A Backcountry Expedition, Elfin Lakes, BC

One thing I really appreciate about life here in Canada is our commitment to adventure-packed, wholesome weekends.  There’s so many great outdoorsy experiences to be had, so a weekend spent exploring can take you to some breathtaking places, without actually travelling too far.

Last weekend, we embarked on an overnight trip to Elfin Lakes, in the beautiful Garibaldi Provincial Park. By the lake, there’s a heated 2-storey cabin that sleeps 33, complete with solar lighting, gas stoves, and an outhouse.  Pretty much The Fairmont of snow cabins.  It’s 11km deep into the backcountry, at the end of a moderate, snow-packed winter trail.  We’ve snow-shoed a number of times over the past 18 months, but never attempted an overnight expedition. This sounded too exciting to pass on!

On Friday afternoon, we did an essentials check, weather check (and discovered that due to recent heavy snowfall after a long period of no fresh snow, the avalanche risk was high! Eek! More on that later) and food plan.  The key with food packing is to pack foods that are light in weight in comparison to their high calorific and nutritious content, and also foods that are easy to cook using just a stove. So we packed dried fruit, beef jerky, instant noodles, instant oatmeal, and Clif energy bars.  A few beers, too, naturally. We filled our 40L backpacks almost to bursting and tried to get a decent amount of sleep.

We woke early, and begun the drive to Squamish. Our group was travelling in two cars, so we regrouped at Tim Horton’s and enjoyed the last of the modern day conveniences for the next 48 hours, in the form of a coffee and a bagel.  Everything from here on would be wilderness food!  (Not that we were planning on skinning squirrels or eating berries; I’m just being dramatic!)  We followed the directions up to Garibaldi which took us up a steep, unmarked road with a cliff edge, and stopped at the first parking lot to fit snow chains.  Note: Do not attempt this road in this season without winter tires at the very least!

Once we’d made it to the parking lot, we got out, geared up and acclimatized to the minus temperatures and the weight of our heavy backpacks.  We entered the trail, which is a moderate, treelined incline for the first 5k, and ploughed uphill on our snowshoes for 2 and a half hours until we made it to a well deserved lunch at the Red Heather shelter.  The shelter is only for day use, and has a stove for melting snow for water, and a toasty log fire.  It was a buzz of activity; cross country regulars discussing the conditions, and groups of friends sharing hot food and tea.

We noticed the temperature had dropped significantly once we got to this landmark, and it had started snowing pretty heavily.  The next part of the trail was where we’d be encountering the considerable to high avalanche risk.  Our friends, who were experienced backcountry skiers had had the insight to ensure we all rented avalanche kits (beacon, probe and shovel) and so we had a fun, informative training session burying beacons in the snow and then uncovering them as efficiently as possible.  I’m hardly the avalanche expert but I felt confident that if an avalanche did occur, we’d been sensible enough to prepare accordingly, and we now had the knowledge of what to do in an avalanche situation.  That said, I wasn’t keen to put my practise into action, and hoped and prayed that a life-threatening situation did not present itself!

The next part of the trail was the most challenging, but we pursued it, onwards and upwards for over an hour, through Paul Ridge, in the deepening snow.  Over the next two hours we passed through thick wooded areas, carefully navigated steep inclines, and hiked a mix of hills and downward slopes across narrow paths and vast open plains.  The visibility wasn’t great, the sky was darkening, and the further we went, the heavier the snow came down, to the point where we realized we were in a blizzard. In an avalanche zone.  With ice-encrusted faces and fingers we could no longer feel.  But we were enjoying this wonderful experience.  It really felt like an expedition.

We came across a pair of BC Park Rangers, and heeded their avalanche warnings for tomorrow.  We were expecting 60-100cm of fresh snow overnight, and tomorrow’s avalanche risk was the highest it had been all winter, so high in fact that the rangers themselves were not permitted to work.

After a further half hour of trudging (the snow was so thick by this point we had to break a trail as the previous group’s tracks were swallowed by fresh snow) I saw the cabin at a distance. Actually, no, that wasn’ it, that was the ranger’s cabin. My heart sinks a little.  Wait, what about that one a little further along and to the left?  That’s it! We made it!

We opened the door to warmth, light, happy, chatting voices, smiles and the aroma of various delicious foods cooking.  There was a much-needed fire to heat our wet socks and gloves, and we felt the world of comfort that just taking off your backpack provides.  We headed upstairs to claim a bunk each.  Of the 33 total, there weren’t many available, but we each found one and settled our sleeping bags down.  We had a well-earned snack of corn nuts and dried mangoes, and then all enjoyed a quick nap before dinner.  I took a trip outside to the outhouse which was not for faint hearted, but hardly as bad as anticipated – yes, it was the foulest smell imaginable, but mercifully it had light and loo roll.  Later, we made dinner by melting snow for water, and I realized I had left a bag of food at the lunch hut! Oh No! But there was no need for me to panic, indeed there was lots of food to go around, as the six of us shared cous cous, quinoa, soup, chocolate and beer.  We were worn out from the day’s hike, so we were in bed by 10, needing to recharge for the way back.

