Sunday, March 4, 2012

My heart and San Francisco

Nineteen years ago, my husband and I were walking the streets of San Francisco; we lived there for one glorious year when he got the wonderful opportunity to work as a postdoc in a molecular genetics lab at the University of California at San Francisco. I also ended up working in the same lab (pretty large) but in a different capacity. I remember loving the challenge of moving, setting up stakes in a new city, finding an apartment for us to rent, going to look at them in the evenings when he got home after work. All those things that make for a life together and the stuff of great memories. I got to thinking of that time in our lives because I saw our old address on a slip of paper as I was going through my files recently and tossing old papers. We lived on Carl Street (very near the intersection with Stanyan Street), a stone’s throw in terms of distance from both Golden Gate Park and the Haight-Ashbury district. I googled the address recently and clicked onto the street view—wouldn’t you know, there was our old Victorian-style house, still looking the same as it did nineteen years ago? I wonder if it still exists as apartments for rent? As I remember, there were several apartments in the three-story house. We lived on the top floor.

We loved being there and each weekend was a new adventure. There were so many things to do and see that year. Where should we go, what should we visit this time? Of course we did all the standard touristy things—visiting Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz prison, Muir Woods, Chinatown, Golden Gate Park, different museums and the zoo. And so many other things. We drove to Marin County, to Berkeley, and to the Napa Valley wine country (don’t get me started on how much I loved being there—it is one of the most beautiful places on earth if you ask me). But what I remember most from our year in SF is that we got outdoors and walked. It is a great city to walk in, hilly yes, but easy to walk around in. And that is how we discovered most of the interesting off-the-beaten path restaurants and cafes and stores that we ended up liking to go to. And our trips to the beach on the weekends, even in the months of February and March. Deserted beaches for the most part, but what an expansive feeling to be there. I love being at the shore during the winter months; I remember doing that when I lived in New Jersey—driving to the shore in the middle of winter and looking out over the ocean. In San Francisco, we took the cable car all the way out to the end of Irving Street and then walked a few meters from there to the beach. We stopped and bought homemade vanilla sodas at the little Italian deli that stood on the corner of the last street before the beach. That was my first introduction to those wonderful Italian syrups that come in all flavors—vanilla, coffee, chocolate, and so many others. I took so many pictures that year, we had so many visitors that year—my sister and her husband, my friends Gisele and Judy, my husband’s friend Lars, colleagues from our Norwegian workplaces.  I remember my husband’s aunt and uncle (Gunvor and Åke) visiting us in the autumn, and her falling in love with the pumpkins that were in abundance at that time of year; she helped me carve out a large one for Halloween. And when my ten-year old stepdaughter Caroline came for three weeks during that summer, we took her to Disneyland in Los Angeles and then visited my friends Lucy and Steve in San Diego where we ended up visiting Sea World as well. My brother got married that year as well—the wedding was in NY which made it a pleasure to fly the short trip back to NY to be a part of it. There was never a dull moment in all of 1993, and that is why that year stands out in my mind as a very memorable year. It was full of adventures and new experiences that we tackled and mastered and enjoyed doing so in the process. Perhaps those are the things we should do more often in our lives—choose new experiences that bring us out of our comfort zones, that stretch us and make us broader. Who knows? It is easier to choose safety at the expense of all else, and becomes much easier to do so as we grow older.

We often walked around in Haight-Ashbury on the weekends, with its great old record stores, clothing stores, cafes—you name it. Of course it had its quota of shady stores and seediness, but what big city doesn’t? I wouldn’t have lived smack in the center of that district, mostly because it attracted a lot of tourists and there wouldn’t have been much privacy or quiet. But we were there often. It’s where we discovered a little hole-in-wall Southern food restaurant that probably isn’t there anymore. It served crab cakes and seafood gumbo and you name it. We went there often, as well as to a barbecued ribs place that probably should have been closed down by the health authorities, but boy were the ribs good! We had an organic deli and bakery on the corner a few houses down from us, where we bought fresh bread, and a small supermarket a few blocks from us where we could get fresh fish. We didn’t lack for much that year.

It was the one year in my life where my work really didn’t matter all that much to me. I was employed in the same lab as my husband, working on a flow cytometry project that I learned and mastered and that eventually led to a publication for my boss at that time. I’m proud that I was able to come in and get the project organized and on-track so that a publication became possible. I worked hard, but I left work at the door at the end of the day. We met some great work colleagues and hung out with them as well--concerts, picnics, parties. But weekends belonged to my husband and me, our free time, relaxing because work did not hang over our heads as it does usually. I miss that. I try to keep weekends free now, but there is always something to do for work. I don’t mind it, but I miss that feeling of being truly relaxed.

When we returned to Norway, a new year awaited us. It seems almost impossible to believe that nearly twenty years have passed since that time. But they have. We sat and watched The Streets of San Francisco with Karl Malden and a young Michael Douglas, that ran for a year or so on Norwegian TV during 1994. We missed SF. It made us feel good to watch the show, to try to identify the streets we knew and had walked on. Is it possible to fall in love with a city? I think so. It happened to me during 1993. I don’t know how I’d feel going back now. I’ve changed, our lives have changed. Perhaps it’s good not to go back? I don’t know. I’ve done it once, returned to Cambridge in England, the city where I met my husband. It wasn’t the same feeling. Of course it couldn’t be. Part of the original feeling had to do with its being my first trip to Europe (1987), first time in England, meeting my husband, falling in love—all those things. Can you recapture those feelings, the feelings you first have about a place or a person? Probably not. And that’s ok actually. Because other feelings and thoughts have taken their place. New memories have laid themselves up on the old ones. I dig deeper now to unearth the very old ones. But they’re still fresh when I do so. The mind is interesting that way. A mystery that holds our lives in its recesses. The heart likewise. 

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