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

Zoya Patel 27 July 2021 57
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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57 Responses to It’s taken a decade, but I’m no longer embarrassed to have stayed in Canberra
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!

Peter David Looker Peter David Looker 1:28 pm 22 Jul 21

I've lived in Canberra twice, also Melbourne, Sydney, Newcastle, London and Singapore (now). I generally like being wherever I am, but what I remember about Canberra, in particular, is the ease with which you can be involved in so many things (in the arts) and the great social life - I also love the weather there. I have had more friends and been more involved in community in Canberra than anywhere else. That's not saying I'm going to rush back there, but people who haven't lived there often don't get it.

    Frank Spencer Frank Spencer 10:18 pm 22 Jul 21

    Peter David Looker "The weather there" - sub zero temps until November, I really love that.

    Timothy Bailey Timothy Bailey 7:04 pm 24 Jul 21

    someone's exaggerating eh!

Julia Spackburn Julia Spackburn 1:27 pm 22 Jul 21

Shhhh, we don’t want everyone to know!!!!

    Ruth O'Brien Ruth O'Brien 1:35 pm 22 Jul 21

    Julia Spackburn glad Trail Towns didn't show too much of the good stuff here :)

Themal Mendis Themal Mendis 12:58 pm 22 Jul 21

Nathan Nguyen bahahaha

Adrian Sandrey Adrian Sandrey 12:19 pm 22 Jul 21

‘Of course you’re a polar bear. Why do you ask?’

Daniel Duncan Daniel Duncan 12:06 pm 22 Jul 21

Whats with all the Dear Diary's lately?

Geraldine Jaya Geraldine Jaya 10:08 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.

Stephen Mee Stephen Mee 9:51 am 22 Jul 21

It can be very insulating and removes your sense and empathy for the rest of Australia. After living there for 40 years and moving out to SA, it was a real eye opener. Jobs were harder to come buy even with an excellent resume and local area groups were harder to find.

You do not realise how easy it was to live in Canberra till you move out. We do come back to visit family and friends and enjoy it on our return.

    Colin Trinder Colin Trinder 10:30 am 22 Jul 21

    Stephen Mee Suspect you are right about jobs and the degree to which a sense of community through shared interests is created here. That actually speaks to stable governance, a high level of education in the population and the subtle social policies here that have been effective in engaging with and fostering the development of a community that is by and large prepared to work together for the good of most of the people most of the time. I don't doubt it's your life experience but it certainly isn't mine - my sense of empathy for the travails of the rest of Australia and the abhorrence of injustice is still very much intact.

    Timothy Bailey Timothy Bailey 5:01 pm 22 Jul 21

    Stephen Mee Depends if you from somewhere else. I've never felt insulated, and I've been here since 1969. Still miss and love Newcastle and surrounds. People do say that Canberra is insulated, but I see that as unthinking repetition.

    i) A very high proportion of residents are from somewhere else.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:38 am 22 Jul 21

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

franky22 franky22 9:27 am 22 Jul 21

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

Lyn Christie Lyn Christie 9:09 am 22 Jul 21

Best place. Need a beach break , 2hrs down the mountain. Need snow, go west for a couple of hours.

Born here 60+ years ago. 🙂

Duncan Ley Duncan Ley 8:32 am 22 Jul 21

Damn I miss Canberra.

    Ed N Joanne Towner Ed N Joanne Towner 9:19 am 22 Jul 21

    Duncan Ley It is a good place to live for sure

Russell Nankervis Russell Nankervis 8:26 am 22 Jul 21

I moved from Bathurst 10 years ago and have never looked back. It is just the right size city for me and I love the symbolism of it all.

Acton Acton 8:03 am 22 Jul 21

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.

JimCharles JimCharles 8:02 am 22 Jul 21

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.

    TimboinOz TimboinOz 3:45 pm 24 Jul 21

    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!! 🙂

Carly Jacobs Carly Jacobs 7:58 am 22 Jul 21

Love this! My partner and I are amongst the leavers but we hate the assumption that it’s because we hate Canberra or think it’s boring we love it.

Sandra Henwood Sandra Henwood 7:42 am 22 Jul 21

We lived in Canberra for only 16 months 38 years ago. Loved it then and have enjoyed regular visits since then.

Lauren Waite Lauren Waite 7:30 am 22 Jul 21

Very much enjoyed this! ❤️

Shiva Sapkota Shiva Sapkota 7:26 am 22 Jul 21

Love your articles Zoya! Great Ambassador for Canberra!

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