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More Dispatches from the Magic Kingdom

Suggested song: San Francisco Days, Chris Isaak
Suggested drink: tremblement de terre (earthquake) cocktail: equal parts absinthe and cognac, attributed to the late great French painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

san-franciscoAgain I descend from the clouds over San Francisco for a 10-day visit to this kingdom of magic. It’s an interesting time to take the pulse and gauge the temper of America from a very unconventional American assemblage. And few cities are more interesting to write about than Bagdad by the Bay.

February can be an unpredictable time to visit and indeed the rains this winter  have been biblical. Reservoirs are flooding, dams are bursting, avalanches are sliding, and all the anxiety over drought concerns seems suddenly quaint, … for the moment.

But Provence weather has followed our flight all the way from Marseille and our first 2 days in country have been sunny and warm. Not quite tee shirt weather yet, but the umbrellas and raincoats are safely tucked away. Fingers crossed for the rest of the stay. Onward!

Dispatch #1 – Something in the Air

The veneer of life in San Francisco is largely unchanged from my trip here last fall. It remains a city of hyper-active super achievers. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a jogger. Lululemons remain le vigueur for Saturday morning café garb (a yoga matt over your bony shoulder earns extra points). The dinner talk we overhear at a communal Nopa table centers on innovation and investors and the fortunes possible if stars align before the bubble bursts. (Great meal by the way.)

womens-marchDespite the indefatigable positivity that defines this kingdom a destabilizing uneasiness is seeping in below the surface. Trump is not popular here. Signs of resistance are evident in the windows and walls of businesses and homes scattered across the city: Not our President! and Why I Marched and Make America Love Again are just a few examples of the sentiments expressed boldly and widely across this 49 square miles. The new president is an unapologetic technophobe and his economic policies introduce uncertainty into no industry more than Tech, with his promises of lower taxes on repatriated profits (very good) to higher tarifs on Chinese imports and harder limits on immigrant visas (very bad).  74% of Silicon Valley-employed computer and mathematical workers ages 25 to 44 are foreign-born, according to the 2016 Silicon Valley Index.

While the Bay Area still remains The Big Show to brilliant innovators and startup dreamers across the globe, it’s eminence is under attack by other, smaller centers of innovation. America is closing its borders to the best and brightest, and other countries stand to gain. In just one example, the new French Tech Ticket Program awards each year 70 foreign startups (no, they CANNOT be from France) financial support (a 50,000€ grant for starters), free incubator space, and active mentoring for moving their budding operations to the land of great wine and cheese. One of these countries is closing its borders despite no real history of immigrant driven domestic violence. The other is opening up, despite having one of the highest incidences of this particular brand of horror.

It all makes one wonder if the golden sun will continue to shine here for years to come, or rainclouds are forming.

February 13, 2017

Dispatch #2 – Across the Gate of Gold

The SF Bay Area is of course much more than just a center of technology innovation and startups. It’s home to some of the nation’s largest banks, most creative artists and giants of literature, some of the world’s most innovative chefs, … and then there is the wine. We set the compass north and head across the Golden Gate, up through the Marin headlands and past the Sonoma frontier, then point east and into the mecca of American wine: Napa Valley.

napa-valleyThe wine industry commands an emotional center of San Francisco history. The Italians, Germans, and French all journeyed here in the late 1800s, impressed by its rocky rich soil and moderate climate that rivalled any region in the old world for making fantastic vino, wein, du vin (mon dieu c’est bon!). The Valley covers about 42 thousand acres and hosts 450 immoral havens of the fermented grape, the wineries. The biggest names in industry have their roots in this valley: the Mondavis and Krugs; the Beaulieu and Montelena families.

None were greater than the house that Jacob and Frederick Beringer built, established in 1864 and considered the oldest continuously operating winery in the Napa Valley. It is here that our best efforts at sobriety for an afternoon end, led through a private tour and then generous tasting of the really good stuff by a great friend and shameless corrupter, Hubert. After leading us through the nuances of Beringer’s top flight reds, and they were top, we sobered up over Champagne at the ranch of my old pal Chris, followed by dinner and more amazing cabernet at the All Seasons Bistro in sleepy Calistoga. (Yet another great meal.) I slept well.

Addendum: We had braised gently in piping hot, smoothy thick tubs of stinky brown mud, then had our baby pink bodies cleansed and bubbled in artisanal spring water baths, cool cloths over our beading foreheads. The final act at the Roman Spa in Calistoga was a relaxing one-hour massage with lavendar oil, and truth be told I may have snoozed through a bit of that. This early afternoon pampering had been our prep for the wine immersion at Beringer and I’ll offer as my excuse for the wobbly performance by evening’s end. It’s my story, I’m sticking to it.

