Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Chapter 7 - America's Finest City

Our next stop on our research for a place to live in retirement was to beautiful San Diego, which is called, by some, America’s Finest City.  The San Diego area is where my parents chose to live in retirement. The weather there is normally very pleasant, with cool nights and warm days, although there are intermittent periods of very hot weather or cold, but not freezing, weather in the brief winter.  It is described as a Mediterranean climate – but only by people who haven’t been to the Mediterranean.

Our Hundred Best Places to Retire in America book had listed Oceanside as one of the best places.  I was curious as to why that was, because Oceanside had seemed to be just another suburb in North San Diego County, only closer to the ocean.  So we would find out.

We flew out on a Saturday, on a miserable Airbus 321, a long, skinny airplane with not enough power to inspire confidence. Our flight was delayed for a minor mechanical problem.  They said it was a tray table, but I didn’t see seeing anyone in the cabin working on anything.  Who knows?

We arrived in San Diego and collected our luggage after the usual interminable wait.  Then we found out that the rental car system, which used to be very simple and efficient, had been completely redone.  Instead of a Hertz van taking us to the Hertz location, they had one giant bus which served all rental companies, and a new rental car center had been built off the Pacific Highway, a couple of miles away.  The bus we had was driven by a huge, morbidly obese man who did nothing to help anyone.  People loaded their luggage on to the bus until there was no more room for luggage or for people.  There were a lot of people standing in the aisle.  The bus lurched off into the darkness.  It took a good little while to get where it was going.

If you travel to San Diego, allow an extra 30 minutes on each end of your trip to deal with the new rental car center.  It’s awful.

We were not sure where we were upon leaving the center.  A sign pointed to I-5.  We don’t use I-5.  We eventually stumbled around and found the Pacific Highway, which is the way we know to get to Rancho Bernardo, where we were staying. 

We had a nice maroon SUV, a Kia Sorento. It was powerful and comfortable, but it got 30 mpg less than my Prius.  Okay, because we were planning on a lot of driving around.

We drove up to Rancho Bernardo and over to the Rancho Bernardo Inn.  Rancho Bernardo is a master planned community in inland north San Diego, part of the city itself.  My Mom and Dad lived there when they first moved to San Diego, back in the 80’s, and Jody and I always liked it there.  My parents later moved to Escondido, a northern suburb, a pretty good sized city in itself.  Escondido is popular with retirees in part because it has a very warm climate. Coming from Texas, we’re not impressed by very warm climates.

It turns out to be poor planning on my part to arrive at the RB Inn at 5 or 6 PM on a Saturday.  The place was teeming with cars and restaurant patrons, and people attending weddings.  There were at least three weddings, one of them Indian, with beautiful women in beautiful colorful saris.  The RB Inn offers valet parking, but I wanted to avoid the standard $5 tip for the valet since we were planning on being in and out a lot.  We parked near the entrance and checked in, and the lady indicated we could park ‘in the back’ because that would be closest to our room.  We had no idea what ‘in the back’ meant, but found a spot with some empty spaces and no sign telling us not to park there.  We later found an additional guest parking lot further in the back, and did not have a problem parking again.

Our room was probably one of the original rooms at the inn, which was first begun in the 60’s. It was in a one-story building, and the surrounding sidewalks were falling apart. There was a pool nearby. The room had a flat screen TV, a K-Cup coffee maker, and good wi-fi.  What it did not have was a toilet that would dependably flush, at least not on the first attempt, and the bathroom door would not completely shut. It had a wonderfully comfortable king-sized bed, only one comfortable chair and a desk chair.  There were no power outlets anywhere near the desk – you worked off battery power and plugged in when not using your computer. It was pretty quiet, but the grounds crew started work pretty early most days.   The room had a mini-fridge which worked well, but you had to go get ice out of an ice machine.  We were on a deal through American Airlines Vacations, which put together the airfare and the hotel.  The hotel acted like no one had ever done that before. 
Our room

One thing we really liked about the hotel was its fitness center.  The center was a bit of a hike down the hill, but it had a small selection of treadmills and elliptical trainers, and a variety of resistance equipment.  We made good use of it while we were there.  One funny thing was that the elliptical trainer had a completely different resistance level than the ones we use at home.  At Texins Activity Center, I start the elliptical at level 3, then go to 5, to 7, to 9, to 11, and then stairstep back down.  At the RB Inn, level 5 was tougher than level 11 at TI.  I was semi-crippled for days after 36 minutes of that.

