Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year 2008!

Happy New Year!

San Francisco welcomed in 2008 with magnificent fireworks that sparkled and dazzled over the Bay at midnight.

From barges on the water they burst up and across the sky and cascaded down in all patterns and colours. Fiery starlets of fountains, flowerheads, strands and swirls that danced and dangled in the night.

Especially stunning where the enormous panoplies of golden filigree.

The finale was a frenetic explosion of colour topped with gold.

We might be one of the last major cities in the world to enter 2008, but we are not the least!

Thousands of people, some with balloons and party hats, celebrated around the Embarcadero and lighted dinner cruise ships lined up on the water.

Barrier fencing has been put up to keep people away from the water's edge. The city is providing free buses and trains up to 6 am to transport people around safely, drinking alcohol on the streets is banned and police are out in force.

Californian cities are some of the last major cities in the world to celebrate New Year. They are 34th of 38 time zones that circle the world.

With three hours still to go are five towns in Alaska and the Gambier Islands, next the Marquesas Islands, then Hawaii, Cook, Tahiti, and Adak in Alaska - the most western town of the USA.

Finally, are Niue, Samoa and American Samoa who will party as their neighbours on Christmas Island, who kicked off the celebrations, start their 2 January.

New Year?...old hat!!!

Happy New Year 2008!

New Year's Eve Preparations

Today is New Year's Eve...and the city is preparing to explode!

What promises to be a tremendous 18-minute fireworks display has been organised at the Embarcadero just south of Fisherman's Wharf. The fireworks will be staged on barges in the Bay.

And the city are even providing free transport with Muni trains, buses and cable cars. The free service is from 8 pm to 6 am New Year's Day.

BART the train service that goes round the Bay and out to the airport isn't free but offers a special rate 'flash pass' for the occasion. They are also running extra trains to and from the fireworks, and will continue to run for an extra three hours than normal up to about 3 am.

So no-one should be stranded.

We will be at the Embarcadero and will post pics!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Zoo Police Bravery

One thing the tiger story highlights is the hazardous nature of work in the emergency services.

Four police officers reported for their shift on Christmas Day on what I would imagine they would have expected to be one of the quietest days of the year. They left behind family, somewhere if not in their own home, enjoying festivities.

They ended the day by shooting a tiger - albeit in zoo grounds - in a residential area of...San Francisco!

They deserve medals for bravery.

Zoo Truth

The truth about San Fran zoo is coming out!

Two in-depth articles by the San Fran Chronicle reveal that zoo staff since the late 1950s have known that the wall was dangerously low, and that there is a history of animal and keeper deaths and injuries.

Of particular problem appears to be the tenure of current Director, Manuel Mollinedo. The newspaper reports a string of complaints about him from past and present employees.

A former worker from when Mollinedo was Director of the Los Angeles zoo said that he 'downplays the value of staff and the welfare of animals'.

Needless to say, readers of the paper commenting online are calling for manslaughter charges to be brought.

Tiger Daredevils!

With San Fran zoo closed, animal lovers are flocking to Oakland zoo across the Bay to see two tigers - despite some knowing that their enclosure wall is also too low!

In an astounding report last night by KTVU, Oakland zoo's director admitted that the wall varied from 13 1/2 ft to 16 ft - the recommended minimum for US zoos is 16 ft.

He warned that if a tiger can leap 12 ft then it could scale 14 ft, adding that the zoo will be upgrading safety features over the next couple of months.

A visitor when interviewed said cheerfully he wasn't worried.

You know the game of 'chicken' when youngsters dash across the road in front of a car? Too tame by far!

Fancy a game of 'tiger'?!!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Zoo Admits Wall Too Low

San Fran zoo has admitted the wall around the tiger pen is only 12 1/2 ft after days of differing reports from zoo officials. The Director has also admitted this evening that the recommended height for Big Cat enclosures is 16 ft while many zoos build walls of 20 ft.

According to an interview on local Fox TV at teatime, zoo Director, Manuel Mollinedo, said the wall was built in 1940. Inspectors last checked on the Lion House three years ago and no comment was made then about the height of the wall.

It is now looking more likely that the tiger jumped the wall by herself, given the height. Police are not commenting tonight on the theory that one of the boys had dangled his legs over the wall.

There are obvious questions to be asked: did inspectors from the American Zoological Association take the word of the zoo on the wall's height? What did the zoo tell the inspectors? Was it reasonable for inspectors to take the zoo's word rather than measure the wall themselves?

And how come no-one at a zoo described as the largest in Northern California noticed that the wall was too low?

The police investigation is continuing. As yet there is no forensic result on the footprint found on the railings.

Meanwhile the zoo have announced new security measures for all it's animals: new fencing, surveillance and electric wiring.

One of the more moving aspects of the press coverage has been the tributes paid to the 17-year-old victim, Carlos Sousa. He is said to have been interested in hip hop music with hopes of becoming a DJ.

For the latest report click on San Francisco Chronicle

Tiger Escape

More details are emerging in the San Fran Chronicle on the possible method of escape of Tatiana, the tiger, from the zoo enclosure.

It is reported that a footprint has been found on a metal fence and police and zoo officials are investigating the possibility that one of the boys dangled an arm or a leg into the pen, allowing the tiger to grip on and climb the 14 ft wall.

The zoo director is quoted as saying:

'Somebody created a situation that really agitated her and gave her some sort of a method to break out. There is no possible way the cat could have made it out of there in a single leap. I would surmise that there was help.'

'A couple of feet dangling over the edge could possibly have done it.'