February 15, 2017

Dispatch #3 – The Great Cheesecake Hunt

How hard can it be to find a great slice of cheesecake in San Francisco? It’s pretty damn hard I’m here to attest, and that’s a reflection of how this town has changed. Apparently the nouveau rich of SF don’t stoop to that pedestrian dessert level.

Cheesecake is one American recipe that the French enjoy. They don’t try to hide its origin or claim some adaption as their own. They list it as cheesecake américaine when offered, not gateau au fromage. Attempts at it – mostly mediocre – are not uncommon on bistro menus across the hexagon, and I have been tasked with finding the real American deal while here in the magic kingdom. “Not to worry,” I’ve assured my traveling companion, cheesecake is as American as apple pie. Try finding that too.

A cheesecake from Zanze's in SF.

A cheesecake from Zanze’s in SF.

There are a lot of innovative, delicious desserts on the menus throughout San Francisco. Nopa, for example, offers cream cheese doughnuts and huckleberry buttermilk panna cotta as 2 options. The doughnuts ingredients: shinko pear butter, nocino raisins, cinnamon honey syrup and fried walnuts. And for the panna cotta: white chocolate labne, puffed grains, cacao nib and candied meyer lemon. We loved our meal there and the desserts were indeed scrumptious, and it’s great to have this kind of creative gastronomy across the city. But some nights I just want a simple (and cheap) scoop of ice cream or slice of cheesecake; something with ingredients I can pronounce and afford. Honestly, I don’t know my shinko from my nocino, but I do love how they fall off the tongue.

Does Bar Crudo serve cheesecake? No. Does Cafe Claude or the Bean Bag Cafe or Mario’s or Napa Valley Burger in Sausalito or the 2 to 3 dozen places I tucked my head into and asked, “Hey, do you guys have cheesecake?”? No. My promises of a quick cheesecake fix were starting to sound hollow, my reputation as an expert SF guide tarnished.

San Francisco has become a thrilling playground and gastro destination for the newly minted techno-rich who don’t blink at paying $3 for a cup of Indonesian bean drip coffee each morning, or $50+ per night on a Nopa dinner capped with huckleberry buttermilk panna cotta, or $60 on 12 pieces of nigiri at Tsunami Sushi across the street. Are they worth it? Your call, but that’s not the point. For the rest of us seeking more humble options that won’t break the bank, like cheesecake, the availability is getting thin. It’s been encouraging to walk along Divisadero street each night this week and see the bars and restaurants humming, people paying, the local economy hitting on all cylinders. But something is being lost in the excess. It’s called diversity, and San Francisco doesn’t want to lose that part of it’s amazing charm and distinction.

Did we ultimately find our cheesecake? Yes, by paying a visit to Zanze’s in the outer reaches of the city’s southwest corner; the fogbelt along Ocean Avenue. Sam Zanze has been making one thing and one thing only here for the past 30 years: cheesecake. And any SF foodie worth their toque will tell you it’s the best in the world, … not only in this city. We would have to agree: light, fluffy, divine. Assignment completed and my reputation salvaged for the moment.

February 18, 2017

 

 

 

 

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Posted by on February 14, 2017 in Essays

 

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The Ties that Bind

Suggested Song: The Ties that Bind, Bruce Springsteen
Suggested Drink: Domain Saint Aix rosé (hey, it’s almost summer!)

I’m back in the U.S. for 3 weeks. I always miss home when traveling, but I’m sharing fun times with people I love, mixing in a bit of work that I enjoy, getting my fix of Americana like smoked BBQ and sweet tea and friendly waitresses who say darlin’, and staying in sunny locales with good wine and lively music. No need to reach for the Kleenex just yet.

My final day before departure was a list of last-minute to-dos that mark the approach of an extended trip: the laundry and ironing and packing, and discovery that my favorite shirts weren’t washed; the inventory of passports and boarding passes and U.S. bank cards that I use stateside; and a sit at the laptop to firm up flight times and can’t wait to see you soon emails.

AixStill, there was time to for a dose of my daily routine, first stop the outdoor market for flowers and strawberries, and surprised to find a good friend back from winter travels and manning a fruit stall. After promises of a longer follow up over drinks I popped over to the roasterie for a rich brew with my morning coffee clutch. We spent an hour discussing nothing more pressing than the current glorious weather, last night’s dinner menus, and who had the best produce at the market that day. I made a pitch for Maité’s berries: unbelievable.

I was back home in time to scratch out a short note (writing letters with a quality fountain pen on heavy parchment is pure indulgence) and a meander to the post for stamps. In a moment of clarity I decided that the ripe strawberries, bought for my incoming house/cat-sitters, would pair nicely with a split of French champagne or Italian prosecco . My guests would be arriving from California after all, so midday here would mean late night there and the combination sounded like a perfect antidote to their certain jetlag. Since my go-to wine shop was en route, I stopped for a recommendation from cave manager Carl and picked up a couple of bottles of rosé for the effort. A productive start to the day indeed.

