Years ago, when I lived in Los Angeles, locals had a bumper sticker they displayed to taunt tourists. It read: “Welcome to California. Now go home.”
I was reminded of this on Tuesday when NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was asked whether her state would be closing its border with Victoria.
No, she wouldn’t be doing that, she said, but: “I call on all organisations not to interact with citizens from Melbourne at this stage.”
She might as well have been wearing that bumper sticker – or a local version of it – plastered across her forehead.
For at that moment I went from being a welcome traveller in NSW greeted warmly at lodgings and eateries, and in the next, a weary Joseph looking for a manger. Any manger.
With one breezy yet brutal remark, the NSW Premier had cast as pariahs Victorians visiting her state.
Even the good folk of the Ruby Princess got a warmer welcome.
Our journey into NSW had been going swimmingly until the Premier’s intemperate remarks. We’d set out from Melbourne two weeks ago to drive the east coast to Sydney, spreading good cheer and dollars to bushfire-affected folk along the way.
And they were grateful. Really grateful.
“Thanks for coming,” rang out at restaurants and bakeries, and overnight stops along the way. “We really appreciate it.”
We struck an unstated bargain at every stop: We’ll promise we haven’t got the virus if you pledge good hygiene and social distancing.
And it’s been great: Paynesville, Cape Conran and Mallacoota in Victoria and then across the border to Merimbula and Mollymook.
We appreciated that NSW hadn’t shut the border in the way Annastacia Palaszczuk had up north. And I couldn’t care less about all those other states that wouldn’t let us in.
We heard Gladys’s comments on Tuesday afternoon just before we entered a small department store at Ulladulla on the NSW south coast.
The first test came fast and without warning.
“Can I have your postcode please,” asked the man at the till as I paid for my purchases.
Oh no, I thought, they’re already checking.
I paused, considering a white lie: I could say 2090, because we’d lived at Cremorne on Sydney’s north shore for almost a decade until 2007.
I checked the line at the till. One person ahead of me, still loading up her purchases, and a couple behind me, who could have been Victorians, for all I knew. So I soldiered on.
“Three. One. Two. Two,” I said, boldly and almost too loudly. If I was going to go down, I would go down swinging.
He considered that for a moment. He looked to be weighing up important matters. Would the police be called, I wondered.
“Is that anywhere near Brighton,” he asked. “Cos my son lives in Brighton. Nice part of the world.”
Had he not heard Gladys? Had he chosen to ignore her?
“This is a nice part of the world too,” I said, relieved.
“Yeah, but don’t tell too many people,” he said. Maybe he’d heard Gladys after all.
It occurred to me at that point, but not for the first time, that in some perverse way we’ve ceased being Australians since the arrival of this dreadful virus.
We’re Queenslanders or Territorians or South Australians or Western Australians or Tasmanians.
A federation? We’re looking more like a loose affiliation with some busting to get out on their own.
In some places we’re at risk of becoming even more parochial.
In my home state you now risk being identified by your LGA (Local Government Area.).
Victoria has 79 of them, but there’s six under particular scrutiny at the moment. There’s talk of shutting down these viral hotspots so residents there won’t be able to leave until the current surge is over.
Some want to publicly name the worst-affected suburbs within those LGAs. What next, streets? House numbers? Families?
I thought we were supposed to be in this together.
Meanwhile, we’re pushing further north.
Our next stop is Sydney. Plenty of places to hide there. Plenty of friends who are keen to “interact”.
Just don’t tell Gladys.