SF – A conclusion

I don’t know exactly when I decided I wanted to visit San Francisco.

I remember being obsessed with the US pretty much as soon as I learned what streaming was. Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Gossip Girl… you’d think I’d be obsessed with New York. In a sense, who isn’t?

I wrote a blog post when I was studying in Spain about wanting to go to Seattle. You know: Seattle, Washington. The birthplace of Starbucks, its museum of Science fiction, a Jimi Hendrix statue, hipsters. Dr. Derek Shepherd (I had to google his name) (he wasn’t dead yet). Ferry boats.

I guess the obsession with SF came some time after that.

I remember trying to explain the concept of fog over the Golden Gate Bridge to a Cambodian friend in May 2014. By that time I had been seriously settled on SF for a while. Posts about it made it to various blogs of mine in 2013 and 2014.

When and why exactly, are a mystery. The whole city just fascinated me. The pretty pictures you see on Google, as my tattoo artist put it so well. The fact that everybody said San Francisco was different from the rest of the US. The strong counter culture and the blooming of LGBT peeps and ideology. Maybe my subconscious can trace it back to when I was 5 and watched Full House with my grandma, I dunno.

Anyway, my heart sang San Francisco and as in all matters of life, I followed my heart blindly.

I first made a concrete plan and budget in January 2016, a week before I started my first real job in Belgium. I started saving up a month after that. I received unfailing moral and financial support from my family and friends, and only mild bafflement that I wanted to do this, and do this alone.

I bought my plane tickets in July 2017 and cried. It is still unreal to me, that I got to do this, a thing I really wanted, and that I got there mostly by myself. That this thing, this bright beautiful imperfect thing, is my own and no one else’s.

When I had to postpone my trip in October because of work, it was… brutal. I only had to postpone for two months, but still.

Honestly, I don’t know what I was expecting to find here. A long-lost, deeply-hidden secret about myself? A chunk of bravery? A place where I would find kindred spirits, soulmates of sort? A place where I could be myself, whoever that is?

I’m not sure. What I found is a real place. Real-life situations, and me in the middle of them. Unpleasant realities and amazing treasures of books and people and blue skies. No big revelation, nothing that changed who I was. Still just me. Pictures and books and bling and memories.

There’s a bunch of stories I haven’t told here. People I’ve met who have been kind enough to share their own stories with me. Personal failures and disillusions. There are stories I am not ready to tell, some I don’t even know about yet. There are a bunch of small wonders I want to keep all to myself. But this is the gist of me, Mandooks, a 30-year old Belgian with a lot to learn and a hunger for the world to open up and show her its belly, in the city of her dreams, for a measly, unending thirteen days.

Thank you, if you made it up to here, for reading. I hope you find that thing you really want to do, that thing that is your own, and make it happen.

SONG CREDITS: I Want To Break Free – Queen

SF DAY 13 – Rain.

Last day depression.

After breakfast I check out and leave my luggage at the hostel for a last walk across the neighborhood. Down Van Ness I stop at Philz Coffee, an institution I am told. I ask for a latte and get an eye roll. The hip young baristas make me a cream coffee with minimal condescension. It’s heaven.

I walk around the Heart of the city Farmer’s market. I wish I could buy fruits and vegetables and another coffee and stay, for god’s sake. The sky is hanging low and grey overhead. Rain is in the forecast.

On the plaza, they are taking down the Christmas tree. It is the end of something. In front of City Hall, a group of Asian tourists take pictures of a married couple posing on the steps of the building. The bride is wearing a white wedding gown, her strawberry blond hair down. The groom’s in a grey suit. They look happy. Harvey Milk lost his life in that building. LGBT history was made here, good and horrifying.

A statue of Abraham Lincoln stares down at me as I listen to Yorktown.

Immigrants, we get the job done.

I start crying. The sky joins me. Evidently, the city is sad to see me go. It’s gonna miss me.

