Aussie Rules Football has always been at the heart of Border communities. SALLY HARDING recently discovered the love goes well beyond the playing field.
A few months ago, I asked a lifelong resident sitting next to me at lunch what she liked about living in Wodonga. She paused for a while then replied, “Because it’s home.’
As someone who only moved here a few years ago – leaving behind the many personal, cultural and historic connections that make a place ‘home’ – it made me feel a little sad. How long would it be until I, too, considered the Border to be home, first, and a nice place to be, second? Would it take a lifetime?
Ironically, the lunch was at the Bonegilla Migrant Experience, the site where 320,000 new arrivals from Continental Europe first learned to call Australia home in the Commonwealth Government’s Post-World War Two mass immigration scheme. Over time, this nation-building initiative was hailed a rip-roaring success, for many reasons, but there are also countless stories in the archives of distressed newcomers desperately trying to ‘fit in’.
You wouldn’t think a migrant from Adelaide, South Australia, could feel like a foreigner but that’s the way it is some days. Turns out I speak a bit differently and round my vowels, still don’t understand how a ‘bubbler’ is something you’d drink from and can’t find a Crows or Port Adelaide supporter for love or money.
One random Saturday afternoon, however, I did something that changed everything: I went to watch a local football match at the sports ground at the end of our street. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know anything about the teams or the players, I just wanted to see if I could belong in a place that was starting to mean something to me.
For almost four years I have walked around the West Wodonga oval to take the dog or kids for a walk, sometimes both. I have watched the grass turn brown, then green, then brown again. I have learned the hard way where the swooping plovers and magpies nest and raise babies. I have watched, from a distance, hundreds of kids and adults enjoy the amazing recreational facilities in what I call The Golden Square Mile of Sport (golf, tennis, baseball, hockey, swimming…it’s all here).
I had become so comfortable with the life I’d carved for myself on the periphery that it never occurred to me that I was, in fact, a bona fide local. So, on that Saturday afternoon, I braved the wind and rain to walk a few metres down the road and through the gates of Birallee Park to watch the Wodonga Raiders play a home game. I didn’t aim to buy into the football and netball culture, just be a part of the crowd (although I did end up buying a club beanie because my head was cold).
To my surprise, conversation with other spectators came quickly and easily (very important for a have-a-chat-person). A crowd gathered around a wood fire shuffled along to let me squeeze in and warm my hands (also very important). A stranger even bought me a drink (it doesn’t get any better than that. Actually it does…then a rainbow appeared, for real).
After the game, I legged it home in less than two minutes and walked through my front door feeling warm, inside and out. For the first time I realised I actually quite like living in Wodonga. Why? Because it’s home.