Embracing Community and the Kindness of Strangers

As I approach the final furlong of my Sea Change in Anglesea (for new readers, my Melbourne house is having a bit of a makeover), I’m really getting into life down here. As a not-for-profit grant-writer, I often talk about promoting or creating community connectedness and a sense of belonging. Well, recently, I’ve had the good fortune to experience both.

Last Friday, I joined in a monthly ‘Big Sing’ in a local township – well more like a hamlet actually. I was welcomed with open arms and felt instantly at ease to join in the warm-ups which, a bit like at my Melbourne-based choir, require a total absence of inhibition – blowing out your lips like a horse, wailing like a siren and generally waving your arms around. We then sang in canon using the words of a GPS navigator to the tune of London Bridge. After a few gospel numbers, a Maori song to mark Anzac Day and an Aboriginal Stolen Generations song, it was time for supper. With candles dotted around and gum tree leaves decking the walls of the community hall, we tucked into home-made soup and crusty bread. This was definitely choir Country Style.

Then on the weekend I went to the Lighthouse Literary Fest at nearby Fairhaven. I had booked back in February (just as well as it sold out fast) and knew I would need to find childcare for Bertie; I couldn’t leave him in solitary confinement in the laundry for two days running. Nearer the time, something or somebody would turn up I told myself. But the dog-sitter I left him with on a return trip to Melbourne was booked up, my neighbours were going off to Hawaii and I couldn’t really ask 89-year-old Dolly over the road. As it was, Bertie had already barked imperiously at her when she put her bins out.

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Early on in the piece, a lovely woman, Pauline, came up and admired Bertie when we were sitting outside a cafe. We got chatting and she told me her daughter had a cocker spaniel called Theodore aka Teddy. So when I bumped into her again several weeks later (she runs one of the thrift shops here), I mentioned that I was looking for a dog-sitter over Anzac weekend and wondered if one of her children might be able to help. It turned out that her kids were busy but, sure enough, Pauline and her husband Andrew volunteered. What’s more they refused to take any payment.

What I find so wonderful and generous about their gesture is that they hardly know me and yet they were happy to spend their weekend minding Bertie. Needless to say they fell in love with my boy who had – excuse the terrible pun – a ball. They took him to church, out to lunch, lavished him with cuddles, treated him to few choice snacks and several walk, and on the Saturday, invited Teddy down from Melbourne to keep him company.

All the while I was free to immerse myself in two days of cultural nourishment and stimulation. Much as I have loved all the beach and river walks, prolific bird life, friendly cafes and charity shop fossicking, I was ready for a bit of bookiness and bookish company. From the venue – a newly built Surf Life Saving Club with big ship-like timber beams overlooking the ocean to yummy paper bag lunches and a program of talks and panel discussions with actors, ABC radio presenters, journalists, film directors, emerging and established authors –it was a treat from beginning to end.

One of the discussions look at health and what makes us sick. Much of the discussion revolved around the corporatisation of food and the inability of those who are socially and economically disadvantaged to make healthy choices. We learnt about fast food producers and doctors being in cahoots on corporate boards and that wherever Coca Cola features on the world map, there’s obesity.

Other sessions explored memoir writing: how do we write about friends and people we know – do we disguise them (change their hair colour, sex and geography), do we write about them as they are and get their permission, or do we ultimately betray them? And how do we tackle writing about parents, whether dead or alive? Then there’s the dilemma of self-exposure for those that have written memoirs. Are we introverts (shrinking violets), extroverts (show-offs) or what American writer Susan Cain refers to as ambiverts, a mix of both?!

At the end of each session a musical double act, Nice Work, performed a song with a ukulele accompaniment. A bit like a sorbet cleanses the palate during a rich meal, the two young men (pretty much boys really) provided the ideal inter session refreshment.

The festival ended with a fascinating and humorous presentation by screenwriter David Roach in conversation with Graeme Simsion (of The Rosie Project fame). A chance meeting with a Master of Wine on a plane was the genesis of the documentary, Red Obsession, about China’s voracious appetite for wines produced by the great chateaux in Bordeaux. We saw clips of the film, one of my favourites featuring the owner of one of the big name chateaux (I forget which) in Bordeaux. He said it all came down to love (or lurv in his French accent) – loving the wine, loving drinking it and loving the cultivation of it grape by grape. He should know; he’d drunk something like a couple of bottles with lunch day.

Coming back to the kindness of strangers, I gave Pauline and Andrew a bottle of local Shiraz as a thank-you for looking after Bertie. Not quite in the same league as the top notch Bordeaux wines the Chinese are buying for up to $250,000 a bottle, but a token of appreciation nevertheless. I’m going to miss my new coastal community.

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