They say that Canberra is the New York of Australia. ‘They’ being quite literally nobody, ever. In fact, when Alicia Keys sang Empire State of Mind, I can guarantee you that the last place she was thinking of was our nation’s capital. Bunda Street certainly does not make me feel brand new. There are no bright lights to inspire me. And to call it a concrete jungle would be audacious – something nearer to a cracked-in asphalt bushland would do.
Indeed, it is a rite of passage to stand on the uneven cobblestone outside Canberra Centre and think, “is this really the capital city of Australia?” To linger on this question, however, will only inevitably arouse more – is Canberra even a city? Why is it called Civic? Has anyone even played this outdoor game of chess? Is moving around giant chess pieces the peak of entertainment in this town? I typically conclude the fun provided by this bizarre feature of our CBD is second only to the nearby Carousel. The amusement of staring at those eerie horses like you would a corpse – with a morbid curiosity and a threatening sense that they may start moving.
With one of the most unique things in Civic being reminiscent of death, it begs the question: is Canberra truly as boring as it seems? One does not need to go far to ascertain the general population’s perception of the village.
“I don’t know why you would move to Canberra when you could live in the Most Liveable City in the World,” claims the Melbournian who enjoys frequent getaways to regional Victoria for some peace and quiet.
“There’s, like, nothing to do in Canberra,” explains the ANU college student, guilty of posting another ‘casual’ photo dump on Instagram with the caption ‘fun times recently in the C(r)apital.’
“The only people who live in Canberra are public servants and uni students haha,” jokes your friend back home, who has ‘Law Student’ in his Tinder bio.
Still, they’re not entirely wrong. It’s true that this city has its fair share of boring. Unlike New York, Canberra is a city that does, indeed, sleep. The full eight hours, ‘lights-out’-before-it’s-dark, school-starts-tomorrow-type sleep. It’s certainly not a coincidence that it holds the 2021 title of Best City in the World for Sleep.
Yet, in spite of all its grandma-like qualities, I am hooked on the strength of Canberra. Coming from Melbourne, I have pretty low standards for big bodies of water – I only have the Yarra to thank for that. I will never not be surprised that Canberra manages to keep its electric scooters on land and neatly parked at that. I will also never stop being surprised at the diligence to tap on MyWays, or rather, the fortitude of bus drivers to not start driving until you do so. But it is the strength of mutual respect between Canberrans that continually impresses me.
When I first walked into Civic, I remember being so surprised that cars stopped in the dead centre of the road to let pedestrians cross. The idea that everyone we walk past has places to be and things to do and yet we never get in the way of each other’s hustle to make a little section of Australia better. Like New York, people do not necessarily come to Canberra to escape something; they come here to find something. To learn more. To find more. To do more. To be more. That is what people come to Canberra for. What and who we find along the way is what makes us stay. We know this to be true because the lack of literally anything else entertaining must make it so.
It is the strength of a shared understanding that everyone in this city has, at some point, left family and friends to follow pursuits of education, work or personal development. To leave their homes and fight the odds of Canberra’s mundanity to forge a new one. How un-boring it must be to give up everything for nothing.
Maybe Alicia Keys was on to something after all. Maybe our humble city of roundabouts and lanyards, where the Telstra Tower quietly pierces the skyline, is also a city where dreams are made of. Dreams that are birthed and pursued and sometimes cashed in for another one. And no matter how close or distant you feel to being who or what you want to be, a single truth remains: here in the nation’s capital, there’s nothin’ you can’t do. Except get dinner past 9pm.
Originally published in Woroni Vol.72 Issue 1 ‘Evolution’