Not going away to do my fieldwork has had its pros and cons (or perhaps more accurately, its ups and downs). One of the personal bonuses of staying in my home city has been being able to experience that sense of belonging to, and having ties with, the place through encountering people I have gotten to know very slowly over time. I have gotten to meet many new people during my fieldwork, some who spoke to me briefly as part of my survey and others I have spent hours with every week. However, I did not have to leave everybody else I know behind and this post offers a bit of a detour through some examples of what that has meant for me.
Various volunteer projects that do little in terms of trying to change the world, but let you hang out with people you would not usually get to know, were what I did for fun as a teenager/ young adult. Now I get to enjoy the benefits from the time invested (and more age appropriate socialising forgone) in all sorts of unexpected moments. The world seems so much more enchanted when you know some of those around you and have a few shared stories with them.
Recently, on a sunny day, I rode past a man reading a newspaper under a tree. Anybody might have noticed that he was wearing a pair of rather unremarkable glasses. However, I was also reminded of the slow but steady campaign undertaken by another person to encourage him to go to the eye and ear hospital for those new glasses in order to replace his old ones. They had been so full of cracks for so long that I suspected they were being held together with willpower, and we all worried they would shatter at any moment. I could not stop to talk with him, but it was heartening to be reminded of his softly spoken, but friendly and patient, nature and how he would calmly join in with the conversations of one of his more eccentric friends. He even provided joking criticism where appropriate for some comic relief. His presence was always welcome, and he was missed when he was living interstate for many months. The other blokes would explain, ‘He has money, you know.’ But I remember interpreting it as an assertion that even though he was different to them – with his money – he was one of them.
Perhaps my recollections are not spot-on, and perhaps it is very rude of me to entertain myself with the stories that concern other people. However, there is a depth of understanding which only seems to come from having what feel like at the time to be the same two or three conversations, with more or less the same people, for years on end.
Such familiarity can help me negotiate my way through life, and also field work. Last year I spotted somebody else I knew. I had seen him pretty much weekly for years. Eventually it was less frequent, it became a matter of pausing for a chat when we happened to bump into each other on Brunswick Street, in the city or at some other event. By last year it had been ‘yonks’ since we had seen each other. I found him outside an event I was hoping to attend as part of fieldwork. If I had not seen him there, I would not have known it was on that week and in that location, as I had tried to attend other weeks with no luck.
The value of ‘bumping into’ him were not just derived from the practical benefits of knowing somebody who can explain what is going on and introduce you around. As lovely as it is to meet new people, I think there is a certain pleasure in engaging in even the most banal conversations with people you have known for a while. On my way home from fieldwork one evening late last year, when thanks to the summer evening there was still daylight, I decided to stop off for dinner. Here I bumped into somebody else and a quick meal with a book became a chance for a casual natter, which ended up even including the interesting couple sitting next to us.
I quite like being recognised in this way, and recognising others. Such encounters animate the familiar streets, eateries and stopping points in this city I have lived in for most of my life. Looking out the window on the tram one grey October day as an 18 year old recently returned from overseas, I really could not imagine being enthusiastic about a life spent in such mundane surrounds. Now I cycle up and down that same street almost daily, pondering all manner of things, but I cannot remember the idea of moving elsewhere as ever being one of them.
In Port Melbourne I now get to swap greetings and news in all sorts of places. The other day I was even given some encouraging reminders to get writing when I stopped off to grab a cold drink on my way to a meeting.
As I did not go away to do my fieldwork, now I do not really need to leave in order to write up. While I certainly will not have the same amount of time (and energy) to be traipsing up and down Bay Street, and I will not be attempting to secure an invite to just about every meeting, chances are I will still get to bump into people. The luxury of time to spend in Port Melbourne has allowed even more of Melbourne’s faces to become more familiar and, as a result, the city seems that little bit more enchanting.