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

Zoya Patel 27 July 2021 55
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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55 Responses to It’s taken a decade, but I’m no longer embarrassed to have stayed in Canberra
Oiledpengu Oiledpengu 5:21 pm 31 Jul 21

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

Shane Westmore Shane Westmore 7:43 pm 25 Jul 21

I agree there's a feeling about living in Canberra that outsiders don't get if they haven't experienced it. I still love Canberra & visit 2 or 3 times a year, the laidback atmosphere and friendly social nature as well as the great pubs and restaurants draw me in. Unfortunately I couldn't find work. I'd been told during my time at UC that I'd find plenty of government jobs linked to my degree, even with 2 internships in my final year I was told to go back to CIT for 6 months to get hired by one government department, and that there was no budget to hire me from the other department. Apparently my degree covered many areas but didn't focus enough on one area to be hired. Multiple government job applications & rejections later, including my 2 dream jobs where I would've been happy at entry level, I found a Sydney / NSW government job instead which led to private sector work where I've been since. I can't find a salary in Canberra comparable to what I'm paid in Sydney. I would move back to Canberra in an instant if the work was there, it really is a lovely place to live, and I even quite liked the cold.

Maya123 Maya123 5:16 pm 24 Jul 21

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.

Jo Fernandes Jo Fernandes 4:15 pm 24 Jul 21

Canberra has a special place in my heart as my home town, but the energy is too slow for my vibration. I do yearn for my kids to have a similar atmosphere to what I had growing up there though.

Kristy Hancock Kristy Hancock 12:55 pm 24 Jul 21

Moved here against my will 20yrs ago as a rebel teen, took another 15 years before I truly appreciate Canberra all it has to offer and how underrated it is, now if I could only change the cold winter climate and high cost of living (namely property and rent) Canberra would be ideal... The keys is looking past all the politics and national monuments and see the amenities, community activities and events, accessibility around the city as well as to coast/snow and other major cities, a progressive/liberal government and society, plus the unique mix of city and nature/outdoor recreation available, makes Canberra a great place to live

planet42 planet42 8:40 pm 23 Jul 21

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.

Helen Prior Helen Prior 8:15 pm 23 Jul 21

Lived Canberra 40years Left 2003 Now live Central Coast.Biggest mistake ever.I want to come home but I have to win powerball.So expensive.

Sandy Duncan Sandy Duncan 7:57 pm 23 Jul 21

Moved from Brisbane in '94 and not going anywhere ! Have travelled the country, always looking for our 'next location' but Canberra beats it hands down for 'country town with big city facilities'. Traffic has gotten much worse though and let's not start on Canberra drivers :P

Jose Vega Jose Vega 4:10 pm 23 Jul 21

Here since 83...and staying.

Joshua McKwannen Joshua McKwannen 2:50 am 23 Jul 21

Well written; it's hard to describe how great Canberra is and why, but you've done a pretty good job!

Tanay Kapadia Tanay Kapadia 9:46 pm 22 Jul 21

Timo Godbold U left but your still embarrassed

Tanya Sim Tanya Sim 9:30 pm 22 Jul 21

Erin Dalton not convinced

Julie Westthorp Julie Westthorp 9:16 pm 22 Jul 21

If I could talk my husband into it, I’d be back in a heartbeat. Love Canberra.

Nettie Silver Nettie Silver 5:19 pm 22 Jul 21

And swimming in the Murrumbidgee!

    Peter David Looker Peter David Looker 5:30 pm 22 Jul 21

    Oh yes, swimming in the Murrumbidgee! Many happy hot days doing that for hours.

    Nettie Silver Nettie Silver 7:18 pm 22 Jul 21

    Peter David Looker and Lennox house and woolshed dances what a time!

Shirleen Mutisya Shirleen Mutisya 4:53 pm 22 Jul 21

Kanika Madan is this u?

Michael Hatch Michael Hatch 4:15 pm 22 Jul 21

I liked how I could always see mountains from Canberra.

Peter Yang Peter Yang 4:13 pm 22 Jul 21

Jared Tang amen brother

TimboinOz TimboinOz 2:08 pm 22 Jul 21

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 Graves Peter Graves 5:05 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 Retro Capital Retro 10:00 pm 22 Jul 21

    what about the University Bar?

    TimboinOz TimboinOz 3:31 pm 24 Jul 21

    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.

    TimboinOz TimboinOz 3:40 pm 24 Jul 21

    Peter Graves

    See below!

    TimboinOz TimboinOz 6:34 pm 24 Jul 21

    See my response below – regarding 1969

Jennifer Bradley Jennifer Bradley 2:05 pm 22 Jul 21

I didn't want to come here at all in the mid sixties. But it grew on me and I really don't want to live anywhere else now.

Chris Goodrum Chris Goodrum 1:52 pm 22 Jul 21

One thing I will say is “Remember we older people were young once” and many of us have lived most of our lives here!

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