9 January 2019

Leaving Canberra: a meditation

| Robin Bednall
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Leaving Canberra is bittersweet. Photo: Visit Canberra.

It’s peak moving season in Canberra. In sweltering heat, movers across town are hurriedly lifting box and bed, rushing to get to the next job. Last week our family home was packed up, a feat that took three movers almost six hours.

Most people are moving in, not moving out, this time of year. Public service graduates are arriving to start their new jobs, students their new semesters, at the best time of year in Canberra. The city pulses with life. Canberrans flock to outdoor cinemas, concerts and festivals. The pools are splashing room only. Bakeries on the road to the South Coast sell out of vanilla slices.

As for us, we are leaving this city with wistful fondness.

We love Canberra’s dry, gum-tree-covered hills, its endless bike paths, its preposterous North-South divide. We love that our kids walk to school. We love living in a community set around our local school and shops, rather than one centralised in an inner city many suburbs and a toll road away. We love living in a city where everyone has a view, whether we agree with it or not, on the political questions of the day.

Admittedly, we took some time to get to this feeling. During an earlier period living in Canberra, much younger then, our energy could find only partial release in Canberra’s nascent nightlife and restaurant scene. Where were all the people, the cars? Winter made for eerily quiet streetscapes, the emptiness reminiscent of a B-grade movie build-up to a surprise zombie attack.

Getting out was always a comfort for us back then. Now it’s either short-term relief or short-term pain. We breathe contented sighs when feeling the sand under foot, the smell of sunscreen and the sound of our kids laughing, as the stress of the office surreptitiously ebbs away. But we dread the loneliness of looking out at strange vistas from hotel windows on work trips, yawning off the jet lag and wondering what everyone is doing back home.

It is not that Canberra is perfect. Poverty exists, so too does isolation. One person sleeping rough is one person too many and Canberra turns away at least one third of those seeking housing assistance. It also has more prosaic blemishes. The treeless sea of greys and browns of its new suburban developments. Its comically prolific roundabouts. Older houses that are not built for its harsh winters.

But for many of us, it is as close to a perfect environment for raising a family as you can get in Australia. We are spoilt. We take for granted that most any of our local public primary schools will be of a high standard. That 30 minutes is considered a long commute. We still marvel that we can often park our car directly in front of restaurants when we eat out, or a five-minute walk from Manuka Oval, arriving just before game time.

Once nomads roaming the globe wanting to be anything but settled, living in the suburbs with a mortgage, we are exactly, exuberantly that in Canberra. We intend to come back.

But we won’t. Not really.

When leaving becomes something you do regularly, returning is something you do only partially. The more we have lived overseas and interstate, the more we have found it harder to integrate ourselves fully into one place, even one as good as Canberra.

But it’s not just us who will change. Our friends remaining in Canberra will have changed just as much. People’s friendship circles shift slowly, but over the years add up significantly. Who are these strangers whom our best friends are inviting to BBQs on the weekends? How did we not know these small but important details of what happened to them?

Despite great advances, even video calls and social media cannot fully convey the true impact of important personal achievements, or the deep sorrow of loss, that can affect your friends back home, let alone keep you up to date with the day-to-day changes that add up so meaningfully.

Yet, in truth, we are all always changing, always leaving – and this is for the good. Time and roads are good healers of wounds, enablers of creativity, engines of growth. But when you take the road back, you eventually realise it was just time you were travelling all along. And in fact, everyone has travelled down it, everyone has left, even those who stayed.

We’ll miss you, Canberra. We look forward to meeting the new you when we come back.

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I grew up here, and have lived in Canberra for most of my life. As I approach the end of my 20s, I am making plans to leave again – not because I don’t like Canberra, but because life is pulling me in other directions. Aside from our (excellent) coffee and food, I will miss the sky. We have a lot of breathing space here, framed by mountains. That’s what I think of, when I think of home.

We have a house here in Canberra but have been ‘grey nomads’ for the last 7 years. We do come back to visit the kids and grandchildren but the longer we are away, the less we feel we belong. We dislike the concrete jungle that Canberra is becoming. We are fast coming to the conclusion that we can no longer afford to live in Canberra, sadly we are looking to sell our much loved home to move to somewhere we can afford. We do love all the cultural things to do, but there’s only so much of that you can do. We do not understand why when there is so much land that houses are built so close together. This government is in the developer’s pockets allowing them to get away with selling a block of 150 sq m, hardly enough for a shed!!

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