Category Archives: USA experiences

Never be sorry

On my way home tonight, I stopped to give a man a few spare coins.
Me: “I’m sorry, it’s not much.”
Him: “Never be sorry for giving.”


Advice to myself 1 year ago

We arrived in San Francisco almost exactly one year ago. Here is the advice I wish I had been given:

Buy large headphones
These help significantly with the auditory offensive that is Powell Street. Added bonus: less people yell at you when they can see you are clearly not listening.

This is going to be really hard
Moving countries will probably always be hard. Don’t expect it to be anything other than what it is, but work on enjoying the reality of it.

Learn to love drip coffee
For the moments when nothing but a flat white will do, go to: Cafe Bello, Contraband Coffee, Grand Prix, or Blue Bottle (but be warned that the results sometimes vary). Or just consult the Map of Decent Espresso in San Francisco.

Give every potential friendship everything you’ve got
Don’t be hesitant just on the off-chance that you may, one day, be leaving.

Make forts
Living in a studio apartment can sometimes be tough. Forts give the much-needed illusion of private space.

Don’t worry about being unemployed
Or anything else, for that matter. As you suspected, everything worked out in perfect time.

The coffee that changed everything

The coffee that changed everything

It seems silly, but one coffee made San Francisco feel like my new home.

I have been struggling with American espresso since I got here. I had given up and been drinking filter coffee rather than facing the disappointment of a sub-standard flat-white replacement.

And then something wonderful happened. To kill time between my Dad-in-law’s tour bus, we went to a small cafe on Mason Street called Caffe Capriccio. He ordered a hot chocolate and I asked for a cup of coffee. However, when his hot chocolate arrived at our table I noticed something odd – silky milk, distinctive patterning where the chocolate and milk had met – the barista knew how to steam and pour milk!

I immediately turfed my cup o’joe and ordered for a double-shot soy latte in a small cup, daring to hope that I might have a reversal of coffee-fortune. And then it appeared on our table, complete with perfect fern patterning.

Not only did it look good, it tasted brilliant. Given, it was not up to a Deluxe or Mojo standard, but that didn’t matter one bit. The coffee was perfectly expressed and the milk was silky and consistent for the whole cup. Sigh.

You know what the really weird thing is? Up until drinking that coffee I had been suffering from a particularly icky cold/flu. I will spare you the details, but let me say it was severely unpleasant. Post-coffee, the cold/flu has receded and I’ve had more energy that I’ve had in a fortnight. Turns out all I needed was a decent coffee. Go figure.

Videos are the new bulk emails!

I’m terrible at writing long emails to keep everyone updated on our adventures in America, so I’ve been making these wee videos instead. They are pretty rough, but at least they are better than a boring bulk email.

Here’s the latest one, made on the 4th of July in Whitefish, Montana.

The slow reveal

For the first week and a bit since we arrived in San Francisco it felt like I was floating. I was not grounded, I had no well-worn paths.

I explained this sensation to people as feeling like I was playing a game like Civilization, and most of the map was still black. Gradually, as I start to explore, the black becomes less, to reveal a city full of resources to exploit and tribes to investigate.

After our first week and a half, this is kind of what San Francisco looked like to me:

Today it is much more clear than black, and it certainly doesn’t feel like floating anymore (bloody hills).

Flat whites in America (also known as how to order a kiwi coffee in the US)

A flat white coffee from Deluxe in Wellington. Photo by dubh on Flickr.

A delicious flat white. Photo by dubh on flickr.

*Disclaimer* I have only been in San Francisco for two weeks, so these are just my initial impressions of coffee in the city. I am certainly willing (and  hoping) to be proven wrong – I’ll report back here if I am (see updates below).

I am happy to report I have discovered the magical combination of words which result in a flat white-ish coffee being produced by an American barista!

For those of you who don’t know, flat whites don’t exist in the US as coffees, so you can kiss your crèma-laden, perfectly poured silky-milk, tulip cup of heaven goodbye.

However, there is no need to despair. Most good* cafes are fine when it comes to extracting the espresso, so you just have to worry about the milk.  You can still get a likeness of your former coffee-of-choice, but to do so you need to combat these US coffee norms:

1 – Gigantic cups

Coffee is served in seriously large cups. The smallest cups are about the size of a New Zealand “large”.  Unless you like really milky coffees, ask the person behind the counter for your coffee to be made in the smallest cup they have, half-full. Really stress the “half-full”, because most places will simply not believe that you want your coffee that short.

2 – Single shot is the default

90% of places will serve a single shot of espresso as the norm. They charge you a bit more for a double-shot, but it is worth it. So go ahead and ask for a double-shot.

3 – Latte milk

The closest thing to a flat white over here is a latte, so you’ll need to order that.

However, I am yet to find any American barista who are able to produce the silky milk required for a flat white. Be aware that your coffee’s consistency may vary from dense foamy milk all the way through to a separated consistency of dry foam on top and liquid hot milk further down. Also note that US barista do not seem concerned with how they pour their milk, so you won’t end up with ferns, hearts or pretty designs on top.

I tend to order my coffee with soy milk, not only because it tastes delicious and nutty, but also because it is a bit sweeter and is more forgiving if there are imperfections in the espresso.

Bearing all that in mind, here are the magical words:

“Could I please have a double-shot soy latte in the smallest cup you have, half-full? I really would like it half-full because I don’t want to drink that much milk.”

And always tip generously for a better experience all-round.

For those of you who don’t know what a flat white coffee is:

The flat white wikipedia article is a good place to start

There is a flickr pool of photos of flat whites to give you an idea of what they look like.

*Good cafes are relatively easy to spot. Look for:

  • a line outside
  • a sign boasting of their local roastery
  • someone who looks like they know what they’re doing behind the machine
  • staff drinking the coffee they serve
  • look for Blue Bottle or Peet’s Coffee.


  • After several recommendations, I gave Blue Bottle another try;  it was great! Would thoroughly recommend.
  • In a strange twist, it would seem that ordering a cappuccino is a good way to get something resembling a flat white! In New Zealand these two beverages are pretty much opposite, but here they are *almost* the same thing.

Home comforts

An image of a comforter or duvet.

A "comforter". Photo by D Sharon Pruitt on flickr.

It can be terribly confusing trying to buy bedding in the US. Here are some things we learned yesterday after hours of wandering around a department store and interrogating several sales assistants:

  • A duvet is called a “comforter”.
  • Most comforter covers come as a set which includes the comforter cover itself as well as two sham covers and a bed skirt.
  • A “sham” is a fancy pillow case with a border and a slit in the back to insert your pillow in to.
  • Shams seem to almost always match your comforter cover. Here is a charming video about how to use shams.
  • Sales assistants like the word “sham”.
  • A “coverlet” is a blanket that goes underneath your comforter.
  • Like most things in big department stores, the bedding is arranged by brand, rather than product type. This means that you’ll need to visit several different parts of the store to find out what your options are for each item.
  • There is no such thing as a plain, single-colour comforter cover (at least we couldn’t find one).

There you have it, the sum total of our shopping for bedding experience. I hope this helps any other confuzzled Kiwis looking for bedding in the US.