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My work sent me on this trip to the Electronic Imaging 2011 conference, in San Francisco. The conference ran from 24 to 27 January, and I attended with three colleagues from work: Chris (a woman I'd worked with on the project I was presenting a paper on), Andrew, and Geoff (a manager). To give us time to get over the jetlag, Chris, Andrew, and I flew in on Saturday, 22 January - Geoff had arrived a day earlier.
San Francisco Airport
We emerged from San Francisco airport about 09:30 and the first point of business was to get to our hotel, the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport, which was where the conference was to be held. A free shuttle bus took us there, and I negotiated the tricky and unfamiliar business of offering the driver a tip after he helped us with our bags. I noticed another person on the shuttle doing it first, so I didn't feel as silly as I normally do when practising this strange custom. The hotel checked us in right away, so we had the opportunity to have a quick shower in our rooms before heading out. We all subscribed to the idea that going to sleep upon arrival in the morning was the worst way to beat the jetlag, so planned to spend the day sightseeing and try to get to bed at a normal time in the evening.
View from my hotel window
We asked the concierge the best way to get into San Francisco from the hotel, and she said to catch the shuttle back to the airport and take the BART train from there. However, I'd researched and found that the Millbrae BART station was only about 2 or 3 kilometres away, so we elected to walk there instead. It's interesting that the concierge never even mentioned the option of walking. The walk gave us a chance to get our bearings and clear our heads, before buying tickets and boarding the train for the city.
Cablecar on Powell Street
We got off at Powell St station, about as central in San Francisco as you can get. Emerging into the bustling city from the underground station was an exhilarating experience, and we soaked in the sights and sounds of the city. By now it was around 12:00 and we were all very hungry, since our last meal had been breakfast on the plane, at about 04:00 in the current time zone. We planned to walk past Union Square and find something perhaps in Chinatown, but even before reaching Union Square we spotted a restaurant labelled "King of Thai Noodle House". We all looked at one another and said, "Yeah!" The food there was exceedingly good. I had a choo-chee salmon curry, in which the salmon fillet was deep-fried, then served over rice with a spicy red curry. Whether it was because of the hunger, or the fact that it was indeed extremely good, it felt like the best meal I'd eaten in ages.
Choo-chee salmon curry at King of Thai Noodle House
Done eating, we continued our walk towards Chinatown, via Union Square. I noticed that Union Square was being refurbished, with the central region fenced off and work being done on the paving stones. This could prove a problem, since I'd arranged to have a Darths & Droids meet-up in the square at 15:00, and I'd assumed the statue in the very middle of the square was the obvious meeting point, but we couldn't get closer than about 15 metres to it. Off Union Square, we found a side street filled with an artist's market, with several painters, sculptors, and photographers displaying their work for sale.
Artist's market near Union Square
This led us to Grant Avenue and the heart of Chinatown. We walked the length of the Avenue, peering into the multitudinous exotic (and kitschy!) shops, absorbing the atmosphere. We passed a bakery which must have had amazing baked goods, because there was a queue for service that stretched along the shopfront, then across the footpath and down a roped off queuing area beside the street!
Grant Avenue, Chinatown
At the far end of Grant Avenue we made the transition into the North Beach/Little Italy area. We continued down Grant for a block or two, noticing that the buildings started to be more residential and seedy, so we turned a corner to head across to Columbus Avenue, the large diagonal slash that runs across the otherwise orderly grid of the city north of Market St. On the way, we popped into a tiny music shop, which I learnt afterwards was called 101 Music. This was a cornucopia of vintage music recordings, playback equipment, and instruments, ranging from vinyl records to cassette tapes, reel-to-reel tapes, and 8-track cartridges, a wonderful 1960s "bubble" turntable system in a clear plastic sphere mounted on a pedestal, old music mixing desks, and ranks of brass, drums, and guitars. There was barely enough room to move along the claustrophobically packed aisle down the shop, let alone pass customers trying to get out as you were going in. Andrew asked about a particularly cool brand name bass guitar he spotted, only to be told that it was a "replica". After several minutes of cramped browsing, we left and continued to Columbus Ave.
The record shop in North Beach
We passed the famous Stinking Rose garlic restaurant. Andrew expressed a desire for something sweet and cool, like gelato. I pointed out we were in Little Italy, so we were likely to pass a gelateria. Sure enough, within the next block of walking we found one! I had a large cone full of "cinnamon twist" gelato, since I couldn't go past the cinnamon flavour from among the vast selection available. It was different to what I expected, with chunks of a cinnamon biscuit mixed in it, but certainly good. We continued walking past Washington Square and the enormous St Peter and Paul Church that overlooks it, although it was cloaked with scaffolding for maintenance. A few more blocks took us to the Fisherman's Wharf area, where I had to leave Chris and Andrew so that I could make it back to Union Square by 15:00 for the Darths & Droids meet-up.
I considered catching a MUNI bus, but realised I was just a block from the Powell & Mason cablecar terminus, and that route ran right past Union Square. So I hopped on a cablecar, happy to pay the premium fare for the experience and more direct route. The cablecar was packed as it left the terminus, and sitting next to me was a woman who turned out to be from Melbourne, visiting her son who was studying for the year at the University of California. I reached Union Square right on 15:00, and wandered around the outside of the fenced off maintenance area looking for anyone in Star Wars costume. Unfortunately, it appeared that nobody had bothered to dress up for the occasion, so I only managed to find one reader by chance, and a second one on a final circuit of the Square around 15 minutes later. Undaunted, the three of us chatted about the comic and then moved on to other things as we headed to a nearby bar to grab some beers.
Sunset over Highway 101 at Millbrae
Around 17:00, we decided to move on, partly because I needed to travel back to the hotel and then get a slightly early night, hoping for a solid 10 hours sleep or so to put me into the right body clock time zone for the morning. I caught the BART train back from Powell St with one of the guys, who was heading home to South San Francisco. At Millbrae, I took a walking detour via some shops near the station to pick up some groceries for a simple breakfast - muesli and yoghurt and some apples. Although my work would pay meal expenses, I dislike fancy restaurant breakfasts and would rather just eat some cereal and yoghurt as I get dressed. From there, I walked back to the hotel, crossing a bridge over the incredible ribbon of traffic that is Highway 101, with a glorious winter sunset playing out in the sky overhead.
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