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Stranger #1 - Melvin - Blue Mountains

What is a home?

Image: The Big Merino - Goulburn

“Humans have a rich history of hosting, welcoming and reaching out to those who are not close kin.”

Will Buckingham “Hello, Stranger.” (2021)

The New Year is fast approaching.  This is going to be different for me.  All my children are now adults; no more school lunches, thinking about homework assignments, regulating my time to that of the school timetable.  I have tried for a few years now to make more time for myself but this year will be the first in 38 years that I can do not have to consider others before myself: not do the washing up before getting a child up and ready for school.  So here, at the end of 2023, I am starting as I mean to go on.  Time for a bit of an impulsive adventure.

I am in need of a back pack, one to carry computer, books and other stuff around in.  I am interested in one I have seen on the internet from Mount Vic and Me.  They are sold on line but I want to go and see it at the shop in the Blue Mountains.  Now, in Australian terms the Blue Mountains are not that far from Canberra, a mere 3 hours, on good roads.  In Canberrian terms, and much of the rest of the world, this is a long way, but I am still thinking in country Victoria, so off we go to the Blue Mountains.  I concede it is a long way to go there and back in a day so we opt for staying in Katoomba, in the heart of the Blue Mountains and just down the road from Mount Victoria, location of the shop.  

We want to see the spectacular scenery.  On other visits the weather has been bad: rain, fog and mountains do not look like anything much when you can only see a few meters in front of you. The Blue Mountains are not really mountains at all.  Mountains are forced up from the Earth’s surface by forces underground. The peaks and toughs, in these mountains, are all part of a large plateau with deposits of sandstone and shale that date back to when this land was covered in sea. The weather then had a part to play, forming points, peaks and weird shaped outcrops, given names by white settlers.

I am also looking for opportunities to talk to strangers.  I book a room at the YHA, Katoomba.  We have stayed there before, know it is clean and well located and it has ample common facilities for chance encounters. 

In 2023 I completed a challenge where I aimed to go on all bus routes in the ACT.  I like to write and it gave me something to write about: people, places, history.  The main part of my trips that piqued my curiosity were the chats I had with people waiting for a bus or on the bus.  Early on in the year I watched a Ted Talk by Kio Stark about why talking to strangers is good for all of us and tips on how to do it.  Since then I have become very interested in how we interact with those we do not know: why are some people in and some people out, and why strangers are good for us. 

What is a stranger?  

According to the Oxford English Dictionary a stranger is 

a person whom one does not know or with whom one is not familiar as in "don't talk to strangers". 

Or, “a person who does not know, or is not known in, a particular place or community, as in "I'm a stranger in these parts". 

Or, “a person entirely unaccustomed to (a feeling, experience, or situation) as in "he is no stranger to controversy”.

The concept of strangers is one that also protects us.  We all feel part of a group, family, work, friends, extended friendship group, and when another approaches we look to our group to keep us safe.  We tell our children about “Stranger Danger” and not to talk to strangers, in the hope they will be safer.  

The definition given to us by the dictionary is a simplified one.  Does it apply to the person you meet when you go to a dinner party? Does it apply to children sitting on Santa’s knee?  Does it apply to the teacher at the school or work or library or doctor you are attending or seeing for the first time?  A stranger may be someone you have never spoken to before and with whom you are not familiar but there are safe places where talking to strangers is acceptable: libraries, doctors’ surgeries, shops.  This list is endless. 

It also applies to certain situations: travelling, asking for directions, or concerts, all attending with a common interest to watch someone , waiting at bus stops, scenes of accidents or in some crisis.  There are times and places where our stranger barriers are let down a little; times of vulnerability.

The concept of the stranger is connected and overlaps with our idea of home.  Who is part of the in group and who is out. Home is more than a physical place, it is something in our imaginations, part of what makes us who we are.  In his book “Hello, Stranger” Will Buckingham opens with the experience of Cicero who exiled himself from Rome to Thessaloniki in Greece in 58 BCE, after an interdiction against him. This interdiction stated he was to be socially excluded; no one could offer any kind of hospitality. He became a

Image: Cicero

stranger in a strange land. Cicero wrote to his brother about what he missed, his possessions and his family but also “for my former self, for what am I now?”.  Cicero did not do well in exile: he could not stop crying, he contemplated suicide, he lost weight.  As time passed this sorrowfulness turned to anger about his situation.  He wrote to the powerful in Rome about his return arguing the interdiction against him passed by law by Clodius was unlawful.  The factions that supported Cicero and Clodius fought on the the streets.  The political tides in Rome turned in favour of Cicero and he made ready to return.

