San Francisco trip, part 1: non-work

San Francisco InternationalMy work sent me on a trip to the Electronic Imaging 2011 conference, in San Francisco. This post will be a diary of the non-conference things I did on the trip, and I’ll follow up with a separate post about the conference itself, since some people may be interested in one or the other rather than both.

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.

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.

Powell and Market LineWe 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.

Red curry fried salmon with riceWe 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.

Street ArtDone 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. 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 AvenueAt 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.

Record ShopWe 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.

Millbrae sunsetI 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.

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.

Fruit & Veg Fridge MagnetsSunday was a free day, since the conference didn’t start until Monday. I’d made no plans with any of my colleagues, so headed out for a day in San Francisco by myself. I again walked to Millbrae BART station and caught the train in, this time as far as Embarcadero station. There, I walked towards the Ferry Building, an historic ferry terminal, now converted into a market full of interesting food shops and eateries. On the way, I passed a street market in the process of setting up for the day. One woman was selling hand made fridge magnets, sculpted out of modelling clay into the shape of various fruits and vegetables. I bought a broccoli for my wife (her favourite vegetable).

Cowgirl Creamery CheeseThe Ferry Building was worth visiting, with many little shops selling all sorts of intriguing and delicious looking foods: mushrooms, fruits, vegetables, cakes, pastries, cheeses, and so on. Out the back of the building, it of course faced the waterfront of San Francisco Bay, and heading out there gave me good views of Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands, as well as the Bay Bridge. I climbed up on to the public viewing area of what I guess is an international ship passenger terminal to appreciate the views across the bay.

From there I walked north along The Embarcadero, alternately along the street in front of the various piers with their old warehouses, or along public walkways closer to the waterfront, behind the buildings. It seemed to be a popular walking and jogging route, as there was a constant stream of people heading to and fro along the way, both locals out for some exercise and tourists enjoying the warm sun on this winter’s day and inspecting the sights to be seen.

Pacific Sea NettleEventually I reached the vicinity of Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, where the density of tourists skyrocketed. The first thing I came across was the Aquarium of the Bay. Despite having been to the city three times before, I’d never been inside this attraction. So I paid the entry fee and took the plunge. The aquarium is a little smaller than others I’ve been to, and seems more geared to heavy tourism than the scientific aspects of the creatures and ecosystems on display. Nevertheless, there were several interesting and beautiful displays, with tanks full of fish, crustaceans, and soft-bodied sea critters of various types. The real highlight, I thought, were the jellyfish tanks, which contained beautifully coloured moon jellies and sea nettles. There were also a pair of underwater tunnels with transparent walls, through which large tanks containing rays, small sharks, other fish, and various invertebrates could be watched. These were captivating, although it was difficult to get a decent photo of the many fast-moving fish! The final attraction was a large pair of touch pools, in which small sharks and rays swam about, allowing inquisitive kids and adults to stroke their bodies, as well as a selection of squishy things like starfish, anemones, and sea cucumbers.

ChowderThe aquarium completed, it was now lunch time. I walked across to Pier 39, where on a previous trip to San Francisco I’d had clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. It was so good that time I had to go the exact same place and order the same thing again! And it was indeed again delicious. The only problem was my wife wasn’t here this time to share it with me.

Following my lunch, I did a brief walk around the touristy bits of the pier, then continued my walk along The Embarcadero, ending up finding myself in the Musée Mécanique, a museum of antique mechanical arcade machines, including such classics as the gypsy fortune teller, various “lover rating” instruments, an arm-wrestling machine, loads of coin-operated musical dioramas, player pianos, mechanical pinball machines, and so on. All the items are in working order and still accept coins to operate their various entertainments. It was really an impressive collection.

OverviewIf I’d had more time, I would have continued my walk to Ghirardelli Square and then beyond, but for the afternoon I wanted to visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). I figured the nicest way to get there was to take the MUNI F-line streetcar service back along The Embarcadero and down Market St to a stop near the museum. This was cheaper and more relaxing than the tourist-laden cablecars, and gave me another cool experience of the city.