I think I speak for almost the entire cabin’s residents when I say I had an uncomfortable but warm rest, and fell in and out of sleep, my dozing being bothered by people’s snoring, chattering, creaking, and the occasional flashing and beeping of phones.  But it didn’t matter. We woke around 8 along with others for breakfast, excited for the second half.  We fueled up on oatmeal and energy bars, chocolate, and tea. Our backpacks were noticeably lighter without the beer!  There are no bins in the park or at the cabin so all our packaging and leftovers had to come with us.

I opened the door to a heap more snow and glorious sun. Some people had camped outside, in tents or snow caves.  Extreme! But maybe we’ll try that next time – we might have to, if all the bunks are taken!  The sky was a clear blue and we were in awe of the untouched fresh powder fields.  The trail was broken by another groupwho had left ahead of us. The snow was almost waist deep either side of the track we followed. It was the most powdery snow I have ever seen, and the occasional gust of wind would send snow dust into the air, like a desert sandstorm.  As we made it back Paul Ridge, the clouds hung heavier and snow fell thickly, but we kept on through the highest risk zone (touching wood for no actual avalanches) and the rest was a downhill hike back to the day hut for lunch.

I found my bag of food still at the hut, which was a welcome surprise, so we had an abundance of treats for lunch – last night’s leftovers, spicy hot dog sausages, noodles, and more chocolate.  The last 5km was all downhill, in the thickly tight packed snow, and we enjoyed watching the skiers flying by.  When we made it back to the back at the car, we removed snow chains at end of road and ended where we started off with a hot chocolate from Timmy’s. The evening’s drive back to Vancouver was in heavy, hair-raising rain (wow, imagine how wacky the conditions would be on the trail tonight!) and I dazed in the backseat, drinking in the memories we had made this weekend.  We made it safely home to what we knew and needed; a hot shower and a good rest.

Cue photospam!

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Foodie phenomena I only discovered when I moved to Canada

1. Bubble Tea

The unforgettable moment when I sucked in my first pearl: first I was perplexed, then intrigued, and finally, after a couple of undecided chews, I decided this was the best thing ever.  Sticky, gluey, choking-hazardous balls in a thick, sugary milk/fruitshake – genius.  Ahh, I love bright green honeydew bbt (bubble tea, that is); I love taro, although I’m not 100% sure what it is; and best of all I love creamy coconut.  I recently met a guy from San Francisco while waiting for bubble tea, who told me he’s ‘addicted’ and that ‘you can’t get bubble tea in California’ – WHAT? Maybe you can’t even get bubble tea in the rest of Canada. You sure as hell can’t get it back home.  I feel truly blessed to live in ‘Hongcouver’.

2. Perogies

Being European, I’m a little bit astonished that I hadn’t eaten, or heard of, perogies before landing on a whole different continent.  They’re featured so heavily on every Food Network Canada show, and there’s an entire food cart downtown dedicated to these lil’ half-moons of goo (Holy Perogy) that they just can’t be avoided.  I’m not even embarrassed to say that the $1.99 kilo bag of no-name cheese perogies are my hungry at home go-to snack (along with bowl noodles, ofc).  Traditionally they’re eaten with sour cream and green onions but I like to accompany them with good old HP Sauce.

3. Poutine

I spent most of my secondary school lunchtimes consuming poutine without realising that it was Canada’s national dish.  Chips, cheese, and gravy, that’s all it is. Straight up.  Although they make a big deal about it being cheese ‘curds’, traditionally, y’know, the squeaky stuff.  Anyway, to sum up, booooo-ooooyyyyyy is it satisfying, and always over too soon.

4. Fireball

Although more drinkie than foodie, how could I leave out this spirit that tastes exactly like those atomic fireball sweets from the school tuckshop, instantly bestows upon you dragon-like breath (and power, one might add!), and leaves you feeling all warm and very intoxicated.

5. Spitz

I only discovered these last week, while watching softball in the sun.  They look like a bag of something you’d sprinkle on your lawn to make the grass grow faster, or to stop slugs from eating your plants, but they’re weirdly addictive.  They’re actually just sunflower seeds in their shells, covered in salt and/or other flavourings (my favourite is Cracked Black Pepper).  But  they’re also a game between you and your mouth – the trick is to suck away all the taste, crack it open with your teeth, swallow the seed, and spit out (hence the name) the hard shell.  Then repeat as necessary.  Most of the time I end up with a mouth full of splinters, but it’s all part of the fun.

6. Polenta Fries

I’m not sure what polenta is but it doesn’t taste healthy.  But maybe that’s because I’ve only eaten it in fried form.  I guess most fried things ain’t gonna be healthy.  Anyway, it’s delicious.  And I just Googled it; it’s cornmeal. Sounds mega boring.  But cut it into chunky strips, wop it in a deep fryer and add a pot of curry mayo and it’s just about the best thing going.

