Friday, February 8, 2008

rouge rouge vin/roadside traveler by proxy

In honor of part of a recent trip to California, I thought I'd share a bit about what happened while a friend and I were in San Francisco. While his blog often talks about various trips he has taken and I'm sure the average bear would rather read his account than my own, this poor impatient soul wants to make some comments on this trip, especially as there are some details that I imagine will grow more distorted as the weeks progress. We did so much that I want to make sure it receives a fitting tribute, and as there are some parts of it that I'd like to revisit in the future, I want to be as systematic as possible. If there are any mistakes, the real roadside traveler can feel free to criticize as he sees fit. Also, please note that the majority of these images are from the web. I use them gratefully.

So sit back and grab some red wine or absinthe (you will see why later), listen to the song on the youtube video below (you will also see why later) while I write a bit about our trip to SF.

The trip began on Tuesday morning with Aaron flying in from SoCal, while I was riding a shuttle from the Monterey area. We both woke up in the wee hours to get this trip started--I had been at a science conference and hadn't slept too much, but got to my shuttle by 5 a.m. We met at SFO airport to take the BART at about 7:30 in the morning.

We spent the train ride catching up and talking about the latest and the greatest in our respective lives. As we exited somewhere around the financial district, we bought a day pass to use all trolleys and buses in the San Francisco area. At first I thought this to be a frivolous waste of money, but as we boarded the trolley I realized this was not accurate. We were only 5 or so blocks from the hotel where we would store our bags and eventually sleep, but the hills were massive.

This was the roadside traveler's elder daughter's doll's perspective of that trolley ride.

So then we were off the trolley and we got to our hotel. One of my first sights reminded me of what is often on my mind when I am away from my family, and that is that I am away from my family. The store that was directly across the street from our hotel was part of SF's extensive Chinatown, and it happened to sell jade. There, staring at my face, was the first of 2 Chinese characters that make up my wife's special Chinese name. I had to take a picture, and so I did.

After dropping our bags off, we walked to the trolley line that would take us down to the piers and other sites.

Before getting on the trolley, we stopped inside California's first cathedral, St. Mary's. If I'm not mistaken, this building was one of the few that remained largely unscathed from the legendary 1906 earthquake. It was pretty nice to see, and from there we got onto the trolley.

While getting onto the trolley, drops of rain began falling at ever growing speeds. Because the piers are such a popular destination, the trolley was so full we had to stand with half of ourselves exposed to the elements. Eventually we got off of the trolley and stepped into the Buena Vista Cafe, which happens to be the home of the first bar to sell Irish Coffees in the US. While I had secretly scorned my SoCal friend for this route of events, getting inside this lovely establishment after the rain and wind was a lovely break.

As you can see below, they serve Irish Coffees in great clear glasses, as is fitting. However, as you can't see below, these Irish Coffees were strong on the Irish and not so strong on the coffee.

The fact that this drink was generous with the ethanol was all the more welcomed as I was warmed on the inside and out even more as we spent time in this fine establishment. They also made me 2 eggs in a snap, that were over medium in the way that I like it, and one can never complain about THAT.

From there we exited the Buena Vista Cafe and proceeded to amble along the area avenues. We saw some old ships and gazed at the golden gate bridge from afar, and we proceeded to fisherman's wharf. Now, in the past I had seen Pier 39 in all of its touristic gloss, but I wanted real stores with all of their character that seems to flee with the varnish of commercialism. This walk did not disappoint. It's a pity we were there in the mid-morning, but we had too many other things to do so just seeing the neighborhood waking up was treat enough. We entered the odd free museum known as the Musee Mechanique, where a hodge-podge collection of various automated machines that peppered arcades and fairs alike were collected into some sort of order. I took a picture of this one, as it reminded me of our culture's unending thirst for sensationalism. There is nothing new under the sun, and no, you sordid sots, we did not pay the quarter to see any XXX images.

After visiting this museum we turned around and took the trolley back towards the North Beach area of San Francisco. If I remember correctly, we then proceeded to walk around this area. We tried to visit a tattoo museum which was closed at the time, and later when it was open we were told by a German lady that the place was now only a tattoo parlor. This parlor became the source of a joke about getting matching tattoos relating to our trip, but thankfully we never drank enough to reach such levels of insanity.

We walked then to visit another historic church, San Francisco's (aka St. Francis of Assisi) Catholic Church, after whom the city of SF is named, where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe tied the knot.

A few blocks later and we ate an early lunch at a marvelous cafe known as Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store and Cafe. While its employees were hipper than Aaron and I could ever dream of being, they were gracious and good servers. Our lunch of fresh sandwiches was well complemented with good European quality coffee, and we journeyed onwards.

From there we visited both the famous (or infamous, if you are one of those establishment types) City Lights Bookstore, which had no less than four books on Orson Welles that I'd never seen anywhere else, as well as the Beat Museum (without actually paying for the museum, as it was not free!).

As you can see by the fragmented word "opless", the Beat Museum was next to a place that was not the most savory in the neighborhood, which does not bother me per se. However, the catcalling losers in front (or would it be dogcalling, as these are men calling men about 3rd party females?) were as impetuous as they were stupid. I had a plot to lecture them on the moral fabric of our society with its disgustingly high divorce rates, et cetera, but cooler thoughts prevailed. I digress.

