2016 was dawning and another groundbreaking trip was in the making, this time to Sunnyvale in California. "Yahoo!", I thought. I’d been wanting to go to California ever since I heard the tune "California" by Manfred Mann's Earth Band, all those years ago. More than any other, this song got me hooked, probably because of its association with a particularly interesting period in my life, so when the occasion arose to travel to Sunnyvale, via San Francisco, I jumped at it.
Once again the reason for going there was work and while the conditions were different from previous business trips to the US or Shanghai, a voyage is a still voyage. A journey into the unknown always stimulates me even if it means hours spent cooped up in a big bird on a trip during which anything can ...and sure enough did happen.
As soon as the trip was signed off I started making arrangements and remembering lessons learnt from previous trips, e.g. avoiding long stopovers in US airports and definitely US east coast airports because being winter the US east coast in winter always means flight cancellations or re-ROUTING* to other airports, I booked a direct flight, Munich to San Francisco, with Lufthansa because European Airline in-flight services are so much better.
*NB: said the American way, route takes on a different sense for a Brit.
Travel day arrived and with bags packed I kissed the wife goodbye, made my way to Munich’s Franz-Josef-Strauss International Airport where, after the usual formalities, I'd board the big bird (an A340-400) direct to San Francisco, except that this time, the formalities weren't quite "as usual". This time…
- - I had downloaded the Airline's App before hand and had been regularly checking the flight status to see if everything was OK.
- - I had checked in 24 hours prior to travelling and just need to drop my baggage off, I need to look into automating that too
- - I had also booked the seat just to make sure I got the one I wanted and not the last one left over, something I’d learnt to do since my trip to Houston a few years previously.
- - I had downloaded the e-ticket onto my Smartphone and just needed to show the QR code and flight details on the phone when checking in then when going through the security check & customs and... cherry on the icing:
- - On passing through the boarding gate I flashed the QR code on my phone against the IR terminal and watched the gate agent nod her head in approval. Now, if isn’t that an improvement?
For safety sake, I had also printed out the e-ticket, charged my phone before leaving and procured a power charger unit just to be extra, extra sure there were no surprises at the precise moment I needed my phone the most, i.e. at the boarding gate!
...Smart technology, I'm all for it but as long as the "Internet of Things" (IoT) is still memed as the "sh-IoT" I will always have a physical backup ready… and so long as there are malware and security issues I won't be buying a Smart Pressure Cooker anytime soon, even less one at $599.)
After a late lunch at an Asian food counter and a trip to the bookstall for the now traditional copy of Nat Geo, I boarded the Lufthansa Airbus A340 – 400 for San Francisco and settled into my aisle seat. Without thinking, I raised my hand to the overhead console wanting to open and swivel the ventilator nozzle in my direction for that now traditional blast of fresh air but didn’t make contact. Looking up I saw the ventilator nozzle was missing. Feeling a tightening in my throat and pearls of perspiration lining my forehead like, well, pearly beads of perspiration, I was just about to press the button for the flight attendant when I saw a fine mist coming from the wall panels.
Breathing in deeply, I started relaxing. I was sitting in an airplane that had been upgraded to 21st Century comfort standards and that the entire cabin was in fact, well… air conditioned. Once I got over my initial bemusement I realized that the ambient temperature was even quite agreeable, no doubt those sensitive to air conditioning would soon be reaching for their cardigans and blankets but for the moment, I was happy and that was all that counted.
Once aloft, lunch was either the inevitable “Chicken ala something” or “Pasta al something”. Apparently, there is a very good reason why chicken is almost always on the menu and in general, I love chicken, I eat it most Sundays. Really, I don't have a problem with chicken but when I embark on a journey to some far away destination (far away in the literary, if not the literal sense) the experience starts on the plane, and why not with the food.
Lunch over and with the pre-lunch beer and the Merlot with the meal starting to kick in, it was time for a nap. Airlines recommend that you stow your carry-on baggage under the seat in front of you. I’m afraid I can’t follow that recommendation because at 1m86 for +100Kilo I need my space. It’s already bad enough eating meals hunched over the tablet like a bear in a bird cage, I need to spread my legs out under the seat in front of me to find any semblance of comfort in what appears to be, with each flight, an even more cramped space between the seats… and then it happened! On luxuriously stretching my legs I turned my left foot inwards and felt a searing pain up my left leg. It seems I had twisted a nerve or a muscle in the foot’s arch.
