America: land of the free and home of the affirmed

I’ve returned to the UK for a new academic year with a new resolution: I’m going to make like an American and make conversation.

We Brits regularly mock what we perceive to be America’s overtly extrovertedness, especially those of us who are particularly introverted. We think it’s weird, unnecessary and – at times – downright embarrassing. It’s with pleasure we roll our eyes at enthusiastic tourists on the tube, oblivious of the ‘stay quiet and don’t make eye contact’ etiquette. But I now have to admit that it’s beginning to grow on me.

We’re always taught to be cautious going through US Immigration, but my attitude now is that being relaxed and ready to chat to whoever’s telling me to place my fingers on a scanner is the best way forward. Plus, my recent decision to answer “I’m in seminary” to the question “what do you do?” has resulted in great chats both in Atlanta and San Francisco. In Britain, we seem to assume that no one would possibly be interested in what we do, how nice a day we’ve been having or whether we’ve found every item we’d hoped for on a shopping trip – in America, they actually are interested. (Or, are at least paid to act like they are.) Thus, when stateside, I work very hard to eliminate my usual British cynicism and embrace the friendliness.

Johnny's Doughnuts The fabulous Johnny’s Doughnuts in San Rafael. I was eased into making conversation here, thanks to the company of an effervescent American. 

The first hurdle is accepting compliments. I worked in retail for two years and I think the number of compliments I paid to customers could be counted on my fingers – not because I’m mean, but because we just don’t do that sort of thing here. For the duration of my trip, I wore the same (rather nice, sparkly and dangly) earrings every day. [I had others, I just never got round to finding them.] In the space of 36 hours, they had received compliments from sales assistants and baristas – in fact, in one cafe, baristas fought over who could pay me more compliments, focusing on my earrings and dress. Yes, they probably wanted my tip, but still…

[Spot the person with self-confidence issues.]

Then there’s the random conversations begun simply because it’s deemed acceptable. I mentioned the other day the responses I got to my accent – was I Australian? (Fitting room attendant in Cupertino’s Target.) What did I think about Peter Capaldi being the new Doctor? (Lovely girl on the till at Millbrae’s Trader Joe’s.) It wasn’t long before I got in on the act myself – see, I can be an extrovert when I choose to be!

Chocolate Chip PancakesA taste of childhood – chocolate chip pancakes in a family-run diner in Cupertino where the staff could not stop bringing you coffee…

An essential element of any trip to the States is a session at a nail bar – partly because it’s an intensely cultural experience and partly because it’s so cheap compared to manis and pedis here. (My manicure cost $12, seriously, bargain.) It’s where the community – or at least the female members of it – gather and real conversations take place. We headed to one while in Pacifica and, thanks to our group being split up across the bar, I was left to my own devices. In such circumstances, I become a socially awkward Brit. Am I meant to talk to the manicurist? Am I doing the right thing (this was only my 3rd ever manicure)? On this occasion, I did what comes naturally – I sat and watched my surroundings, taking it all in.

The biggest impact upon the surroundings was a group of older women who were abuzz with excitement. Two of the group were leaving that afternoon for London, then on to Scotland, and they were telling everyone about it. During the course of my manicure, women came and went, giving them greetings and sharing in the anticipation – it was genuinely lovely. As they chatted, concernedly, about the difference between Scottish and English currency, I couldn’t help but butt in. The moment they heard my voice and realised I was a genuine Londoner (well, as genuine as they were likely to get in their town) there were screeches of joy. Immediately, I was called upon to explain everything – the money, the transport, the royal family (they were excited to see the new Diana movie in London – poor them, I hear it’s dreadful), and, bizarrely, how far away Paris was. I was in my element and nearly offered them a Liz walking tour special! It was a lovely moment, and wouldn’t have happened, had I kept my mouth shut.

Gorgeous GelatoIncredible gelato in Berkeley. (Manicure 3 days later…) 

Then there’s the customer service that goes beyond the call of duty – Charlotte, fitting room supervisor at Market Street GAP, I’m looking at you! I appreciate that GAP generally does have an emphasis on customer service, but this was the first time I’d been asked my name in a fitting room and felt genuinely un-judged when returning items that didn’t work. I left feeling warm and fuzzy, purchasing a pair of ‘sexy boyfriend’ jeans. [As I quipped on Twitter & Facebook last week, the ‘sexy boyfriend’ has yet to materialise…] Four hours later, I returned with my friends in tow. They spent quite a while in the fitting rooms and invited me in to give judgement on items – at which point Charlotte spotted me and greeted me with an enthusiastic “hello Liz!” Impressive. She proceeded to give excellent outfit advice to all of us and was particularly good at locating sizes missing from the shelves. It’s got to be said, we were sad to leave – I felt like I’d made a friend for life.