Pinecones and sticks have also been found in the moat, which should not be there. However, a police sergeant has said that there is no reason to think that the boys were taunting the tiger.

Sadly, the parents of the 17-year-old who died saw the news on TV but had no idea it was their son until the following day.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tiger Kills at San Fran Zoo

A Siberian tiger escaped from the enclosure at San Francisco's zoo and killed a 17-year-old boy on Christmas Day. Two friends of the boy - brothers - were mauled but are recovering in San Francisco General Hospital.

Police shot the tiger, called Tatiana, dead.

Reports suggest the possibility of the tiger having jumped a 14 ft wall and forded a 25 - 30 ft moat to escape, or of being criminally let loose.

There were four other Siberian and Sumatran tigers in the Lion House who did not get out.

Last year Tatiana mauled the arm of a female keeper and the zoo was criticised for the design of the cages.

The zoo is set on 125 acres with over 250 species. Like the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey, it focuses on conservation and education.

We visited the zoo briefly only six weeks ago, although did not see the tigers, and were struck by how quiet it was. The highlighted features were four reindeer and an ice rink for children for Christmas.

Now the zoo is a major news item in many reports and broadcasts, including the BBC. However, the San Francisco Chronicle were first. The attack happened just after closing time at around 5 pm on Christmas Day and we were reading of the terrible event online early evening.

Post-Christmas Sales!

By 10 am the city was thronging with bargain hunters.

And not just those arriving. I passed two girls laden with bags making their way out of the shopping area.

In Macy's where I headed first, the huge tree in the entrance had already disappeared. Upstairs in the Holiday Lane, the ornaments on the trees had come down like petals in a hurricane! The trees were bare and the decorations were stacked in cardboard boxes on offer for gigantic 50% to 60% reductions.

Even the trees were for sale at a whopping 75% drop in price.

The huge store was busy. As was the Westfield mall with the Bomb Squad van parked outside for a few moments before moving on.

Bloomingdales, too, was in the process of rapidly selling off their tree ornaments but at least they had not yet dismantled the trees. And like all the stores, sale-priced goods were everywhere.

People were purchasing in earnest. By lunch time, coffee places and the food hall were packed.

First Christmas Day in San Fran

Picture a wintry village or small town scene in the UK especially one of, say, thirty years ago. It is Christmas Day morning.

The roads are nearly deserted. The shops are closed except for a little corner shop. Some people are making their way to church, some are running behind excited children as they try out new bikes and rollar blades or walking to build up an appetite before Christmas lunch,
others are snug in their homes.

There is a predictability, a common thread binding the community.

Delete that picture from your mind. For Christmas in San Fran is an eclectic, cultural mix.

We began the morning in the Grand Hyatt behind Union Square. Nothing too different about Christmas there. No doubt people were relaxing and getting ready for Christmas dinner. If they were like us, they were trying to make phone calls to family, and a hint we can pass on is start early! By 10 am lines with the phone card company were engaged.

We decided to go for a walk. In the lobby we viewed the decorations, huge and bright of a kind we have come to expect here! A tall, baubled tree with large wooden toy train at its base, and model village snow scenes in glass casings.

In the street outside, people were milling. Traffic was low but the streets were not deserted. As we strolled the street we entered China Town...and suddenly Christmas had disappeared. Like stepping through the back of the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, we were blinking in another world.

The pavements were thronging. Shops and stalls were busy. It was business as usual. Even a hairdresser's was open and they had clients. Trays of cooked Chinese food sat behind glass windows. On the edge of the pavement a woman balanced small plastic boxes in which were baby terrapins swimming amongst tiny pebbles and plastic flowers.

We jostled and wove our way down the pavement and then, leaving China Town behind us, we were in the Italian quarter. Now, the Italians celebrate Christmas. Not a store or a restaurant was open. The Italians were home or perhaps some of them were in the crowed pouring out of the ornate Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral.

Down to Fisherman's Wharf and the area was quieter than usual but still had a respectable number of visitors. As you might expect, most of the tourist shops and restaurants were open. Only the ferries were quiet, moored and motionless, their pilots enjoying a day off however they were celebrating.

Through the financial district with silent office towers and back to the Grand Hyatt, people passing in and out of the glass swing doors.

Up to the Grandviews restaurant on the 36th floor where a magnificent buffet awaited. We sat at a table in the sun and gazed at the Golden Gate Bridge.

And to our surprise, there was turkey with orange and cranberry sauce!

Christmas, San Fran 2007 style!

Candlelight Carol Service

The Christmas Eve Candlelight service was a time to pause and reflect.

A chance to focus on the heart of Christmas: Jesus, Light of the World, born in a stable in Bethlehem.

Cornerstone in Mission District was full for the first of it's two services. In the peaceful atmosphere of a darkened church lit by candles, the service was a blend of traditional and modern. The band played their own reworking of carols and children in their Christmas best sang heart-warmingly.

Pastor Terry led meditations, acknowledging the hubbub of festive preparation and for some the loneliness and family pressure that the season uniquely throws up. And the true meaning of Christmas: Jesus, Light of the World, bringing light into darkness. No life too messy that God cannot enter in.

As we knelt in adoration, as those first shepherds and Wise Men, a poem: ...'Majesty in the midst of the mundane. Holiness in the filth of sheep manure and sweat. Divinity entering the world on the floor of a stable, through the womb of a teenager and into the presence of a carpenter.' (Max Lucado)

Then the finale of Silent Night and the lighting of a candle for each person.

First Christmas Eve in San Fran

Our first Christmas Eve in San Fran! The day dawned bright and sunny.