On landing at San Francisco I was torn between pain and exhilaration, pain from the twisted muscle in the left foot and exhilaration at finally being in San Francisco, a feeling heightened by the fact that it was still only 7.45PM in San Francisco in spite of having left Munich some 10 hours earlier, at 3.15PM.
Sunnyvale is a fair way away from San Francisco so the next step was the hire car. At the hire car section, it was a case of “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” and the counter with the most sympathetic looking agent behind it. Recalling the time I hired a compact car at Houston, and driving more than the budgeted 400 miles allowance, I opted, this time, for a middle range model, with GPS and Tollway fees included, automatic transmission, comprehensive mileage and sufficient headroom and chose… a Volkswagen Passat sedan. I had come all this way, to the land and the city of flashy gas guzzlers, cool cruisers and mythical car chases only to choose a peoples’ car…
And yes, I was satisfied with my choice. OK, it wasn’t a Mustang, a Charger, a little red Corvette or Bumblebee but it was comfortable and that was all I needed for the next seven days.
Drawing on my experiences with Automatics, GPS and Tollways in Houston I accessed the Interstate 101 for a 60-minute drive to Sunnyvale. Blending into the traffic I thought I'd stand out in my "People's" car but was surprised to see just how many people drive “Foreign” cars i.e. German, French or Japanese sedans. Then, just as I was wondering what had happened to all those flashy gas guzzlers I heard the throaty growl of a V12 drive by and felt that the cosmic balance had been restored.
I was also astounded to see the quantity of Teslas gliding past in the car pool/e-car lane. In Europe seeing one is a big deal, in California there are so many you start to ignore them after a whileÖ sweet cars, all the same.
As a visiting European, if you're not used to it, the notion of size and distance in the States is not only different, it can be overwhelming.
I’d got to the hotel I’d booked easily enough, thanks to the car’s GPS, checked in and asked about food. Not having a restaurant of its own the receptionist suggested a McDonalds “Just around the corner”.
I’m not a fan of McDonald's or fast foods in general, unless it’s something original but I was hungry, tired and my foot was aching again after a soothing 60 minute drive down the 101 so a hamburger, fries and a Pepsi would be fine, except that “Just around the corner” turned out to be a little further away than anticipated, as was the office I was to go to on the Monday morning.
Back at the hotel, a budget inn, the room, more of a studio than a room, was fully equipped with TV, coffee maker, computer connectivity, a fridge, 2 microwave ovens and an ironing board. What more could I ask for? Oh, yes, a king-size bed, version USA!
Sunday morning dawned and as the saying goes "A good day starts with breakfast", so after the obligatory cup of American Roast coffee from the room's coffee maker it was time for breakfast. Taken in the company of some very big, gruff, polite but hungry military personnel it was a case of, "When in Rome..." so for want of something consistent, such as fried bacon, hash browns, the sort of thing you expect of an American breakfast, I settled for a breakfast of peanut buttered bagels, pancakes, processed cheese, orange juice and coffee, lots of coffee.
Breakfast finished, it was time to do some shopping and reconnaissance and after getting some basic supplies, water, a bandage for the foot and some pills for the hint of jetlag and pain I set off to look for the NetApp Campus.
> Driving around Sunnyvale and its surroundings was both instructive and a revelation and what surprised me was that Sunnyvale has a light train service. Just why this should be surprising is perhaps difficult to explain except that it wasnít what I expected in a town like Sunnyvale. A check on the Santa Clara VTA website, however, confirmed that, barring Sunnyvale's old city centre, it actually covers quite a distance and connects outlying areas to some of Silicon Valleyís legendary names such as Cisco, Yahoo, NetApp, Google.
But if vagabonding around Sunnyvale was fun, looking for, and finding Downtown Sunnyvale was an anticlimax. It was a case of looking for the right turning or missing it completely and landing up in Santa Clara. Perhaps that's exaggerating but driving from my hotel down North Mathilda Avenue, I was never sure which turning to take at first and I only found it after typing in the name of some shop and studiously following the GPS' instructions.
Once there, I wasn't sure what to expect. The centre is new or recent and even the attraction of the celebrated Murphy Avenue district was lost on me. To be fair, my foot was hurting so for one who usually likes a good walk the tour of the “Old” city centre was limited to 2 walks, 1) down South Murphy Avenue then turning right, at the rail track along West Evelyn; right and right again back up South Sunnyvale Ave to the multi-storey parking on W. Washington and 2) a shopping tour of “Target”.
