Tag Archives: San Francisco

Books, Beats and City Lights

ginsberg-dylan-mcclureWriting in the 1950’s but projecting “to Posterity” , Irish poet Louis MacNeice, envisioned a time when reading and even speaking would be replaced, “By other less difficult media.”

Today bookshops are vanishing, the internet rules and knowledge is too often submerged by a flood of information. However, in San Francisco, still standing out as a major source of mind-energy is the famed City Lights bookstore in North Beach. Its principal founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, defined his endeavour as a “finger in the dyke holding back the flood of unknowing.”

ferlinghetti-1Presenting itself as a literary meeting place since 1953, City Lights now at 60, both a bookshop and a publisher, places itself firmly “where the streets of the earth meet the boulevards of the mind.”

Placards in the windows proclaim “Open doors, Open books, Open minds”. Ferlinghetti, self-styled as an earlier bohemian, enabled the Beat Generation by publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl ( ‘’ I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”) following the ground breaking live reading at Gallery 6 in 1955.

Behind the poets, the new approach was marked by the train-of-thought writing of Jack Kerouac adding a new dimension to the easy going City-on-the-Bay. In his seminal novel “On the Road” the hero, Dean Moriarty, asserted that “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who…burn, burn, burn, like fabulous roman candles.”

Many had experienced that feeling of jazz music “splitting the earth” and Kerouac was delighted that “Everybody in ‘Frisco blew. It was the end of the continent, they didn’t give a damn.”

d5271702lDefense of free speech, liberation of the word from censorship became another rite of passage to the developing counterculture. Obscenity trials involving the publishing of Howl by City Lights and presenting Michael McClure’s “The Beard” on stage were eventually won. They made possible other publications such as the first printing of Henry Miller’s provocative novels in the United States, and drew much attention to the writers on the Bay.

Above all, it was knowledge escaping from the academy, and for the poets a revival of the oral tradition with the writer as performer ; Kerouac demanding that we “ Shout Our Poems In San Francisco Sreets – Predict Earthquakes”.

By 2001 City Lights was established as an official landmark. Ferlinghetti had become the first Poet Laureate of San Francisco and a street, Via Ferlinghetti was named in his honor.

Jack Kerouac Alley materialised as a pedestrian precinct behind the bookstore while the Gallery 6 poetry reading is remembered on Fillmore Street with a bronze plaque outside the site of the former building. All very formal and official and yet the voice of the Beats continues to resonate .

Among the many to acknowledge their influence was Stuart Brand whose work did so much to make technology liberating. He considered meeting the Beats to be his great transforming moment and an antidote to corporate brain-lock. It led to Haight-Ashbury, LSD and the psychedelic revolution, where poets talked and musicians listened.

“My words man, my words” exclaimed Jim Morrison of the Doors, while the coming of Bob Dylan was seen to disturb the peace and discomfort the powerful.

jobs_stewart_brandFinally Steve Jobs , whom Stuart Brand defined as a total hippy ( “I was an early hippy and Steve Jobs a late hippy, we were paying attention to the beatniks”), expressed his admiration for the way Brand had linked various ideas together in his Whole Earth Catalogue to provide the tools to “change civilisation”. Brand still offers controversial ideas on TED conferences and lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.

Each generation rediscovers the vitality of what became known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Charismatic actor of our times, Johnny Depp, when advised how to read Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues for a film protested “ I’m not reading as him, I’m reading it as me. It’s my interpretation of his piece.” Depp insisted, however, that without On The Road or Howl there would never have been a Bob Dylan or “The Times They Are-a-Changin”.

tv-poetry-9609-1In tribute to the indispensable collections emerging from City Lights, Johnny Depp emphasizes that “the riches I was able to walk away with from these heroes, teachers and mentors are not available in any school that I’ve ever heard of.”

City Lights Bookstore remains a shining beacon in San Francisco, a reason in itself to visit the city.

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Matters of Faith – “If you ain’t happy, you ain’t listening to enough Coltrane!”

ImageSan Francisco is interested in spirituality rather than religion, observed Kate Cooper, visiting historian from Manchester, England.

She was speaking at the Forum discussions organized at Grace cathedral, one of the many centers of faith that reflect the tradition of tolerance towards different cultures and beliefs in the Bay Area. This wide range of influences and interests are seen in the architecture of the numerous faith based structures in San Francsico –  ranging from a Russian Orthodox church whose spires suggest the flame of a candle to the fascinating Vedanta temple with domes that echo the Taj Mahal.

