Wednesday, April 25, 2007

My happy place (at least for now): Williamstown

Williamstown is a strange blend of identities. The ‘Toorak of the west’: home of the rich. ‘St Kilda of the west’: a seaside suburb that families from surrounding suburbs flock to in the summer months – and on sunny days in general. I lived in Williamstown for five months (winter months, mostly) and discovered yet another identity: conservative Williamstown. A place where newcomers are carefully watched by neighbours who have lived in the area for years, and report on their quirks and foibles. (I was almost evicted because I refused to remove a couch from the front porch – both my landlords and neighbours found it unsightly.)

It's a suburb with the feel of a country town, within sight of the CBD towers and the shores of the inner-city seaside stretch between Port Melbourne and St Kilda. Perhaps it’s the geography of Williamstown – a suburb largely bordered by the bay – that retains its small-town feel. That flavour is cleverly helped along by the heritage-listed buildings housing the shops and restaurants along Nelson Place, facing the wharf with the view of inner Melbourne across the bay. Like St Kilda, Williamstown has its own Botanic Gardens adjacent to the beach, and generous parklands running along the waterfront. (Unlike St Kilda, the public transport is awful – to travel to the city outside peak hour, the traveller must change trains at Newport station, one stop after North Williamstown. Try it on a cold winter night.) You can quite easily walk from one part of Williamstown to another - and on your way from, say, the library or the local Coles, to the beach, you’ll pass parks, playgrounds and picturesque stretches of seaside. It is a wonderful place to explore with a child. And yet …

I moved out of Williamstown four years ago, unspeakably relieved to escape the isolation of that beautiful suburb across the bay for the haven of a tiny flat in North Fitzroy. But since I’ve returned from overseas, one month ago, I’ve gravitated there for rest and respite. I’ve been there four times – an average of once a week – cycling to the train station with F on the back cushion, travelling two stations, enduring the still-frustrating train change at Newport, then disembarking. And every visit has granted me the mental equivalent of a deep breath before continuing on my way. I return both invigorated and relaxed (though often exhausted from cycling around with a nearly-eight-year-old and two heavy backpacks).

Today, Anzac Day, ‘Willie’, as we’re affectionately calling it, is packed with families. It’s a gorgeous spring day (even though it's autumn): flawless blue sky, golden sunlight, crisp air. The beach is crowded with toddlers and pre-teens ankle-deep in rock pools. Middle-aged men and women settle contentedly on the sand beneath wide-brimmed hats, books or magazines in hand. Dog owners meander along the shore in tracksuits. Two elderly Mediterranean women, round as grapefruits in sleek fifties bathing suits and shiny caps, wander along the fringe of the waves. A bronzed, white-haired man, also Mediterranean in appearance, strides in the opposite direction, chin raised high, swollen belly resplendent above royal blue Speedos. The parks across the road and further along the path, where sand blends into grass, are fragrant with the aroma of barbecue. Women in headscarves and ankle-length skirts stroll along the beachfront as I huff past on my bicycle. They nod hello to the Middle-Eastern family pedalling before me in single file.

A teenage Asian couple, self-consciously hip, pose for photographs against the backdrop the sea and sand. She wears black lace leggings under her skirt; his blazer-style jacket is teamed with blue jeans. A pair of forty-something parents walk backwards, two steps ahead of their infant daughter, who totters along with a red bucket, her face framed by a matching sunbonnet. Their hand-held video camera is trained on her every move.

A young mother, early thirties, strips self-consciously down to her two-piece bathing suit and follows her primary-age son to the conspicuously empty sea. He shouts excitedly and kicks at the shallow waves with one toe, spraying water back towards her. She resolutely looks at him as she kicks back, then out at the water – anywhere but back at the sensibly clothed adults on the sand.

‘Let’s SWIM!’ shouts the boy, as the water rises to his knees, then his waist, as he barrels towards the horizon.
‘Do you think Mum can do this? It’s pretty cold.’
‘Of COURSE you can!’

