“Do you like fortune cookies?” an elderly Chinese woman named Maggie asks me as I sketch one afternoon.
We’re sitting on a sidewalk bench outside a store specializing in woks, rows of red paper lanterns strung overhead between buildings. On a nearby street corner, a man plays a two-stringed erhu, often called the “Chinese violin,” that fills the air with plaintive melodies. And when I give Maggie an affirmative answer, she stands up, heads into the wok shop, and returns with a bag of individually packaged treats.
Maggie moved to San Francisco, settling in its Chinatown district four decades ago, but I have called the City by the Bay home for only a matter of months.
After traveling and living overseas for seven years, I decided to slow down and plant a few roots. San Francisco felt like a fitting new home base, for as Leonard Austin writes in the preface to his 1940 book, Around the World in San Francisco:
“No other American community presents such an interesting mosaic of authentic colors—the foundation and pattern of San Francisco’s famed cosmopolitanism. Here, in a world condensed, is a veritable cyclorama of international customs and cultures.”
Since experiencing different cultures is the lifeblood of why I travel, it was the thing I was most afraid of losing as I settled down again stateside.
What would my days look like if they weren’t filled with the constant discoveries that traveling in an unfamiliar place yield?
To hold onto this sense of wonder, I created a quest for myself, vowing that, even as I established new everyday routines in San Francisco, I would make time to explore the city’s many cultural districts—from Japantown to Little Italy. With my sketchbook in tow, I wanted to experience as much as I could of San Francisco’s global élan—and hopefully, as a result, sustain the traveler inside me.
Following my first foray into Chinatown, I venture south to San Francisco’s Mission District, a neighborhood noted for its vibrant Latino community.
As I walk down Valencia Street into the Mission, shop signs soon read in Spanish and taquerías frequently appear. But having recently visited El Salvador, it’s a pupusería called Panchitas that draws me in. After all, pupusas—fried corn tortillas stuffed with a range of fillings—are the country’s national dish.
Sitting down at a long wooden table, I’m struck with a case of traveler’s déjà vu. After my first bite of a cheesy pupusa, which I’ve smothered in salsa and a coleslaw-like topping called curtido de repollo, I’m instantly transported to South America. I had forgotten how food has the ability to do that.
I devote a full day to exploring North Beach, a neighborhood shaped by the wave of Italian immigrants (including a young Joe DiMaggio and his family) that flocked to San Francisco as the city was being rebuilt in the wake of the 1906 earthquake. After sketching the classic Molinari Delicatessen for a few hours, I leave my post in Little Italy in search of a bathroom, heading toward the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi, devoted to the patron saint of the city. While the cathedral’s main doors are closed, an adjacent building catches my eye.
“Welcome to the Porziuncola,” a volunteer named Kathleen says as I enter.
I feel it again—that familiar rush of discovery that defines the experience of traveling. When I ask Kathleen if she would repeat her greeting, she explains that porziuncola roughly translates as ‘little corner of the world’ in Italian and is the name for the small, fresco-adorned chapel housed in the shrine.
“It’s an exact replica of a chapel in Assisi, Italy,” Kathleen tells me. “A prominent local politician named Angela Alioto had the idea to build it here [in 2008]. It’s a gift to the city.”
Kathleen then leads me through each architectural element of the chapel’s construction—the wooden doors that were hand-carved in Italy; the altar’s iron railing, created from a wax model of the original railing in Assisi; and the red marble floor, cut from the same quarry that supplied the namesake chapel, shipped by barge to the U.S. from Italy, and shaped by a local stonemason in San Francisco.
There’s nary a piece of the porziuncola that lacks authentic origins, giving me a far richer taste of Italy than I’d ever expected to find.
The final destination of my quest is Little Saigon, a two-block stretch of Larkin Street (between Eddy and O’Farrell streets) in the Tenderloin district that received official designation in 2004 to recognize the 13,000 or so Vietnamese-Americans who live in the city.
Following the recommendation of a Vietnamese taxi driver, I home in on a sandwich shop called Sing Sing—and it doesn’t disappoint. From the moment I step down into the low-ceilinged establishment, I am transported to Southeast Asia. All around me, customers converse in Vietnamese; a piquant potpourri of incense, coffee, and cilantro floats through the air; and the click-clacking of tiles echoes from the shop’s back room, where men in jackets huddle over dominoes.
But the moment that sticks with me most from my tour around the world in San Francisco occurred just after I left my apartment. I paused on the sidewalk to pull out my camera, which I then carried slung off my shoulder in anticipation of what I might stumble upon along the way, and in that moment, I felt a transformation take place.
I realized that it wasn’t each individual cultural district that had allowed me to sustain the feeling of being a traveler despite having put down roots—it was my own decision to step out of my front door full of curiosity, openness, and awe.
I thought back to meeting Maggie in Chinatown at the very start of my quest. As we exchanged goodbyes, the last thing she had said to me was, “Enjoy your travels.”
I was tempted to remind Maggie that I wasn’t in the city on a trip, but wondered if perhaps she had gotten it just right.
Whether at home or on the road, we’re always traveling—if only we greet each day as a journey ripe for discovery.