Dear Neighbours Café;
If one didn’t know you were a coffee shop, it would be difficult to distinguish what exactly was hidden behind your two exterior walls covered in street art. Indeed, when I first walked through your welcoming glass doors I had no idea the role you would play in my life.
I had just moved to Melbourne. It was my grand idea to uproot my life — and my then boyfriend’s, now husband’s, life — and move to a city quite literally on the other side of the world. No job, no plan. After the tears shed saying goodbye to my parents at the airport dried, I figured that once we landed Down Under everything would just “fall into place.”
I had no idea how difficult and lonely starting from zero was going to be.
My boyfriend found work right away, and so he was seldom home. The first available apartment we could find — after very quickly running out of money staying at a beachside hostel in St. Kilda — was a mould-ridden, dank two bedroom that we shared with three roommates. The roommates, a trio of friends from Germany, were lovely. However, they worked nights and slept during the day so we seldom saw each other.
Despite submitting resume after resume to marketing agencies and newspapers, I had no luck. A month had gone by and I had still not found a job. Life was getting lonelier and lonelier. Financially we were strained, and I spent most of my days wandering around by myself. Calling my mom when the time change allowed for us to connect — which was not often.
It was on one of these particularly lonely days that I walked into you, Neighbours.
I took a seat by your window in the front part of the building. You weren’t busy — I had taken to rising late and so I got there well after the lunch rush. I was not used to how Melbournites order when sitting in, and so walked up to your counter to ask for a coffee. The barista promptly told me “It’s table service.” I profusely apologized (very Canadian) and humbly sat down — intimated by the barista’s tone and confused by this strange ritual. At home, the extent of café customer service is waiting to hear your name hollered out by a generally disgruntled high school student hiding behind a counter.
Despite my initial nerves and general feeling of just not quite fitting in, I could tell that you were the right place for me. Your music was just right. Your cups were bright, cosy colours. Your staff was laughing and joking with one another. The view out your very large windows were prime for people watching.
As I sipped my flat white — my first foray into Melbournite coffee culture — I began to feel more and more at ease.
Over the next couple weeks, I would make visiting you a regular part of my job-hunting routine. During my visits, I noticed that there were many other familiar faces — and often familiar furry faces as the back half of the coffee shop was a dog café — who had clearly also chosen to make you their corner of comfort.
One day your then-owner popped a seat next to me, asking if I would like to try your new chai blend. I agreed. He asked me some questions: What I was working on, where I was from, what I thought about the chai. I answered: Applying for jobs, Canada, it’s delicious.
He paused, and told me that if I was looking for work I could apply there. Elated, I did. After a very sweaty — Melbourne was going through a 40-degree heatwave and part of the café was outdoors — and confusing trial shift, I got the job. Likely because I managed to not drop anything, kept spills to a minimum and delivered coffees to all the right places. (Although, my second shift would not go quite so swimmingly.)
I didn’t have very much serving experience, I couldn’t three-plate — much to the frustration of some of the other waitstaff — and mostly I just wanted to meet people.
By the end of my nine months at Neighbours, I would be a co-manager, could carry three cups even with a hangover — or possible still inebriated, it’s up for debate — and I would make some of the most wonderful friends.
Running coffee, pastries and assorted breakfasts from your café pass and kitchen to your courtyard covered in artificial grass helped me grow. I gained a confidence and capability I did not possess before. I started to care less about what people thought about me and more about what I wanted to do with my life. I was constantly inspired by the incredible people I met. The kind owners had our best interests at heart. I looked forward to seeing the regulars — whose coffee orders, favourite pastimes and stories I knew by heart.
But the most precious part of my time at Neighbours were the friends I made. From all corners of the world and walks of life, we had found ourselves at this little café that sometimes we loved and other times we loved to hate. But many of us — even if we left — came back to you. We stayed. We belonged.
The café saved me from a deep well of loneliness. By the time my visa was running out and my boyfriend and I were about to embark on a new #vanlife adventure, I was ready to move on to the next chapter. Yet, Neighbours, I will always be grateful for your place in my life.
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Cover photo and text by Sarah Comber, story photos supplied.