All the leaves are brown and sky is grey

Russian Hill, San Francisco

Russian Hill, San Francisco

With the turning of the leaves and the shortening of days, my time in San Francisco was drawing to a close and the long return flight half way round the world beckoned. It was going to be hard to leave.

This seductive city on America’s western seaboard has worked its magic on me. The weather is temperate, the locals warm and open. People here seem to be largely tolerant and left-leaning in their politics. They care about nature and the environment, hate conservatism and fight bigotry tooth and nail. It’s the best of America.

It’s an easy city too. Easy to get around in; easy to leave on weekends. Wild nature is close by. The coasts to the north and south are dramatic, redwood forests and snow-capped mountains close enough for a day trip. It’s a city, not a metropolis. Downtown San Francisco feels easily walkable, the ferries and trams lending it an old world sense of proportion, as do the streets of Victorian low-rise buildings.

And the safety, after an African home of danger at every turn, is so refreshing. To sleep at night with no alarms and the windows wide open, to walk the streets alone at night and feel totally safe. These are unheard of dreams in the society of crime that we call home. Imagine a city beach in South Africa where a woman can walk alone, at night, and not be under threat.

My morning coffee-shop sessions and afternoon walks have helped me get to know the city’s rhythms. The days start cool and silent. Then there’s the slow burning off of the fog as heat brings activity, bustle, the snort and rush of traffic, then the drawing of the white veil again at the day’s close. The pulse of nightlife on Polk Street begins with the cheering from pubs with each home run hit or each touchdown scored as baseball merges into football with the turn of the season.

The sounds of the city have become familiars. The police and fire-engine sirens that drag their wailing down the long avenues like cries of pain. The moaning of the bay’s foghorns, the clatter of trams on their iron tracks that lead over Russian Hill and the weekly earthquake siren tests. And the Telegraph Hill parrots with their colourful shrieks in the dusk as they streak their rainbows across the sky in homeward flight.

This is also a cultivated and cultured city. An important art exhibition draws half a million viewers; book launches are sold out long before the event; a poetry reading is an important occasion with standing room only; art-house movies premiere here. Music shops, bookstores and libraries abound. The coffee shops are packed with readers and writers, penning minor works that may or may not cut it in this demanding city of letters.

On my last afternoon I was back on the water at the foot of Russian Hill. Fog rolled up the bay. The Golden Gate was shrouded, save for the top of its main struts, which caught the late afternoon light. The white duvet devoured land and water, moving inexorably towards me. Alcatraz was swallowed, then the ships moored on Hyde Street Pier. Now the wall of white enveloped me, touching my skin with its cold wet hand and dousing the light. It was time to go.

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