This long, rambling, telling of stories is simply my way of saying “Come on Brits! We can do this too!” Not in a fake way, but in a genuine, interactions can improve someone’s day kind of way. It’s not hard!

Oh, and just for a sense of balance, we did have one example of bad customer service too. Peet’s (in Berkeley) – a chain that’s almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks in California – provided us with service so shocking that we didn’t go to another branch all trip.

[The food photos may seem unconnected to the post, but I felt they needed to be shared somewhere! The full set of Californian photos is now on Flickr.]

Take the BART (man)

It wouldn’t be a trip to another major world city if I didn’t take some time to analyse the public transportation network. (On my 2009 trip to the US East Coast, I compared and contrasted the systems in Philadelphia, DC and NYC. No one accuse me of not taking this geekery seriously!)

I should confess that I only actually made one journey on the BART – the Bay Area Rapid Transit. It could have been two, but I managed to misread the map so badly on my penultimate day that I didn’t realise that I could catch the BART all the way into The City from our local station. However, my only journey proved to be a long one. Pleasant Hill to SFO airport is almost an entire line – 22 stops and 70 minutes long.

BART mapIt was the yellow line that proved useful. Sadly, the lines don’t have fun names – instead using the stations at either end. 

One of my criteria for grading international transit systems is how easy they are to navigate by a clueless tourist. I generally consider myself to be fairly savvy, what with my love of public transportation and all, unless I’m operating in a foreign language. The BART has a fairly easy map (unless you’re an idiot and forget where The City actually is), but what is utterly flummoxing is its ticketing system. When you look up a journey online, it tells you the exact cost – mine was $10.05 – which I thought was random. When I came to buy my ticket, I came unstuck – I couldn’t work out how to buy a single journey. There was no station finding option, just an automatic $20.00 added to a ticket. It took a trip to the ticket office (who wouldn’t sell me a ticket) to get an explanation. Apparently I needed  to use the +/- buttons to get my ticket to the correct amount for my desired journey. What?? How crazy! Can you imagine what would happen if you had that system in London?

However, the train itself was very pleasant. You know that mild sense of panic you feel whenever you attempt to take luggage on the underground? Will there be space? Will I annoy people? Will I be able to keep it safe? [Or is that just me?] There was none of that on the BART – there was oceans of room and, possibly because I got on at the 3rd stop, I had a seat where my luggage could easily be placed in front of me. It was clean, smelt pleasant and for most of the journey we were above ground, running parallel to the highway, with plenty of pretty views to consume.

BARTInside the BART. See, spacious! (Although it was Saturday…)

Within the BART, you have what seems to be a pretty good system – for a state in which the car is king. Admittedly, if you have the misfortune of living north of the Golden Gate Bridge, you have no link at all, but otherwise it might work out. Of course, during our trip we actually only met one family who regularly used it – even though our last week was spent within easy reach of stations. (It may have helped that the family were originally from New York and had lived in Paris, so public transport seemed more normal to begin with.)

Oh, and obviously, for a certain generation there is a near uncontrollable need to say ‘man’ immediately after the word ‘BART’. If you don’t understand why, simply Google ‘Bart Simpson Man’ and it should be explained to you…

California Dreaming

I’m back. Actually, I’ve been back since Sunday, but the first day back at Vicar School (for the first day of the final year *gulp*) followed by a very full day back at church, followed by jet lag sucking all writing ability out of my brain has meant that blogging has been in abeyance.

As the rain lashes against the windows, the sun and heat of California seems like a dream. Was it only this time last week that I was sitting outside a bar in Berkeley eating sliders? Or sitting in a hot tub enjoying a glass of wine? Ho hum. Life continues in London and at quite a pace.

The highlights? Well, to follow on from my Silicon Valley adventures, we did return to Apple. Inside Infinite Loop 3, we spent over an hour sitting in the pleasant gardens outside the Apple canteen. (We arrived at ‘cookie happy hour’, surely any hour that involves cookies is happy?) Shannon had originally met the head of Apple’s ‘Evangelism’ team in May, through a mutual friend, and fixed up a meeting at his office so he could share some of his thoughts about the connections between business, the church and theology. Fascinating stuff.