If thereís one American institution that fascinates me itís Walmart. Like a lot of people, Iíve seen the Internet memes, gifs and videos of people shopping in a Walmart but going there is something else. Come for the groceries and leave with a coffee set, a lawnmower or a pair of leopard skin yoga pants.
The next stop on the agenda was Walmart for some essentials, water, bandage, Advil, food... I donít know what I was expecting or how they classify the store in Sunnyvale, e.g. Neighbourhood Market or Discount Store but it was big and had everything and in quantities you just donít see in Europe.
It wasnít just the quantity but the range, variety, category, and size as well. Take milk for example, plain ordinary milk. In Germany, you'd go to the discounter and pick up a litre Tetra Pak, choosing between the 1,5% fat and 3% fat milk. In the Walmart, theyíve got all that and moreÖ thereís Whole Milk; Partly Skimmed Milks; Skim Milk; Raw or Unpasteurized Milk, Low FatÖ and Lactose-free milk, which come in either Gallons (3.78litres) and Quarts or 32floz (both 0.94 litre), did I miss something? The choice is enormous and that"s just in the Neighbourhood Market store.
Apart from the impressive choice of milk, the abundance of strawberries, pineapples, melons, oranges and peaches was amazing and although I couldn't say if were homegrown or imported from Mexico a quick conversion from Dollars to Euro confirmed that they were a lot cheaper than in Europe.
Another interesting fact is that, unlike in Europe, catering for "Singles" is serious business. On entering the deep freeze section I was amazed to see the variety of goods destined for "Singles" and I donít mean a pack here or a tray there I mean whole freezer units offering the same range, variety and category as for families and at prices as favourable or as comparable, as opposed to the inevitable markup youíd expect from the manufacturer for the extra effort of producing smaller volume packagings.
Changing alley, I wandered past textiles, clothes, household articles, toys, electronics and multimedia before I eventually found the toiletry section. So far everything Iíve described can be found in European super/hypermarkets. Where Walmart and other US super/hypermarkets differ from their European counterparts is that they also have a chemistís section, with a pharmacy for collecting prescription medication.
I quite literally didnít need to go that far because the shelves leading up to the pharmacy had what I'd come for, a special ankle/sole bandage for my aching left foot and some of Dr. Scholl's Pain Relief inner soles. I continued walking around the shelves stocked with para-pharmaceutical goods, vitamins, energy boosters, condoms, gels, cremes, lotions, syrups and pastilles and stopped. There, in comparable quantities, range, variety and category as milk where all the Acetaminophen, Tylenol, Ibuprofen and Advil you could ask for. What amazed me is that if you stop at a pharmacy in Germany and ask for Paracetamol, stored behind the counter, the pharmacist will give you one packed of circa 24 tablets. In Walmarts you can load your shopping trolley with as many tubes of Advil as you want and nobody cares. A tube of 50 was suffucient for me, I didn't want airport customs going through my bags.
In between work sessions I drove around Sunnyvale to see what it offered in the way of food and shopping. Not a lot of shopping got done and certainly not for clothes, I intentionally skipped Macy’s because, coming from Europe and barring jeans, why buy American clothes when the British, French and Italian fashions were closer to hand at home.
Same for the food. There are lots of choices but itís everything you can find anywhere else. Perhaps itís because I didnít have a host to guide me around Sunnyvale as I had in Houston or Shanghai that I probably missed a lot of good addresses but thatís another story and my eating experience in Sunnyvale was limited to either one of the numerous fast foods or by purchasing takeaway from Walmart, Safeway and Co, which because of a wide variety of Asian, Italian, Tex/Mex or simply American, in the end, wasnít a bad alternative.
The only exception to a rather bland culinary experience was a meal organized by work colleagues at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Milpitas called DishDash. It was a nice restaurant and air-conditioned. The meal was nice, atmosphere lively but not noisy and the staff extremely friendly. Unfortunately, the experience was somewhat spoilt by the fact that, thinking a GPS is all knowing, none of my hosts saw fit to guide me to the restaurant in Milpitas or explain that there were 2 DishDash restaurants, one in Sunnyvale and one in Milpitas.
Did I miss out on anything while I was there? You bet! I missed out on eating seafood in San Francisco, or in Sunnyvale for that matter, and I certainly missed eating the speciality there, Clam Chowder.