Lunch and the afternoon followed with the requisite nap, two hours at the desk putting final touches on an upcoming Interprize workshop in Charlotte, a self administered (and poorly executed) yoga session, and a half hour or so at the piano to wind things down. I was considering a dinner of leftover pasta when the invite came to an impromptu garden apéro. The evening was spent chatting with friends and enjoying pan-fried veal cutlets, a spicy simmer of spring vegetables, a simple green salad tossed in truffle oil and lemon juice, and more than a few bottles of well-matched Cotes de Rhone.

My life in Provence is deeply rich, but without the wealth. It’s colorful, luscious, intemperate, unhurried and simple, and it thrives on connection and community. I might splurge on a Saturday night feast for a dozen good friends, then go a week without paying for a meal. We share a passion for food and entertain from our kitchens, comparing recipes and debating our favorite market stalls and butcher shops and cheese guys. With local Provence produce so inexpensive eating well doesn’t break the bank, especially with meals focused more on seasonal fruits and vegetables, fresh herbs and zesty Mediterranean spices, less on a dominant meat entree.

Our Aix circle is a varied mix of expats and natives, runaways and homecomers, bar browsers and homebodies, left-leaners and right-wingers, carnivores and vegetarians and pescetarians and flexitarians, hedonists and innocents and the malleable. Professionally we are a handful of struggling entrepreneurs and industry captains, writers and artists, engineers and admins and bartenders and merchants of mysterious unmentionables. In other words, all over the map in both income and accomplishment. Everyone is pursuing something purposeful but greater affluence is not the guiding principal; status not the binding glue. And this is the implicit thread that connects the group, I believe.

San Francisco1I’ll be touching down in San Francisco in the next 30 minutes and I’m excited. It’s a city of remarkable beauty, diversity, energy, and potential. It has also become a city of extremes and divisions, of unhealthy margins at both ends. The hyper-creative and hard-working tech tribe and the financial industry that funds them are driving an impress economic resurgence. They live from bonus check to options grant, dress their kitchens with high-end stoves and cookware, then eat out because, well, who has the time or energy to create in the kitchen? Mingling with the masses means chatting up the tattooed bartender or speaking broken Spanish with the housecleaner, but these folks are not getting put on the dinner invite list (which is a missed opportunity. Imagine the stories). There is a very tangible caste divide between the have-a-lots and the others in this city that cuts mostly across income and wealth.

To find the strongest currents in the deepest streams you have to move beyond surface illusions. I’m not at all adverse to money, just no longer willing to compromise my lifestyle and community for it. New possibilities open up along so many dimensions – where you live, what you do, with whom you love and commune – when you stop obsessing about the bank balance and status trajectory. I could be dead in a week. Fuck that.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2016 in Essays

 

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New Dispatches from the Magic Kingdom

Suggest Song: San Francisco, Scott McKenzie (written by John Phillips)
Suggested Drink: Irish Coffee; coffee, sugar, Irish Whiskey, whipped cream (the recipe created by Jack Koeppler and Stanton Delaplane at the Buena Vista, 1952)

San Francisco1San Francisco is a gorgeous city full of mystery, magic, and infinite wackiness. It’s a writer’s paradise, a Mecca for those seeking out the unexpected in full spectrum technicolor. And for that reason I love to scratch out a few dispatches when here for a couple of weeks each fall.

First things first: when did my kids grow up between this past summer and today? When did that wild and irascible bunch that needed cajoling for everything from dinner vegetables to the morning routine turn the tables on dad? It’s hard to play drill sergeant when the recruits are first to rise, preparing their own breakfasts, getting their backpacks together, and gently closing my bedroom door so the noise doesn’t disturb sergeant dad’s jet-lagged slumber. Damn.

Dispatch #1 – A love letter

Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

I need to start these posts with a paean to this city I so love. It remains the magic kingdom; an engaging city of elegance, eccentricity, animation, and tolerance. San Francisco is Venus to New York City’s Mars; it’s the Haight’s Grateful Dead to the Lower East Side’s Velvet Underground. It’s a mischievous city, relaxed and sensual, with a wardrobe of faded denim, delicate chemise, and a tasteful leather corset. The classic John Phillips hymn to the summer of love – sung by Scott McKenzie – captured a gentle rebellious spirit that remains 5 decades on. The flower children tuned out and drifted off; the techies have turned on and plugged in. Tying together these tribes and all between is a desire to create something sublime and inviting, … something magical.

