Part 4 – San Francisco: old friends & rainbows

By the afternoon of the fourth day, we reached San Francisco. This was one more destination I have visited numerous times for work, but knew literally nothing about, having spent the brief working visits in the airport-hotel-office-airport loop. Now was the time for a closer encounter.

Having an old friend living in the area provided an additional incentive to visit. Olga and I went back a good 30 something years, having spent 10 years of primary, secondary and high school together back in the day, starting in the “happy” Soviet times, and ploughing our way through the tumultuous “Perestroika” period. We weren’t the closest of friends, but belonged to the same circle at school, and continued to keep in touch during the college and university years. Upon graduation, Olga’s love of animals and a degree in veterinary medicine, just like my passion for reading and a diploma in English did not result in any potential employers lining up on our door steps. And while I could at least get a minimum-wage job teaching at the same university I graduated from, Olga’s hard-earned degree could not earn her a living at all. In the country that was too busy earning money to care for its people, animals and humanities were definitely not a priority, and thousands of graduates with noble aspirations were left with a feeling that for the past five years they had been majoring in unemployment…

Olga left, and eventually ended up in San Francisco, working her way through numerous veterinary assistant’s jobs (her brilliant degree was not recognized in her new home country, but at least could get her a job). After years of fighting her way through, she studied for a new degree, got a well-respected job working for the Oakland city council, and made a new life on the new continent. Hats off and applause – anybody with even the slightest idea of the challenges involved should be impressed. Olga, I am very proud of you!

Reunion!

We saw each other on and off every time I happened to be in the Bay Area for work. Usually at the shortest possible notice, but we always made it happen. I would be in town for one or two nights, and all it took was a phone call or a text message. After a brief negotiation we would realize that it was now or never, and would drink the following night away in the hotel bar, reminiscing about the past, and sharing the news from the present. We kept being amazed where our lives took us, and how only ten years before neither of us would have ever thought that our regular catch-up places would be San Francisco hotel bars.

Looking back, all of this was rather ironic, to be honest, as we weren’t the most promising girls in our class. Neither of us an A-student, or a prom queen, we did belong to the popular “in-crowd” (mostly famous for skipping classes and throwing parties) at school, but that was it. I am sure if you asked our teachers back then to pick the top five students at school who would go the furthest, neither myself nor Olga would make the list…

We weren’t the “grey mice”, but we sure did not have “success” written all over us in capital letters either. Yet, we both did pretty good for ourselves, and all on our own. Quite a few of our friends, on the other hand, who WERE “the golden girls and boys” – class leaders, bright, outspoken, girls & boys everybody wanted to date, and favorites of both teachers and students alike (a rare combination, but happens every now and then), who would have definitely topped the teachers’ list of the most promising students back in the day, are now either sitting at home, protected by parents’ or spouses’ financial assets, are in prison (yes, we have that too), or have fallen completely off the grid. Not that everybody should “make a difference” or make a career, don’t get me wrong here, but isn’t it funny how life has it’s own little ways of taking you places you’d never thought you would go?…

San Francisco!

We did stray away from the trip, though. The three years that passed since our last late-night bar vigil with Olga in San Francisco, seemed to be but a brief moment, and when we fought our way through the afternoon Bay Area traffic splitting lanes like nobody’s business and pulled into Olga’s driveway, it felt like we parted only last week. Sean and Nic seemed to hit it off as well (mutual Irish heritage must have helped), and the four of us spent another late night drinking wine, horsing around, swapping stories and watching the sun go down onto a foggy blanket of clouds over San Francisco. The more I think about it, the clearer I realize that the true friends are not necessarily those who never forget your birthday and call you ever day – they are the people who help you go back in time, and who you feel comfortable with no matter how long you had not seen each other. Maybe I am just getting old and sentimental, though…

The plan was to let the bikes and our tired shoulders rest for two days, and explore San Francisco on foot with the help of public transport. The next morning a quick and convenient BART ride took us from Oakland into downtown San Francisco. After a brief and heated debate, we managed to locate ourselves on the map, and set off in the direction of Pier 39, hoping to catch a boat to the famous Alcatraz. Our hopes were quickly shattered by the fact that the tickets for the next two weeks (what the fuck?!…) were all sold out. Makes one wonder whether the wait for the place back in its glory days was as long… Come to think of that, this should have been expected – the island does have limited capacity, and could only accommodate as many tourists as there was rock surface sticking out of the San Francisco Bay. We consoled ourselves by a tour of the gift shop and a photo with the famous prison in the background. A closer encounter will have to wait till next time.

Disgusted at the extortionist prices for food at the Fisherman’s Warf and shocked by the minuscule size of the downtown Harley shop, we took our time admiring the few sea lions remaining in town for the season. The lions moved into the west marina of Pier 39 in 1989, right before the infamous Loma Prieta earthquake and for some reason decided to stay. They say there can be as many as 900 of them during the winter, but in the summertime many migrate away. We saw the few old-timers guarding the docks, sunning themselves in the lazy afternoon sun, seemingly oblivious of the crowds of picture-hungry tourists armed with cameras and tripods.

Fisherman’s Warf

Our visit to the city was brightened up by another, quite unplanned occasion. We happened to be in San Francisco right after the historic Supreme Court decision on Gay Marriage, and the American gay capital was decorated all over with rainbow flags, giving the city a happy, festive and welcoming look. San Francisco was buzzing with a wild mix of pride, ecstasy and disbelief – the atmosphere reminded me of the first days after the Obama election back in 2005 and the “Yes we can!” posters all over. I was not even in the country at the time, but the buzz translated across seas and oceans. I clearly remember watching the inauguration ceremony in a hotel bar in Bangalore, India and feeling my eyes water with tears of pride and joy – and I am not even American!…

Rainbows everywhere!

The world-famous San Francisco Gay Pride Parade was scheduled for the coming Sunday, and considering the news, this year it was going to be an absolute blast. We were tempted. We were very tempted… After all, we never missed the Christopher Street Day Parade in Munich when we could help it, and it was always great fun! However, having briefly entertained the thought of staying in town for an extra day, we had to give up on the idea – we were on a schedule, and much as we would have loved seeing it, we had a long list of sights to see and things to do, but had only ten days to our names for that…

The hilly streets of San Francisco

Roaming around in the city, soaking up the sunshine and the energy, we were glad we left the bikes parked in the driveway – fiddling with the gears on these steep hills would be my worst nightmare!… Walking up and down was hard enough – riding a bike, or managing a stick car was definitely out of the question! At the same time we saw cars parked at almost vertical angles in alleyways, and bikes dangerously leaning over curbs – another proof that practice conquers all: the more you do even the most impossible of tasks, the easier it gets.

Dramatic sunset over Berkeley

We did the tourist bit we could – Telegraph Hill, Fisherman’s Warf, Pier 39, a jazz night in the museum with people dancing and drinking the night away, and a couple of inevitable Irish pubs. San Francisco said its good-byes to us through a dramatically majestic sunset on Saturday evening. Early on Sunday morning we got back on the bikes, kissed Olga and Sean good-bye, and left the Fog City in style, driving along the Golden Gate Bridge and moving further down South.

Yes, we rode the Golden Gate Bridge!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.