19 May 2022

Does Canberra have its own 'culture'?

| Zoya Patel
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Canberra culture? A picture tells a thousand words: a volunteer at the Lifeline Bookfair. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

Over the past few years, we’ve all had to adjust our mental radiuses to our local areas, with interstate and international travel both on and off due to the pandemic. Now, as borders are open and overseas travel has become possible again, I find myself feeling the restless energy I used to feel all the time about living in Canberra, which died down a bit when I was forced to make peace with staying still in our city.

I love living in Canberra, but I have equally felt the pressure to leave at various points throughout my coming of age. When I graduated college, the overwhelming feeling in my peer group was that to live a ‘big life’, we needed to leave Canberra. I did, briefly, but I came back and spent a very happy four years at ANU.

Then, graduating university brought the same push – what would I achieve by staying put? Surely the only way to have excitement, pace, and vibrancy in life was to leave my hometown’s comfortable, quiet streets? So I moved to Melbourne … but found myself right back in Canberra a year later.

And finally, five or six years after coming home, I moved overseas to spend a year in Scotland. While there, despite loving every minute of living in Edinburgh, I knew that I wanted to come home again, that Canberra was where I belonged. But now, almost like clockwork, it’s another four years later, and I have the itch again. It’s almost as though Canberra starts feeling so comfortable, it makes me anxious that I’m suffocating instead of thriving, lulled into complacency and letting my life drift past without striving for the best possible experiences I can have.

But is this sensation one driven by the external narrative that bigger is always better, or by a genuine problem with Canberra offering less excitement and opportunity than another city?

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As a society, we’ve always equated big cities with culture, pace, and excitement. When I speak to friends overseas, they can easily identify cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and even articulate a sense of their individual cultures. Similarly, my friends who have left Australia have all settled in major cities overseas, seeking the thriving, bustling energy of big places with lots of people.

And from my vantage point of a cozy inner north townhouse, a short drive from work and an even shorter drive to my family home, it does look like there’s a lot of life being lived in those other cities that I can’t see reflected in my daily existence.

But is that just a classic bout of FOMO (fear of missing out) or a genuine reflection on Canberra’s comparative offerings when it comes to a culture and lifestyle that’s unique to us?

If I really think about it, what exactly is our culture here in Canberra? I’ve always been a fierce lover of Canberra and defender of our identity as not being ‘boring’ (and I don’t think Canberra is boring; I think boring people might find Canberra or anywhere smaller than a major city boring as an extension of their own mindset). But if I think about the type of life I want to live, I don’t think the connection to Australia’s cultural zeitgeist as a writer, or finding a window into the global cultural sector, is available in Canberra. In fact, I can’t necessarily pinpoint what it is about Canberra, beyond its familiarity, that stands out as a selling point to be here.

If Melbourne is known for art and food, and Sydney is known for beaches and entertainment, what is Canberra known for besides Parliament? What’s our culture? I need a reminder so I can settle my wanderlust. If I were to list the reasons to live in Canberra, what would they be, aside from having no traffic jams and a decent job market?

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Bubble culture

I think that there are several cultures here that don’t overlap at all.

As for the idea that a big exciting life happens elsewhere, I’ve had two publishers tell me that they want to see big cities as settings in novels because it’s aspirational – and because aspirational sells more than something set in Canberra/Winnipeg/Nagoya etc.

But it’s based on a psychological need to be seen and perceived by others as successful and/or important. That’s something we all want when we are younger and trying to work out who we are. As we come to accept ourselves (especially the realisation that not all of us are going to be high-flying eagles), our focus shifts to what matters to us personally – and that’s the people and community closest to us, plus whatever hobby we are passionate about. It’s not a lesser life; it’s an inner-directed life.

And maybe, on reflection, it might mean that Canberra’s culture is introverted, at least in the way it manifests itself. That could be why extroverts turn over in such large numbers and find the city boring.

Great article! Born in CBR in 71 and have lived a significant amount of years overseas. I miss the place when away. Yet the “culture” is hard to explain to outsiders.
There’s something egoless about ACT residents and their expectations. We all invest in a subtle but huge appreciation of the natural beauty of this city. The blood boils when you hear mindless Canberra bashing.

Sometimes it takes a journey away to remind us how great a place this truely is.

Peter Graves10:20 pm 19 May 22

A major factor missing is the reason why Canberra was created. While mention was made of the national Parliament, it is only the manifestation of why Canberra exists.

It IS the capital of Australia – full of symbols representing the Australian people and the nation. Every nation has a capital – some lucky enough to have one constructed: like Brasilia and Washington DC.

Canberra is much more than a regional city that some try-hards wonder why it isn’t like Sydney or Melbourne. Hint: it was never intended or designed to be.

Go to the Marion Mahony Griffin View on Mt Ainslie and look around in appreciation.

HiddenDragon7:47 pm 19 May 22

The essence of Canberra is middle-class suburbanism, dominated by people who rely on public spending for their income, and with a streak of the rural, due to our location in country NSW.

There are enclaves of difference, but they are very small in this inland sea of beige, often seem to be consumed with ostentatious mimicry of what was avant-garde on the other side of the world a few years ago, and struggle to escape the gravitational pull of the group-thinking, system-hugging bureaucratic mentality which is in the very DNA of this town.

None of that is an absolute obstacle to creativity and intellectual satisfaction, particularly in the age of the internet, but anyone seeking genuine vibrancy and diversity (not the artificial stuff that planners, politicians and property spruikers talk about), and/or gritty authenticity as a source of inspiration would need to look elsewhere.

Jenny Graves2:54 pm 19 May 22

As someone who chose to live here rather than my native UK, I love everything about Canberra. The space, the greenery and nature, the easy travel between places, the laid back lifestyle are the things that I love most. Not to mention the wonderful blue skies and beautiful fresh air; try finding those to the same extent in Sydney and Melbourne. As for the hustle and bustle, I occasionally go to another city and yearn to be back here instead. There’s plenty going on if you want it. Those who complain about having nothing to do obviously don’t look hard enough!

I agree, Jenny. I’ve lived in main cities in Australia and what I love about Canberra is our access to nature – the mountain reserves and the wonderful wildlife they foster is a breath of fresh air and a source of rejuvenation every time I step outside my door.

Clever Interrobang1:00 pm 19 May 22

Working in the public sector and studying at the ANU exposed me for the first time in meaningful way to people who are not from Canberra but move here from elsewhere.

I come back to my friends who I grew up with and all the places and people I’ve known forever and it feels like there’s two canberras, ie. one for locals and another somewhat parallel city with foreigners who cluster together in their own little groups

SigmaOctantis8:18 am 19 May 22

39 personal pronouns this time. These articles are about the author not the subject.

Not having looked at the article (the subject is pointless to me) I read your comment, SigmaOctantis. “It’ll be Zoya”, I thought, so scrolled up….

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