San_Francisco flowersOctober is the best month for San Francisco visits. It’s warm and sunny and that cool blanket of Pacific fog tends to burn off by mid morning. Locals call it earthquake weather and indeed the last big one buckled freeways and fell buildings on a warm October evening in 1989, … and revealed the best of the city. With power out, homes dark, and nerves rattled San Francisco’s residents looked for comfort in the masses. Most of the local businesses locked up but the many bars along Noe Valley’s main thoroughfare were candlelit and abuzz. We joined neighbors at The Dubliner pub to share our “holy shit!” moments and a few pints to calm the jitters. Thanks be to god that beer kegs run off pressurized gas. The cash registers weren’t working of course so our barman approximated change with a shoebox full of bills and coins. A lot of free and sympathetic Guinness got poured that evening until the fire company arrived around midnight to shut us down. (Apparently lit candles aren’t ideal in a city full of leaking gas mains.) Through it all the neighborhoods pulled together, the crime rate fell, and the Giants were swept in the World Series. Well two out of three ain’t bad.

I had an early breakfast yesterday at 2nd and Mission with an old friend. I Ubered down there from our home base in NOPA but decided to walk back. A 45 minute hike in San Francisco promises a colorful journey from most any point and in any direction. From SOMA up Market Street through Hayes Valley and past Alamo Square, it’s a ramble through gleaming high rises and indigent lowlifes, chic coffee bars and tagged-up liquor stores, Victorians and Edwardians and tenement hotels and vibrant mansions. Why rush around in a cramped taxi when you can walk and look and smell and hear every detail of this living museum. My two weeks will pass too quickly. Meanwhile, I’ll keep you posted.

October 24, 2015

Dispatch #2: From the Bean Bag to Blooms (and Across the Universe)

beanbagI’ve been taking my morning coffee this past week at the Bean Bag Cafe on Divisadero Street. It’s a classic neighborhood spot with that rustic look: lots of dinged-up wood, a mishmash of sit down tables and stand up counters, 8 coffees and 6 beers on tap, crepes and bagels and sandwiches and vegie omelets, Bob Marley on the sound system this morning. The Bean Bag has a young casual vibe with a lean towards enlightenment (all smoothies with less than 2% fat), falling somewhere between the preppy Marina and the hipster Mission. It works.

Yesterday I ventured out of this neighborhood to the far side of Potrero Hill: destination Blooms Saloon. It was a classic SF weekend ramble, winding down to the Castro, out through the Mission, up Potrero Hill and across the 101 Freeway by footbridge. Just shy of ten thousand steps according to my iPhone (scary what these phones know about us). Sunny and gloriously warm, a light jacket was too much and ended up over my arm.

A diverse collection of grimy tents have sprouted up like mushrooms along a block of 16th Street just past Folsom. A homeless community is taking root here, a refugee phenomenon spreading across the city as the usual encampments – the out-of-site, under-the-freeway bidonvilles – are being cleared out in a bid at urban beautification. It’s a game of whack-a-moll between city hall and the moll caste that is pushing a long-festering problem to the surface.

San Francisco’s homeless dilemma is shifting from an embarrassing tourist irritation to a vexing dilemma for local residents. The city’s impressive economic upshift is not trickling down, and it appears in fact to be making the gap between the have almost everythings and the have absolutely nothings more glaring and noticeable. It is a topic front and center for the upcoming elections and everyone has an opinion on cause and solutions, from the coffee counters at the Bean Bag to bar stools at Blooms.

blooms saloonThere is a multiverse forming here, numerous layered but opposed realities based on income and employment mobility. At least 3 coexist in varying degrees of tension: universes T (for the Thriving), C (the Coping), and BS (the Barely Surviving). The city is in bloom thanks largely to the residents of universe T and it’s a wondrous thing, making available all that one expects from a world-class town. Their sun shines bright and some passes through to layer C, but that’s about it.

I’m hoping that San Francisco can direct its creative energies toward a multiverse in greater harmony. Economic disparities are a challenge for all big cities and there is no silver bullet solution. Still, this is not just any big city. San Francisco has always been marked by its openness, compassion and creativity. Now is the time to find a bit of that magic again.

October 27, 2015

Dispatch #3: The Counter Culture

A dyslexic walks into a bra.

Thursday night

The Chapel Bar, SF

The Chapel Bar, SF

A lone stranger walks into the Chapel Bar, 19th and Mission, pulls up stool and orders a beer. What’s his name, where’s he from, what brings him to San Francisco and to the Chapel? These questions and others are batted and returned across the bar like a lazy badminton birdie, and within 30 minutes he’s on first names with the tattooed bartenders and chatty neighbors, has offered up a brief of his brief and gained theirs. Within an hour he’s getting a primer on the mix of a new cocktail – and sharing free samples – getting the haunted history of the establishment – a former mortuary – and getting tips for the weekend. Before leaving all are invited to his hometown in Provence, and him to a bartender convention in New Orleans next June (the exact details remain a bit hazy). By the end of the night, and sitting in another fine SF drinking establishment, part of the Chapel staff wanders in and it all starts again. San Francisco is like that.