I walk around Hayes Valley one last time, take on the full meaning of gentrification. Trendy shop after trendy shop, bakeries that look like art nouveau tech offices. Everything is select and expensive and white. I am in the US of A for one last hour and I haven’t yet eaten a single pancake. I should change that. But I don’t have time.

I walk back up the hill to the hostel, take my bags and take my last, fully-loaded stroll down O’Farrell. I refrain from ugly crying in BART, which, in my humble opinion, shows incredible courage and strength. My “leaving SF” playlist starts with Børns…

So take me to the paradise it’s in your eyes: green like American money. You taste just right, sweet like Tennessee honey. And we can run away, swimming in the sunlight everyday

… and ends with Bon Iver.

This is not the sound of a new man or a crispy realization. It’s the sound of me unlocking and you lift away. Your love will be safe with me.

SONG CREDITS: Hamilton: An American Musical – Yorktown + Børns – American Money + Bon Iver – re: Stacks

SF DAY 12 – It’s Matt’s fault

Matt Santos. Fifty heart-eyes emojis. Matthew Vincente fucking Santos, fictional President of the United States. Texas-native Latino Democrat with the beautiful wife and the perfect children. Modeled after the then promising Senator Obama. Man of my dreams, intergenerational hottie, fucking Jimmy Smits bro.

It’s his fault if I can’t lift my ass from the comfy chair in the hostel and my eyes from Netflix. His fault and the weather’s, too. This is day two of my cold and I feel like reheated shit.

In early 2018, the West Wing reads as science fiction where everything that happens is somehow smarter and less dramatic than what actually happened in the real-life presidential campaign of 2016. Except maybe Leo dying.

Anyway, the hostel leather chair is comfy and Matt is about to be elected President and I can’t move.

Outside the sky is grey and the streets cold and uninviting. I need to go out to Mission one last time, I have a ticket for one last cable car ride… Goddamn you, Netflix. Across from me, a young dude is watching the exact same episode as I am. Ubiquitous Matt Santos.

I finally extract myself from the couch, put on my sparkly dress and running shoes because what is style? It is my last full day in San Francisco. My heart resembles the maudlin skies.

O’Farrell, BART, 16th street, Valencia. My head is a fishbowl, sound and movement make it to my brain distorted and slow. I should probably be in bed. Cute little shops, pirate merch, enamel pins and self-published zines. Books. Grey skies and good coffee at Ritual. My feet hurt.

I stop at Dolores Park. Damn, the view. I wish I could spend a sunny day of summer here. A group of teenagers are getting goodheartedly scolded by a cop for daydrinking out here in the open. Bunch of rebellious cuties.

I buy a pretzel and cookies at Bi-Rite and walk all of Valencia down to Market, then Market, passing Van Ness and Civic Center, all the way to Powell, with the setting sun and Beyoncé in my ears as the background to my power walk.

Can’t you see there’s no other man above you? What a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you. Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you, step down, they don’t love you like I love you.

At Powell, I queue a surprisingly short time for a cable car ride to Hyde St Pier. This time I’m standing on the railing on the left side. At a stop, there’s a Belgian restaurant on a corner, well-lit and imposing. Life is so random.

At the Wharf, I buy a few souvenirs for my loved ones and in-laws and such and so and eat a crepe. Damn it’s cold. I don’t linger.

A totally empty old-school tram takes me to Embarcadero. I walk all the way back to the hostel, taking in the streets by night one last time.

I pack my bag with Netflix. Matt Santos is the cure for my I’m-leaving-soon-and-everyting-sucks depression. If I squeeze one more thing into this luggage it will explode.

Anyway. This is my last night in a hostel bed.

SONG CREDITS: Hold up – Beyoncé – Lemonade

SF DAY 11 – Berkeley

Today is the first day of a brand new year, a blank slate, a new opportunity to reinvent yourself. Kidding. It’s a day dedicated to recovering from your hangover or pretending you don’t hate your family as you stuff your face with turkey curry and you overhear Mark Darcy tell his mother that you have verbal diarrhea and that you dress like your mother. What do you mean, life is not an endless replay of Bridget Jones’ Diary? Well, maybe not yours. Anyway. Where was I?

