Driving north from Los Angeles the road snakes round to Santa Barbara with sea on one side and mountains on the other. Three pelicans, like pterodactyls, skim over the water while a lone buzzard soars over the emerald chaparral of the peaks.
Nearing the city, scarlet bougainvillea divides the freeway. This dazzling bush, a flower symbolic of Santa Barbara, is used by many as a thorny hedge. Another spiky plant is the agave cactus, bigger than a man and growing like a weed at the roadside. These branch ends have to be sawn off to protect cars, those settees on wheels that glide by at 20 miles an hour on city streets. There goes the first myth: Californians do not drive fast. And the second: they don’t eat junk food — a healthy lifestyle is an obsession here.
It is hard for the English, baptised with envy and weaned on cynicism, to understand the Californian outlook on life. All things seem possible here in these sunny open spaces, and the air of optimism lifts the spirit. People who live here are successful, and success makes them generous. In Brophy’s harbour fish restaurant, the waitress, with her shorts and tanned smile, was trying to return the $20 tip from the next table,
“No, really, that’s too much.”
On the bus that took us to the town centre, an earringed youth gave a bow, “Will you take my seat ma’am?”
Local buses reveal so much of the daily life of a place that it’s worth the trouble of seeking them out.
“Your driver today is Theo” a notice says and, stopping at the hospital, Theo asks an old lady, “How’s that leg today ma’am?” Real people take buses.
Apart from the Mediterranean itself, this area of California is one of the few places on earth with a Mediterranean climate. The sky gives a strong blue light, perfect for the film industry, and year-long sunshine, perfect for growers. And everywhere is the scent of eucalyptus, that sour-sweet smell of luxury and leisure. Even to Americans this is a meeting place of wealth and elegance, where a landscape architect will set a grove of palms to conceal the stunning home of an East Coast retiree. The wide gate of the house is often the only bit on show.
Public spaces are just as beautiful. The low walls edging the pavement of the main shopping street are decorated with Moorish tiles. Every few yards are benches hidden between massive terracotta tubs overflowing with busy lizzies the size of roses. Once a week this street is closed to traffic to make way for a farmer’s market with growers from the hills, in hippy clothes, selling aubergines and apricots for a dollar a bag.
Some of the big houses also sell surplus fruit by leaving a box of oranges at the gate and an open plate for the money; yes, you read it right, “open” “plate” “money.”
The city’s free newspaper is a guide for unusual things to do, perhaps a lunchtime concert in the library or a late night poetry reading. The small ads broaden the mind: “Single white male will serve your hors d’oeuvres in the nude.”
This is the city where tramps wear shorts to catch their dinner from the end of the pier. Once caught, they barbecue it under the palm trees. This is the beach where one family left their belongings spread out on a red blanket and another family took it in turns to drag it away as the tide crept in.
Along the seafront cyclists get their own lane, so do roller skaters and joggers. A sign says, “This area reserved for gulls,” where cormorants can hang out their black skirts to dry. There’s a beach for dogs, too. Everything has fun here.
And in the bushes, in the moonlight, a thousand crickets sing, all out of sight and all out of tune.
So intense is the rich experience of being in Santa Barbara that’s one’s perception of the world is changed, and there’s a danger of losing touch with reality. The hundred mile Airbus journey back to Los Angeles gives time to reflect, and the background of ocean and mountains will help the process.
Only this time you are travelling south so the pelicans will be on the right.
Mary Essinger writes from Leicester, England.