Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Travel Notes

When I left the Twin Cities six days ago the temp was around freezing, and we had two feet of snow on the ground. When I arrived in San Francisco, I discovered magnolias blooming, along with lots of other trees I did not recognize. I was riding to the hotel at twilight and suddenly realized that the white stuff of the trees wasn’t snow; it was flowers.

The Bay Area is amazing, possibly the loveliest urban area I have been in, at least in the States. There are palm trees and cypresses – the narrow, pointed kind that belong in Italian gardens and van Gogh paintings of southern France. And there are hills and the bay. You can hardly beat the combination of blue sky, blue water and rising land.

I was five days in the East Bay, most of the time spent in a hospital. I saw the Golden Gate Bridge from a waiting room next to an intensive care unit. My relative is not doing well. The husband of one of my cousins grew up in Toronto. He said he is always surprised that illness and death can happen in this summery climate. His memory of childhood is that people died in cold, gray weather.

My brother and I stayed in a hotel in downtown Oakland -- an old “rooms for men” place that has been renovated. It had the spare, utilitarian look of the worker's hotel in Patrick’s dream. There was an old-fashioned pedestal wash basin in my room. The tub and the toilet were in a separate bathroom. My windows looked out on a street with street signs in English and Chinese. My brother said it reminded him of a European hotel.

I liked downtown Oakland. It looked like a city that is turning around, but isn’t glitzy yet. A working town. The Oakland harbor is full of cranes -- enormous objects like machines out of Star Wars. I assume they unload containers from Asia.

I also like Berkeley, though my pleasure is more guilty. It is something like the ultimate university town, full of interesting shops and restaurants and bungalows with wonderful yards. You climb out of a car, and mint or rosemary is flowering in front of you in March. The cabdriver who took me to SFO said houses in Berkeley cost a million dollars these days. He was a guy from India (I think) who had been an airline mechanic for Eastern till he got laid off. He could have gotten a job in Seattle, but his family was in the Bay Area, so he drove a cab.

I don’t fly much these days, so it seems like an exotic, futuristic experience -- the airport security checkpoints and moving walkways, everyone on computers or cell phones. The TVs that used to drive me crazy have vanished or been turned down. The sound must have interfered with cell phone conversations. And it seems quite amazing to be in California after four hours. A four hours drive would not take Patrick and me out of Minnesota, unless we drove east to Wisconsin. Every once in a while, I think, “I am in the future. This is the future SF writers imagined when I was a kid -- though it didn’t turn out quite as imagined.”


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