A Short Stay in San Francisco

Embarcadero Wharves, San Francisco

Embarcadero Wharves, San Francisco

The photo above shows part of San Francisco’s famous Embarcadero, which was once a busy docklands area (with rows of wharves on the right), and was a major embarkation port during World War II, but is now mainly a tourist attraction. My wife took the photo yesterday, while we were staying for a short time in the City. When I first visited this location, about 30 years ago, there was a railroad yard on the left (which had been part of the State Belt Railroad), but all that is now gone, and the only tracks are those for Muni streetcars.

Mary and I had gone to San Francisco so that I could attend my US Naturalization interview. I’ve been a US Permanent Resident (always legally, of course) since 1991, and, following many years’ procrastination, I decided that, instead of renewing my “Green Card” again, I’d apply to become a US citizen. Part of this process involves an interview with a CIS officer, who tests you on your English language skills and your knowledge of US history and government. In addition to passing an FBI background check, you have to undergo these tests to have your citizenship application accepted.

Given that my interview was scheduled for early morning, we decided that, rather than try to rush through the morning traffic, we’d stay overnight nearby the night before. We chose the Galleria Park Hotel, partly because it was close, but also because it’s pet-friendly, and we wanted to bring our cats with us! The photo below shows the hotel building, on the corner of Sutter and Kearny streets.

Galleria Park Hotel, San Francisco

Galleria Park Hotel, San Francisco

Whenever Mary and I arrive at a hotel, we try to remember to take a “selfie” on the bed in our room. The photo below shows us just settling in at the Galleria Park.

Arrival at Galleria Park Hotel

Arrival at Galleria Park Hotel

The hotel building dates back to 1911, but has recently been renovated, while retaining many of its Art Nouveau features. All of us (Mary, the cats, and I) had a very enjoyable stay there, and can recommend that hotel if you need to stay in San Francisco’s financial district.

The photo below shows a twilight view from the window of our room. The skyscraper in the center background is the former Bank of America building at 555 California Street.

View of the Bank of America Building at Twilight

View of the Bank of America Building at Twilight

Ginger in the City

The photo below, taken by Mary, shows one of our cats, Ginger Tom, arriving in style on his first visit to San Francisco.

He was riding along Van Ness Avenue in our car, and was intensely curious about everything around him.

Ginger in the City

Ginger in the City

Return to an Old Haunt

During our stay, we took the opportunity to revisit a very long-established restaurant that we last ate together at about 30 years ago, while we were dating.

Sam's Grill, San Francisco

Sam’s Grill, San Francisco

The restaurant in question is Sam’s Grill, which has what is, by California standards, a truly ancient history, all the way back to 1867. We had a very enjoyable meal there, sitting in one of the private booths. Many of the other eateries that we frequented when dating are long gone, so it’s nice to find one that is still going strong.

Status: Approved

Fortunately, I passed my citizenship test, and my application has been recommended for approval. I anticipate that the next step in the process will be that I’ll be called to a swearing-in ceremony, where I expect to receive my Certificate of Naturalization. I’ll write about that experience when it happens.

How Mary and I Met

Mary & David in Scarborough, 1990

Mary & David in Scarborough, 1990

The photo above, which is one of the earliest of my wife Mary and me together, was actually taken in Scarborough, England, in 1990, during the occasion of our first joint visit to my family there. At that time, we weren’t yet married, or even engaged, but that all was to change within a year following the visit.

Given that Valentine’s Day occurs this week, it seemed like an appropriate time to post an article about how we came to meet. Since posting previous articles about how I emigrated from Britain to California in 1987, there seems to have been some interest in how Mary and I got together. One event definitely did not follow immediately from the other, and I certainly hadn’t come to California with any expectation of “finding love”.

Resources for Dating

In a previous post, I described how, having moved from Britain to California to live and work, my new answering machine message began to attract completely unexpected attention from anonymous women, who apparently liked to call and hear my “cute accent”. I’d never really considered my accent to be of much interest to anyone, although my original Yorkshire cadences had changed somewhat as a result of having lived for a few years in Southern England.