On Sunday, a bright, beautiful, sunny, but very hot, day, we looked at Zillow (real estate website) and picked out four properties to inspect, all of which were open houses.  Zillow allows you to request only properties with open houses that day if you choose.  There were a dozen or more that fell in our price range and met the requirement to be on one story.  We chose two in Oceanside, one in Vista, and one in Escondido, so we could work our way back to the hotel.

The first property we saw in Oceanside was in a borderline area and the house was not all that nice.  It had tiny rooms and uneven maintenance.  A quick no.  The second house in Oceanside was in, as the Bruce Springsteen song “Johnny 99” says, “in a part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop’”.  We didn’t get out of the car, so Oceanside was oh for two.

The third property we visited, in Vista, was a very nice house with a sunken living room. (I always envision the sunken living room full of water, but that’s another story.)  The house was in a quiet residential area and belonged to a family with kids.  The back yard was barren.  We learned that this is common – due to the terrible ongoing drought in California, a lot of people have given up on their yards and just let them die. It is very sad. The realtor at the open house was more interested in our retirement place search than in showing us the house. It was just okay.  One point of interest was that that house did not have air conditioning.  Vista gets a sea breeze, she said.  Yes, but sometimes it gets pretty hot there, at least during the day.  So another thing to ask about, does the house have air conditioning.

The fourth house we looked at was in Escondido, and I thought it was in one part of town but it was in a different part of town, with older homes built back in the 70’s. This one had been fixed up somewhat and was pretty nice, but the neighborhood seemed to be mostly Spanish speaking and I didn’t think we were a good fit for it.  Interestingly, the house also had no A/C, which should be against the law in Escondido.

After all of that we were starving, but stopped at the supermarket, called, seriously, Major Market, where they were giving away all kinds of food.  It helped. 

We had dinner at the Veranda restaurant at the Inn, outside, with a space heater.  San Diego has warm days and cold nights, and the temperature plummets when the sun goes down.  So they have heaters at outdoor tables in the restaurants, and they are, as far as I can tell, the primary cause of global warming.  Just about set my hair on fire on multiple occasions.

We had previously contacted a realtor based in Oceanside, and filled her in on what we were looking for.  She had been sending us updates on properties available in Oceanside and Vista, and we had filled in with some others on Zillow.  We worked it out to where she would meet us on Monday at one of the properties, and she would  have us follow her to some others.  Since she wanted to meet at 11 AM, we decided to go to our favorite breakfast and lunch place in San Diego, called St Tropez Bistro and Beyond, in the coastal town of Encinitas.  They do a really good job, and the outdoor seating didn’t need heaters.  We first went there back in 1998 after spending a week in France, right near the real St Tropez.  France it isn’t, but the food is consistently good.

We met Nancie at a gated, 55+ community in Oceanside called Villa Trieste.  I was prepared to dislike it based on where it was, but when we got in there it was absolutely beautiful.  The house we saw had two bedrooms and two baths on the main floor, and everything was spotless and beautiful.  It had an incredible view.  There was a huge loft for a second floor, a game room or office or den or extra bedroom.  No bathroom up there. The price was right up at the top of our budget.  The community has a pool and a clubhouse and seemed to be extremely well kept.  But the stairs are a problem.

We also saw a manufactured home in a 55+ community, but it kind of gave me the creeps and the kitchen was smaller than the one we have now.  We saw a resale home in a non-age-restricted area which looked pretty good, but I was turned off by the dead yard. 

We also saw a nice house in Vista, and then she took us to view a condo in Encinitas, well away from the ocean, which was an absolute dump for $432,000. 

So we have an idea what is out there and what we are up against.  When we visited Mendocino County in August, our realtor, Clint, had said that in California the first $100,000 was for the weather.  San Diego has a lot better weather than Mendocino, and I think that figure is too low.

