June 24th, 2009
Alice and Nicky dropped the kitties off at Conifer Lodge Cattery while I attended to the chap who had come to fit the new kitchen.
After Alice left for Durham, along with her moth trap cum cat entrancer, I packed for Nicky and Marigold. We intended to travel with hand baggage only so I factored in one or two trips to the laundrette on the way.
We stopped by Langley Park to see Mrs M as she likes to see us one last time before we face certain doom on our flight. We took the Thameslink to Kings Cross to meet Coxall and then the crowded Piccadilly Line to Heathrow Terminal 5 and the plush new Sofitel.
When we checked in, it appeared that Cocky had been booked in for the following day. After some to-ing and fro-ing, it appeared that there had been an Expedia foul-up and Cocky was allowed to stay.
We dined at the Roux Brasserie. I had red mullet and watermelon sorbet with watermelon soup, while the chaps had some wonderfully runny cheese which I was not permitted to have due to Marigold. I vowed to take a trip to Rules immediately following delivery, where I would simply demand the cheese trolley and a half bottle of port. It’s only a short cab ride from UCH.
I had a poor night’s sleep due to arctic air conditioning and a 300 tog duvet. Duly knackered, I stumbled onto the Heathrow Express to Terminal 3 and a crowded check in hall. Fortunately a nice lady called Bee checked us in from the queue as we only had hand baggage, and we headed for security.
I was searched and while the security attendant was industriously measuring the blade on my nail scissors, my boarding pass went missing. I asked the security guards if they had seen it, and they looked around in a desultory manner and then shrugged in that public sector way which means “too much bother” and proceeded to ignore me. Fortunately Bee was still hanging around and she kindly escorted me through security along with a chap from defunct boy band, Blue. Meanwhile, the chaps had gone through security and had started phoning me and sending terse text messages admonishing me for being a Lady and disappearing into a shop selling Lady things.
I caught up with them and we went to the Virgin clubhouse for some much needed breakfast and tea.
I was refused a facial because of Marigold, which I found hilarious. However, while Nicky had his desperately required haircut, I was permitted a pedicure.
On the way to the plane, we stopped at Boots for some painkillers for Cocky, who had broken his shoulder. I was kept waiting in the line by a woman who was complaining that the airside Boots did not stock a particular homeopathic remedy for jet lag. I refrained from pointing out that it really didn’t matter what sort she chose in order to expedite things.
Before we boarded, I was asked to lift my suitcase to prove that it was under the regulation 8kg weight for hand baggage. I pointed out that I wasn’t quite foolish enough to pack a bag I couldn’t lift and demonstrated this fact. I was then permitted to board. One of the flight attendants offered me a half glass of champagne. Being French, he was quite taken aback by Nicky’s forbidding me to have any more, and whispered that he’d let me have as much as I wanted.
The flight was quite bumpy. At one point I spilled nearly an entire cup of tea everywhere. Two flight attendants offered to clear it up and bring me a fresh cup but I pointed out that (a) the mess had already been made and (b) until the plane stopped pitching back and forth, there seemed little point in making it worse. The flight attendants went back to delivering individual ice cubes to the demanding and vv rude lady next to me, who also had the most revolting phlegm riddled hacking cough I’ve ever heard outside a TB ward. She was coughing almost constantly, and when she had her nap snored so loudly and strangely that I wondered at first if she was on oxygen.
I tried to have a little nap myself, Aranovitch’s chapter in Voodoo Histories on the assassination of Trotsky being very soporific, but only managed to get an hour or so. I watched a Horizon documentary about fat people, about 2 minutes of High School Musical 3, Coraline and Shopaholic, which is utterly terrible and can be redeemed only by saying that the screenwriter is slightly less illiterate than the original novelist.
We landed on time in SFO and scuttled to the front so as to be first through immigration. We did not need to wait for our baggage, and so went straight to the BART. The ticket machines were vv confusing so I was glad I had done my research. The trains are fast and clean, and we were soon at Powell Street.
Never wander round Powell Street and Market with a map and look lost. Strange men proffering empty cups and smelling of wee will offer to help. The distance to our hotel, from my research, was reckoned at just over half a mile. In my slightly zombified state, I sternly told the chaps that a cab or the cable car would be ridiculous, and that we would walk.
Having been to SF before I really should have known better. The walk up Powell to California is almost vertical in places. It was very hot, sunny, and we all had bags to carry.
Somehow, and fortified along the way by a trip to a corner store for Snapple and crisps, we made it to the Huntington Hotel, which is exceedingly posh and not used to having three dishevelled, sweaty people turning up and claiming to have paid in advance. Eventually we talked our way in and had a much needed freshen up in our rooms before venturing out again in search of food.