Oh yeah, first day of the year. Sunny, bright, relatively quiet day. I take my trusty steed BART all the way to downtown Berkeley to visit, you guessed it, the University of California Berkeley.

Why? Because I’m a giant nerd and I want to see the campus of one of the best universities in the world and see the libraries and maybe even catch a glimpse of the books (the BOOKS!!) through a window or something. Yes, stuff like this is really exciting to me. I am a nerd. I said that. Like seriously, I started this post with an obscure reference to a book/movie absolutely everyone except Mindy Kaling and I has forgotten about by now. How did you not catch the me being a nerd thing? I literally made a blog about a 2-week trip to just the one city in America. I am a giant nerd.

Anyway. Berkeley!!! Exciting!!!

Berkeley is one of the best universities in the world. It is in fact 28th in the current ranking (fellow nerds: MIT is 1st, ofc. My alma mater, ULB, is 205th. Ahem.) of over 1000 schools, before the University of California Los Angeles, take that LA snobs.

The university was founded in 1868 and currently offers about 350 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in a broad variety of disciplines. Their motto is “Fiat lux”, “let there be light”, which completely delights me. Their symbol is the bear, as is the symbol of California. Absolutely everything is bear-themed. The shuttle bus. Their football team. The many, many statues of bears on campus. The optometry department can be found following a drawing of a bear wearing glasses. It’s absolutely adorable. What a bunch of nerds.

In the 60’s, the students organized around the Free Speech Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War movement and got nation-wide recognition for it. Then governor of California Ronald Reagan called the Berkeley campus “…a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants”. My peeps.

34 alumni have won a Nobel Prize. There are actually on campus parking spots reserved for Nobel laureates. Three of them. LIKE THAT’S A THING THAT’S TOTALLY NORMAL AND JUST HAPPENS.

In the soft glow on a new year’s sun, I walk around camera in hand and keep getting interrupted by fatass squirrels that are not afraid of humans enough for their own good. They hop about with their fluffy tails and climb trees when dogs get too close. Nobody’s around to see me crying over the 32 libraries on campus. Thirty-fucking-two. That’s a lotta books. I might be crying a little bit right now in fact.

I wish I could see it full and bustling with people. I wish I could study here. But the world doesn’t really need another PhD student in Performing Arts, so I leave campus after taking one last picture of a foolhardy squirrel and go on the hunt for actual books I can touch and page through and buy, spend a crazy fucking amount of time in a secondhand bookstore.

In a genuine as-seen-on-TV diner, I get a cheeseburger and as-seen-in-Teen-Wolf’s-Stiles-Stilinski’s-mouth curly fries. And since it’s a day of firsts, I even step into a TTTTTTTaaaaaaaargeeeeeet (as seen on Vine) for a hot second before I head back to the City.

San Francisco is curing its hangover with hair o’the dog. The streets are crowded with hungry strangers. The moon is full, beaming in the black sky. The night is great and full of promise. It’s the start of a new year.

SF DAY 9 – A tattoo

Today is a warm, sunny, beautiful day. I take the M line to the Castro, then hike through blocks (and hills) to Haight. Haight, you say, bewildered? Wasn’t that the place you were at yesterday, that you shat all over in your last post? Why would you go back there? Two reasons: as I said, if you don’t really mind the death of the hippie movement, it is a pretty cool place to hang out at. Two, and you probably guessed it by now: I had an appointment for a tattoo.

A day prior, I had given up on the whole tattoo in SF thing, because every tattoo place I had contacted up to then had been completely booked up or simply didn’t care about taking money from me in exchange for cool body art. Then in Haight I saw this really cool tattoo place and I thought I would make sure they didn’t have a last-minute spot for me. I went in already bracing myself for rejection, asked the guy at the counter: “You guys are completely booked, are you?” He looked at me like I was totally insane and said: “Just come back tomorrow around 12:30pm, all 3 tattoo artists will be there, we’ll probably be able to get you good and tattooed in under a hour”. So I guess the lesson of this story is it never hurts to ask. A lesson I have now accepted and will never put to good use ever again.

