Jul 162012

Bruschetta – lunch among beggars

Yesterday I had lunch with three women. We’d been on a writers’ panel together in San Francisco, sharing our hard earned experiences with a roomful of devoted writers.

Lunch, delicious, drew to a close and the bill landed on the table. I watched with amusement as the three spent about 15 minutes discussing the tip, which is a breath short of obligatory in the USA. In most places you’d wanna run if you didn’t leave one – and, I must say, I have.

As they pondered this much or that much or how much, I recalled a conversation I’d had the day before, over lunch with a childhood friend of my son’s. Adam has a brilliant mind; he’s here in San Francisco to take his place at the world’s inner cyber table, the crucible of new ideas that require brilliant minds.

When our bill came we nodded in hotheaded agreement about the burdensome nature of tipping. And Adam pointed out the time Americans wasted sorting out bills.

And here I was, watching three women who had spent at least 55 years each in this country, waste a collective 45 minutes working out a tip.

There are 300 million people in this country. Let’s say 200 million o them are adults who purchase independently of their parents . . . well, it would take Adam’s mind to do the maths. But I can tell from here that this is a massive amount of wasted productivity.

Talk to Americans about tipping and most will defend the system. It’s my guess they cannot imagine an alternative and besides, everyone knows someone who makes a great living on tips.

To me, they are a nation of beggars, relying on me – the customer – to assess what a smile was worth, a hello was worth, an attitude was worth . . . and much, much more.

A middle aged man, a doctor with the most charming smile in America, told me he supported tipping 100%, that he had lived on tips while he put himself through medical school.

He reminded me of a woman I knew who was six feet tall with a beautiful face and breasts slightly modified to perfect her goddess form – she also went into defensive bat for the tipping system.

Some people clearly make a lot of money.

But me, I’m old fashioned.

I believe people should work for a living wage.

I believe a person’s wage should not depend on the charm of their smile or the strategic exposure of their cleavage.

I believe the tip should be built into the bill and called a wage and if the customer wants to tip on top of that go right ahead.

I do not want responsibility – every single time I order a bloody drink – of deciding what her or his service was worth to me, of assessing the value of the human being who served me.

I do not want an avalanche of hidden costs driving up every single meal I order beyond the price I agreed to pay in the first place.

As Adam pointed out, the ACCC in Australia is devoted to weeding out hidden costs – and I have renewed respect for a philosophy that has seen an entire bureaucracy in my country established to ensure we pay the advertised cost of goods and services.

Besides, take last night’s meal, just as an example, because this scene is replicated every single time I have a meal:  in this instance I shop around for the kind of restaurant in which I might want to enjoy my last great meal in the USA, I take my seat, I order, the meal comes.

I admire, I anticipate, anyone who’s ever eaten a meal with me knows I am in my own delicious world by this stage.

I take a mouthful and at that precise moment the waitress sticks her head in my bubble world and says:  ‘how is everything?’

I pause, my mouth full of delectable food, and stare – at the face of the beggar – I have handed money over a thousand times to that face on the streets – the waitress beggar letting me know she’s paying attention to me, that she’s pleasing pleasing pleasing me.

Bizarrely, she’s waiting for me to talk – with my mouth full. I just want her to fuck off and leave me to enjoy my meal. I get like that when I eat.

Harsh, but true.

Because she’s begging.

And if I wanted to eat among beggars I’d eat out on the street.

 July 16, 2012  Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »
Jul 162012

It’s over.

I have two days left in the United States of America, three if you count the 12 hours I will spend in a train on Wednesday returning from San Francisco to LA, four if you count the day I spend in US air space getting from LA to JFK in NYC, airport to airport.

That leaves two precious days, one of which is already half gone; spent, like rare coin, in Starbucks.

I know, I can feel the collective shudder of the Australian nation: Starbucks?

I am tying up loose ends from the book tour: free to spend hours and hours accessing high speed free internet for the price of one drink; enjoying the company of strangers in an easy welcoming public place; now and then tuning into the always great sound track in the ceiling above me; sending thank you notes, three months’ worth; unscrambling writers’ notes scrawled on scraps of paper stuffed in my bag; making iPhone travel notes – details of hotel bookings, train schedules and, importantly, flight times.

I am, after all, leaving the US with exactly 65 minutes left on my visa; I need to get it right.

Sunday San Francisco Starbucks swirls around me. I love it here – see? I’m nostalgic already. Starbucks – as with so many American icons – make sense in the USA. It is when they colonise other cultures they are problematic; but in their own land, as an expression of their own culture, they make truly perfect sense.

Standing in the forever queue that spilled out the door, a sight that is replicated all over the country, I wondered why so many of us love Starbucks so much we are willing to wait this long for a coffee.

Or, in my case, a soy chai latte.

It’s partly the logo. She’s beautiful.

And it’s lotly the service.

My order goes like this:

Her:  Can I help you?

Me:  Soy chai latte thanks.

Her:  Name?