We found it at tourist trap extraordinaire, Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf: tomato soup in a sourdough bread bowl with unlimited refills of root beer. Thus fortified, we visited the sea lions and marvelled at the 57 varieties of tat the place offers. We had ice cream, and then attempted to get the cable car back before being beaten back by the massive queues. A taxi was procured instead.
Coxall still needed more painkillers, so he and I took one last excursion to the corner store: he for Advil and me for cereal and milk for when I would inevitably wake up hungry in the middle of the night.
I fell asleep to Robot Chicken Star Wars and the Squidbillies on Adult Swim.
Surprisingly, I managed to sleep until about 7.30am, when Coxall called our room, bored, and wanted breakfast. By the time we were ready, Coxall had disappeared, and Nicky began panicking in case he’d fallen in the shower. I eventually called his mobile, Nicky telling me all the while that it wouldn’t work because Coxall’s iPhone was too expensive to run in the US. Coxall answered and said that he’d gone to take photos and had bought us all MUNI passes for the next three days. Hurray.
We had breakfast in the hotel, which was expensive but very nice.
Onwards, (after a shower) we took the cable car down to Market Street. Coxall wanted to visit the Apple Shop to find out why he was paying a fortune for international roaming on his data. They couldn’t tell him, so we were directed to the AT&T shop down the road. Apparently O2 have locked him in worldwide.
We took the no. 5 trolley bus to Ocean Beach. This bus goes along Golden Gate Park and terminates at the beach. The sand was very hot, which contrasted with the sea, which was very, very cold. Swimming is not advised here due to the waves and the strong rip currents, but surfers in sturdy wetsuits do brave the conditions.
We took the 5 back as far as Castro, and walked down it in search of rampant homosexuality and some lunch. The Castro by day is very clean and smart, and I stopped off for some excellent bubble tea before we decided to have lunch at Harvey’s. Coxall tried the bubble tea, and had to have the concept explained to him, but decided he didn’t like it. At Harvey’s (named after Harvey Milk), Nick and I shared some nachos while Coxall had a BLT.
We took the F tram back into town. The F line consists of vintage trams sourced from all over the US. Ours dated back to 1947. The F transits the hippie area of Haight-Ashbury and down along Market Street, the Embarcadero and the piers, ending up in tourist trap Fisherman’s Wharf. We intended to buy tickets to Alcatraz but soon learned that the misleadingly labelled kiosk only sold tickets for cruises around the island, not tours on it. We had to schlep back to Pier 33 for those.
Nicky had seen a sign for a Segway tour and insisted that we go and find out where and how to book. He insisted that either me or Martin should accost a passing stranger and ask them, but Martin refused and instead looked up the location at vast expense on his Iphone. We walked there and I was refused admission on account of Marigold. Nick and Martin booked a tour for the next day, however. I didn’t mind really as the tour cost $70 a head.
Following the successful booking, we intended to get the F tram back but found the queue to be immense, as was the line for the cable car. Adept tourists, of course, know to pick up the trams and cable cars a stop or two down the line to avoid waiting. We, naturally, are not adept and ended up giving up and taking a cab back to the hotel.
After some time sitting by the hotel pool and looking at photos, I realised that I was ravenously hungry – the kind of hunger that shuts down rational thought and leaves one a starving zombie only able to insist that it needs feeding immediately.
We found a diner close by and went there. Although Lori’s Diner is a “roadside” rather than a “New York” diner and therefore did not serve chicken soup, lox and the like, I had mushroom soup, a turkey sandwich and a massive chocolate milkshake with cream on top. Nicky had a vegan salad with egg and ranch dressing, while Coxall had some rather exquisite southern fried chicken.
After feeding, the Coxall became quite active and departed to visit SoMa, or South of Market, to find a bar. It turns out that San Franciscans don’t really go to bars until Sunday afternoon, but he had a nice chat with a Filipino bear who studies at Goldsmiths College in London.
Nicky and I went to bed to Adult Swim, meanwhile.
The boys were up early for their tour, and I accompanied them in the hope of breakfast. I had the brilliant idea of buying takeaway pastries and coffee, but this meant we missed the first cable car and were turfed off the second for having food. We ended up walking down to Fisherman’s Wharf instead. I hung around the Segway tour centre to film and photograph the chaps while they trained, and noted the unenforceable (in the UK) exclusion clause in the waiver that they had had to sign.
