Saturday, November 24, 2007

Black Friday antics (the day after Thanksgiving)

Black Friday is traditionally the most crazed, consumer-driven day of the year. It's the day after Thanksgiving, when half of America realises it only has one month until Christmas and oh help how am I going to get time to buy something for my second cousin twice removed?!

But, I saved that stuff for today. At least, I bought stuff for me. While I lamented my spending habits, Brendan pointed out that a.) it was all stuff I needed and had been wanting to buy for ages, like $30 brown boots with kitten heels (seriously!) and b.) that I already had set aside the money for it anyway. (He went to the airport with Alex to see his ex-lecturer for an hour, so he was spared the shopping. Anyway, I work best alone.)

Town was crazy today, especially Union Square and all the high-end shops in that area. Far more packed with people than most Saturday mornings, which are already pretty crowded along the Powell - Market - Sutter area.

Christmas songs were playing. All the Christmas trees twinkled furiously. Tourists tried to get on the cable car. Tourists thought that standing by the kerb would make the cable car come to them (it's on rails... the rest of the people on the cable car laughed openly at them). And everywhere, the bargain-hunters searched frantically with an air of desperation that somewhere, on perhaps that rack or this aisle, might be the perfect pair of shoes that someone else had already swooped on.

But that was today. Yesterday, we had a more interesting day than shopping. We went biking, we went ice-skating and we went and sang karaoke. Yes you heard right... oh the shame...why am I even telling you all?!

We hired bikes and helmets and went for a bike ride across the Golden Gate bridge. It was a perfect day - calm, sunny and a cloudless sky. Absolutely stunning and reasonably cool. (What you don't see in this photo is that recently there was a huge toxic oil spill here and many birds died, and the beach is only just safe enough to walk on again. But you certainly can't eat any of the seafood.)

We are geeks! See, perfect weather. Pretty pretty.

Now Brendan is also talking about this but I think the balanced stones make a nice picture.

On the bridge, we stopped by one of the large posts on the bridge to take a picture. It was a blind corner, and some cyclists stopped on the right hand side of the bridge, opposite from us. Just then, another bike came whizzing around the corner and collided with someone coming the opposite way. The guy who fell over hurt his knee, and said to his friend who had stopped, "You stupid d**khead, why did you stop there for? I told you not to do that, mate!" in the broadest Kiwi accent. Brendan and I thought it was so typically Kiwi!

We also saw a guy in the bike shop from Wellington/Palmy as well on the same day which was pretty unusual as we haven't seen any other Kiwis (apart from our friends) for months. He was in SF for a week before he headed off to Denmark for work.

After we'd dropped our bikes back at the hire shop, we went and had coffee in North Beach near the shop. The owners had a sign: "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we diet".

The owners laughingly told us that people loved the sign, and often espoused those exact values, saying, "I'm only 300 pounds!" (around 150 kg in very rough estimation), and, "I'm starting my diet tomorrow!"

Halfway through our ride, Stefan called and asked if we wanted to go ice-skating - did I ever! I haven't been before so I was looking forward to it.

So along with Hannah's sisters Claire and Ingrid and her mum, and Hannah and Stefan, we went off to the Embarcadero where a seasonal outdoor rink had been set up. It was fun - I fell over a lot, everyone laughed at me including people on the sidelines, and I have a few bruises today I didn't notice getting last night. I got the hang of it pretty much immediately. I don't care if I fell over, it was fun. Brendan wasn't as keen as me, but he gave it a good shot too. I think next time we will go to the one in Yerba Buena Gardens which is larger and hopefully will let us skate for longer. Still, 2 hours is long enough really when you get a bit puffed.

Lastly we went back to Claire's flat so they could get ready for karaoke, and played the "flag the taxi for 6 people" game which we lost, and had to play the "tag two taxis for 3 people each" game instead. Our taxi driver was nuts - I thought he would accelerate into other cars quite a few times.

The pub was very much like a NZ pub, but with Americans instead. Country songs had half the pub up and line dancing - I kid you not.

Brendan and I talked to a guy who lived in California but was from London. His wife was also from London but 7 months pregnant, so he was taking the best man at their wedding out for a night.

So we all did a few songs... highlights of the evening include Stefan and Hannah doing the "I like big butts" song, Brendan, Stefan and I doing a Crowded House song and the Americans being confused, and some guy singing the "Okie from Muskogee" song which Dad always sings the chorus to but I'd never heard all the verses. Anyway. I should stop talking about karaoke now. It's the first time I've ever done it, and it scares me.

