Everyone who’s actually heard of it thinks Canberra is a shithole. It’s not. Yes, it’s small, spread out, lacking in population, insular, manufactured specifically for the seat of government in Australia. But the fact is, it’s unusual and this makes it appealing.
I grew up there, but I don’t think I’m biased. I was born in Sydney, and when I was about 2 or 3, my parents and I moved to Canberra; for the obvious reason – public service jobs. Well, on the surface it was for that reason, but I think underneath my parents had more reasons. We lived in a beautiful area of Sydney, around Mosman, which back in the late 70s and early 80s (when we were there) was stunningly beautiful, as it still is, and quite affordable, which it no longer is.
My dad was trying his hardest not to do what his own father did and uproot his family time and time again, but in fact he did exactly that. My mum wanted a pure and simple life for me, and Sydney wouldn’t provide that in the same easy way Canberra could. So we moved. And now I say ‘I’m from Canberra’.
Living there, once I’d finished school and uni and was working, I got into a terrible rut. I wasn’t happy and I knew it. I was something of a hermit, watching too much tv, eating crap, and going out with friends occasionally when I could stand it. Life there was really unhealthy, and although it’s the kind of place where you can lead a really healthy, simple life, something made me fall into this neverending cycle of self-indulgent, lonely, depressive behaviour.
I always had this idea about moving to Melbourne – I think because it wasn’t Sydney really, and I always felt it was like Canberra and Sydney combined; the order and small town feeling of Canberra, with the big city ‘things are happening’ feel of Sydney. My whole life I’ve driven up and down to Sydney, back and forth, hundreds of times, and it’s always been quite a negative experience for me. The sticky heat, the traffic, the roadworks, the smog, the pretentious people, the consumerism, the superficiality (see, here comes the angry rant already, bubbling up inside me like puss from an infected wound)…
Sydney has a lot of negative memories, experiences, feelings attached to it for me. I’ve only recently realised just how much that stuff has affected my view of the place. Yes, it is expensive, congested, busy, hot, uncomfortable… but it’s also stunning, full of beaches, cafe lifestyle, so many places to go and explore, and it’s varied, it’s all different.
I first went to Melbourne at 16 with my friend – we took the bus there from Canberra, nine hours all up. I liked it because it was new to me, and it was a proper city, unlike Canberra. There was great shopping to be had, lovely little cafes where we had cheap breakfast, and it was so easy to find your way around on the grid system.
Yes, I loved Melbourne, and I still do. But I loved it because I knew nothing else but Canberra and Sydney. What was Sydney to me? We’d always go there to visit relatives, and both sides of my family were not the healthiest or happiest, so there was always an element of negativity, and I’d feel trapped there, couldn’t wait to get out. I loved it when I got my driver’s licence and could just get in the car and leave when I wanted to. Such freedom. I always enjoyed the drive, and I think driving those three or four hours each way every few months contributed to my love of driving and road trips. As soon as I’d hit Campbeltown, and the outskirts of Sydney, I’d get disoriented and lose my bearings completely.
I never know where anything is in Sydney; I know the names of suburbs and areas, and I know who lives where, but where all those places are in relation to each other, I haven’t got a clue! I’d just drive and try to follow signs to where I was going and hope for the best, but inevitably I’d find myself going over one bridge, then another, and before I knew it, I’d be in the northern beaches again. I once even ended up in Hornsby, which is on the way out of northern Sydney. My grandparents lived in Manly, and somehow I was always drawn there, it seemed like the easiest place to get to. So overall, I hated Sydney with a passion and vowed I’d never live there.
I’d wanted to move to Melbourne for a few years when I left Canberra for London. A few of my friends were planning on moving there, and it just seemed like the best place for me, a single girl, to move and make my own life better. There were possibilities in Melbourne, and being the arts capital of Australia, I thought it would fit me perfectly. I looked forward to moving there for years, and it always played on the back of my mind – my personal utopia, where everything in my life would slip magically into a pattern of harmony, balance and joy in being alive.
I certainly didn’t want to go to London, which I’d hated both previous times I’d visited, but something inside me told me it was my only hope for pulling myself out of that Canberra rut and really reaching my potential. Of course, that was the right instinct, and it did exactly that.
Despite my transition from hermit to happy, I still carried that Melbourne dream with me, thinking about how great it would be. So many of my friends have moved there recently, and I saw myself there; or at least I thought I did. When I met my future husband, things changed. He wanted to go to Sydney! What?! Sydney???! Hell no!! I couldn’t believe anyone would want to go there. To me, Sydney was London, just with better weather and beaches. And I was planning to leave London, I wanted the quiet life. Or did I?
For my boyfriend’s sake, I seriously considered Sydney. I read suburb descriptions online, read polls about Melbourne versus Sydney, and time and time again, I came back to the idea of Melbourne; I just couldn’t do Sydney. So although I wasn’t adamant, it was pretty clear to my boyfriend that I wasn’t going to agree on Sydney. He eventually said, right, that’s it, let’s go to Melbourne then. And I wasn’t excited. It just didn’t seem right. I was confused as hell! I was glad, happy that he would make that sacrifice for me, as I knew he hated Melbourne (and had initially wanted Perth but, you know, instant veto, for the obvious reasons…) But something just wasn’t feeling good about the decision. So I emailed a few friends and told them he’d agreed to Melbourne and it was official. As soon as I started telling people, I knew it was the wrong decision. I really didn’t want Melbourne; it wasn’t me any more.
I suddenly became acutely aware of just how much I’d changed since I’d come to London. I knew there’d been huge changes, and I’d talked a lot about them to others. But what I didn’t realise was that Melbourne didn’t suit me any more, as a woman in a committed relationship with a man, ready to settle and have a life together. Melbourne might suit me as a single girl, flitting about and having coffee with friends in trendy cafes on weekends. But now I wanted to make a partnership, a family life; and I thought Melbourne would be a good place for bringing up kids, which it would be. But in all honesty, it’s foreign to me. I’ve been there maybe three or four times all up, and it’s still very much new and unknown; I can only apply very limited knowledge to it, and the rest of my feelings about Melbourne are influenced by projections I have about the place.
So in my Melbourne vs Sydney debate, Sydney seems to have won. Not because it’s the ‘better’ city, but because it matches who I am in this very moment.