Asia, San Francisco

My most recent adventure took me back to the West Coast for five days in San Francisco, its cooler sibling, Oakland, and north up the coast to wine country for a wedding. I got to spend time with my old bestie from New York, a great friend from Tufts, and take part in a family celebration. I learned a few things about the city while the recurring Asian atmosphere provided dreamy thrills.

My first trip to SF in 2010 did not impress me too much which, I know, is a huge, glaringly provincial oversight. I cared more about seeing my best friend and less about where we were (I do remember some of the great things we ate).

This time I made more of an effort. Strategy: 1. Land 2. Squeeze my old friends 3. March them over to the best bakery in town, Tartine. In the heart of the Mission and right next to Dolores Park, this place is always busy and amazing.

I was in a hunger crisis so I ordered ten things in a state of delirium. It's a great way to experience Tartine. Of course everything: the orangey morning bun, the pain au chocolat, the brioche bread pudding, and the asparagus croque monsieur, was divine.

Sunset/Ocean Beach
A magical evening: dinner at Outerlands where the butter was so good we took home the uneaten portion in a to go box. Fantastic meal from butter onward thanks to the insider knowledge of our food critic host. Afterward we walked past the above ground train station over to Ocean Beach. We saw surfers on the street in full gear, we passed the neon lights of the last stop on the N. Judah line, and leaving civilization, we walked along the desperately dark beach. I couldn't tell where the sand ended and the water began.

In between eating different good things, I saw the de Young. Pretty cool museum set in the gorgeous Golden Gate Park. About the size of Central Park, but this park is like a red carpet to the Pacific Ocean. What the hell amazing. While there you'll find a Japanese tea garden, a Bison pond, a Botanical garden, the Renzo Piano designed super green California Academy of Sciences, with aquarium/planetarium combo, and a horseshoe pit. I wish we had an entire day to wander around.

I came explicitly for the textile collection, which is known to be very good. Disappointment! The entire collection was in storage.

Looking around the special exhibit "Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis" we saw some interesting things and of course the climax, Vermeer's sadly underwhelming Girl with the Pearl Earring. Vermeer is a great artist, but he was not included in the show, only his fame whore (I'm sure he did not intend this to be her future, poor thing). I decided then and there that I really have no patience for these blockbuster museum shows which tout their features like licentious women. The mobs just make it all so tawdry, crushing through mindlessly gaping. Why should this painting be so vaunted? Because of the movie starring Scarlet Johansson? I felt that all of the people enjoying their perfunctory glance at the painting were just checking it off their list of things to claim "seen." I guess I was too, but in a more cynical, or clinical, way. The experience left me with a bad taste, especially after watching people sneak photos with their iphones. Why? Stupid. Where are we, Chateau Marmont? I came across this article recently which in a way summarizes my complaints with these kinds of short attention span entertainment shows.

We did see some cool stuff such as:

Rubbings and stelae from Chichen Itza (featuring the Mayan ball game in which the loser is decapitated, see bottom left of the rubbing).

Peruvian feather tunic

Photorealist Robert Bechtle's "Four Palm Trees," 1969

The de Young is a great museum, even better I'm sure, when the textiles are out.

After our museum trip, I decided I didn't want to see any more art institutions, only the different neighborhoods of San Francisco.

Centered around a grand, but somewhat ugly concrete stupa, this is the oldest and largest Japanese community in America. Japantown is like an entire Asian city within a city. We had a lot of fun checking out Daiso, the Japanese dollar store, and the Japanese mall complete with arcade. We also learned that plastic bags are banned in SF and if you want one you have to pay. I loved it!

Stupa (Buddhist reliquary monument)

For caffeine: YakiniQ Cafe. Matcha latte, matcha shortbread, and onigiri. Good spot. There was also a British Japanese tea shop and cos play type clothing for sale in the same building. Atmospheric places.

My matcha latte

Books: Kinokuniya. We stuck around here for a long time. Lots of things to explore. I picked up a few fun things related to Japanese draping techniques and secret household tips.

Oldest and largest Chinatown outside of Asia. Just walking around here is thrilling. I found a small hand, carved from jade, in one of the shops. The lady working there said it was a protective charm.

We picked up some Chinese bakery treats for our adventure.

Fisherman's Wharf
Musée Mécanique, a crazy collection of mechanically operated arcade games and music boxes. 

North Beach
We walked all over from Chinatown to the Wharf to North Beach. We visited City Lights Bookstore, then watched an accordion band at Caffe Trieste (by the way the Africano is what to get). We stopped in Russian Hill where we actually met a Russian man who basically told us he couldn't speak English. Further up the hill I had an unexpected bloody nose. Out of nowhere another man came running over with an entire box of tissues. Bending down to me like a gentleman, he allowed me to take what I needed and then disappeared. In my blood loss induced delirium I thought I saw this tissue savior a few minutes later and yelled out a sincere thank you. I looked more closely and yelled "NOT YOU!" after I realized it was the wrong guy and therefore undeserving.  

I spotted this vertical veggie garden on my way to Samovar Tea Lounge, Sanchez Street. I wanted to revisit this tea place for the simple reason that it is incredibly good. Last time I was in town we went to the Yerba Buena spot but this location is closer to Tartine (convenient for last minute pastries to go). It was much more low key, which I appreciated, especially after several days of failed attempts to get into restaurants on my wish list. I learned: dinner reservations are a must in this city and two hour waits are standard for popular places, including bars!