7. Timbits

Just walk into any Tim Horton’s and order a box of 20 (in mixed flavours).  You will never, ever want to leave Canada.

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Piggin’ out in Porkland, Oregon

We recently took a city break – or, to be more accurate, a gastronomic adventure – in Portland, OR.  I’d been having dreams for months about the last time we visited, reminiscing about doughnuts, and beer, and all the wonderful food we tasted.  Having whet my appetite for Bridge City by watching countless Portlandia sketches on YouTube (The first 3:18 of Season 1; ‘put a bird on it'; and Kyle MacLachlan as city mayor being personal highlights) the 7-hour bus ride past the trees and mountains of Washington state seemed to fly by.  Note the ‘trees and mountains’ – proof I do, from time-to-time, mention things other than food.   And I will.  But passing all those trees and mountains for 7 hours sure did make me hungry.

On arrival in the grey-skied but fresh city, we walked the instantly familiar-again streets to our guest house, NW Portland (strongly recommended if you like cheap and cheerful digs, high ceilings, and the feeling of staying at your Great-Aunt’s house).  Our first stop, after the obligatory dumping of bags and quick freshening up of selves, was the nearest McMenamin’s bar, Blue Moon.  We wolfed down a Dante’s chicken sandwich, which contained an awesome trilogy of sauces –  fiery hot voodoo, blue cheese, and the bar’s signature aioli.  It was exactly what we needed after the long trip and 5am start, and the McMenamin’s Hefeweizen washed the salty fries down a treat.

My good pal Paul

My good pal Paul

Before dusk, we headed North West to Kenton, famous for a giant statue of the folklore hero Paul Bunyan.  I’d first seen an image of this check-shirted dude in the movie Fargo, which I CANNOT RECOMMEND ENOUGH, by the way.*  The statue was pretty cool, and it was far out of the city enough not to have attracted a million tourists, so I had all the space in the world to pull some real tourist poses, y’know, like sitting on his foot.  Kenton as an area gave off a real no hoots given, old fashioned warmth. Right across the road from this giant statue was a strip bar advertising a ‘sexy banana eating contest, Feb 23rd’ – too damn bad I was out of town that weekend, I know, and half hidden down a side street was the apparently ‘world famous’ Kenton Club. We chanced to step inside and were transported to a time and place where leather waistcoats, pool sharking and weird 70s big-hair pornos (there was literally one playing, on a big screen, distracting me from my Coke) were clearly the in thing.  It was funny that we sampled this place during the daytime, because the evening rock shows actually looked pretty good.  One for next time, maybe.

When in Portland?

When in Portland?

As evening fell, we crossed the Hawthorne Bridge to the South East of the city, and explored a typically Portland-cool area – the Hawthorne district – which was full of vintage emporia manned by moody looking goths, fro-yo (that’s frozen yoghurt, for those in the dark) cafes, and indie theatres.  The Bagdad theatre was showing a fly-fishing event so we gave that a miss, and headed to the Hawthorne theatre which wasn’t much cooler, it had a 80s hair metal tribute band playing so we decided not to pay the cover charge and took an early night.

For breakfast, there was only one place we had even considered:  Voodoo Doughnut.  Just as good the second time around (we’d experienced this place back in June and the memories were FOND) and, I imagine, the third, fourth, and millionth time too; I probably couldn’t ever get sick of this place.  Locals moan about the long line and the fact that it’s a tourist trap, but I think it all adds to the experience.  The anticipation as you move along the gold-glittered brickwork, hankering to peek inside other peoples’ pink cardboard boxes to see how good the contents look.  Getting a little rush as the line gets smaller, until finally you can squeeze inside the door (to line up some more).  Checking the menu, with names like ‘Ol’ Dirty Bastard’, ‘Memphis Mafia’ and ‘No Name’ and not having a clue what any of that means, so voting with your big kid eyes instead, choosing from the rotating display the biggest, most artificially coloured, sugar-overloaded treat possible.  And being able to call it breakfast, and enjoying every bite, and having no regrets.  Gerard went for the bacon maple bar, which I thought would just be weird but was actually a unique dichotomy of salt/sweet, soft/crunchy, and wrong/ohsoright.  I’m a creature of habit and although I did try a bite of the bacon maple – and boy am I glad I did – the jam (jelly) inside the Voodoo Doll was so memorably sweet and sticky, I had to get the same one again.  We bought extras and, for our sins, carried round a huge pink VD box all day long with no complaints.

