A Short Way Back

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In the two years I lived in San Francisco, I never drove. But even I knew driving there would be hell.

Sam Ettinger and I were up again before dawn. Hell, we were enjoying breakfast before dawn, at a place called Salducci’s in Lakeport. And nothing could have pleased me more that morning than eating toast while bundled up in winter clothing with a couple of my fellow morning people.

We left Lake County by driving west and then south on the 101, next to the stately tracks of the old Northwestern Pacific Railway. Three counties later, we were hurled off the Golden Gate Bridge and into the City.

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“Were we supposed to pay a toll?” I asked. We never figured it out. Anyway, I was busy giving Sam directions in a city he’d never been to. Eventually we got to a remote corner of town and I treated Sam to a tour of SF State. He agreed that the location was miserable. Then I took the wheel, navigating a maze of double-decker freeways toward Mythbusters HQ and, eventually, lunch at Tommy’s Joynt in Cathedral Hill. There are three things I miss about San Francisco, and all of them are restaurants.

 

Sam crashed at the hotel, in the same room I’d stayed in a year earlier, while I made preparations. My plan for the day was ambitious; to give Sam the full non-touristy San Francisco experience, check out an assortment of bars and restaurants, the whole thing. We were walking around a random stretch of 16th Street when I stopped and pointed out a cafe on the corner of a dead end street.

“What?” asked Sam.

“This is the flower shop,” I replied excitedly. The flower shop was possibly the only real location in Tommy Wiseau’s disasterpiece The Room.

“You know, James Franco is making a movie out of The Disaster Artist.”

“Good,” said Sam, “He’ll do a good Tommy.”

From there, we messed about on J Church. Dolores Park, the streetcar switchbacks, 22nd street. We retreated Downtown so we could attempt to ride a cable car, and more importantly see the spiral escalator at the Westfield center. From there, we began a long night in the Mission District.

Zeitgeist, a mostly outdoor tavern, was always crowded, but in the rain it was even worse. Resigned to sitting on a wet bench, I laid out the next phase of the day. “Here’s what I’m thinking. After this, we have dinner at El Farolito, and I know I always say ‘stay north of 24th,’ but we’re going to go down to a place called the Knockout.”

DSCN1415On Mission and 24th, El Farolito is generally regarded to have some of the best Mexican food in America, and it couldn’t have been better that night, but the trek to the Knockout filled me with apprehension. The first time I found that particular bar was in 2012. I’ve made a point of visiting San Francisco once a year; but the first time was just weirdly off. I was bored and lonely and had ridden the bus too far, so I got out and went into a random bar. Robocop played on a wall of old TV sets while a Fiery Furnaces song blasted over the speakers, so I liked it quite a lot. The second time I visited, I had hoped to have a drink with an SF State friend named Ambiguously Jewish Ashley, but it didn’t pan out. Add to this the fact that it was south of 24th street (where economics, crime, and even the accent changes for the worse), and that none of my San Francisco friends were available. This time, they were showing Robocop 2. The cycle was complete. Sam was thrilled.

Somewhere between 24th and the Knockout, Sam spied a pie shop where we finished the night. We were headed back to the hotel when I was struck by something. “Let’s go to the French Quarter.”

The French Quarter was a tiny neighbourhood Downtown, one that had been there since the Gold Rush. Allegedly, this place was wedged between huge skyscrapers, an oasis of bright neon and savoury meals in a desert of cold, dark, shuttered steel. I’d never seen it myself. We were too full to eat there, but wanted to go see if it was really there and not just some Wikipedia hoax. And then we found it, shining out in the rainy black of the financial district. Satisfied, we left it there.

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The last restaurant I hoped to take Sam to was Red’s Java House. Red’s was the last regular eating spot I found while living in SF, and it gets major points for atmosphere. The restaurant is on a huge, empty pier just south of the Bay Bridge. Most people sit outside, but the walls inside are filled with vintage pin-ups, pictures of old naval ships, and newspaper clippings documenting the City’s violent past. I’m not totally sure I didn’t make it up, and the following morning didn’t prove otherwise because it was closed.

