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‘I Made A Covid Seachange – Was It Worth It?’

Tens of thousands of people left Sydney and Melbourne last year because of lockdowns. A year on, three women share their experiences

By PRIMER writers

‘Here, what you do for a job isn’t the most interesting thing about you’

Tessa Connelly, 30, pictured above, moved from the city to a small coastal town 

“Early last year, at the start of the pandemic, my boyfriend Mitch and I left the city. We were fortunate – we could work from anywhere, we had access to temporary accommodation through family and we had few responsibilities tethering us to Melbourne. I live with chronic illness and didn’t hold any faith that my body would put up a convincing fight against the virus. Melbourne’s density had once energised me; now it was a threat.

So we made the decision to move to Apollo Bay, a town of 1600 people, three hours southwest of Melbourne.

There was a desperate, hazy quality to our first few weeks here. I walked the beach constantly, trying to make sense of the changing world and my place in it. I remained in my full-time role as a book publicist for a while, then resigned to take on freelance work in writing and communications.

At times, I’ve worried about abandoning my career path in publishing, but I’ve never regretted the move. Of course I’ve missed having old friends close, but we’ve steadily met new people, too – sometimes through activities like sport and volunteering, but mostly through conversations struck up on the main street and at the river.

Tessa at the beach near her home CREDIT: Katey Shearer

After six months here, we found an old beach house available for rent – not through a real estate agent but via the town’s Facebook group (a hive of activity, sometimes a soap opera). When we met with the previous tenant to collect the keys, he wasn’t sure if the front door could be locked because he’d never tried.

The community here is a strong, open and trusting one. I’d expected the lack of anonymity to be stifling; instead, such familiarity has been a comfort. Our pup Maggie has been a perfect icebreaker – human awkwardness is no barrier to a dog in want of a head scratch.

I’ve found that without the unceasing stimulus of the city, the days demand to be filled more consciously, which I do – with walks through the forest and by the sea, with swims and books. My priorities are shifting.

Here, what you do for a job isn’t the most interesting thing about you. As someone who formed so much of my adult identity around my job, I was at first completely unmoored by this, but now I have a much healthier relationship with work. Constraint can be fertile ground for creativity, and that’s true of life here – the lack of options, professional and otherwise, has been liberating. We’re here to stay.”

‘I started to feel very isolated and lonely’

Emma Birdsall, 29, moved from Sydney to a tiny country town

“Before Covid, we had a great life living in the heart of Cronulla with our toddler. My husband and I are both musicians, and we felt lucky to be making a solid income from playing together at weddings and functions. Our calendar for 2020 was completely booked.

Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

The cancellations started rolling in, and just kept coming. There was a honeymoon period of being on JobKeeper and going surfing every day, but the uncertainty of it started to get to us. I couldn’t fall back on hospo work like I had in the past, and now there was a little one to care for, too. But Dan, my husband, also has an education degree, and when we saw that there was a six-month contract going in Cowra, in New South Wales’ Central West, we jumped at it.

Emma and her family CREDIT: Paula Riddel/House and Tribe Photography

The week he headed down to start while I packed up, I found out I was pregnant. We were over the moon, but once we arrived in town, I started to feel very isolated and lonely.

I’m really close to my family, and this was the first time I’d been further than 10 minutes away from my mum and sisters. I was pregnant, sick, chasing after a toddler and feeling sorry for myself. Playgrounds were abandoned, cafes were shut and it felt really hard to make any connections.

That winter was a rude shock, and at the end of the six-month contract we found ourselves with a baby almost due and no idea what to do next. The only school that had a full-time music teacher position was in a place called Toogoolawah, a tiny town of 1200 people in rural Queensland. I’d only ever been to Brisbane, but I’ve always been spontaneous, the girl who says yes to an adventure.

It felt really hard to make any connections

At three weeks postpartum, we drove up to Toogoolawah in a motorhome. I had no idea what to expect, but I didn’t expect to fall in love with it like I have. The sense of community in such a small town is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced, and we’ve made friends easily.

People here ask me nervously, “How are you finding it?” and I can honestly say that we love it. It’s really peaceful, Dan has a stable job, we have a lovely home and big backyard, and it just feels like where we’re meant to be right now. I’ve become a Thermomix consultant, which is way out of my comfort zone, but it’s going really well. I have weekend shifts at the local cafe and we’re doing our first local gig up at the pub next week. They’ve sold 50 tickets already, which is big for them.

I don’t know yet if we’ll stay. But I’m not itching to get out of here. It feels the right place for right now.

‘Our friends thought we were mad’

Emily Hollingum, 43, moved from Sydney to Portugal

“Compared to Sydney, life here in the Algarve is so much more relaxed. For starters, the traffic is almost non-existent and finding a parking spot at the beach doesn’t involve circling for 25 minutes. It’s very affordable, too. We’d easily spend $50 on breakfast out in Sydney; here, it costs five euros. I can work much less, and work from home, consulting for start-up companies back in Sydney.

It’s all a huge change from our pre-Covid lives. When we knew my husband was coming up for long service leave in 2020, we started dreaming about what we could do. We were craving a change. I was working all the time, and my energy was going into that world. When I’d get home and see my kids it felt like another stressful job. I didn’t want to be a mum who didn’t want to engage with her kids, but that’s how it was beginning to feel.

Portugal kept coming up in our research as somewhere that had good schools, healthcare and lifestyle – and we figured we’d be able to travel all over Europe. We planned a holiday there to check it out, but then Covid hit. Going through the first lockdown in Sydney solidified that we wanted a longer-term change; having my husband home and spending more time together as a family was great (and also extremely stressful, but mostly great). So we made the decision to go for it.

Emily in Portugal with her family CREDIT: Supplied

At the time, there wasn’t any covid in Sydney, but Europe was full of it and Portugal was one of the first places that had a big outbreak. Our friends thought we were mad.

It was only just out of lockdown when we arrived in April. And there are downsides that we didn’t anticipate. I imagined being immersed in Portuguese and picking it up really easily, but so far I haven’t – it’s hard! Most people here will speak English to us. Travel has been difficult, thanks to Covid, so I think we’ll stay longer than we’d planned in order to explore, learn the language and really soak up the culture. 

The best thing is what it’s done for our family. Guy isn’t working, so he gets the girls ready in the morning and takes them to school. It’s been great for their relationship.

We also go for lunch and walks together while the girls are at school, which we could never have done in Sydney. Now I’m working a lot less it doesn’t feel like a big deal to sit down to play, to cook a meal. I’m less tired and more present, and I’m enjoying spending time with my family.”


BY PRIMER writers

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