Obligatory VD Photo

Obligatory VD Photo

No trip to Portland would be complete, especially for a young bibliophile like myself, without a visit to Powell’s Books.  I will only type this next sentence once, so you may need to re-read to help it sink in, but I’ve included capitals to help emphasise things. Powell’s Books is a bookstore FIVE STOREYS HIGH which takes up an ENTIRE CITY BLOCK. It contains over a million volumes at any one time, and has nine colour-coded rooms of books, including the revered Rare Books Room, where in awe I ogled first editions of Madame Bovary and Howl & Other Poems, a steal for $2,000.  I judged a book by its pretty cover and bought Wildwood which is written by some guy from the band The Decemberists, and which I later found out is a children’s book.  We also went with our hearts rather than our heads and got a Bridges of Portland poster (just like Mayor Kyle MacLachlan’s mouse-mat, a bit of a Portlandia in-joke for those with keen eyes).  Anyway, it’s an impossible size to frame.   And I splurged $9.99 on a silicon variant of a Chinese food cardboard take-out box, the upright square-ish kind, like the ones they eat from in Beetlejuice that don’t exist back in England. All in all, money well spent, I’m sure you’ll agree.

After a great value Pad Thai from one of the street cart lots (SW 9th & Alder, the largest one in the city), we once again went east over the Willamette.  What could have been a normal bus ride across the Morrison Bridge to Belmont became a really memorable one thanks to the most cheerful, informative and just…cool female bus driver I have ever been driven anywhere by.  She grabbed her bus-microphone and gave her passengers a full history of the bridge, including its namesake (a Scottish guy, apparently) and reeled off technical specs such as the elevation, weight and length.  I couldn’t take in all the details because I was so much in awe, mainly at the fact that this was just an ordinary, public transit bus, full of ordinary Portlandians who probably wanted nothing more than to get home after a hard day’s work, and we were being treated to this local commentary by a lady who was really passionate about her city.  She called out the names of the upcoming stops in both english y en espanol, wished the tiny Chinese lady a happy new year as she was getting off, and, stopping at a red light, jumped out of the bus (cue: our WTF?s) and grabbed a wad of newspapers explaining that they were for the folk that like to read the news in Mandarin while they’re taking a journey through town.  I thanked her vehemently when it was my turn to leave the bus, and she said ‘you’re welcome’ with a really genuine boom.

We stopped by the Pied Cow coffee house, an Eastern inspired hippie dwelling, had a three mint tea and devoured a cupcake that the lovely cupcake shop owner next door gave to us as she was closing for the day.  At Belmont & SE 33rd we noticed a community swap box, a bright blue mail box that had an energy bar sitting inside waiting to be swapped for something else.  In this part of town there was a real sense of being cool with your neighbours, of collaborating to make things good – the aforementioned cake shop owner shared her store space with another local business, a cute art, gift and furniture shop and said it worked wonders for them to share customers and double their footfall.  We walked past lots of lovely looking eateries on this street that we might never have ventured down, and then caught another bus to what would be a most memorable feast, a restaurant called Beast.

Time for a little rewind, to make things make sense.  Gerard had opened a Portland culinary book when we were browsing in Powell’s and chanced upon a page showcasing this restaurant, Beast, and its kind of famous chef Naomi Pomeroy (we foreigners didn’t know her, but apparently she’s been on the Iron Chef, and I am a big fan of that).  The concept is pretty simple: two sturdy wooden tables set up for communal dining, a single seating each evening at 7pm sharp, and a six-course meat-heavy (hence the name) menu that changes each week according to what’s locally available/what the chef feels like cooking.  We decided there and then to visit Beast, made our reservation later that afternoon, and got the bus to the middle of Nowhere, arriving at 6:50pm. Well, what an experience.  I haven’t really done fine dining before. I’d never been presented with a charcuterie plate with little gourmet bits set out like the numbers on a clock face, I’d only read about this kind of thing in the restaurant scenes of American Psycho.  I’d never eaten fois gras before (it’s illegal in much of Europe, some US states and most of Canada) – let alone in bon-bon format.  We had wine pairings for each course, and a whole load of unusual combinations that really worked – the hazelnut salsa verde on pork tenderloin was a real highlight.  Being un-fussy eaters, we enjoyed everything, the communal, casual, atmosphere, the service and the local, fresh food.

Savouring the 6-courses plus wine, we headed on to the Doug Fir, a cozy bar that’s not shy about overdoing wood furnishings (picture the Great Northern hotel from Twin Peaks) or serving wine in a tumbler (picture me looking super classy drinking wine from a tumbler).  After a swift stay, we went to a ‘doom metal’ show (I used the inverted commas there, as I’m not sure what ‘doom metal’ actually is, but my boyfriend seems to like it) but missed the band he wanted to see. A funny thing happened on the way from the DF to the ‘Branx’ venue deep in the North East industrial district: we realised we had walked a little too far when we were on the bridge crossing the river, so we stopped to ask a guy directions.  Pretty normal situation, I know, but then something ridiculously ‘Portland’ happened.  Instead of merely giving us helpful directions, he explained that he had just come from the place we were heading, and handed us a 3×3″ piece of paper containing a simple but accurate hand-drawn map of the area. In an age where Google maps is everybody’s immediate go-to-without-even-thinking, it was refreshing to see that pen and paper are still mighty useful, and really appropriate in some situations.

