I met a tall German at the Old Town Tavern on the second Wednesday of winter quarter. He was shy. His friends were not. I wanted to talk to him for a bit because I had seen his shifty and timid demeanor before. He reminded me of someone: me.
I had studied abroad in Paris fall semester. When I went out, I was often too embarrassed to strike up a conversation with a foreigner, let alone butcher the few French phrases I did know. The German spoke English well, but language is not the only barrier to overcome. Luckily, we both had an outgoing wingman eager to talk to anyone foreign as we stood to the side smiling. Not too much though; Europeans don’t smile a lot.
Turns out, I am much more sociable in America, and we bonded over our reverse study abroad experiences. The tall German was among many international students who decided to pack their bags and migrate to Santa Barbara for a quarter or two. Santa Barbara, the soap opera series, brought images of sunny beaches and mission-style architecture to international TV screens in the 1990s. When I told people who I met abroad that I studied in Santa Barbara, I was shocked by how many Europeans expressed interest in traveling there someday.
Naturally, I began to spot foreigners everywhere since I returned from Europe. I met Europeans who flocked to Old Town Tavern, known by many as OTT College Night Wednesdays. I ran into Chileans downtown on Thursdays. I processed traveler’s checks from around the world at my on-campus job at the UCSB Bookstore. And I’m sure most UCSB students can attest to the fact that the Irish take over an entire apartment complex in Isla Vista every summer. Why did so many foreigners decide on Santa Barbara? I started to wonder.
For me, Santa Barbara is college. When I left Los Angeles almost four years ago for school, I chose UCSB because it felt comfortable, small and “chill.” People loved this beach community by the mountains, which is why so many LA-ers consider it a perfect escape from their smoggy metropolis.
But after three years, I was ready to get out for a bit, ready to leave my comfort zone, and be over-stimulated by a foreign place. I picked Paris, an international city with a lot of potential. Europe seemed exciting, an odd mix of tradition and New Age. I expected to be overwhelmed by cathedrals and quaint towns. And I was.
I quickly realized, though, that the reason new places are interesting is because of the people — the ones who live in the quaint towns along the canals, the ones who grab your attention for a moment or more and leave you with something you hadn’t expected.
I used to think that international students in Santa Barbara were missing huge aspects of what America has to offer. Sure, Santa Barbara is sunny, but it’s not as iconic as cities like New York or Hollywood. After experiencing Europe for a short time, though, I realized Santa Barbara as a whole, in the eyes of foreigners, is filled with just as many possibilities as Europe had for me.
The tall German confirmed it. He wanted to make American friends, experience their lives along the beaches. He was overwhelmed, too. How could he not be? He was at OTT College Night Wednesday with a supersized Pabst in hand. He turned to me and said, “Didn’t they already karaoke that song tonight?” Welcome to America. Three servings of everything, even Neil Diamond.
Sure, the tall German and other internationals came to Santa Barbara for the beaches and sun. We tend to think of travel visually, in terms of images and geography, like the Arc de Triomphe at midnight or Butterfly Beach at sunset. While these places are stunning, it’s the people and the culture they create that make traveling worthwhile.
I recognized something in all of the international students I met: a kind of adrenaline particular to traveling. There’s no substitute for it. Traveling is a little like being drunk all of the time, I’ve come to realize. Your inhibitions are down, for better or worse.
But traveling also forces you to end mundane routines, spend money you might not have, eat foods you probably shouldn’t. And then sit on a bus for six hours to mull it all over.
I want to spend the next few months talking to more foreigners, figure out how their short-term lives in Santa Barbara compare to their constant ones at home. I want to tap into that traveler enthusiasm and relive odd interactions. This time, with a little more confidence. After all, it’s Santa Barbara, people smile here.