This year marks my 20th anniversary of life in Adelaide. It means that I have, by 11 months, lived more of my life in a desert city, than in a picturesque, green, rural agricultural centre.
The question I’m asking myself lately is: Why?
If you’re a friend, a regular reader, or just someone who’s been following my work, you’ll know that I have spent a lot of the past 20 years wanting to move back to my homeland stomping grounds.
For all this yearning, I have never done it.
When I commented to my husband that it’s this year 20 years since I moved to Adelaide, he replied, ‘Good!’
I laughed, asked him why.
‘Well, you’d never have met me if you hadn’t,’ he replied seriously. ‘And you must like it, otherwise you wouldn’t have stayed.’
The comment hit me like a cold wave from the Southern Ocean that has hit while I’m trying not to get wet. He was right; he must be. Moving back home would be absurdly easy: I have very little stuff, I have only a handful of friends, I don’t have kids, I work for myself.
So then, why do I think so much about moving back to Victoria?
More to the point, why didn’t I move back to Victoria when my last relationship ended, I had maybe three friends and no family here, and no job?
What was that thing that kept me in Adelaide?
In a desert city at the arse-end of Australia? A town where getting work as an outsider is still goddamned hard work, even after 20 years? Why have I stayed in a city that is blisteringly hot from February through April, never gets cold enough to own a coat, has awful soil, has almost the worst rainfall in the country, has town water so hard you have to melt it before you drink it, and a city that would nearly die of thirst if it couldn’t drink the River Murray?
What is it about the harsh landscape of South Australia, its weird self-congratulatory, un-Australian British accent, and self-conscious personality, that keeps me here? You know, besides the obvious (marriage), when my husband’s family is about as close as two repelling magnets, and mine – who are almost all in Victoria – is a warm, loving, happy tribe – and keeps asking me to move back?
So, let’s examine this.
The reason I came here in the first place is because of the University of South Australia. In 1998, its BA in Professional Writing & Communication was one of just two in the country. The other was at Southern Cross University in Lismore, NSW. In 1998, I lived in northern NSW during my gap year (it’s land of the gods, by the way, just heartbreaking to leave), so Southern Cross was an obvious choice.
Or rather, it would have been if it had been remotely as practical as the degree at UniSA. The practicality and immersion of the UniSA course won me over by a whisker. So it was that I travelled with my then-partner to Adelaide in January of 1999.
It took us a week to find a place to live. Our relationship took a nose-dive as soon as we were settled, which I have realised since was entirely because I didn’t trust him not to run out on me and leave me in a capital city (which I’d never lived in) by myself.
I was terrified about living in a city. Too many people in one place. Too much aggression, too much violence. And Adelaide’s reputation for murdering its citizens long preceded me. I remember people asking me why on earth, if I valued my life, would I even consider moving here.
Seriously. If you’re from Adelaide, you need to be aware that this reputation is not a joke. I was asked this exact question by many middle-aged and older people I highly respected, when I first talked about moving here.
Then, I walked out of that relationship a great many years later. I didn’t have anywhere to go. I remember having no friends, and no place to go to, and my (ex) partner having kicked me out of the house. I had no money. I was facing sleeping in my car. I’d been co-dependent for 14 years and I was terrified.
The other thing is that, as a result of that relationship, my own relationship with my family had been destroyed. I didn’t even consider driving home – besides which, all my stuff was in that house! My family and I had so much rebuilding to do, and the end of that relationship was the start of it.
So it was that I rediscovered my family, who footed the bond on a flat and paid the rent until I was working. I lived in that flat by myself. I had maybe two friends, no job, none of my stuff, and no money. I was 30 years old.
It’s a perfect recipe for moving back to Victoria.
But I didn’t.
Why? As strange as it sounds, I probably would have if someone had suggested it. If anybody – a friend, a family member, a cousin – had said, to me
Look, your life is shit. You’ve got nothing and nobody there, come to Victoria and start again. You’ve got to anyway…
… then I probably would have leapt at the chance. But, strangely, nobody did.
The remaining friends I had were super precious to me, because they knew me at my absolute lowest and still respected me. That, and there was a business to unravel, so there were loads of tangled things to wind up.
I managed, with the support of mum and dad and the friends I did have, to get back on my feet. I managed to get work through a temp agency, and pretty soon I didn’t worry about anything else.
Except, for the past nine years or so, I’ve been thinking constantly about moving back home.
As my business flagged in 2017 and 2018, and as my friends left Adelaide to live in Sydney and Melbourne, that desire got stronger. The story I started telling myself was, ‘It’s too hard here: Not enough opportunities, too many people who have grown up with their fingers in each others’ pockets, licking each other’s butt-cracks, and all my opportunities are elsewhere’.
Plus, the weather’s better elsewhere, the land is better elsewhere, the ocean is better elsewhere. Plants actually grow amazingly well in Victoria (they don’t here, much), and there are loads more opportunities for work. There’s even better funding for literally everything, from the Arts to businesses.
And my family then started asking me to move home. Job opportunities started being sent to me with increasing regularity. I spent more time thinking about going elsewhere than I did actually living where I was.
Probably, if my husband said, ‘Yes I’ll move with you anywhere you want to go,’ I’d go in a heartbeat. But he doesn’t. Instead, he just tells me to go if I want to move back there.
So, either I am actually still in a deeply unhealthy relationship in which power is unbalanced; or I must like it here.
It’s not the former. So could it – gasp – be the latter?
Do I actually just really like living in South Australia?