ImageOver from the Pacific Heights, on Cathedral Hill, is the dominant shape of the huge Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Mary. The distinctive roof is composed of floating “hyperbolic paraboloids” (like the former Commonwealth Institute in London). It has affectionately been nicknamed “Our Lady of Maytag” as, to many, it resembles the central part of a rotating washing machine.

Here too, the changing attitudes to religion and spirituality can be seen. After St Mary’s inaugural Papal Mass with John Paul II, Nobel Prizewinner Czesław Miłosz discussed the difficulties in writing religious poetry, noting that we live in a largely postreligious world. Seeking a return to the roots in 2013, newly elected Pope Francis reminds us that the saints did not have bank accounts and, in his choice of name, emphasizes the importance of the Saint of Poverty (and also the patron saint of San Francisco!).

In North Beach, a building which started in 1948 as a gymnasium has been carefully converted to contain a loving reconstruction of the Porziuncola of St Francis in Assisi. On the entry steps of the chapel are the words “I want you ALL in Paradise”, the franciscan message to the world. It is said that no person who enters the Porziuncola will ever see hell.

San Francisco embraces the full spectrum of religion and spirituality though – not just the traditional – There is even a cult around one of the greatest Jazz musicians of the century.

ImageJohn Coltrane is celebrated as one of the 90 dancing saints in the rotunda of an Episcopal church on Potrero Hill, while at 1286 Fillmore, near the elegant new Jazz Center is the African Orthodox Church of St. John Coltrane. The liturgy is the uplifting 1964 album of the saxophonists “A Love Supreme”. There is a five-hour Jam session every Sunday and its motto is “If you ain’t happy, you ain’t listening to enough Coltrane!”

On a more contemporary note, Edward Mendelson, contributing editor to PC magazine writes with tongue-in-cheek that, as everyone knows, “the world religion of the educated and prosperous in the twenty-first century is Apple, with it’s Vatican in Cupertino and it’s cathedrals the light filled Apple stores”.  Cynics would counter that maybe Apple is more like Scientology than anything divine.

Certainly enlightenment and mindfulness are in fashion amongst the Silicon Valley elite. At nearby Twitter headquarters there are the popular meditation courses seen
as a tool to better oneself and improve productivity,while this years Wisdom 2.0 conference was attended by top executives from Linkedin and Cisco. Meanwhile Google employees are taking classes to improve their EI -emotional intelligence in an internally delivered course entitled “Search Inside Yourself“. This has been so successful that that there is apparently a waiting list of 400 and growing.

The California Street cable car rattles its way through the city up Nob Hill. There, surrounded by landmark hotels, the Pacific Union Club and the Masons Grand Lodge is the most visited church of all, Grace Cathedral.

ImageEstablished during the Gold Rush, destroyed by the 1906 earthquake fires, the present structure was started in 1928 on land donated from burnt homes. It was finally consecrated in 1964, a visual “Europe 101” reminding of the Notre Dame in Paris and maybe the last of the Gothic-style churches. Traditionally conservative it has transformed itself into a forward-looking institution with a dynamic Dean, the Rev. Canon Jane Shaw who came from Oxford via Harvard and Berkeley. She participates actively in the innovative Forum discussions in the Cathedral Hall, the recent ones also attended by Professor Kate Cooper (kateantiquity.com). A newly commissioned work for the San Francisco Opera caused controversy. ”The Gospel of Mary Magdalen” opens with a scene where Mary is in bed with “someone else’s husband” and a lively debate took place in the Forum. Themes such as “The Textual Magdalene – apostle or prostitute?“ were also discussed in the presence of the composer and the mezzo-soprano who came to speak on “the fully erotic but fully spiritual story of Mary and Yeshua “. Other themes for debate have included those on “God and technology” and “Gender Equality” while every Tuesday evening several hundred young people come for yoga on  the labyrinth by the nave.This helps to quieten the mind and balance the body.

628x471An exact replica of the Florence Baptistry doors at the main entrance to the church continues the links to the past. The Renaissance originals by sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti impressed the young Michelangelo  so much that he referred to them as being like the Gates of Paradise. The  Florence originals are now in a museum and the molds used for the Grace cathedral doors, were later used to replace those in Florence and only then destroyed.

