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Archive for August, 2014


Now, I know that title alone will already have raised the hackles of many readers from the City.

But it is a rhetorical question, believe me.

I can state without equivocation that I have NEVER uttered the word myself, apart, of course, from when singing along with Otis Redding. Nor, by the way, have I ever said “San Fran”, which I find an even uglier term.

I prefer to use its full name – and why wouldn’t I, it’s a beautiful name – or the City.

Now that might mark me out as a long term native, at least a white one, but I’m not, as you will gather from the strapline above, even if you weren’t aware before.

So what’s a crazy limey doing stepping into a debate that has raged among San Franciscans since Emperor Norton first proclaimed that “whoever, after due and proper warning, shall be heard to utter the abominable word Frisco, which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of High Misdemeanor”?

I suppose it’s just another symptom of my affection and fascination for the City. And perhaps, as an Englishman, I might be able to provide some perspective.

Emperor Norton’s claim that the word had “no linguistic or other warrant” was not strictly true. It derives from both old Icelandic and Middle English. Frithsoken meant a refuge, sanctuary, safe harbour – all words which would appear to fit San Francisco’s image and purpose perfectly, even to this day.

Interestingly too, it might derive from the Spanish and Italian word for a romp, gambol or caper, a possible sailors’ reference to the activities of the Barbary Coast in the late nineteenth century.

Immigrants during the Gold Rush sang of finding “gold lumps” on the ground when they got to Frisco, and generations of sailors, soldiers, longshoreman and other blue collar workers since have called it by that name.

That said, the view of the self-styled “Emperor of These United States” received powerful endorsement in the following century. At Christmas 1907 the ladies of the Outdoor Art League formed an Anti-Frisco Committee, “for the purpose of discouraging the use of the term, “Frisco”.

The punishment for those “possessed of the poor taste to use this obnoxious term”?

To wear diamonds for breakfast.

After enduring the fourth reference to Frisco in his testimony from Hal R. Hobbs, a Los Angeles automobile dealer in a divorce case of April 1918, Judge Mogan warned him to desist because:

No one refers to San Francisco…..by that title except people from Los Angeles. I am the Chairman of the County Council of Defense, and I warn you that you stand in danger of being interred as an alien enemy.

And most famously, legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, published a book of his newspaper columns in 1953 entitled Don’t Call it Frisco. He implored that you should:

Caress each Spanish syllable, salute our Italian saint. Don’t say Frisco and don’t say San-Fran-Cis-Co. That’s the way Easterners, like Larry King, pronounce it. It’s more like SanfrnSISco.

On another occasion he wrote:

Don’t call it Frisco – it’s SAN Francisco, because it was named after St. Francis of Assisi. And because “Frisco” is a nickname that reminds the city uncomfortably of the early, brawling, boisterous days of the Barbary Coast and the cribs and sailors who were shanghaied. And because “Frisco” shows disrespect for a city that is now big and proper and respectable. And because only tourists call it “Frisco”, anyway, and you don’t want to be taken for a tourist, do you?

The reverence with which Caen was held ensured that such a view held sway for a long time, and judging by the comments on internet forums, still receives vehement support to this day.

During Caen’s heyday, the word continued to figure strongly in the public consciousness. Movies, including Fog Over Frisco starring Bette Davis in 1934 and stage productions like Hello, Frisco, Hello nine years later, celebrated the name. In addition to Otis’s (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay, Pink Floyd delivered a live album entitled Darkness Over Frisco and the Youngbloods, the band that gave us one of the great anthems of the hippie movement of the late sixties, Get Together, could also sing about going to Frisco-o-o. 

Beat poets Kenneth Rexroth and Bob Kaufman referred to Frisco in their work, Sal Paradise in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road talked of heading to Frisco, and John Lee Hooker, another revered San Francisco cultural icon, was one of many blues musicians to record Frisco Blues.

Which brings me to another dimension that is often overlooked in the contemporary debate about the use of the word. Most of San Francisco’s African-American residents have historically referred to their city as Frisco, and there are innumerable hip hop and rap songs with it in the title, including Frisco is the Bay, In a Frisco Minute and Frisco Niggers Ain’t No Punks. 

And Caen actually changed his position late in life when remarking that:

I was never sure about the reasoning behind the objection, even while voicing it. Other old-timers don’t know either. They stumble around with words like “undignified” and “bawdy” and “coarse”, as if there’s anything wrong with a city being any of those, which every city is. Maybe it has to do with San Francisco being “the city of St Francis”, and there is no St. Frisco. My recollection is that it’s a waterfront-born nickname that the sailors used lovingly, back when this was the best (i.e. wildest) port of call in the Pacific.

The debate continues on social media to this day and stirs the emotions of natives and long term residents as much as do issues such as the tech explosion, dog poop and the role of Tim Lincecum in the Giants’ rotation.

Several websites and blogs celebrate the name, exemplified by the Facebook page, RAISED IN FRISCO which proclaims that “They say don’t call it Frisco, real San Franciscans don’t call it Frisco, shit we got Frisco runnin thru our blood, “Raised in Frisco!”