Friday morning

A slightly hung-over stranger walks into the Bean Bag Cafe, Hayes and Divisadero, orders a black coffee and pulls up to his favorite counter spot. The Bean Bag has its usual weekday mid-morning crowd with Mac screens up, ear buds in. Some are multitasking with plates of huevos rancheros (organic black beans, naturally) or similar breakfast selections and Bob Marley, again, is playing on the sound system.

Taylor demonstrating the VR headset

Taylor demonstrating the VR headset.

Across the counter he sees a young, bright looking tech type chatting online. There is a bulky white goggle set next to him, a latest generation Samsung phone attached flush to the front and the Oculus logo on the side. It catches his attention. The techie is a friendly guy named Taylor, the Chief Evangelist, he later comes to learn, for a startup promoting the virtual reality industry. “It’s the Samsung Gear VR system, interested in trying it out?” He can’t resist. It’s beyond cool. The moment he slides the goggles in place the coffee shop is absolutely gone. The first VR app Taylor loads up has him standing in space looking at planets and stars and moons in rotation 360° around him; he turns and there are orbiting bodies behind him, to the right and left; he zooms in and zooms out. Wow! Taylor wants him to try another app. This one places him in a movie theatre. Oddly enough there are others there as well, beside him, behind him, … others on compatible VR systems somewhere in the world, playing the same app and sharing the moment. “Talk to them,” Taylor says, and when he does they talk back and from other distant points on the globe. He’s astounded, he’s sold, he wants one these things. His hangover is gone. San Francisco is like that.

I love France and I blow its beautiful horn regularly in my essays. But there is one glaring hole in its game plan: no counter culture. The French sit at tables, not communal counters and definitely not at bars, and this is a sadly missed opportunity. They are fantastic conversationalists, well read, up on events, love a good debate, curious. To be unexpectedly “adopted” for an evening or exposed to wildly new experiences happens most often when engaging others from a different universe, often when you’re the stranger in a strange land. It’s a beautiful thing. San Francisco is like that.

October 31, 2015

Dispatch #4: An Opportunity Knocks

Golden-Gate-Bridge-BoomVisits-1024x682Now I sit at Charles de Gaulle airport, waiting for my connection to Marseille and missing my kids, San Francisco, and morning coffees at the Bean Bag Cafe in that order. You can only miss something that is not there, can love and appreciate something most deeply when you suffer from its absence. Want to know just how precious someone, some place, or something is in your life? Leave it for a few months.

My two weeks in San Francisco has revealed a city that is hipper, livelier, and more beautiful than the one I quite 5 years ago, even more so it seems than during my visit 12 months back. The waves of money pouring into the city from the latest tech boom are funding amazing restaurants of every stripe, the construction of new campuses and sports arenas and office buildings and museum expansions, and putting a new shine on the historic homes that make San Francisco a living postcard.

Median rental prices in SF. Source: Zillow

Median home rental prices in SF. Source: Zillow

The tide is not lifting all boats, however, and a wicked undertow is making it difficult for a lot of the city’s less affluent (and not just struggling artists and newly arriving immigrants). With the brisk rise in home values, rents, and menu prices even the fully-employed mid-class are feeling the pinch. Note that the average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in October was $3,670. A burrito at the Little Chihuahua on Divisadero cost me about $11, a cheesesteak across the street at Jay’s ran $10. Both were beyond delicious, neither place was fancy. For those who can afford it: fantastic! For those who can’t: ouch. And beyond ouch for the emerging tent city caste springing up along 16th Street and elsewhere, as I mentioned in Dispatch #2.

Is there another city in America with the abundance of resources and resourcefulness that San Francisco enjoys at this moment? This blessing offers an exceptional opportunity to demonstrate its claim to distinction, to the title of Magic Kingdom (well to be fair, that’s a claim I grant unconditionally). The city is chock full of curious inventive minds and money. Perhaps the high-flying tech companies – the Googles and Instagrams and Facebooks – that attract this talent and unleash its spending power on the community can consider this as a chance – an obligation? – to direct a slice of their incredible creativity and capital toward urban solutions to the challenges they help provoke. Thoughts?

November 6, 2015

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2015 in Essays

 

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Dispatches from the Magic Kingdom

Suggested Song: San Francisco Days, Chris Isaak
Suggested Drink: Mai Tai; dark rum, lime juice, Orange Curacao, syrup, French Orgeat (the original recipe first mixed by Victor Bergeron at Trader Vics, 1944)

san_franciscoI am in San Francisco for a dozen days, the first time in almost 2 years back to the city I called home for much of my adult life. Anyone intrigued with San Francisco knows that rapid changes are afoot, fueled by the latest gold rush in digital media startups; those brash parvenus like Google and Facebook, Twitter and Tumbler, Instagram and Pinterest, and on and on.

