Trying to write about the why of moving cities without the context of secured career opportunities or long-term relationships is hard.
Why? Because you start writing down personal theories that fly in the face of old adages about finding happiness no matter where; that you’ll never escape yourself – ‘wherever you are, there you are’; and the futileness of ‘running away’.
It’s tricky to do, without that crisis of motivation, to not sound defamatory and downright arseholery about the place you’re leaving, either.
It doesn’t help that many of your friends feel the same way about the city (albeit for subtly different reasons); that some of them write extensively on its entrenched problems; that it’s a place where one friend can create an excel spreadsheet of the 150 people she’s known to have left it, not including me and my own list.
It doesn’t help that it’s a city that already suffers ridicule (often from second-hand opinion) from the rest of the country. It’s especially difficult when you’ve made a pact with yourself not to bad-mouth it when you do move – nor confuse personal objections with generally accepted negative truisms about the place.
I’m also aware of how much it’s just a personal decision and who cares what the reasons are, why do I have to make such a big deal of it, anyway? I could just do it and remain mum on the issue: if it is indeed an issue. Why must I scrutinise every move I make?
Because without already secured career opportunities and long-term relationships at stake, people want an answer – and at the moment, all I can come up with is “an adventure”. And that’s fine if it was an adequate explanation, but adventures usually entail returning ‘home’ again. I’ve gone on several ‘adventures’ before, but this is relocating my base, this is severing a tie.
“I can’t believe you’re still in Adelaide” has been levelled at me more times than I can remember. I usually retort, “That’s because I’ve travelled so much, I have left moving interstate until last” – which is more or less true. When I was seventeen I packed my literary-pleasing bindle and trundled off to live in the UK for a year on a working holiday visa (travelling extensively around the isles and to Germany and Egypt, too). During university I took a month sojourn to China and Malaysia with a mate, and straight after my undergraduate degree I lived in Spain for a year (visiting Portugal and Paris and returning to the UK). Then, in the four years of having an ‘adult’ job as an ESL teacher, I took another month out of the year to see Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, and a further five months taking a round-the-world trip to Japan, the UK (again), Northern Europe, North America, Mexico and bizarrely, the Cayman Islands. Ten years after my first ‘adventure’, I’ve come to a point where travel for the sake of it seems redundant (unless, you know, it’s just a holiday – then my bug knows no bounds), and I’m ready to make something of the accumulated mess of experience I have, gathered in that bindle.
Each time I returned home from those trips, my relationship with Adelaide changed. The first time, I was only eighteen and was keen to start tertiary education on the promise that it would, if anything, increase the likelihood of better paid jobs in the future. I made sure I enjoyed the course, so I did a bachelor of arts in screen studies, drama, and Spanish. Returning from China made me even more adventurous with exploring the migrant side of Adelaide, which is something I’ve come to really appreciate about all cities in this country. Returning from Spain I had motivation to acquire more applicable work skills and enrolled in a course for teaching English as a second language. Returning from South America made me appreciate the relatively wealthy lifestyle we have and the blank canvas of Australian culture. After this trip I helped form the Format Collective. Each trip away made me value the stability of Adelaide, its relative cheapness to other Australian cities, and the ability I had to save money to leave it again and again. For a long time I was content to just use it as a base to feed my wanderlust, even when that wanderlust was feeding nothing but something to write about later.
I think three things have contributed to changing my tune on this. Firstly, the Format Collective was successful, giving me a whole new skill set (and self-confidence) along with my teaching; secondly, I completed my Masters in creative writing which has made me pursue writing more seriously; and thirdly, I’m older. I’ve reached the age where making my life exactly how I want is a desire and nearly achievable. It’s been ten years since I started continent hopping, and in that time I’ve made a lot of friends, but my love life has barely blossomed at all.
Gay men I barely know exclaim how they cannot imagine living anywhere smaller than Sydney or Melbourne. They tut at me, like they’re stylists assessing my choice to wear socks’n’crocs in public – it’s just not done; what are you doing still living there (in those!)? However, I’m sceptical about moving cities for an improved love life because I’ve seen many friends do it and get sidetracked by more choice (“I feel like a kid in some kind of store!”), and still complain that they’re lonely. For this reason, I stuck it out in Adelaide telling myself that the right person comes along without having to look for them.
Regardless of sexuality, I know many people have had that experience with the dating pool where you use John West-like scrutiny, end up aware of how tuna fishing isn’t environmentally sustainable anyhow, and give up. And because you’ve given up, the next time you do get a nibble, you quickly reel your catch onto the boat and demand that it fillet itself and lay elegantly over some rice, exposed and raw. This is as unfairly compromising as it sounds, and before you know it, that relationship is dead.