I took the cable car to Market in order to purchase some maternity clothes as I had discovered that morning that nothing in my suitcase actually fitted me. This was annoying for all sorts of reasons, not least that the world of maternity trousers is a deeply confusing one and led to my being welcomed to Baby Gap. However, I found a pair reduced from $60 to $20, so I suppose that counts as a win. I also purchased a tent which will come in useful after pregnancy if I want to take an impromptu weekend away somewhere.
That done, I took the F back to the wharf. Unfortunately it was pretty full and I was kindly elbowed out of the way in order that a man’s teenage daughter could take the last seat. Her father spent the journey jabbing me in the bump with his bag, which was quite annoying. However, the annoyance soon ceased when a passenger managed to break the tram doors. After scolding the passenger, the driver turfed us all off and announced that no traffic would be moving until the tram was fixed. I started walking again and was about to get the no. 10 bus when I noticed that the trams were moving.
Onwards to Fisherman’s Wharf, on a tram full of Australians… I met the chaps on schedule and was annoyed to find that they’d had a lovely time without me. We had brunch at the Buena Vista, famous as the place where Irish coffee was invented.
Following brunch, we opted to go over the Golden Gate Bridge by bus. I pointed us in the right direction to pick up the bus as directed by the guide book, but a bus stop did not seem to be forthcoming. Instead we walked down to the Marina and the Presidio. We had an organic hot dog and Coxall had an organic diet coke sweetened with Salvia, which is still just as disgusting as normal diet coke. We then messed about on the beach and Nicky took lots of photographs of dogs. I dropped the lens cap in the sand, which is why it now no longer works properly. A small child attempted to climb into my lap in the apparent belief that I was his mother. We agreed that we wouldn’t tell his real mother. We then crossed over to see the bizarre Palace of Fine Arts, a collection of pseudo-Greek follies next to the children’s museum, the Exploratorium.
At the Palace, we saw a woman towing her daughter on a long branch. The woman was told to stop doing this by two stroppy old biddies who complained that the activity was kicking up too much dust.
We walked back via the Safeway, for tomorrow’s picnic. I had a sit down outside and watched as a pair of cyclists paused for refreshments. One went inside to buy drinks and came out with a bottle of water and a can of what turned out to be a mixture of Bud Light and Clamato (tomato juice with added clam). He took a sip and went green – he explained that he’d thought it was just plain cold beer, but the tomato and clams came as something of a shock. I said I was relieved it had been a mistake as I was wondering what sort of person would drink that.
We then took the cable car from Taylor and Bay. There was still a queue but we were entertained by a busker and his trained pet rabbit, who hopped amongst the crowd. I tucked a dollar bill into the bunny’s harness for the busker before boarding the cable car back to the hotel. I sat next to an Australian toddler called Haydn. I know his name because his father kept telling Haydn off. First, Haydn used me as a ladder to clamber onto the seat. Then, Haydn pointed excitedly out of the window at a derelict Chinese wholesale bakery and announced loudly that this was where he was staying. Finally, Haydn began licking the window. I mildly pointed out to him that he shouldn’t do that, and when Haydn began rubbing the spit all over the window, I cracked up, which caught his father’s attention and no doubt compounded his already considerable embarrassment. “Don’t lick the window, you’ll catch a disease!”
We gambolled around by the pool at the hotel. The boys went in the jacuzzi but unfortunately I could not due to Marigold. However, I put my feets in for some welcome relief – like an idiot I had not worn my lovely comfy Timberland sandals and my feet were very painful as a result.
Duly jacuzzied, we set out at about 9.30pm to Chinatown and to the restaurant our concierge had recommended. We realised that Chinatown residents go to bed quite early – most restaurants close before 10pm here. However, our place was open.
The menu was quite hardcore. We’re not used to American Chinese restaurants, I suppose. Barbecue goose entrails with sea cucumber in porridge did not really appeal that late at night. However, our order arrived quickly, in enormous portions and was delicious. The couple on the next table seemed to have over ordered and after taking a couple of mouthfuls sat back with sour looks on their faces, sipping the Chinese wine they had also over-ordered. I felt a bit sorry for the waiter as he cleared up the tableful of uneaten food, and embarrassed when I realised the couple were British.
Back at the hotel, we had Adult Swim, a bath and bed.
Ooh, a lie-in. We did not have to get up for Alcatraz until 2pm. The day started bright and sunny.
We had breakfast at Lori’s Diner again – eggs over easy for me and short stacks for the chaps. Martin also opted for the biscuit in gravy, which turned out to be four biscuits (savoury scones) smothered in what appeared to be ham and mushroom soup. He was defeated after two biscuits but the waitress was suitably impressed.
