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Beagle Covid-19 Lockdown writing competition: Merrie Hamilton

WELCOME by Merrie Hamilton

We are new to the Eurobodalla. Well, 18 months still feels new.

Our previous life saw us 29 years in Braidwood, part of the arts community up there with our own miniscule business – Sugden/Hamilton Studio/Shop – at the wrong end of the main street - for 23. In that fabulous huge 19th Century shop we had a spacious ceramic workshop, a gallery displaying our own work & a section where we sold ‘Early Australian Pottery’ & Collectables from the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s with a special emphasis on Kitschenalia.

An enormous amount of fun was had in that shop. The big front window displays, the everchanging tableaux of pre-loved items in the built-in shelving down the back, the visits from local friends & surprising conversations held with passing strangers. Really exciting were the trips out West - ‘hunting & gathering’ for our 2nd hand stock. An ex- teacher & an ex-public servant, we took full advantage of being no-one’s servants & were limited only by our imaginations. I am the Hamilton.

But, somewhere along the line, we began to really feel the very cold winters & the long months of little trade - as the locals hunkered down & the stream of people going to the coast dried up. Surviving only because we wholesaled our smallest items (brooches) to a far-flung network of galleries, we began to experiment with paying the rent in advance, shutting shop & going elsewhere for the 3 coldest months. At first it was camping (needing it to be cheap) but eventually it became SE Asia.

‘I want to go somewhere that’s like a different planet’, Greg had said. When I reminded him that I don’t walk well or far, he presented his winning argument; we’d rent a motorbike everywhere we went. This really appealed since we’d spent our first good times together in the late 70’s on his Honda 4 or, separately, on my pushbike.

Asians seem to respect older people. They care for their elders in family homes & compounds. We met many households who comprised of 4 generations all under the one roof. Strangers would take my arm as I crossed a busy street or turn our bike around for us in a tight park. We attracted curious stares as we – 2 old, tall ‘farang’ (foreigners) with white hair - climbed on or off a motorbike. A young European backpacker asked to take our photo, once, with ‘You are my role models.’ We usually stayed at least 2 weeks (& often much longer) in places; also considered unusual. This gave us the time & opportunity to befriend locals & get to understand something of the locale.

By February 2018, we’d done 3 trips, were 4 months into first year of our official Retirement - in SE Asia - (with our ‘new’ house in Surf Beach rented out) & were key players in the fairy-tale traditional marriage of our one son to his sweetheart in her hometown of Hanoi. They had met in Canberra, where Minh was at Uni. Over the subsequent 6 months we had many memorable socials with her huge family, who are spread throughout North Vietnam, as well as occasions with other pre-existing friends. We hold that meeting people from other cultures is the single most fascinating facet to ‘travel’.

We indeed rented many motor-scooters & rode them in the huge cities of Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi & Mandalay as well as in tiny villages & through stunning rural landscapes.

Back in Australia in September 2018, we set up house, garden & embraced a new, much quieter life. Our many local beaches are very picturesque & very different in character. We took drives, the shorter walks, discovered good local foods & often made the hour-long trip up to Braidwood to see friends. But something was missing in our lives. We hadn’t even quite identified what it was….

One day we happened on an animated group of Asian women – in Batemans Bay – who were meeting to practise their English & share food from their cultures. Nothing formal. Would we like to become involved as volunteer ‘tutors’? Does the sun shine?

Many countries are represented in this elastic ‘class’ as well as many varying degrees of English mastery, ages, family & visa circumstances. But they all, too, have things in common; the need for a feeling of belonging, the understanding that better English is important to them…. & a love of chilli hot foods.

There are other ‘tutors’, too, who come & go. We have become friends. We are all retired oldies, native English speakers but not necessarily ESL trained & know that volunteering delivers as much to the giver as to the receiver. Moreover, we all find Asian people to be generous, clever & delightful. The women/students are highly educated, adventurous, funny, humble & so happy to be bonding with each other…. & us.

‘Community’ was what we were missing - & the widening of our local circle. Although very disrupted by first, the bushfire threat & now an equally scary but unseen one, we are all managing to stay connected via emails & texts (& some Zoom). This social distancing is actually making for the practising of written English. So here we are – ensconced in the fabulous Eurobodalla, having our lives much enriched by recent migrants for whom we are helping provide a service & a heartfelt welcome.

Merrie Hamilton. April 2020.


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