We spent the morning sitting by a creek. Temperatures were officially 54 degrees in the shade but in a sheltered spot in the sun it felt more like the 70s, while people back home were shivering.

This was a Christmas Eve like no other. No huge tree with piles of presents beneath, no last-minute checking that all the Christmas fare is there, no final preparing of the home.

We are slaving over a hot wooden bench...and eating out!

By early evening the stores were closing but there were throngs of people spilling out clutching those 'last' presents. Union Square, too, was popular, camera flashes sparking into the night air. Perhaps many were tourists, capturing their pre-Christmas pics of the brilliant decorations.

With a quieter square, though, suddenly something struck me. The historic St Francis Hotel that dominates one end was in darkness. Not a Christmas light or decoration to be seen over its vast dark face. It stood St Scrooge! Lights of the world would be something of which its namesake would approve.

As we made our way onto Market Street, we glanced up. Two shadowy figures stood on the roof of the Westfield Mall dangling an enormous red 'Sale' sign over the side of Nordstrom.

With no sight or sound of Father Christmas and his reindeer. And those 'last' presents not yet wrapped or given.

English Roast Beef!

English Roast Beef was Martha Stewart's choice for this year's perfect Christmas Day dinner!

As American's do not have a traditional Christmas dish - turkey being The Bird for Thanksgiving - this was Martha's pick on her Christmas Special programme.

And she brought along an English chef to show how to cook it. Her chef had some different touches to what I would call our standard Sunday roast.

First, she rubbed a mustard mix into the top of the meat before cooking.

Second, she 'scored' the potatoes after lightly boiling them, but my mother taught me to shake them in the saucepan, which scuffs the surfaces all round and never fails to produce beautifully crisp potatoes.

Third, and this was the killer! she used the meat juices and fat to roast the potatoes.

Now I'm sure that this makes for very tasty potatoes but in our house, if I had to pour the meat juices onto the potatoes thereby robbing the gravy, there would be fireworks to rival Sydney harbour on New Year's Eve!!!!

No! No! No! A culinary faux pas, unless you're one of those people who don't like lashings of gravy!!!

The enormous Yorkshire puds, though - 'make sure the tin is piping hot' - would have drawn pleasure from any Northerner worth their 'by gum's.

And by the time she'd spooned the brussel sprouts around the glistening rack of beef, all we could do was bask in patriotic pride as this symbol of culinary excellence was paraded before
not just the citizens of San Francisco - but all America!

Monday, December 24, 2007




Tory MP Mark Pritchard has launched a campaign at Westminster against secularists, accusing them of taking Christianity out of Christmas! He calls it by the novel name of Christianophobia!

Quoted in the Daily Mail, he says: "I have never met a single Jew, Muslim, Sikh or Buddhist or person of any other faith who has told me of their objection to Christians celebrating Christmas."

It's a false, secular-driven proposition and a divisive one."

He also warns that secularists and the politically correct brigade are offending people of other faiths by using them as 'bogus cover' from which to attack Christian traditions.

He added: "Christ has been and always will be at the very heart of Christmas. Taking religion out of Christmas is like serving the Christmas turkey without stuffing."

He is right! If Christianity has to go from the national calendars of America and Britain, courtesy demands that other countries reciprocate, removing their religious festivals from public eye.

We could all be one global 'Happy Holiday!' It's a nonsense, of course.

'Happy Holidays' are in full swing here under the interpretation of the US Constitution. But at least in Britain you have a former PM who is a consecrated Roman Catholic, Brownie, who is a Son of the Cloth, and the Queen who is Defender of the Faith.

I expect to see Christmas fully back on the calendar for 2008.

And in the meantime we can send the politically correct brigade to India, China, Thailand, Israel and Saudi Arabia to continue their campaigning there...and wish them HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Christmas Toy Program and Food Bank

One of the great things about San Fran at Christmas is the high profile of charity. There are two particular charities that anyone new to the city cannot fail to notice: the San Francisco Fire Fighters' Toy Program and the San Francisco Food Bank.

Pictured are the vividly decorated barrels in the US Bank for staff to drop toys and food into. All around the city are barrels for new, unwrapped toys and food. At many staff Christmas parties, people are asked to contribute a gift.

The barrels are in public places also. One Saturday the fire service set up a fake snow pile outside Bloomingdales where for a donation children could have their photos taken in a snow fall. Snow is not something you otherwise see in a San Fran winter!!!!

The toy program is the oldest collection of it's kind in America. It began in 1949 with a few firemen generously repairing toys and bikes for 15 families and now involves over 300 firemen, volunteers included, giving over 200,000 toys to more than 40,000 needy children.

The Food Bank feeds 42,000 people at Christmas.

Both programs are not only for Christmas but run throughout the year. The firefighters help children including those who are in hospital, living in shelters for abused women and children, or made homeless through disaster.

The Food Bank is a safety net for up to 150,000 people living with the threat of hunger.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

University of California San Francisco

The prestigious UCSF (University of California San Francisco) School of Medicine is embroiled in controversy.Its dean and vice-chancellor, Dr David Kessler, has been sacked as a whistle-blower.

According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, Kessler claimed his annual budget was $18 million less than he had been promised when he was appointed in 2003. He alleged poor financial management, not embezzlement.

Two audits, one internal the other by independent accountants, found no evidence of financial irregularities.

Chancellor Michael Bishop wrote to the dean and apologized that during his recruitment he was not given an accurate picture of the funding that would be available for his department.

It is sad to see a great university involved in a spat of this kind.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays!

As Christmas approaches, I am finding the greeting of 'Happy Holidays' and the playing of songs like Frosty the Snowman in stores jangling on my nerves.