ImageThe labyrinths in the nave and just outside the church doors, another link with early Christianity, were inspired by the one in the famous Chartres cathedral in France. They are much used by contemporary pilgrims who follow the path of the labyrinths from start to finish in contemplation and meditation much like the pilgrims in the old world.  The labyrinth has been so popular at Grace Cathedral, that even Google created one at their headquarters for “walking meditation”.

Nearby the interfaith chapel commemorating the 20,000 San Franciscans who died of AIDS, has as its centrepiece the famous triptych that local artist Keith Haring completed just weeks before succumbing to the disease himself.

Many outstanding figures have accepted invitations to speak from the pulpit in the past ,among them the Dalai Lama,Martin Luther King and Lech Wałesa.  ImageContemporary stained glass windows celebrate  the achievements of astronaut John Glenn and the ground-breaking E=mc2 formula of the greatest brain of the 20th century, Albert Einstein.

Some have worried that science basically undermines religion. Einstein concluded that “What humanity owes  to personalities like Buddha, Moses and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind”. Embracing this, Grace Cathedral maintains its relevance and a central part in the public life of the city. No visit to San Francisco is quite complete without it.

There is even a Peets Coffee House in the basement.

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Billionaires, Bodhisattvas and Sailors

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Cities are said to be repositories of memories, but it is people that make cities. The exchange of ideas and life styles that give urban life texture, stories and scurrilous gossip.

At the western side of Pacific heights, near the home of Senator Diane Feinstein by the Lyon steps so popular with outdoor exercise enthusiasts, are the houses of the new, high-tech business leaders. Jonathan Ive, one of Apple’s masterminds lives on Broadway. Nearby is one of the many trophy homes of “Bazillionaire” Larry Ellison who is credited with changing the world of database software.

Ellison himself has a flamboyant lifestyle and, according to the press, a public image as a brash business tycoon that he has been trying to counter of late with the recent public display of his well chosen Japanese collection – oozing the quiet elegance he’d like to be known for. Of course the press has a different idea, announcing “Larry Ellison, Bodhisattva in Waiting, Brings Enlightenment to San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.”

ImageThe Ellison house , at 2850 Broadway, has a grandstand position from which to oversee the America’s Cup races on the Bay below. His sleek black Oracle-sponsored catamarans, defending cup-holders , virtually flying across the water below the panoramic terrace. Ellison himself will, of course, most likely be found at the Golden Gate Yacht Club he bought or maybe even more likely, as a former crew member of the victorious 2010 boat, on the water himself.

Another commanding house, this time at 2080 Washington Street, was once the residence that sugar millionaire Adolph Spreckles built for his young bride Alma de Brettville. She was formerly a nude model for local artists and prominent as the Goddess of Victory on the Dewey Monument on Union Square. The house has fifty five rooms including a Louis XVI ballroom. It attracted a lot of gossip as Alma was half his age ,to which she would shrug her shoulders and say “I would rather be a rich man’s darling than a poor man’s slave”.

ImageMore recently the Spreckles mansion has been home to Danielle Steel, the best selling author alive. With over 100 novels to her name, her “formula” clearly captures the popular pulse, attracting sneers about her being the Queen Mother of Trash. But with books said to bring in over $800 million a year, she feels no need to comment.

At 64, the ever outspoken Steele complains that there is no style in San Francisco, “it’s all shorts and camping boots”. As for California healthy living she adds “ I would rather die than exercise . San Francisco is a great city to raise children, but I was happy to leave it”. She now seems to spend much of her time in Paris indulging in haute-couture and red-soled Louboutin shoes, of which she can boast a collection of more than 4000 pairs, worth over $4 million

These are just some of the innumerable stories that give a feel for a city and make it fascinating. As San Francisco’s self-taught thinker Kenneth Rexroth emphasised “The art of being civilized is the art of learning to read between the lies”.

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Despite having a a population of less than a million, much smaller than nearby San Jose, San Francisco has become the richest of cities. It has the youngest population, the least children and the highest i-phone use in the country.

Surrounded by water on three sides , like Manhattan, but located on 74 hills, it is said there is an “island mentality “ to San Francisco. It was described by poet laureate Laurence Ferlinghetti as being “indeed an offshore province, not really part of mainland America”.

The City’s exudes a liberal feeling not found in many other cities in the US – years ago, the American poet Kenneth Rexroth explained that its liberal traditions reflect the fact that it was the only city that was not settled by the westward spreading puritan tradition. Instead, San Francisco has thrived as a place of great contrasts ever since the days of Levi Strauss stapling rivets into working clothes to make his, bphoto 2y now eponymous, creations.