Soon we were in Branx watching ‘Enslaved’ with a bunch of smelly men, following a $260 meal with a $5 round of PBR, and I couldn’t be happier.

Bit wonky? Blame the PBRs.

Bit wonky? Blame the PBRs.

In the morning we ate our leftover doughnuts and did a little more mooching around the neighbourhood (Nob Hill & Pearl) stopping again at Powell’s where we bought the Portland restaurant book that we’d flipped through the day before. After our experience at Beast, we’ll be keen to sample more of Portland’s strange and inventive cuisine on our next trip.  Although the place I was reading about on the bus home, La Pigeon, where they serve birds’ heads bobbing in soup, and noodles cooked in pigeon blood, might be a little too extreme. But let’s not say never.

So our 24 hours were up.  We grabbed a quick sandwich and took our seats on the overbooked Boltbus, which featured too many people sitting on the bleacher seats at the back, and one woman standing in the aisle the whole way to Bellingham.  And just like that, it was back down to earth. Up at 6:30 for work the next morning, etc.  In summary, all we’d done since our arrival is eat, drink, shop and look at cool things.  Gosh, Portland, they don’t call you “the place young people go to retire” for nothing.  Stop giving me ideas.

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*Especially if you like violence, Frances McDormand as a heavily pregnant ass-kicker, and this joke: “Say, Lou, didya hear the one about the guy who couldn’t afford personalized plates, so he went and changed his name to J3L2404?”

Things that are different in Canada, that I’m not too keen about.

Loaves of Bread in the Supermarket

This is a big one for me, as a lot of toast and sandwiches are consumed in my house. Supermarket loaves are expensive (around $3.29 for your average loaf, or $5.99 for some fancy kind of flax-seed, raisiny thing) and are always wholly unfulfilling. The slices are tiny, for a start. Even the loaves that look decently sized on the shelf seem to shrink when unwrapped at home, and worse, when emerging from the toaster, seem to have become oddly bent and mangled, and have developed holes you could have sworn weren’t there two minutes ago. The bread itself, especially when lightly toasted, seems to just disintegrate in your mouth. When unwrapping my lunch-packed sandwiches, diagonally-cut, ham drooping over the sides, I often let out a weary sigh.

I’d swap all the bread in Canada for just one round of Warburton’s Toastie, Thick Sliced, with lashings of real butter and blueberry jam. Even thinking about how soft and cold a freshly opened slice of Warbie’s feels to touch, and the impracticality of shipping a loaf over to Canada, makes me feel a sadness and longing for home.

Having to pay money for just about everything

When I tell my friends back home that I get charged to receive a call on my mobile, they are incredulous. The fact that it’s almost impossible to open a basic bank account that you don’t have to pay a monthly fee for, and that an extra 10c deposit is charged if you buy a soft drink in a plastic bottle, means that it’s very hard to be careful with your money here, because it just keeps getting subtly zapped away in ways you only find out about when you check your receipts.

HST, or harmonised sales tax (trust me, there’s nothing harmonious about it) is set at 12% in BC, which means that when I go to pay for, say, a shirt that costs $19.99, I am actually going to be charged $22.38. This is especially annoying when paying for things using cash. I break $25 in notes, and am left with a load of change. Now I don’t mind a penny each time, to top up the penny jar, but a handful of pennies not only weighs down my purse, but also will never get spent because it’s just not fair on the cashier to pay for things using a stack of mixed change.

That said, I’ve found a way around these matters. I tend to pay for most things using my debit card, from my shockingly free of charge bank account, and I spend all my pennies at the self-serve checkouts in the supermarket. God, it must be annoying to stand behind me in the queue.

Networking

Maybe it’s not too different from back home if you hang out in important circles and go to free champagne events to spread your face and name around, but that was never me. And still isn’t. Getting yourself noticed here, by any employer, involves much more than just sending out a fantastic resume and charming cover letter. There’s a lot of following up to be done, by phone, by email, and in person. Walking into an office you’ve applied to, a few days after hitting ‘send’, and asking to speak to the hiring manager, isn’t seen as ‘pushy’ or ‘desperate’. Instead, it’s a darn good way of bettering your chances. Similarly, having contacts within a company and using them to get you in, gives you an arguably unfair advantage, but an advantage nonetheless, as many companies are said to only hire either from within or if tipped off from a member of current staff.

I can see how and why this works. But it makes things especially difficult for newcomers like me, who came to Canada with no contacts, and are struggling to get feet in doors just about everywhere. I only have a few months Canadian work experience, I don’t have a business card (What would it say? ‘I’m great at lots of things, and am willing to work for less than living wage, hire me!’) and my accent has been described by a Canadian as ‘hilarious’. I’m basically screwed.

