Photograph of foreign cinema in the Mission San Francisco

Patrons at the Foreign Cinema in San Francisco enjoy an alfresco candlelight dinner and a film projected on a wall.

Photograph by Susan Seubert

By Ellen Gilchrist

From the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

I was in my 40s and living in Arkansas when I made my first trip to the West Coast. Until then I didn’t understand why anyone would want to sleep anywhere but in her own bed or her grandmother’s house. A friend, painter Ginny Stanford, moved there in 1980 and began to write me letters full of brilliant descriptions of San Francisco and Berkeley, tales of bookstores full of art and poetry, of movie theaters that played films from all over the world, of a new boyfriend who had built a house powered by solar panels, of bridges like palaces, and flowers that bloomed year-round. She begged me to come visit, to see the Asian Art Museum, the teahouse in Golden Gate Park, and Peet’s Coffee and Tea.

She sent me photographs of her new paintings, people dressed in fantastic kimonos she had bought in Chinatown.

In Fayetteville, Arkansas, we had one theater that sometimes showed films by Federico Fellini or Alain Resnais, but the projector wasn’t very good and you couldn’t always read the subtitles. We didn’t have a theater that showed foreign films nonstop and into the wee hours of the night. “You must go,” my Jungian psychoanalyst kept saying. “There is a statue of Shakyamuni as an ascetic in the Avery Brundage Collection that is the most perfect statue of the Buddha in the world. It is very small,” he continued. “Only ten and a half inches tall, but you will never forget it.”

A few weeks later I caught a morning flight to San Francisco. As soon as I landed, Ginny threw my bag into her small station wagon and we took off to Berkeley to eat dinner and then drive 30 miles to a theater that was playing Cinema Paradiso by Giuseppe Tornatore, the 11 p.m. showing.

The next morning we had coffee at Peet’s and began to walk around Berkeley. I was walking very slowly. I had to stop and read all the telephone poles, with their posters and notices and poems, invitations to join protests and groups I didn’t know existed. We visited all the great bookstores in town. We saw films by Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Marcel Pagnol. We saw Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, and Chinese films. We went to the de Young Museum, and Ginny wept when she saw “Still Life: Vase With Irises Against a Yellow Background,” by Vincent van Gogh, on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

We went to see “The Buddha Shakyamuni as an Ascetic,” and I was not disappointed. It is emblazoned in my mind, the back of the statue as beautiful as the front and sides.

It was being in the presence of the statue of Buddha that made me begin to like to travel. Of course it was also the people and voices and smells and weather and mountains and oceans that I needed to experience. It has made me a better and deeper reader and writer. Now that I’m 77 years old and pretty much back in my stay-at-home mode, it is a great joy to me to remember having seen so many cities and countries. The world is so big. I wish I had seen more of it.

Winner of the National Book Award, Ellen Gilchrist is the author of more than 20 books. Her most recent novel is A Dangerous Age.

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