Sexy is the City: Bee Rowlatt on San Francisco

The writer and journalist speaks on nature, culture and counterculture in the city.

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The grand art deco Golden Gate Bridge, says Bee Rowlatt, is a testament to America’s can-do spirit. Photo by Stefano Termanini/ Shutterstock.

Bee Rowlatt’s first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge left her quivering with joy. Five years later, she still trills in delight at any mention of the grand, vermilion San Francisco edifice. “I wrote a travel piece about it in which I go nuts,” she says, laughing. “It’s the most beautiful thing!” Her pitch rises. “You can’t believe it. It’s a testament to human willpower. They said it couldn’t be built, but the whole American spirit of can-do seems embodied in it. I found that quite moving.” In the piece-in which-she-goes-nuts, 45-year-old Rowlatt writes in The Telegraph of joining the fan club: “How could I not? It’s huge. It’s orange. It’s art deco.” All good points. During the course of our conversation, she will proceed to make many more.

Rowlatt, a journalist and broadcaster, now based in India, considers herself “a newly burnished Dilliwaali”; and is quite prepared to enlarge upon the capital’s charms. But before she moved here, she had begun an affair with the city on the Bay, and on the phone is reduced to energetic rhapsodies. Rowlatt speaks with an admixture of wonderment and humour. During her two-week trip she dipped in a soothing hot spring (“swimwear optional”), ingested gourmet delights (“Michelin-auditioning stuff”) and walked among murals (“huge, gorgeous”). But wait, one more thing, how could she forget. “The wine,” she exclaims, a breathy sigh invoking the remembered pleasures of full-blooded Merlots and luscious Chardonnays.

The California visit was the culmination of a month-long journey for Rowlatt, author of the travel memoir In Search of Mary: The Mother of All Journeys. It was the third act in an adventure retracing the swashbuckling steps of Enlightenment thinker and proto-feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft travelled with her baby, went looking for some treasure and wrote a bestseller on the way. In the 18th century, a woman on the road alone would have been unheard of; a woman with a baby would have been cognitively indigestible. Rowlatt was captivated by that story and set out to travel to those same places, with her two-year-old.

Both women worked their way through Scandinavia and Paris. The U.S. never featured on Wollstonecraft’s itinerary, though it was very much on her wishlist. And for Rowlatt, tacking on California to this homage trip was both a tribute to the feminist and an important pitstop to a crucible of the feminist movement. It’s an arc that begins with Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women all the way to contemporary debates on intersectionality. “I’m very much part of the second wave feminist movement. That’s where I come from. So, for me, heading to California was obvious,” she says. “One of the themes I tackle is the notion of second wave feminism, the idea of having it all. And that really needed some closer examination,” she continues. “So I went.”

In her journey to retrace proto-feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft's footsteps, California was a final stop. Rowlatt loved exploring the larger-than-life city with her son, Will. Photo Courtesy: Bee Rowlatt

In her journey to retrace proto-feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft’s footsteps, California was a final stop. Rowlatt loved exploring the larger-than-life city with her son, Will. Photo Courtesy: Bee Rowlatt

That was her first visit out West—she’d been an “East Coast girl” until then—and took with her standard images of flower power and dippy hippies. “The quest of my book comes to a head in San Francisco, and I have to say it’s a city I fell very much in love with,” she says. “It seemed to me the peak of civilisation for a number of reasons.” The counterculture movement and civil rights ferment of the 1960s exploded in California, becoming home turf for any kind of anti-establishment resistance. And that’s still true.

Now of course, it has become the first front of battle against new U.S. President Donald Trump. The University of Berkeley has been the site of dynamic free speech debates and the salty air is ripe with revolutionary energy. “Having spent time in San Francisco,” she says, “it does not surprise me in the least.”

The hippie-hipster aftertaste is very much in the ether. There are trendy icecream parlours and wooden painted houses and lively immigrant neighbourhoods. “I found it utterly bewitching,” says Rowlatt. There’s actual witches too—so the magic isn’t entirely surprising. Rowlatt stayed with a wiccan who did tarot readings in an old house with her grumpy cat (“it was all very mystical”). But in the Golden State, weirdness and nudity pitch up alongside slick office complexes and scandalously expensive real estate. There is Silicon Valley and the temple of technology and business “living cheek by jowl” with the sun-kissed Bohemians and vegan activists.

Quaint houses and plush highrises juxtaposed against a vermilion San Francisco skyscape make for a fascinating contrast says Rowlatt. Photo by Celso Diniz/Shutterstock.

Quaint houses and plush highrises juxtaposed against a vermilion San Francisco skyscape make for a fascinating contrast says Rowlatt. Photo by Celso Diniz/Shutterstock.

“In our heads it’s all about hippie love and flowers in your hair,” says Rowlatt. “And certain aspects are like that, but in certain other aspects it’s more modern and far more cutting-edge than I expected.” The Bay Area hosts some of the richest companies in the world and has been the engine of the economy in recent decades. And that’s just the built environment and cultural experiences we’re talking about. San Francisco also has vast stretches of sandy beaches, a wonderfully salubrious climate and one of nature’s most arresting sights: the redwood trees. “You’ve never seen anything like it. You just can’t believe your eyes.” Rowlatt exclaims. “There’s the glittering commerce of Silicon Valley right next to these ancient, ancient trees that predate most of western history. You can see time in those old, aged giants. It’s very humbling.”

Earlier this year at a travel writing panel at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Rowlatt chose to read a section from her book in which nothing happens: just her and little Will on a massive, empty beach. “It was a very special moment,” she says. “I’m English, so I talk about the sea but Americans say the ocean. It’s on an epic scale. The thing about California is everything’s bigger.” No wonder, Rowlatt’s enthusiasm-on-steroids response when she reflects on the grand expanses. And it’s an especially West Coast feeling. “I think the difference is the scale,” she says. “You feel utterly dwarfed by the giant redwoods, the vast ocean. It’s a beautiful thing, a sublime thing to be so completely overwhelmed and humbled by nature. And that’s a very Californian experience.”

San Francisco was also fairly pedestrian-friendly and child-friendly. Rowlatt walked and cycled, pushing her baby around with her. She found kindness everywhere, just as Wollstonecraft, writing centuries earlier, had too. The journey was of course, the main point, the destinations incidental. Rowlatt was determined to walk in Wollstonecraft’s shoes with the same insouciance and curious openness. “She was utterly fearless and I wanted to measure up to her, to channel some of her courage,” she says. “It’s also about exploring boundaries and the self-imposed boundaries of motherhood. Taking a baby and taking off on the road.”

Rowlatt knows she has to go back there some day, though she doesn’t have any concrete plans at the moment. She lives in Delhi with her four children and her husband—who works for the BBC—so planning a trip from halfway across the world isn’t quite feasible. But until then she’s quite happy assailing San Francisco natives with a desperate urge to talk to them about their city. “I’m going, ‘Oh my god I love your city so much’, and I kind of want to connect with them and they’re just like go away,” she says, with self-deprecating good humour. “I definitely left part of my heart in San Francisco.”

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

  • Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. She was previously a beat reporter with the Hindustan Times. She usually writes on criminal justice issues, culture, books and sports.

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