What is my opinion of eating out in Sunnyvale? Nothing special. When I was in New Orleans Iíd tasted Cajun, including some snake and alligator. In Houston, I had some fine Texan food, BBQ, grilled beef ribs and steaks in XXL in some rather nice eateries but in Sunnyvale, nothing of the sort. Perhaps it would have been different if Kal's Bar-B-Q restaurant on North Mathilda Avenue had been open the day I learnt of its existence and went there.
As mentioned elsewhere, periods of shopping, eating and generally driving around Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Milpitas and Mountain View were punctuated by work sessions and in fact, I actually managed to get quite a bit of work got done.
Here's what I retained about my visit to the NetApp Campus:
I normally avoid eating in work canteens because of a) the throng (I guess it’s a form of aversion to crowds in small spaces I have) and b) the food (I worked long years in hotels and restaurants in France) but I thoroughly enjoyed eating in NetApp's Sunnyvale cafeteria. In retrospect, and apart from the variety, quantity and quality of the food, it was the people themselves that made the experience so interesting.
Sunnyvale is NetApp’s HQ and people from all over the world go there. That the management goes to the trouble of catering for all the different tastes is praiseworthy, especially as NetApp is, at the time of writing, paying particular attention to costs and overheads. There was South East Asian cooking as well as Chinese, Japanese and Korean cooking; there was regional cooking from the Indian sub-continent (not Anglo-Indian Curry House style cooking); there was Middle Eastern and European cooking and there was cooking from the Americas and cooking from the US and in the five days I was there I did my best to try as much of the cooking as possible. Seriously, if I could rate it 5 stars on Tripadvisor, I would.
If I experienced the local friendliness, the courtesy and the tolerance of the folks in New Orleans and the outright friendly easy going manner of the Texans in Houston, I can’t really say what I saw and experienced in Sunnyvale, except for a prime example of the Tech Bubble I’d heard so much about. Sure, I’d spoken to people and lots of them. I’d spoken to Indians (but not the American aboriginals), Asians, Africans, Germans, Mexicans, Argentineans, Brazilians… and a Catalonian to name but them but I never got to speak to what I could identify as an original Californian. All the people I spoke to were new or recent arrivals in the region and all there for the experience of working in Silicon Valley. I could walk away and say that was a shame but it was part of the environment, and part of the experience.
The work week over it was time to make my way, leisurely, back up to San Francisco for the evening flight back to Munich, so after wrapping things up in the morning, Friday lunchtime saw me in the cafeteria for a farewell lunch, consisting of a generous take away lunch box composed of as much mixed salad, turkey, beef, pastrami, eggs, chicken and vegetables as I could get into the plastic container.
The weather had been mild and fairly sunny during the week so the plan was to leave NetApp around 1PM and head to the nearby NASA’s Ames Research Center, in hope of catching sight of a space capsule or rocket stage parked outside, stop have lunch and then drive on up north. Unfortunately, and in spite of the GPS, I missed the exit and continued north up the 101 to San Francisco and plan B: Lunch by the Golden Gate Bridge. Sadly, as I drove up the 101, the weather started deteriorating until a steady drizzle from low clouds reduced visibility to around 300 metres and my hopes of seeing the Golden Gate Bridge in all its sunny brick-red splendor.
Act One: Bullitt
But before I got there I was determined to realize a dream and replicate as much as possible the cult scene from the film 1968 “Bullitt” ride down the steep streets of San Francisco so with more than enough time before I need to head back to SFO Airport I turned off the 101 and drove around, and down Bush Street, Franklin Street, Laguna Street until Vallejo. And what if it was raining? The thrill of driving over the intersection at Vallejo and feeling the slight bump as the car suspension (at a sedate 30 mph) rose and fell to match the undulating road. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck..
Act Two: The Rock
Unlike Steve McQueen, I didn’t have the road to myself and the clock was ticking so while looking for any magical green VW Beetles to overtake (see above), I had two more iconic locations to visit, starting with the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre on Lyon Street, scene of the meeting between Sean Connery’s character and his daughter in the 1996 film “The Rock”.
Act Three: Presidio
Presidio is only a short way from Lyon Street but keeping an eye on the clock I decided to not to stop but drove around the complex looking at the barracks as I remembered them from the 1988 film of the same name. Ultimately the idea was to find a view of the Bridge and Alcatraz, as you could see them in the films but once again the weather decided otherwise so without spending any more time there I drove on to the 101 heading for the Bridge.