Nevertheless, we had to go home. I knew a falafel place in San Jose, the best falafel place I’d ever eaten at outside Israel. Alas, that was also closed until 10:00 AM. Dejected, we ate donuts at an indpendent movie theater Downtown. I looked around, reminded that I liked San Jose. It does something for me. It’s a nice little city. And at that, we continued our way down the Royal Road, out of Northern Calfiornia, and out of the rain.

“Well,” I said to Sam, “that was the best trip we could have hoped for!”

The Undiscovered County

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I looked over at Sam Ettinger. “You’re a smooth smoothie, you know?”

Sam was shocked. “You think we’re doing Fargo? I thought we were doing Sideways!

It was no matter. We’d been planning this trip for months; I’d finally gotten my driver’s license, at the age of 24, just to do this trip. We were going to Lake County.

We wanted to go to Lake County because we knew nothing about it. As far as could be told, nothing historical had ever happened there; no one of note had ever come from there or even lived there. On a map you can see it tucked into the mountains north of San Francisco Bay; coastal, yet landlocked. No railways run through it, no real highways, no rivers. The one thing you can see on the map is a lake, and a rather big one. It’s rare that a body of water that large goes unnoticed by the media or the traveling public.

Neither of us had ever seen so much as a news story about Lake County, and we decided to keep it that way: we wanted to preserve the mystery. Once while listening to This American Life, Ira Glass was doing a story on marijuana management in Mendocino County. Early in the story, he said, “While in neighbouring Lake County–” causing me to immediately shut off the radio.

If there was any time to do this trip, it was this February. In Southern California, the cold, wet winter had forsaken us, causing catastrophic drought and a general lack of merriment. I was in class 40 hours a week, and had just been turned down for a second date with a woman I seriously disliked, which was a relief but still discouraging, while Sam had just finished his master’s degree back east, and planned to visit Europe soon after. I wasn’t sure we’d find anything in Lake County, but at the very least it’d take our minds off everything else.

It happened to rain the night before we left, but it stopped around the time I got to Sam’s house. It was 6:00 AM, and under the cover of darkness, we made our way out of Pasadena. After a regrettable but much-needed breakfast in Valencia, we sped up the Golden State Freeway. I’d made a playlist specially to complement the landscape, but it was so dreary that the effect was altered. “I Can See for Miles” would have been perfect for when we emerged out of the Grapevine had the resulting view of the Central Valley not been obscured by fog.

A pit stop at Kettleman City, lunch at the In-N-Out Burger in Santa Nella. The fog turned into rain. Hard, unrelenting, glorious rain that would stay with us throughout the weekend, and pour over Northern California for days more. This was what winter was supposed to be like. We tore through the hills of the East Bay, then Vallejo, then Napa. The road got thinner and thinner, until it was, essentially, a lane-and-a-half, over a heavily forested, slightly snowy ridge, and into Lake County.

The first word that came to mind was “peaceful.” For miles and miles we saw nothing but old barns, fallow vineyards, and mighty encinos stretching over the slickened road. Soon after, we arrived in Lakeport, the county seat, with a nice selection of independent shops below an old courthouse square. Bill Bryson would be thrilled. I pulled up to the courthouse at 4:30, and as it was a Friday, we had less than an hour if we wanted to know anything about the place. To that end, we walked right into the County Administrator’s office and asked: “Who’s the most interesting person in Lake County?”

The receptionist looked at us for a moment before speaking to her boss, Jill Ruzicka, who proceeded to tell us everything.

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Lake County is a basin, surrounded by mountains on all sides, which is why it’s so isolated. It was settled by Europeans when California was still part of Mexico; consequently some families have been living there for six generations. The lake itself is the oldest in North America, having evaded the catastrophic shifts of multiple ice ages. The valley itself is volcanic; all of their electricity is produced by geothermal energy, which is also how their sewage is treated. As of 2014, it’s the greenest county in America.