"I like big butts and I cannot lie..." Hannah and Stefan really get into it.

Thanksgiving, a true American holiday

We were eager to experience our first Thanksgiving the proper American way, best summarized by various people at work as "you eat a whole pile and stuff yourself, then sit around with your family and watch TV." Sounds like a NZ Christmas!

So we called our friend Onita down in San Jose, and she invited us to her 'mom's' house in Hollister for Thanksgiving dinner.

We thought the traffic would be atrocious so we left early... we needn't have bothered. The road was pretty quiet the whole way down. It was more busy on the 101 when we came back.

So we drove to Onita's in San Jose, and she drove us to her mum's house in Hollister, about another 45 minutes or so south of San Jose (beyond Gillroy). It was a sleepy little town with a quiet main street. Onita's mum owns her own boutique out in Gilroy, but she commutes because it's less expensive - people now commute from Gilroy to San Jose and San Francisco. That's like commuting from Eketahuna to Wellington every single day - exhausting!

We've been out a few times with Onita's mum, Marie, including our tour of San Francisco when we'd just moved to San Jose. She's really lovely. She and her partner Calvin have 5 chihuahuas, and one baby one that was a week old. I spent most of the time there patting as many of the chihuahuas as I could lay my hands on at once! Onita's brother James and his girlfriend Alex also came. So it was fun. We had a 20-pound turkey and cranberry jelly (it was the colour and shape of sliced beetroot) and mashed potato and beans and pumpkin pie for dessert. Yum. I even had a slice of turkey, even though I'm actually fully vegetarian now - no fish except salmon once in a while. And even then I don't really like it.... (I can hear Brendan's screams in the background... he tried so hard to get me to like fish, he really tried.)

James and Alex had another dinner at 3pm, since we had dinner at 12.30 - they must have been sooooo full afterwards! So we left almost immediately after dinner there and went back home, to have a lazy day. Even Onita said "Mom kicked us out pretty early! Usually I have to make up an excuse!" Her mum is pretty sweet and lovely though - Onita originally wasn't going to go anywhere for Thanksgiving, until we called. Her mum had been asking her for two weeks to come for dinner there, and she didn't want to. So when we called, she asked Stefan if she should buy a whole turkey at Safeway and cook us a dinner! Then she decided to just take us to her mum's house, which was really lovely. Her mum was actually going to bring her dinner up in San Jose if she didn't come down, which we think was sweet. (Onita was complaining.)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

What not to ask at the doctor's....

Cabbie asked me the other day whether I'd seen anything stereotypically American recently. While at the doctor's the next morning, filling out all the forms full of highly personal questions, I started laughing. The first was, "Do you wear a seatbelt?" Heaps of older Americans apparently don't believe in them. The second was, "Do you own a gun?" "Is it in a safe place?" I took a photo but it didn't turn out.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Here are some photos of our past few weekends....

We've been trying to get out and about at least one day a weekend in the last few weeks, or we'll just sit inside and play on our computers, the geeks that we are. So, here are a selection of photos from our travels: (click on them to expand them)

The view from the bus stop on California Street (it's the bus which takes me up the hill) - you can see the Bay Bridge (not Golden Gate) in the background.

The real Chinatown! (click on the pictures for a bigger and better view) It's always packed on a Saturday morning - this is where the Chinese come to do their shopping, and not on Grant which is the touristy area.

Here is the Fairmont Hotel, our house is just behind where I am standing!

Here is my church, Grace Cathedral (taken from the cable car...) - it's awesome and I love it. One day I'll get up there and take some photos of the entire inside and all the little details.

Here's one of the buses on the F-line - they are old trolley buses rescued from all over the world. Here's another that we travelled on to Fisherman's Wharf:

Last weekend, we decided that since it was the last day Brendan had his bus pass, we would travel around on all the cable cars, and the trolley bus. So once we got to Fisherman's Wharf, we went over to our favorite chocolate factory: (they give out free samples - usually caramel squares. This one's a limited edition peppermint one for Christmas.

We ordered extremely decadent sundaes... mine was blueberries with cheescake icecream! Brendan's was far nicer - dark chocolate and peppermint icecream. Very rich though! (And, don't get the cheesecake icecream - the cheesecake goes chewy.)