We took the cable car down to Fisherman’s Wharf and walked to Pier 33. I went ahead to bagsy our place in the queue and check in. We slathered sunblock on ourselves in the line. The ferry to Alcatraz only takes 12 minutes or so – apparently the swim can be done but will take a determined person (in a wetsuit) about three hours. The prisoners were kept on the island through a combination of rumour (that the bay contains man eating sharks), temperature, distance and currents. Only one person managed to make the swim and survive, but he was washed up in such a poor state that he was retrieved and back in the prison hospital by suppertime. As we drew near, it appeared that our sunblock was unnecessary. One of the famous SF fogs had drawn in and the island was cold and overcast with a howling gale – this is the usual climate on the island and was what the prisoners had to contend with most of the time.
We took the audio tour and Martin and I noted that the level designers of Half Life 2 must have had Alcatraz in mind when they created Nova Prospekt. We both had the urge to summon our antlion army to overpower the waiting Combine.
We had our picnic of rubbery American cheese, chicken legs, chips, dips and Oreos outside in the wind, and then toured around the museum part of the prison before taking the ferry back. Martin separated from us in order to go to the shops and purchase some t-shirts and a pair of jeans to replace the pair that had disintegrated in his luggage en route.
Nicky and I went to outdoor shop Patagonia, which is a bit like walking into my sister’s wardrobe – everything is high-tech, drip-dry, high performance and divided into base, middle and top layer. I wanted a collapsible jacket which would offer some wind and rain protection but be less annoying to transport than either my normal coat or an umbrella. The man on the till suggested that I could clip my chosen jacket to my belt when I went climbing, and asked me how Gordon Brown was. I explained about the expenses scandal and how good Chip and Pin was.
Like sensible tourists, we took the cable car from a stop or two beyond the turntable, thus bypassing the huge queue.
I suggested a trip to the Cheesecake Factory for dinner, and after a swim we set out. Unfortunately the place was heaving and we were told that we’d face a good two hours’ wait for a table. Nicky threw a strop so we took the Muni Metro (an underground tram) to Embarcadero. This meant that we had now taken all the forms of public transport in the city apart from the bog standard motor bus.
San Francisco is a very sleepy town and, again, most places seem to be lunch-oriented. There are plenty of restaurants and the like, but they are dotted around and you really have to know where you’re going before you set out. Most good places are in the Mission district, quite far from where we were. However, I happened upon a burger place called Automatic Refreshment and we were served with three excellent burgers. Well, I wasn’t. The menu said the burgers were served medium, i.e. slightly pink. Mine was completely pink and whilst I wouldn’t ordinarily mind I felt I’d already gambled that day on the underdone eggs I’d had at breakfast, so requested that my burger spend a bit more time on the grill. The waitress was very nice and brought me a fresh one (which was when I realised the first one hadn’t exactly been straight off the grill…), done all the way through.
Martin again disappeared in order to go and meet a friend who worked for LiveJournal (yes, I didn’t think it was still going either) and Nicky and I took the secret other cable car which goes from the Embarcadero end of Market all the way along California and right past our hotel.
Nicky found out about the cab arrangements for tomorrow. A cab, from the hotel, to the Jack London Square Amtrak station in Oakland, would take about half an hour and cost $40.
Bed to the unfolding scandal about Governor Sanford and his Argentinian floozy. Apparently he loves her tan lines…
Thinking, reasonably, that our train left at 8, I got up at 6.30. Nicky complained that we would be twiddling our thumbs for ages because the train in fact left at 8.50. I doubted that somehow and was right because when the time came to check out, he and Martin were still footling about looking for random socks.
I asked the doorman to get us a cab for the Jack London Square Amtrak station in Oakland. A cab was duly procured and Muggins here had to sit in it for ages while Nick and Martin completed their toilet and ambled through the hotel. The driver asked me where I wanted to go and I said Jack London Square Amtrak station in Oakland.
“Oakland?” he asked. “Oakland,” I said.
When we set off I had an odd feeling that we would end up somewhere wrong and indeed we did – the other Amtrak station on the other side of the Bay Bridge. The cab driver reacted in disbelief when we told him that there was another station and he had to stop twice to ask for directions. He explained that cab drivers in SF don’t like going to Oakland as it usually means they’re going to get murdered. He also said that he had never, in five years, been to this other station.
I was therefore absolutely right to have gotten a cab so early, as it meant that even taking account of the diversion, we arrived at the correct station with plenty of time to pick up the tickets and have a nice cup of tea from the Yia Yia Cafe nearby.