At Samovar, I got the Japanese Tea Service with Ryokucha Green Tea. It's the most perfect kind of food: clean, healthy, interesting, kind of like a metaphor for the city itself. My tea service included a great variety of hearty salads alongside smoked salmon, a small bowl of soup, and the grassiest, greenest, most delightful tea I've had the pleasure of tasting. Another thing I learned in San Francisco, no one eats tofu or soybean products. It's practically anathema so don't even ask. Anyway, I adore this place and I'll be back a hundred more times.


Recovery Inspir-o-meter

Over the last few weeks I have spent an ungodly amount of time bedridden for recovery purposes. I hate being less than active, but trying to rush the process always wiped me out, plus it's pretty important that I not mess around with the required recovery. So with piles of library books and films on my night stand I gave in. A rough general theme was developed to maximize positivity and inspire motivation to get the hell outta bed.

I pretty much loved all of these.

Man on the Moon, Milos Forman, 1999
I'm not sure why I'd never seen this. An incredible story and I especially loved Danny DeVito's performance.

Slums of Beverly Hills, Tamara Jenkins, 1998
Repeat viewing, still great. Alan Arkin and his band of misfits.

Walker, Alex Cox, 1987
Brilliant ideas here from the director of one my favorite films, Sid and Nancy. Absurdist surreal tale of colonization and the shifting of ideals in the onset of madness. Loved the film score by Joe Strummer and performance by Ed Harris.

Even the Rain, Iciar Bollain, 2010
Provocative look at what it means to make a modern film about colonization in a country, Bolivia, that is being controlled by their own government and exploited by the film industry for cheap labor. This one, beautifully shot, stayed with me for days bringing questions of exploitation and the human cost of making art.

La Jetee/Sans Soleil, Chris Marker, 1963
Stunning. I appreciated the attention to rituals, the thoughtful ruminations on existential ideas, and the photography was achingly gorgeous. I miss film and its tangibility.

Consuming Spirits, Chris Sullivan, 2012
Out for the evening! Lucky us, this was showing at the MFAH with the artist present, one night only. It's a real heartbreaker in many ways. This film, a product of obvious painstaking work, represents 15 years of passionate tenacity. The tale is utterly original, with the added bonus of being unconsciously strange, both in content and in detail. Sullivan makes fantastic use of the different media and uses them to help the viewer keep track of the complex drama. At times it was somewhat grotesque to look at, the realism found in mundane activities is laid bare and it's unattractive, the truth. Fascinating. Best seen on the big screen.

Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul, 2012
Maybe the most inspiring of all and a true story that is unbelievably uplifting. I aspire to be as modest, chill, ready for anything, and totally hardworking for the benefit of my children as Rodriguez. What a star.

I didn't fare as well here.

Just Kids, Patti Smith, 2009
A quick read by the estimable Smith. Although it charted an interesting time period, there was something about it that put me off. The somewhat pretentious literary references and lofty writing style, too many famous personalities, I don't care so much for poetry? The end felt rushed and amateurish. Not very compelling.

This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, 2012
I was excited about this. I even ordered it from another library and had it delivered to the Montrose branch. While I do like Diaz's writing style, I find it similar to other writers that I much prefer (especially Sandra Cisneros and her spectacular, underrated Caramelo from 2002). Perhaps it's the male perspective or the exhausting objectification of women and in this case, the anti-Boston angst (bad timing). The first two parts were easy, entertaining, too, but the conclusion was a real bummer. I suspect there's a larger point connecting these stories, but either I'm not the targeted audience, I didn't get it, or I didn't care. The one element I did appreciate was the sensitive and honest insight into the Latino male experience.

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer, 1475
Never read it, always meant to. Super.

Lucky Girls, Nell Freudenberger, 2003
To be honest, I picked this up based on its cover. But also because the book, a collection of short stories, centers on various female expatriates in Southeast Asia. This was compelling to me for two reasons: 1. I enjoy commiserating with others who find themselves struggling to adapt to new lands. 2. Opportunity to armchair travel. I didn't start this one until the end of my recovery, but once I did, it was the book that most captivated me. Each story was cleverly told and evoked a filmy dream atmosphere. With smart writing, not the self-aware kind, I found simply, an effortlessly gifted writer. Freudenberger, who often writes for the New Yorker, provides rich descriptions for her characters and locations, not by offering obsessive details, but by giving us key information and allowing us to invoke our imaginations, so that these people could be conjured easily. I don't usually go for short stories and I wonder if authors take a different approach when their format is much shorter. In the case of these stories, I quickly felt very familiar with the world in which they were set, and when the end of the story came, sadly, and even without the expected satisfaction of denouement, I missed that particular world immediately as it faded away from coherency as a memory often does.

An then an exciting day out! The Indie Book Fest at the Menil where we saw some friends, had a great food truck lunch at H-Town Streats (fried avocado taco, huckleberry ice cream sandwich, and a bottle of Limca). Besides the beautiful weather, the most memorable part of this event was this thrilling short film by Houston filmmaker, Kelly Sears, shown in the Byzantine Chapel.

Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise

 And now: back on my bicycle and back to work!