It is an oft-quoted saying that a change is as good as a holiday and while a trip to Walcha (New South Wales), say, mightn’t seem to compare all that well with a week in Paris (France), I get what they’re driving at. Because it’s remarkable how a change of scenery tends to sharpen your perspective and you notice things you’ve never seen before.
I remember well my first visit to the United States in 1969 and, being the modernist I was then, how infatuated I was with the whole cutting edge of life around me. Pedestrian things like plastic-looped six-packs, dealers’ frames for car licence plates, embankment gabions to protect mountain roadways in the wonderful National Park System, and pecan pies.
But when I returned home to stuffy old Australia, determined put my oar in to make us just as cutting edge as the US, I found to my astonishment that just about everything that had taken my breath away was either here already or, like the rock musical Hair, was soon to splash all over Australian theatre-goers like a tsunami.
Which brings me to the annual pilgrimage made by my wife, Grace, and Number Two son recently to Wollongong, New South Wales where we had lived for 18 years before tree-changing to New England.
For most people living on the east coast, Wollongong is that great conurbation lying 80 kilometres south of Sydney around which you skirt on your way to somewhere more interesting or fulfilling. If you’re a bit grey around the whiskers, you’d probably remember Wollongong as The Poor Bloody Gong, mocked by Garry McDonald in his television program Wollongong the Brave and his musical spoof on ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’.
Now, Wollongong IS different. To someone like Grace who grew up on a wheat and cattle farm or me, who was born and bred in the leafy middle-class suburbs of Sydney’s North Shore, Wollongong in our years there didn’t waste time on all the coded words and coded emotions used by the more nuanced to separate the sheep from the goat. Those conversant with the loaded meaning inherent in a tart comment like “Quite!” will know what I mean.
Wollongong people, by contrast, were always straight to the point. When Grace was told that her new hairstyle didn’t suit her, then that’s exactly what the speaker meant. When I was told that the speaker had been inside my house before we bought it and they didn’t like it, then our judgement in matters real estate was clearly on a par with that of a Mongolian sheep-herder.
Thus, when Grace and Number Two son returned for their annual base-touching with the Illawarra, I was curious to see how they’d adapt after six years back in an environment where no one tells it like it is, and heaven help the person who suggests how it might be made better.
At first, Grace’s reporting-in consisted of remembering what she had missed, such as the patchwork quilt of weathered eastern and southern European faces that make New England natives seem, by contrast, more like inhabitants of Iceland. And she also noted how the taxi drivers were overwhelming made up of the latest waves of immigrants and refugees, with a heavy preponderance of Iraqi and Syrian Yazidis.
But then she was sidetracked by the saga of the feral deer washed off the rocks into the sea at Wollongong’s Belmore Basin. Confronted by this bizarre event when returning to her waterfront hotel from breakfast, it seemed that the whole city was mesmerised by the drama of it all until emergency services’ jet skis were able to shepherd the two terrified animals from the surf before they drowned. That’s the kind of thing you don’t see in New England.
I think the event that had the greatest impact on Grace and which she was still talking about days later, began as a modest affair on one of the city’s buses. At the region’s impressive Science Centre, the creation of that polymath and quiz-king politician Barry Jones, the bus picked up a mother and her little boys.
As Grace describes it, the woman seemed seriously harrowed with all her possessions crammed into a single bulging suitcase, tied by rope to which was a child’s car seat. The boys, aged about three and 12, conversed in Italian with their mother although the elder was engrossed in an English-language book on science he had just acquired.
For her part, the woman was very shabbily dressed and desperate to be reassured, despite her limited English, that the bus would take her to Wollongong railway station, especially as it was obviously heading further and further away from the city before it reached the University of Wollongong campus.
So alarmed was she that she pleaded with Grace to tell her when the bus neared the station — the subtext being, if it ever did — but then suddenly, in Crown Street, the city’s main drag, the bus suddenly stopped, with the driver gesturing that this was as close to the station as she could go. In her panic to get her family off the bus, the woman’s suitcase flew upon; whereupon, the three-year-old was firmly placed on the footpath outside in the drizzle while the 12-year-old helped his mother get their meagre possessions together again.
When this was finally accomplished — the bus not having moved an inch — the driver got out of her compartment and gently ushered the family across busy Crown Street, and walked with them to the footpath that leads down to the station. As for the rest of the passengers, all of whom would have had appointments of one kind or another to keep, there was not a word of exasperation uttered, nor a pursed mouth visible. They were all cheering. To Grace, admiration for the strength of these women — not to mention the decency of the passengers — meant that this change was indeed as good as a holiday.