A short walk south of Market St brought me to the SFMOMA, where I paid the entry fee and was told that the second floor was currently closed. This was disappointing only briefly, as I entered the vast atrium style lobby of the museum, with a steel footbridge spanning the vast chasm five floors above me. The museum is largely vertical in layout, with five relatively small floors connected by a glorious staircase that affords expansive views of the architecturally interesting interior space from all parts. I began by climbing all the way to the top, planning to work my through each floor on the way down.

Smokin'The museum contained numerous cool works of art and exhibits. The bridge across the atrium was itself part of a piece of artwork, a sonic sculpture, in which directional speakers played the amplified sounds of the building itself to people who walked across it. The sounds were collected by sensitive microphones in strategic parts of the building, such as the boiler room, and the bridge itself, where they could pick up the creaks and groans of the building structure as it responded to various stresses. The sounds created an airy impression as you walked across the bridge.

Science!And from here above, a spotlight shone down on the lobby floor below. This was connected to motion tracking software, and it automatically singled out and followed a particular person as they walked across the lobby. Furthermore, directional speakers beamed sounds to the person in the spotlight beam, sounds that anyone outside the beam couldn’t hear! And to make this work interactive, it was actually controllable by museum visitors from a computer panel on the fifth floor, overlooking the action on the lobby floor below. Users could direct the spotlight to track different people.

There were plenty of non-interactive exhibits too, various paintings and sculptures of different types. And there were three special exhibitions: a collection of over 300 photos of the photojournalistic work of Henri Cartier-Bresson; an exhibit titled Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870 which showed many examples of people being photographed without their knowledge, in voyeuristic scenarios, by paparazzi, or by surveillance cameras; and How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now, a collection of displays relating to wine, wine making, wine drinking, and the artistry involved in various aspects of the wine industry, from labels to glassware to winery estate architecture to use and portrayal of wine in entertainment and media. All of these were excellent.

Mexe-MealI spent the entire afternoon in the museum, leaving only when it was getting close to closing time. I ducked into the museum shop to pick up some souvenirs, including a hanging photo display mobile and a set of magnetic sculpture balls. As I was leaving the museum, I turned to take a final photo of the staircase in the lobby, only to see another photographer standing on the staircase a few levels up, aiming a camera down at the lobby area, including me. We saw each other and through a quick series of gestures, agreed to take a photo of each other taking a photo!

That done, I walked back to Market St and the Montgomery St BART station to catch a train back to Millbrae. By the time I got there and began walking back to the hotel, I felt like some dinner. I stopped at a restaurant called El Torito on the waterfront, a block or so before my hotel. There I had a dinner consisting of a chicken tamale and a cheese enchilada, with beans and rice, plus a Corona beer to wash it down. It was different in style to the Mexican places back home, somewhat simpler in construction, but just as delicious. And I even had space left over for a dessert, for which I picked the chocolate volcano cake, named presumably for the hot magma of chocolate sauce buried inside the cake. Thus satisfied, I returned to the hotel for sleep before the beginning of the conference.

Me at the PEZ MuseumThe conference went from Monday to Thursday, and I’ll describe that in a separate post. The conference continued into Thursday, but ended at lunchtime. With Chris and me flying out of San Francisco to Sydney (via Los Angeles) at 19:00, this gave us about four hours to do stuff before having to get ready to go to the airport and check in for our flight. This would have been barely enough time to get into San Francisco and back, so there was no real option to see anything in the city.

So instead I Googled for something closer: “burlingame tourist attraction”. The top hit was the Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia! It sounded kitschy, but a fun enough way to spend an hour or so, and it was walking distance from our hotel. We had to check out by 12:00, so left our bags with the concierge. Fortunately the hotel had a gym and pool, with adjoining change rooms with showers in them, so we planned to have showers and change before leaving for the airport and our 20 hours or so of travelling.

PEZ!But first we headed into Burlingame. Being lunch time, we stopped in at an Italian restaurant for some food. I had a bowl of minestrone and then tortellini in a creamy sauce, while Chris had a veal scallopini with mushrooms. We got free sourdough bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar to go with it. Everything I had was very nice.

