Friday, November 30, 2007

Le tour de San Francisco

This is a series of pieces about Jean and Marie-Christine Garapons' visit to San Francisco and surrounding environs.

I have titled this “Le Tour de San Francisco,” and though we covered a lot of ground, we did not race. We would have missed that wonderful quality of just noticing what appears and surprises when visiting a new place (or in my cases, revisiting old haunts). The French also have a word for a person on this kind of journey of discovery, le flaneur.

Though our route and the places we visited might be plotted on a map with a time line, I hope to give more than just our itinerary. Jean, Marie-Christine and I spent nearly 32 hours together, we traveled 243 km (151 mi), and made 28 stops: 6 churches, 3 Museums, 3 hi-tech company HQ’s, 3 universities, 3 ‘real’ San Francisco tourist attractions, 2 university libraries, 1 public library, 1 university book store, 3 restaurants, 1 coffee house, 1 suburban shopping center; we attended 1 concert, and assisted at Mass on All Saints Day.

I have, of course, calculated the distance and the overall time with all the accuracy that only Google can provide. The time in the car vs. the time meandering and prowling are not able to be separated, but Jean never broke the speed limit (well maybe +5 on the freeway), and he only missed one stop sign, which I am told is his habit, and a trait that he claims his children do not share. I could, I suppose, calculate the speed limit on each road and multiply by the distance, or more simply still, just use the estimated time that Google Maps supplies with directions (I did use Google to nail the distances between stops though they do not reproduce well as a map with our route traced out).

They are not a record of conversations, although our conversations are the basis of many of my reflections. Nor are they second thoughts of a tour guide: ”Oops, I forgot to mention this when we saw that,” though I have corrected a few things I said that might give a false impression. Introducing a place that you call home to friends is a lot like introducing them to a lover or partner or spouse (as was the case of my meeting Marie-Christine) for the first time. There are the things that you know they want to visit, “the Golden Gate Bridge, il faut le voir,” and “I hope we can see something of the Silicon Valley. I talk about it with my students.” But even those places live in my heart in a different way, and that is something that I hope comes across.

Of course all my reflections have a kind of inclusiveness: they really could not happen if I were by myself, or certainly not in the same way. It is impossible to calculate the richness of the friendship that we rediscovered. The French however have an accurate way of expressing that quality, the "je ne sais quoi." In English it is more difficult to express the deeper feelings of friendship and affinity without getting sloppy. They are a mystery and a wonder of this life.

About 6 P.M. Oct 30th I finally got the phone call from Jean and knew that they had arrived safely. They did fly into the LA firestorms, a disaster of immense magnitude even by California standards which I will talk about later, and we agreed to meet at a civilized time for a civilized meal. And we did. Marie-Christine pronounced the Tangerine “une bonne adresse.” (I will post their website because they promise to put up some recipes and the food is wonderful. Unfortunately is kitchen is closed at the moment).

Our dinner conversation included all the questions about family, career, health, kids, reminiscences and flashbacks that are bound to happen when you have not seen someone in 40 + years. The time that I spent with Jean and his family was relatively short, September to December, the fall semester, of 1964. I was in my third year at Dartmouth College, and Jean was preparing the bac. But those few months that I lived with his family in Caen were one of the most wonderful experiences of my entire education and my fondness for all the Garapon’s is deep and heartfelt. Meeting Jan again and Marie-Christine for the first time did not disappoint. Though I was struggling with French that has not been fully used, I certainly felt a deep friendship and warmth that transcended the lapsed years.

This is the only photograph that I have from the wonderful fall in Normandy. The woman is Jean’s mother, Mme Garapon, who has just turned 88. Happy Birthday Maman.

We walked in the Castro after dinner. I hoping that something of the legendary Castro Street Halloween would appear trying to dodge the cops.

But there was hardly a wig in sight. City officials banned the traditional celebration, San Francisco’s disordered version of mardi gras, because of violence last year in which 9 people were shot. Here again grace a Google is what we missed. As for hundreds of thousands of revelers, I suppose that 25 Castro Halloweens will have to be enough though I hate to see a good party ruined because of a few people’s bad behavior.

(Oh my G_d, I recognize the guy at the bottom of the picture, center right, just from the back of his head! Yours truly has been to enough Halloween celebrations if he can pick out a friend in a crowd of 100,000).

When we got on the tram, the streetcar, Jean thought it was the cable car. We rode the F line, which is more a working streetcar museum in a city that knows how valuable it is to keep tourists interested. And they actually work pretty well ferrying the locals.

The picture was taken just two blocks west of Jean and Marie Christine's hotel. Click on the photo to see the F line vehicles underway.

Alas, we would not have time to ride one of our Tinkerville trolleys, though when we saw one on its way up Nob Hill towards Grace Cathedral, they are unmistakable! Invented in 1869, the cable cars have been running almost continuously ever since. Like almost every other thing in San Francisco, they were rebuilt after 1906 and again in the early 80’s when I was living on the Mason Street line. (I calculate that I personally contributed well over $2,000 to the rebuilding effort in fines that I paid during the horrendous parking problem when all the streets were torn up). Click on the image to the left to take the ride we missed. Cable cars always have the right of way, and yes, that's really the noise they make! Imagine that outside your bedroom window at 5:30 in the morning.

We can begin our history lesson now: San Francisco is not directly on the San Andres fault, but close enough to feel any powerful seismic shift. Here is a map that shows the actual fault. If you look closely, the point that the purple line (the fault) goes off shore is just a little south of the city itself. When we drove down 280 to the Silicon Valley, most of the ride was directly over the fault line. (This is to correct a misstatement that I made at dinner on that fist night).

Every San Franciscan, whether born or imported, learns that at 5:12 A.M., April 18, 1906, San Francisco was almost completely destroyed.

The extent of the devastation was unbelievable, especially as you live in the City and learn more. But we also learn that we are never defeated by nature: in a little more than a decade San Francisco was rebuilt on a even grander scale. What optimism! So California, so American.

In the next post I will try to describe our visit to the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog. While I was writing, I began to think about how natural disasters are so much a part of our lives here in California that we hardly give them a second thought. Honestly, that is just deep denial, pure and simple.

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