There may be 400 banks, 20 universities and some of the most valuable property in the country, however, at the same time, it has the least home ownership and the highest rental population. Much of this due to a policy of strict rent control that is strongly enforced in San Francisco. In older properties (anything built before June of 1979), landlords may only increase the rent by a token annual percentage (1.9% in 2013-2014), so although an average 1 bedroom apartment may rent for $2,700 per month, many pay only $700 or less. It encourages tennants to stay, some for a lifetime.

I recently toured the city with my brilliant colleague, Craig Smith, city guide and authentic insider, who explained that centuries ago there were virtually no trees here when the Spanish arrived but that years of careful cultivation and a suitable Mediterranean-type climate transformed the landscape. Everything grows in this idyllic environment including many exotic shrubs and plants.

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Only the eucalyptus is avoided because the dry leaves and bark are a constant fire hazard. Redwood, disliked by termites,was particularly popular in constructing the many huge Victorian and Queen Anne style houses while the windy climate meant few insects, so no need for nets or air-conditioning, making elegant bay windows a prominent architectural feature.

Facing the bay, the fabled Pacific Heights on the northern side of the city has some of the most valuable real estate in the United States. The major attraction for many are the world’s most beautiful urban views with a panorama from Alcatraz to Sausalito and the Golden Gate Bridge. It is also firmly anchored on bedrock, so many buildings survived both the 1906 earthquake and the fire that followed.

I asked Craig if, like so many others in San Francisco, Pacific Heights would be his location of choice assuming money to be of no object but he instantly answered  “no, Sausalito”.

g_47_WaterviewHorizonsThe former home town  of  Zen master Alan Watts and actor Robert Redford, Sausalito, has a relaxed style, warmer temperatures and proximity to both the scenic Marin headlands and wine producing NapaValley. It would certainly make a great choice!

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Gold Rush, Blue Jeans and Earthquakes

Golden-Gate-from-San-FranciscoIn my recent trip to San Francisco, I noticed that this town, having been subject to multiple booms and busts over the years, is on the move again. Headlines in the San Francisco’s  Chronicle explained that yet another technology bonanza is the culprit for the current housing boom – an effect being especially felt in the “City by the Bay” more than anywhere else.

An explosion in technology jobs, IPO’s by cutting edge start-ups and big money buy-outs by larger companies have created yet another generation of instant millionaire buyers thrown onto the city’s housing market. Even run-down old buildings and warehouses in the SOMA (South of Market Area) and away from the Bay Bridge are being renovated with a renewed vigour – becoming outposts for new social technology darlings like Twitter and Yammer.

googlecarLuxury busses with wi-fi and tinted windows zoom through the city to provide a free regular service for Google employees to Mountain View in Silicon Valley – a practice followed by numerous others like Genentech and Yahoo!, while the driverless (yes, driverless) Google car passes by to demonstrate innovation in action.

Some say this is due to a West Coast hippy mentality of the 1960’s which left a legacy of radical thinking, others because of the concentrated brain-power of Stanford, Berkeley and another 20 or so universities. Although much research has been traditionally sponsored by the military defense companies in the past, today there is a far broader spectrum of investment and speculation, with companies such as Apple, Facebook, Oracle, and other emerging tech leaders dominating from their positions in the famed Silicon Valley. The list goes on but, whatever the impulse, one third of all the venture capital in the United States is concentrated in the “magic triangle” between San Jose, Marin County and Pleasanton/Livermore in an area with a total population of around 7 million. Thanks to all this, the iconic city of San Francisco, situated in the middle of it all, is booming once again.

Historically of course, the Bay Area was not always so active. Protected by fog, mist and unstable weather, the Bay offered shelter but only to ships that could find it. The Camino Real of New Spain, its governors and the Dominican/Franciscan missions only reached out to claim possession. The Yerba Buena settlement which became San Francisco originally had a population of only 469 and very few trees.

The defining moments for this city were really the great Gold Rush of 1849 and the earthquake of 1906. Early discoveries of gold and the staking of claims caused a frenzy of landgrabbers and easy money.The 10,000 newcomers of 1848 became by 1849 a throng of 25,000 from all over the world. Among them only some 300 women, many of them prostitutes.