Those expressions of possible romantic potential eventually led me to think that it might be worthwhile to try dating again, which was something I’d given up on several years previously. However, that was easier said than done in a new country, because I had been sponsored to come to California by my employer, and I knew absolutely nobody in the state except the people I worked with.

Although there were some young women working for my employer, most of them seemed to have the (probably wise) attitude that they didn’t want to date men with whom they worked. For their dates, they seemed to rely on their own family contacts, or friends with whom they’d grown up at school, and of course none of those resources were available to me.

I began to look at various “dating agencies”, but in general these seemed overpriced and of questionable value. Some seemed to be outright “rip-offs” that tried to employ high-pressure sales tactics to get what they seemed to regard as “losers” to part with their money! (I’m pleased to say that such tactics didn’t work on me.)

There was, however, one relatively cheap service that, in my case at least, produced a spectacular result, albeit via a rather roundabout and initially unpromising route.


There was no internet dating in those days, of course, so I eventually found and joined a San Francisco-based telephone dating service called Yellowphone (now long defunct). When using this service, I called in to a central number, entered my personal ID, and then listened to voice messages from prospective partners who were “compatible” with me. (Mary said that her experience of using the service was different, but that was what I did.)

You couldn’t see a picture of the person speaking (which might actually have been a good thing, since it prevented people from making snap judgments based on looks), so all you had to go on was their voice and their descriptions of themselves.

I did contact several of the women whose messages I listened to, and, although I had some pleasant dates, I felt that I just didn’t have enough in common with any of them to make a successful relationship. I’ve sometimes wondered whether I may have been giving too much emphasis to that factor, because my experience of the opposite sex at that time was very limited (and spectacularly unsuccessful). On the other hand, maybe my emphasis was correct, because when I did finally meet someone who seemed to have some views and interests in common with mine, it worked out well.

Not a Match

One morning in early 1989, when I would normally have been at work, I was instead lying in bed in my apartment with some kind of flu. The phone rang. It was the lady who owned Yellowphone, calling to tell me that she had a client who would like to meet me, but was not really a match for me, so she wanted to get my permission before giving out my details.

The problem, apparently, was that Mary was a few years older than me, which wasn’t considered a match for my preferences. Nonetheless, her description otherwise sounded interesting, so I agreed that we should meet.

It turned out that Mary had been told the same thing; that I was not a match for her! She had been a member of the Yellowphone service for a while, without any particular success. Finally, the owner asked her if there were any particular types of men she’d like to meet. She mentioned that perhaps a British man would be interesting, because she’d visited England a few times and liked their sense of humor. The owner responded that I was a member of the service, and offered to contact me to see whether I would permit my details to be given out.

A Great First Date

Mary and I did exchange details, and we got together for a first date. It all seemed to go very well; we went for afternoon tea at the King George Hotel, then to the Champagne Bar at Neiman-Marcus [Edit 3/1/18: Mary tells me that the Champagne Bar was at Nordstrom rather than Neiman-Marcus; I don’t remember!], and finally ended up going to see a particularly appropriate movie (“A Fish Called Wanda”).

I mentioned in a previous post that I had interviewed one of the stars of that movie—Michael Palin—while at university, and of course I told Mary about that at the time.

The Scene of part of our First Date, much later in 2014

The Scene of part of our First Date, much later in 2014

I think that, by the end of our date, we had both decided that we’d like to see each other again, although I think we both had some reservations. One very good sign was that, during our date, conversation didn’t seem to lapse, as it had often done for me on other dates. The two of us seemed to have many experiences and pastimes that were of interest to the other.

The photo below of me was taken in a famous (albeit foggy) location by Mary, during one of our early dates.

David at the Golden Gate Bridge - with hideous Mullet!

David at the Golden Gate Bridge – with hideous Mullet!

We dated for over a year before deciding to get engaged, and we were married in early 1991.