Liz @Apple

While at Apple, it seemed foolish not to make the most of the company store and (finally) avail myself of an iPad. (Especially as our new friend provided his employee discount too.) It’s already been a smart move, given college’s decision to go paperless in its teaching as of next week.

There was also enough Mexican food to feed a Mexican family for quite some time. (Apparently ‘Cal-Mex’ is a thing in the same way that Tex-Mex is – who knew?) I can recommend specifically:

  • El Metate in the Mission area of San Francisco. (Home of an awesome al pastor tostado salad.)
  • Nopalito on Broderick St, to the north of the city. (Awesome sangria and dark chocolate & cinnamon popsicles.)
  • Facebook’s burritos.
  • The Paleo diet version of tortillas – lettuce leaves. A handy tip for a low-carb Mexican dinner.

Napolita feastBeautiful Mexican feast – all thanks to a recommendation all the way from Houston. (Randomly, after I posted this on Instagram, discovered that a London friend had eaten here last year!)

I also learnt some things that could be valuable to readers, should they be hopping over the pond any time soon:

  • Swot up on the Royal Family. In response to hearing my British accent, I was immediately asked – with immense excitement – how George was. George? Oh, the newest prince, obviously! People appeared genuinely disappointed when it emerged that I hadn’t actually met him.
  • Also swot up on Doctor Who. I was asked my opinion on the new Dr on more than one occasion (at this point, do I confess to the blog that I’m not that into the show?), and was at least able to recognise his name out of context! 
  • Don’t be offended if people think you’re Australian. The American ear genuinely struggles to discern the difference between British, Aussie and Kiwi – but then, how good are you at telling the difference between New York, Minnesota and Oregon accents? [To be fair, I’ve been mistaken for an Aussie in London too.]
  • Downton Abbey is a great leveller and excellent frame of reference. (Always laugh at American impressions of characters.) All of a sudden, there seems to be a greater understanding of the importance of tea – at one point, I even discovered a box of Earl Grey tea bought solely because it had a building that looked like Downton on it, which is no bad thing! Oh, and it’s a rare occasion that we Brits get to gloat that we see a TV series earlier than America does, series 4 begins on Sunday – they have to wait till January.

There are some specific blogposts to come, both here and on the Matryoshka Haus blog. (Want to know about public transportation in the Bay area? Stay tuned…) In the mean time, there ought to be some Friday Fun here tomorrow.

Foggy Frisco

Guidebooks are designed to be helpful and, while I’ve not made massive use of my Dorling Kindersley Guide to San Francisco (other guidebooks available), owing to other adventures, it has given me one very valuable piece of advice: “Never refer to San Francisco as ‘San Fran’ or ‘Frisco’. To locals it is ‘The City’ and anything else is offensive.”

Eddie Izzard helpfully explains this cultural nicety in this video, during which he also reflects upon another San Franciscan phenomenon: fog.

We were moved to watch this clip on Sunday night while driving back to our ocean view base. Almost as soon as the words “We could drink a glass of wine while watching the sunset over the ocean” had been uttered, fingers of fog began to creep over the hills adjacent to the freeway. Actually, they didn’t creep – to quote Eddie Izzard, the fog really ‘shifted it’. Within minutes visibility was minimal – there was absolutely no possibility of watching the sunset.

The fog in the San Francisco area is unlike anything I’ve ever known before. On my very first night, my view of the city en route from the airport was obscured by fog – on Monday, the iconic Golden Gate bridge was barely visible through the clouds. Goodness only knows how the Americas Cup yachtsmen manage to sail in it. Oh, and the weirdest thing is fog during daylight hours when it can be hot too. Hot in fog? That’s virtually unheard of in British meteorological conditions!

Over the weekend, we spent four nights staying in a friend’s holiday home in Pacifica – a town on the coast that adjoins the Pacific. (Could you have guessed that?) Honestly, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever stayed (most of the most beautiful are connected in that they involve the Pacific), and the view out of the bedroom window was simply incredible.