“And of course,” said Ruzicka, “we’re finally developing a wine industry. The first time wine was developed in the county, Prohibition ended it all. We’re still recovering.”

I couldn’t help but seize on that opening. “Of course,” I said, “the main crop here is…”

She nodded knowingly. “Say it.”

“Marijuana.”

“It’s true.” She went on to say that marijuana is actually a severe pest in the county.

Ruzicka sent us off with a dinner recommendation when Sam discovered that he’d been accepted to get his Ph.D. at Cornell. To that end, we celebrated in style at Park Place, a popular little eatery overlooking the park on the lake. If I’d taken the time to write this in February, I might have been able to say what we ate. Oh, well. Sam claims to have had a pork chop with a red wine reduction and mashed potatoes.

“Lake County is amazing,” I said to Sam. “And nobody knows about it. I wonder whether we should tell anyone.”

Lands of the Setting Sun: ¡Yeísmo!

Long Way Back

You’ve got to love Ibn Battouta. A Moorish explorer, he made it all the way to the Philippines, served briefly as a minister in the Maldives, and fought in the Battle of Gibraltar, spent the overwhelming majority of his life abroad, and when he wrote it all down, he made sure to let the reader know he wasn’t having any fun. The man abhorred any culture with topless women. On the other hand, he is on the 5dh coin.

Ibn Battouta Airport was on the windward side of the point of Cape Spartel, in howling wind, and accessible only by a dirt road, though that may soon change. Tangier was neglected under the bad king Hassan II, but it’s experiencing a revival under his son Mohammed VI. It’s still a messy place, but it’s also the fastest growing city on the African continent. This king is popular enough to have his picture in every room in the country, and every kiosk at Ibn Battouta.

This isn't the actual photo. I didn't think to take one at the airport.

First thing I did was get my mom some tea. As soon attendant at the cafe poured it, I picked up the paper cup, rapidly scalding my hand, but keeping my composure long enough to return to the counter and get a second cup for insulation. What I liked most about TNG (besides being one of the few remaining airports where you walk onto the tarmac) was the airline employees. All Moroccan, all pretty girls, all wearing djellabas, the traditional hooded robe of the Moors. We’d seen people wearing them around; it was a bit like seeing a Native American in full shaman gear walking down 42nd Street, except that here it was normal. I stopped in a tiny souvenir shop looking for a flag and they had it: giant, thick and woolen, a real flag like those getting shredded by the wind outside. You could have used it as a blanket. I ponyed up my last 40dh and packed it into my suitcase with the others.

Our flight plan resulted in a two-hour layover at Madrid Barajas, which was creepily identical to Heathrow, built in a style consisting mainly of glass and chrome which my mom likened to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

“Would you be interested in watching all of Terry Gilliam’s films?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “there’s an insanity risk.”

I grabbed as much food as humanly possible from Medas, mostly ham, and devoured it as quickly as possible before queueing for the connecting flight. “So what are the differences between Castillian and South American Spanish?”

Annoyed by Britons who seem to think anything south of the Potomac is “South America,” I turned around to see a girl of about 15 travelling with her brother. “New World Spanish lacks distinción. There’s no th-sound, though that’s also the case in some parts of Spain.”

“That’s right,” she said approvingly. For the next two hours on the plane, I would catch her staring at me several seats ahead, then pretending she wasn’t, trying not to grin.

But now we were in England, and we had two hours to get to our hotel near Heathrow, catch a bus to the Picadilly Line, thence to the Northern Line, and get off at Camden Town. From there, we made a beeline for Regent’s Park, briefly got lost in some mud, and arrived at the Regent’s Canal. We barely made it, and not only because my mom couldn’t stop laughing at “Cockfosters.” I’d simply forgotten how huge London is.

I’d first heard about this restaurant from David Mitchell’s Back Story. Feng Shang Princess is a fancy Chinese restaurant on a double-decker canal boat, and though Mitchell walked by it all the time, he had never gone in. I was worried it would just be a novelty restaurant but the food was terrific. We were particularly taken by the crispy chicken in mango curry sauce. My mom decided that even though her birthday was in April, this would be my present. A £60 dinner at a restaurant on a boat, from a book, in London.