The nouveau rich and ambitious hope-to-bes are spreading across the city’s 49 square miles like kudzu, reclaiming pockets of urban wildlife and subduing the savages, their trailing circus of urban chic boutiques – the juice bars and gelato shops, yoga centers and organic groceries – driving prices up and diversity out, and replacing the riff raff of liquor stores, dive bars, and second hand bookstores in some neighbourhoods with more socially inspiring alternatives.

It’s not all good and it’s not all bad, but it is creating tension amongst the masses and keeping the city abuzz. Never a dull moment in Bagdad by the Bay (a loving reference to the City by the late great columnist Herb Caen).

As part of my trip I thought a series of mini dispatches on observations might keep me busy and out of trouble. Onward.

Dispatch #1 – I Only Have Eyes for You

Is there a more beautiful American city than San Francisco? Are there more beautiful Americans than the San Francisco variety? It is a city made for 360° viewing – the homes, the hills, the uber-fit in their Lululemons – and every venture out is visual banquet.

texting 2Why then does the 4 inch cell phone screen command the attention of everyone all the time and everywhere? To walk through historic Russian Hill is to see a stream of pedestrians on autopilot, eyes down and tapping out text, wholly clueless to the beauty around and obstacles ahead. Couples and friends sit at the trendy wine bars along Polk Street avoiding actual conversation – that audible thing we do with our tongue and lips – at all expense; sorry, but too busy snap-chatting to be distracted with real chatting.

Last night I was enjoying a glass or 3 of delicious zinfandel at Amélie, a comfortable and friendly wine bar in the neighborhood. A young woman at the bar expresses interest in a certain menu offering and asks the sommelier to see the bottle, takes a photo of the label with her cell phone, reads an online review, and then orders a glass. I’m stunned. It would have been a bit easier and vastly more interesting for her to ask the young handsome sommelier for advice or even a taste, no?

On Wednesday evening my Paris flight arrived just in time to catch the first pitch of World Series Game 7 with my twins. Excellent timing! We settled into a table at the Bell Tower, a bar/restaurant on Jackson Street, for what became a tense, exhilarating game, and everyone was on their feet for the final 3 outs. Pure delirium and fans-amongst-fans camaraderie; in San Francisco to watch the Giants about to win it all! I was dumfounded to see many in the crowd pulling out cell phones to record the game’s end. Let me get this straight: we are watching the game on a TV screen, which is already 1 digital step removed from the live experience. Now you are going to watch the game’s dramatic conclusion through your shaky 4 inch cell phone screen, which is recording a TV screen, putting you 2 degrees from live play, and this is enhancing the experience? Can someone please explain?

November 1, 2014

Dispatch #2 – How May I Help You?

One thing of which I never tire is American-style customer service. I love so many things about France, but great service – particularly for out-of-town visitors – is largely absent from there or anywhere in Europe. I can confirm that it remains alive and thriving in San Francisco.

When you’ve been living overseas for an extended period it feels almost unnatural for a waiter, bartender, or store clerk to be so familiar and accommodating. It comes as a shock – a truly positive one – when back at first and being asked about your meal, seat, wait, or whatever. A few examples from these first few days:

The waitress at the Bell Tower, our new nightly spot for drinks and one of the few in the in the neighbourhood where the twins and I can relax together – me with a beer, them with sodas – has memorised our usuals after just 3 visits and greets us with a “howdy, how are you all?” when entering. If we linger at a prize window table meant for diners, never a problem. If I order another round and we linger even longer, never a problem. And now we’re getting the “see you tomorrow?” on the way out. I’m trying to imagine that in France.

Restorante Milano, San Francisco

Restorante Milano, San Francisco

The Restorante Milano is one of the best Italian restaurants in a city full of great Italian restaurants. It’s a warm, intimate neighborhood spot in Russian Hill that fills quickly, lines at the door. I made reservations for 5 people on a busy Saturday night, then showed up with 7. Not a problem at all Mr. Magill, we can manage that. Let’s just move a few things around. Really? I’m trying to imagine that in France.

I was meandering through the aisles of an expansive Walgreens today in search of milk and Q-tips, looking every bit like the lost tourist. I was asked twice by the staff if I was finding everything okay, if any help was needed.

Now, I really cannot imagine that in France.

November 3, 2014

Dispatch #3 – For a Few Dollars More

I love San Francisco’s diversity of options and prices when it comes to eating, drinking, and having fun. Twenty years ago Alexandra (girlfriend, wife, ex-wife, still great friend) and I used to love Bob’s on Mission Street and 20th (or there-about). A half chicken roasted, sides, and a drink was priced under $4, which was an amazing deal.