We chose a date in early January for our wedding, which I realized in retrospect was a poor choice, because it was so soon after the holiday, and the weather in more northerly climates was too severe for some of our family members to be able to attend.

Making It Last

So that was the start of what has to date been a twenty-seven year marriage.

Of course, it hasn’t all been “smooth sailing”, and we’ve had our share of problems. Nonetheless, through it all, not only have we both continued to love each other, but we are also friends, and I think that those factors have helped to preserve our relationship during difficult times.

Lessons to be Learned?

Incidentally, I’m not offering this article in any way as “Dave’s Tips for a Lasting Relationship”! My experiences of relationships are quite limited, and my personal history has been relatively unusual, so I doubt that my concerns and decisions would be applicable to the personal situations of others.

However, one thing that has become obvious to me, in retrospect, is the importance of not being too restrictive in advance about who may or may not be a “match”. In our case, not only was the owner of the Yellowphone service wrong about our suitability, but I myself would have had serious reservations, earlier on.

I explained in a previous post that, if someone had accurately predicted the course of my life when I was a teenager, I would have laughed at them and dismissed their claims.

Similarly, if someone had told that young undergraduate engineer entering Imperial College in 1981 that, within 10 years, he’d be marrying an “air hostess” (as they were then called) who lived in San Francisco, he’d have laughed at that too! After all, engineers just didn’t do that, and what would we have in common anyway? (Mary would probably have felt the same way about the idea of marrying an engineer!)

Happy Valentine’s Day

I hope you have an enjoyable Valentine’s Day this year, wherever you are, and whomever you’re sharing it with!

California Movin’: Thirty Years Ago

Golden Gate Bridge from Treasure Island

Golden Gate Bridge from Treasure Island

I arrived at San Francisco Airport for the second time exactly thirty years ago today, on Monday, 16th November, 1987, but on that occasion I did not have a return air travel ticket, and I was planning to make a home in California, for a while, at least.

This is the third in the series that covers the events of that time, when, while living and working in Southern England, I was offered a job in California, decided to accept it, and moved here on what turned out to be a permanent basis. The first post in the series was It was Thirty Years Ago Today, and the second was California Confusin’.

Living in Foster City

When I arrived, my employer had obtained temporary accommodation for me at the Residence Inn in San Mateo, which was very pleasant, but too expensive to be a permanent home. My boss recommended that, for long-term accommodation, I should look in nearby Foster City, which is a modern waterfront community with many apartment complexes.

I did look there, and eventually signed up for a one-bedroom apartment in Beach Cove Apartments, a large complex on Catamaran Street. Although these units were generally regarded as barely adequate by locals, by comparison with my accommodations in Britain they seemed palatial and well-equipped. For the first time ever, I had my own phone line, and—wow!—an automatic dishwasher!

The photo below shows part of my apartment in Foster City. The only item visible in the picture that I brought with me from the UK is the hi-fi system, which I’d bought in London while a student there. Everything else was bought or rented in California. Just visible, on the right, is my new answering machine, which was to cause a completely unexpected change in the direction of my life, as described below.

My Apartment in Foster City, 1988

My Apartment in Foster City, 1988


California officially only permits visitors to drive on an out-of-state license (so spelled!) for 10 days. After that, you’re required to apply for a California license. Thus, I began the process of applying, which required both a written and practical test. Although my prior experience of driving in Britain actually worked against me (because it made me seem too confident for the California examiner), I did eventually pass both, and had my first California license by December 1987.

What Credit History?

One significant problem that my employer had failed to warn me about was that, despite having a job and a Social Security number, I would be completely unable to obtain credit in the US on arrival. In Britain, I had already bought several cars on credit, had two credit cards, and had credit accounts with several stores, and I was oblivious to the fact that my UK credit rating would be totally meaningless in the US. My credit history outside the US simply didn’t appear on the records, so it effectively didn’t exist.

Buying a car turned out to be a significant problem, because of my lack of accessible credit history. Eventually, I was somehow able to persuade one dealer to grant me credit via General Motors Acceptance Corporation (probably only because it was a secured loan).