One instance of ‘same word, different meaning’

I studied differences between British English and North American English as part of my Bachelor’s Degree, so I’m cool with all the little differences in vocabulary over here, and it’s easy to adapt to using them. I now take the elevator to the 12th floor, and marvel at how clean the washroom is in comparison to public loos back home, and occasionally I eat arugula salads, etc. But there’s one thing I just can’t get my head around, and that is the concept of the humble biscuit. To me, a biscuit will aways be something you dip in your cup of tea. Not something to accompany gravy. I think that’s all that needs to be said on this matter.

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San Francisco, CA – October 2012

As if 2012 hadn’t already been exciting enough, Gerard and I decided to slot in a casual little trip to San Francisco (via Seattle – flying from there was a steal!) for my quarter century birthday. My expectations of a city that has such a culturally diverse population, rich literary and iconic cinematic history, and interesting architecture, were absolutely exceeded in three whirlwind days.

The trip started on THURSDAY, with a pleasant drive across the border to Seattle. This city is like our second home here in North America. It’s only three hours away by coach, and whether we visit for a few days or in this case a few hours, we know that we’ll always be guaranteed a great time. We arrived hungry, and in search of beer, so we headed straight to Six Arms, a pub built as part of the ever-expanding McMenamin’s empire. The McMenamin brothers are chaps from Portland, who have injected new life into old buildings by vamping them into quirky pubs, serving their own quality ales and fantastic food. Our Captain Neon burgers (w/ blue cheese and bacon) were excellent, as expected, and were washed down perfectly with Wheat Ale and a Nebraskan guest bitter.

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Once we’d refueled, we headed to the Narwhal, a magical and strange underground bar (below the Unicorn) which is bizarrely decorated like a travelling fairground ride, with traditional American tattoo-style artwork on the walls and tables. We had a great time in the bar’s built-in pinball arcade, enjoying wasting quarters and feeling young again. Walking back to the hotel, our already-kindled inner children’s eyes lit up when we saw a neon skittle emblazoned with the word ‘BOWL’, and we were eagerly sidetracked to enjoy a few games of 10-pin. I’m so bad at bowling it was rather ridiculous, but we thoroughly enjoyed our strikes and misses, and took advantage of the long islands on special. There’s something so nostalgic about going bowling as adults, something wonderful happens when you lace up those red & blue shoes, and there’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when you hit a strike; I really hope that bowling as a pastime never dies away in the digital age. After a good few games at a really reasonable price ($5 an hour per lane!) I was losing too badly to ever redeem myself, so we headed back to the hotel before midnight. We were asleep as soon as our heads touched the pillow.

We awoke early FRIDAY morning, and I was given a quick ‘happy-birthday’ and opened my gifts and cards from home. We took the 40-minute trip to Sea-Tac airport via Link Light Rail, and went through the necessary check-in and security procedures just fine. The Virgin America flight itself was very pleasant, and our seats had TV screens and computerized mah-jong to keep us entertained. We arrived in SFO to see ‘Go Giants’ signs all around the airport, then took the BART train into downtown San Francisco.  We were greeted by a friendly homeless man wielding a wad of Street Sheets (SF’s version of The Big Issue), and he gave us helpful directions and tips on transportation for our stay.  After a strenuous uphill walk to the hotel, which was only 9 blocks but felt much longer (taxi next time, promise) we arrived at Hotel Vertigo, where scenes from Hitchcock’s famous 1958 movie were filmed. The recently refurbished hotel certainly played on its claim to Hollywood fame, with the iconic movie playing 24/7 on a flat screen at the front desk, and the entire interior designed using elements from the orange Saul Bass movie poster, including the spiral motif which was worked into our bedroom mirrors.  The front desk staff were very helpful & knowledgeable, and overall the Vertigo was a comfortable boutique hotel, which still had a few giveaways that it was once an old, shabby speakeasy.

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As we headed out onto the busy streets, we saw a zombie arm installed on Sutter street, literally breaking out of the ground, and then walked down towards the Embarcadero, double-taking as we passed a completely naked (apart from a pair of furry moon-boots) middle-aged man who was casually strolling around. In a city like San Francisco, these things seem pretty normal. We stopped by Gott’s Roadside at the Ferry Building for just a quick bite (as we had very important and very exciting birthday reservations, which I will discuss later!); the fresh fries and warming squash soup was just what we needed. As we sat watching the twilight sky change from blue, to violet, to purple, and to navy, we witnessed a scheduled, fancy dressed, anything-goes bike ride. Hundreds of cyclists of all ages, many halloween costumed, many with speakerboxes strapped to their bikes, pumping out attention-grabbing music, and some almost naked (one guy was wearing a customized pair of levi’s, and by ‘customized’ I mean he had cut them into a tiny thong, and was wearing nothing else) took to the streets. The procession of cyclists continued for around 10 minutes, during which time not a single car passed the busy Embarcadero.

