Quietly watching the official launch of Floriade from the sidelines yesterday was author Bryce Courtenay and his wife Christine Gee, the couple gently revealing the great love affair he has developed with Canberra as he faces his final days.
''We've only been here a year and a half but it is the loveliest surprise. It is just the nicest, nicest city,'' he said.
They also spoke about the overwhelming reaction from the public since Courtenay, 79, announced on Facebook earlier this month that he has terminal stomach cancer and is expected to have only months to live.
''Thousands and thousands of messages which we're very grateful for,'' Ms Gee said.
''We didn't have any idea there'd be that sort of reaction,'' Mr Courtenay said.
It was a poignant morning in the spring sunshine for the couple, who seemed in a reflective mood. It will likely be the final Floriade for Courtenay, who was invited to the launch as an official guest but was eager to get out among the blooms like any other gardner.
''Bryce is a passionate gardner, it's in his DNA,'' Ms Gee said.
For Courtenay, Floriade is another string to Canberra's bow. The couple live in Reid and wish they'd moved to Canberra sooner than they had, only early last year.
''Every day I'm even more conscious of what a pleasant place it is. People say hello. I take my dog up to the ovals, there are 15 other dogs there, I talk to all the dog owners. They're all highly intelligent people. We don't talk about real estate, as they do in Sydney. We talk about things that matter. And the dogs have a lovely time and sniff each other's bums and catch balls and it's lovely.''
Ms Gee, a successful businesswoman, also loves living in Canberra, the couple choosing to enjoy their final days together in the national capital. Courtenay is writing short stories, gardening and spending time with their ''beloved pets''.
''It's a city filled with imagination, innovation, where taking risks and challenges is sort of just part of the ethos and that's very refreshing,'' she said. ''We also love living in a place where you have the benefits of the city but you're immersed in nature. That's very rare anywhere in the world.''
South African-born Courtenay agreed.
''I can't quite manage Mount Ainslie now but I used to do it two or three times a week and you'd just look over the city and you'd see the bushland and you just can't believe it. It is a capital in the bush,'' he said.
''Someone told me the other day that per capita it is the most intelligent city on earth … and that doesn't surprise me. It's a highly intelligent place. It works properly. It's highly multicultural. And the people are nice.''
As for his diagnosis, Courtenay said, ''You can quote me as saying 'I'm dying but I'm not sick'.''
For now, he is enjoying the rejuvenation of spring. His own garden has been battered by the severe winter but he hoped it would bounce back. ''Last year people would pass it and say, 'Why would you bother with Floriade when you've got a garden like this? And the answer is, 'I actually copy Floriade','' he said, with a laugh. Megan Doherty
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