Once I had obtained the car loan, and began making payments, I was able to begin building a US credit history. Nonetheless, for the first year or so, I had to depend entirely on my British credit cards, sending my payments to the UK in US dollars. It seemed “so unfair”, but in fact the time passed quickly. After only 18 months, I’d built up sufficient credit history that I was able to buy a brand-new Ford Mustang, as shown below.

My 1989 Ford Mustang, in Monterey

My 1989 Ford Mustang, in Monterey

Northern California, Where the Girls are Warm…

When deciding whether to move to California, the idea of finding romance there was definitely the last thing on my mind! As I mentioned in the previous article, I did not even have a girlfriend in Britain, and had essentially given up on dating during my undergraduate years.

I must have heard the Steve Miller Band’s song Rock’n Me on the radio in Britain many times since its release in 1976, but I had always completely ignored its lyrics! Part of the lyrics say:

I went from Phoenix, Arizona all the way to Tacoma

Philadelphia, Atlanta, L.A.

Northern California where the girls are warm

So I could be with my sweet baby, yeah

I had emigrated to California strictly for professional reasons, to get a better job. Nonetheless, something completely unexpected happened after I moved to California, which eventually led me to begin dating again. Strangely enough, it happened because I bought an answering machine!

In my British accommodations, I had never had my own phone line, and of course there were no cellphones in those days. When I rented the apartment in Foster City, it came with a dedicated phone line. Given the 8-hour time difference between California and the UK, I was concerned that people from Britain would try to call me in the middle of the night. I decided to invest in an answering machine, so that at least they could leave me a message.

After I had installed the answering machine and recorded my greeting on it, something odd began to happen. I came home from work several times to find messages from anonymous women, explaining that they had just called to hear my “cute accent”! That was something that, for obvious reasons, had never been regarded as in any way special in Britain, but now it made me begin to think that perhaps there was something about me that might be deemed “attractive”!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’d obtained seriously distorted preconceptions about California from American media. As such, I assumed that California women would be impressed only by bronzed “surfer dudes”, and would have no interest in pasty-faced Brits such as me!

My Sweet Baby: Mary!

My Sweet Baby: Mary!

I Won’t be Home for Christmas

Ever since I moved away from my parents’ home in Scarborough, it seemed to have been assumed by everyone (including me) that I would return there to spend each Christmas with the family (or what was left of it). While I was a student, those visits were very short, because I was working in Selfridges or other London stores over the Christmas period, so I had to get to Yorkshire and back during the brief period that the stores were actually closed.

My feelings about those visits were very ambivalent. On the one hand, there was little point in staying in London or Andover when my few friends there were also absent (visiting their families). That would have made for a very lonely holiday. On the other hand, I had no friends or activities left in Scarborough, so spending the time there was also quite lonely.

Of course, it would have been very unrealistic to expect my family to leave Scarborough to visit me at Christmas, because I was living in small bedsits or houseshares, which could not accommodate guests. Nonetheless, by 1987, I was becoming anxious to find a solution to the problem, whereby I could find a reason to stay in my own part of the world during the holiday period.

Union Square, San Francisco, At Christmas

Union Square, San Francisco, at Christmas

Moving to California solved this problem once and for all. It simply was no longer practical for me to return to Scarborough at Christmas, so I had to spend it in California. Although that was a little lonely for my first Christmas there, my employer was accustomed to hiring engineers from Britain, and so went out of their way to ensure that we were to some extent included in the seasonal activities of other families.

Working Three-Day Weeks?

I’d also given no thought to the fact that the week after I arrived in California was Thanksgiving, which of course is not celebrated in Britain. As such, my employer treated us to Thanksgiving Lunch at work, then we had two days of the week off.

During the lunch, my employer’s CEO leaned over and mentioned to me:

We don’t do this every week, you know…

A Good Start

As I began to settle in to my new apartment and new job, I felt that I had made a good choice, and I saw little evidence of the problems and disappointments that some had predicted.

