Do you ever ask yourself how Blackheath became such an extraordinarily friendly place? What accounts for all those smiling faces on the street, the small courtesies from strangers, the frequency with which a driver gives way to others or the way the village welcomes visitors? The climate and the beauty of the place are surely contributing factors but they can’t entirely explain the unique quality of warm-heartedness to be found here. Many individual initiatives and coordinated efforts have grown this phenomenon and of all of these, one of the most directly beneficial must surely be the Welcome Table started by Lindena Robb some fifteen years ago.
When mural artist Lindena first moved up here from the city, those who know her (and there aren’t many in the village these days who don’t!) might be surprised to learn that she encountered that common problem for newcomers to any small regional community – feeling like an outsider and finding it hard to make friends. Over the next year or two she came across others with a similar experience and decided that something needed to be done about it. So she collected the names of around thirty folk who would be interested in getting together for a weekly meeting. Not all turned up, of course, in fact only a handful to start with, meeting outside at what was then the Memento Cafe on Wentworth St, just round the corner from Ravir, where Gerhard, the owner, suggested she call it the ‘Welcome Table’. By sitting outside so close to the street they gathered new members, particularly young mums walking to and from the school who would stop off for coffee and a chat with them. The Welcome Table was there in all seasons and over the next four years neither the cold winds nor the summer heat deterred them.
Some four years later, however, Lindena herself needed a break as convenor. Without her the Table faltered and eventually closed altogether until seven years ago when she was persuaded to start it up again, this time at the Vesta restaurant, now the premises of Fumo. Several years on and with the numbers growing, the Table moved to its current location at the Ivanhoe where (thanks to owner Kerry’s forbearance!) the ‘Table’ has become ‘Tables’ and a lively crowd congregates every Friday afternoon in the dining-room. At last count, there were close to thirty attending every week.
The fact that it gradually ground to a halt when Lindena could no longer be present is testimony to the rare combination of skills it takes to run and maintain something like the Welcome Table. Asked about this, Lindena says modestly that it’s a matter of being there and being kind and this she unfailingly is, but she would also acknowledge that there’s more to it than that. Lindena, “ Mrs Muriel” to children, is an artist and what she does at the Table is also a form of artistry. Along with her ever-present empathy and intense interest in others, she deploys all the skills of the great host: welcoming everyone, especially newcomers, whom she invites to come a half hour early so that she can get to to know them, remembering not just names but personal details when introducing people, getting conversations going where necessary and redirecting them when they fall flat, playing what she refers to as “conversational netball” keeping everyone as far as possible included in the game and defusing that occasional unavoidably difficult moment with laughter and lightheartedness.
The result is that what starts off there as just a chat may well become a conversation and a conversation can lead to friendship – if not directly then, just as importantly, through connections made at the Table into the broader community. With the support of the Neighbourhood Centre, Lindena now produces a weekly e-newsletter which goes out to hundreds of current and past ‘Tablers’ on her attendance lists.
Research has shown that social connection, especially as we get older, is as important as exercise and a good diet. By creating a safe place where people can relax and bring the best of themselves to the conversation, Lindena’s Welcome Table has lifted the spirits of many a resident of the Upper Mountains and hastened the transformation of those city ‘asylum seekers’ from outliers into active participants in that warm village culture we now recognise as our Blackheath.
Thank you, Lindena,
The Welcome Table is a project of Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre and meets at 3.30pm every Friday at the Ivanhoe Hotel, Blackheath. For more information contact Lindena on 0410 310 205 or visit: lindena-robb.com.au