The Final Act: At the Bridge
Before driving up the 101 to the bridge I entered the coordinates for Fort Point into the GPS and 5 minutes later was approaching Fort Point and the bridge only to see that the panorama point was closed for cars. Disappointed and hungry, my lunch box still sitting untouched on the passenger seat, I drove on crossed bridge, left hand on the wheel and the right hand was trying to hold the Smartphone steady and snap what I could of the bridge’s towers. Five minutes later I was off the bridge and heading for Sausalito. I definitely did not want to go there so, after passing Battery Spencer and Vista Point, both closed, I turned off at Fort Baker parked the car and had lunch.
Lunch finished I got out of the car and stood in the fine drizzle and gazed out to where I thought Alcatraz was, out in the bay. Refusing to be demoralized I vowed that Iíd come back again but in the meantime it was time to head for the airport with a second crossing of the bridge and a second attempt at taking a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge.
If this story were a Drama/Comedy what follows would be the classical “dénouement” in the end scene, during which Protagonist faces Antagonist, conflicts are resolved and tensions relieved.
The hire car returned, I headed for the Lufthansa check-in counter, sat down and, waiting for it to open, started thinking back over the week. Everything had gone according to plan and barring the weather and the sprained foot it was globally a positive experience. The Lufthansa counter opened and I handed my passport to the clerk who looked at the cover, opened the passport, checked the details, closed it, looked at the front cover again and asked me if it was an English passport. I almost made a joke until I realized that the clerk, in fact, doubted the authenticity of the passport. Her smiling attitude was, apparently, a façade and I understood that I was a hairbreadth away from being refused to board. She eventually checked me in, took my baggage and thanked me and I thought nothing more about the incident.
Going through US security checks always seems to be a more a trying experience than anywhere else. I’ve been through Chinese, Russian, Turkish, French, Emirate... and Heathrow (at a time when customer experience wasn't a priority), as well as a host of other airport checks but it’s always the TSA checks that for some reason rile me the most.
In pain and perspiring from running/hobbling/limping to the gate in time, I faced the TSA agent and automatically spread out my arms for the pat-down only to see the agent walk away and come back with a paper-like drug test strip. My first thought was "Huh?" Slightly put out, I wondered if the test could also measure the pain in my left foot.
With boarding time approaching I had completely forgotten the episode at the check-in counter until shortly before the boarding gate opened. Glancing at the counter I spotted the counter clerk talking to someone, perhaps her manager, who then called my name. I asked them if it was time to collect the duty-free Iíd bought. The answer surprised me and I did my very best to keep any sign of annoyance off my face.
The manager asked to see my passport again. It transpired that the counter clerk had noted the state of my passport and the manager was now questioning me about it. Again realizing that my boarding, or not, of the plane depended on how I answered the questions I drew upon all my experience and training in dealing with conflictual situations and decided not to be a smart ass. I calmly and clearly answered all the questions and watched as the agent handed me my passport back, suggesting I get it renewed ASAP. My duty-free in hand I made my way down the access ramp, boarded the plane and enjoyed a 10-hour flight (+ a 9 hour time zone adjustment) watching movies, enjoying a beer before savouring a meal of ďPasta al somethingĒ and a glass of Merlot.
On arriving at Munich one final surprise awaited me. I wasn't stopped by the German customs and the Border Police checked my passport and let me through without a word. However, at the luggage retrieval point I waited until the bags arrived and then I waited, and waited until the conveyor belt was almost empty before spotting my suitcase and I knew immediately that my suitcase had been searched. The zip locker wasn't in the same place and sure enough on opening the suitcase I found a note from the US customs informing me that a search had been undertaken and any unauthorized substances removed. A quick check of my belongings showed that nothing had been removed, not even a special liquid preparation for aquariums I'd bought in Sunnyvale.
There are two ways of summing up this trip to Sunnyvale: Positively or negatively. It’s tempting to write the trip off as a globally disappointing experience because of the incidents with my foot and the exchanges with the staff and the TSA on my way home. It’s also tempting to dwell on the eating experience in Sunnyvale as well as the fact that, contrary to New Orleans or Houston, there was a singular lack of personal contact in Sunnyvale but I wonít. Instead, Iíll sum up by saying that the trip was a great experience and Iíd fulfilled one important lifelong objective: Go to San Francisco.
In retrospect, the particular journey really stressed the fact that it is often you, the traveller, not the others, who determines whether the trip is a success or not. It’s like everything. Don’t depend on others to make it happen.