That evening (still Monday) we met up with a bunch of people from the old Escondido Country Club, where my Dad had been a member for many years, and which was the center of his life after my Mom passed away. The club went bankrupt a few years ago, and it really had a major affect on Dad.  It was pretty emotional for me, seeing Dad’s old friends, most of whom I had not seen since his funeral.  We got there early, and it was a little chilly in the restaurant (Marie Callender in Escondido) so I went back to the car to get my sweater and Jody’s jacket.  Out in the parking lot I saw my Dad’s old friend Ray, who looked at me and said “I know you” and I re-introduced myself.  Ray wondered what I was doing there.  I said I was there to have dinner with him.  He said they needed someone to buy dinner, and I offered him good luck with that.  As it turned out, everyone else was already there getting started on ordering drinks. Service at Marie Callender was glacially slow.  But Maryann Haller was there, an old friend of Dad’s who lost her husband recently, and Bobbi Zerda, a special friend of Dad’s, and Fred Bennett and Ginny, and Ray and a woman named Pat, whom I did not know.  Pat asked me if my mother’s name was Margaret.  She had been a friend of my Mom and they had done water aerobics together for a while. No one else at the dinner (except Jody of course) had known my Mom.  People say I look like my Mom, and I guess Pat saw the resemblance. The food was so-so but it was a good time. 

Tuesday we decided to do some more scouting of places to check out, this time in the immediate area around the Rancho Bernardo Inn.  We limited the Zillow search to zip code 92128.  We found a variety of homes with two or three bedrooms, on one story, with a price less than or equal to (gulp) $550,000.  We could not go into any of them but we could drive by and see what the houses looked like and whether we were interested.  We ruled one out because it has a pool (been there, done that) and others because of questionable conditions.  The area is great.  RB is a wonderful place to live.  We contacted Nancie again and told her we had a list of places we’d like to see, if she had time to come over to Rancho Bernardo.  She agreed.

Also on Tuesday we had lunch with my Dad’s good friend, Bobbi.  We went to a place called Swami’s on West Grand in Escondido.  Most of the conversation was about our efforts to find a place to live in retirement, and on Bobbi’s recent trip to Europe, but some of it was about my Dad.  We all miss him, but I think maybe Bobbi misses him a little more than others do.  Later we went over to the ocean and drove down to La Jolla, where we actually found a parking space.  The tide was way out, on account of the super moon, and we got some photos of places that are normally under water.  It was very hot, with hardly any breeze.  Lots of foreign languages were being spoken by the visitors.
Low tide

Late on Tuesday we decided to go to Bates Nut Farm in Valley Center, and texted Brooke, who had been my Dad’s neighbor and had done so much to help him, and us. Brooke and her husband Brandon live in Valley Center. We agreed to meet up. But Siri put us on a road alongside some kind of a farm, no houses in sight. We managed finally to get in touch with Brooke, who navigated us, speakerphone to speakerphone, up to their house, which was on an unpaved road off a dirt road. We got to meet Annabelle, their new daughter, and see their beautiful, if somewhat chaotic, house. And a spectacular sunset.

Always wanted to go mountain climbing in the dark
Wednesday was my birthday.  No house hunting.  We had lunch at Rubio’s, which started out as a fish taco place and now is called a ‘Coastal Grill’.  They have a combo that I like, called the Coastal Trio, three tacos, one shrimp with avocado, one blackened tilapia with a zingy sauce, and one the original fish taco, deep fried with cabbage.  It makes a great combination.  I love fish tacos, and the ones I can get here in Texas at Tin Star Taco Bar are really good, but Rubio’s are just a little bit better.

We then drove down to Point Loma, which overlooks the city of San Diego, the Coronado naval base, and Lindbergh Field, the international airport, and the beautiful harbor.  When my mother passed away, she had asked for no wake, no funeral, to be cremated and to have her ashes laid in the Pacific.  She got part of what she asked for – no wake, cremated, laid in the ocean.  She did get a funeral in California and a memorial service in New York.  My father indicated at one point that he wanted the same thing she wanted.  We had a beautiful funeral in Escondido, and his ashes were laid in the ocean as close as possible to where my Mom’s were deposited.  So Point Loma is the closest we can be to ‘visit’, without renting a boat.  I didn’t try to pinpoint the location.  The ocean is the best gravesite.  We spent an hour or two wandering around and taking photos.  It was beautiful.  The hot weather was gone, never to return.  We had to start worrying about having sweaters.

