Sunday, September 23, 2012


There’s clear air outside my window, and morning sunshine too. The city beckons. I have writing to do, but the pull of San Francisco on a sunny September Sunday is too much for me to resist. And so I’ll come back later to my hotel room and, with a clearer head perhaps, get down to writing and thinking on the page.

For now, it’s flight into movement and muscling my way up and down the steep hills of this city.  I’ll continue later...

I wrote that six hours ago. Now I’m back after rambles around, and feeling more aired out and ready to concentrate a little.

What a day out there! I headed up Post from my hotel and into the Tenderloin. It’s such a contrast, from one street to the next, suddenly you go from affluent shops and the fancy-shmancy Hermes exhibition in Union Square to very down and out scenes in all kinds of ways: hookers in fantastic outfits at 8 in the morning negotiating for business with guys in cars, and mentally ill guys at street corners talking but not to anyone visibly there, and small corner stores with bars in the windows.

Just up the hill are high-rent beautiful buildings, well-maintained.  It’s a crude contrast in well-being.

On Hyde Street, heading south and downhill from Post, I came across a crowd of men hanging around outside a banh mi shop and cafe, Sing Sing Sandwich Shop. In I went and ordered a sandwich to go. There was a screen showing scenes from Saigon, and the mirrors on three walls reflected the film and made the small space feel larger and exotic too. Men of various ages sat at small tables talking to each other, happy, as I imagined, to be surrounded by the sound of Vietnamese and the aromas of Vietnamese food.  The sandwich came wrapped in paper. I ate it much later, pork and pate and lots of pickles and veg too; it ranks as the best banh mi I’ve had in North America, generous, beautifully done. 

I can’t be as complimentary about Burma Superstar, the very popular Burmese restaurant on Clement near 4th that I ate at last night. The vibe inside is great, the waitstaff courteous and very competent, the guy manning the door and the waiting list (over an hour long) meticulous and organised and calm. The crowd was good-humoured too. I was with Brian, who had been stuck with driving me to my two book tour obligations yesterday, about which more later. 

We ordered the ginger salad, the pork with pickled mustard greens, the cabbage salad with mint, the fried tofu squares, and the tofu and okra, as well as rice of course (jasmine), and ginger-lemonade. The drink was very good and cabbage salad too; the rice was fine. And after that? Not wonderful. It’s really too bad, on the one hand, given all the easy-to-make glories of Burmese culinary tradition; I’d love people to be getting a real taste. On the other hand it’s great that the owners have made such a success of their business that they now have four other locations of the restaurant, I’m told.

Earlier, on Friday, I walked in Chinatown, uphill from where I’m staying, and then uphill some more, a great pleasure after hours on the plane. And I came on the wok shop that Grace Young talks about in her books. It’s a treasure house. There are spun steel woks and hand-hammered woks of all sizes, as well as other kitchenware, spiders for example, and ladles. I ended up buying two spatulas for wok frying, one for me and one for a friend. The shovels are of hand-shaped steel, not stainless, and the handles wood and comfortable. I hope I can take them in hand-carry with no problem. They don’t look like they could inflict damage on anyone, do they? I ask myself hopefully.

After the Viet sandwich shop this morning I reached the farmers market on Market Street, a huge affair, open air and spectacular (Wed and Sunday, and a smaller version on Fridays, until 1 pm). The produce here is extraordinary, from walnuts and peaches and berries and pomegranates (from the hot valleys in the interior) to mushrooms (coastal, including some funky lovely brain-shaped ones whose name I don’t remember) and six or more kinds of eggplants, and two kinds of bitter melon, and even “bac ha” the stem of giant taro that goes into Vietnamese sour soup. All grown here (the bac ha in a greenhouse, the others outdoors). And I mustn’t forget to mention the tomatoes, lots of heritage varieties like, but not the same as, the heritage tomatoes in Ontario farmers’ markets.

There was a fish monger with healthy looking catfish, salmon farmed and wild, loads of shrimp, and more. And then there were stacks of greens, orchids, honey, berries; about a quarter of the vendors were labelled organic it seemed to me.

I stopped and ate a pupusa in the sunshine, with horchata to drink, and listened and watched with pleasure as two older guys played jazz guitar (one on bass for rhythm) in the brightness, a hat out for donations. They were good. A guy nearby danced as they played, unostentatiously, for his own pleasure.  People were smiling and unrushed. It was a Sunday scene from a picture book.

But I must tell you about yesterday, in many ways an exercise in surfing the unexpected glitches that can arise. Whew! Brian got me to the radio station in plenty of time in the morning, to do a show that used to be Gene Burns Dining Around (he was such a pleasure to talk to) and that has now, because of Gene’s illness, been taken on by Joel Riddell, a guy with great curiosity and good energy. Our chat was fine, but then catastrophe...the car wouldn’t start. We were due in Napa at 1 pm for a talk with photos and a demo. Time was tight. Yikes.

We raced to Enterprise car rental, and they, having been phoned ahead, were super quick and super nice. Brian hurtled us up the I-80, after heavy traffic on the Bay Bridge, and we got to Napa about 10 minutes before I was supposed to start. But then there were other malfinctions to do with computers and projectors. Unbelievable. Again, we did a work-around, no sweat. The demo (tender greens salad) happened first, and people loved it and also the sample beef jerky that the wonderful Joanna of Copperfelds had made (she’s also made loads of other recipes from the book in the last month, so nice for me to hear about her pleasure with it all).  And then the people who’d come looked at the images of Burma on a computer screen, huddling around rather than being able to stare at a big screen. Everyone was so good-tempered about it. And thus we surfed the glitches without a raised voice or other stress.

By the way, there’s no explanation for the car malfunction, execept that it was clearly something electrical (and not the battery). (Later, once we got back, Brian drove to where his car was and tried again, and it started. Go figure. These things are sent to try us, is the only conclusion I could come to. But all of that kind of thing is a publicist’s and escort’s nightmare.)

It's easy to get upset when things go wrong, but really, when I think of all that has had to go right for this Burma book to exist, I can't be upset at small stuff. 

The drive back was lovely. We went the other way, the westward loop along the edge of Sonoma, past the geometries of vineyards, then through Marin and over the Golden Gate. The city shone in the slanting golden late afternoon light like a mirage, all flat-roofed patterns climbing up and down hills. 

Once I got back the adrenaline of the day took me to the hotel bar, where I had a gin and tonic and talked to the barman. He turned out to be Burmese, serendipity. I told him I was on tour with a Burma book and we chatted awhile. It’s a huge time for Burmese expats in the US, with Aung San Suu Kyi visiting and lots of attention in the media. 

I’ll keep posting tour notes as and when I have something to tell you. For now I can say that it’s a privilege to have all this sun-filled time in San Francisco - I’m here until Thursday morning!

I'm at Omnivore Books tomorrow at 6 pm talking about BURMA and signing books. And I'm at Book Passage in Corte Madera/San Rafael, on Wednesday evenimg, showing photos and talking about BURMA. Do drop by if you're in the area.
And then this afternoon, a nice surprise: Just as I was about to sit and write this, I got a call on Skype from Dom, who is in London for three months. I've never Skyped with him (haven't done much of it with anyone). So strange to see the face of my older child in the Skype video image, looking so mature and so well, and to hear the sounds in the internet cafe place around him. Lucky to be able to do all this.


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Anonymous said...

I am reading your amazing Burma book now, having just received it. Thank you for providing an inside view into this amazing country. I have every one of your earlier books, and hope you write many more!