Then we walked down a few blocks to the PEZ Museum. I’d naïvely expected something a little grand, but it was simply one street-front shop amongst a row of others lining the street. The front consisted of a shop in which various PEZ items were for sale, dispensers in various shapes and the candy itself. Recent release PEZ dispensers filled a wall, costing less than $3 each. But this was merely the prelude to the main event, as the incredibly enthusiastic guy running the store asked us if we’d like to see the Museum. of course this was what we came for, so we handed over our $3, which the man told us would get us a personalised guided tour!

Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, Anthony Daniels autographed PEZHe led the way through a door into the back room of the shop, which was about the same size as the front room. This was the museum! It was small, but it was lined on all sides with more PEZ dispensers than I’d ever known existed, as well as other PEZ-related items such as posters, jigsaw puzzles, plaques, and even copies of the original PEZ patents! The guy gestured grandly at a poster on the wall and intoned seriously that PEZ was invented in Austria in (whatever year it was; I thought he said 1940, but Wikipedia says 1927). Chris interrupted and said she thought it was American. The guy didn’t skip a beat as he said, “Yes, that’s a common misconception!” He continued with a presentation about the history of PEZ that was, frankly, enthralling, both for his obvious deep knowledge of the topic and his infectious enthusiasm.

He showed off his impressive collection of over 900 different PEZ dispenser designs, which included the exceedingly rare customisable face dispenser – a sort of miniature Mr Potato-Head with detachable eyes, mouth, nose, and so on. It was rare because it was sold for only four weeks before it was banned for being dangerous, with the tiny pieces easily swallowable by children. It was now worth over $3000! Then as well as the officially released dispensers, there was a collection of customised dispensers, with unique figures sculpted by enthusiasts. Mounted on the walls above these were framed PEZ dispensers with photos of various celebrities – the dispensers autographed. There was a Garfield dispenser signed by Jim Davis, a Peanuts one signed by Charles M. Schulz, and various Star Wars ones signed by Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, Anthony Daniels, and George Lucas.

Gilbert Atomic Energy LabBut wait, there’s more! Not only was this a museum of PEZ memorabilia, it also contained a collection of vintage toys, which the guy defined for us as being toys over 50 years old, and still in production. There were antique LEGO blocks, Erector sets (which we recognised as Meccano), Lincoln Logs, Viewmaster 3D slide viewers, and other classic toys. And still more: There was a collection of old toys that were banned for being dangerous, including the infamous Lawn Darts. The most amazing thing was a Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which was sold around 1950 and contained four different radioactive sources and four jars of different uranium ores, along with a cloud chamber and Geiger counter to do experiments with them! Wow, those were the days.

We spent some time perusing all of the various toys in the room. We went in thinking the museum would be kind of lame, but left impressed with the range of amazing toys (and PEZ dispensers and other memorabilia). It was well worth the entry fee and a great time to spend our last afternoon in the San Francisco area. Leaving, I decided to buy a PEZ dispenser for my wife as a souvenir. She likes Smurfs, so I looked for one in the shop area. There were none in the new section, but in the collectibles area there was a sealed plastic bag containing a set of five different Smurf dispensers… for $90. I asked the man if he had any Smurfs that might be a bit cheaper, and he said they were a limited release from about ten years ago, but he thought he had a few Papa Smurfs out the back… He vanished and reappeared with a Papa Smurf dispenser in its original packaging and said it was $9. So I bought it, and he told me the candy inside wouldn’t kill me, but it probably wouldn’t taste very good so he didn’t recommend eating it.

So equipped, we left the PEZ Museum and walked back to the hotel. We picked up our luggage and took showers in the gym changing rooms, then headed out to catch the shuttle bus to San Francisco Airport and our flight home.

One Response to “San Francisco trip, part 1: non-work”

  1. Andrew Hernandez says:

    Thanks for the write up of your trip. I live and work in South San Francisco and really enjoy hearing about peoples adventures around the area. You didn’t mention our beloved “South San Francisco The Industrial City” sign on sign hill. I’ve never been to the PEZ museum and may consider it for a future family outing. The next time you visit, try Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge. Also, try renting a bike and ride around the Fort Mason/Chrissy Field area. Also the Exploratorium is worth the time to visit. One last tip, is a great resource for attractions, bars/pubs, eateries.


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