We sat on the beach across the road and ate our icecream - now how much like Wellington's Oriental Pde does this look like?

But, the presence of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcotraz kinda give it away....

Anyway, it was very nice and relaxing, and we walked out on the pier and took terrible photos and watched people feeding a seal. It was very funny when the seagull stole the fish - the seal chased it, leaping out of the water!

OK, so that is enough photos for now. More to come, as usual.

MUNI is evil....

But that should come as no surprise to people here. San Francisco has several public transport systems: BART, MUNI and the cable cars, as well as Caltrain and Greyhound for longer trips. So MUNI includes the light rail and the buses, and for $45 a month, if you hurry, you can buy a pass which gives you access to all MUNI, cable cars and BART within San Francisco. I usually take the bus to work, as it stops right outside or a block away from my work, depending on what mood the bus driver's in.

The bus I take, number 30 (and sometimes the 45) has been shown to be the slowest bus in all of San Francisco - in rush hour, you can walk faster than the bus drives - 3.7 miles an hour! So a bus ride that would take 10 mins to drive, takes more like 45 minutes on the bus. The worst part is 3rd Street, where my work is - it is the main street that comes off the freeway and is very very slow.

The other thing is that the buses are crowded. Very crowded. Think the subway in New York, and you'll be close. The amount of mornings I've squeezed onto the bus and hung on so that I'm hanging over the door, and almost get squashed by the door as it opens! Sometimes the drivers will kick you off if they think it's too full already, but most don't care if there are people standing at the front. You also have to give up your seat by law for someone who is disabled or elderly, which is probably a good idea that it's law! So the front of the bus especially is populated by little old Asian women babbling away to each other, and stern old Asian men gripping their purchases tightly, and cramped people gripping the bar above their heads, wearing their iPods and swaying sharply every time the bus screeches to a halt. Which is often.

(On a random note, I don't know if it's just where I live, and that the bus comes from Chinatown, but there are so many Chinese people here! As in, way more Chinese people than Caucasians, on the bus at least. I barely see Hispanic people here, compared to the huge population in San Jose which is more Hispanic than anything else!)

But, part of the reason the bus is so crowded is that I get on at the stop 2 blocks away from the main Chinatown stop, in another stop which is part of Chinatown as well. People cram onto and rush at the bus - they push you so hard at the mid-Chinatown stop that you actually get pushed back into the bus! It's true that the Chinese people have no concept of the queue. Chinatown really is a lot how I imagine China to be - but that's another post.

Anyway, I'm telling you all this because something funny happened on the bus tonight. Oracle is currently hosting a huge conference at the Moscone Centre, so there are lots of people, lots of traffic, and two huge LCD screens at the end of huge Oracle marquees, all over the middle of 3rd Street. So the buses are very slow - I had to wait an extra 20 minutes the other day for a bus, when I was already late for work, which was quite unusual.

So I got on the bus after work, and we lurched off. A few minutes down the road, a taxi was blocking the bus lane. (Taxis are awful - they drive so dangerously. I'm scared of them. They run red lights all the time, and don't care if they hit you.) So the bus driver, who is this African-American woman, starts getting mad at it and telling it to move. I thought she was just voicing her frustration, but no. After 2 seconds, her voice came out of a loudspeaker on the bus! I didn't even know that buses had them!

A few more stops later, the bus driver once again voiced her frustration, telling the car ahead, "Don't you f......... badmouth me!" and all sorts of statements! It was very funny to hear her saying this, and then hear it coming out of the loudspeaker two seconds later. The whole bus started laughing.

Later on, the bus driver starts yelling at someone who cuts her off in traffic... and once again it comes out of the loudspeakers. It was rather incongruous - I'm not sure I would want my angry ramblings broadcast for other people to hear....

There's a rule on MUNI that says you can't get on at the back door, but lots of people do - both to save time, or space if there's none, or, to get away with not paying for your ticket. MUNI has a terrible ticket collection rate, so I'm sure a lot of the people who get on at the back don't actually have a ticket. So, back on the bus, a guy tries to get on at the back door. The driver stops gets out her loudspeaker again and tells him to get off the bus and get back on at the front . He refuses, other people start yelling at the driver to just go, that its discriminatory since she didn't tell people to do that at other stops, that it's rush hour and they would pay the guy's ticket just so she would go again, etc etc. Finally the guy got off the bus and on again at the other end, and we lurched off again. I will not miss the MUNI commute when we leave.