When did San Francisco get so expensive? The recent inflation in rents and home prices in this high-demand city has been no secret, but the general increase in most everything I’m buying on this trip – the daily staples in particular – catches me off guard. A few cases in point:

  • Tacos and an horchata from El Tonayense taco truck in San Francisco.

    Tacos and an horchata from El Tonayense taco truck in San Francisco.

    Two burritos and horchatas last weekend at Nick’s Crispy Tacos: over $26. Ouch. Burritos used to be a real deal in this town and ran $5-$7 each at our old haunt on Ocean Avenue, depending on toppings. For a glass of horchata you would have tacked on another $1.50.

  • Two croissants, 1 pain chocolate, 1 coffee, at La Boulange: over $9.00. I love this chain actually, but that’s pricey sustenance for a morning stroll around the neighborhood. No boulangerie in France will charge over 1 euro ($1.25) for croissants or pain chocolate, and 1.60 euros (about $1.90) gets you a small coffee. I admit that Paris can be the exception. The last time the French got upset about bread prices heads began to roll, literally. Maybe San Francisco needs a revolution??
  • A decent bottle of California red wine at the Jug Shop: over $20, much of it well over. Yes, a few things cost $10-$15, but those few things are not very interesting. That’s hard on the wallet, especially for nightly tipplers like me. And yes, wine IS a staple of a well-balanced daily diet!
  • MUNI fares for the city buses and underground: $2.25. Less than 10 years ago it was $1.25. Not a huge deal per trip you might say, but when using the system daily, round-trip for school or work, that starts to add up.

I expect to pay up for exceptional quality but where does one go any more in this fabulous city for a great bargain? Gourmet options are great, but sometimes we just want an honest meal. In France I’ve always bragged about San Francisco’s choice of prices and value to friends, insisting that amazing food was available for all budgets. Is that still true? This is one time that I truly hope to be proven wrong!

November 6, 2014

Dispatch #4 – Au Revoir et à Bientôt

I rarely seek out Asian restaurants in France. Twenty-five years of San Francisco dining has spoiled me in that food group; the quality bar is simply too high. France is truly a foodie’s dream – the daily open-air markets, the incredible tarts and breads and cheeses and wine, the exceptional small bistros tucked here and there – but it tends to disappoint in the ways of the wok or steamed dumplings.

Dim-Sum1Yesterday we decided to load up before I shipped out and chose dim sum for lunch, sushi for dinner. Ton Kiang is an excellent San Francisco destination for dim sum, the tapas of Hong Kong. Located in the fogbelt of the Outer Richmond district, the line at Ton Kiang starts by late morning. The variety of small plate bites that pass in a steady stream by your table is astounding: shrimp and spinach dumplings, salt and pepper shrimp (I swear they were still wiggling!), deep fried crab claws, bbq pork buns, pork stuffed mushroom caps, vegetarian egg rolls, and on and on and on. With the lengthy menu of options there is something for everyone, so great family dining. We finished with our customary mango pudding covered in cream. Amazing.

If a vote was held on which food best represented San Francisco I would cast my ballot for dim sum. It is a city full of immense variety, beautifully staged, best appreciated in small bites consumed slowly, plate by plate, neighborhood by neighborhood. It is a city of distinct villages – Chinatown, North Beach, the Castro, Bernal Heights, Russian Hill, the Marina – some draped over rolling hills, others tucked into cozy valleys, and all distinguished by their own tribes and micro climates (and debating their claims to the city’s best weather).

SONY DSCIt is a city of extremes. The privileged old money on pristine Nob Hill perched high above and just blocks away from the destitute in the grimy Tenderloin. The eskimos of the foggy Outer Sunset cover in fleece while the sun worshipers in Dolores Park tan au natural. It has always been a city of old and young, rich and poor, immigrant and local, the prowler and the prey, a colorful mosaic of ethnic, sexual and spiritual diversity.

It is here that I worry. Every city needs an influx of new money and fresh ideas, but not at the expense of its character and magic. San Francisco has a good problem right now: a lot of newly affluent young people are arriving, expanding the tax base but pushing up prices for most everything; hence putting the squeeze on many of the less prosperous residents and businesses. (A bad problem, on the other hand, is capital flight; just ask cities like Detroit or Harrisburg). How this plays out is will be fascinating to follow. I’ll be back to this town I love more regularly for the next few years and writing postcards of my impressions, as always. Stay tuned and until then,

Au revoir et à bientôt San Francisco

Bill Magill
November 10, 2014

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2014 in Essays

 

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Teach Your Children Well

Song Suggestion: Teach Your Children, Crosby Stills Nash & Young
Drink Suggestion: Italian Soda with caramel syrup (my daughter’s favorite)

I am in San Francisco for two weeks, picking up my twins who will spend the summer in Aix-en-Provence. It is wonderful to be back in Bagdad by the Bay, as coined by the late, great SF Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. The impossibly steep hills and colorfully painted Victorian homes, the vintage street cars rumbling down Market Street and Rice-a-Roni cable cars (“a San Francisco treat!”) being pulled up Powell, all cloaked in the mystery of a cool Pacific fog. Sitting at the Lone Palm in the Mission last Saturday night, I crossed paths with a reformed venture capitalist now placing social investments in Ghana. His girlfriend showed us her magnificent new dragon tattoo that stretched from hip to knee cap with great pride. Another round please. San Francisco is like that.

