The Senses of Place and Sensation of Palaces.

San Francisco in the summer has a rather infamous legacy. The most well-known, and consistently mis-credited sentiment to this is that “the coldest winter I/he/she ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Mark Twain did not say this. No one seems to actually know who did say it. Regardless, summer in my city, THE City as far as I am concerned, is rather bi-polar. And by this I really mean “of the polar regions.” Sometimes. The weather here is fickle, which, coincidentally, suits me.

It amuses me to hear people bitch endlessly about the weather in San Francisco. It makes me wonder what they expected, not enough to ask them, but I wonder none the less. Sometimes it makes me want to give them a brief geography lesson centered around the basics of climatology and climate regions, perhaps with a little suggestion of global warming thrown in there. But, even the line at Tartine would not offer enough time to make it clear to someone who lives here and bitching that it is only in the sixties (the teens, for my Celsius oriented compadres) at ten a.m. on a Sunday morning in July under crystalline blue skies… though they see no problem with waiting over an hour for a freaking pastry they are going to pay way too much for: an experience that is also emblematic of this city

Emblematic. One of my students asked what that word meant last year. I asked what it sounded like, thinking they would get to emblem but it didn’t happen. When I asked if they had heard of emblem they said no. I said, like a representation, or a symbol? They said, why didn’t I just say representative or symbolic.


I tried to say that emblematic got more at the nature of something, beyond just being a recognizable symbol for said thing. Like, the Golden Arches are a symbol for McDonald’s but they don’t really get at the actual nature of McDonald’s. They told me McDonald’s was not natural. Undeterred, I kept on. What would a symbol that really showed what McDonald’s was like, in every way, good or bad, look like? They waited for me to answer what they apparently thought was a useless or maybe rhetorical question. No response. I said, alright, let’s think about what McDonald’s is really like. What does it look like? Smell like? Sound like? Taste like? Feel like? They stared at me like I might be the most daft human ever. I tried again: Okay, if I took you to a McDonald’s, only you were blindfolded and had no idea that I was taking you there, would you know you were actually in a McDonald’s?


Okay, then how? ‘Cause of how it smells… You’d hear people asking if you wanted fries with that… Plastic. Grease. Bad music. Foreign languages. Sticky sweet.  Now they were getting it. Those things are emblematic to McDonald’s, I said, they combine to complete the full experience of what it is like to be there. You are describing the sense of place of McDonald’s: the total sensory experience of what it is like to be in that specific place.


It is actually a fun game to play to get at geographical stereotypes and preconceived notions in other teaching circumstances. It is also the premise of any good advertising campaign, getting at the most marketable elements of a place (or making something marketable). You cannot really do that if you don’t have an idea of the sense of the place. Good books and movies also know this: no one will buy into your story if they can’t get a good sense of what it is like there. It is the backbone of the most over saturated  literary niche these days (travel writing) and the purpose behind any sort of true photojournalistic endeavor.

It matters to us. Inherently people want to know, what is it like there?

I tried it, this effort to really try to get at the heart of matter of a place (places) when I wrote about Hong Kong. Thailand. Vietnam. Cambodia. Japan. China. Burma. Burning Man. Los Angeles. Santa Fe. Reno. San Francisco. Even my thesis. There are a few moments of brilliance, though more often than not it comes across as excess verbage, simple bragging, or Hey! THAT IS VERY SPARKLY! rather than a more erudite, significant shared experience. But hey, when you think about it, why should getting at the real sense of anything be all that easy?

Lately I am spending a lot of time really feeling out the sense of San Francisco as I have embarked on a seemingly Sisyphean task of looking for a new potential abode. There are a lot of variables at play here, not the least of which being that the standard rent for a middle of the road one-bedroom place here is now pricing just around $3k/mo. I am no financial genius, but that shit is ridonkulous. And frankly, I like my place. It is just a little on the small side, [says the girl who lived in Hong Kong for more than five years – so just imagine if you would, how small.]

All the listings proclaim they are “True San Francisco” or “The Real San Francisco” or “In the Heart of San Francisco,” etcetera, ad nauseam. But it makes me look. And ponder. What is the true/real/heart of San Francisco anyhow? Apparently it is proximity to ‘known’ landmarks/places. Oops, no, it turns out it is Edwardian/Victorians. Err… wait, no, it now appears to be any apartment listed as a flat. Or is it:  ‘high ceilings, crown moldings and ornate fireplace’? Oh, it means hardwood floors. No? It means bay windows. No. It means walk-up. Oh hold on, it means former hotel, now condos with fancy lobby and lift (that is a goddamned elevator people – this is AMERICA.) Oh, hold the phone, this one says that real San Francisco is proximity to ‘urban culture and diversity’ – oooh… yeah, 7th and Mission, that would be your spin. ‘Close to the best restaurants’ – a bit presumptuous, no? ‘Highest walkability scores’, huh. The only thing I have found that all seem to agree on in terms of the REAL San Francisco is that the average rent is somewhere around $5/square foot.

The last few days I have not filtered my searches and just seen what comes up in the new listings. I just look at all of them. OH, THAT IS VERY SPARKLY! There are sensational properties available in the City. But at the end of the day, is that really all I want? Because it might end up being all one gets at these prices. And the more I look at what might be affordable or appropriate, the better the place I am in appears. I know what I like and I know what I want to pay and it is clear these two do not match. So I sit here and think about it.

I want to stay in San Francisco, of this I feel [pretty] sure. I don’t want to be house poor under any circumstances, and I want to be able to travel, eat out, shop… but mostly travel to do all those things.

I am drawn to lovely places. Always have been. The difference now is that I would rather see many sensational places than inhabit a single one. While I am sure I will never stop imagining what it would be like to live in the Hermitage or the chateaus that dot the route of Le Tour de France or the Madarin Oriental in Bangkok or the Uffizi or all the other amazing, sparkly places I have visited, I can rest easy knowing that I can always, at any moment, recall the smells, the feel, the air, the sounds, the experience of all these places.

For now, I appreciate the benefits of a small home in a great neighborhood with a full, fabulous kitchen, hardwood floors, crown molding, a sparkly bathroom, and not enough doors. It is what it is, and I have no pressing need to move on.

But I have got some trips to sensational places, and palaces, to plan – hey… look!


About Amanda

I am repatriating expatriate trying to work it all out. Well, to work some of it out anyhow. I am writing here for sanity, focus and general over-sharing.
This entry was posted in Absurd Shit, California, Chasing the Life I was Supposed to Want, Geography, Home, Life, San Francisco, Travel, true stories, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Senses of Place and Sensation of Palaces.

  1. Will says:

    Thank you Amanda, that was fun. Love

  2. T says:

    Pure pleasure, start to finish. Many thanks

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