The train arrived, astonishingly, on time, and lumbered off with us on board as we started breakfast. French toast, tea and orange juice was had in the company of a pleasant chap travelling from Seattle to Los Angeles on business.
The Coast Starlighter has palatial first class cabins and a lovely parlour with huge windows for you to admire the countryside… and the trailer parks, dusty agricultural towns and scrapyards.
We soon settled into the rhythm, which is basically to sit around, read and sleep, until it is time to be fed again. Lunch was a grilled cheese sandwich followed by chocolate ice cream and all the Sierra Mist we could drink. Jarring our calm were two obnoxious teenage boys who seemed to think that it was OK to tear up and down the train, shrieking and yelling. Their parents seemed to think so too and were eventually told to restrain them by the train staff.
By the time dinner came around, with the announcement that Michael Jackson had died over the tannoy, we were travelling along the Californian coast with its many, many RV parks. We must have seen hundreds ranged along a coastal road, right next to the beach.
We arrived in LA an hour early and traversed Grand Union Station, which is an incredibly beautiful place, tiled in subtle shades of terracotta and chocolate brown.
We took the special bus to LAX to pick up our car, as for some reason all the car rental places in the station close at 5pm.
LA is basically a series of strip malls joined together by traffic jams. We drove down to the seaside town of Santa Monica and checked in at the elegant Fairmont Miramar Hotel, which is very swish and not used to the likes of us turning up at 11pm.
We watched the rolling news about Michael Jackson and had room service chicken soup, which was excellent.
We had a little sleep in and Nick was distraught to see that the sky was overcast. However, as we had our breakfast (included in the room) the clouds began to clear up.
We decided to go to the Third Street Promenade, cited as one of the nicest places to walk in LA. However, given that nobody walks anywhere in LA, that’s not necessarily a good thing. The promenade is lined with shops and cinemas and street performers, along with topiary dinosaurs. We had fro-yo at Pinkberry before setting out for Mulholland Drive via Hollywood Boulevard. This drive gave us the chance to experience the real LA – that is, sitting in heavy traffic for hours on end. The boulevard was closed to traffic due to the weight of Jackson mourners clustered around his surrogate star (the real one being obscured by scaffolding for a forthcoming film premiere).
Mulholland Drive offers ravishing views of all the city for miles and miles. We stopped frequently, including one stop at a dog park to talk to the doggies. Coxall was happily petting an elegant grey doggie and I observed that this was an example of the much maligned American pit bull. Far from the squat Staffordshire cross breeds beloved of council estate hard men, this is an intelligent, gentle but powerful dog.
We left as one dog walker lost control of her pack, who as a dog were busily bullying a woebegone Alsatian who had decided to dry-hump one pack member too many.
We traversed the famous LA rush hour and realised that we hadn’t had lunch. I went to eat Oreos in our room while Nicky parked the car, and after a quick visit to the beach I booked the Gaucho Grill while the boys played in the sea. For some reason I had decided it was an hour later than it actually was, so we arrived in plenty of time for our 9pm booking. We were seated in any event and I had a lovely steak with spinach, courgettes and mash.
We walked down the promenade again, past the fire eaters and freaks, down to Santa Monica Pier. This is an old-school boardwalk although it does come, being LA, with a giant attached parking lot.
We chose to have a stick of cotton candy bigger than my head as we walked around the rides and games.
Bed was accompanied by more Jackson.
Breakfast, packing and checking out. Nicky was perturbed to be presented with a three-figure bill for our breakfasts but this was soon readjusted when he pointed out that breakfast had in fact been included.
We drove down to Venice Beach via Whole Foods for provisions and were lucky to get a parking close to the beach itself. Pausing for a hot dog, we walked down towards the famous Boardwalk, lined with strange people, stalls and kittens.
We could have stayed there all day but we had to press on to Vegas. It took ages to leave the LA city limits, accompanied by 80s soft rock (which seemed appropriate) on the radio.
The drive across the desert is very beautiful and very long. We paused for a pit stop in the searing heat – someone had seen fit to build an outlet mall there. I noticed there was a great deal of litter, and that the landscape was marred every now and then by giant billboards.
We saw Las Vegas long before we arrived – glinting buildings appeared out of nowhere. It’s an impossible city in the wilderness.
We parked and checked in at Treasure Island. Nicky and I got a suite, which was nice, on the third floor, which was not so nice – I had told the hotel of my condition and I guess they’d interpreted it very literally as we soon realised we had been given a disabled room. No matter, the room was huge and came with two toilets.
Once checked in we went to find the Posi redshirts, who were firmly ensconced in the Mirage poker rooms. One frozen virgin daquiri later, I was ready for bed.
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