Wednesday, November 11, 2009
This is where I live. It's pretty gorgeous I think you'll admit - particularly if you're knee deep in North American snow or leaf mulch right now. White sandy beaches, palm trees, tropical flowers, hummingbirds, year-round sunshine and margaritas. What's not to love?
Yesterday a man walked in to my office and noticed my Yorkshire calendar on the wall. A lovely snapshot of Staithes (try finding a Yorkshire calendar without this picture quite frankly).
"Is that where you're from then?" he asked.
"Yes, but I've been here about 15 years"
"How'd you end up here?"
"My husband's from Santa Barbara"
"And what do you think of it?"
"Well, I always say he'd have had to have done a lot more talking to get me to move to Gary, Indiana".
Which is what I always say, even though I've never been to Gary, Indiana and quite frankly after all these years I feel more than a little guilty about using their name in vain like that. It's my way of deflecting the inevitable question, the inevitable 'aren't we lucky to live here?' question.
Which is why what happened next almost made me fall of my chair.
"But what do you really think of the place" he pushed, "I mean, I've lived here all my life and I'm always curious".
At this point I started looking around for the thought police. Never one to start a fight with a patient at work (well, OK, that's a lie), I said diplomatically "oh, it's a beautiful place to live". You could just hear the "aren't we lucky to live here" tag line hanging in the air.
"Really? I've come to think that this is probably one of the worst places in the country for any young couple, particularly if they have children. I'm telling my girls to get the hell out of here".
He went on to say that he'd been a loan officer for over thirty years and that no middle income family could survive the place and stay married. "The pressure's too intense" he said. "You end up mortgage poor, bickering about money all the time, you want kids but you can't afford them, or you have kids but you can't afford to spend any time with them you're working so damn hard, and then the worst case scenario is if one spouse was born here because they'll do anything to hang on here, and the other spouse will be desperate to leave and can't understand why they're making their lives so miserable staying in Santa Barbara. Then it ends up heading towards divorce, except where does that leave you? Two single parents who can't stay in the same town to be with their kids because it costs too much".
I swear to God I almost burst in to tears. Except I didn't, because I was at work, but my stiff upper lip may have trembled a little.
You may be thinking - what the hell was he doing? How about a little light conversation instead of this descent in to inevitable divorce. Not exactly a barrel of laughs mate, but he was actually a really nice bloke chatting about his daughters and their future and reading my chuffing mind.
It's what I think every day. I do love this town and we make the most of living here. My Mum and Dad are flying out in a couple of days and I bet right now they're packing their swimming cozzies and their sun tan lotion thinking 'I can't wait to get to Santa Barbara, seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness my arse, give me a beer by the pool any day'. To hear someone from SB, a native no less, say so succinctly what I've concluded after fifteen years of living here was gobsmacking. Santa Barbarans never criticize their town. It was literally like he was reading my mind, or my blog (far more likely that he was reading my mind....).
I've become so used to this 'aren't we lucky to live here' mentality that I really have started to doubt myself. It's as if everyone is under a collective delusion that this is a perfect town. A Stepford town. I questioned, was I digging in my heels and criticizing Santa Barbara because I hadn't fully committed to living here? Did I really only have a problem with this place because I hadn't let go of England? I have one friend from Boston who wholeheartedly agrees with me, but we both like cloudy days and a bit of drizzle, so I'd ended up concluding we were both bonkers.
It was so unbelievably refreshing and validating to hear someone come to the same conclusions.. This is a great town, but it's toxic. I half thought his comments were a trap, I half believed I would find my in-laws crouched behind a filing cabinet waiting for me to agree with him so they could leap out and yell "aha! we knew you were planning on stealing our son from us." I also thought, hang on a minute, why's he saying all this to me, why does he know it'll resonate? Do I have the worry-etched face of the negatively amortized? Has he been doing some research - is he going to spring a loan proposal on me? That's how rare it is to hear anyone, anyone say anything critical about this town.
I know that these days people are struggling to live everywhere, but to deliberately set yourself up to fail in a town that's too expensive to live in has always seemed insane to me. I've always felt like saying, it's not that great. Yes it's beautiful, the climate is amazing, and we can swim in the Pacific whenever we want, but is it worth it? Is it worth the sacrifice? I've always felt a little alone in questioning this town's halo. I'm not trying to say we'll be leaving any day now, I do honestly enjoy a lot about this place, I'm just trying to put in words how nice it felt to feel understood by a perfect stranger, to not have to initiate the conversation, to be on the receiving end of someone else's conclusions that echoed mine and made me feel a little less alone and a little less insane.
Somehow Santa Barbara seems a little more beautiful, a little more livable and human now that somebody else has seen its flaws.