In every aspect, my new life was no worse than my previous existence in Britain, and, in many ways, it was much better.

California Confusin’

Golden Gate Bridge at Sunset

Golden Gate Bridge at Sunset

The photo above shows one of California’s most iconic views; the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. I had a reasonably accurate preconception of this location before moving here, but I also had many other conceptions of California that were much less accurate.

In my earlier post describing the events of thirty years ago, by which I came to California, initially temporarily and then permanently, I described how I made a (literally) flying visit to my prospective new employer for interview, then returned to my job in Britain, and was eventually offered the position in California. I finally emigrated in November, 1987.

Reminiscences Interrupted

I’d planned to continue the series with this post, but was of course interrupted by the terrible wildfires that started here on October 9th. In view of that, I felt it more important to post items about my immediate experiences than to reminisce about the events of thirty years ago.

My reasons for choosing to move to California did not include the expectation of a “quiet life”, and indeed it has not been so! (If I had sought that, then staying in my birth town of Scarborough would probably have been the best option!) The fires were not even my “first disaster” in California, since I lived through the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989.

A Distorted View

Like most people who’ve never visited the US, and California in particular, I had formed most of my ideas about the place from American movies, TV shows and music. This provided a highly distorted view of American life, and led to considerable confusion and several misconceptions on my part.

The song California Dreamin’ was played regularly on the radio in those days, relaying the message that California was, if nothing else, warm. Of course, the song fails to distinguish Northern California from Southern California, and I was completely ignorant of any distinction between the two.

My parents’ views of the US were informed mostly by my father’s experience during World War II. His only contact with Americans had been a few servicemen that he met while on military service during the war. As a wireless officer in the Royal Air Force, he had flown a variety of British and American aircraft types, the American types being those supplied under Lend-Lease. I formed the conclusion that he admired, but was somewhat jealous of, the perceived wealth and modernity of Americans. (I recall that he had many negative things to say about some British aircraft types—particularly the Bristol Blenheim—but I never heard him say anything negative about any American aircraft type.)

Time to Live the Dream?

In October 1987, having received the offer of a job in Northern California, I quickly had to make the momentous decision as to whether to accept it, which of course would involve moving myself and all my possessions some 5,500 miles to a different continent.

It had been easy enough to dream about some day getting away from the miseries and frustrations of life in Britain, and jetting away to a great job in some far-off country, but now I was actually faced with the prospect of having to do it!

In the back of my mind, I had been assuming that my new employer wouldn’t be expecting me to start working for them before the beginning of 1988, so it was somewhat shocking when they told me that they’d like me to move and start working for them before Christmas.

Trafalgar Square, London, at Christmas

Trafalgar Square, London, at Christmas

As it turned out, 1986 was to be my last Christmas in Britain. The photo above shows Trafalgar Square in London, decorated for the holidays, while I was a student there during the early 1980s.

You’ll Live to Regret It!

I naturally couldn’t talk to my work colleagues about my situation, but I did discuss it with my mother and some non-work friends. Some people cautioned me that such a major move could be a huge mistake, which I’d live to regret. It was bound to be very expensive and disruptive (they said), and I’d find myself pining for the comforts of life in Britain soon after I left.

My response to that argument was that, if I tried it and failed, then I could always come back to Britain, and live the rest of my life wiser for my experience. On the other hand, if I passed up the opportunity, there was a real chance that I’d spend the rest of my life regretting what might have been. I could foresee that, every time something bad happened to me in Britain thereafter, I’d have been thinking: “If only I’d taken that job in the US”.

As it turned out, coming to California changed my life for the better in ways that I couldn’t even have imagined when I was making that decision, but I’ll save those details for a future post.

Footloose & Fancy-Free

It is true that, if you’re thinking of starting a new life in a foreign continent, then doing so when you’re young and relatively unencumbered is likely to be easier than making a similar move later on in life.