Of course, this is us: me and F. I do eventually submerge myself in the cold water. Despite Melbourne’s proximity to the chilly Bass Strait (and Antarctica beyond), today, the ocean is pretty okay. That’s relative, of course. It’s still bloody cold.

F flees the deeper waters before I do.

We collect shells in the rockpools. I inadvertently collect shards of glass, some of them dangerously angled upward, and deposit them in a bin on the footpath.
‘You DO care about the environment’ observes F, admiringly.
‘Yes’ I reply. ‘And I also care about people’s feet.’
We build a sandcastle with a fort and a dug-out pool. It is messy but elaborate. As I scoop out tunnels and get increasingly muddy (in my hair, up my legs), F declares that I am obviously an EXPERT at sandcastles.
‘Well’, I say, trying to sound authoritative. ‘I HAVE been doing this for thirty years.’
He thinks about it.
‘Since you were ONE?’
‘Um, yes.’ I have forgotten that I am thirty-one, now.
We eat a fish and chips picnic on our spread-out towels.

And then we pile all our books, towels, magazines, shells and wet towels and bathers into backpacks and onto my bike (with F on his back perch) and cycle across Williamstown to Nelson Place, where we buy ice-cream cones from the Williamstown Ice Cream Factory, choosing carefully from over fifty flavours.
‘Mum, I don’t want to swap a SINGLE lick with you!’ announces F, sweeping his tongue over a mound of iridescent Blue Heaven.
‘Good’ I reply, absolutely sincerely.

We eat our ice creams in the park opposite, overlooking the boats moored in the harbour and the CBD skyline across the bay. Evening is falling. The colours of the sky sky blend purple into mauve into dusky pink, then powdery blue over the sea. The lights come on over the tennis courts adjacent to the playground. A small boy sits on the end of the slide, chin in hands, watching the players with rapt attention. The dogwalkers and cyclists and joggers and shrieking children dissipate. F swings up and down on the flying fox. Across the playground, under a tree, his mother sits under a tree and scribbles in a notebook, pausing at intervals to inhale the evening air or listen to a magpie’s last call. Not really watching him.

‘MU-UUUUUM!’ he hollers. ‘PLAY WITH ME!’


The Man at the Pub said...

Love Willy! My Dad's side of the family have their roots in Williamstown, so I'm lucky to have a personal insight into the history of the place. There's a large part of the population that is still living in the 1940's, and while it doesn't appeal to me as a place to live, it is nevertheless fascinating. A bit of an island in time you could say.

Ariel said...

Thanks for that, Man at the Pub. I was curious as to whether I'd imagined my view of conservative Williamstown - maybe it was just my street? - but there you have it. Yeah, if I'd never lived there I would want to now, but because I ended up loathing it so much last time, I guess it's one of those things that SEEMS like a good idea. I'll stick to visiting.

Kirsty said...

Such lovely, evocative descriptions. I like the way F thought he was depriving you of the blue ice cream.

ThirdCat said...

Is that rainbow ice cream not the foulest thing on which you have ever set your eyes? Is there anything even vaguely real about it?

Ariel said...

Yeah, it's ice cream with some food colouring splashed in. Yeurrgh!

Watershedd said...

Hailing from Yarraville many moons ago, I spent countless days at Willie beach, travelling on the bus in the summer heat. There used to be a fountain just over the railway bridge in Newport. My brothers would run to the beach and stop at the fountain - half-way - to cool off. Have you walked through the gardens to the aviary? Not as good as it used to be - once had a talking cockatoo. But there's still heaps of budgerigars. the distinct lack of traffic signals in the area (until reently, I hear) helps maintain the old world feel. Put me near the sea any time.

Ariel said...

No, I haven't, Watershedd. Must do it! Wow, can't belive that's two people with Willie links. Cyberspace is a small world after all ...