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In a little over a month my wife and I will be returning to the place we regard as our second home (financial considerations dictate that it will never be our first) – San Francisco. In fact, this will be our twentieth anniversary since we first laid eyes on the imperious Golden Gate Bridge, sampled clam chowder in a sourdough bowl or cracked open a fortune cookie in a Chinatown restaurant.

After our initial trip in 1995 ( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/you-were-so-right-louis/ ), it would be another three and a half years, and a further three years after that, before we settled into what became a routine of bi-annual visits. We would combine our stay in the city with a skiing trip to Tahoe and a few days elsewhere, such as Las Vegas, San Diego, Death Valley and Yosemite.

Invariably, after the eleven hour flight, we would stay the first night in a budget hotel, having dinner at Calzone’s on Columbus Avenue (but not without a visit to Tower Records first), followed by drinks at the Vesuvio Café nearby. Breakfast would be taken at the Eagle Café on Pier 39 the next morning, and I would buy my holiday reading at the Barnes and Noble bookstore (now long since closed) in Fisherman’s Wharf before driving over the Bay Bridge.

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On returning to the city we would stay in a hotel, making the small step up (or was it down) from the Tenderloin to the Civic Center on our second trip before heading to the Holiday Inn at the Wharf for three of the next four vacations.

With each passing visit, we became less inclined to rush around ticking off the guidebook highlights, and began to venture off the beaten path and discover those places, within the city and wider Bay Area, where the only (other) tourists we might encounter were getting wind burn from the top of a tour bus.

It didn’t concern us that we hadn’t jumped a cable car for five years, stepped foot in Nordstrom or Macy’s or taken the rough ride across the bay to Alcatraz. Of course, we didn’t avoid all of the more celebrated spots, always finding time, however short the vacation, to eat at the Cliff House, shop on Haight Street, drink in North Beach and ramble round Golden Gate Park on a Sunday afternoon.

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San Francisco quickly became the place where we wanted to live. Without the riches required to buy our way into residency, we would have to content ourselves with alternating between staying in the city (spring and autumn) and the UK (winter and summer) for three months at a time – and only then when we had both retired.

For now, it was a matter of a week here and a fortnight, and, more recently a month, there.

We wanted to “live like locals”, and staying in someone’s (second) home was a good starting point. There would be no maids knocking at the door in the morning anxious to clean the room, no loud, drunken conversations outside the room at 3am and no lift bells ringing or washer / driers humming at all hours.

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So in 2010 we abandoned the lazy predictability of hotel living and rented an apartment in Hayes Valley, following that up a year later with similar accommodation in the Western Addition, a short stroll from Alamo Square. The migration west from downtown, however, took a sunny south easterly turn in 2012 when we chose Noe Valley for our base. It was during our second residence there that we discovered Bernal Heights ( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/a-hike-up-bernal-heights-hill/ ).

Much as we had enjoyed living in the other neighborhoods, we immediately felt an affinity with the quirky, artsy, small town feel of Bernal and rented a cottage there last year. Our first impressions confirmed, we will be returning to that same cottage twice this year for a total of six weeks.

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It might not have gone unnoticed that our original bi-annual visit strategy has now become annual – and, at least for this year, twice a year!

Over the past two decades, our time in the city has taken on a different, more relaxed tenor. It has become a familiar and habitual part of our lives, somewhere we have now spent more of our time than anywhere else, other than our permanent UK address.

Moreover, we try, as befitting aspiring locals, to engage  more with the city and its residents on a regular, deeper level. During those interminable months in which we are incarcerated nearly six thousand miles away. we maintain a daily interest in the life of the city, and indeed, I comment on it in a number of online forums.

In addition to my Facebook presence, through which I now enjoy a number of personal as well as virtual friendships (even bumming (pun intended) prime seats at AT & T Park to see “our” Giants), I started a blog on the last day of 2010 which focuses on the history, culture and characters of San Francisco.

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And I plan to explore our experiences in more depth in my upcoming book Smiling on a Cloudy Day: An Englishman’s Love Affair with San Francisco, scheduled to be published towards the end of this year.

In our temporary home in the city we neither have to pretend to be what we are not, nor do what we or others feel we ought to do. We can watch the Bay Area news on KRON4 while catching up on household chores in the morning, stroll out to a neighborhood café for brunch, swing by the local wholefoods store and return to the apartment for a bottle of wine on the patio.

All dining options are also possible. We might have dinner in the apartment or we might try out one of the local restaurants. Or we might brave Muni on a trip downtown and eat in Chinatown or North Beach – or even Union Square. We are under no pressure to conform to a set tourist pattern.

What has happened is that our version of San Francisco has shifted, not only geographically but also psychologically, from the waterfront to the southern neighborhoods. In a sense, our journey has mirrored the historical expansion of the earlier city residents from Yerba Buena Cove to the hills.

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But, of course, there is still room for those sights that first enthralled us as much as they have millions of others. They are still only a short drive, bus or taxi ride – or even walk – away. We still make a conscious effort to revisit those attractions we might have neglected on recent trips – for example we plan to explore Coit Tower and Grand View Park again after an absence of a few years – as well as sampling new locations altogether such as Glen Canyon, Dogpatch and Potrero Hill.

If that sounds as if living in San Francisco has become routine, less exciting, even a chore, that could not be further from the truth. We have become, in a modest way, San Franciscans, interested in its history, politics, culture and, undeniably, its sport (Go Giants!) – just as we do at home.