Not that I object to friendly assistants wishing me a 'Happy Holiday' or dislike Christmas songs. Rather it's a disoriented feeling of something being wrong.

The word 'Christmas' has vanished. So too have carols and you have to search hard for cards of Nativity scenes, as if they are a relic for grandma who can't cope with les jolies vacances.

Public Christmas trees are renamed 'holiday trees'.

The problem stems in part from the US Constitution with it's separation of church and State. It is argued that public use of the term 'Christmas' is tantamount to the government supporting Christianity.

But it also reflects the influence of political correctness.

Christianity gave Christmas to the world. It is time to reclaim The Day.

Happy Christmas, everyone!

Pooch Nativity

I have come across a card representing the Nativity scene with dogs: a small, shaggy white dog is baby Jesus and around it are dogs dressed as Mary and Joseph, shepherds, kings and a cow!

Much as I like dogs, I wonder if this is a trivialisation too far. If this were a Muslim festival and Allah and Muhammad appeared like this...

With 'Happy Holidays' effacing Christmas we are losing sense of the mystery and sacredness of the festival.

But is this card simply lighthearted and not to be taken seriously?

Please post your comments below...

Pooch Christmas!

Hollywood celebs with their toy-sized pooches are newspaper images only in the UK. But here in San Fran...

They may not be celebs, but San Franciscans love their dogs!

From fashionable handbag sized ones to large suitcase sizes, they are here. (more in a later blog)

But for now it's Christmas, and HAPPY CHRISTMAS POOCH is serious! Stores devote whole rows of cards to ones with doggie pics for devotees. I overheard - and I'm not making this up - a lady shopping with her child and dog proclaim... 'there are so many cards with pictures of dog loves shopping!'

There are Christmas tree ornaments and the pet boutique around the corner is selling toys and colourful coats including a Santa outfit. Yes, we saw one being worn last night.

I have to confess to succumbing... a card to Henry, King of Cannines, is in the post...

Click for pics

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Roads! That might seem a pretty boring topic especially at Christmas!

Not if you emigrate from a small Welsh city to the heart of San Fran.

Trust me, it's quite exciting!

Home: step out of the house and garden and stroll down a quiet cul-de-sac, waving to the pleasant neighbours.

Here: step out of the apartment complex and and face two major roads with 12 lanes between them and four sets of tram lines! I know, because I've counted!

Picture a child's painting of swirls and lines. Put cars and trams on them. Now try crossing!

There is a 'white man' to tell you when to cross and a countdown of the seconds left before the traffic spurts off. But that doesn't take into account right-hand and filter-left lanes that do their own things.

My will is assigned to a series of post-its on the back of the apartment door. In case I don't make it to Christmas...Happy Christmas everyone...and irreplacable memories!!!


Bloomingdales has many beautiful Christmas decorations for sale.

The store is in the Westfield mall and is their flagship West Coast store filling several floors.

Click for pics

Christmas at Westfield Mall and Castro

Westfield Mall in the heart of the city shopping area is full of dramatic displays of Christmas lights and decorations, and has the obligatory Santa's grotto!

We also spent a few minutes walking around the Castro neighbourhood capturing their contributions to the festive sesason.

Click here for pics

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas in the Hyatt Regency

A stunningly artistic Christmas display can be found in the Hyatt Regency Hotel (click for pics).

Icicle lights fill the cavernous atrium under which are a brilliant gold tree and model displays of winter village scenes, including the Original Snow Village owned by private collector Len Connacher.

Glass lifts gliding up and down have their roofs lit by red and green lights.

The atrium is recorded by the Guiness Book of World Records as the largest atrium lobby. It is
a treat to sit in the bar listening to live piano music and surveying the Christmas effects .

Macy's Trees 1

One of Macy's flagship stores is in San Fran. It is enormous and at Christmas has a Holiday Lane on the seventh floor where I have never seen so many decorated trees in one place!

Obviously the trees display ornaments for sale but they are themed and fun to see.

Here is a selection.

Christmas at Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf is the most popular tourist spot in the city.

It is on the Bay and full of novelty shops and restaurants. It is also a cable car destination and from where many of the ferries depart for the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the other side of the Bay. Famously, it is home to a seal colony.

In the Christmas pics, spot the octopus bush decked in red lights.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Name of Mohammad

I see that the name Mohammad is now the second most popular boy's name in Britain.

Surely therein lies the paradox for Islam: it's common use here and across Muslim countries reflects both respect for the Prophet Muhammad and tarnishes his name by association with paedophiles, rapists, murderers, wife-abusers and thieves.

Compare that with the outrage at teacher Gillian Gibbons naively allowing the name to be given to a teddy bear - an 'object' - that in Western culture personifies a child's friend and protector.

Wouldn't it be better for Muslims to preserve a name that is sacred to them by removing it from those who bring it into disrepute? Better still, ban it from common use so there can be no confusion.

Among Christians in Britain and America, there is a reverence for the name of Jesus. Once an ordinary boy's name - it is a 'modern' version of the Hebrew name Joshua - it's use has been instinctively halted. There is some use of it in Catholic countries but they wouldn't demand 40 lashes and up to six months imprisonment for familial use.

For the record, pictured is King Bearwick

Christmas Trees in San Fran

Happy Christmas tree viewing for today!

First for children, is the tree in the popular 'Hello Kitty' store in the Westfield mall, followed by a tree of blooms in Bristol Farms also in the mall.

A stunning rich red and gold display is at the US Bank on Montgomery Street while a tree of purple shimmers nearby in the Citigroup Center in Sansome Street.