We walked up towards Broadway & Columbus, past seedy neon signs advertising ‘The Garden Of Eden’ and ‘The Roaring Twenties’ clubs, and stopped outside the famous City Lights bookstore, where the store’s publishing of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘HOWL & other poems’ received national infamy.  Close by is Jack Kerouac alley (Kerouac famously wrote On The Road while living in an apartment in this part of town, and frequented the bar Vesuvio where we stopped for a beer). An inscription on the ground reads “The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great…” (The words following this line, from On The Road, are: “I thought I was in a dream.”) The same could be said for us, as our wide eyes took in the bright lights and our five senses prepared for their trip to The Stinking Rose.

The Stinking Rose is, simply, a garlic restaurant, whose slogan is “We season our garlic with food”. Having reserved a table a month in advance of our trip, and whetting our appetites by taking advance previews of their menu, which contains items such as ‘garlic soaking in a hot tub’ and ‘40 clove garlic chicken’, it’s fair to say we were ridiculously excited for this gastronomic experience.  And it did not disappoint. The aroma of garlic hits you from outside, and inside, it pervades the entire atmosphere. There’s a giant braid of garlic bulbs, officially the longest in the world, zig-zagged across the ceiling, and various garlic-related photographs adorning the walls (my favourite being a ‘no vampires’ sign). I know that the restaurant might sound a little gimmicky, and yes it is unashamedly so, but the food itself was of such great quality (and quantity!) and the service so fantastic, that it felt as though all the funny décor was just part of the bigger picture and added to a great experience. We started with sizzling iron-skillet roasted mussels, in white wine, which we dipped into a hot bubbling cup of garlic butter.  The mussels came with a scattering of whole cloves, which didn’t taste harsh or pungent but instead were soft and delicious. For the main event, I opted for the garlic roasted prime rib, which was the largest and most tender steak I’ve had, and Gerard went for the ‘Silence of the Lamb Shank’ (with chianti glaze and fava beans). Both meals were huge and never-ending, and the garlic Yukon gold mashed potatoes and creamed Swiss chard were winning accompaniments. I received an unexpected and hilarious birthday serenade, when a posse of staff members crept to our table and sung Happy Birthday to me (replacing the ‘happy birthday, dear _____’ part with ‘happy birthday, little stinker’, such a highlight) and placed a garlic bulb hat on my incredulous little head. This moment was so good, and so unplanned, and the complimentary birthday cake – which was garlic-free, I think! – was the perfect way to end this memorable meal. Afterwards, we headed straight to a corner shop for a pack of minty gum, but I think it would have taken about 10 packs to extinguish the lingering taste of garlic from our mouths.  We had a drink in an Irish bar, where a bad metal covers band were playing, and then attempting to suppress our pungent breath in the taxi home, so as not to offend the driver, we headed home.

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After brushing our teeth numerous times on Friday night, and again on SATURDAY morning, we left the hotel to glorious sunshine, and headed straight to the Haight neighbourhood to explore. Stopping for a quick breakfast of burritos at The Little Chihuahua – we still tasted of garlic from last night, so what harm would a little salsa do? – we walked to Alamo Square to view the ‘Painted Ladies’ that have adorned so many San Francisco postcards. This row of Victorian houses, which survived the massive 1906 earthquake, look perfectly unreal, especially as they are backdropped by the postmodern architecture of downtown San Fran. The sun was bearing down on the grassy square where many people chose to picnic or read books under trees, and a cheeky little dog snarfed my foil-wrapped leftover burrito.

Later, we walked down Haight St, classic Hippieville, which was still so full of long haired, headscarfed, spaced-out folk that it felt like we were in the mid-60s.  The area is full of smoking shops, tattooers, and eastern inspired jewellery, but we bypassed all of this to make a beeline for the fantastic Amoeba Music.  This giant record store, which used to be a bowling alley, has over a 100,000 CDs and vinyls. That’s a lot of music. Waiting for the bus, we saw a young, eccentric looking man carrying a cardboard box down the street, and offering from it packages of fresh food (salads, sandwiches etc.) to the many homeless people who lined the streets. The guy was working on behalf of the Haight Street Food Program, and it was comforting to know that in a city so notorious for its large homeless population, there is such fantastic work being done by ordinary people to lessen the problem at street level.

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We caught our bus to the Cartoon Art Museum, a small, quirky Museum featuring such exhibitions as the History of Cartoons, and Sketchtravel, a pass-the-parcel sketch project in which 71 artists from around the world each contributed by filling a page in a sketchbook with a drawing to represent their take on the world.  Some of the sketches were fantastic, and I enjoyed seeing photographs of the artists passing the sketchbook by hand to the next person. The museum was a fun way to spend an hour, and the entry fee was only $7.