So you return to being picky. You make a rule that if you keep focussed on achieving your own aspirations and continue following your interests, then, surely, someone will emerge from the woodwork like the T1000, and gaily skip with you off into the mercurial puddle of the sunset. No one ever comes.
Or they do, but it’s bad timing; or you’re always attracted to the transient – those just passing through or living in another place. You then blame yourself for falling for what you can’t have, before admitting that it was really a subconscious effort to have a reason to leave where you are. Heartbreak is a very good trigger to organise that next trip overseas. You don’t dare have a rebound fling with someone in Adelaide, so you leave and become the transient in someone else’s life on the other side of the world.
Some of your friends look at you pityingly like you’re just a finicky eater, not touching your meal unless all foods are kept separated and don’t touch each other. If only you could just … “settle” … you’d see how wonderful it is to be bound with someone, even if they’re tainted with flecks of broccoli. These friends are missing the point, and are usually heterosexual, with a subscription to heteronorm weekly. They forget that I don’t have a smorgasbord to choose from, and am usually almost starving – this is statistical. During one of the Format Festivals a friend said to me, “This is such a hipster sex fest” (meaning that many couples were hooking up through and throughout the event). I said, “Really?” raising an eyebrow. He looked at me for a moment and replied, “Oh, yeah. Not for you it’s not.” It’s then that you realise that you really are in the wrong place, if following your interests here creates a new dating pool that isolates you even further.
What has made me stay in Adelaide for this long is an inability to reconcile these two mindsets:
- Australia has the population of Taiwan spread over 210 Taiwans in terms of area. Of course Australia only has two important cities (Melbourne and Sydney): pack your bags if you want greater opportunities for work and play, relocate, end of story.
- Smaller cities in Australia have populations similar to famous capital cities around the world – and are just as financially prosperous. If people aged 18-35 (I’m loathe to use the word ‘youth’) stayed in them, they would create the missing jobs and culture that makes that demographic flee in the first place.
One is realistic, taking the pressure off oneself to be an instigator of change, and getting on with personal prosperity. The other makes you more accountable: if you can see how you can change a situation, shouldn’t you feel obliged to change it?
Now that I’ve decided to leave, I must add that neither of these ideologies operate separately from the other. If you stay in your hometown to help make culture for your peers, that doesn’t mean that 60% of your peers (statistic based on Renew Adelaide founder Ianto Ware’s research) have suddenly changed their mindset to leave it (remember that excel spreadsheet?). It’s a Sisyphean task to create sustainable cultural infrastructure for a demographic that’s predisposed to not staying to enjoy it. And because there are small to no audiences, older, family-focussed types stuck in government bureaucracy aren’t going to help enable that culture, if they’re aware of it at all. These types are the ones to quickly add that “a lot” of ex-pats return to Adelaide once they’re older (post-35): that Adelaide’s the perfect place to raise a family.
A close friend of mine is 38 years old, a new Australian, well-travelled, and child-free. Not only is a family-focussed (and today this still means heterocentric) city like Adelaide anathema to a young gay person, it has certainly chided my professional non-mom friend, too. If your lifestyle isn’t based around running kids around the suburbs in a 4WD, there’s little here to keep you entertained outside opening hours. Opening hours, I might add, that bewilder my students who all come from countries where people expect and enjoy hanging out in a city centre hours after work/study. They recently asked me where all the Australians went after 5pm and I said that in Summer, they would find them at the beach. I added that in Winter, I still have no idea where they go. Winter makes Adelaide resplendent with tumbleweed. Or, as this friend in question once said: “it’s like one long trip to Bunnings”.