On Saturday morning, I awoke to the sight of the ocean, with what seemed to be black seals frolicking amongst the waves. On closer inspection, I realised they were surfers…

Saturday morning surfers, Pacifica

But on Monday morning, the view was a little different:

Pacifica fog

Somewhere in amidst the fog is the beach (and probably more surfers). It was seriously bizarre because the temperature was just as high as it was on Saturday when I’d even braved the ocean for a swim! Obviously, because we are British (or because 2 out of the 3 of us are British and the 3rd has lived there for nearly a decade) we have developed an obsession with the fog, and can give you a rundown of what the temperature has been on each of the days we’ve been here (in both Celsius and Fahrenheit). But it’s ok, because we fit in with the locals – like the British, they are also obsessed with the weather, because it can change so dramatically between different parts of the region. Today, for example, it’s a full 10C difference between Concord (where we’re currently based) and ‘the city’. In the Bay Area, everyone instructs you to take a cardigan with you…

But don’t go thinking that it’s a negative thing – the fog of San Francisco is in many ways a positive. What else would give the city its mysterious quality? Who wouldn’t want to cross the bay and watch wisps of fog rush in? And quite frankly, Just Like Heaven wouldn’t have been half the film it was without it…

Golden Gate disappearing into fogGolden Gate Bridge beginning to disappear into the clouds. 

Making friends with Facebook

Ah, Facebook. Possibly the most hated of the social networks, in terms of its insidiousness and ubiquity. People can opt in or out of Twitter, but in the 21st century, for people of a certain age (and those above it), it seems as essential to have a Facebook account as it is to have an email address. I have friends who have deleted their Facebook accounts out of fear of lack of privacy, or simply because it was reducing the quality of ‘real-life’ friendship. [Such a description makes it appear that online relationships aren’t real. I disagree with such a view.]

Being the ‘social media queen’ that I am (someone else’s words, not mine), I obviously have not relinquished my account. I may post there less now that I’ve embraced Twitter with open arms (I really should remember to copy some of my tweets over once in a while), but it’s still the main way in which I keep track of many of my friends and it’s kept many a friendship alive that may otherwise have fallen by the way side. Thus, I was obviously just a little excited to receive a text from some friends I was due to visit in California, informing me that we had dinner plans at the Facebook offices.

Facebook. For dinner. The place where Zuckerberg works. The company immortalised in The Social Network. The network whose app features on practically every smart phone. Facebook.

1 Hacker WayFacebook offices, 1 Hacker Way

I was incredibly lucky – my friends, the fabulous Chan-Fam, had a close friend who works there and who hosted us for the evening. I’m indebted both to him and to SiNing for organising it in the first place – it is already a highlight of a trip that’s barely half-over. From the moment I inputted my details into an iPad Facebook app in the front lobby, to the moment we left, my eyes were as wide as saucers. I was one happy geek!

Facebook Pass Got to be said, I was loath to give this up at the end.

In short, the Facebook complex is like a mini town. There are several buildings, all arranged around what looks like a main street – complete with a open square in the centre. In common with many of the tech companies in Silicon Valley, Facebook provides its employees with a lot – free breakfast, lunch and dinner; gym facilities; hairdresser vans and masseuses that visit regularly; bikes to travel around the campus on; kitchens crammed full of goodies in every office block; numerous free beverage vending machines; bathrooms with endless supplies; and even a movie night in their ‘town square’, complete with nachos and popcorn…

Facebook vending machine You’ve got to love a branded vending machine…

Facebook town square Gearing up to show the Avengers.

Bathroom suppliesOk, yes, I took photos in the bathroom. Those are toothpaste-loaded toothbrushes…

Micro KitchenMicro-kitchens. I was invited to pick out something – so I had a package of ‘Facebook Twizzlers’. 

The offices themselves are, in some ways, just like any other open-plan office – except that in many ways, they’re not like any open-plan office I’ve ever worked in! There are breakout areas and meeting rooms, but with added artwork and graffiti walls. There’s an entire room that seems to be dedicated to playing computer games. There are vending machines that sell computer paraphernalia. And, there was plenty of publicity around that plugged Facebook’s ‘Women in Timeline’ campaign, highlighting significant women in history.

Facebook Offices

Facebook Art

Facebook vending

Facebook humour

I confess, I did leave the offices wondering whether I could get a job there. Perhaps they might need a chaplain? Safe to say, I could’ve spent a whole day exploring and chatting to (not un-cute) geeks. So, next time Facebook changes something in a way you don’t like, this is where those annoying geeks are based…

Oh, and talking of geeks, next time you’re using a Google product, imagine people eating their lunch here:

Google offices

And when you’re using one of your Apple devices, the thinking behind it happened here:

Apple HQ

Oh, and this happened…

Eating the Apple

Ah, the simple pleasures of being a geek. As a bonus, I get a second bite of the apple (ba-dum-tsch) next week, when I go to an actual meeting at the Apple offices. Who knows, I may even treat myself to an iPad at the Apple Company store…

Oh, and if you want to put in an order for one of these classic t-shirts available there, let me know.

Apple Tees