So why all the fuss when the term still seems so embedded in people’s minds?

And does it really matter anyway?

Well, some will say it does.

A commonly held belief among its opponents is that it is a term only used by outsiders, by people who don’t know any better, by that increasingly used hate term of today – tourists. How would New Yorkers or residents of Chicago feel if people called their cities Nork and Chico, they say? 

Nicknames are intended to reflect a prominent feature of its subject, not merely a lazy contraction of the full name. Frisco denotes a lack of respect, a wilful dismissal of the place and its people. It makes you sound like a doofus” as one, now defunct, website claimed.

And there are already thirteen places in the U.S. already called Frisco, though none in California.

Perhaps the The Bold Italic  online magazine and store should have (almost) the last word in its characteristically wry and forthright manner:

San Franciscans have a reputation for being uptight jerks about the nickname. Don’t play into that stereotype. They’ll eventually notice you never call it that anyway.

Whatever the merits of the issue. I still won’t be calling it Frisco or San Fran or S.F., as much on aesthetic grounds as any other.

But then I’m not from San Francisco.

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It had taken us eighteen years to heed the words of the Neapolitan composer, Ernesto de Curtis, and return to Sorrento. But even if the heat (it never dropped below eighty degrees, day or night) was challenging for this easily burned Englishman at times, it was great to be back.

During the week, we made the obligatory excursions to Amalfi and Ravello (sadly, on this occasion, seeing no more of Steinbeck’s “vertical town” of Positano than a distant one from further along the coast), Pompeii and Vesuvius (by sea and bus) and Capri by boat.

But it was Sorrento itself that I will concentrate on here. Toying initially with staying a little further afield, we decided to base ourselves in the centre, a few hundred metres from the bustling heart of the town in Piazza Tasso. The images below may not confirm that description, but that is due to the fact that most were taken early in the morning when the indigenous population were slugging their doppio espressos in their favourite tabaccheria, whilst the British were standing around in hotel dining rooms waiting for their bread to be toasted, a process that takes nearly as long as the arrival of a postcard back home.

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Framed by lively bars and restaurants, Piazza Tasso is invariably noisy and congested as humans, scooters, cars, coaches, bicycles, horses, miniature trains, those tiny pick up delivery trucks designed to squeeze down the narrowest of streets – oh, and did I mention scooters – all vie for space. But that is what we were seeking – – an authentic slice of Italian life, if inevitably infused with a heavy dose of Anglo-Saxon.

My countrymen and women were, of course, conspicuous by their pale skin, poor dress sense, refusal to even utter a single per favore or grazie and naive belief that cars and scooters were ever going to stop for them, even on the many crossings painted on the streets.

Sorrento is not a beach resort in the accepted sense – the coarse, dark sand at the foot of the mighty cliffs that front up Vesuvius across the Bay of Naples could not compete with Margate or Blackpool, let alone the Caribbean. But it does – admittedly at a price – provide a number of private beaches, primarily along the stretch of water between Marina Grande and Marina Piccola. There are also small patches of public beach scattered along this coastline which are packed by mid-morning with Italian families.

Our cabina (chalet, just about big enough for changing and storage), sunbeds and umbrellas at Leonelli’s Beach cost us a little under fifty euros, a price that would appear to have scared off most of the British visitors, judging by the preponderance of tanned and stylish Italians in our vicinity.

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It is secluded Marina Grande, however, to which I gravitate as often as I can. It requires a fifteen minute downhill walk from the town centre and more demanding hike back up, but it is worth the effort (only the Englishmen walk it, the locals – and mad dogs – tend to take the bus).

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Traditionally, Sorrento’s fishing harbour, it has become distinctly more tourist-friendly since our last visit. Again, bars, restaurants and a modest beach dominate this small area overlooked by a number of imposing hotels.

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But it does still have an air of authenticity. People, mostly elderly, still live in the apartments that fringe the harbour, washing hangs from every window, shrines greet the pedestrian on every corner of the steep, cobbled steps, cats skulk for fishy remnants, and nonno and nonna still sit together in front of the lovely Chiesa di San Francesco and watch the foreigners ordering their calamari and lachryma christi.

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It was the appropriate place, therefore, for our last evening meal where we ate at the highly rated (#2 of 225 restaurants in Sorrento on TripAdvisor), Ristorante Bagni il Delfino, sat on the glassed-in pier on the water.

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Shopping along narrow Via San Cesareo with its bunting draped across the street and the aroma of fruit, especially lemon, and vegetables, is one of the most popular activities for visitors, especially during the evening passeggiata. Ceramics, inlaid-wood, leather and jewellery are particularly sought after. Corso Italia, which runs either side of Piazza Tasso, has a more modern feel and is home to a number of noted Italian fashion houses.

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There is so much more to admire, including the restaurants and religious buildings, about Sorrento that I do not have time to cover because another port on another continent commands my attention. But I hope these photographs and short description have demonstrated why most of the people who visit the region are enchanted by it and vow to return.

 

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