By Stephanie Van Schilt
Edited by André Dao
We’re in Los Angeles, my boyfriend and I, eating cheap Thai food and talking about how much we miss Portarlington. Right around the corner thousands of tourists tread the scummy Hollywood stars pavement, which we (also tourists) will march over once sated. Somehow the glitz and glamour (mess and poverty) of Hollywood doesn’t make us starry-eyed like Portarlington.
It took 15 hours to get to the States, but we long to be where we were over 15 months ago. We’re focussed on our impending homecoming and begin making plans to move back to the bayside town with a population of about 3000, located about 30 kilometres from Geelong. It really feels that, no matter where we are, we always come back to Port.
Even in LA, every cafe we visit we compare service to that at PostScript where everyone knows Toby’s name and order. We laugh when Uber drivers recommend visiting the famous LA beaches — Santa Monica, Venice — because why would we go to see subpar shorelines when we’re from Australia?
Hollywood is bustling but the epitome of dirt and density, even though Los Angeles itself is a collection of sparsely dotted laid-back cities that take a car ride to reach. While moving around LA, we’re always looking to be elsewhere. The “SoCal Vibes” (as printed on our coffee cups) are felt, it’s pretty chill. But it’s nothing compared to the daggy nature of Port’s retiree population and the sound of the gently lapping of the water a street away that felt like freedom.
It’s the first time we’ve been to Portarlington. Our friends invited us to stay at their place while they’re away, giving us a break from the hecticness of life in Melbourne and the recent tragedies rippling through our small arts community.
As we drive over a slight hill road, the speed limit dips and we’re on the main strip: two bakeries, one bank, a heritage listed pub and a Woolies that’s replaced the local IGA (soon to be out of business).
We can see the water from the house and spend our time reading, walking along the small shore and looking at real estate websites.
Here rent for a property is less than half of what we were looking to pay in Melbourne for a room. We’re going to move in together, to cohabitate in that mid-late twenties way that loved-up couples do to live up to social conformity but, if we’re being honest, also fiscal responsibility: Why pay off two landlords’ mortgages when you can share one roof? Why travel to be tranquil when you can live there? How’s the serenity?
Why Portarlington, my friend asks with a tinge of disgust in her voice when I explain our plans. I’m instantly defensive: because we love it, we need it. It feels like home, I explain. And for the first time in forever mean it.
Within two-months we’ve relocated from Fitzroy North to the Bellarine Peninsula. It feels like a current carried us to the little two-bedroom asbestos cottage on Clarke Street, which is funny because the water in Port Phillip bay is flat and if I was to break it down, the turning of the tide that lead us here was more a mixture of grief and desperation, displacement and confusion, pressure and the desire for relief.
We relish the walks along the bayside with our newly adopted pups pulling us along. We point at Melbourne and say how little we miss it. The air smells like seaweed and sulfur and a used portaloo but it’s fresh and crisp and we’re not conscious of our breathing for the first time in months. Each person we pass says good morning and we don’t baulk at the prospect, rather bask in it. Hello, good morning, we say back to them. And everything is so genuine and we love it — will I ever outgrow my academic roots, seeking ‘authenticity’ whatever the fuck that means?
Less than a year later, with two dogs in tow, we’ve moved back to Melbourne bringing along a different kind of grief, one tied to location.
We didn’t want to leave Portarlington, but the call of capitalist duty and debt made it necessary.
I cry as we pack up our place and make the 2 hour drive back to the inner-city suburb of Elsternwick.
It’s 1 January 2016 and my best friend and I are sitting in the flat bay on our flat butts sinking into the flat sand of the Bellarine Peninsula. We’re soaking in an effort to rid ourselves of NYE hangovers. We have the beach to ourselves because even during the peak holiday periods, Portarlington isn’t busy-busy. We had seen in the new year in my large green backyard under a gazebo that wouldn’t fit in any of my Melbourne homes.
