27 July 2021

It's taken a decade, but I'm no longer embarrassed to have stayed in Canberra

| Zoya Patel
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National Museum of Australia

Culture, nature, open spaces, clean air, peak hour that lasts 15 minutes … Canberra’s the perfect backdrop for life. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

A good friend of mine is moving to New York. She’s spent the last six years in Tokyo and is now off to her next adventure. She and I grew up together here in Canberra, attending the same schools and then the ANU. We had similar dreams – making it big, changing the world, living a vibrant life. Both of us assumed that these lives would occur outside Canberra.

But while she has been living overseas for most of her 20s, I have spent most of that time right here, 10 minutes from the sites of our childhood and coming of age.

At the news of her impending move to the Big Apple, I automatically braced myself for the expected feeling of anxiety and FOMO (fear of missing out) that have punctuated big news from my friends for my entire adult life.

But oddly, those feelings were absent. Perhaps for the first time, I no longer feel embarrassed that I’ve stayed in my hometown by choice.

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When I was growing up, the rhetoric around Canberra was that it was a fine place to grow up but a boring place to stay. If you wanted to be successful, to live an exciting life, it was unlikely to occur against the backdrop of the ACT.

I moved to Melbourne after uni and came back to Canberra within a year. Then I moved to Edinburgh and also came back within a year. The reasons behind these returns were varied, but each time I told myself it wouldn’t be permanent. Yet, here I am, 31 and having only spent a few years away from Canberra since moving here as a kid.

The thing is, the older I get, the more I feel glad that I’ve stayed. Canberra is genuinely a great place to live, and it’s been equally wonderful from childhood to adulthood. All of the quintessential experiences I wanted to have when dreaming of my future have still happened, despite not living in a bigger city.

I’ve engaged in a vibrant art scene, worked on festivals, put on shows and gigs, written books; I found a man I love, we’ve travelled together, partied together, and settled down together; I’ve worked in big organisations and small organisations and gained loads of experience; I’ve found wonderful friends, and had a rich social life (at least before COVID destroyed it).

But even while living through these experiences, I’ve felt a residual sense of shame, as though my choice to be in Canberra has been a weakness, compared to friends who have moved to Sydney or Melbourne or overseas.

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Is this cringe a result of the dismissive way Canberra is treated as the boring home of politicians and the elderly, or families that have tapped out of the exciting activities of young people? Or maybe my generation has been taught to prioritise the wrong things – focusing too much on having a life that makes good Instagram content over a genuinely meaningful and happy life.

If I think about the things that make my life wonderful, they are all reliant on the characteristics of Canberra as a city. The work-life balance I enjoy results from the lower population, lower density and easier access I have between work and home saving me hours of traffic time and commuting.

The hobbies I enjoy require a great deal of open space and nature, all easily accessible within a short drive of my house in Canberra.

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I love art and culture, and I get to access national institutions without hordes of crowds. And I’ve always been able to find work because of the strong economy we enjoy and the rich opportunities in my field (whereas I was unemployed for eight months in Melbourne, stifled by competition).

I am finally ready to shrug off the internalised shame I have from a lifetime of hearing Canberra scorned as a boring place, somewhere you live only if you’ve been forced to ‘settle’ and accept your life won’t reach the soaring heights you expected. I guess age really does bring wisdom because I can finally see how a full Instagram feed is no substitute for a genuinely full life.

New York is great for a visit, but for me, Canberra is home.

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Yes please tell everyone you know how terrible Canberra is. We don’t want them here.

I moved here from a small country town. It took me about 20 years before I could appreciate the ‘dry’ Canberra landscape, because I missed the rainforest, which as a teenager I used to roam. I did enjoy the big town/city features though, such as shops and cafes.

Have lived in Canberra for 50 years, always loved it, never embarrassed. Nature, coast and mountains are close, driving is easy. I can be in Civic and parked, walking into the Canberra Centre within 10 mins of leaving home. Also very safe. Love this place.

I don’t find Canberra boring or staid. The ‘Newcastle and environs’ I left in 1969 to got to ANU, had only one thing way better than Canberra. ?

Surf beaches.

Cultural activities, like plays, orchestra, chamber-orchestra, and chamber music and opera, plus art. Architecture, too!

A rteally good library service, plus the NLA. Two universities. Canberra Repertory. Two truly good church choirs.

And other groups to join.

Wonderful nature reserves, for walking and keeping fit in. Bushland within the urban layout, as well! Good clean air.

Four actual seasons, huge snow-fields, for cross-country ski-ing.

And, for those hooked on pop-culture, enough of that for most folks.

Peter Graves5:05 pm 22 Jul 21

Two universities ? Try the following five:
(1) the ANU
(2) University of Canberra
(3) Australian Catholic University
(4) Charles Sturt (a small branch in Barton)
(5) the University of NSW at ADFA (which now admits civilians to its undergraduate engineering degrees and also has a Public Service Research Group).

Capital Retro10:00 pm 22 Jul 21

what about the University Bar?

Dear Peter! Way back when?! in 1969, ………. did you not read that?!
‘Needs to work on his reading and comprehension skills’. …… But,… don’t worry maaate, i’ve written that about lots of people. 🙂 and 😉 ‘

There were just two local unis – in 1969 – and that’s counting the CCAE (now UC) and if the CCAE had opened by then, at all!

And, the RMC was a college, its graduates, then, had the option of attending UNSW to complete a degree. OR IIRC doing it via correspondence! or NOT, again IIRC!

IF the army didn’t need them right away – for Vietnam! How do I know that? I was a soldier once.

I became a tutor (an Ac. Level A) in 1990 for InfoSysAnalysis, in my second semester (Sem.1 of 1990) – and this while studying it as my Major, in BComMgmtSc.

? They had to put me on salary after a year or two as the number of tute groups I had kept growing.

And, I’d say that was a tad unusual. Yes?

Retraction awaited.

Peter Graves

See below!

See my response below – regarding 1969

Geraldine Jaya10:08 am 22 Jul 21

Canberra is the best place to raise kids. Plenty of opportunities job wise for parents and kids. My kids love Canberra. After 10yrs living here i can say that this is our home. Still not get use to the cold weather though.

Capital Retro9:38 am 22 Jul 21

Sounds like you are moving on into politics. What will it be, Labor or Greens?

Heres Zoya’s next story – Why Queanbeyan dogs are smarter than Canberra dogs.

Northside or Southside – which is better?

Nice article. Covid makes us all appreciate the natural beauty, fresh air, green spaces and uncrowded nature of Canberra. Now there is even more of a duty on us all to preserve the Canberra we know and love from rapacious apartment builders and tram consortiums. It makes you understand how indigenous people feel about country. And the next time someone criticises Canberra ask them if they enjoyed their lengthy lockdown.

I would always recommend Canberra as a place to reach your late teens, then go abroad for 10-20 years, then return with more appreciation for what you have here. Living and working abroad will bring you rough edges, deftness and dexterity, increased perception, will teach and socialise you in the personal and intrusive closeness of other communities, you will meet vastly different people living life to different standards, and illustrate starkly the problems that do not show themselves in Canberra. When you have those skills and have experienced the shocking life-enhancing experiences to scratch that itch, then you can appreciate that Canberra is a pretty good place to live out the remainder.
When other people call Canberra boring, you can just smile knowingly because you will actually know the correct answer.

I came here to go to ANU at 18 in 1969. I eventually got a degree from UC in mid 1993 having begun in mid 1990 and tutored in my major – Info. Systems – since Sem.1 1990!! 🙂

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