I get there today at 12:15pm and meet with one of the tattoo artists who’s not put off by my ideas and gets pretty excited about designing me exactly what I want. He’s really nice, explains every step of the process even though this isn’t my first rodeo, and is just a really cool artist to work with.

Two things: to me, the experience of getting the tattoo and the symbolism of it are just as important as the design itself. It all has to mean something. Why? Because reality is a big pile of bullshit and our lives mean nothing, so why not make sense of inconsequential little things like body art to make it all seem a little okay-er?

This is my 10th tattoo. I got my first one in Brussels with my mom when I was 20 years old. I am now 30 and getting my 10th one in San Francisco alone. Symbolism in numbers. Also, experiences: I’ve gotten a tattoo in all the places I lived in (or visited) that held meaning for me: Belgium, Spain, Cambodia, Thailand, and now the US. It is really important to me to do this here, because it is a way to close the circle.

Usually, I spend months prior to the tattooing agonizing over the design and its symbolism. It has to be pretty, it has to be tied to a song in some way, and it sometimes contains a tiny little black star. The black star is a reference taken from an obscure and shameful piece of pop culture and I will never, never explain exactly where it comes from, because shame.

My first tattoo is simply the phrase “All you need is love”, because I was a big Beatles fan at the time and I still do think it is an important message. I do have more than one Beatles-themed tattoo, even though it is sometimes accidental. My fourth tattoo, for example, is a blackbird, but it is not directly linked to the song.

Take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.

So this new tattoo is a skull with the words “Tyler is a bitch” in print around it. No, it is not. But I did see the art for that design hanging in the tattoo shop, and I do think it is super rad. Kudos to the person getting it.

So my new tattoo is a poppy flower. Why a poppy flower? Because for reasons tied to early childhood memories which I suspect are total fiction anyway, they remind me of my grandma, who was one of the people I loved most in the world. This tattoo’s theme is family, which is something my other tattoos have not been about yet. Other themes in my tattoos are: bravery, adventure, traveling, books and words in general, love and devotion and passion, ideals, all things that define pretty well who I aspire to be. But I had never felt the need to mark my attachment to family into my skin before this moment, all alone in a continent I had never been to, further away than I had ever been to my actual family. Symbolism and irony.

Anyway, nobody cares about this crap.

The tattooer designs me something pretty and simple and small and perfect. I am very fucking satisfied. We choose the placement, he traces it on me, I lie down on the table, he looks at me very seriously and says: “it’s going to hurt”. Yeah dude, whatever. Here we go. He starts. We chat because he’s nice and friendly and excited, and so am I. By some crazy happenstance, the girl who came into the shop right after me is also getting poppies, even though her design and tattooer are different from mine.

I expect to be told they do poppies all the time, since they are the official flower of California. Not our red ones, the bright orange/yellow ones, eschscholzia californica, which grow wild all across the state. In Spanish, they are called “copa de oro”, cup of gold. Perfect fit for the Golden State. But no, they don’t actually do that many poppy flowers. As we sit there chatting, my super nice super cool artist currently tattooing my arm tells me he once tried to plant poppies, “you know, for the opium”, but he doesn’t have a green thumb and they never bloomed. As I “uhuh” back at him, I am shocked through my core. Because, of fucking course, poppies (in this case papaver somniferum) are used to make opium. And heroin. Cool. Cool cool cool cool cool cool cool cool. My sweet tiny pretty flowery homage to my family is also a universal symbol for drugs. Awesome. Lit. Great.

I smile and nod and change course in the conversation. About half an hour later he’s done and the result is even prettier than what I expected. It is perfect. This is exactly what I wanted and hoped for. Minus the drug reference.

And that’s the story of why you do your research on whatever design you get etched onto your skin for the rest of your life, kids.