"San Francisco has only one drawback. 'Tis hard to leave." - Rudyard Kipling
It is our first day in the city, and already I am falling in love. After the peace and quiet of Marin County, San Francisco feels loud and bustling, especially here in Chinatown. The silly hire car has been returned, and we're now exploring on foot. It's around that time of day when refreshment is required, but we're struggling to find a salubrious looking cafe. We sit down in the first half-decent looking place, only to discover that we have accidentally parachuted into the middle of a militant tea brewing lesson, hosted by a couple of hilariously camp Chinese tea-aficionados. Far too British to get up and leave, we sit tight and tacitly agree to run with it. Several tiny thimbles of weird and wacky teas and a fair few tea anecdotes later, our caffeine levels are nearly restored, and we politely buy a $12 packet of Lychee Black Tea, (good for the digestion, apparently) and scuttle off.
Back at the apartment over in Noe Valley, we're getting to know to our hosts, Tania and Philip - and feeling wonderfully welcomed already in their fabulous home. They recommend a local pasta joint, Emmy's, as a good place to eat nearby, and we head out for our first taste of San Francisco cuisine. Emmy's is packed, but we're happy to sit with a bottle of wine and wait for a table. When the food arrives it is hearty and plentiful, and well worth the wait. Thanks to an amusingly stoned waiter, we've had more than our share of wine, and are feeling rosy-cheeked and replete.
Thursday is designated shopping day, and I'm dragging Ant around the thrift stores of Mission, in search of vintage frocks. It's 11am and nothing is open (what time do people get up around here?), so we go and have cake and decide to head across to Castro. Apart from Cliff's Variety store - an amazing emporium of stationery and wigs - there is little in the way of shopping for me here, so we hop on a bus to Haight. I am in shopping nirvana; even Ant buys a couple of things. The day is going well. Then we reach Amoeba Records and all other plans are abandoned for the foreseeable future.
We're on our way out to dinner, walking down Valencia. Staggering across our path with an unwieldy shopping trolley, a wild-eyed woman stops suddenly to inspect the contents of an overturned wheelie bin. "What's with all these lemons?" she exclaims in an overly exaggerated Brooklyn accent, glaring accusingly at the huge pile of squeezed orange skins that are strewn across the road. Just managing to contain my laughter until we're out of earshot, I proceed to annoy Ant all evening (and for the rest of the holiday) with my new catchphrase.
Friday night. I'm standing outside the famous Mitchell's ice cream parlour, fortifying myself for an evening of partying ahead, and I start talking to this guy Ron - a friend of a friend of Philip and Tania. We cover the usual 'getting to know you' banter - where are you from? (San Francisco), what do you do for a living? (graphic designer), what else apart from ice cream is good in the neighbourhood? (parks, shopping, Margaritas). We're getting along famously, and I'm thinking he's probably the kind of guy who'd like the same sort of stuff as me, so I ask if he knows of any cool happenings in the city this weekend. He mentions a couple of exhibitions, then drops in casually "there's always the Masturbate-a-thon". I nearly choke on a piece of Oreo; half delighted, half appalled by the idea. Somebody else chips in, confirming the sordid truth: "yeah, it's a sponsored charity event - but you can pay fifteen dollars if you just want to watch." Only in San Francisco - or possibly Brighton - I think to myself . The conversation moves swiftly on, we finish our ice creams and head uptown.
Later that same night, after a cocktail of two at the Elbo Room, we’re standing on the mezzanine floor of the PWNDepot - a converted warehouse in the Mission - mingling with the San Francisco Geek Elite. This madcap place, advertised on AirBnB as ‘4600 Square Foot of Rad’, was where Ant stayed the night before I arrived, and we’re here on the invitation of its residents - his new found friends Brendan, Preston, Steve, Lisa, Laura, Michael, Bill, Jason, Sarah and Jed. Ant is being plied with some sort of stronger-than-you-think pink punch while I struggle not to gawp at the bare arse of the person wearing only a thong to my left. The conversation inevitably turns to our accents and I’m not sure how to react when one of the guys admits “I’d like to have a beer with him, but I want you to be my schoolteacher.”
It’s Saturday afternoon, the last full day of the holiday. The thin bedroom curtains are doing nothing to protect our jaded souls from the daylight and we are reduced to throwing t-shirts over our poor delicate eyes. The misery of the hangover is compounded by self-loathing and regret at the loss of the passing day and our pathetic inability to seize it. A voice inside of me keeps saying "if you get up and have breakfast, you'll feel better"; finally, I obey, shaking the lifeless body beside me until it also submits. We stumble out into the street in search of carbohydrates and undeserved redemption. Catching last orders at the Boogaloo cafe, our prayers are answered with a tear-jerkingly good 'morning after' breakfast that gradually begins to repair us.
Breakfast was amazing, but I am now stupidly full and in need of a lie down. Dolores Park is just around the corner, so we head over in the hope of finding a shady spot under a tree. I wonder if I am actually still at home in bed dreaming when we find ourselves plunged into the middle of a Mexican festival - Cinco de Mayo - complete with Mariachi band and Tequila-fuelled leathery old men doing Mexican dad-dancing (a lot like English dad-dancing, but with marching and saluting). Perhaps not top of most people's list of hangover-cures, this bizarre and unexpected cultural cocktail actually goes a long way to lifting our spirits, and it turns out that Mariachi bands are a lot more soothing than you might think - especially when accompanied by a copy of The Onion and a patch of soft cool grass.
By some miracle we are recovered enough to make it to our dinner booking - an end of holiday romantic meal at the famous Green's. The food is superb, but by the end I am flagging and in no fit state to negotiate public transport. Our taxi driver turns out to be the best local eccentric yet - an ageing hippy complete with white ponytail and tales of sixties counter culture rebellions. His anecdotes wash over me as I watch the city at night go by outside the window, thinking about all the things I never got to do here.
Just one last breakfast, better make it a good one: St Francis Fountain, a Nebulous Potato Thing, a Sherbert Shake and a handful of retro candy. The adventure is nearly over, but somehow it feels like only the first goodbye of a love affair that will last a lifetime. San Francisco, you stole my heart, and I will be back to claim it.