Seeing a person on the street who I had served that morning in a shop, it was eyes front and on your way, no recognition for anyone except a well-defined group of friends, family and acquaintances. Life was too busy to be frittered away.
Since my twenties I have lived in country towns, and it has been a long process adapting to the very different conditions imposed by a small and constant population.
When I first moved to Braidwood (pop. 1,100), people began to look at me funny as I maintained my city-bred impersonality waay too long.
One bloke, leaning on the fence watching his cows as I hurried to collect a couple of bales of hay, remarked “you’re from the city, aren’t you.” It wasn’t a question.
The cheerful grey-haired lady in the supermarket began calling me by my first name after a month or two of regular shopping. It took me another year before I found out her name was Sally.
Around that time I also realised the fella that served at the bottle shop was also the mayor (Les), and that the strangely similar girls at the cafe and the hardware store were the same person (Debbie).
And I was increasingly uncomfortable maintaining my impersonality as I walked down the main street. Every person I passed I would likely be talking to in the next day or so, at some counter or event. To pretend I didn’t know them or see them (as you would in the city) was ridiculous, but on the other hand, stopping to chat with every person was unfeasible: what would I say?
So I started observing how the locals did it. In the supermarket over the exchange of coins, Sally would have a genial conversation with the customer. It wasn’t earth-shattering stuff, just an enquiry after a relative or spouse, or a joke about a friend or the weather, all over in the time it takes to gather the bags and leave.
At the cafe Debbie knew what people would order, so instead of the usual customer/waiter dialogue there was a bit of banter over the daily news or help with the crossword.
Les, mayor and bottle shop attendant, who knew everyone in town as well as their father and their dog, said a gentle “g’day” to those he passed in the main street: acknowledgment without strings.
As years passed I settled into the country groove, nodding to acquaintances in the main street, sharing a joke with the mayor at the bottle shop, meeting up with a mixed bag of blokes on Friday afternoons for nine holes at the local course, and being slightly intimidated by the breadth of local knowledge. It seemed everyone knew everything. Once my girlfriend (now my wife) mentioned some vague plans to open a restaurant to Debbie at the cafe. By the time we had finished our coffee and headed to the video store, we were grilled by the owner as to where and when our wine bar was opening.
When we moved as a young family to Cobargo (pop. 500), the whole question of community interaction was amplified by kindergartens, schools, sleepovers and birthdays.
What remained of my city-bred reticence was tested by interactions in the back yards and lounge rooms of people I probably would never have socialised with had I stayed in the city. Small town demographic squeeze meant rubbing shoulders with ideals and perspectives -- political, social, religious -- I had rarely encountered. I learnt to extend the small town courtesies from Braidwood more deeply, encompassing a respect for difference. For as a friend helpfully noted, a ‘community’ is not a group of people who agree about something; a ‘community’ is a group of different people with something in common -- in this case a shared geographic location.
When we moved to Cygnet five years ago, we were closer to being country people than city folk, and our acclimitisation was easier for it. We were prepared for the way that social, business and child-based relationships overlap in small towns. You can’t go off at the teller at the bank when your cheque hasn’t cleared, because you’ll be attending her son’s fifth birthday on the weekend. It would be uncomfortable.
Mind you, sometimes I wonder whether it’s gone too far. Nowadays, going to town for a packet of dunny paper can be epic. Picking up the kids from school can send me into a acknowledgement spasm, where I’m nodding to one friend, lifting a finger to the plumber who fixed my pump yesterday, waving to another friend with a newborn child whilst trying to attract the attention of my baker friend across the street who I need to talk to...leaving little time to prevent the boy from running under the wheels of the butcher’s son doing his deliveries (who I’m trying to nod at in a genial way), while the girl-child has nicked off to the library (where the librarians know both kids by name)...
Coming from the city, I wouldn’t have it any other way.