Victory!

I never ate the chorizo. It got seized at customs in Los Angeles. You’re not allowed to bring ham in here.

Lands of the Setting Sun: Barcelona to Tangier by Any Means

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The wind was blowing like crazy through the end of the Mediterranean, and it wouldn’t stop as long as we were there. As our hotel in La Línea was on the beach, the wind was full of sand and dust. And quite itchy. Clearly our final leg of the trip would be very different.

We took a longish cab to the ferry terminal at Algeciras. Though pronounced “al khethira,” it does in fact originate from Al Jazeera, the infamous news channel being watched on our boat. The language spoken here in the middle ages was Mozarabic, a Latin-derived language with bits of Arabic thrown in. The port of Algeciras was typically empty and threadbare, and the ferry took an extra thirty minutes to properly line up to the pier. I hadn’t ridden a ferry since going to scout camp on Catalina Island and I began to feel seasick for the first time in my life. I stared at the horizon to alleviate the feeling, but it turns out that makes it worse.

When we docked at Tanger-Med, it was raining. We grabbed our bags and rushed out, pulling out our passports but were stopped. We were supposed to get stamped on the ship. So we rushed back, waiting furtively for the customs officer to return before the ship returned to Spain. After a terrifying hour, he returned; a thin, professorial man in a long coat.

“I’m guessing you’ve never done this before,” he said. “It’s always someone.”

Ten minutes later we were relaxing at the snack kiosk. My mom had a mint tea, I had a coke. Clearly food was much cheaper here than in Europe. We were sitting on the African continent.

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After a while, we boarded a shuttle to the terminal, changed my remaining 70 Euros for 770 Dirhams. Tanger-Med is shockingly far away from Tangier itself, and the only way to get to there is on an ancient beige Mercedes called a gránd-taxi. Having misread the Rick Steves guide, I was under the impression that gránd-taxis were overpriced and you could do better, but that was only in the city itself. Riding in the cab I got the distinct impression that the driver was taking the long way, but it turns out the fastest way is actually on a winding, terrifying coast road. This would turn into a theme.

We finally arrived at the Hotel Rembrandt, where apparently Tennessee Williams spent a year. It was already getting dark, and I wanted to get a taste of the Tangier before it shut down for sabbath. We walked down a street, to a series of stairways, along a castle wall, past the old Jewish cemetery and into the Medina. At one point I considered going down the Rue Khammal, a tiny little alleyway leading God knows where, but my mom wouldn’t have it. A man in a nearby doorway was giving her a foreboding look, and we went instead down the Rue de la Marine, quite hungry.Don't go in there...

Immediately a petite man in a waiter’s uniform beckoned us into the nearest restaurant. It was a dark, dusky place where it turned out he was the only waiter. This was it, Tangier, the city of spies, the Arab world. In addition to a delicious meatball dish, my mom was having tea in a tiny glass! People were smoking indoors! I had a shawarma and a Coke. Dinner for two? 102dh. $10.

Living the Dream

On the way back we briefly got lost. English is not generally taught as the second language, forcing me to rely on my failed-semester of French. “Ou est le Boulevard Mohammed V?” Eventually we found the hotel.

More than anything I wished we could’ve gone deeper into the country. Casablanca and Marrakech seemed a stone’s throw away, and Tangier was little more than the Moroccan version of Tijuana. I went out later in the night, hoping to find a Moroccan flag, but the shops were all shut. We had another big day coming: Camden Town beckoned.

Lands of the Setting Sun: One Step Beyond

Furl the Gib

I paced through Córdoba station uneasily. There were no high-speed trains where we were going. Only a slow, winding railway taking us through the Cordillera Antequerana to the southernmost part of Spain. Our journey took us off the electric rail system, past military bases and endless forests to arrive 20 minutes late at San Róque, which looked frighteningly like Orange County. From there we took a cab all the way to our hotel in La Línea de Concepción. We were going to Gibraltar.

