I recently had a friend visiting the Bay Area from foreign parts, as they say, and while she was meeting up with various people in the Bay Area, I spent a few days showing her around and talking to her about the City, the East Bay, and all the things they contained. It was kind of a surreal experience for me because I’ve never played tour guide before, and it placed me in an interesting position, forcing me to think about and view the Bay from a very different perspective. I was kind of surprised by how the experience shifted my attitudes as I focused on pride of place and showing my friend the things I loved about the Bay, defending some of the very things that make me gnash my teeth in frustration as a resident.
We went to the Academy of Sciences, which is always fun whether I’m a tourist or not, and we ambled through Golden Gate Park, talking about what life was like in the City, about gentrification, about the differences between here and her home. We ate at Orphan Andy’s, and discussed the Castro and gay culture. I met up with her the next day and we took the ferry to Angel Island, only to realise that we’d timed it badly and basically only had time to walk for a bit before having to catch the last ferry of the day, and then we took the ferry back to Oakland so I could (briefly) show her my side of the Bay.
I found myself eager to explain little details, dredging up interesting facts and random bits of information for her to make the City more interesting, to put it in context, to give it more history. The City became an offering, and I was eager for her to approve of it — even if she’d visited before, even if she liked it, I wanted her to like it more, I wanted her to see why it was one of my favourite cities in the world, I wanted her to understand what made San Francisco what it was. I talked about Lillie Coit and cable cars, chocolate and Chinatown, all these little fascinating pieces of the puzzle that is San Francisco.
On the ferry I proudly pointed at the Bay Bridge, and I corrected a passenger who confused the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge with the Golden Gate Bridge. I told her about the cranes at the Port of Oakland and how they inspired George Lucas, I waved expansively at the sweep of San Francisco’s downtown, which, honestly, I consider kind of dumpy and uninspiring most of the time. TransAmerica Pyramid aside, it’s not exactly one of the most compelling skylines in the world, no matter how much I love the City — though I do enjoy it when all the buildings outline themselves in light in December, and it turns into a glittering, futuristic wonderland in the depths of winter.
I wanted to take my friend to every restaurant I loved, to every secret, hidden, wonderful place, to every cupcakery and every nifty spot I’d ever uncovered in my life, and I was bitter that I wouldn’t have nearly enough time. I wanted to compress the entire experience of San Francisco into just a few days, even as I was trying to remind myself not to drag her willy-nilly from place to place. Above all, I felt like the embodiment of San Francisco, in a way, earnestly wanting my friend to like me, as though if I failed to make her fall in love with San Francisco, I was failing as a person, letting the side down.
She was visiting from overseas, which meant that we weren’t just making comparisons between US cities, but between wildly different places and cultures. She expressed shock that we drive everywhere — I hotly shot back that I was horrified that none of the cyclists in her home nation wore helmets. She shrugged, laughing. She said our Tic Tacs taste different, and I shamefacedly admitted that most candy made for the US market is sweeter — cloyingly sweet, to my tastebuds, but apparently other people in the US like it. We compared drug policies, and social programmes, and while neither of us was competing — I am not that much of a patriot, and in fact find much to criticise in the US — I was seized with a strange and compelling need to defend San Francisco, and by extension the US.
She forced me to view my own home through the eyes of a tourist, while also acting as a tour guide, and it was a somewhat surreal experience for me, as we wound our way through the City, up a flight of awkwardly built steps on Angel Island, along the streets of Temescal. Her curiousity about the world around us and my desire to cram as many experiences into her visit as I could combined in a sort of exhausting exuberance, each of us feeding off the other, by one moment giggling like tourists in a strange land and at another feeling the gaping cultural differences between us.
How does our perception of space, of place, of belonging, change when we’re forced to interrogate it, examine our environment and the people who inhabit it? These are the things I started thinking about as I led my friend around, turning the City I knew into a simultaneously alien and painfully familiar place, one I had to defend and love in whole, warts and all, even as my guest struggled with some of the things she saw and wanted answers I couldn’t always give.