It’s New Year’s Eve 2012, and for the first time I’m writing a column from the Olsens’ new home in Canberra after Mrs EPO, the 11-month-old, the cat and I left Geelong just prior to Christmas.
Mrs EPO and I both grew up in Canberra, leaving ten years ago for Wollongong, a town in which we never felt a part. The ‘Gong and the Olsens stared at each other as if from a distance, neither feeling entirely comfortable in the presence of the other, nor feeling a loss when the family moved to Geelong after three years.
Within days, Geelong became home. Actually, it’s difficult to know whether it was Geelong as a whole or Geelong West – the suburb in which we accidentally landed – that enveloped us with such a welcoming sense of community. Either way, one led to our love for the other.
Living around the corner from Pakington St in Geelong West was unlike all of our previous experiences. We were living “somewhere”, a venue to which people from elsewhere would flock. Pako is as interesting a strip of shops as we’ve seen anywhere in Australia – within a 5 minute walk from home, we had access to truly excellent restaurants and cafes, three pizza joints with Crust the least reputable, five bakeries including some of the best apple cakes to be found in Victoria (the fact that they have never made it to bakeries north of the border is still one of life’s most devastating mysteries), an awesome fruit shop and deli, a new Woolies, a great local library and a bunch of local and national clothing, linen and knick-knack shops, and all of the other necessities. Often, our guests wouldn’t have to go further afield to seriously enjoy filling up their day.
Pako epitomises a metropolitan Australian country town experience. Dead at 7am, by 10 the street is buzzing every day other than Sunday. Saturdays see the sausage sizzle out the front of the newsagent staffed by volunteers from a different local or national charity raising a few dollars while local dogs drink from the ice cream containers provided for them out the front of various shops and cafes.
Local characters quickly started to infiltrate our consciousness. The one well-moustached homeless guy, the jovial deaf bloke who would be selling the Big Issue out the front of Woolies, Michael the local Italian Barista whose flags adorning his outlet would change from Italy to Ferrari to the Cats depending on the time of year, and the bloke who would cycle to and from work in his fluros on one of his vast collection of novelty bikes – yesterday a tiny clown’s bike, today a young girl’s resplendent with tassels and basket.
And of course, there were the Cats who would go about their daily business quietly unless asked for a photo with a local kid or three. Live and eat out in Geelong long enough and you’ll share a restaurant with all of the squad at some stage or another. My favourite moment was sitting in Steampacket Café on Aberdeen St with Mrs EPO early on during our time in town. A short, curly haired, elderly man crossed the road to collect some takeaway. “You’ll recognise him,” I said to Mrs EPO. “No?” she replied, to my surprise. Seconds later, Bob Davis’ voice rang out as he greeted the waitress behind us, and Mrs EPO beamed with recognition.
As two footy fans coming to town in ’06, we arrived wondering just what it would be like to experience the AFL in Victoria. Unsurprisingly, this year it became the first thing we would say that we’d miss upon departing the state. Trying to describe footy’s presence in the life of Victoria and Victorians is something for another time. For the moment, let’s just say that small moments consistently reminded us of its omnipotence. Moments like whistling the Hawthorn song in the backyard after my Hawks defeated Geelong one afternoon, only to be sworn at by an anonymous voice over the back fence; like having the kids next door commentating their own backyard games, with the Hawks always winning in the yard to our left and the Saints always winning in the yard to our right; like Mrs EPO in her Swans scarf and me in my Hawks scarf at the drive-through coffee joint on our way to this year’s Grand Final, causing our server to smile broadly: “this could be interesting!”
And what a perfect few footballing years to have lived in Geelong. Both of our clubs won Premierships and the Cats won three, the town’s car horns blaring in ecstasy seconds after the final siren of each of them.
When not engaging with Geelong itself, we would make use of the places that were a blissfully easy drive away. Our humble townhouse was within 25 minutes of Bass Strait and the Seachange that is Barwon Heads and Ocean Grove, and was exactly an hour to the car park under the spire of Melbourne’s Arts Centre, from which we walked to see gigs, plays, footy and the tennis.
As we came to realise that our time in Geelong was fast coming to an end, we experienced the nostalgia that comes with enjoying a place for a finite amount of time. For Mrs EPO and I, it manifested itself in a range of unanswerable questions that one would ask the other at random moments. Will we ever live on the route of a tourist seaplane again? Will we ever have an anniversary-worthy restaurant just a couple of minutes from our door again? Will we ever be able to walk to the AFL again? Will an international sporting event ever pass within a few doors of our house again as the World Cycling Championships did in 2010? Will we ever find ourselves stopped for a chat by as many people as we would on Pako? Will so many people from elsewhere drive to come to our local again?
Upon leaving town, it suddenly felt that living somewhere was something that one should not have allowed one’s self to become used to. Now, we’ll have to get used to being in the car: driving to somewhere from our home in elsewhere.
The 11-month-old and I started our day this morning with a 10-minute drive to Lake Burley Griffin for our morning walk. No longer taking in the Geelong Waterfront, we found ourselves strolling past endlessly affable Canberrans on foot or bike in front of the National Library before he, on all fours, chased the seagulls who had previously been minding their own business in front of the International Flag Display. Tonight, once he’s in bed, Mrs EPO and I will enjoy the stunning view of the final sunset of 2012 from our living areas as the sun drops seemingly vertically behind the Brindabellas.
And we’ll share a bottle of wine from the Bellarine, for ol’ times’ sake.
We’re a long way from home. And yet, we’ve returned.