Click for pics

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium

Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium is an enchanting film about a magic toy shop, which we went to see on Sunday.

It stars Dustin Hoffman as Mr Magorium, a 243-year-old toy shop owner, and Natalie Porter as Molly Mahoney, his assistant. Mr Magorium is ready to depart this life and he's trying to persuade the reluctant 'Mahoney' to take over.

Within the whimsical setting of a toy shop, the film has a surprising, gentle message that there is no fear in death and that every day of life should be made to count.

Mahoney's quest is to find her true goal. Her helper in the emporium is Eric, played by Zach Mills, a lonely but sparky child who finds a place in the world by working there. Of course there is a small drama in that the toy shop is losing money and Henry Weston, an accountant - Jason Bateman - is called in and almost sells it to a soulless woman who has no love for it!

One of the memorable clips is of Mr Magorium and Mahoney bouncing on mattresses in a bed store with all the pleasure of children!

Children will be delighted at the visual presentation of the toy shop with it's special effects, which is one of the strengths of the film, and the Willy Wonker-esque character of Mr Magorium. If you are fans of Natalie Portman and Dustin Hoffman, you will not be disappointed.

I found an interesting interview in the Daily Telegraph with Dustin Hoffman during which he reveals going through a difficult patch in his life.

Video clips of the film can be seen on Yahoo.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Christmas Trees

One of the great delights of San Fran at Christmas time is...Christmas trees!

The city glows with magnificent creations sparkling with thousands of lights and beautiful decorations.

Huge trees dazzle in the night air. Many twinkle in malls, stores, hotels and glass-fronted business foyers.

Lighting ceremonies are held for the main city trees with entertainment, Santa Claus and charity fund raising that attract thousands.

What may be commonplace for San Franciscans has the 'wow factor' for visitors.

In the run up to Christmas I will post pics. Today is Union Square - - and click on individual pics to enlarge, but see blog of 23 Nov for report of the lighting ceremony.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sex Blogs! Help!!!

It was an innocent activity. Or meant to be. I was sitting reading my own blogs. First one, and then the next one. The NEXT ONE!!!

My tool bar said: 'Next Blog' so I clicked...and onto my screen jumped a photo of two girls offering me 'sex and lovely fantasies' - they looked like young twenties on a night out - and an invitation from Sebastian for a live sex show via a webcam??*&^!!!! - sorry, guys, but no thanks, I'd rather shave my head.

As for the end of the blog, who knows, I didn't dare scroll any further!

One false move with the mouse, a startled involuntary reaction...and I'm into internet porn. If I can do it, so can inquisitive children and excitable teenagers. Forget Santa's stocking, it's so passe!

And forget police on bicycles! Where are the blog police on their laptops?!!

The danger of blogs for the uniniatiated - excuse my patronising tone, for in a nano second I have gone from junior school SATS to Master's Degree in Blog Awareness - is that once you click 'Next Blog' you exit your blog site and pitch randomly into any blog anywhere on the internet. It's a wild, wild world out there.

Unlike websites which appear with a title so that you can mostly gauge the contents before opening them, these blogs have no cover. They are there, open before you without the asking!

Don't forget, too, this crucial fact: overtired young mums and menopausal grannies may not have much of a memory. But your computer does. It records everything you see. Just for the record!

'But, your Honour, it was the tool bar! It made me do has no appeal...'

Try telling that to a Blog Aware judge!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Cosco Busan Repair

The Cosco Busan, the ship that rammed the Bay Bridge and caused the oil spill, is being repaired nearby at a pier in Mission Bay.

We discovered this and went for a stroll to see it. In dry dock next to other shipping casualties, its giant hull is patched with what looks like iron bars.

The good news according to CBS, is that 100 miles of Bay and beach have been cleaned and almost 400 birds have left their health and beauty spa and been released back to the wild. Fishing is also returning to normal.

In all, nearly 2,000 birds died at sea and of the 1,000 taken to the specialist centre 600 were unable to be treated successfully. The IBRRC - International Bird Rescue Research Center - are world experts in rescuing wildlife from oil spills.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Christmas CalTrain

A festively decorated CalTrain Holiday Train has spent two nights this weekend touring stations for charity for children.

The train has over 40,000 lights and as night falls it makes a spectacular sight with a giant Father Christmas, reindeer and gingerbread men, a candy cane, bells and candles amongst Christmas symbols hanging on its sides.

At each of the nine stops Santa Claus and Mrs Claus accompanied by Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, a toy soldier, a gingerbread man, a bear and elves mingle with the crowds and pose for photos with children. Musical entertainment is given by the Salvation Army and local choirs.

All is in aid of two appeals for new childrens' toys and books for the Salvation Army and the US Marine Corps Reserve's Toys for Tots Program. The marines also help to decorate the train which is sponsored by local businesses.

This is the seventh year of the train and over 25,000 toys and books have already been donated. It is a fun way of collecting for children who might not otherwise have much this Christmas.

For more pics:

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Secret Mirror!

We've all heard of secret mirrors! Well, now I've met one!

In the early stages of settling into San Fran we are living in the luxury of a furnished and 'serviced' apartment, which means I do not have to clean!

Our cleaners came yesterday while we were out and by the end of the evening we realised some unusual items had gone missing: an electric razor, two bottles of after-shave, a bottle of perfume and toothpaste!

I rang the company this morning with some temerity. After all, this is a reputable company whose cleaners leave you their names on a card.

'Please will you go into the bathroom,' said Eric, my friendly telephone adviser. I complied.

'Look at the mirror on the right. Now pull it!'

