This winter, I celebrated another travel anniversary. My 20th visit to San Francisco, since 2007. Not bad, for nine years.
My love story with the city by the bay started some time in 2005. A friend had recommended to me the Tales of the city books by Armistead Maupin. I hadn’t heard of them, but he talked about it with such passion that on a weekend trip to London I bought the whole batch.
Later that year, I found out they had turned the books into a mini-TV series, which I watched back to back on a rainy winter weekend. I had gone through a rough patch in my life, not really knowing what I was doing with it, even though it all seemed settles with a stable life and job in Brussels.
The books with their lively portrayal of a bunch of friends living in San Francisco in the 70s and 80s made me want to visit the city, too. But not just as a tourist. Excessive as I am sometimes, I decided I wanted to spend a whole summer there, taking a sabbatical and doing some summer classes at university.
Said. Planned. Done.
I enrolled myself in the summer sessions of UC Berkeley, taking a class in American politics and digital photography. I found a nice room in SOMA, and – jackpot – the perfect room mate.
Renato and I hit it off right away. On the second night, I sat on some porch somewhere in San Francisco, slightly drunk and stoned and surrounded by new friends…
Living in San Francisco for three months opened so many doors to the city, allowed for so much gallivanting and meandering through its neighborhoods, and forge real connections with some people.
When I came back, it felt surreal, as if I had dreamt it all up. And within a week, I bought a plane ticket back for another visit, only two months later.
Throughout the years, I tried to come back at least once a year (more like two or even three times), in order to keep that connection alive, to stay in touch with the people I met, and not lose what I had built up over the summer. I was extremely lucky to have met all these generous people, Renato in the first place, who let me come back and stay at his place for weeks.
So my San Francisco story started in 2007, and it has been going on ever since. I long abandoned the sight seeing. I still have not managed to visit Alcatraz. It’s always booked out by the time I manage to think about it, and I postpone it to the next visit.
I mostly just hang out in San Francisco, seeing friends, going out, rummaging the second hand record stores in Berkeley or the thrift stores for some cool 1$-T-shirts.
We have taken little trips around the bay or snuck into the Google campus, visited the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, soaked in the hot springs of Harbin or Wilbur, watched whales on their treck north as we drove up to Mendocino.
I love the city for its tolerance, heck, acceptance, of difference…
… be it toward the LGBTIQ community, or any other seemingly weird idea or way of life,
… its public transport, that, as much as my friends loath muni, is the best I have seen in the whole United States,
… its recycling system, when others cities shrug off the problem and open another landfill,
… its unique structure and buildings, the endless low wood houses that fill its neighborhoods and that, with the exception of downtown, simply refuse to go and be replaced by high condo,
… its human face, where the sign in a café says: ‘I’m a human, not a machine, hang up your phone when you order!’ Damn right!
In San Francisco, I found my little haven, an alternate home away from Brussels and work, a second family of friends. It somehow worked out even though I only saw them about once or twice a year.
The time I spent in San Francisco also served as an inspiration for my trip around the world in 2013-15, when I stayed roughly every month in a new city, trying to connect to the place and the people, and take along some contacts and friends.
So I headed back to San Francisco, for Christmas and New Year’s eve.
After all the Madonna touring, I came down with the flu and was in bed for ten days, and just when I was getting better, the 12h flight to SFO didn’t help.
I came down with a sinusitis during this trip, and spend a lot of it on the sofa and in my bed, reading, seeing some friends for coffee… but no excessive partying or going out this time.
It was just as well. I enjoyed some down time with my friends, in this second home of mine.