Gibraltar is one of the Pillars of Hercules, two mountains on either side of the strait separating the Mediterranean from the Atlantic, and as such, it’s been much fought over. The site of eighteen historical battles, it was finally captured by the British in Queen Anne’s War 309 years ago and it’s been theirs ever since. On the African side of the strait is the Spanish outpost of Ceuta, most famous in the 1970s for a surly border guard who wouldn’t let hippies into Morocco. But that’s a story for someone else to tell.

I wanted to go to Gibraltar because it was on our way, because it was going to be completely different from Spain, and because it afforded me the opportunity to cross an international border by foot, which never happens. The two-mile walk to the border was astonishingly ugly, the road along the beach dusty and unkempt, although the buildings were covered by flocks of giant shearwaters. Between Spain and Gibraltar is a no man’s land a hundred meters across. Naturally, this is where people park. When I passed through the border checkpoint, I excitedly held out my passport, but the guard didn’t even look up. It’s that kind of attitude that’s fostered Euroscepticism is Britain. From the checkpoint we walked across an airstrip, over a drawbridge and through a tunnel, and we were in the heart of Gibraltar.Yo-Ho-Yo-Ho...

For a place that’s so hard to get to, Gibraltar was totally packed, and packed with Britons. Suddenly everybody was paler, fatter, and the women were all wearing makeup. After being in Spain for so long, this was like home. Gibraltar is very proud of its pirate motif; the Gibraltarian pound coin has a skull on it! It’s the skull of a Neanderthal uncovered on the rock, but still! My mom and I had fish and chips– comfortably eating lunch outdoors for the first time in nearly a month. But we had business to attend to on top of the rock.

After procuring a Gibraltarian flag from a souvenir shop, we made the trek to the lift. Nobody shopped here, this is where people lived. The Gibraltarians truly became a people when the area came under threat from the Germans in the Second World War. The caves inside the Rock served as Allied headquarters for the invasion of North Africa, and when the war ended, there was a nation here. Most of the people we saw were from England, but the locals were immediately identifiable by their borderline-unintelligible Rosie Perez-by-way-of-South-London accents.

We weren’t expecting to see many monkeys. I mean, why would they show up for people? But monkeys are not like other wild animals; the moment we got off the lift, there was a monkey and her baby, looking through a poor man’s bag.

Yay Monkeys!

The place was full of monkeys just sitting around, not minding us at all. They were climbing all over the old bunkers, grooming each other, having sex and generally lazing about. After a while, it was time to go, and I had to pull my mom away. She was nearly crying.

BABY MONKEY

The walk back was tortuous; we couldn’t catch a bus to save our lives. By the time we arrived in No Man’s Land, the two miles back to the hotel seemed impossible so we took a cab. My mom was exhausted, but I was composed enough to eat dinner in the hotel. However, I still didn’t have clean clothes, and it looked like I wouldn’t for the remainder of the trip.

Lands of the Setting Sun: Stuck

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In addition to being one of the oldest cities in Europe, Córdoba is also the hottest city in Europe. And while it wasn’t warm on New Years’ Day, it wasn’t cold enough to snow; it had rained early in the morning when we made way to La Mezquita, a block from our hotel.

La Mezquita was formerly the Great Mosque of Córdoba, with its striped arches and beautiful garden. We hung around there for a while, waiting to be let in. The inside of the building isn’t as big as it looks in pictures, and it’s still in use as a religious house. When the Castilians arrived, they built a cathedral inside it, so when you see it from the outside, one building appears to have grown out of the other like a parasitic wasp.

Inside the cathedral was quiet. Finally a priest showed up. My mom, who is not accustomed to seeing priests outside of movies, was enthralled. I was less enthralled by the prospect of being stuck there for an hour, so I convinced her to bail for lunch. As the bells rang for noon, we looked through the streets.

