I have grown to like San Francisco, in all its bonkersness.
The confident self-expression of its people, the foodie culture, the openness and tolerance, the activism, the friendliness of the people (yes, I even caught myself initiating conversations with strangers!), the guys skateboarding, rollerblading, scootering (scooting?) to work, the multitude of free events bringing people together (from jazz to corgi conventions to world cup breakfasts…..)…
Just underneath the glossy veneer, though, there are a few rough edges, with plenty of homeless people, many clearly suffering from mental illness, some sketchy neighbourhoods (we took the bus a lot……google maps doesn’t have an ‘avoid connections in dodgy areas option…), and long, exhausting commutes for the many working poor who cannot afford somewhere in the city.
It’s the sort of place you can be a free-spirited hippy, as long as you have plenty of money…..
It’s the sort of place you could live in a lovely liberal bubble, if only you could ignore the rest of the country…..
Or, you know, that’s my impression after a sum total of 6 visits to the place from the ‘burbs….
We shopped at Macy’s, ate enormous plates of fried food and cheesecake, hung around Union square, saw Grease, wandered round the residential areas with the wooden painted houses SF is known for, climbed a hell of a lot of hills, caught the ferry, and spent time in some of the city parks.
Mainly, though, we spent our time in SF applying for visas.
For the next stage of our journey, we need visas for China, Mongolia and Russia.
Mongolia was a breeze. Fill in an application form downloaded from the website, attach a photo and a copy of the train tickets. No queue, the receptionist had barely asked us to wait when a lovely gently-spoken woman ushered us into her quiet, carpeted office, asked us to take a seat and courteously took our application and money. She asked where we were going to stay, made a few recommendations of tourist sights, and told us they would phone when the visas were ready. The next day, they phoned and we picked it up from another staff member, who wished us a pleasant stay, told us our trip was amazing, and gave us 10 USD because he said they had mistakenly overcharged us.
China wasn’t quite so easy. We arrived dead on opening time at the consulate, to face a line that already stretched up the steep hill and around the corner of the next block. We shuffled along for about half an hour before gaining entry to the total chaos inside. Or rather, it just looked like chaos, there was actually a fairly efficient system as long as you knew which of the many, many queues you needed to be in. There was a queue for visa application submission, another for pick up, and various queues for Chinese citizens doing admin things. There were also impressively long queues for the photocopier machine, the passport photo machine, the information desk, and the ladies loo. All of these queues merged and wound around each other, but people generally had an idea where they were. Luckily, I was prepared and had every possible bit of documentation. I had checked the website and had duplicates of everything.
Except, of course, for what wasn’t stated on the website.
They wanted Lauren’s birth certificate. I kicked myself, as I do carry this but as it wasn’t on the list, I hadn’t thought to bring it, and it was a good hour and a half from where we were staying. Luckily, they agreed to accept a photocopy, so we went off to a local post office, where I used their computer to download and print a scan of her birth certificate. That full afternoon spent scanning in every conceivable official document last year finally paid off!
Once back in the chaos we came up on the issue of us not being resident in the US. Technically, you are supposed to apply in ‘your country of residence’ which is a laugh as we don’t have one…and you can only apply 90 days prior to travel, so we couldn’t have applied in any place we might have reasonably considered our residence….. After a consultation with superiors, and my gentle refusal to be fobbed off, I was told they would ‘only’ give us a single entry for 30 days (which was exactly what I was applying for….). They also wanted my passport from 2004 when I spent 6 months in China working as an English teacher. I explained that was not going to happen and they eventually seemed OK with that. Three working days later – one less than officially required, crucially meaning we would not be forced to miss the England v Colombia game, we collected our visas after a 2 hour wait.
Russia was a total non-starter, we were told by a very rude and dismissive woman at the information desk that we could only apply in our country of residence 90 days before travel. She wasn’t at all interested in our situation, and actually walked off as I was in the middle of politely explaining. I did expect this, though, so we have a plan B – British citizens get an automatic temporary residence card for 180 days on arrival in Hong Kong, so we are flying there next week to apply for a Russian visa.
Wish us luck!