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The city of freedom

I looked through the window in my hotel room. The grey parking lot was showering in the rain. I have been here for two days now and wasn’t quite sure if I could stand one more hour in this suffocatingly boring place in the north of England. Why can’t my work send me somewhere more exciting? If only I could get a job in San Francisco…

It was April 2014. Exactly one year ago. As the Alaska Airlines flight attendants chirpily announced the descent to San Francisco I sat with my face splashed across the plane window staring at the water glimmering in the afternoon sun. I was the happiest girl alive.

Getting out of the airport took only seconds but finding transport to the hostel was something different altogether. I stood outside the terminal confused with multitude of choices. I could take BART (which I understood was the SF’s equivalent of the tube – or was it?), I could take one of the many minivans, minibuses, taxis or other means of transport which I did not quite understand. Ten minutes and many awkwardly paced lapses later I finally found someone who was just a tad less disoriented than myself. The kind person explained that it would be cheapest to take BART and change few times to get to Chinatown where the Green Tortoise hostel was, but my inner laziness whispered take the minivan. I found some tourists who were way more organized than me and sorted out their transport beforehand. I got on the minivan with them. The hilly drive took a while and when we arrived at Broadway Street it was already dark outside. I expected to feel the night’s chill as I left the vehicle but instead I was welcomed by soft and warm breeze. I took off my leather jacket and walked to the hostel in just a t-shirt. I had already forgotten how nice it feels to have the air gently caress your skin.

The reception of the hostel was wackier than I had expected. Beneath the portrait of Elvis Presley was a blackboard with the word of the day (montivagant – wandering over hills and mountains). The counter was also populated with turtle figurines of all kinds, a stuffed rabbit, pot of sunflowers, maps, hand sanitizers and other various trinkets. Waiting for young receptionist to process my booking I picked up some leaflets from the counter. The drawings of two smiling guys in bowties and hats on the Wild SF Tours postcard were promising an alternative walking tour around the Golden City. I decided this would be a good place to start my adventure with the city.

Before I went to my dorms I stepped out for a smoke with the friendly receptionist. Americans were so easy to talk to. None of the polite chit-chat about nothing – my new acquaintance wanted to hear about my travels, what made me come to California. He didn’t care what I did for living, feel the need to give me any society-approved label or to comment on the weather. Just a real conversation with the cigarette burning in the background.

The hostel was surrounded by Chinese restaurants and strip clubs. I skilfully manoeuvred my way through the show girls inviting potential clients (as well as myself) inside, and walked to the nearest decent looking place. Amazing food and fresh coconut juice made a perfect start to my stay in San Francisco.

Next day I woke up excited. After a quick shower and free breakfast at the hostel (fresh fruit and toasted bagels!!!) I was on my way through the crowded Chinese markets to the zig-zags of one of SF’s most well-known streets.  The Lombard street with its eight sharp turnings is known as the world’s most crooked drives and was built in this unusual way in 1920s as an attempt to soften the natural gradient of the steep hill on which it is located.

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After seeing the urban curiosum I started making my way to Union Square where my Wild SF tour was about to begin. Heading downtown I passed by the Beat Museum, dedicated to the intellectual and artistic legacy of the Beat Generation. In truth, the whole San Francisco was one big tribute to the beatnik spirit of tolerance and individualism. Wherever one walked there were inspiring quotes written on pavements or building walls, thought-provoking murals and people who seemed like Jack Kerouac’s reincarnates.

Once I arrived at the Union Square, famous for the voluptuous statue of Victory inspired by a model Alma de Bretteville who ended up marrying the city’s richest citizen, I found the walking tour in one of the plaza’s corners. A young guy with long wavy hair any girl could envy stood there surrounded by a circle of tourists. In the heat of the day he was standing out with his white shirt, bowtie and a hat. The guide started the tour with a little introduction followed by a song accompanied by the guitar adorning his shoulder. In his song J Jo pleaded that we do not call his home Frisco ( San Francisco’s lamest name, alongside San Fran, apparently).

After his musical performance the modern bard lead his group to a street car heading towards the Castro district, the home to the LGBT community and the human rights movement. This neighbourhood in the Eureka Valley was the first gay village in the United States as a result of the combination of the discharge of thousands of homosexual US army serviceman in San Francisco bay area and the 1960s Summer of Love, also known as the Hippie Revolution. The growing recognition of Castro as a gay haven attracted to the neighbourhood Harvey Milk, who later became the first openly homosexual politician. Milk’s passionate activism is often seen as the first milestone towards equal treatment of the gays and lesbians and together with the rainbow flag became the symbol of what the Castro community stands for.

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From gay rights to human rights, next on the agenda was Dolores Park, popular amongst sunbathing San Franciscans as well as peaceful hippie picketers. Lying on the grass on top of the hill overseeing the city I felt like I was a part of something bigger.