Sitting in the water, the sun is hot on our backs with Melbourne literally behind us, skyscrapers reflecting like matchsticks ablaze on the skyline. One of the beauties of Portarlington is the visibility of the Melbourne cityscape: I don’t just feel the distance between myself and the city I no longer inhabit, I can see it. I miss Shaun, my best friend, but he visits regularly and there’s something joyful, like an earnest joy, about being able to offer friends a free bayside retreat.
Twenty-minutes before I get bored and suggest we walk back to the cottage, I wonder why I don’t spend more time in the sea given it’s only a street away from where I sleep. Maybe it’s because I’m not really even a beach person; I hate the feeling of sand between my toes almost as much as I hate my toes. The only time I really think about water and relief is when I feel like I’m drowning and want it to stop which seems physical but is mainly a state of mind.
We’ve been living back in Melbourne for 18 tumultuous months. After a short trip to Los Angeles, I’m back working in the CBD – as in bureaucratic work-work not career-based writing-work. My desk is on the highest floor of a building that looks across Melbourne facing east. I can see all the way to the Dandenongs. From this position, seventeen storeys up, I watch as a haze gathers while it rains over Camberwell while sun glows over Fitzroy and I wonder how much connection to place is a state of mind, something programmed in us. I look out of the window and contemplate whether I have become a cliché, wanting to quit my job, skip town and move back to the water to write, like all the characters in all the rural settings of practically all the ‘classic Australian books’.
During our time living in Flemington, I’ve been sleeping too much and too little. I constantly dream of Portarlington, but it’s never really Portarlington.
I once dreamt we went back to stay at our house in Port, that was never even really our house. And in the dream it wasn’t even really the Clarke Street cottage, in both architecture and design but also because a stranger lived there. We had nowhere to go so decided to pitch a tent on a sand bank. I went for a walk but went too far up a ridge, into the bush (that doesn’t even exist in Port) and was chased away by a large inky creature, part equine, part canine, that was desperate to attack me. When I woke all I could do was laugh at my fear and the inability for my imagination to conjure anything but a black dog. How original.
In waking reality, I know that in Portarlington there are fewer people to fail in front of, flail in front of. I have less obligation to attend that event, attend to this person, attend the needs of a social life. Essentially, I don’t have to wash my hair to leave the house because there are fewer people to avoid at the five-aisle Woolies. But isn’t avoiding avoidance just a step up from avoidance itself? And isn’t avoidance a symptom of depression? How much is this presumed paradise an attempt at a geographical cure, and how much is a geographical symptom?
We’ve just moved to Portarlington (for the first time, hopefully not the last) and I’m driving to St Leonards to pick up a secondhand wardrobe for our spare room. The GPS leads me to one of the many new housing developments in the area and I’m surprised by how young the women are. It’s a sharehouse, she explains as we awkwardly manoeuvre the cabinet into the ute.
Port is between, and feels very much apart from, these places, though towards the end of our residence the developments are popping up; swathes of land are being sold further and further out and the shops next to the pub are being renovated into apartments.
Driving around St Leonards later that day I become distracted by the street signs: “Diver Dan Lane”, “Pearl Bay Passage”, named after the TV show SeaChange that was filmed in the area during the late-nineties. I wondered about how ironic or how genuine this homage was; how many people were inspired by that influential show, how many people moved to these streets, this area, out of fandom or by accident.
Was I one of them? I used to watch it with my mum on the couch, did I subliminally absorb the influence?
The idea of a sea change isn’t new; humans are constantly moving, Manifest Destiny and all that. How often are we on our own odysseys on the sea of life, forever seeking individual homecomings navigating invisible boundaries and borders, personal and political?
Recently Toby returned from a workshop where an established writer discussed her move to Brisbane for exactly the same reasons we moved to Port. The same reasons our friends, who first introduced us to This Portarlington Life moved there. Lol, we’re not so different after all.
As our lease nears its 12-month end, as we make daily plans to relocate to Portarlington again, I wander through Flemington thinking how pretty but how temporary it all feels. The grass, the sea, the trees are always greener; maybe I’m never really trying to escape a place because I can move around forever but no matter the postcode it’s impossible to escape myself.