There are some places that I love being in, and Byron Bay is one. There is something about the way people treat each other there. With friendliness, with time to spare, as equals. Maybe it’s because lots of people are travelling through, so, for example, the people who are working as wait staff don’t think of themselves as wait staff… or maybe it’s something else.
I remember squeezing into a tiny busy cafe and finding a seat. A cafe worker brought over water and a menu and said, “Hi, how are you?” but it wasn’t just an insubstantial pleasantry. He meant it. He paused: “Where are you from?” and then I glanced up, and saw his relaxed smile, and saw that he was really looking at me, and really waiting for an answer. When I finally replied, he perched at the end of the table, and asked some more questions, and we had a plain old chat… As time went on, in that cafe, I had to grab my notebook and pen, and write about this feeling: this extremely rare and peculiar feeling where a stranger is treating you like there is every possibility that you might become real friends.
It’s a good feeling, and it’s so startling and clear; there’s such a distinct cultural difference. I’ve felt it in some other places around the world, too, but it’s rare. Where people treat each other like humans, not just as dehumanised side characters in a first-person game… yeah, it’s rare.
Back in Byron, I thought about every interaction with every cafe worker back in Melbourne, including back when I was a cafe worker, talking to customers… and I thought about the roles we play, in our unspoken and terribly busy game. You’ll ask me how I’m going, I’ll answer, but I really just want my coffee, and no chit chat, and you don’t either… you just want your shift over, and to get some good tips. We can’t stop and make friends with everyone, it’s unlikely that we have anything in common, we have enough friends already, they’re just a waiter… I guess we’re subconsciously thinking all of these things?
I had a work meeting in a Melbourne cafe last week, and I stayed on afterwards to sit and write. It was a beautiful day, one of the first days of Autumn, and this cafe has a gentle, relaxing aesthetic of beige, white, tan, pretty patterns, a million plants, and the occasional touches of muted coral and turquoise. I sat on the deck, in the shade, and slowly filled sheets of paper with curly, colourful, bright-inked sentences. I had one hour until my next meeting; plenty of time.
“Beautiful day for it,” said the cafe worker, bringing my coffee.
“Yes,” I said, “Lovely day.”
“What are you writing?”
Oh, I thought. I was surprised. He was actually talking to me. “Ahhhh… well… it’s this thing, this process. You have to fill three A4 pages in the morning… to get the mess out of your head.”
He was already nodding, halfway through my answer. “Ah, that sounds like… like… have you heard of this book, The Artist’s Way? There’s something like that in it.”
“Yep, that’s it. That’s it exactly.”
“Huh! Are you an artist?”
“Oh, what are you?”
“Oh, I have no idea.”
“The same as most of us, then. The same as most of us.”
He smiled, then was called over to another table, to take some coffee orders, and I sat there, remembering Byron Bay, and remembering that feeling of talking to strangers like there was every possibility of them becoming a real friend. I want to remember that feeling, always! – but I forget it so quickly. I return to a city of me-me-me-me-me, and roles and games, and dehumanising strangers, and everybody assuming that we’re very different, when really, it’s only ever the opposite. The more you travel, the more you experience that surprising, at-the-core-of-things realisation; that feeling you don’t want to forget. We are all the same. Desperately and deeply the same.