California Dreaming Part 1

8th September 2018

Montalivet Les bains, Aquitaine, France

Amy and I are still sunning ourselves and generally going nowhere so today’s travelogue covers a few old memories from the mid 1990s of travel in northern California. I’ve been to California a number of times both in a corporate and private capacity but always on business of one sort or another.

Tomorrow I’ll endeavour to cover some of my times from the same era in Los Angeles and southern California.

My first visit to the world’s 5th largest economy in it’s own right (!!) was in 1995 with several more trips to follow in the second half of the 90’s, all in a corporate capacity. I went there a few times in the early noughties too but by then as a privateer.

Below, then, some events from those corporate times that I can still recall:

I first visited California in grand style. I had a round the world business class ticket, courtesy of my corporate masters and for the first leg of the journey, westwards out of London Heathrow to San Francisco, I was upgraded to first class. Quite an experience, I have to say - It was the ‘shortest’ 13 hour flight I’ve ever known.

That was 1995 and in those days back in ‘steerage’ or even business class you got to watch a film on a big screen as and when the airline deemed to show it and you ate from a set menu at fixed and specific times. In first class, however, you watched whatever current movie you wanted to watch from a choice of about 20 contemporary titles, whenever you wanted to watch it. You ate and drank when you wanted to eat and drink and chose from an extensive a la carte menu and impressive wine list. Best of all, you slept when you wanted to sleep on a full length couch with proper sheets and fluffy pillows!

The cost of my fully flexible round the world business class ticket back then was about 3,500 Pounds and a first class return to San Francisco was just about exactly double that. An interesting experience, for certain sure, but not one I would like to have paid for out of my own pocket!

I recall I was flying to San Francisco to go to nearby San Jose for a brief stay but just exactly what the reason was I can’t now recall - something mind-numbingly corporate is all I can say for certain about it.

I remember I immediately very much liked the desert climate. Dry air, about 25 degrees daytime temps in clear blue skies and very cool nights, sweater required in the evenings after sundown. I don’t know about you but I always sleep far better in a nice cool bedroom than a stinking hot one?

I hired a car after my corporate business was concluded and drove up the coast to San Francisco and thence over the famous Golden Gate Bridge where I stopped on the northern side to gaze down at Alcatraz Island in the distance. It sounds interesting but it wasn’t really. The bridge was, well, a big road bridge painted in, I’m guessing, zinc-oxide paint so was actually just a great big orange steel edifice of not particularly inspiring design and Alcatraz was an obscure dot on the horizon.

However, the trip back into San Francisco was rather more interesting. As I entered the city proper I drove by a parking lot next to a bar where two large, muscular, men in their prime had their arms wrapped around each other’s necks and their respective tongues eagerly exploring each other’s throats.

Today, I am well acclimated to and comfortable with same sex relationships but back then, to me, it was really quite a sight to behold, particularly in a public place. In my lifetime, homosexuality was a prisonable offence until I was nearly 20 years of age and such an early life stigma had left me, even two decades later, with it’s inevitable legacy.

We’ve all seen movies and TV shows set in San Francisco so know that the bay area has a matrix of incredibly steep and long streets regularly crisscrossed with other streets running at 90 degrees to them, but no movie or TV show can quite prepare you for the experience of actually driving on them.

Going up was one thing but coming down is something else entirely. At the very top of the hill the bottom looks a helluva long way away and, most disconcertingly, as the car you are driving nudges towards the start of the descent the immediate horizon simply vanishes and it feels distinctly as if you are about to drive over a sheer cliff! Repeat the experience at each and every intersection to the bottom.

You do eventually get used to it but those hills are really, really, really steep and if they ever get a frost or ice out there then I simply can’t imagine what they would be like to drive down!

The bay area is really charming with it’s low-rise clapperboard architecture and famous trolley cars and if I was compelled to live in a city then San Francisco would not be a bad choice.

From San Francisco I continued to fly west to Hong Kong for refuelling and thence on to London via an extended stopover in Singapore. An interesting experience to fly continually ‘west’ and eventually end up back exactly where you started. We all know the world is a globe because that is what we are taught but to actually experience that fact at first hand somehow really hammers it home into one’s consciousness - and, furthermore, one begins to realise just what a small, fragile and finite resource our precious planet really is!

One last vignette from that round the world flight worth mentioning was the landing at Hong Kong. In 1995 Hong Kong was (just) still in British control and also still enjoying the unique thrill that the old city based airport had offer. Hong Kong airport, today, is located on a purpose built man-made island some 20km along the coast but back then it was still under construction.

As a ‘closed’ British colony from the China mainland, Hong Kong never had very much space with which to develop it’s bustling infrastructure, hence it’s famous high rise waterfront skyline which somehow had to find space to accommodate an airport capable of receiving Boeing 747s.

The answer was a ‘dog-leg’ flightpath approach. Imagine you are sitting at a window seat of a hulking great 747, having just flown the mighty Pacific Ocean and you are now on the final approaches to Hong Kong.

You are flying just a tad faster than ‘stall’ speed and not at any great height, in fact you are substantially lower than the tops of residential tower blocks that are looming really rather close to the end of the wing tips either side of your plane - so close you can clearly see in some detail a Chinese family eating a meal on a balcony. Suddenly and rather unexpectedly the plane does a 90 degree turn to the right and you are practically looking down the throat of the next Chinaman you see munching his noodles in his apartment living room!

And then in the very next moment you are on the runway and taxiing to the stand, safely down on the ground!

The old Hong Kong airport was basically located at the end of a narrow 'L' shaped corridor between shoulder-to-shoulder high-rise residential blocks and one helluva place to fly a 747 in and out of. Apparently, only senior pilots with a couple of decades plus experience were allowed to land and take off there. I never heard of a bad accident occurring but, my god, the potential for one was simply awesome!

I wish now, looking back, that I had got off the plane back then and spent some time in Hong Kong as it seems unlikely I will ever get the chance to go there again.

As usual, I was in a hurry to get to Singapore to bale out my old Danish ‘friend’ Morten Nielsen who at that time was holed up with another Dane in a Singapore hotel unable to check out as their business had just failed and they didn’t have enough money to pay their substantial room bills.

An offence still punishable, at that time, by the birch in Singapore!

Minneapolis Memories

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