Our San Francisco Christmas already slips into distant memory. How does it happen, when the experiences outside one’s regular life sparkle so vividly as they unfold, but as soon as the usual patterns and environments are returned to, the journey feels more like a dream? Like a particularly realistic one that nonetheless fades immediately upon awakening?

Maybe it’s just me. In any case, I’d better chronicle while I can.

The night before we left, the morning of our leaving, those were fraught with arguments of the usual sort holidays inspire in families. Why can’t certain people help out more? Why do some people have to be so uptight? Why are we wasting time on that when this clearly needs to be done?

Perhaps my mood wasn’t the most joyful, I admit. This was the first Christmas since moving to Humboldt that we decided – and by “we,” I mean “I” – to travel. We’d forsake our trustworthy low-key holiday visit from my mom and brother, and meet them in the City instead. He lives there; she’d fly up from L.A. Instead of reading books and playing board games by the fire, we’d tour museums and seek out Thai food, Indian food. Instead of a movie at Mill Creek or Broadway, we’d catch something at the AMC near the restaurant where I’d booked a Christmas dinner reservation. The change seemed like an adventure when I’d thought of it. With little money to spend on Christmas, why not put our resources toward creating an extra-special memory instead of doling out our minimal dollars on less exciting gifts? When I scored a great deal at an upscale Japantown hotel (three nights for $198), I took it as a sign that Christmas in the City was meant to be.

The other members of my family weren’t so sure, although they went along with the change in plans without much complaint. Still, this Christmas better deliver – if things went awry, everyone would remember it as “That Christmas Mom made us go to San Francisco and it was so awful.” Unlikely, maybe, but the self-imposed pressure was on.

Other than traffic, we made good time, seeing snow along the recently cleared highway, but not experiencing the hail or ice I’d feared. We arrived early afternoon, found parking fairly easily near the park and booked over to the de Young to meet my mom and brother. I had scheduled the de Young as the first stop on our itinerary to make sure Bobby got an art fix; coincidentally, my brother created the 400-page guide accompanying the Asian Art exhibit currently on display. Much art was admired with minimal complaint from the children (at this point, just Nick and K). My own trip through that special exhibit ended rushed, as Nick was anxious to get to the gift shop to purchase a gift for K, a fan of Asian design. Plenty of fine art to admire, of course; I particularly love the John Singer Sargent and, being an appreciator of function, all the gorgeous furniture.

A Dinner Table at Night
A Dinner Table at Night

While on that side of town, we strolled up to Green Apple, my favorite bookstore in the world (with Booklegger and Northtown very close seconds), and, after some unavoidable purchases –

Joan Didions nonfiction collection
Joan Didion's nonfiction collection

– took a chance on King of Thai. Quite good and reasonably priced, too. The seven of us ate well for under $70.

We then motored over to Japantown to find Hotel Kabuki. I’d maintained a level of excitement and high expectations based on its 4- star rating. The lobby, a balance of crisp and flowing lines under high ceilings and good lighting, matched my imagination, but the lack of the “tea welcoming ceremony” touted on the website was a bit of a blow. This being a rare opportunity, I wanted to experience as much indulgence as possible.

The rooms, though lovely, also disappointed a bit. The smallness wouldn’t have been a bother if reasonable closet space and any dresser drawers had been offered. With nowhere to stash our stuff, the resultant clutter diminished both the charm of the room and my enjoyment of our stay. The bathtub was deep, with the shower adjacent to provide the “traditional” Japanese bathing experience of washing separately before soaking, but the thin walls meant any sense of solitude was disrupted by our neighbors’ children shouting. And the “modern fitness center” – in which I planned to maintain my current exercise regime – held outdated cardio machines and scuzzy mats (in addition to the acceptable free weights and weight machine). If I hadn’t been expecting much, I’m sure I would’ve been thrilled simply to be there, but given I’d taken it upon myself to upend our traditional family Christmas, I needed everything to be as promised.

Then my cell phone rang.

JM, who was housesitting for us while we were away was calling.

“Hi! Everything okay?”

“The creatures are all fine,” he assured me, “but some bad news.”

“Oh, no! What’s wrong?”

“There’s no water. According to this notice on the door, it’s been shut off.” He sounded remarkably calm for someone about to stay at a house with no running water. I promised to call the services district in the morning and resolve the problem, but worrying about it – I’ve had the most problematic time with that bill for various reasons the last couple months – kept me tossing and turning all night. The next morning, Christmas Eve, Bobby left at 7 a.m. to drive back to Healdsburg and pick up Chelsea, who’d been unable to find a sitter for her dog that would allow her to join us on the way. (Typical.) Nick, K and I met my mom and brother at Arizmendi Bakery near Ninth and Irving. While everyone else sat inside the bakery, eating delicious olive and provolone rolls, apple cake, etc., I paced the alley with my cell phone, begging the water district to turn the water back on (complicated). Eventually, they agreed, but with great reluctance and strident warnings about bringing in cash by Monday. Unable to immediately shake off the bad vibes, I walked in the crowded bakery without an appetite.

“Jenni, you have to eat!” my mom worried. I insisted I wasn’t hungry, but to please her, I acquiesced and bought one of the cheese-olive rolls. Good call, too – it was fabulous. Seriously. The simultaneous texture of moist and light lifted my mood immediately. And then, off to the Academy of Sciences.

