Two years ago I was packing our life in Sydney into boxes. We had sold our terracotta townhouse that looked out over the golf course; the place I'd brought our babies home to, where our little boy and our neighbours' bigger girl played and ran back and forth between adjoining courtyards in the evenings.
I had redirected mail, sadly told our community preschool that we would not be coming back next year and carefully sorted through our belongings, redirecting things we no longer needed to friends, charities, eBay or the hard rubbish collection.
We began the rounds of drinks, dinners and barbecues at which we farewelled good friends and we readied ourself for moving day. The trucks arrived and we watched the crew of removalists pack furniture and box after box of toys, books, clothes and kitchenware tetris-style into a huge shipping container. A minivan came to collect our cat, Johnny, for his journey south with the specialist pet movers, then Hubby and my mum departed one after the other, heading down the Hume, each driving one of our two cars.
Left behind, my two boys and I made the short trip to a dear friend's place, only a few hundred metres from our now empty house. We busied ourselves for three or four days with final trips to our favourite park, a special day out at the water playground at Darling Harbour, the preschool Christmas Concert and then it was time to pack our remaining suitcases, pile into the car and head to Sydney airport.
Our new life began a few hours later in regional Victoria. We had left urban living behind and were settling in the country, starting anew in a town in which we knew no-one. We had rented a house, we knew where Daddy was working and we knew where my four year old was going to Kindergarten in a couple of months time. That was it.
It's funny, hubby and I can quarrel endlessly over how to stack the dishwasher but the decision to move our family from our home of six years in Sydney to Ballarat in Victoria required no discussion at all. When he got a job offer we just looked at each other and almost wordlessly agreed that that's what we'd do. The decision was a no-brainer and while it was stressful packing up one life and organising for it to be transported several hundred kilometres, we trusted that we had made the right decision.
And so our country adventure began.
One of the wonderful things that we discovered almost immediately about our new home town is a real sense of community. Within hours of arriving a neighbour had dropped in and invited the kids and I to morning tea the following week with other mums with small children. These neighbourhood mums and kids are now our friends.
A few weeks later I found myself at the local Aldi with two ratty boys, a trolley full of groceries and no purse - so no money. Queued behind me was a very generous woman who quickly offered to pay on my behalf, telling me that I could drop by and repay her whenever it suited. An hour or so later, when the kids and I turned up at the address she'd written on the back of a receipt, she invited us in for a cuppa, had her teenage son entertain my littlies and told me to relax and join in the kitchen table conversation. This woman had not met us until an hour earlier when she paid for my groceries. Now she was inviting us for tea.
People here look after each other. There is a charity auction or fundraising event almost every month, supported and promoted by the local paper and radio stations, helping out a family in crisis, raising money to send a sick child overseas for specialist treatment or looking to take care of the kids left behind after a parent has sadly died.
Country living also seems to encourage a simpler life. We need very little new 'stuff' and we're more inclined to make do and mend. We enjoy walking into town, to the park and to school when the weather allows it. We have chooks in the yard, a vegie garden and the boys toast marshmallows and hang out with Daddy by the pot bellied fire out the back.
Then there's the lower cost of living In our first few weeks here I called an antennae expert to take a look at our TV, which we had not managed to get working ourselves. A man in his fifties arrived with an older bloke who may have been his dad. They tinkered around a bit, retuned the television, got our troublesome pay TV working, had a bit of a chat then went to leave. I asked him how much I owed him. 'Oh, thirty bucks will do it,' he said. He'd been here almost half an hour. You couldn't get someone to turn up in Sydney for less than $120!
There's something else that's going on here in the country. It's a sense of contentment, a degree of relaxation that didn't seem to exist in the big city. It might be the lack of traffic, the friendly people, the community spirit or just the fact that it only takes ten minutes by car to get from one end of town to the other.
I think it's something else though. I think it's something to do with nature and the fact that there is just more of it about. There are more trees, more grass, more flowers. There are more animals. We notice the seasons and we watch things grow. Ballarat is notoriously cold and bleak in winter but we've just returned from two weeks away and I can see bright green buds forming on every branch of every tree as I look outside my kitchen window. We see nature in action.
There is something therapeutic about this, watching things grow and being out amongst living creatures of the non-human kind. Interestingly, experiments by psychologists show that being amongst nature - or even looking at pictures of it - can give our minds a bit of a rest. The things that capture our attention in the natural world tend to be subtler, allowing us to ease into them and explore. It's gentle mental exercise. In urban environments, stimuli are more dramatic - like passing traffic, large buildings and crowds. They insist that we pay attention and stay alert, which can get tiring for an already busy brain.
Other research has shown that kids play more creatively and more collaboratively in greener, grassier environments too. Researchers here in Australia, as well as in Sweden, Canada and the US have noticed that when kids play in urban or built up playgrounds with play equipment they tend to compete in a more physical way. If they're in an open, grassy area with trees and bushes boys and girls tend to play together, more imaginatively, developing fantasy worlds together with less emphasis on physical abilities and more on language and inventiveness.
Next month will be the second anniversary of our tree change. I'm hoping we'll celebrate by buying our own home where we can settle amongst our bit of nature in our friendly community. We might not be plants but now we're here I think it's time to put down some roots.