I hate to admit it, but I do.
For all of the family-being-close, lovely landscape, cold sea with actual waves, job opportunities, and so on, I really like Adelaide.
I love that I have access to the benefits of a capital city without having the headaches of living in Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne: A bad day in traffic is congestion around the Tour Down Under, or a rainy day when everyone is in their cars. It isn’t every day.
I love that I can ride my bike legally on the footpath, speeding up my ability to cycle literally anywhere.
Traffic notwithstanding, I love that I can live in a location that is 15 minutes to the beach, 10 minutes to a national park, 15 minutes deep into the hills, 20 minutes to a winery, and 15 minutes to the city. I can walk to one of the lookouts on the edge of the hills in under an hour, and ride my bike to the coast for a swim in 25 minutes. That’s as a tenant, anyway. I don’t need a bank loan to do that, and I have a house with a large backyard, in a quiet suburb.
While I love to body-surf, which means that Adelaide’s beaches are shit, there’s something really appealing about a warm ocean that’s as calm and swimmable as a lake. Victorians go to Queensland for that.
I love that every single food outlet in the city has incredible food. And even though fresh food here is insanely expensive when you compare it even with my home town, the range is astonishing.
I love that the friends I have here are brainiacs, scattered with people who own businesses that do loads of work elsewhere, but who choose to live here for the lifestyle. Ahem, even if they did grow up here. (People who grow up in Adelaide don’t leave it unless they fly, it seems, and assume that the entirety of Victoria is Melbourne. LOL!)
I love that I have immediate and close access to alternative healthcare, with a homoeopath who is amazing, and a dietician who understands and works with my intolerances.
I love that it’s ok to be a total suburb snob in Adelaide.
I love the dance companies; and even though I don’t participate in the arts culture much, and have never been to the Writers Festival in all my 20 years of being a writer here, the bookshops here are brilliant.
I love that it’s only 1 hour to Melbourne, 2.5 to Sydney and 3 to Brisbane and Perth, by air. In fact, it is commutable to Melbourne, if you were earning enough to pay for the airfares and transfers, liked airports, and didn’t mind the epic environmental impact.
I fell in love with Hindley Street when I was doing loads of gigs as a music critic, and had no problem walking the length of it at 2 am when it was filled with drunkards, druggies, and random characters.
I love yiros. Seriously, it beats a souvlaki any day of the week.
I love that you run into indigenous Australians from up country everywhere you go, because it makes learning their stories, experiences and cultures so much more accessible.
I love that the Kaurna people are legally the owners of the land I live and work on, and that every event is opened with a meaningful and heartfelt Welcome to Country.
I have a love-hate relationship with Adelaide’s conservatism. While it means that making an impact is easy as fuck if you remember to be proactive about your relationships, it also means that people aren’t likely to visit you if you are unwell. If you disappear out of their lives, they actually don’t care. Contrast that with the culture even in places like Sydney, where people will bring you food and visit when you’re sick. They don’t do that in Adelaide. You have to do it for them first. They’re as hard-bitten as hell, unless you’re friends of the deepest, bestest kind. Which, frankly, is the kind of friend I’ve never had here.
And, as strange as it sounds, in some ways I did come home when I moved here. I have long-distant cousins in Strathalbyn; a relative was one of the first female Principles in a school, which was in Echunga; the speedway is on a road named after a branch of my family; and I was even related to one of my uni tutors!
So this year I’ve decided to change my attitude.
In turning towards 2019, I decided to change my attitude about this yearning to be somewhere else. I’m actually happy here.
Besides the fact that my mum and dad are getting on, and my sister is a long way away, and that my cousins are hanging out with each other with their own kids, our relationships are the best they’ve ever been. I don’t see them much, but we keep in close touch.
Literally everywhere else in the world has something attractive, or desirable. But that’s because the grass is always greener on the other side and it’s a human condition to want what you don’t have… only to want something else when you do get what you want.
By being contented where I am, I’m finding more opportunities to be content.
I’m finding more ways to make the most of where I live. The truth is, even if I did live in Victoria, I’d still see my extended relatives about as much as I do now. The difference is that, by making an effort to be proactive about my relationships, I keep all of them close, even while I live further away.
Somehow, I think that this is really the key that unlocks everything. When you’re active and forward in your relationships with other people, the distance closes – no matter how far away from each other you are.
I was taught this by the process of creating and nurturing international friendships with people I’ve never met. That didn’t begin with the internet, by the way. Hell, no. It started many, many years before that – when I was a penpal at about seven or eight years old. The internet simply made it easier. (Internet, I love you.)
As for the landscape? The shitty dirt? The bad rainfall? The weather? Instead of being upset by it, I’m seeing it as an opportunity to adapt. There’s real pleasure in effortlessly growing things in fertile, rich soil. Yet there is success as well as pleasure in growing both fertile soil and the things that grow in it. It stretches you in a different way, makes you consider every input, and every output.
And that, my friends, is as true in your garden as it is in your life.
So, South Australia, here’s to 20 years. Thanks for being a lovely place to live for almost half of my life.
Oh, but there is one thing.
I’ll never be on board with your self-congratulatory, wanky SA Great or Brand SA campaigns. Because, you know what? They’re parochial, self-serving and naval-gazing… and to someone like me who came from somewhere else, it looks weird. Is your self-esteem really that bad? Frankly, you can do better than pitching yourself to your own population. Maybe you just don’t want to. 😉
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[ NEW] Why I’ve lived in South Australia for 20 years. 1999-2019, a retrospective.
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