“You’re living the dream, you know,” a mate quipped last week. “So many people dream of what you’ve been able to do, a quieter life in the country, with your chooks and your veggies. People love the idea of it.”
It’s not the first time it’s been said. And it’s hard to disagree.
From the desk in my studio in a corner of our semi-rural block, I watch juvenile magpies frolicking outside, squawking their demands as a parent comes near. Our rescue greyhound, Teddy, snores softly by my feet.
It’s a long way from the life I lived before making this sea-change eight years ago.
I loved Melbourne and was as urban as one could be, living in a flat near St Kilda and catching trams to work in the CBD. I saw bands in local pubs, went to film festivals and ate out. When international travel wasn’t practical, I’d lose myself in Footscray, Brunswick or Springvale, soaking up the diversity, gorging on foreign cuisines and finding new and interesting ingredients to cook.
But my happiest memories were of life in the country, a childhood on the land after my parents moved from Sydney to the far-south coast of NSW.
Forty years later, friendships forged at our one-teacher primary school remain strong, and we reminisce about the good times: steel bin lids shielding our heads from magpies as we raced across the schoolyard to the pit dunny down the back; canoodling in the shed that housed our teacher’s goat; winning first place in the marching at the district primary- school sports carnival. Looking back, that may have been given in pity; without an oval or equipment to speak of, our scruffy band of bush kids was unlikely to win anything else.
It was probably no surprise then that I yearned for my own escape, and as technology brought flexibility to the workplace, I swapped my city apartment for a house by the Gippsland Lakes.
It wasn’t quite that simple. The first step was a brief stint living and working on Phillip Island – just a hop, skip and jump from urban safety. When I realised I didn’t miss it, we moved further afield.
Sometimes it was tough. I missed my friends, I missed the diversity. I missed going out for a late-evening cocktail or having takeaway delivered to my door. Mobile phone service was sporadic, and the internet appalling. A dead possum in the water tank cast a shadow on country life.
I’d be invited to Melbourne for parties, events, client functions or celebrations. People who knew where I was based would ask me to come for lunch. Occasionally, I’d turn the tables.
“Why not come here instead? Take in the air and eat seafood by the lake.”
“Oh no, too far,” they’d cry in surprise, because the distance, apparently, is shorter when you drive towards the city than it is travelling out.
Some friends have moved on, or their friendships have evolved. But I’ve made new friends I expect will last a lifetime.
The pros have always outweighed the cons.
Each morning I’d feel smug as Melbourne’s traffic report warned of congestion and delays, then shuffle, coffee in hand, to my office across the yard.
While I’m still up early, it’s not to beat the traffic. These days I’m usually woken by the rowdy chirrup of native birds or the triumphant pride of a chicken laying an egg.
I’ve lost some work but picked up work to replace it. Office hours are scheduled around my partner’s erratic roster, and I fit summer meetings between daily dips in the lake, grateful our glacial internet speeds mean clients can’t see me dripping and bedraggled via Skype.
In winter I work in Ugg boots and tracksuit pants. Once or twice, I’ve worn them into town, but I’m not quite that relaxed yet. As one friend pointed out, tracksuit pants are OK when you wear them out with runners – then people might think you’ve been exercising. Wear them out with Uggs, and you give the game away. She’s a keeper, this friend.
I feel lucky and – and I am – but I’ve also made my own luck. In deciding to move to the country, I sacrificed things I used to enjoy, but replaced them with things I now enjoy more.
Where once I ate breakfast out, now I collect eggs and cook them myself, lately with asparagus from the garden.
Throughout the year our humble little patch supplies tomatoes, silverbeet, beans, beets, cucumbers, lettuce, rhubarb and zucchinis, and a wide array of fresh herbs. We have lemons, limes, oranges and mandarins all fed with worm castings, compost and manure from the hens.
There’s no coffee shop on the corner, but there’s a coffee machine on my bench. I’ve learned to cook meals I once had delivered – Mexican, Vietnamese and Thai. I grow many of the ingredients myself: lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, fiery chillis and Vietnamese mint.
I’ve changed for the better too. Things that once felt important are less so now, but my world hasn’t shrunk it has grown. I’m more pragmatic and open-minded, with a greater exposure to people with views and experiences far different to the largely educated, middle-class, professional circle that populated my former life.
My local friends aren’t reporting on the drought or reading about it in the media, they’ve been living it for years. They include hunters, farmers and my local MPs. I would never have met them before.
I may never adjust to the casual crack of gunshots from the farms nearby, but I love the open space, the silence, the fresh air, lack of traffic, the privacy and time to think.
When I’m caught behind a mob of sheep as I’m hurrying to a meeting, am stabbed by a burrowing echidna, hissed at by a blue tongue or peed on by a turtle when I try to move them off the road, I now stop and laugh at the experience.
For those who are considering a sea-change or tree-change, it’s not as difficult as it seems. We have schools in the country too – good ones – and we have hospitals, jobs and supermarkets. Try it and you might be surprised.
I’ve made it happen and I’ve made it work for me. For now, at least, I’m content. Especially when I hear the traffic report.