In the city, no one really bothers to learn your name. My barista in the Melbourne CBD, whom I saw most days on my way to work, knew me as ‘small latte’ – and to me, he was ‘tall barista’.
I now live in a small town on the South Coast of NSW and not only does my new barista know my coffee order by heart, he also knows my name, my husband’s name, my son’s name, and even who my mother is. In our daily interactions, I’ve learned where he went to university and why he returned home to run the family café. That his partner (whose name I also know) works in the kitchen – we wave to each other, relegated as he is out the back where they never stop moving between pans and plates. All of this is satisfyingly small-town, but was also slightly off-putting to me, someone who had until then anonymously trudged through life in metropolitan areas, where an embarrassing incident or a faux pas is quickly forgotten.
I imagine this to be the same in most places where the population falls under 4000. Towns where your new neighbour is also your husband’s boss, and where a quick walk down the street leads to several friendly conversations, and you’re left with the smaller half of your afternoon. If you live and work in these small towns, your neighbours are always more than neighbours – but, as I’ve also learned, they are always neighbours first.
‘Town’ – as I’ve called it so far – has a nice provincial ring to it. It’s also a bit of a misnomer. Going into town here really means driving to Nowra, about 30 minutes up the highway, not far by regional standards. Around here we call the villages by name, necessarily shortened in the Australian vernacular; Husky, Vinny, and Sanga –Huskisson, Vincentia, and Sanctuary Point. These villages define a radius around the bay and basin that you rarely need to leave. That is, unless you need to go to Kmart, which is when you go to town.
In telling you about life here, I should probably tell you how I came here in the first place. Before moving, I lived on the outskirts of Melbourne, at the beginning of the Dandenong Ranges. My husband, who hates the cold, froze for four years, and then had enough. We were about to have a baby.
Personally, I enjoyed the whiplash cold of Victoria and look back on those four years as a time when everything felt right. But when my son arrived two weeks late in September 2018, a decent 3.9kg, things changed. I willingly packed up our home and moved our small family back to NSW. Not to South-West Sydney, where we both grew up and met in high school, but to Jervis Bay, where we had our honeymoon. We were to repeat the seachange trend; a young family, looking for a quieter life, moves to the coast.
Life lived in this small radius has given me a new appreciation of community, for both its obligations and its hospitality. You hear it everywhere – the need to ‘build communities’, to ‘strengthen community’, to ‘grow communities’. But communities don’t ‘grow’, they contract around a set of habits that are often defined by a single location and are nurtured by individuals we know as family or friends.
Beating the tourists on sleepy weekends, it’s the locals who are up and at the cafe by 7am, any later and you won’t get a table. It’s a tight-knit group of regulars I’m introduced to the weekend we arrive. I try to learn their names but there are too many. They know all about me. They talk to my baby. They know my mother, who moved here years earlier. ‘Have you found a house yet?’ a woman asks (she looks familiar but I don’t know her name). Everyone talks around here. A man passes through the group and stops to say hello. He walks this same street every morning, followed slowly by his old Labrador. She waddles about a block behind, resting her tired legs for a break now and then before hauling herself up to continue. Determined to get to the beach.
This area would remind many Sydneysiders of childhood vacations by the beach. In the most popular of Jervis Bay’s villages, there’s the ubiquitous ice cream parlour, fish and chip shop, and pub. Only now the pub has been expanded and refurbished. It gives off less of the two-dollar-meat-raffle vibes I remember from childhood holidays. The inner-city makeover has left it almost unrecognisable, although the rough Friday night crowd of locals remains the same. With more restaurants opening every year, two new breweries up the road, and a regular rotation of high-end retail, this little fishing village has changed dramatically. What hasn’t changed is the intimate social ties that hold the community of locals together. In other words, everyone knows everyone.
With the advantage of an outsider’s viewpoint, I’ve entered this community as an interesting social experiment, but also heavily invested in my ability to integrate.
‘How long does it take to become a local?’ I ask the local bartender. His reply is quick, almost defensive. ‘You have to live here for at least ten years.’ Looks like I’m in it for the long haul. In the meantime, there are sports teams and gyms to join, photography clubs, fundraisers and volunteer opportunities, and a never-ending stream of weekend markets. I do none of these things at first. I have always been more of an observer; a writer’s prerogative, I guess, although observation can only go so far. Depth, to paraphrase Helen Garner, comes from a place of connection.