At any rate, nature was now loudly calling my name (finding a bathroom is among the top 5 of my biggest quibbles with big cities), so we hurried on towards the TransAmerica Tower. Seeing no tourist-friendly entrance, we sojourned in the nearby Starbucks, which had one of the filthiest restrooms by Starbucks standards.

From here we went on to go towards the famous Coit Tower. In climbing the stairs of Telegraph Hill, I was captivated by the fact that I got to see the parrots of said locale flying among the branches(the DVD documentary is worth watching, in my estimation), and the way that the houses on the hill were so well integrated into the heights of the hill. I see a strong resemblance between the way that Tolkien's hobbits had homes that went into the hill, and the way that these blessed souls fill the space of the steep heights. In the midst of this blessing were some curses on the steepness of the lay of the land, but overall it was beautiful.

At the pinnacle of Telegraph Hill was Coit Tower, which was a nice building to climb and see the surrounding areas. The murals on the inside were very reminiscent of Diego Rivera, but they capture the diversity and optimism that California has had, and should always have.

After these wearying climbs, we were in the parking lot and Aaron swore there was a bus that was coming our way to take us away. I didn't buy it, as there were no signs indicating this to be a fact. Eventually, we continued our march bravely on foot, and saw the legendarily looped Lombard Street off in the distance. We made it from Coit Tower to the top of Lombard Street and I took a picture or two of Aaron. Panting and heaving (at least somewhat), we got on the bus and started going back to our base camp, the Grant Plaza Hotel.

I suppose this is a fitting time to speak the praises of this hotel. The Grant Plaza Hotel is by no means luxurious, but for something like 59 dollars per night + fees, frills were not to be expected. We took our bags out of their locker space, and went upstairs. Being a bit tired from the early morning, what was fitting but to have some red, red wine? Nothing, in my book. We shared a bottle of Zinfandel that I had acquired from Monterey, which hit the spot. The rooms were economic in size, but Aaron and I both agreed that we would come back, even with females in tow. Here's a photo of this establishment, clearly taken on a sunnier day than the 1.5 that we enjoyed.

Recharged and exuberant again, we went outside and strolled through Chinatown. We had passed a tea house, so we stopped there to complement our alcohol with caffeine and more hydration, as we had done with the Irish Coffees during the morning's trip to the Buena Vista.

As we pondered dinner and the like, we agreed that a second trip up Lombard Street was both necessary and worthwhile. Why, do you ask? I had taken a picture of Aaron but hadn't actually pushed the save button! Sucking it up, we climbed the summit a second time, this time with photos. I should also say that after all of these ascents, my calves were quite sore for at least 4 subsequent days.

After this second journey up Lombard St., we got a bit lost looking for a cigar shop to get a cutter, but eventually we decided on dinner. A science colleague had recommended a place near Haight-Ashbury called Cha Cha Cha.

En route to dinner, we did manage to see one thing on Aaron's to-do list, the octagon house. Maybe it's because we merely passed it without seeing it from the inside, but this had to be the only part of the trip that was not worthy of a revisit in my estimation. But we saw it, nonetheless, and below you can see a stolen snapshot of it.

Going to Haight-Ashbury was a bit cliche, but what can I say? It was getting dark and we really only cared about getting dinner and relaxing. At Cha Cha Cha, we enjoyed some decent Sangria with our tapas style meal of Latin-American fusion food.

Leaving the hippie area of Haight-Ashbury, we journeyed back to our hotel, mostly on foot. Smoking cigars and talking about politics/Ron Paul after sangria and a big meal is basically my view of heaven, so the fact that it was dark and that there wasn't too much to see was fine by me. We passed by the majestic city hall building, and looked for some place to get a drink and stay warm at night.

We entered one bar seeking warmth in a place known as the Redwood Lounge, but it was completely full of people in suits and my SoCal-based attire just wasn't cutting it. As a result, we crossed the street to the Hotel Monaco, which was just as above us in terms of the amount of money we could spend on a hotel, but the bar was relatively empty. The restaurant wing has a great 1920's feel to it, and it was there that the inspiration to this blog's name was born.

For you see, as we ordered mixed drinks, I saw from the menu that the song "Red Red Wine" was actually written by Neil Diamond. As shocked as I was to learn this, I was even more shocked to learn from the waitress that no one had previously asked her about this. How could this be??? Was it just me or did everyone know that UB40 was doing a cover of the man who sings "Heartlight"? I called my fact hound friend Jim, and he too was unaware of this tidbit of information. A few minutes later I could hear the song via youtube, and it seemed to me like the theme of the trip cohered based on this song. A song where a man laments his love who is far away (in my case, Maryland) finds some solace from the fruit of the vine. Or maybe I was (and am) just waxing poetic. Regardless, after our drinks, we decided to call it a night.