Sailors rushed inland, leaving a graveyard of 800 abandoned ships on what became known as the Barbary Coast, named after the infamous dens of North African pirates. Highwaymen averaged 500 killings a year on the Camino Real. Desperate ships captains resorted to kidnapping to raise their crews. Ex-convict elements from the Antipodies attempted a takeover which was only crushed by crowds of self appointed vigilantes. There were imprisonments, hangings and deportations back to Australia.

Interestingly, the gold seekers were only able to extract a small portion of the gold in the foothills, more 70% of the gold is estimated to still be there. However, very real fortunes were made during this time – mostly by enterprising suppliers to miners or by those involved in the construction of the rapidly growing city that was springing up as a result of this growing activity.

user2425_1172627992The classic case is the legend of Levi Strauss who originally attempted to sell brown sail cloth material for tents to gold miners but found greater demand for sturdy work clothing. The predominant material used at the time chafed so a hard wearing but smoother cotton was sent for.

This had been a major export from Nîmes in France (hence from/de Nîmes or denim) to the dockworkers and sailors of the dominant Mediterranean port of Genoa (known as Gênes to the French , hence “jeans”).On sea voyages this denim clothing could be laundered by being dragged behind the ship in a net.

For the miners however, it was not strong enough at the seams and the final commercial breakthrough came only when Jacob Davis applied copper rivets at strategic points. He became a partner and patent holder. It then became the single best selling item of clothing in the world and today is virtually a uniform in Silicon Valley. Corporate headquarters are located on Levi Strauss Plaza in San Francisco, the company is still privately owned by Levi Strauss descendants and a “blue jeans” museum has been opened in Buttenheim, Germany, from where the founder had migrated.

As much as California and the Bay Area is famous for, it also has its share of infamy – not least of which for the perceived prevalence of Earthquakes in the region. A fracture, the notorious San Andreas fault was the cause of some 400 quakes recorded after 1848. Early in the morning of April 18th 1906, however, the ground moved along the fault and suddenly shifted 16’ to 20’ north. By today’s measurements it would have registered around 8 on the Richter scale. 28,000 buildings were destroyed and half the population made homeless. However, the major damage was done not just by the force of the quake, but rather by the 50-some fires that raged for days and weeks after the quake, The prevalent rumor of course, is that a healthy percentage of those fires started, not as the result of ruptured gas lines as commonly thought, but by distraught residents who torched their own homes to claim on fire damage in the absence of any available earthquake insurance. It took 9 years to rebuild the city to a state resembling its prior glory.

6787638359_e031d7b26a_zSeismic activity is a primary concern on the famous bridges. When the Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937 it was thought capable of resisting any conceivable earthquake. It is still considered a technical masterpiece, but recent research suggested the possibility of a collapse at the city side, Fort Point supporting arch, leading to a 392 million strengthening retrofit.

On the other side of the city, the 8.5 mile Oakland Bay Bridge is having problems too, ominously with bolts breaking. During the 1989 earthquake a 50’ section collapsed. Now a whole section between Treasure Island and Oakland is being replaced.

There is , of course,  constant research on how to minimize earthquake damage, particularly in Japan. New buildings now consist of an exoskeleton fitted with hydraulic dampers that absorb energy and convert it into heat which it dissipates. Architects in Tokyo believe indestructability is now a given. “You could keep working at your desk at Rippongi Hills if there were a big earthquake beneath Tokyo”, say specialists. 
San Francisco is taking note , thinking of “The Big One” to come.

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I HAVE FOUND THE PERFECT PLACE !

big-surBig Sur, California

The drama of the Pacific coastline is one that has always fascinated and inspired travelers.

Henry Miller, the writer whose books many readers describe as a life-changing experience, described the Pacific especially at Big Sur, as an “overwhelming force which is hidden within its obvious grandeur “. On Big Sur itself, he finally wrote “I have found the perfect place”.

North of San Francisco, the fabled Highway 1 is defeated by the rugged terrain of the “Lost Coast” and the wilderness of the King Range. South, this most romantic of roads leads to what was known as El Pais Grande del Sur (the big country to the south or Big Sur).

There, the Santa Lucia mountains seem to erupt from the ocean, giving way to incomparable vistas, unique on earth, where the one common aspect is the haunting presence of that vast majestic ocean.

Charles Olson, poet and intellectual from Gloucester, Massachussetts, declared in his study on Herman Melville (the author who wrote, amongst other classics, “Moby Dick”) – “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy…(it is) the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people”.