Me:  No water thanks.

Her:  Name?

Me:  With 3 pumps of chai.

Her:  Name?

Me:  And extra foam (that’s their word for froth. Finally I have learned to say it.)

Her:  Name?

Me:  Stephanie.

And that’s all there is to it. No attitude. Just my soy chai latte made exactly as I want it, every time, deliciously, richly, spicily, not too sweet with lashings of billowing creamy froth.

And here I sit, lamenting three months in a foreign country that feels so much like home it feels like going away, rather than moving on; as if I am leaving home, rather than traveling through; as if I belong here rather than have no right to return other than through the grace of strangers defending a border.

Oh dear, there are tears in my eyes.

I am a traveler. Moving on is my way. I have awherever I hang my hat’ kind of life. Yet I cannot wrap my bones around the notion I do not belong here. That a three month book tour is finished. Perhaps it’s the fact I signed that book deal a year ago – and spent an entire year working towards this, and three months devoted to doing whatever was asked from me: all in the name of My Pilgrim’s Heart.

Yes, that’s probably it. Not just leaving the USA, leaving an entire intense stage of a middle aged life.

Trading absolute focus for the wide open plains of a world beyond a land called Booktour.

I have my thoughts about what I will do . . . visit friends in London and soak up the Olympic city . . . watch my mother go for gold in the world tennis championships in Croatia . . . I may walk El Camino again . . . I may pay homage to the funniest year of my life and visit Hopeman, a small fishing village in the far north east of Scotland where four strong sun-tanned Australian teenagers landed overnight in 1975 . . . all the while with my eye on the true prize:  wintering at the North Pole.

In reality I have only one goal: to stay north of the Equator for a year.

Last night I celebrated lifting my hat from its US peg with a fine wine and a tiramisu; I was fresh from the final literary event of the tour – a big crowd and a panel of San Francisco writers; anticipating a TV interview and back to back radio interviews tomorrow.

Loose ends. Or, in my case, ever and always, the absence of.


Jul 142012

Meet Claire.

Claire and I met in Flagstaff, a town in the Arizona desert which is noteworthy for several reasons:

* it’s a gateway to Grand Canyon

* it is higher than any mountain east of the Mississippi

* its cute, fabulously cheap hostel gave me bedbugs (upside: as well as my money back).

Claire rode the Greyhound bus to Vegas two days before I caught the train to San Francisco; journeys that put us in San Francisco pretty much at the same time.

Hence today’s adventure, two Aussies let loose in an iconic city on the last days of their coast to coast US tours.

You’ll note the Golden Gate bridge behind Claire in the photo above. That was an accident, of sorts.

Claire and I set out for Haight Ashbury, the only iconic thing I could remember about San Francisco. And even though I knew it was iconic for its Bohemian heritage, the bohemians themselves being the generation before me, thanks to Wikipedia we set out knowing the following:

* Hunter S Thomson called it Hashbury

* Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead all lived in the district

* it was the birthplace of the so-called Summer of Love.

What I didn’t know in all this time, and only discovered when we finally made it there – seven hours later after a small detour to the Golden Gate bridge – is that it’s a bloody intersection! That’s all. That’s right. Haight Ashbury is where two streets meet. Haight Street. Ashbury Street. Haight Ashbury.

Here’s Claire at Haight Ashbury.

If you look really closely you can see the signpost behind her. Haight Street. Ashbury Street.

As I said, it took us seven hours to get there. This was because, along the way, we crossed a street called Golden Gate . . . but before that I remembered San Francisco’s famous crooked street.

How did we travel before Google?

Lombard Street.

I asked Claire if she was happy to go to Haight Ashbury via Lombard Street.

‘Sure,’ she said. And so we set off, miles and miles out of our way on a bitterly cold sumer’s day, San Francisco fog rolling in over the city from the bay and Claire in shorts – because it’s summer, her only concession to the grey and windy day a thin cardigan.

We strolled along dirty early morning streets sharing Grand Canyon stories, walking walking walking into the wind until we hit Lombard Street.

I realised all the photos I have seen of the famous crooked street must have been aerial. You can’t see its crookedness for the gardens. I wanted to walk the zig zag but the cars of the tourists dominated the narrow brick roadway; the footpath was just a footpath on a hill, also filled with tourists. And so we walked down. Then up. Just in time to see a strong woman pushing a wheelchair practically running down the hill, her big, seriously adult daughter leaning back in the chair saying very clearly ‘Mom, I do not feel safe.’

Mom, with the wind in her hair, biceps keeping the chair under control, had no intention of stopping for a freaked out daughter. I might have felt sorry for the powerless daughter, but mostly I admired Mom’s spirit.

Here’s Claire at Lombard Street.

And so from Lombard Street we set out for Haight Ashbury . . . until we crossed a street called Golden Gate.

Of course! How could we leave San Francisco without seeing the Golden Gate bridge.

‘Do you mind if we go via the Golden Gate?’ I asked Claire.

