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!