Sunday, September 15, 2013
Shootin' The Breeze About Country Characters
Overheard in a shop today, as said by a pair of supposedly joshing women to an awkward-looking third woman: "Well, she's almost one of us now." "Yeah, almost."
As in a local.
And the two emphases were not entirely good-natured to my ears.
As a hyper-sensitive (possibly over-sensitive) people observer, it's the sort of remark that always makes me uneasy. Any us-versus-them situation or artificially constructed, supposedly superior in-group complete with self-appointed gatekeepers controlling the human traffic always gives me the creepy crawlies. The potential for power abuse is ever-present, and can lead to claustrophobic communities that hand over all their brains, manners and decency to TPTB - the kind of behaviour which, if it takes over, can lead to the that scary place which is the wellspring for so many small town horror stories of the witch-hunting kind.
I'm 4 years and three months into my country living experiment, and I have to say it has been and still is a strange experience. Even though I grew up in Country Victoria, out Gippsland way, I then spent a few decades becoming completely citified in Copenhagen and Melbourne before moving out again. After 23 years of being thoroughly embedded in St Kilda's bustling ebb and flow, the blatant parochialism has been a bit of an eye opener for me. When anyone is mentioned in the local papers, the journo always mentions where the person was born and lists the places that person has lived as a qualifier, sometimes even breaking it down to length of time spent in each locale in a way that suggests an underlying code for initiated readers. What exactly does 2 years in town X with an emphasis on their 5 years in town Y mean? When out and about locally, one of the first things many (but not all) people ask is how long you've lived in the area, and they're not shy about making an assessment of you to your face based on that fact. I noticed that certain people became friendlier once I hit the 2 year mark and become more so for every year that passes. Can't say I like it though. To me it's just as impolite as people who openly judge others according to their income, job, sartorial leanings, marital status, dog/cat ownership, number of children, the boy/girl ratio of those children, how many heads those respective children have or [fill in this blank with the prejudice/bugbear of your choice] though to be fair, I'm just as bad because I constantly judge people who judge others according to what I deem invalid criteria.
Anyway, just recently I caught myself out on a number of occasions putting off popping down to the supermarket and other shops on a Wednesday afternoon. I found I far preferred to go after 16.00 and on weekends. Why? Self cross-examination revealed that it was because there's usually (but not always) a certain type of citizen on cash register duty during normal work hours who is sooooo friendly and all over the folk they know personally, but who then, if they can't get away with ignoring you and absolutely HAVE TO serve you, swiftly shift in a matter of seconds to surly and openly contemptuous if they don't recognise you and suspect you're a blow in. I prefer to avoid such rudeness. Besides, after 16.00 and on weekends, the part-time kids take over, and the mood changes, because they're as friendly and open a bunch as you could wish for. I've gradually gained a feel-it-in-my-bones understanding of why country kids are often so eager to head off to the big smoke ASAP. It's not just about the job and education opportunities, but also about the blessed anonymity the city offers, and the chance to be something besides the scion of this or that family with whatever baggage it entails.
I suppose all this is all just another lesson in the strange need some humans have to make themselves somehow special and to then use themselves as an irrefutable measure of what is good and acceptable in their particular part of the world. A self canonisation of sorts. Maybe it boils down to insecurity again. The older I get, the more I find insecurity is the root of most of our darker foibles.
But lest I've given the wrong impression about living in Country Victoria, let me finish off by reassuring you that I enjoy the fresh air, the beauty of much nature, the space, the stars, the nearby horses, the many clubs, interests and wonderful things folk get up to. I like that the move has shaken up my life and that I'm seeing new things in new ways. Fortunately, most people hereabouts are lovely and friendly and chatty. When I head for the train, I have to leave in good time because most days I have to stop for hallos or a quick pat of someone's dog or to explain that no, I don't require a lift to the station because I need the exercise, really, but thank you for asking.