For me, the one attitude I think Adelaide needs to change is in its investment in infrastructure for tourists. There’s a self-defeatist vibe here – a lack of treating the city like it should be visited. I’m not talking about Bilbao-syndrome here, either. (The perfect example of this comes from another Spanish city, Valencia, which built its City of Arts and Sciences [Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències] to burn its city image into the collective consciousness. Yeah, nup – you got nothing, either? Look it up, it’s not bad, just a bit reminiscent of other famous buildings.) Adelaide doesn’t need a white elephant to save it. While Adelaide City Council is making some progress with its Picture Adelaide scheme, at a governmental level, the city as a whole needs to change its infrastructure to accommodate tourists who don’t have a car and decades of insider knowledge. The fact we have 50km of uninterrupted metropolitan beaches that aren’t connected to each other by public transport (except a few meandering bus lines) is a scandal. The fact that there are “hidden gems” of retail and restaurants in the suburbs doesn’t make Adelaide appealing to those just here for a few days. In my travels, cities that are easy to move around and supply loads of information to the tourist are always fondly remembered. It doesn’t matter if the city has an ‘iconic’ building or not – people remember experiential factors: you spend more time wondering where to eat and how to get somewhere than the hour or two spent in the art gallery. It’s no good smugly suggesting to a visitor that they just have to look harder. Or to shut down the city centre all but one night of the week (if you want to see ‘bleak’, go to the CBD on a Saturday around 6pm). Shouldn’t any city, as an entity, be proud to flaunt what it’s got as much as possible? If tourism means business why keep all the stock out-of-reach?
The other factor that lures people back to a place is being able to find their own subculture visibly interacting with the city, but this doesn’t have to be sanctioned by government and/or council. The only thing that keeps Adelaide from having this “vibrancy” is that percentage of not-family-orientated people leaving it. So there’s a problem with that; and I’m about to contribute to it. But it’s got to the point where I just don’t care, at least, I don’t want to feel responsible for it, anymore.
I’m sitting the zine shop at the Format venue, trying to write an essay about why I’m leaving Adelaide. I’m half-heartedly singing along to the music, when a woman enters saying, “Is this a zine shop?” She stumbled on the shop, but knows what shops like it are… Intriguing. “I’m from Portland,” she says. Oh. That explains it.
She flusters around glancing at the stock. She seems agitated. I notice a young boy is with her and he starts playing with the hippopotamus money box on the desk. She starts a conversation in fits and starts, like someone – a traveller – who hasn’t had a conversation with anyone for a while; though I’m not sure she cares what I have to say about the arts collective or even in answering my questions about why she’s in Adelaide.
She replies, “I’m trying to leave Adelaide actually.” The conversation moves on to me saying that I’m moving to Sydney and she tells me that she never connected with the place, “Maybe it’s because my abusive husband is there still,” she says. “It just didn’t have a culture that I identified with – like, I couldn’t find any organic supermarkets. Or the ones I did find were for people who have made it their ‘lifestyle choice’ to spend too much money on oats.”
We talk about changing attitudes towards paper, plastic, and bringing your own bags, and I mention that Adelaide’s a weird mix of innovation and conservatism. I tell her about how it was the first state to allow women to vote, to decriminalise homosexuality, to allow religious freedom, and first to ban free plastic bags. She says that while she’s not closed-minded, she’s come to find an appreciation for conservatism: “Like, my sister,” she says, “she and her family border on racist and live in a log cabin, but they’re keeping alive how things used to be. If you’re in a big city that’s always changing, then you lose a sense of tradition.” Before I say anything about that, she leaps onto another train of thought, “And like homosexuality. Sometimes I think it’s better if people stay in the closet. It’s a much more romantic thing to do. Every gay person doesn’t need to broadcast it. Like, when a French person has an affair, it’s more romantic when they don’t tell anyone about it. People are so quick to make assumptions about you from what you promote to the world.”
I compose my thoughts.
“People knowing that alternatives exist is more important, though,” I say. “At work, most people don’t know that I’m gay, and what that does is expose me to more homophobia than if they knew. This is another reason I’m moving to Sydney. I want to be in a place where people aren’t so fast to make assumptions about your sexuality and gender role. But yes, I guess I haven’t told people because I value my privacy, too.” I start an internal monologue and look vague for a bit, while she formulates her next rant.
“I just think that a ‘lady of the night’ has the right idea,” she says. “She shares her body but never exposes her -” she pumps her chest with her fist “- soul, you know? She doesn’t talk about her affairs, because it’s business, and no one else’s.”
“I follow a sex worker on Twitter, actually, and -”
“What if I want to take more than one lover? At the same time, even? I’m not gay, but I don’t say I’m straight either. I fall in love with people. I don’t like all these boxes. People make assumptions about a young mother, and other women get catty because they think I’m coming onto their men if I talk to them.”
I don’t have anything much to say to this except “hm”, and start talking to her son, who is playing with some chalk he found.
“And sometimes I just can’t be bothered with people all together,” she continues.
“I was just writing about that,” I say. “Well, about the cycle of craving lots of company and then feeling like being left alone.”
She starts drawing with the chalk on the floor of the shop with her son.
“So you’re travelling around Australia?” I ask.
“I’m looking for a place to settle, actually; I’ve done too much travelling.”