In my case, I was single—I didn’t even have a girlfriend—and the other surviving members of my small family already lived about 200 miles away from me. Thus there was nobody who was going to miss having me around on a day-to-day basis. I also didn’t have to worry about all the complications of moving a wife and children along with me.

I was living in furnished rented accommodation, so I didn’t have all the hassle of having to sell or rent out a home. I also didn’t have a lot of furniture to have to sell or move with me. The only large item of furniture that I owned was a bookcase, which held much of my large book collection. I discovered that all those items could be shipped to California fairly cheaply by sea.

Living in the Badlands

As I said above, I had obtained all my impressions of California from American TV shows, movies and music. As such, I was quite convinced that the whole of California was a desert, presumably irrigated artificially from somewhere further North.

While I was a student in London, French winemakers were releasing the first quality wines from their California vineyards, such as Mumm Napa. In my mind’s eye, I imagined that the Napa Valley must be an arid desert, with a few straggly vines baking in the unrelenting sun! (In reality it’s more akin to the South of France, but then in those days I’d never visited France either!)

Château of Domaine Carneros, Napa

Château of Domaine Carneros, Napa

Decision Made

There were various other differences to consider, such as the electricity supply, and learning to drive on the other side of the road, but none of those seemed to be insoluble problems.

I gave it all a great deal of thought, based on the information available to me (there being no World Wide Web in those days), and decided that there weren’t really any insurmountable obstacles that would prevent me from going.

As I mentioned above, I felt that, if it didn’t work out well, I could just come back to Britain, and at least I’d have the “experience” to look back on. On the other hand, if I didn’t try, I’d always regret it.

So, I told my prospective employer I was accepting their offer. The first task was to obtain a visa that would allow me to live and work in the country, for which I would once again have to visit the US Embassy in London. Once I’d got that, my new employer would arrange temporary accommodation for me in California, and I’d be ready to make my arrangements to move there.

I contacted Pickfords, to have the contents of my small apartment picked up and packed into a container for shipment to San Francisco. It would take about 3 months for the container to make the journey, so I had to be sure not to let them pack away anything that I would need urgently on arrival.

In the next installment of this series of blog posts, I’ll discuss the surprises that awaited me after I moved to California.

Valley of the Moon Highway Reopens

Valley of the Moon Winery, with charred hills in the Background

Valley of the Moon Winery, with charred hills in the Background

Yesterday, the road through Sonoma Valley (aka State Highway 12, or the Valley of the Moon Scenic Highway) reopened fully for the first time since the recent fires. The photo above shows my car parked at the Valley of the Moon Winery, near Madrone. The vineyard is undamaged, but you can see scorched hillsides in the background.

Assuming that I could get there, I’d been planning to attend the reopening of the Sonoma Depot Park Museum, but that has been postponed due to the fires. Thus my journey yesterday took me only as far down the valley as Madrone.

The photo below shows a closeup of grapes still on the vines in front of the winery, while the charred hillsides are visible beyond.

Grapes on the Vine at Valley of the Moon Winery, in front of Scorched Hills

Grapes on the Vine at Valley of the Moon Winery, in front of Scorched Hills

Fire in the Hills

The distinctive Ledson Winery chateau, near Oakmont, was featured in recent television news reports of the firefighting efforts in Sonoma Valley.

My photo below shows the aftermath. The winery is apparently undamaged, but was closed yesterday when I visited. The fire-scorched hills beyond are clearly visible.


Ledson Winery with Charred Hillsides beyond

Fire in the Valley

Sadly, some parts of the valley floor did not escape destruction. My photo below shows a roadside area near Beltane Ranch (between Oakmont and Madrone), where houses and barns stood before the fire. You can see the charred ground and trees.

Burned Buildings near Beltane Ranch

Burned Buildings near Beltane Ranch

There is even worse damage alongside Route 12 elsewhere, but yesterday in those locations the police, and even the National Guard, were mounting a heavy presence, to deter looters or souvenir hunters.

More details of the damage are provided in this San Francisco Chronicle article.

