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.
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.
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.
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.