When allowed back to the city he could not return to his home as it had been torn down and replaced by a statue of Libertas, the goddess of liberty, by Clodius.  No longer in a strange land but still not home, Cicero responded by putting the case for a return to his home to the highest religious body in Rome, the College of Pontiffs.  He argued, in “On His Home”, that Clodius had not followed proper process passing the law that exiled him, but also that a person’s home was a sacred unit. “What is more sacred, most closely guarded by religious safe-guards, than the home of each and every citizen?”.  The College of Pontiffs ruled in his favour; the statue was dismantled and his home was rebuilt, all at public expense.

Of course, Cicero could have moved into any home, or built a new one elsewhere, but he was making a point and he wanted the home of his imagination to be there once again for him to be the man he had been.

Home gives us a foothold on the world, a place to branch out from and return to, and feel safe.  We build walls, fences and have hi-tech security systems to add to this sense of safety.  The doors and gates allow strangers in but only under our control.  Do these measures keep people out?  Maybe our sense of safety would be enhanced if we allowed more people in?  In sharing our lives we also get a sense of safety, often thought of as a community.

The YHA in Katoomba goes to some lengths to stress the community aspects of the movement.  It is about sharing.  Notices up in the kitchens, bedrooms and on the loop running on a large TV in the reception area tell guests this is a shared space, it is all about sharing: fun, experiences, conversations.  Be considerate to your fellow guests, show kindness, clear up after yourself and strip your beds before you go.

The kitchen work stations fill up quickly after about 5pm with people on their own or as part of larger groups cooking an evening meal.  The eight fridges along one wall are all full.  Not many people are

talking to each other, outside their groups. 

Image: The Orphan, Blue Mountains

The tables fill up with guests consuming their meals.  We arrived a bit late and there are no tables left.  I suggest to my partner he goes to the table with the least number of people and ask if we can join them.  He does and that is how we met Melvin.  A stranger.  True in two senses of the definition as we had not met him before and he was a stranger in our land.  Visiting from Cambridgeshire, just outside Royston, in the UK, he travels the world for better weather.  Winters are spent in Thailand and Australia, British summers in Greece, Spain or the more southern parts of Europe.  

Melvin’s travels started when he first learnt how to drive.  He and a friend took the friend’s Ford Anglia for a spin around Spain in the 1960s.  From there he explored new parts of warmer Europe each summer.  He owned his own business but once that and his house were sold, he was free to travel whenever he wanted.  Melvin is disappointed “people his age and with his wealth, people like me” voted for Brexit, as this has changed the way he spends his Northern Hemisphere summers; he can only spend three out of any six months in Europe now.  “I told them they have ruined my life”.

Melvin arrived in Sydney from Thailand.  He looks tanned.  Not in that sit-on-the-beach way but the way people who spend a lot of time outdoors weather.  His new looking near fluro green t-shirt, the type that wicks, looks large on him.  Our intrusion on his space interrupted his reading of a battered looking Agatha Christie novel, but he seems eager to chat.  He returns to us after a phone call takes him outside for a bit.  The rules of the YHA have changed and now you can only stay for two weeks in any three months at the same one, so this has forced Melvin to move from Sydney to Katoomba and on to Newcastle before he returns to the UK.  Living in the YHA every year allows Melvin to save money but also allows for human contact he may not get if staying in a hotel or motel.  The common spaces at the YHA encourage interaction.  He tells us about another man he met, in his 80s who does a similar thing to escape the winters in Nova Scotia.  “He has a house and everything, but the snow is just too much.”  Melvin tells us about the many places he has been to but not the things he has seen there.  He does not talk about family, apart from a sister who lives in the next village and gets the bus using her bus pass.  

We had a lovely time with Melvin.  We enjoyed his company and loved hearing how he lived his life.  We had things in common (as we all do with most strangers) and things we both knew about: we lamented the lack of buses both in the UK and in Canberra and how public transport is not seen as a needed or useful thing. Melvin and I had both been to the Canary Islands.  I had a great holiday there, he was not so keen, too windy.  My partner and I  talked about our experience in Yorkshire in 2016, how much history was in each village. He admitted he had not seen much of the UK as he was always somewhere else.

As I sat with this information overnight I did wonder what his sense of home was.  Having somewhere to return to and be the person you are there, is a good feeling, but does that change if you spend most of your time somewhere else?  Do you ever feel like you belong? Or would you always feel like a stranger?  Being away from your home so often means you miss all the usual markers of time: people being born, people dying, events and major family celebrations: the things we reminisce about when we do get together.  Shared experiences.  If you are never there how can you share and re-share those tales.  These are the threads that connect us, home is not the only thing that makes us who we are.

The journey back from Katoomba was uneventful, easy driving with loud music; perfect road trip.  We did not get the back pack, the shop was closed until early January, but I did have a sense of accomplishment. We had seen the Three Sisters for the first time after three visits and I have talked to a stranger.


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