Somewhere, out there, my parents' ashes were laid to rest

That evening we had dinner at French Market Grille in Rancho Bernardo.  We had eaten there once before, way back in 1998 after we had visited France with my parents.  The restaurant seemed like it should be in Europe.  There was one guy doing everything – he took your order, brought the wine, failed to notice it was a screw top until I said something, brought the meal, cleaned everything up.  He did this for every table in the restaurant, which is something you see all the time in Europe but never in the USA.  He was a Frenchman, and clearly the boss.  The food there was excellent – I had a rack of lamb that was rarer than I would cook for myself but was wonderful.  The prices were half what a French restaurant in Dallas would have been.
Rack of Lamb, French Garden Grille in RB

Thursday we visited another of Dad’s old friends, a lady named Deanna, who lives in Orange County, in San Clemente.  Deanna has had a number of health problems, but she seems to be doing okay now.  We visited for a while, and ate lunch at an IHOP nearby, which had incredibly slow service but gave us more time to talk.  San Clemente was at one time the site of the Western White House when Richard Nixon was in office. I was curious if the place still existed.  Deanna didn’t know but said it certainly wasn’t a tourist attraction.  I did some research later, and it turns out that Nixon sold the place to a rich backer, who got richer by developing the area around it.  The former Nixon residence is in private hands and is not a museum.  

Deanna wanted to hear about what happened to my Dad, so we told the story again.  It is so hard to talk about.  I explained that the personality changes he had, on account of the dementia, made it really difficult to deal with him.  She hadn’t really seen any of that.  I also explained about the sudden intestinal bleeding that he suffered from, and she had witnessed some of that on one occasion.  So it was, once again, very emotional.  But we enjoyed the visit.  She said it gave her some closure, and I think it gave me some, too.

On Friday, our last full day in San Diego, we met again with Nancie and saw some properties.  All of them were in Rancho Bernardo.  We had given her a list of four or so that we definitely wanted to see, and another five that were to be backups.  As a result of the very active market, there were only four of the nine still available, two days later.  The first house was semi-perfect.  Everything was immaculate, the rooms were good size, the colors were perfect.  It was on a moderately busy street,  kind of a secondary artery, but the limiting factor was two bedrooms and no separate seating area or den, just a living room on the open floor plan.  Where does the office go?  I guess it goes in the second bedroom.  The price was way up there, so we couldn’t pull the trigger.  The house was on my old jogging route, when my parents lived in Rancho Bernardo.

The other homes we saw were very nice as well.  One was close to a main road (Pomerado Road) but wasn’t too noisy, but it was sort of stuck in the 1970’s.  The others were nicer.  At this point, we were just looking and unable to make any kind of an offer.  We were going home the next day. 

That afternoon we had lunch at St Tropez and enjoyed a trip along the shore.  That evening we had dinner with friends at Vintana, the strangest restaurant this side of the Baltic states.  It sits on top of Lexus of Escondido.  They have live music on Friday, but it was so loud it was hopeless.  The food was pretty good but the flatbreads are really for two people, so Jody couldn’t finish hers.

The next day we packed up and went to check out. We had charged some meals to the room, so I expected some additional charges at checkout.  But they also charged us $25/day for parking.  I said I had not heard about that.  The lady said I should have been reminded at check-in.  That hadn’t happened.  I said, it is what it is, we’ll pay it and I’ll write a letter to somebody to get it refunded.  She took it off the bill.  I don’t know if I missed some fine print or what.  I did not save a copy of the voucher and you can’t print it any more. 

We got up way too early on Saturday, but it gave us a chance to go to St Tropez AGAIN and have breakfast.  We really like that place.  The rental car center was, once again, a pain.  They are supposed to have a bus every three minutes, but it was more like twenty.  We were early.  The security line at San Diego is always horrible, but with Pre-Check we avoided it.

Our flight home, on a Boeing 737, was a lot quieter and a lot more pleasant than our flight out.  The old saying, “if it isn’t Boeing, I’m not going” is pretty good advice.

We still have not decided where to settle, but I sure would like to see if we can make San Diego work.  The climate is unmatched.  We will have to study the details.