The presence of the ocean reminds us of the fierce determination of the early explorers to overcome its unpredictable winds and hidden rocks. Today, speed-breaking sailors and sea-defying surfers throw an equally powerful challenge, literally flying across the water,always on the edge,pushing to the limit. Santa Cruz surfing legend Jay Moriarty (hero at 15, dead at 23) warned “Don’t take anything for granted, because one minute it can be there and the next minute it can’t, and it happens so quick.”

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Fatalities occur all the time on this stretch of aquatic wilderness. Only just last week, the San Francisco Chronicle announced with a banner headline “Tragic Day on the Bay “.  One of the huge racing catamarans, whose 131’ long sail could power the boat up to three times the speed of the wind, lost its trajectory and capsized. On board, double Olympic medalist sailing champion Andrew Simpson, strategist for this year’s America’s Cup was trapped under the hull, unable to escape.

A few months earlier, in October 2012, the defending Oracle team for the Cup, lost its multi-million dollar boat when, unable to make a turn, it capsized and was destroyed by the sea.

The will to overwhelm nature may be there but ultimately the ocean is indomitable. It is awareness of this force that constantly attracts those seeking both peace and stimulation in the rugged landscape of Big Sur, where the mountains and the sky meet the turbulence of the Pacific.

400_frederic_larson_mavericks_surf_contestThe surfers consider the beaches and headlands from Ghost Tree to Pfeiffer Beach and Willow Creek to be hard core. On those waves, with many observing that ”one wrong turn, and you’re hitting the water like concrete at 50 miles an hour”. But in that challenge, one finds much more than just danger. The recent surfing film “Chasing Mavericks” explains “it’s not just about surf, it’s about the one thing in life that sets you free .”

That of course has been the big journey over the ages for “the seekers” out there. For example, the “astronauts of inner space “ as defined by the “Human Potential Movement” at the renown Esalen Institute search for a mind-body connection that comes from within instead of the waves. Esalen’s co-founder Michael Murphy, wrote a classic book exploring the mysticism of Golf and its similarities with the journey of life itself (“Golf in the Kingdom”).

Others participate in the Zen Mountain Center around Tassajara Hot Springs, while higher, at about 1300 ft above the Pacific ocean, the new Camaldoli Hermitage provides peace and refuge to all seeking tranquility. At the Hermitage, the monks follow the ancient teachings of St. Romuald, and St Benedict observing vows of silence. Outside visitors are welcome however, and may reflect on how aptly Henry Miller described this landscape, when he arrived in 1944, as “… the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look”.

The Californian coast, has always felt on the edge of the western world, and not only because it may all fall into the sea when the “Big One” hits, but as the culmination of the “Long Road West” as talked about by American historians.

In much the same way as the tip of Portugal at Sagres served as a launching pad to the searchers of the New World under Prince Henry the Navigator, so did ”New Spain”, and the Camino Real of the Jesuits and the Franciscans, serve as the final link with the edge of that continent.

Out there at Big Sur, at this land of the setting sun, with sunsets that vanish into the sea, you realise that you have reached the true end of the world. Beyond that coastline, there is only a journey back to the beginning, to the Far East, to China, to Japan, and to the land of the rising sun.

Sunset over Pacific Ocean and coast, Big Sur, California

There is a finality to this coast, culminating with movements like California Cool, the Beat Renaissance, and even a governor who, like the present Pope Francis, studied to be a priest in a Jesuit seminary.

Governor Jerry Brown urges the principle of “tantum quantum” – where you take what you need. Less not more. “It’s almost a Buddhist thought, a Greek thought”  he says – a balance that he calls “proportionality”, where “you can never stop the human heart from yearning and you can never stop the universe from being silent “.

Big Sur, is the embodiment of all that is California thus, the drama of the past, the excitement of the present, the thought of the Beats, and a presence of the inevitable. Henry Miller was most surely right – A more Perfect Place could hardly be imagined.

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The Russians have landed at the Golden Gate!