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I used to imagine the States as the epicentre of consumerism and geographical ignorance, but the West Coast forced me to change that ill-informed opinion. People in San Francisco were devoted to social issues. Outside the shops I saw groups with banners informing the public about the injustice particular brand was committing against their employees, buildings were covered in paintings encouraging the citizens to stand up for those who were discriminated against and the university students met to discuss the problems of gentrification of the Mission District that forced many out of their homes. In the world that pursues status and money San Francisco was bringing back faith in humanity.

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But SF has not always been this socially conscious. The city emerged from the Gold Rush that swept through California like fire. Greed and sense of adventure brought to this area thousands of men from around the world, accompanied by the “working girls”, who due to shortage of women in the area soon became quite well-off. The pursuit of wealth and fame that accompanied the city’s growth, as well as years of bloody conflict between the local Indians whose terrain was taken by the Spaniards, Mexicans and finally the Americans stand in a sharp contrast to the city’s namesake – Saint Francis of Assissi, known for his devotion to modest lifestyle and loving respect to all of God’s creatures.

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The eclectic heritage of the city can be best experienced in the Mission district where while chewing on empanadas or burritos one can walk by the Mission Dolores church’s cemetery with the remains of the city’s founders, prominent criminals and the native Ohlone people resting in peace side by side. The unique micro-climate of Mission Dolores that creates a warmer weather in this area together with the murals ala Diego Rivera and pavement with pictures of the calacas, dancing skeletons, transported me mentally south of the American border.

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Once the guided tour was over I decided to walk down the Valencia street, famous for its unique cafes, boutiques selling hand-made items and natural cosmetics, as well as interesting murals hidden in the sidewalks.

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I returned to the Mission again in the evening to meet J Jo and Wild SF, founders of the Wild SF Walking tours for dinner. These bright guys recognized a gap on the market and decided to fill it with their passion for the spirit of their hometown. There was nothing usual about them. Tour guides by day, musicians by night, these students of Astrophysics and Spanish were the true symbols of San Francisco’s youth – politically aware, focused on the social issues, leading authentic yet alternative lifestyles filled with art in all shapes and forms. On the way back from the restaurant they stopped by the entrance to BART to talk to a man sitting on the pavement. They introduced me to their friend, street performer called the Prophet Samuel, who gave me his CD and a big heart-felt hug.

On my second day in San Francisco together with some new friends I decided to explore the hippie part of the town, the Haight Ashbury. I walked through the hilly slopes heading downtown and took a cable car from Market Street. The district rose to fame in the 1960s as a Mecca for the hippies. Hashbury as some call it, still remains one of the best places to experience this psychedelic subculture and is home to many artist collectives.

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At the end of Haight’s main street we entered the Golden Gate Park. After the chaos of the large city this spacious green oasis (in fact, larger than the New York’s Central Park) provided a pleasant escape. The walk through the park took a few hours during which we wandered from pine trees to rose bushes passing lakes and meadows where we had a chance to see a live bison up close. On its westernmost side the park was opening onto a beautiful sandy beach where we decided to rest after the long walk. Surfers, paragliders, families with children, couples, tourists – the beach welcomed everyone.

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The next stop after the beach was the infamous Golden Gate Bridge. Noticing the similarity in names I assumed the bridge was next to the park – nothing more wrong! A lengthy walk and a bus journey later we finally arrived at the postcard view. The red bridge has been majestically hovering over the golden gate strait since 1937 and is possibly the best-known suspension bridge in the world.

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After the iconic view came the time for SF’s iconic food – clam chowder. For this local speciality we headed towards Fishermans Wharf. This seaside neighbourhood is one of San Francisco’s greatest tourist attractions due to its excellent seafood and many attractions. I went for the classic- murky clam soup served in bowl made out of sourdough bread. Despite its gooey appearance chowder turned out to be easier on the tongue than the eye and made for a pretty solid dinner choice. Next on the agenda was Pier 39 which turned out to be one of the most unique tourist attractions I’ve even seen. Amongst chaos of the city and the buzz of its tourist was a pier fully covered in bodies of sleeping sea lions! The animals were lazily chilling on the wooden boards of the pier, breaking their sunbathing sessions with occasional swim.

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During my brief stay in San Francisco I had dozens of conversations with strangers, I met a man who lives in the park with his pet rabbit, a man parading around the city with only sneakers and a pair of very minimalistic g-strings, I spoke to drug addicts and homeless, as well as hippies, prostitutes and standard passer-bys. San Francisco was not always aesthetically pleasing, not always safe, but always interesting.

Sitting on the plane to LA, turning the page of Kerouac’s On the Road I read:

the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

There’s never been a more accurate summary of the people of San Francisco I thought. There’s never been a more accurate place for me in this world.

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