Wednesday, June 16, 2010

An Insider's Guide to Santa Barbara

We have spent the last month packing up our lives, and saying goodbye to Santa Barbara.

Everyone, at least once before they die, should move to Santa Barbara, just to be able to experience the goodbyes when they leave. Our darling friends here have showered us with love, hugs, meals, parties, gifts, letters, etc. etc. Once or twice I felt like I was observing my own funeral.

And now, everything has finally been packed and loaded, and we leave in the morning. I’m quite emotional as I look around this vacant apartment. Vacant, except for 4 suitcases, one box of donuts, this laptop, and 3 children asleep on the floor, oblivious to their last night in their first hometown.

Last week as we were packing things up, I came across this picture of Jack and our nephew James.

I took it 7 years ago, on the day we loaded up our moving truck in Salt Lake to come to California for graduate school. We had no kids of our own at the time, and no student loans – Living like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and I cried as we were cast out, to work out our progression in a distant land they called “Santa Barbara.”

If I could go back to that day, I would tell myself to stop crying, and save my tears for 7 years down the road, when we would pack it all up again and drive away in the opposite direction. (Actually, first I would pinch that little James’ cheeks, because he’s too old to let me do that anymore. Then I would say that whole thing about not crying, and about saving my tears.)

Santa Barbara, I would tell myself, is one of the most beautiful cities on earth. The Santa Ynez Mountains on one side, the Pacific Ocean on the other. It is balmy weather, beautiful beaches, and Spanish colonial architecture. People who can afford to live anywhere, live in Santa Barbara.

You know who else lived in Santa Barbara? We did. Like the rest of our PhD student friends, with young families, living beneath what is probably considered the municipal poverty line, we somehow pulled it off.

Seven years went by in a blink. And now, with a little perspective, we can say it was worth the sacrifices. Jack earned his degree, and a job he can hardly wait to begin. When the kids wake up in the morning and we drive away, we also get to take with us a little insight into the best that Santa Barbara has to offer...

Real Estate

The median home price in Santa Barbara is $1 million, which I’ve been told is highest in California. If ever you have wanted to visit a Saudi Arabian palace, but don’t have immediate plans to pass through Saudi Arabia, try taking a drive through Santa Barbara’s Montecito area.

I have, and I must tell you – I feel a bit sorry for the people living in those homes. Their real estate agents must have failed to tell them about the hottest property in Santa Barbara - UCSB Family Student Housing, the 2-bedroom, 40-year old apartments we were among the lucky few to call home.

UCSB Storke Family Housing is not exactly a gated estate. Rather, it is an incredibly densely populated environment of families living mirror existences of one another. What a perfect structure of support.

When each of our 3 children was born, our neighbors hung ‘Welcome Baby’ signs and balloons on our front door, and brought us plates and plates and plates of cookies. When Jack struggled to acquire data or to complete his dissertation, all he had to do was step outside and instantly, fellow grad students in the exact predicament were available to commiserate his plight. Anytime our children needed a bike to ride, or a friend to create chalk art with, they too were just a doorstep away.

You can’t get that living in a gated estate.


If you’re up for good shopping in Santa Barbara, skip the designer boutiques downtown, and instead visit the Student Housing “Swap Shop.”

A couple of years ago, in a stroke of pure genius, our upstairs neighbor Cory Mathews got the brilliant idea to convert a vacant apartment (read: unlivable due to extensive mold damage) into a place where residents can donate things they no longer use, and others can help themselves to all the secondhand goodness.

My favorite afternoons with the kids were spent pulling our wagon down to the Swap Shop, where they would dig around for treasures, load it up, and drag home enough to keep all of us busy for the rest of the day – Books, dishes, dress up clothes, and toys, most of them dirty and broken, that Jack and I would sneak back into the donation bin after they fell asleep.

The boutiques downtown, I have heard, don’t have nearly as generous a return policy.


Downtown Santa Barbara has the most impressive selection of ethnic, trendy, and 5-star restaurants. Trust me when I say that nothing on their menus is good as the food served at The Habit, our favorite place to spend our family date nights. About $6 at The Habit will get you their signature charburger, onion rings, a drink, and for kids, the coveted gummy hamburger prize. Name one 5-star restaurant that will give your kids a gummy hamburger prize.


The best ticket in town is an annual pass to the Santa Barbara Zoo. The mountain and ocean views alone are worth the price, plus you get the added bonus of introducing your children to things like condors, bald eagles, and humboldt penguins.

But if you can’t make it there, don’t worry. You can always stop by our old apartment to experience flocks of midget frogs in their natural habitat (climbing up the kitchen window to watch me do the dishes), or the occasional display of something they call a “Jerusalem cricket,” which I first encountered a few weeks after moving in, when I was sitting at the computer and felt something run past my feet. It took Jack years to convince me that Jerusalem crickets were not trying to kill me, nor would they eat my babies.

