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.


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.

Surfing through home renovations

I went back to my house on Wednesday for the first time since I handed over the keys to the builder and escaped to my brother’s beach house two weeks ago.

It’s just as well that I’m project managing from afar. There’s no way I could have worked from a building site with no bathroom or workable kitchen and where every available space is stacked with furniture or soon-to-be-installed bathroom fittings. In fact, there’s not much room to swing a proverbial cat, let alone play ball with Bertie dog.

No room to swing a cat...

No room to swing a cat…

Incidentally, he turns one in two weeks’ time which means he is no longer a puppy but a juvenile. And a naughty one at that! I left him in the kitchen this morning while I showered, and within ten minutes he had pinched the towel off the rail, pulled down the rubber gloves from the sink and was tucking into a packed of bread. Anyway, back to the renovations.

I never stole any bread. Look, I've been fast asleep all the time...

I never stole any bread. Look, I’ve been fast asleep all the time…

“You’ve no idea what’s been going on,” said my long-suffering neighbour. He wasn’t complaining – well not directly anyway – just pointing out that there’d been trucks going up and down the driveway, lots of noise, disruption, bashing, breaking, splitting, dragging, scraping – the whole shebang. I asked him if he’d had a look round – would he like a tour of the rotten bathroom floor and wood borer infestation? And did he know they’d found asbestos in the bathroom? No, but he would willingly swap places with me in my coastal hideaway, he said, somewhat wistfully.

Out with the old!

Out with the old!

I’m happy to say the asbestos has been taken away – at a price – of course. Rule number one of home renovations is that they always go over budget. So you have to budget to go over budget and a bit more. But at least I haven’t got to strip off all the plaster and get the wood borer treated. For all of half a day, I thought we might have to knock down the house and start again. My builder called in a specialist and, as far as I understand it, wood borer attack freshly cut timber (is that the same thing as sapwood?!) but do not re-infest dry timber. So whatever damage is done is done and won’t get any worse. Mind you, it’s quite extensive; some of the wood that came out of the bathroom literally crumbled into dust. They’re very skilled nibblers, those pesky beetles. So I do hope that we got the correct advice. The whole point of this home makeover exercise is so I can more comfortably rent out a room. I don’t want to have to advertise a gorgeous two-bed, two-bath unit complete with adorable cocker spaniel, resident beetle population and structurally weakened timbers.

Wood thoroughly bored by wood borers

Wood thoroughly bored by wood borers

The demolition phase – one bathroom, one laundry and one powder room – took about two days apparently. That’s the easy bit. It’s going to take a while for them to fill in all the gaps and create my en-suite, the tiny guest bathroom (think train compartment) and the new laundry. And there’s work happening in the kitchen and living room too. As you can imagine, the whole place is covered in dust and debris. My neighbour is right: I am very lucky to be enjoying a temporary sea change down in Anglesea.

Guest bathroom in the making. Size doesn't have to matter.

Guest bathroom in the making. Size doesn’t have to matter.

The house is one street back from the ‘back beach’ where the waves pound and roar (you can hear the sea lying in bed) and the light shifts and changes minute by minute. But, bliss comes with caveats or I am being Goldlockian again? When I was clearing out my house and running up and down stepladders all day long, I longed for the peace and quiet of Anglesea. But when I finally got here, I didn’t quite know what to do with. I had a dose of the post-adrenal blues. I was tired and fidgety and instead of going flop for a few days, only gave myself one day off. Maybe it was because it was so quiet that I felt I had to fill in the gaps. And, just to keep me on my toes, I got two writing commissions, one on Indigenous Health and one on Corporate Volunteering. Both are right up my alley but pinning down willing interviewees proved less easy, so I become even more fidgety.

But then, thank Goodness, something shifted when I returned from my 24-hour trip to Melbourne. I realised that it’s simply a case of allowing myself to make the most of the less hectic pace here and to re-charge my batteries. Because once I return to my house, I am going to need lots of energy to clean up and put it all back together.

So, yesterday, I ditched the keyboard, had a cup of chai latte in a cafe and then walked Bertie by the river. After a day of non-stop rain the sun came out as did the birds and the butterflies. And the air had that wonderful post-rain woodiness and freshness. I noticed the quiet flow of the river compared to the pounding of the ocean. It was as soothing as the cup of chai latte.

I’ve got friends coming to stay this weekend and we’re going to Lorne to check out the Sculpture Biennale, where more than 40 works of sculpture are dotted along the shoreline from Lorne Pier to the Erskine River. What’s more we can take Bertie – it’ll be good for him to discover his inner artiste rather than his innate glutton!

There are lots of delights down here – and I haven’t even started on my favourite cafes or the fabulous book shop at Aireys Inlet. I’ll leave those for another blog post. Meanwhile – and wish me luck – I have signed up to a Zumba class on Wednesday night. I thought it would be a good way to meet the locals and have a laugh. Or discover I have two left feet. Time will tell.