Rain Arrives to Quench the Fires

Penny Contemplates the Rain

Penny Contemplates the Rain

The photo above shows one of our cats, Penny, sitting in the window alcove of our bedroom yesterday afternoon, contemplating the rain that had just begun to fall.

The rain intensified yesterday evening, having been forecast the previous week. We’d been anxiously awaiting its arrival, because, despite the extraordinary efforts of firefighters from all over the US, the wildfires were still not fully contained. Even after a fire has been quelled, it can sometimes continue to smolder and can then flare up again later. Falling rain should extinguish any remaining embers and prevent further flare-ups.

The Rain Begins

The Rain Begins

Contrast the photo above, taken yesterday afternoon looking over the park from our balcony, with the same view in my earlier post. At least this time, the gray skies are due to rain and not to smoke!

Having grown up somewhere it rains year-round (Britain), and now living where it rarely rains during the summer (California), I sometimes find that, by the end of summer here, I’m missing the rain, and look forward to the first shower of the season. Nonetheless, I’ve never welcomed the first rain as much as I did this year, because it will hopefully put an end to the local wildfires!

Smoky Sunsets

Although the smoke has gradually cleared during the past week, we’ve still been having smoky sunsets, with unusually red skies, as shown below, looking west from in front of our house.

Smoky Sunset

Smoky Sunset

Oakmont Fire

Last weekend, a new wildfire erupted in the hills above Oakmont, which is a large retirement complex to the East of Santa Rosa. This led to further closure of Highway 12, and the evacuation of the Sky Hawk and Mountain Hawk neighborhoods.

I took the photo below last Saturday, looking East along Highway 12. In the distance, you can see smoke billowing from the Oakmont fire.

Smoke from the Oakmont Fire, from Highway 12

Smoke from the Oakmont Fire, from Highway 12

A little further along Highway 12, the road was closed. People were being let out of the evacuated zone, but not into it. The photo below shows a police roadblock across Highway 12, at the junction with Calistoga Road.

Highway 12 Closed at Calistoga Road

Highway 12 Closed at Calistoga Road

Fountaingrove Still Evacuated

At the time of writing, although most evacuation orders have been lifted, and people are being allowed back in to some fire-damaged areas, the Fountaingrove neighborhood remains evacuated.

The offices of my employer, Keysight, are in Fountaingrove, and are closed. Fortunately, the main buildings were not destroyed, but they were damaged by efforts to fight the surrounding fire. Details are shown in this fire damage map.

It’s also fortunate for me that I’m able to do my work from home (although I wasn’t doing that prior to the fire), and that’s what I’ve been doing since the area was evacuated. Keysight has been very supportive of us all, having made immense efforts to locate and ascertain the safety of all its employees, and to provide special assistance to those who need it. Many thanks are due to Keysight for looking after its staff.

I’m aware that many people have lost jobs or businesses as a result of the fires, and how lucky I’ve been to have avoided that.

The New Normal

The process of trying to get back to normal life is now just beginning. Even for those of us who were lucky enough to avoid any serious loss, things will never be quite the same again.

In one respect at least, I hope that things will be different, in that the lessons of the fire will be learned, leading to wiser land development and better protections in future.

It was Thirty Years Ago Today

Unusual view of Downtown San Francisco, from the Legion of Honor

Unusual view of Downtown San Francisco, from the Legion of Honor

It was almost exactly thirty years ago today—on Friday 9th October, 1987—that I first set foot in California.

On that occasion, I had come to the US only as a temporary visitor, to attend a job interview. It was a truly “temporary” visit, lasting only 4 days.

Until then, I had been anything but an experienced international traveler. I’d never been to any part of the USA before, and in fact I’d only been out of Britain three times during my life (and one of those trips was to Guernsey).

Broadening My Horizons

Ever since my undergraduate days, the idea of “working abroad” had been floating in the background as a vague possibility.

In 1986, I even went to Munich for a day, for a job interview with Siemens, but, even though they seemed keen to hire me, I did not pursue that possibility further.

