the San Francisco diaries: at first glance

 “It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco.
It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world”
– Oscar Wilde

When I first arrived in San Francisco it was already nighttime.

I left Lisbon on September 8th, over a month ago (already?), and that was the first time I traveled to a country outside of European borders. It was the first time I got to use my passport, even though I had got it done over 3 years ago when I was considering the prospect of leaving the country for a short study period abroad in Brazil. Though I have traveled a good bit – these last few years I have been lucky enough to travel through Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Italy and Ireland -, I was obviously excited (and nervous) over the idea of crossing a whole ocean towards a new life, a new place, new daily routines and challenges and, most importantly, a new important step towards a possible career in documentary film and photography. After a first flight to Philadelphia (8 hours, my longest flight to date) and a longer-than-expected layover stuck in an airport over an unexpected last-minute flight cancellation, I finally got into my last flight from Philly to San Francisco. As I peeked out the window onto the night sky and saw the scattered city lights over the San Francisco Bay, I can genuinely say my heart started to beat faster – this is it. I’m almost there. I’m almost “home”.

It’s difficult to be surprised and fall in love at first sight with something (or even someone?) that you feel you have already seen plenty of times. My experience with traveling is often no longer one of awe, but of confirmation. San Francisco has always somehow been a part of my own cultural imagery – ever since I was a child, I have been consuming incredible amounts of American popular culture at a ridiculous pace, so I cannot say that I arrived there with an empty slate, ready to indulge in all the city has to offer without already knowing all of its beautiful (and also the less beautiful) clichés. As much as we can criticize certain aspects of American politics, economics or culture (and, if you know me well, you know which ones I am most critical of, especially in the troubled times that we are living), this country has a force and vitality beneath it that has always fascinated me, a beautiful and chaotic setting for cultural exchange. And as I first arrived to San Francisco, well past 10PM and exhausted from the almost 24hour trip and the 8-hour jetlag, I was still eager to go out and explore this new place where I am to spend the next 2 years of my life… If all goes according to plan.

Yes, I do understand why people say San Francisco is the Lisbon of America, even if often find such comparisons silly and unnecessary. After all, a city is what it is, with its own beauty and charm, one that each of us will interpret and view in a very personal way (as I so happened to describe my Lisbon on the past last). As I am walking up and down the hills and then up again (and these hills are far steeper, far higher and far more – in number – than in Lisbon), stopping every couple hundred meters to catch my breath and to look back and enjoy the view, I feel like I have been here before even if I haven’t. Nothing surprises me in the way that you would like to be surprised – perhaps in this day and age of instant access to any sort of information, having seen so many photos of the city, having watched so many films and read so many books, I find it difficult to be surprised. And yet, I like this feeling of confirmation – perhaps because we can find comfort in the things that we somewhat expect, I wander in San Francisco as someone who feels completely comfortable in her shoes, and even if I am not surprised by what I see, I am still falling in love with this city. Not at first sight, no, but slowly – just like love usually happens, not all at once, but gradually, over the course of weeks, months and years.

A stereotypical view into a residential street in Inner Sunset, San Francisco

Regardless of any possible European feel that people often feel tempted to say this city has, and whatever way that may be read as, San Francisco possesses something that I believe is what truly defines it as a place – it is an incredible melting pot of cultures, languages and beliefs. Just like many other cities in California (and dare I say in the country), it is in its streets that you can truly see what a city is made of – its people. This, I dare say, is the true vital force of America, the cultural exchanges that happen on a daily basis in the most banal of settings and that so many are trying to cancel and undo at any cost possible (you know who I’m talking about). But it seems to me that erasing such a part of America would be to strip it of its core and the very own structure that it has been founded upon. 

And even if certain districts of the city like Chinatown or the Mission, neighbourhoods that have always been populated by specific cultures and populations of immigrants and that are now slowly being taken hostage by the ever-present threat of gentrification and economic struggle (I shall elaborate more on this later), an inkling of hope appears to remain in its essence – in its shops, its restaurants, its windows, its murals and pavements. For example, in Chinatown, which seems to have turned mostly into a neighbourhood-size amusement park for tourists, with all its souvenir shops and antique stores, I look into apartment windows opened as wide as possible and see daily life in its raw state, watching the lives of the people who maintain these places and without whom San Francisco would become soulless. 

So the question remains unanswered: can a city survive without its people, whatever they origins may be? What would happen to San Francisco if it were to be stripped of all this?

(As the issue of gentrification and migration deserves a whole essay of its own, I believe I should write more on that later)

Chinese paper lanterns over Grant Av in the Chinatown district

In the five brief and hectic days that I stayed in San Francisco, I managed to quickly cover the city and all its main tourist attractions – the Golden Gate Bridge (the inspiration for Ponte 25 de Abril back in Lisbon) and the Golden Gate Park, Alamo Square and the Painted Ladies, the Financial District, the Embarcadero and Pier 39, the Castro and the Mission, Haight-Ashbury. After this short busy stay in the city, we took over the car and hit the road for a short trip to Monterey down the Pacifica highway and towards Big Sur – one of the most beautiful landscapes that I have ever come across.

Unfortunately, my hectic schedule at Stanford prevents me from going up to San Francisco as much as I would like to – I am currently living about 45 minutes away in the Stanford University campus near Palo Alto -, but I have managed to find my way to travel into SF at least once a week (I have gone there practically every weekend!). Hopefully, and if everything goes as planned, I will be shooting my first film project right in the heart of San Francisco – but I will elaborate more on soon enough.

A final, very brief note on clichés: there is a reason for them to exist – we cannot live without them. Lisboa has its own clichés and so does San Francisco. I leave you to one of the most beautiful ones.

Baker Beach in all its cinematographic charm with the Golden Gate Bridge as backdrop

– Inês.

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