I have just turned from a visit to friends and family in country Victoria. It was wonderful. Most of my friends know me as a city person. I moved to Melbourne when I was 17 and then to Canberra when I was 32. I have always been more comfortable in cities – i get lost less often as the streets are generally short and have handy things like names and numbers rater than the ‘RMB 1265′ denoting a royal mail box and corresponding number – that I grew up with. The city is urbane and has coffee shops and not a rural field day or tractor in sight. People in the city are supposed to be more sophisticated…. or something. However my first seventeen years were spent in country areas – firstly Devon and a small village near Cambridge in the UK and then the most beautiful place imaginable in Kergunyah in my teens. Keygunyah is a tiny town which boasted a post office and a swimming hole and a lot of cows and not much else. I hated it.
As a teenager the country was my enemy. I was isolated, there were no shops or other trappings of civilisation. There was no public transport and anyway I lived about three kilometres up a dirt road which would probably not accommodate a bus. My school was an hours’ bus ride to the north. The bus was filled with knuckle-dragging bullies who delighted in making me feel small and embarrassed. They invariably smelled of BO and cows and had names like Jimmy and Bruce. I endured the hell of this bus ride where nobody ever stood up for me or was even remotely nice to me for six years. As I grew older, I identified with leftish political ideals and social justice. I saw myself as being gay and noticed things like the fact that Aboriginal people were often treated badly and that my school friend Simone who had come to Australia as a refugee from Laos was hated and teased simply for her Asian features and gentle accent. I decided that the city was a better place for a number of reasons. As soon as I was able, I moved to Melbourne to spend the next few years sipping cappuccinos and visiting the Vietnamese restaurants dotted along Victoria Street, Richmond, with my apparently far more sophisticated and decent socialist city friends.
For years I had this idea that the country would never be my home. I looked back on my time in Kergunyah with sadness and equated that beautiful place with all my teenage misery. My parents sold the property in Kergunyah over ten years ago and built themselves a house in what my dad called ‘suburbia’ (a small country town with around 4000 inhabitants, where there are street lights and shops and lots of tourists keeping the economy afloat and having a pleasant impact on house prices for those who own their own). The last time I went to Kergunyah I saw it differently. I felt like I was standing inside a painting. On one side, Mount Murramurambong towered spectacularly above a gap. On the other side the Kiewa Valley lay. You could see the procession of trees lining the riverbank and the mountains rising up on the opposite side. It was stunning. But I still thought the country was not the place for an Autistic advocate, someone who was ‘different’ like me.
My thoughts and opinions about all these things got themselves together and decided to change on the weekend of Australia Day this year. I had travelled to north east Victoria with an advocate friend and colleague to visit my family but also some mutual friends in the Autism world, one of whom was moving into his own place in the same town where I had reluctantly attended high school. The entire weekend was amazing. I got to know people I know much better and met others still who I really like and value. The most amazing thing though was that I made peace with rural Australia. understood that my life would probably have been just as difficult had I grown up in Melbourne or Sydney. I noticed the beauty and vastness of the country, the silence punctuated only by the lowing of cows and the occasional bark from Larry the labrador. As if on cue I started to relate to the needs and concerns of rural people – the terror of fires which can start from a tiny spark and destroy homes, livestock, crops and people, the connection to the land when your family has worked there since 1860, the disconnect between city and country thinking. I embraced my rural heritage (most of it in England) and realised that an Autistic person can succeed and be happy in regional and rural areas as much as they can anywhere else.
- The only reason I wouldn’t live in a rural area is that I don’t drive a car. Although many towns do have a good bus or taxi service.
- Another consideration around moving to the country is employment, as smaller towns tend to have less employment opportunities. Given that Autistic people can struggle with finding a keeping a job, this may be something to think about. However, there is a counter to this issue in that if you and/or your family are established in the town or area it may be easier to find a job than in the city as many jobs in the country are staffed through word of mouth rather than a competitive recruitment process (although this is not always the case).
- The idea I had as a young person that country areas are more conservative is not necessarily true. The idea that city areas are more ‘progressive’ is also not always true. You will probably find likeminded people everywhere you are and you may also find people you disagree with everywhere too.
- The internet means that you can communicate with people all over the world so living in a rural area may not be isolating, even if your nearest neighbour is five kilometres away.
- Country areas often live up to their reputation of being welcoming and friendly. However this can also mean that there is gossip and everyone knows about everyone else’s ‘business.’
- Different people have different preferences around where they live For some people the city is the only place they would consider and for others they would never leave the country. I think I could be happy in both.