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After searching for restaurants we found the kind of place where kings and presidents and prime ministers ate when they visited. Casually wondering really how often Tony Blair made it to this particular city, I noticed that one of the past visitors had been the current King of Morocco. He was a distant descendant of the Sultans and Emirs that would have ruled most of Spain and Portugal from this very city. I later discovered that the restaurant didn’t open until 13:30, so we got the hell out and ate somewhere else while planning the remainder of our trip. We were going to keep going south, beyond even Spain. And I still hadn’t done laundry.

Author’s note: Fellow Bosco alum Jake Hawkes is presently backpacking through Galicia. I didn’t go to Galicia, but we still salute him.

Lands of the Setting Sun: Los Judíos

When the AVE arrived in Córdoba, we fell off the train– we’d come in much earlier than thought, and it hadn’t occurred to me that this train wouldn’t linger in the station very long. We ran right out to the taxi area.

“Hotel Albucasis, Calle Buen Pastor once,” I said to the driver, who may have been the same age as me. Thus began the most terrifying cab ride of my life.

Córdoba is old, it had already been around for centuries when the Romans arrived, and people have been living there ever since. Most of the city, still enclosed by a wall, consists of streets six feet wide with tight curves. The entire street we were on was barely wide enough for the taxi with no way of seeing in front of us, and the guy was driving at 40 miles an hour. But we reached our hotel. This was the Judería.

Córdoba has been a city as long as anyone can remember. The Carthaginians named it Kartuba after a general who was killed near by. The Romans came around in the 3rd century BC, where it was home to the father-and-son philosophers Seneca the Elder and Seneca the Younger. When the Visigoths captured Spain, the Byzantines briefly took it back, but eventually the Moors came and took care of business.

Córdoba under Islamic rule was the capital of Al Andalus and one of the largest cities in the world, much bigger than it is even today. We are told in history class that the Moors were a kind and gentle people who were eventually pushed out by the feckless papists. At least that’s what they said at Barnhart Middle School. In reality, Spain was always a mostly Christian country ruled over by a Muslim minority. Due to the country’s remoteness from the Arab world, it was a pretty lax place: the state of Al-Andalus broke up into several states ruled over by Emirs both Christian and Muslim until they were conquered by Islamic fanatics from Mauretania– the AQIM of its day– who antagonized the country’s impoverished Christian trading partners in the north enough to cause the Reconquista, the western front of the Crusades. Which brings us to La Judería.

For two hundred years, Córdoba was part of the Crown of Castile but still enjoyed religious freedom, and La Judería was the Jewish section during that time. It was a prosperous place with big houses, synagogues; it was Spain’s Upper West Side. It was also home to the Jewish philosopher Maimonedes, better known to me, and to fans of The Big Lebowski, as Rambam.

It's the whole concept of aitch!

All of this, of course, was covered up and forgotten when the Spanish Inquisition came, but the Judería was rediscovered by local monks digging around in the 1870s and Spain today is quite proud of their Jewish history. Sam Ettinger told me that Spain was one of the most antisemitic countries in Europe, but I found no evidence of that whatsoever. My mom and I had lunch first, at an amazing Sephardic restaurant tucked away, as I recall, behind some bushes. I had chicken and rice and falafel. It was spectacular.

After that we visited the Jewish museum, really a restored medieval townhouse filled with whatever artifacts people found walled up in their homes or under their kitchen tiles. Because the streets are so narrow, houses in Córdoba are built with gardens on the inside like donut holes, and this one was spectacular. But I looked over at my mom and something had come over her. Something I’d never seen before. Some of my ancestors are from here; they escaped Spain to go to Odessa, which was then part of Turkey. That’s why I looked like these people. We were here.

I spent the afternoon desperately looking for a laundromat. I was out of clean clothes for the first time since Barcelona, but no place was open. I should mention it was New Years’ Eve. In Spain, people don’t come out to celebrate until after midnight, so the streets were dead as we searched for dinner. I settled for a kebab on the high street near the Plaza de las Tendillas, which was lit up with blue LEDs for the upcoming celebrations.

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When midnight did come, the bells of La Mezquita rang like hell through the whole city. I was finally over jet-lag, but sadly not enough to go out any later.