Entering a tight-knit community isn’t straightforward or automatic. I had an uneasy feeling of being sized up, immediately known but also unknown. This is mostly a function of curiosity with no malice behind it. Nonetheless, it’s also a symptom of a divide in these small towns, tenuous and strange. Between the people who have lived here their whole life and newcomers, like me, who enter as strangers with the hope of making friends. This process can take years. The stopover to friendship, I’ve learned, is becoming a regular. Which is how I met Amanda.
Amanda first made me an excellent coffee at her food truck, tucked away inside a shed that only locals knew about, and which I had only recently discovered. A little bit goth, often barefoot, great taste in music. I immediately wanted to be her friend.
Every Saturday we exchanged idle coffee shop banter. I would sit outside in the sun, on pillows or crates, while Joey slept in his pram, sipping coffee and watching the locals pull up in their white SUVs to grab a quick takeaway before their kid’s soccer game. Amanda’s laugh would ring out in greeting, loud and untamed, often followed by a hug or kiss. She called everyone lover.
‘Tell me about yourself,’ she said one morning. You’d hope in this moment I’d respond coolly, say something clever and off-hand. But in my self-conscious, lonely and alienated state – uncomfortably between maternity clothes and fitting back into my old jeans – came an embarrassing outpouring of detail. We realised we went to the same university, back when UNSW Art and Design was known as COFA, only a few years apart. She was a textile artist by training. We exchanged numbers and I floated home.
‘Look at you, making friends,’ my husband later teased.
A week later I stood on the corner, my son on my hip. An unpaid fine meant I was unable to drive home, the police officer explained, my car suddenly caught on the side of the road where he had pulled me over. There was no way to get Joey safely home in his baby seat and it was too far to walk. I needed a friend. There was only one number in my phone.
‘Hey Amanda, I’m sorry to ask, but can I please borrow your car?’ I explained my story. We barely knew each other and I was putting her on the spot. Again, I heard her laugh, this time offered in camaraderie.
‘Sure babe. Come get it.’
Proximity and routine offer connections to people I wouldn’t know otherwise, more so than in any place I have lived since childhood. In clear moments this reveals regional hospitality at its best – the generosity and willingness to lend a hand. At others, it throws into relief sharper dynamics; I know the passionate environmentalists who regularly protest over-development in our area, and I admire their cause. But I also know the group of men responsible for clearing the block of land nearby in preparation for a new housing development. How one morning, they came to work to find their equipment on fire.
Writing non-fiction from this position brings a certain risk; friends and neighbours might not like your observations, they might resent you. You might even censor yourself. If it’s possible to overcome these risks, writing would likely benefit from the stimulation of these small-town dynamics. The scale it offers provides different insight into relationships and individual motivations. I’m now more interested in this detail, in people’s stories rather than the news cycle, and almost unconsciously my own practice drifts in response. Previously absence had defined my approach; I preferred to write journalism, dropping the first-person pronoun and assuming a mantel of objectivity, its own subtle form of anonymity, in a way.
This doesn’t mean I’ve settled in completely. I still bristle occasionally against the smallness of it all. I feel restless and start to crave a return to tall obnoxious buildings. Afternoons spent in galleries, followed by dinners with spilled wine and a table of friends. These moments don’t last long but are regular and persistent reminders of a former life. A time before children and weekend markets. In the city, you can hold yourself separate. Relishing your own anonymity, you can move through city streets and disappear. Not here.
I try this one Friday, just for the joy of walking alone through throngs of people. It’s unusually warm. The main street in Huskisson is lit with fairy lights and old-fashioned streetlamps. Several restaurants have tables pulled out onto the walkway. I admit it’s a short walk. I stop a few times for a quick chat. Wave and shout hello to some casual acquaintances and friends out with their family for an early dinner. There’s no anonymity here. I return home via the drive-through bottle shop, have a yarn at the register, defeated in my attempt to disappear but not disappointed. Driving with the casual abandon that comes with well-known local roads, wine and beer jostling on the front passenger seat, music turned up, I realised it had been a long time since I felt this way. Like I was home. It only took two years.