‘Sure,’ she said.

And so we looked at her toy map. It was kinda backwards, but that was okay. And then and so the real adventure began. The one that put us five hours out of our way. The one that took us past the university, down a long long long street that ought to have landed us in a beautiful, landscaped park.

We hit the landscape bit: sculptured firs, massive pines. And, three steps into it, a wall. We dropped over. Onto a road. Across the road. Into the ‘park’. Which was really a woods. But in reality was a weird gumtree forest with a deep sandy track, like a river bed that hadn’t seen rain for a decade.

We giggled.

We giggled a lot. It was bizarre. Sudden. We asked a man with seven dogs where the Golden Gate bridge might be. While Argie, big and black, barked in our faces the man pointed down the sandy track, his directions vague and ending with something a lot like ‘actually, I don’t know’.

And so we walked along the sandy track. Until we met a woman trailed by seven children on seven bicycles (it was that kind of day). We asked her if she knew where the Golden Gate bridge might be.

‘Stopping,’ she called out to the children. I hadn’t realised till that moment we’d asked while she was riding.

This is the point where, when I was walking with my son Ben across Italy and through the Balkans, that he never, ever asked directions no matter how much I wanted him to. I didn’t remember this until Claire and I had followed her clear, precise directive: ‘follow this path until you come across a sculpture; if you can’t see the Golden Gate from there, walk about half a mile on and you’ll see it.’


Off we went into the woods. We met a golf course. We walked on. Through the woods. Which was really a gumtree forest. Along a track. Which ought to have been a sandy river bed. Past a wire fenced military base. Which might have been a water supply. Or a sewerage works. High atop a hill. On into the woods. Into what might have been project housing but was probably – being premier real estate overlooking a foggy bay – military housing.

I tell Claire why Ben never, ever asks directions. ‘This is why,’ was my simple explanation.

We spy a pair of moms in a park. No sculpture. We ask where the Golden Gate bridge might be, by this time prepared for it to be anywhere at all! See? still asking directions. Round the road. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Round the road. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Round the road. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Both of us sniffing all the way.

Sniff. Sniff. Sniff.

Until. Miracles. There it was.

It was too cold to stop. We took the photos, me still surprised to find that, even though I know it’s red – that the Golden Gate bridge is red.

Rather than return the way we came, because the way there is never the way home (ooooo, a quote from my novel, Hymn for the Wounded Man), we walked around the peninsula. Into the icy wind. Sniff. Along the road. Sniff. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Along the road. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Sniff.

Until, civilisation.

Civilisation at last.

We orientate ourselves with the map.

We walk and we walk and we walk through San Francisco’s unfurling neighbourhoods.

We chat, as we have chatted all the way. We sniff. We chat. We sniff. We laugh and compare America notes. We sniff. It’s an icy wind thing.

We stop for ginger chai. We check our map for Haight Ashbury. We walk. We walk over a very high hill with a cathedral on the top. We walk inside, curious about beauty and tired of the cold wind. We walk on. And on. And on. And on.

Haight Street. Ashbury Street. An iconic intersection.

Here’s Claire again, this time with the intersection.

We walk along Haight Street one way, a parade of tired tourist shops selling the trinkets of bohemia past:  rainbow clothes, gothic clothes and bongs. And we walk back the other way. A young man on a street corner waylays us to sell us a Greenpeace subscription.

‘Interested in the environment, love?’ he says as we pass.

I stare. He has a sweet face. An intelligent face. He’s pleased I stop.

‘Love?’ I say.

He stares at me vaguely.


He can feel something coming. He attempts a diversion.

‘Where are you from?’

I ignore this. Something about him draws me to stand right in his face. Maybe it’s his beauty. Maybe it’s his intelligence. Maybe it’s just that I’m fed up with watching the gains women in the West have made slip backwards and I’m fed up with men in the environmental movement utterly failing to recognise that the issues are one and the same.

‘Love.’ I say. ‘Look where you’re standing. Fifty years ago this place ignited a revolution that challenged the language of patriarchy and you men in the environmental movement do not even want to understand that the issues underpinning the Earth you wanna save are the very same as treatment of women globally.’

‘Right on sister,’ he says, an attempt at humour, a face save, to me a face plant.

We – Claire and I – need food. We stop at a Victorian Punch House, an establishment specialising in rum, and order snacks and a glass each of the house punch.

Here’s Claire with our punch.

By this time we had walked seven hours. Me with my computer over my shoulder because the locker in my hostel room doesn’t work, the door to the room doesn’t close properly and the hostel doesn’t have a safe. Claire in her summer clothes on a wintry summer day.

We toast the walk. Our pilgrimage to San Francisco.

There are few people I know who would have met today’s adventure with as much grace as Claire . . . really, anyone else would have murdered us by now. At the very least abandoned us. With or without flowers in our hair.

Cheers Claire!



 July 14, 2012  Tagged with: ,  2 Responses »