashion to new surprises such as the many flower beds, drunk with colour. My return trip through the parks to my start point has been a little like setting out from Albury for Brisbane and ending up in Charleville. Fortunately, the Charleville to Brisbane road is Kensington Palace Gardens. This is actually a row of mansions adjoining Kensington Palace and I am in no danger of ever owning one. The road is flanked by massive plane trees, each one the size of South America.
After lunch we return to Kensington Palace. It is ten years and one day since Princess Diana died and the front fence is lined with Princess Diana fans placing sprays of flowers and signs to her memory.
It is ten years since Denise and I first went out together and the speech by Prince Harry at the memorial service reminds me that following Dianne’s passing, while I was able to move on and marry again, it was more difficult for the children. Sherriden and Clayton, like William and Harry, have lost and can’t replace their mother and that’s the saddest part.