Film Festival

For one week every winter, Hollywood flocks to town for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. One year, I myself got to attend in support of our friend Rex Pratt’s documentary. It was all very glamorous and exciting, but still did not compare to the memories Jack and I have of the rundown dollar movie theater on Hollister Avenue.

The year I was pregnant with Jolie, that theater was our favorite place to spend date night, in spite of the fact that my friend Jo told me the concession stand had rats. We were so sad when, in 2004, it closed down and was bulldozed to nothing. Probably because of those rats.

Resorts & Spas

Up the road from student housing is the famous Santa Barbara Bacara, a 4-star resort and spa with rooms up to $3,500 per night. I got a peek inside The Bacara once, when my friend Natalie invited me to meet her there for breakfast. The view is breathtaking, and the spa looks about as close to heaven as you can image.

But if you really want to get away and relax, I would instead recommend the Tuesday morning playgroup I have attended since Jolie was 1-year old. Better than a massage or facial, playgroup is where my children experienced their first awakenings of the bonds of friendship, and where I got to sit back and listen to women dish on things like grocery deals and their husband’s vasectomies.

This morning we attended our last playgroup in Santa Barbara. I had a hard time holding it together as I tried to imagine Tuesday mornings without these friends. Lyndsi, Jo, Ingrid, Michele, Kaity, Rebecca, Hilary, Brenda, Lee, Karen, Brandy, Jenny, Jeannie & Mary Karlee, Thank you, and I miss you already.

The Mission

The Santa Barbara Mission is one of the area's most historic landmarks. We toured the over 200-year old structure one summer, when my brother Jeff and his wife Dawn came for a visit.

Its history and architecture are certainly impressive, but didn’t leave nearly the impression on me as the simple orange brick building on Cambridge Drive in Goleta. I’ll always remember that building as the place we first introduced our children to the things we believe. Also, where Jack served a record-breaking seven years in the same calling - Webelos Den Leader. Whenever people comment on his longevity, he says, “I figure it’s one of two things - Either there’s something the Lord needs me to learn that I still haven’t figured out, or, I am the greatest Webelos leader in the history of the Church.”


Santa Barbara is a celebrity playground, and the place a handful of A-listers call home. The best place to spot celebrities, I’ve been told, is the Santa Barbara Zoo. Which is the real reason we bought those annual passes.

If ever you get the chance to come to town, don’t waste your time hunting for celebrities. Instead, try to meet the Gardiner family. The Gardiners were the first friends we made in Santa Barbara and, seven years later, they have become more like family. The first time Jack & I had to be away from Jolie, we entrusted her to the Gardiners, and to this day, their daughter Taylor is the only babysitter we’ve ever hired. My daughters dream of growing up to be just like Taylor. I can’t think of a better wish, except maybe for Cal to grow up to be just like their son Dayne. Or for Nanci to let me call her every single day from DC, just to chat.

After you meet the Gardiners, try to find my friend Karen. Every time I’m around Karen, I take rapid mental note of how to be more like her. To parent like her, keep a home like her, bake a pistachio cake like her…Every year for my birthday, Karen gave me a piece of the Willow Tree nativity collection. Last month, she brought over the final piece that completes the set, which of course made me weep. That’s okay though, because Karen occasionally weeps too.

After you leave Karen’s house, head west toward Jeannie’s. Jeannie is the friend who cries when you cry and means it, and who has been my partner in committing various visiting teaching crimes. Watching Jeannie and her husband go through the process of adopting their Maddie and tending to her delicate health, taught me lessons about faith, hope and patience at just the time I needed to learn them.

Then, if you're looking for Santa Barbara's most boasted celebrity resident, that would be Oprah Winfrey. My Oprah Winfrey, is Lee Fleming.

When I look back on my years in Santa Barbara, I will always regret the time I let pass between when Lee first moved to town, and when she became my freighbor.

Lee is a quick-witted, hilarious storyteller, and one of the most intelligent people I know. She can hardly say a thing without quoting some relevant statistic, study or book she just read on the topic, and she manages to do it in the most unassuming way. Whenever I knocked on Lee’s back door, I knew I was in for good conversation. Even when we disagree, usually about some matter of public policy, she manages to find at least an element of my opinion that she respects, or can relate to, which has inspired me to keep a more open mind. Also, she always let me steal the most amazing samples from her kitchen.

Some of my favorite memories of Santa Barbara were spent with Lee, doing nothing in particular - Walking around outside, sitting through a 3rd-grade level Photoshop class, or just lounging on the couch, watching reality shows several seasons past their prime. I doubt Oprah and Gayle have as much fun as we did.

Growth Policies

Wikipedia describes Santa Barbara as an area with "limited growth policies."

The phrase is referring to restrictions placed on construction and development, but for some reason when I read it, the first thing that came to mind was our family.

I suppose that means our stay here is up, and that it’s time for the next challenge ahead.

We could not have asked for

a more beautiful place to spend the last 7 years, or a better environment in which to start a family.
Santa Barbara, goodbye, thank you, and we’ll miss you.

DC, we will see you soon.

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