We got back to the hotel at roughly 11 pm, which is early by the standards of most, but remember that we had started our days at 4 am, and child-rearing and science conferences alike are no meager tasks! Plus, we had a second bottle of wine that would not survive the plane trip, and so I had to not waste the bounty of my trip to Monterey. We opened a second bottle of Zinfandel, and the red, red wine made for more great conversation. However, prudence demanded that we only enjoy some of this lovely liquor. So half of the bottle remained unenjoyed. After discussing various theological and philosophical arguments, red, red wine and weariness overcame me, as the sounds of Belle and Sebastian lulled me to sleep.

On Wednesday morning, we were up early feeling fine, and after the functional showers that characterize two guys on a mission, we checked out, storing our bags in the trusty Grant Plaza Hotel lockers again. First on our itinerary was breakfast at a Little Italy establishment that certainly made for my favorite food of the trip. It's a place known as Mama's of Washington Square. I ordered a Farmer's omelette, which consisted of eggs, spinach leaves, goat cheese, bacon, and leeks. The ingredients were all high quality, very fresh, and put together well. They make their own jam that was also a nice tart complement to their sourdough toast/loaf that they serve. The cappuccino that I ordered there was also good, but not up to par w/Mario's.

After breakfast we went on our last large portion of the trip, which was a walk along Golden Gate Bridge. We took a bus that landed right in front of the bridge, and as we were slightly pressed for time we immediately began walking. Here are two sights from our walk from one end to the other and back.

This is my failed attempt to capture the immensity and scale of this great work of architecture.

This picture was taken along the route. Both Aaron and I thought it would be morbidly amusing to show ourselves looking sad next to these phone booths. If you look closely, the writing discourages people from taking their lives from the heights of the bridge, stating that there is hope. Without our wives and red, red wine, we might have jumped.
Then again, with cooler heads, we might have not jumped. And we didn't.

After finishing the walk on the bridge, we waited for quite some time for a bus. Eventually, we got back to the North Beach/Little Italy area, and we were off to our last real stop, the mecca of Beat Poets and alcohol--Vesuvio Cafe.

Now, this place wasn't just legendary, it had the magical ambiance I'd expect from a place like that even when it was around lunchtime. We stopped with the teddy bear to have some cappuccinos, as you can see below.

However, as time progressed and I went to pay the bill so that we could leave, I saw from a sign at the bar that this fine establishment had begun serving absinthe, which was formerly illegal in this overly paranoid country. We decided to give it a go, and we were instructed on the fine art of drinking this drink of lore. The practice of properly sipping of the licorice-flavored liquor is quite elegant, as one starts with glasses of pure absinthe and a leaf-shaped spoon on top. One then places a sugar cube on said leaf, and clear cold water is poured through the sugar cube and mixed into the absinthe. While the liquor starts off as a clear substance, it metamorphoses into a milk-like drink. I took a small sip of it undiluted and it was quite potent. Nonetheless, wanting to follow protocol I drank the rest of our portion in the watered down form. I must say that though it is true that I do not like black licorice, this liquor form was very pleasing to the palate, and the soul. We drank the absinthe as slowly as possible without causing stress about missing my flight.

This stock photo somewhat captures the experience--hopefully the roadside traveler has his own pics of the day. If I recall, he didn't take any pictures because the moment was too cool to stop and take a picture, in my book at least.

Meanwhile, the other patrons of Vesuvio were telling amazing stories about their lives, and all we could do was simply soak it in. One character had one of those larynx boxes to help him to communicate, and he was telling wild stories of days gone, and it was as though we had entered a dream. Whether it was the mere ambiance, the absinthe or both, I may never know. But it was magical. I went to the restroom and took a picture of myself in the bathroom mirror, and it seemed as though I had morphed into the deer from Jagermeister. Was this absinthe not fully purified from its hallucinogenic aspects of wormwood?? Would I, like Van Gogh, end up doing something drastic like cut my ear off due to far-off love and absinthe's delirium?

Then I wondered whether I had started floating, as I looked down on the bar. I kid, I kid-the balcony seating was quite nice, actually.

Seriously, it was a great time to drink in Vesuvio's, even if it was lunch time. So is this the trip of red wine or absinthe? As usual, my vote is for both!
As we left, perhaps the most awkward moment of the trip came, as the bartender had asked us what we do for a living. Here we were in the heart of the free hippie lifestyle, and I was a government scientist and Aaron was part of the collective "man", as a jail deputy! We were treated warmly, nonetheless, and invited back at any time. Hopefully that time is sooner rather than later.

From there we picked up our bags and went on the BART. My plane left earlier so we parted ways at one stop, where, as I understand, Aaron almost talked to the former drummer of Jawbreaker. But that's another story, for another time.

Well, as I close this post, I hope you get a sense of why I wanted to write systematically on what we accomplished in such a small span of time. It was a feat that I will look back upon fondly, hoping to replicate in the details of seeing San Francisco again, and conceptually. Hopefully this encourages everyone to travel more and to travel well! Cheers!

1 comment:

foldreformer said...

A very detailed and accurate account of our trip. I'm exhausted again after reading this account from how much walking we did. But I think you have your facts wrong on how many times we took the transit system- My feet don't remeber getting that many breaks.

Anyhow, aside from editing all the grammar mistakes its a worthy Roadside Traveler read!