Do not call it Frisco. Or San Fran. Especially not in the presence of locals. They will sneer at you, shun you, ban you from sharing the pavement with them.
You’ve got to love guide books for their completely subjective advice on how to get by in a new place (thanks Lonely Planet for trying to convince us to call our soon-to-be home town ‘Toronuh’ when we prepped for our arrival six years ago, and which is exactly how it’s pronounced according to no one). In a city that simply oozes nonchalant cool, you hardly want to stand out as a flaming newbie. But let’s be honest; I’m lazy, and four syllables is a lot to ask of anyone, so I went with San Fran. Shame be damned.
We hit up this beautiful west-coast icon as a three-day stopover on a visit back to New Zealand. We figured it would be a sort of pre-holiday holiday, helping to us ease into a Zen-like holiday state, with the bonus of getting to experience a city we’d wanted to check out for years.
And it certainly didn’t disappoint. San Fran’s palette of highly saturated colours was an immediate contrast to the greys, browns and dirty whites of the Toronto winter we’d left behind. I couldn’t believe how perky the sunshine made me (that, and being at the kick-off of a six-week vacation, of course). So, with our pasty bodies greedily soaking up as much vitamin D as we could, we happily checked out the sights and sounds of this still-swinging city, looking as foolishly tourist-like as possible and undoubtedly not fitting in.
But here’s the deal. While no one in San Francisco gives a flying f*ck if you’re a tourist, if you fancy trying to blend in a bit more convincingly, feel free to use our novice blunders as a sort of anti-guide to conformity. In other words, here’s what not to do if you want to pass as a local.
1) Do not desperately cover your ears with your hands as you ride the BART train, aka the Screaming Hellride, from San Francisco Airport to downtown. It started as a timid screeching, and quickly progressed to a deafening roar. Yet our fellow riders stared vacantly ahead with expressions that gave no hint of the ear-bleeding that threatened. I, too, tried to act unphased but soon gave up and adopted the pose of a five-year-old ignoring a parent. How do the locals survive this 20-minute sound torture? Maybe they wear earplugs. Maybe they’re deaf.
2) Do not stop halfway up one of San Fran’s famous painfully inclined streets, bent over, hands on knees, heaving for air. It goes without saying that all San Franciscans must be super fit. They’d have to be, with the crazytown up-and-down streets they have to traverse each day. We loved the novelty of rediscovering forgotten calf muscles at first, but it didn’t take long for our extreme lack of fitness to become embarrassingly obvious. Not helping the situation: the spritely 20-something jogging uphill past us, all bouncy ponytail, healthy glow and arms laden with groceries.
3) Do not sway uncontrollably on the Muni trolley buses — despite having a firm grip on a nearby pole — and bash your bags/camera/map into the faces of seated passengers. Clearly a skill developed early in the lives of Bay City residents, the ability to balance on these rickety buses was not one we picked up on our short visit. Apologies to the many riders who involuntarily got up close and personal with my bulky, angular possessions.
4) Do not stroll merrily along the seediest downtown streets at 8.30am, before the work & tourist crowd arrive, with shiny cameras a’swinging, and end up smack bang between two homeless shelters. Boosted by a delicious cup of morning coffee and the eagerness of two tourists on the go, we took a left turn, crossed the street, and quickly found ourselves getting the stink eye from some shifty locals. Needless to say we hightailed it out of there to the safety of the main shopping drag.
5) Do not stop to take photos of the Painted Ladies in Alamo Park, like the approximately 45 other tourists doing the exact same thing. Instead, act like a true San Franciscan and flop down on the grass, bike sprawled next to you, for a spot of sun soaking on your lunch break. Although, if you’re like me, getting a snap of the vista made famous by 80s-90s classic sitcom Full House (if you’re of that generation) makes a pretty quintessential SF souvenir, so at least take the pic then hit the grass. Job done.