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I invariably turn to legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, for an authoritative, maybe definitive, view on such matters. Here he ruminates on what makes a San Franciscan:

I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene have anything to do with it really. There are newcomers who become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interested in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive Methusalah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is where they really know how to Get Things Done.

Increasingly, our hosts  marvel at our knowledge of, and adoration for, the city. I doubt, however, that the more strident members of online forums would agree with Caen’s loose, but characteristically generous, sentiments here, but I like to feel that we have moved beyond being “sophisticated tourists” who are “charmed and fascinated” by the city to warrant that title of “honorary San Franciscans”.

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Oddly, it is only relatively recently that I became hooked on baseball.  Perhaps it was the flying rounders (the tame “British” version of the sport) bat that put me as a seven year old in the local hospital, for which I still have the bump on my forehead, which had, subconsciously, spooked me from engaging with the game earlier.

Or maybe it was the ambivalent relationship with American culture that I “enjoyed” until the mid nineties when I took that fateful first trip across the Atlantic.  Baseball epitomised the inferiority of American sport compared to games invented by the English such as association football (soccer) and, especially, cricket with which baseball has much in common.

Despite trips to San Francisco in October 1995 and then the springs of 1999, 2002 (a season which culminated in an unsuccessful World Series appearance for my now adopted San Francisco Giants), 2004 and 2006 a trip to, respectively Candlestick, SBC, Pacific Bell and now AT & T Park never occurred to me. The prodigious exploits of Barry Bonds, both on and off the diamond, relayed on KRON 4 and other Bay Area TV stations were as close as I got, and their features focused as much on his controversial lifestyle as his sporting prowess.

Perhaps the fact that we were never in the city during the regular season, and , therefore, TV coverage was limited to cursory references to spring training, may also have accounted for my indifference.  Put simply, the opportunity to attend a game just wasn’t there.

To be fair, the little I had watched on television at home had intrigued me.  The reason I hadn’t given it a chance was due in no small part to the fact that games lasted up to three hours and were relayed live in the middle of the night.  Even in the comfort of my own home I was denied reasonable access to the sport.

Our first trip to AT & T Park was in March 2008, less than a week away before Opening Day, when we saw an understandably below strength Giants team beaten 7-1 by their neighbours across the bay, the Oakland Athletics (“A’s”).  They greeted our arrival with a mediocre performance in a half empty stadium lacking in any real atmosphere, and played in a bitterly cold wind that we could not escape, wherever we moved.  But we were hooked!

Firstly, the design and setting of the stadium were, of course, beautiful and the facilities outstanding.   Having been brought up to think that the catering, if such a word dignified it, in American sports arenas did not extend beyond hot dogs, popcorn and soda / beer, we were amazed by its range and quality.  There were at least two more converts to Gilroy’s garlic fries in the Bay Area that day!  The celebrated American customer service was prevalent everywhere, and we were struck by how fan friendly the whole experience was.

And then there was the crowd,  Ok, it was only a “pre-season friendly” in soccer parlance, albeit between two bitter local rivals, but there was no segregation, in fact Giants and A’s fans sat together in our section and maintained a barrage of feisty but light hearted banter throughout the afternoon.

But why should I fall for baseball and not american football or basketball?  The affinity with the traditional long form (i.e. 3, 4 or 5 day) of cricket is the best answer I can offer – a game that unfolds slowly but subtly with periodic bursts of excrutiating excitement, a rich literature (no other games have offered more to the English language), a noble history graced with remarkable characters and an obsession with statistics and records (one of the reasons both games captivate and capture for a lifetime the male of the species).   And not forgetting the attractive spectacle of field and “flannelled fools” where pitcher (bowler) and hitter (batsman) test their skills and character on an epic scale.

So I kept a close eye on the Giants’ exploits over the next two seasons, which were modest but promising of future success.  By the time we made our next visit in March 2010 I considered myself a long distance Giants fan.  We took the ballpark tour which was fascinating, and were given the opportunity to sit in the home team’s dugout.  We bought several items of merchandise to take home, including a Tim Lincecum bobblehead that we then contrived to leave in our apartment!

The general consensus seemed to be that the Giants, with their pitching strength in particular, could be more competitive that year.  But few dared to dream then, or even through most of the regular season, of division, league or World Series championships.

Or that, throughout October and the beginning of November, I would be going to bed at home at 8pm in order to rise again at half past midnight, or, on other occasions staying awake until 5am, living every strike, hit, walk and stolen base against the San Diego Padres (in the last regular season games), Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers.  How I enjoyed the rare daytime starts which meant that they were over by midnight UK time!

And I went through the same exhausting ordeal all over again last autumn. But it was worth it!

Sporting a Tim Lincecum t-shirt, kept company by a Pablo Sandoval soft toy and with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s by my side, I too endured the “torture” and ultimate glory of those Giants’ play off campaigns.

We finally made our first MLB games last year with the early season visits of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Phillies, with Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum pitching. The outcomes mirrored the fortunes of the two pitchers over the past twelve months, with Zito spearheading a walk-off 1-0 victory whilst the ailing Lincecum pitched erratically in a narrow defeat. I have written about the experience in another blog post: http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/05/09/in-the-land-of-the-giants-and-garlic-fries/

Next month I will be back at AT & T Park for games against the Toronto Blue Jays, San Diego Padres and Miami Marlins and I can’t wait!

Go Giants!

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