Days 9, 10, 11: San Francisco


From Sacramento, it was a quick commuter train to San Francisco, where I was greeted by a familiar face, a debater friend of mine who has been in SF for about six months working for everyone’s favourite hi-tech monolith, Google. He was nice enough to host me for the duration – and to provide me with a much-needed mailing address, where my American bank could send me a debit card to replace the one I left in a Seattle ATM. It turns out that while a de-regulated banking system does mean fewer fees, it also means you’re not guaranteed a bank in every city: “What you do mean there are no Chase Manhattans in California?”

At Google, they ride bikes

As far as I can tell, working for Google is as great as it seems. My friend bikes downtown every day where he hops on the Google bus, which takes him to their campus deep in the suburbs. Once he gets to work, there are 17 different free restaurants for him to eat at all day, and neither typical cafeteria fare nor typical menus – items are coloured-coded from green to red for dietary value, and vegetarian as well as vegan food is clearly denoted. If he wanted to lug his laundry to work, he could also do it for free there, and get a massage while his jeans go through the rinse cycle. Let’s not forget stock options, although he nonchalantly described them as “post-IPO”. I also got a chance to hang out with some of his fellow Googlers, and I can honestly say they are the most extroverted and interesting group of engineers I’ve met (outside debating). If they’re engineers and read political philosophy in their spare time, does that mean I have to read engineering texts in my spare time to feel like their equal?

Trying to play the skeptic, I asked if the company was living up to its motto of “Don’t Be Evil”; the answer I got was a unanimous “yes”. It seems that Google has successfully inculcated its employees with the goal of “changing the world and maybe making some money along the way”, as least the ones I talked to.

The term “campus” definitely felt appropriate at the Googleplex; it reminded me more of university than any workplace. Although as a non-employee, I only got a limited tour, but there was still much of interest for a Google enthusiast like myself. I got to see the solar panels that make 30% of the complex’s power; see actual computers used by actual Google employees (and possibly even some running Goobuntu); saw funky furniture and the staff library; and of course, got to sip pomegranate-blueberry juice while waiting in the lobby. I couldn’t get a T-shirt, but only because there is a live webcam monitoring the T-shirt locker, so apparently the instant it gets re-stocked it’s instantly depleted – oh, the woes of radical transparency.

Stanford doorway

On the train back from Mountain View, I briefly stopped at Stanford. While I was expecting a typical Ivy League campus, the Spanish missionary-style architecture gave it a certain Californian, or at least Mediterranean, feel. While I didn’t get a chance to check out Berkeley while in SF, it seems impossible to build an ugly university around here.

San Francisco is now certainly my favourite American city. While I did use some time here to relax, sleeping and generally recharging (including trying to beat a cold I’ve picked up), the city still left a strong impression on me. While offering a downtown that felt as alive and bustling as New York or London, it also is filled with natural areas such as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach, where sunshine, breeze and smell of saltwater gave me a rush of tropical serenity. (In a children’s literature-related flashback, I kept thinking of The Island of the Blue Dolphins while looking out from the coast). Combined with its high output in both culture and technological areas, SF appears in every way be a great place to live.

Surfing near the bridge

As a public transit geek, I couldn’t resist a ride on the cable car system, although I was disappointed to learn it is almost exclusively used by tourists and never for actual commuting. This also explained the most expensive transit day-pass I’ve ever seen, at $11/day, since it included otherwise $5/trip cable car. I still got my money’s worth, though, with SF’s great network of streetcars, buses and light rail.

I bought a $20 pair of sneakers, both because my boots were getting rather warm for the climate, and because I was admonished by a Mountain Equipment Co-op staffer that “pavement wears down hiking boots worse than anything else” after I sheepishly returned my last, prematurely destroyed pair. With the odds of snow getting lower with each mile southward, I could feel the leather wearing away with every sidewalk step.

Unfortunately this now puts my total gear collection at an embarassingly high and heavy level. I blame this both on packing while in a cold climate (explaining the winter jacket, boots and long johns), and on going overboard with gadgets (laptop + power cord, iPod + USB cord + headphones, camera + USB cord + battery charger). I am now subject to the same feeling I’ve had almost every time I’ve travelled – of having too much stuff.

The laptop, on balance, was worth bringing. Its value in both finding Couchsurfing hosts and navigating cities (especially using Google Transit, which works for many west coast cities) is quite high – uploading photos on the fly and blogging are also much easier, especially with the ubiquotousness of free wifi on the west coast. The costs are both the size and weight, as well as the added stress of worrying about a thousand-dollar item all the time. The hidden cost, of course, is that I end up spending far more time online than I should, getting sucked into Google Reader when I should be exploring. In a perfect world, I think that an internet-enabled PDA or cell phone would be ideal, as it would allow me to use it for “essential” functions at any time, but leave longer tasks like blogging to internet cafes, and thus cutting down on wasted online time.

My personal appraisal of a city (or country) always concerns whether I feel like I haven’t had enough time there, whether an eventual return will be necessary to completely “experience” a place. San Francisco certainly passes this test and I will see it in the future.

(As a side note, the strategy of “definite return” also justifies forgoing expensive tourist destinations, like the Alcratraz tour…)


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