Aaaah!!! The secret of the mirror: a cupboard tucked into the wall!

'Don't worry,' he assured me. 'It happens all the time!'

Monday, December 3, 2007

Walnut Room Great Tree, Chicago

The Great Tree in the Walnut Room in Chicago is a tradition which thousands of people flock to see each Christmas. This was the centenary year of the 45ft tree which stands on the seventh floor of Macy's. (Pictured is a small replica in the San Fran store)

Martha Stewart was chosen to design it. She has revived a decoration of the mid-1800s, a kugel - German for 'ball' - but reproduced it in brilliant colours of silver, gold, green, turquoise, pink and red. Kugels shimmer down the tree in coloured layers. And with 15,000 lights it is, quite simply, dazzling!

Probably the brightest tree on the planet!

Gazing down at the tree from the eighth floor is an amazing experience and even though I think the kugels merge into the colour, the overall effect is stunning.

But behind the Walnut Room lies a most un-Christmassy tale. The store was Marshall Field's until it was sold and rebranded last year as Macy's flagship. And Chicagoans are outraged by the name change. For it is a unique Chicagoan emporium founded over 150 years ago by Marshall Field, with unsurpassed features and history of shopping innovation.

There is the domed Tiffany ceiling, Daniel Burnham fountain, massive granite pillars and two seven-ton multi-faced Great Clocks that hang outside on corners. Each Christmas animated displays fill the windows on State street, this year being the story of the Nutcracker ballet.

The motto 'Give the lady what she wants!' became an inspiration for shoppers worldwide as did money back guarantees, having a restaurant in a store, elevators and a bridal registry.

Now there is a protest campaign, locals are boycotting it and the Chicago Tribune reports a slump in profits.

But wasn't it obvious? As an annual visitor to the city, I lament the loss of Marshall Field's. Quite aside from the perception that Macy's are trampling on history, part of the allure of shopping whether to browse or buy is exclusivity, part is having somewhere different to shop.

Chicago is a world conference centre. Every November it hosts the largest conference in the world for radiologists and associated industries bringing 62,000 people into the city in a week.

Imagine what would happen in London to Harrods and Harvey Nicks if overnight these stores became Debenhams?!!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Darwin Exhibition

One of the great delights on a Chicago visit is to wander around the vast prestigious Field Museum, named after Marshall Field. It must be one of the biggest museums in the USA, and is famous for having Sue the dinosaur greet you in the atrium. Sue, named after the fossil hunter who discovered him/her, is the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found.

This autumn the special exhibitions were on Darwin, and Native American Indians and Eskimos which will be featured in my next blog.

Darwin was descended from a medical family, his grandfather being physician to King George the Third and his father a doctor and financial advisor. The young Darwin disliked school and having to learn Latin and Greek by rote, preferring to sit and read under the dining table! Even as a child he showed an interest in natural history.

Equally he disliked his father's choice for him of a medical degree at Edinburgh University, and so didn't study. His father, proclaiming his son a family disgrace, sent him instead to Cambridge to study theology to be an Anglican clergyman.

There he engaged in a competition of collecting beetles. His talents were spotted, he took an extra course in natural history and after completing his degree joined what turned out to be a five-year mapping expedition on HMS Beagle around South America. Darwin's role was to study the geology and animal and plant life.

The Darwins were an influential family and they married into the wealthy Wedgwoods of pottery fame. Darwin's father married Susannah, daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, although sadly she died when Darwin was eight-years-old. Darwin later married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and they had ten children.

For a man destined for the cloth - even though it was his father's choice - it is paradoxical that he devoted most of his life trying to disprove the notion of a Creator God, much to the dismay of his wife.

It was suggested in the exhibition that Darwin questioned his beliefs when his geological studies seemed to show that the earth had been formed well before Adam and Eve. His weakening faith finally petered out with the tragic death of their ten-year-old daughter, Annie.

Darwin spent the rest of his life dogged by ill-health and trying to explain how so many different species including man came to reside on this earth.

He decided that there is a link between all living creatures, a view from which his most controversial theory grew that we are sophisticated apes!

What is a shame about the exhibition, fascinating as it is, is that the museum presents Darwin's conclusions as 'the only scientific' theory on how life developed.

Darwin could never prove how life started and how different species originated.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Breast Cancer Bags

I went shopping today for a shoulder bag - and discovered a store in Westfield mall that not only sells attractive quilted bags but has pledged part of the profits of one of its designs to fund-raising for breast cancer.

The manager of the store told us that a target of £10 million has been pledged to an oncology department in Indiana, where the company is based. Over a few years £7 million has been reached.

An undreamt of sum by UK standards! One company donating to one project!!!

The company name is Vera Bradley and the charity design has elephants and petal shapes on a black background. The elephants are outlined in pink with pink back covers and the petals are pink. A symbolic pink ribbon is tied to a side zip.

Just think how much money could be raised in the UK if major retailers dedicated one of their products to cancer care or research.

International Car Show

The 50th annual International Auto Show has been held in the Moscone Convention Center.

We not only strolled around the gleaming metal but were able to sit in many of the newest and top car models. What caught my eye were the black beast of a Lexus sedan, a convertible hard-top Jaguar and of course the Hummer aka Horatio of CSI!

The power of fashion being evident: troop vehicles customised with comfy interiors for taking the children to school and shopping. But you never know when you might need to ford a two-feet deep stream across your front garden or mount that 16-inch step. Like the ten wise virgins, it is best to be prepared.

Other models we could only gaze at from behind a cordon. Like the sleek Audi R8 - at 187 mph the fastest car Audi has produced - the Lincoln - America's Rolls Royce - or the 2008 Jaguar sedans XJ and XKR.