Certainly, the idea that I might one day find myself living and working within sight of the Pacific Ocean never entered my head. It wasn’t until after I’d already moved here that I remembered that we had spent an entire term studying the state as part of our high school Geography course! I had basically ignored the course because it seemed to have no possible relevance to my life.

The Lure of the Dollar

As an Imperial College undergraduate, I began to hear stories of graduates who were obtaining what seemed like spectacular jobs in the USA, straight out of college. The starting salaries for these US jobs were apparently many times those that were offered to even the best British graduates. The figures seemed even more impressive because the dollar and pound were close to parity at that time. Nonetheless, the jobs I was told about were all on the US East Coast; in New York or Maryland.

My goal in getting an EE degree had been specifically to obtain a job with the BBC, which I did on graduating, so initially I felt that the die was cast and I’d already achieved my ambition.

However, my subsequent experience with the BBC and other British engineering employers was a huge disappointment. It seemed that not only were graduate salaries low, but conditions were poor and employers were either inefficient or unstable. I began to think once again of those tantalizing tales I’d been told about the wonderful jobs that were supposedly available in other countries!

The Window Opens

In 1987, I was working as a video systems hardware design engineer for a small company in Berkshire. One of my employer’s competitors was an American company, but had a European operation based in Reading. Word got around that I was looking for new employment, and the competitor contacted me to ask whether I’d be interested in working for them in Reading.

I declined to consider working for them in Reading, at which point they asked whether I might instead be interested in a job in California. Ah, now it’s getting interesting

Following several international phone calls, I managed to arrange an interview appointment at the company’s offices in Northern California. I had to obtain a B-1/B-2 visitor visa just to enter the USA, which meant that I also had to make a trip to the US Embassy in London before departing the UK.

San Francisco or Suffolk?

The plan was that I would arrive in San Francisco on a Friday evening, then have the weekend to do some sightseeing and recover from jet lag. My formal interview would be on Monday, then on Tuesday I’d fly back to Heathrow.

I would obviously have to take some vacation time from my job, but I felt that my current employer would not believe that I was going to California for a holiday just for the weekend! Therefore, I decided to tell them that I was going to visit the US air base at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk. My mother had an American friend who was a teacher on the air base, and I’d visited her there previously, so it wouldn’t seem out-of-the-ordinary.

It was important to bear in mind that there was no guarantee that the company in California would actually offer me a job. I needed a plausible cover for my actions, so as not to jeopardize my existing position.

Offered the Job

To cut a long story short, I was offered the job in California within a few weeks following my interview. Somewhat to my surprise, my new employer was eager for me to start work there before Christmas, so I began the process of arranging to move myself and all my worldly possessions some 5500 miles.

Nonetheless, I would only be working in the US on a temporary, three-year E-2 visa, so there was always the possibility that I would choose to return to Britain (or might have to do so when the visa expired).

Way Out West. The Pacific Ocean from Pillar Point

Way Out West. Sunset over the Pacific Ocean from near Pillar Point

Return to a Hurricane!

I arrived back in the UK on Tuesday, 13th October, and went back to work the following morning as though nothing unusual had happened. Later that same week, however, the Great Storm of 1987 occurred.

On the night of October 15th, I didn’t hear the weather forecast, so the first I knew of the severity of the storm was when I set off on my 40-mile commute from Andover the following morning, and began noticing that tree branches were down everywhere, even blocking some roads.

[Update: On 15th October, the London Evening Standard published this article about the storm.]

Devastation in Brighton

In those days I was the Treasurer of the Southern Centre of the Royal Television Society, and, prior to my jaunt to California, I had volunteered to help out at the Society’s booth at that year’s International Broadcasting Convention (IBC), which was always held in Brighton. I traveled to Brighton the week after the storm, to see that many of the city’s trees had fallen, and a massive cleanup operation was underway.

It made me think that perhaps the country I’d been born in was itself becoming unrecognizable, so my life was going to change anyway, whether or not I emigrated.