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A messenger came running through the corridors of the Viceroy’s residence in Mexico City. He urgently demanded to see the Spanish King’s Visitador General  – “Your  Highness, the Russians have landed at the Golden Gate!”.  These words set in motion a whole chain of actions which resulted in the naming and the myths of California.
Cabrillo, in 1542, had been the first to sail along the California coast, claiming it for Spain – but by the mid-1700’s all of Europe seemed to be attacking  the once mighty empire of Spain’s King Charles V, on which the ” sun never set ” . There was a loss of energy and spirit everywhere except in New Spain where missionary efforts were pushing the great frontier.
Politics were ever present. The Jesuits had been a kind of advance-guard  with their trademark  Black Robes , arriving ahead of the soldiers,  but back-stabbing at the courts in Madrid and Mexico City saw their universal expulsion by 1767. The Franciscans, less intellectual but more practical, took over, struggled with the politicians, and in fact had more problems with Yankee traders than the Russians.
The great force of the Franciscans was a short, ascetic friar from the island of Mallorca, Junipero Serra. He had planned to establish a chain of missions, each a day’s ride apart, that would extend “El Camino Real” (The Royal Road) to the north from its then limits in Mexico and Baja California. The road itself was a mule track along the mountains, through sand and forest elsewhere, a pathfinding slow road “to eternity”, quite unlike the great roads in Europe built for military reasons by Napoleon.
By 1772 Father Serra had four small churches built between San Diego and Monterey and, in 1772, a first watch tower was built at the Golden Gate. Among the outposts established by the Franciscan friars led by Junipero were Los Angeles (1767), San Francisco (1776), Santa Clara (1777) and Santa Cruz (1791). As a result of this work, Junipero Serra had gained the unofficial title of Founder of Spanish California.
However, it is to the heart of Europe, to Italy, that we have to go to find meaning in those California place-names. Assisi, pink stone glowing from a distance, is a skyline of prominent towers, castles, domes, walls and churches. One of the great destinations in Umbria’s  “land of the saints”, it celebrates the Christian teachers of internal life – St. Benedict and St. Francis and, of course, their enthusiastic followers.
Bazylika_Santa_Maria_degli_Angeli_AsyżOutside the medieval walls, the enormous dome of the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli stands over the exquisite ninth century chapel, the Porziuncola.This chapel, said to have been once given to St. Benedict, was offered  to St. Francis in 1208  as a founding  home for the Franciscan order.It celebrates the Virgin Mary’s Ascent into Heaven.
Climbing the roads inside the town, narrow streets lead to the great Gothic Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, it’s upper and lower churches covered with frescoes by fabled artists, including Cimabue and Giotto. This makes it one of the artistic highlights of Europe, noted for its unique tranquility despite being a major stop for visitors, and of course countless pilgrims.
Porziuncola chiesa
These great Christian monuments follow the footsteps of  Francis of Assisi, a man who was transformed from playboy, soldier and singing troubadour into one of the great human spirits.  At the end of the Dark Ages, he focused attention on the humanity of Christ and  the celebration of God through his creation, philosophically returning man’s attention back to earth. It was important that the Franciscans were to be friars, free to move and travel, not monks tied to a monastery. The rope around their waist with three knots is there to remind them of their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Francis himself travelled to Spain, Morocco and with the Crusaders to Egypt and the Holy Land.
It was the Spanish followers of St. Francis who created the mission on the edge of the western world. So it is interesting to note how the positioning of churches in Assisi seem to be reflected in the cities that have grown up in California.
Just like Santa Maria degli Angeli is at the base of Assisi situated outside the walls, so the mission named after it by those Spanish-speaking Franciscans, Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porziuncola (Our Lady Queen of the Angels of  Porziuncola), has grown to become today’s prosaic “L.A.”, situated in the southern part of the state.
In turn the naming of San Francisco (1776, after the Basilica of San Francis), and Santa Clara (1777, after the Basilica of Santa Chiara), both in close proximity, in the northern part of the state, reflect the position of the great churches on the slopes below Mount Subasio in Assisi. While the Misión la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz (named for the feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross) is also an echo of the great Franciscan burial church, Santa Croce in Florence. It is these fascinating links between the energetic modern cities of California, north and south, and the original Spanish Franciscan pioneers that gives an additional resonance and stimulus to the imagination.

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The connections with the spiritual heart of Italy are reinforced by the recently elected Pope, the Jesuit Cardinal Bergoglio – who adopted Francis as his papal name. True to his namesake, he has embraced humility, but seems to have a twinkle in his eye. Coming from Argentina, a wonderful wine-making country, he would undoubtedly appreciate the fact that Saint Francis warned the friars not to be sad and gloomy, and the pope would surely chortle at the typical clay-souvenir mementos frequently seen in Assisi today.Amusingly one of the most common is a representation of two friars standing by a big barrel with a sign that advises to “drink the wine on earth as there is none in heaven”.

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