The doyen of Jaguar, the XJ, sat quietly on the carpet while the XKR was presented on a dais with music chosen to induce a sense of awe. But even though these cars are fabulous - the XJ has a sophisticated Bluetooth telephone system and the XKR has the most powerful brakes of any production Jag - there is one crucial difference: the XJ has the traditional sculptured silver jaguar in flight over the bonnet while the XKR has a badge of a jaguar's head fastened flat against the front grille.

That leaping Jaguar was always the symbol of aristocracy. If I had to pay that much, I wouldn't leave the showroom without that jaguar!

There were also Lotus Sport cars in lime green and bright orange - for those who dare not NOT be seen?! - and a wonderful gull-wing doored Lamborghini though slate grey would not be my colour choice.

But the show had other interesting facets: the rally cars on display, an urban car about the size of a motorbike for one person and a major feature on alternative fuels with an interactive display on the subject by Toyota.

It was an enlightenment to see how much work is being done to find alternative fuels: liquefied propane gas (LPG) that is already being used by public vehicles including the San Francisco Police Department; electric vehicles; natural gas vehicles; hybrid vehicles ie a combination of electric and gas; biodiesel,including chip-fat oil!; and hydrogen fuel cell, though this is expensive. Hybrid cars seem the most viable to date.

Alternative fuels alter the performance of a car, which is what the research is focusing on, and can be more economical. Of course this is where the marketing is more difficult: image of speed and power versus a plodding 'saving the planet'.

A brilliant technological innovation we stumbled across, though, was a computer system for providing an emergency service and directions for drivers while on the road. Called OnStar, it links you to a call centre at the push of a button by the front windscreen mirror, but also has an automatic alert system if your car is in a moderate to severe crash or airbags are used.

Advisors will also relay messages for you and can locate the car if it is stolen. No doubt it costs, but it seems a terrific safety precaution for female drivers or anyone who has to regularly travel on lonely or unfamiliar roads.

So overall it was a great show but California has limitations on emissions, which may be the reason why certain cars were conspicuous by their absence. Whatever the reason, cars like Ferrari were absent. And Aston Martin.

I had gone to the show like a homing pigeon ready to alight on the latest DB... But there was no landing in sight!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Tree Lighting Ceremony, Union Square

The tree-lighting ceremony for the principle Christmas tree in San Fran was held tonight. Thousands of people gathered in Union Square for entertainment throughout the afternoon and to see the lights switched on at 6.30 pm. The 85 ft tree is presented by Macy's as a gift to the city and is covered in thousands of lights and red and gold ornaments. Santa Claus was there of course.

This beautiful tree, though, is also used as a fund-raising event with donors sponsoring a light for $10. The money raised goes to the palliative care programme at UCSF Children's Hospital which provides both medical care and emotional support to families with over $205,000 given last year.

Around the square, Macy's, Saks of Fifth Avenue, Tiffany's, and William Sonoma were also lit up with stunning displays of lights in the shapes of Christmas wreaths, trees and snowflakes, while Nieman Marcus displayed a huge tree in their glass-fronted foyer.

Surviving Black Friday

Today is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when shoppers storm the stores on what is called the first shopping day of Christmas.

JC Penney opened their doors at 4 am and Macy's at 6 am. We browsed around Macy's where there were great bargains. But Thanksgiving and Black Friday shopping is provoking controversy.

Firstly, there is a row over the trend for stores to open on Thanksgiving Day itself. Kmart, Gap and Old Navy were among chains that opened throughout the Day itself, and CompUSA, the computer store, opened at 9 pm to midnight enticing shoppers with bargains and free pumpkin pie.

Then there are the dawn openings that don't give people time to recover from the Day, plus scepticism over the bargains on offer. 'While stocks last' is the key phrase. Stores are using 'doorbuster' promotions to lure in shoppers but sometimes only sell a few of the items at the advertised heavily-slashed prices.

What do Americans think of it? Many on-line commentators see the commercial drive as a threat to family life, and many workers in the retail industry agree. They do not want to work over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

However, there are some people with unhappy family lives or no family who would prefer to be in the shops, and one employee said he needed the overtime.

Out on the streets of San Fran today 'elves' placarded 'Buy Nothing' in an annual protest against the corporations. And a group linked to Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping promoted a film 'What would Jesus Buy' and leafleted shoppers to persuade them to buy from stores that don't 'damage people or the planet.' Amongst stores named in their 'sweatshop hall of shame' were American Eagle, Guess Tommy Hilfiger, Toys-R-Us, Disney and Wal-Mart.

Of course there were many genuine bargains around today and we all enjoy shopping.

But retail blackmail that offers extra bargains if you 'shop minute...' and destroys national days set aside for family and Christian traditions need to be opposed. If it is happening here, it won't take long before the same pressure will be felt in the UK.

After all, what is the point of the great countdown to Christmas if there is no Christmas. Stuff the turkey, in the rude sense. I'm headed for the till.

So you see that shopping in San Fran can be fraught. But still, the Christmas decorations are beautiful!

First Thanksgiving in San Fran

Our first Thanksgiving was a lovely peaceful day.

We walked along the Bay to a restaurant where we sat upstairs in the sun overlooking the water. After turkey and mash and pumpkin pie we did an ambulatory Turkey Trot onto Fisherman's Wharf and beyond to Ghiradelli - of chocolate fame - Square, and back again! About eight miles in all!!

Like Christmas Day at home the roads and waterway were much quieter, though it was interesting to see that Safeways and Walgreens, the pharmacy, were open. Hopefully this is not setting a trend for UK supermarkets.