My kids will have great memories of their San Francisco youth. They take the underground metro each morning to the Powell Street station, lug their backpacks past the Union Square shops and through the heart of Chinatown before arriving at their campus on Pine. Some days they jump on a cable car leaving the turnaround on Market, gliding up Nob Hill to the clang of the conductor’s bell. All just a bit more exciting than the rural school bus rides I endured as a boy in Pennsylvania.

Like all parents I often question if I am a good parent. What matters most? Who is the gold standard? How do I make an impression? What is the level of personal investment, support and sacrifice truly required? Do I have boundaries? Am I a bad parent for asking these questions?

Of this I am certain: there is no proven recipe for successful parenting; it cannot be reduced to 7 sacred steps (but wouldn’t that be wonderful?). Each child comes with a unique basket of gifts and challenges, as do we, the parents. Each challenge and every gift must be attended and nurtured in a manner that resonates most effectively, and finding that host of frequencies (which are unique to each kid and change with age) is an exercise in trial and error. Overcoming our own deficiencies is equally exciting.

Of this I suspect: to lead by example is the low hanging fruit. We are all born naked and wrap ourselves in the fashion of conduct and beliefs that mimics our most inspiring idols. These would be our parents, …until the teen-age years of course. And at this phase, when the great distinction between passive hearing and active listening is most truly crystalized, the examples we set become perhaps the sharpest tools in our parenting kit.

Of this I believe: we do a great disservice to our kids by emphasizing the limitless sacrifices we are prepared to make on their behalf. Their own futures are without bound, the possibilities without limit, gated only by individual levels of ambition. All parents must surely feel this way. I want each of my 3 kids to fully explore and realize their personal genius – to “put a dent in the universe,” to quote Steve Jobs – and will be frustrated in the extreme to see their dreams surrendered to self-imposed constraints, for there will be plenty enough outside the voluntary sphere.

Women face the most challenge, equally from external gender bias and their own skew to self-sacrifice. For those of you with a determined young daughter, would you be happy to hear that all has been shelved to support her husband’s journey or raise kids? Being a spouse and mom is rewarding and demands compromise. But, to what level, this is the issue. This will be her personal decision; one influenced heavily by the examples you as mom are setting now. So, is this a good lesson: my talented mother sacrificed all for me so that I could flourish in the world; I sacrificed that for you, my child, so you could flourish in the world; you should be prepared to sacrifice that for your children so they can flourish in the world, ad infinitum? Who the hell gets to actually flourish in the world under this model? Is this a better lesson: my mother was a remarkable success (or at least gave it a damn good try) who inspired me every day to reach for the stars without limit; I am working hard to be a remarkable success and role model who inspires you to reach for the stars without limit (and yes some nights we eat Rice-a-Roni because I just don’t have time to do better, deal with it), and you can hand this lesson down to your own children, ad infinitum. By the way, did I tell you today that I love you?

For parents (moms or dads) whose principal sense of worth and pleasure is based on their children’s fulfillment, god bless. You are a good worker bee, teaching your kids who can teach their kids to also become good worker bees, focused on the spawn and filling a virtuous role. But amongst you and your daughters there may well be a Marie Curie or Joni Mitchell, Amelia Earhart or Julia Child toiling indistinguishable from the rest in the hive. And at this challenged moment in time – environmentally, artistically, economically, politically – do we need more convention or inspired disruption? Is it better to be less the dutiful parent or spouse, more the accomplished individual? Would we prefer that Marie or Joni, both moms of questionable parenting repute, had just stayed the hell home?

There is a wide blur between selfish and selfless, particularly in the parenting domain, and both are unhealthy at the extremes. I struggle to find the optimum balance point, and for many other parents committed to self-discovery and fulfillment this is an ongoing struggle. Of this I know: I am a more complete man for having had children, and for this I am grateful, as self-discovery has become a central preoccupation to my middle age. But I think it is too easy to temper our ambitions, to bound what is possible with kids as the pretext. Frankly, we get tired (dare I say lazy?) and they become an easy out. Our society is biased towards family obligation over individual rebellion, which makes it all the more easy. All for the hive! Shall we leave that to the bees?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2012 in Essays

 

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