In the late afternoon, we headed into the Mission District, a culturally diverse part of town where many shop signs and restaurant menus are entirely in Spanish. One of the typical ‘when in Mission’ pastimes is to try the authentic soft-shell tacos from one of the many taquerias lighting up the streets. We’d already had burritos for breakfast, but so what, you can never have too much Mexican food, and like I say, ‘when in Mission’, it’d be rude not to. The tacos at La Corneta were fantastic. At $3 each and absolutely huge, we tried the Carne Asada and Carnitas, and enjoyed the juicy contents as they spilled out of their shells.  Along with a beer each, the meal came to less than $10, and we followed this with the cheapest beers of the trip at Doc’s Clock – $2 each! Doc’s Clock has some truly interesting décor, including bloody paraplegic Barbies hanging from the back bar, and intriguing handwritten signs (‘Don’t mention the unicorn. It never ends well’, if I remember correctly).  Back into downtown, we stopped by a pub at AT&T park, catching the San Francisco Giants soar to victory in 3/7 of their World Series games against the Detroit Tigers. As we walked home down streets lined with orange & black, shouts of ‘Go Giants!’ and shirts proclaiming the impending ‘dia des los gigantes’, we knew that tomorrow’s game – the one which would decide whether the Giants would win the entire series in four straight games – was going to be a big one for this city.

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We woke up on SUNDAY all set to be ‘proper’ SF tourists. We’d already done some of the more off-the-beaten-path type things, but today we’d see some of the more typical tourist attractions. We caught an Alcatraz cruise to the infamous island – now a National Park – and took the audio tour around the ex-prison.  The tour was succinct (after all, it’s just a prison, there’s not that much to see apart from crumbled old toilets and iron bars) but the views of the bay, taking in the fog-enshrouded Golden Gate Bridge, and the downtown skyscrapers, were a real highlight. We took a walk to the OTT Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, where we resisted the lure of tacky souvenir shops and sickly sweet candy vendors. The place was too busy, and the food we had was very underwhelming (chowder like Heinz Chicken Soup and a prawn sandwich with bread so hard you could knock someone out with it), but one high point on our traipse through Touristville was a whiff of the Boudin bread factory, famous for its sourdough.  I experienced vertigo scaling the steep incline towards Lombard Street, the famous flower-lined zig-zag street, and made a brief stop for a wonderful milkshake at Lori’s downtown before heading out to catch the baseball game.  We headed to Polk Street’s Hemlock Tavern, a likeable dive with a peanut-shell lined floor, an indoor smoking room (I’m not sure that’s even legal in California any more!) and an oval bar manned by two absolute bartending machines, serving from every angle and probably taking home more in tips that night that I would earn in a week. The entire bar was crammed with people, and it was nearly impossible to catch a view of the big-screen, but we just about managed it. The atmosphere was fantastic, everybody was kitted out in the orange and black Giants uniform du jour, and one guy was even selling homemade screen-printed t-shirts out of his rucksack at $10 a pop, which I gladly parted with my cash for. This was a history making night, I was already sure of it, the Giants HAD to win. The dark bar was lit with Halloween lanterns and skeleton lights, and the atmosphere went up a notch each time the Giants drew closer to victory. As the final pitch of the game was made, the place went up in a roar, half of my beer was spilt in joy and loads of high-fives were handed out and gladly taken. We chatted to lots of friendly locals, drank lots of tequila, and the last few patchy things I remember are more high-fives, a sponge ‘Cainsaw’, Hawaiian street pizza, and finding the way back home.

On MONDAY it was almost all over. The previous night had felt like a dream. We had been swept up in Giants fever, and awoke to news stories relating post-game riots, bonfires and buses being smashed up. Over the other side of the States, there was the devastation of superstorm Sandy, wrecking the East Coast. Then there was the realization that we had a day of economy class travelling to endure while trying to nurse our painful heads and bodies, and attempting to recollect the post-tequila details. We stumbled to Jack in the Box for a huge fast food combo. I think that helped a little.

Passing through the 7×7 square mile city, we saw one homeless man holding a cardboard sign reading ‘ass watching is a sport’. I realized that we had seen and done so much, and hardly cracked the surface of this diverse city. We hadn’t visited the Castro, where history was made in the 70s and the spirit of Harvey Milk still resides. We hadn’t had breakfast at Mama’s (well, we tried but the queue was just too long and we had a schedule to keep). We didn’t get the chance to scale the 400 steps of Telegraph Hill and see views out of Coit Tower. But I’m not complaining about that; walking the hilly streets was exercise enough. These things and more will all be on the list for next time, I’m sure.

Our visit was a whirlwind adventure, and I felt sad to have to leave. In a few short days we’d become adopted Giants fans, had tacos we’d have to go to deepest Mexico to beat, and seen iconic sights that many will only see on TV and cinema screens. It would take a few more days for all the garlic and tequila fumes to wear off, and a few good sleeps to recover from all the walking and travelling and reveling. But our memories of San Francisco have sunk in, and will be with us for a very long time.

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Moving.

I dcidd I didn’t lik tumblr anymor.

I want my blog to focus on WORDS. Picture blogs are nice and everything, but I don’t find them very interesting. I feel that tumblr’s geared towards the photoblogger, and that’s just not what I want to do. (We have Instagram for that, right?)

I sure hope I can import all my old posts over to this place.

Edit: Well, that was easy! (See below.)

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