My wife and I have been coming regularly to San Diego for over a decade, since the day our son, shortly after graduating from college, jumped in his car and drove as far west from our home in Columbia MD as the continental United States permitted. After he got married to a beautiful California woman, and started a family, we bought a condo in downtown San Diego to be able to visit and stay close to them. Only the twin Hyatt towers stand between us and the peaceful San Diego Bay. The Coronado Bridge curves gracefully due south.
Busy with our grandchildren, we visited little: one incomplete tour of the wineries in Temecula, a drive to the Anza Borrego Desert, two trips to Santa Monica to meet with dear childhood friends from my native Romania, and another one to Los Angeles to attend their son’s elegant wedding. We went hiking one time up a mountain not far from Carlsbad, and we visited a string of ocean side resorts as far north as Laguna Beach. We had been to San Francisco and its surroundings decades ago, and, for another wedding, we spent a week in Wine Country’s Sonoma. So, despite our frequent visits, we didn’t see much of California at all.
Last week, together with our son’s family, we drove to Santa Barbara. “Oh, Santa Barbara is one of the most beautiful places I had seen in the world,” said a friend from Maryland. “Make sure you visit the courthouse, with its arches, murals and clock tower. Admire the views from up there,” advised my friend from Santa Monica.
Our rental property was in Summerland, a few miles outside the city, a two-level townhouse recently remodeled, all chrome, white leather, steel, and glass. Off our bedroom was a balcony with a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. The outline of Santa Cruz Island was visible in the misty distance, along with eight or nine oil drilling platforms that looked from afar like picturesque fishing boats. We started unloading our two cars, while the grandchildren (a seven-year-old boy, and a five-year-old girl) released their joy and ample energy by slamming all the doors, looking into closets and appliances, jumping on beds, and running up and down the steep stairs from the garage to the living area, and above to the bedrooms.
By midafternoon we had settled in and retreated to the back of the house, into the splendid serenity of our garden, carved into a steep hill, with steps of decorative stones, bordered by Mountain lilacs, verbena, pink roses, multicolored snapdragon, sage bushes, and views of the ocean. The garden had several levels, all with comfortable benches and chairs, the most beautiful at the top, where, drinks in hand, we watched the beginning of a glorious sunset. The grandchildren allowed us a few minutes of quiet melancholy, while they sat on lounge chairs and explained to us the benefits of seaside vacations, after which they jumped to their feet and started chasing lizards.
That evening we didn’t go anywhere, except for us boys (my grandson, my son, and I) who took a short drive in the darkness through narrow winding streets to a nearby pizzeria and brought back hot provisions with melted cheese and pepperoni for our starving family.
The next morning after breakfast, the six of us squeezed into our son’s SUV, crossed Santa Barbara, and drove northwest on a mountainous road with breathtaking views of the ocean. The crests were covered in tall grasses that looked from a distance like brown velvet. When we reached San Marcos Pass and Lake Cachuma, my grandson moaned that he was afraid of heights, and the drive through the switchbacks made him uncomfortable. While we didn’t take him too seriously (and I think we were right, since on our way back on the same road he ‘forgot’ to complain), we talked about different other fears, including agoraphobia, entomophobia, my wife’s claustrophobia, and my son’s real fear of heights which we discovered many years ago when he and I climbed a cliff in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, holding onto chains for dear life and trying not to look at the seven-hundred-foot precipice below us (since then he learned to ignore it by climbing several fourteeners in Colorado, and sky jumping).
We arrived in Solvang, the Danish village. The place was charming, a true walking paradise on a beautiful California autumn day, with Scandinavian style buildings, nicely decorated shop windows, and friendly and informative locals. We learned the place’s simple history. There was commercialism all around us, no doubt, but it was subdued and in good taste. Years ago, when our own children were little, we lived for two years in Copenhagen, and now, the thatched roofs, brick, wood and plaster facades, and pastel colored exteriors we were seeing brought back the memory of the old gingerbread houses we had discovered during our travels through Jutland.
We enjoyed a second breakfast of Danish pastries and hot chocolate, stopped in a few toy stores to the delight of our little ones who touched and admired old fashioned train sets and music boxes, and purchased several prints in an art store for our condo in downtown San Diego. We found a playground where my wife and I relaxed in the mild sun, while the parents chased their boy and girl up and down slides, swings, carousels, and mock medieval towers with floors covered by soft wood shavings. We stopped at a winery next, but they didn’t serve lunch, and we quickly agreed it was not a fun place for the children.
After a lunch back in the townhouse, we drove to the beach in Summerland. The afternoon was windy. There was a wedding ceremony taking place at the bottom of the steep seawall. Men in dark suits and women stumbling in high heels were being moved around by the photographer. The bride’s white dress and veil fluttered. A microphone on a pedestal tipped over and fell into the sand.
It was low tide and the beach was wide, the surf breaking peacefully with the sun glittering on the surface. The kids kicked off their flip-flops and rushed to the ocean. My granddaughter got there first. She loves the water (on Halloween she wore a Little Mermaid costume). My son ran after them. People walked their dogs along the shore. Gulls took off and landed. I enjoyed my role as grandfather, sitting in the soft sand, and allowing the tired sun to warm my body.
The next day was much like the first — serene and friendly. We drove to the Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara and visited the small Sea Center Museum. I found its size perfect for our grandchildren. They touched the textured skin of various sea creatures displayed in open tanks, watched lobsters and oversized crabs crawl on the sand on the bottom of aquariums, and listened to the explanations provided by the guides. Then we went again to the beach, and the little ones splashed in the water. My wife, who loves to take pictures, ran circles around them with her iPhone camera. She snapped shot after shot of happy children and smiling parents, blue sky, and sun-drenched waters. My friend from Santa Monica joined us.
The afternoon zoomed by. Back in our super modern living room, we snacked, drank red wine from tall Riedel glasses, and reminisced with our friend. Her husband was away, on a business trip to London. They have a son and a daughter, both married now, and one almost two-year-old granddaughter, and we compared notes and bragged with our children’s accomplishments. The four of us had known each other since high school. Back in those days, we used to walk together through the quiet streets of Bucharest, listen to French and American music, read Russian literature, and dream about our future. Now together for just one afternoon, we wanted to cherish the moment. We talked up a storm and warmed our hearts, while our children listened to us with interest, and our grandchildren, sitting on the white Italian leather sofa watched, indifferently, a Disney movie.
And then, it was morning again, and we drove back to San Diego. In the car, my wife confessed that on the beach in Santa Barbara she had tried to reconstruct with her iPhone a unique moment in our family history. Immortalized by her on photographic paper, I was holding hands with our two children, six and seven at the time, profiled against the sun, silhouettes only, in another place, another country in this world where the sun was setting into the sea.
We talked about the fact that on this trip we had not seen Santa Barbara, but had only touched its periphery and inhaled its fragrance, and that we didn’t care. Santa Barbara would always be there. California would always be there, and what we had wanted most on this trip were those moments with our children and grandchildren, unique moments that slip by you as quickly as time, and can never be stopped or reconstructed. And on that account, we were happy.
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