“And Adelaide’s not for you? I’m writing about why I’m leaving it.”
“It’s nice, people are friendly, it seems modern and yet older than other cities in Australia,” she says, “but I don’t know anyone here. I have a friend somewhere else and was thinking that would be easier than starting from scratch.”
“Adelaide’s a hard place to make new friends,” I say.
“You only need one person to introduce you to someone.”
“Yeah, I have a few friends in Syd -”
“But I end up making enemies easily, so I don’t know why I worry: I say something stupid and people end up hating me. I think it’s because as soon as people have expectations of me, I have this overwhelming urge to contradict them.”
“’You can’t tell me what to do!’” I venture a joke. She’s unmoved. “Actually, I think I have a bit of that in me, too. People have been saying to me for ages that they think I should leave Adelaide. And I have, but to travel around the world. But moving interstate – I always shunned the idea, probably too defiantly. I don’t know, I got it in my head that if I couldn’t make something here, then what was the point going somewhere else?”
“But you did make something,” she says. “You grew something here, but now you need a bigger pot to grow more. Australia really only has two cities: Melbourne and Sydney.”
“It’s complex, though, how smaller Australian cities have this need to feel bigger than they are. Unlike the States,” I say, “Australia is sparsely populated over a lot of land. Geographically, Adelaide is still a centre, of sorts.”
“I think you got frustrated that you couldn’t make the pot grow bigger with you,” she says.
I murmur agreement and she deals with her son who has exhausted ways to have fun in the shop, and is clearly ready to go.
“Well, let’s leave on that note, before I say something bad, like I always do.” She backs out the door. I hand her son a gift of chalk. “Nice to meet you,” she says.
“You too, I hope you find somewhere to settle,” I say.
And she, too, leaves.
The yellow apatosaurus legs that are the hills of the south, undulate like a rollicking sea frozen in time. The vineyards caress the land like a bed sheet – but are just stick farms in winter. The gulf in the west; the sun dropping into the sea like an egg yolk. The parklands with their possums and cockatoos, galahs, lorikeets, rosellas, magpies, and miners. I go there to run, to walk, to lay on the grass – kept green in summer, when everywhere else it’s yellow.
The yellow and blue horizontal stretch between Seacliff and Semaphore; many bike rides; this is where smiles are broadest. The tramline: wave as you pass my parents’ house. ‘Burbs in the east, pretend you’re in an English garden; ‘burbs in the west, pretend you’re driving in L.A. New migrants in the inner north, ex-pat Brits in the far-south. Italian Parade, Henley Greek Road. The vertical and the horizontal grid of the CBD. I have learnt to follow desire lines along its disused lanes so I don’t feel so rigid.
The Central Markets. A hearth.
Running into friends, pretending to not see acquaintances, the ‘Adelaide-swivel’: you turn to check in case that one particular person is sitting in the same cafe as you. You never know. You’re surprised when you meet someone you’ve never met before. There are many great people you do meet. You’ve got a wealth of friends, a strong support, you’ve grown older together. You wonder why you’re leaving them: are you really leaving them? You’ve done it before, but this time feels different. You hope you’re not running away from friends.
I’m under no illusion that the grass is greener – even though in summer, that’s very likely true. This dry state has been good to me. My frustrations with it spring only from the potential I see, and the parochial attitude of some of the people making progress slow. But it does change, it is changing. Just for the experience, I would like to be in a city that’s more global, more fast-paced, with more opportunities in the creative arts sector. I’d like to live somewhere where many people are from somewhere else: a melting pot – not a city where it’s common to hear “what high school did you go to?” as a relationship determiner. Admittedly, when I have lived overseas, I’ve lived in places smaller than Adelaide, so I’m keen to live in a ‘big city’. I love big cities. I think the imposed anonymity you get in a big city is better suited to me. These days I walk around Adelaide like it’s my living room. I’m surprised I put in any effort to not go out wearing my dressing gown sometimes. I know that in Sydney I will hate many things, too, and long for things back in my ‘home-town’. And I suppose Adelaide is my ‘home-town’ in many ways, although I have experienced the feeling of returning home in the UK, too. One day, I’ll feel at home in many other places. That’s a ‘destiny’ of sorts. That’s who I am. My friends have jokingly (though, very seriously) warned me never to utter the phrase “This place is stifling me!” and I want to make it clear, here, now, that a place is only what people make of it. I’ve just made what I could from Adelaide, and now it’s time for a new challenge. An ‘adventure’, I guess I could call it.