Small restaurants and businesses were closed but the nearer we drew to Fisherman's Wharf the more it resembled a normal tourist day. Even the Bay ferries were operating a limited service. And there were quite a few people who obviously were not slaving over a giant bird but were spending the day walking, cycling or rollar blading along the Bay.

But strangely we could find no news programmes on our TV channel package - albeit a reduced selection - in the evening, never mind any mention of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. And a trawl of CNN's website drew a blank. It would have been good to have seen them publicly acknowledged.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Today is Thanksgiving Day, celebrated like a British Christmas with family gatherings and a turkey and pumpkin pie feast.

It's origins are a mix of harvest thanksgivings celebrated by the Pilgrims in the early 1600s, thanksgiving for settlers' safe arrivals, Puritan prayers of thanksgiving to God, and thanksgivings for rain in a time of drought and military victories. Abraham Lincoln was the first to decree the fourth Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving Day.

An entertaining video of this is on the home page of the history website.

In the run up this week cookery programmes like Emeril have been showing how best to cook the bird and accompaniments - interestingly potatoes are mashed not roasted - and shops are selling turkey-themed table ware.

In San Fran, Boudin's the bakery has turkey-shaped bread and there are fun turkey races usually at Ocean Beach but this year because of the oil spill in Golden Gate Park.

Like our Boxing Day, there are also football matches and in New York is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Thanksgiving marks the countdown to Christmas, which is reflected on TV with the classic 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street.

With all of the excitement it is easy to forget that this is a country at war as in our little part of the city and on news programmes before the day, there has been little sign of it. No doubt
there are thousands of families who are praying that they will be able to be thankful that their loved one is alive.

Passports and Bank Accounts!

Gordon Bennett!!!! Pardon the pun as my head crashed through the glass-topped table. Brownie has lost the personal and bank account details of 25 million people on child benefit. Well, not Brownie directly but someone in the merged HM Revenue and Customs department that he set up in 2005.

Two computer discs containing the info were sent by a junior minister unregistered by courier TNT to the National Audit Office...and they never arrived. Early reports point the finger of blame at the junior for downloading in breach of rules and sending unencrypted discs without postal security. But later reports intimate that the unfortunate junior was following the orders of a senior minister who ignored requests to desensitize the discs and is being made a scapegoat in a cost-cutting chaotic department where other serious errors are now emerging.

Which brings me to the related security issue of passports. And terrorism. As part of our emigration process, we went to the American embassy in London for our visa stamps. After completion of paperwork we were directed to a courier service working within the embassy to arrange for the return of our stamped passports. We signed for everything on a Friday morning and the passports arrived to a work address in Wales on Monday morning where proof of ID was given before handover.

A secure courier service dedicated to the return of passports courtesy of the American embassy.

Take British passports. When one applies for a new passport they are sent by the Passport Office in the mail, and even if by registered post - I can't remember if our passports have in the past had to be signed for - their safety is not guaranteed. I remember the heart-rending story of a family who sent their precious photos going back over several generations by special delivery to a company to digitally scan them. And they never arrived. A whole batch including, if I remember correctly, wedding photos, vanished.

To any terrorist doing his homework on the net, may I point out that there are freebies to be had in postbags. Only 33 days to Christmas? Seize the hour. Today is the day.

Ferry to Sausalito

On one of the Blue & Gold Fleet bay cruisers we crossed to Sausalito. Past Alcatraz and Angel Island State Park, docking briefly at Tiburon and on to Sausalito.

Sausalito, Spanish for 'little willow grove', is a picturesque, waterfront town of some 7,000 population, sitting at the end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Its main street is full of tourist shops, art galleries and little eateries. We chose Horizons restaurant.

Named after the ranch of an early 19th Century English settler, Sausalito housed a major shipbuilding company for the United States Navy in the Second World War and today is noted for art, presenting an annual art festival over Labor Day weekend.

For many, the fun is to bike across the Golden Gate Bridge - cycle-hire for tourists - and return by ferry. The ferry trip over is about 40 mins but back direct by catamaran on water turned pink in the late afternoon sun was about 10 mins.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Oily Birds

Our first morning and we trundled in the sun on the N line tram across the city to Ocean Beach on the Pacific Coast. But as we neared the road to the dunes and surfers' beach, yellow ticker tape and a volunteer official barred our way. Thousands of gallons of oil from a container ship had spilled into San Francisco Bay the previous week and some of it had been swept by the tides round the coast. Now a major rescue of wild birds and clean up operation of the shoreline was underway round the spot that in summer is the breeding ground of the protected Snowy Plover.

We could walk, we were told, at the northern end of the beach but warned to be careful of the oil. As we walked along, we passed a clutch of white protective-suited Coast Guards and saw the helicopters overhead. We learnt on a news programme that volunteers so concerned at the slow rate of clear up had invaded the beach. The Coast Guards in surrender hastily trained them up to help.

We are here

After an eleven-plus hour flight extended by headwinds and the need to circle the city while waiting for a landing slot, we arrived in San Francisco! It was 10 pm UK time, but 2 pm on our new clocks. Passports in hand, we approached the immigration official with some trepidation. After all, this was not a holiday but hopefully an entrance that would allow us to live in America with my husband working and myself gloriously titled as an 'accompanying spouse'! Aka a legally-pronounced 'lady of leisure'!!!

We have all read of complaints of travellers affronted by immigration officers. But when our turn came, we were met with polite, friendly interest as our visas were checked and paperwork explained, and in a few minutes we were ushered through.

Hi San Fran, we're here!