Canberra is not for me. Now remember, this is my personal opinion and perspective – not a mindless criticism. I’m all about connection and Canberra and I just didn’t connect. We didn’t fall in love. We didn’t even want to go out on a second date.
To me Canberra feels odd and perplexing. It’s as though someone designed a great city, built a great city but forgot to populate it sufficiently to fulfil its potential. The motorways and multi-lane freeways crossings chasms of empty space in such an effectively tiny city just seem like a mockery. I couldn’t fathom why everything was so spread out and far apart. The National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery and the National Library sit alongside each other – with about a kilometre of parking space and lawned area between each. Why? At the very least they could have installed a travelator between them.
There are wonderful things to see and do in Canberra – the War Memorial is sensitive and moving, the Botanic Gardens are charming and beautiful, and the galleries and museums are tremendous. I just couldn’t find the heart of Canberra. I couldn’t find its city heart. I like my city to behave like a city – but how do I define that? Its mall was like every other mall. Its shopping complex was like every other shopping complex. The people that wandered the mall and shopping complex were sophisticated, stylish people. But those qualities [deficiencies?] are not exclusive to Canberra. There’s nothing disparaging to say about Canberrians because they are regular people – some cool, some artistic, some fit and healthy jogging on a Saturday morning, others drunk and out on the town on Friday night.
But in the mall on Sunday two skateboarders zoomed past me…. both at least in their 30s. One was sadly balding, the other had a cap with greasy lank hair poking out, both had oversized t-shirts and baggy pants. No one but me gave them a second look.
While standing at a city pedestrian crossing on a Sunday afternoon, I waited for the only car within miles of sight to pass by and then stepped out against the little red ‘don’t walk’ sign. The guy driving by me in his van looked at me askance, incredulous – as though I were trying to cross a seven lane freeway on roller skates, with a small pig clutched under my arm. He shook his head, I imagine muttering something like, ‘these damn kids of today’.
There’s a laid back country feel to Canberra that is in contrast with its city status. To me, Canberra was perfectly illustrated by the following. Angela, my travelling companion – a highly successful, highly pressured partner in a high profile Sydney law firm – almost lost the plot when a McDonald’s cashier took my payment for a bottle of water, diligently printed out a service receipt and laid it down carefully in the appropriate place, ready for the service person to attend to. The fridge was behind the cashier. It wasn’t particularly busy. Angela started tapping her foot and crossing her arms, frowning. I confirmed, politely, that it was just the bottle of water I wanted. ‘Yep,’ the cashier said, ‘won’t be long’. And stared into the middle distance. Angela started muttering under her breath and rolling her eyes. I tried to smile gently at the cashier who was starting to get nervous. Another minute passed and Angela bursts out, spluttering, ‘Oh for fucks sake, it’s right behind you, just get the fucking bottle of water’, just as the service person trundled up to study my little receipt and fetch my bottle of water. Thank you.
But perhaps I’ve missed the point. Perhaps some of those quirky things are Canberra – a city/country hybrid with its own unique charm. It’s a lovely, lovely place to visit. But only if you don’t mind your city on the mild side.