When Bobby’s dad sent us enough money to cover a family membership, a day before we left, I was thrilled. This was the biggest of the moments I’d been waiting for, the primary impetus for having Christmas in the City. Apparently about 4,000 other people had the same idea. What a difference between taking Nick on a school day and taking the entire family (Bobby and Chelsea met us there) on a holiday. The exhibits nonetheless impressed, but dealing with the crowd drained me. While no one complained outright, everyone was relieved when we finally left to regroup in the calm of the hotel – preceded by a stop at Mollusk, the cutest surf shop in the world.

I wish I could’ve focused solely on the positive bits so far, like the surf shop delight, but exhausted and somewhat disappointed in both the hotel and the science museum experience, I felt like I was failing to provide the magical moments I’d promised – moments that would be so sublime, no one would miss our usual cozy Christmas at home. Squabbling between the kids grated on me further. Even the Japantown Indian buffet I usually enjoy seemed less pleasant than I remembered it. But conversing with my brother, seeing my mom so happy to be with us, that helped me keep perspective.

Christmas Day started off with Bobby and I taking a walk up to Lafayette Park in icy wind that heralded the storm to come, complete with occasional claps of thunder. I vented a bit about why I was so stressed out; he just listened and allowed me to be comforted in the telling. After returning, we gathered the children and few gifts, and caught the 22 to my brother’s typically cool old Victorian SF-apartment in the Mission. Maybe it was being in a home instead of a hotel, maybe it was the buttermilk pancakes (he provided the ingredients; I provided the making), but the tension eased and a certain joy infused the morning. The gift exchange took on a comedic air as no one had been able to wrap much. Instead, gifts were pulled out of tote bags and from under couches. Simple gifts, but clearly thought about. Everyone felt as if care had been taken in the choosing.

My brothers gift to me.
My brother's gift to me.

Some chaos returned when we arrived at the (packed) AMC theater to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. While the rest of us huddled off to the side of the giant lobby (the place is in an old car dealership that expands into the recesses of a multi-story office building), Bobby waited in line for tickets. But when he reached the front, they only had 20 seats left, so chances of us sitting together were doubtful. He looked frantically for us to tell him what to do, but we were well out of his line of sight, so he ended up passing on the tickets and losing his place in the 60-person-long line. This threw a wrench into the plans of movie-then-dinner. (We had reservations around the corner at Maharani.) After considering what other movies were playing, we thought we could do dinner first, then watch the 7 p.m. Benjamin Button.

I’d already changed the reservations once, from 5 p.m. to 7 to accommodate the earlier movie; now I had to call and change them back. But no one was that thrilled about finding something to do for an hour-and-a-half until the restaurant opened, then seeing a 3-hour movie later into the night. We consulted again and decided to see Slumdog Millionaire at 4:45 p.m. and change our reservations back to 7 p.m. So I had to call Maharani yet again. “Hi, this is Jennifer Savage. I had 5 p.m. reservations that I changed to 7 p.m., then changed back, but now I need to change them back to 7 p.m. I’m so sorry. I won’t call again, I promise!” They just laughed. “No problem.”

Highly recommended.

Whew. And the movie was GREAT and we left the scenes and music of Mumbai only to re-enter them again in the charming, lovely, aphrodisiacal restaurant that is Maharani. The food, the drink, the seating, everything was as divine, more divine, than I’d hoped. All the back- and-forth about the movie and dinner resulted in a perfect evening. I slept better that night.

The next morning, a K-requested trip to Little Orphan Andy’s (in the Castro) turned out to be both tasty and fun. They crammed all seven of us into the four-person window seat, but somehow it worked. Seriously good diner food, too. Next, a trip on the streetcar into Hayes Valley for some artisan chocolate at Christopher Elbow – oh my god, it’s divine – and then a tearful goodbye as we took our leave from Mom and Tag.

Almond marzipan with a Persian spiced ganache... saffron, clove, cardamom, cinnamon and orange blossom.
Almond marzipan with a Persian spiced ganache... saffron, clove, cardamom, cinnamon and orange blossom.

We drove over to Clement Street for one last stop at Green Apple and were about to leave town when Bobby remembered we needed to take photos at “our” mural, the rainbow one just off Haight Street. This tradition started in 1989, when Bobby took me to SF following my Brooks College graduation. When we returned is when I discovered I was pregnant. Over the years, we’ve taken more photos in the same spot, some with the children, some without. As you can imagine, trying to stop quickly on the Haight isn’t easy. But miraculously, we managed to park, jump out, have some kind couple take our family photo (they were waiting for Bobby to finish taking a photo of the kids and touched when he said, “We’ve been doing this since 1989!) and hop back in the car in less than 10 minutes!

Evolutionary Rainbow Mural - Haight & Cole Photo © Ingrid Tayla
Evolutionary Rainbow Mural - Haight & Cole Photo © Ingrid Tayla

Finally, the trip home. Tons of traffic on the Presido, bittersweet parting with Chelsea in Healdsburg, eternal wait for dinner at Burrito Exquisito in Willits, but eventually home to a happy dog, indifferent cats and, thanks to Bobby, within minutes, a roaring fire.

I think it all worked out.