When I returned to Canberra after a week overseas recently, everything was grey and overcast. My sunny holiday seemed a world away as I waited on the street corner for an Uber, covered in goosebumps in the chilly morning air. And yet, as the kindly driver navigated past Lake Burley Griffin, I felt a weird sense of relief. It was good to be home.
It’s surreal for me to juxtapose this sentiment with my state of mind six months ago. Back on Australia Day, six weeks after moving from Sydney to Canberra, I found myself crying in a café because the waitress had forgotten to bring out my vegemite scroll. If this sounds like an overreaction, that’s because it was. I’m a fairly reserved person but something had snapped. I couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down my face (into my mouth, of course, instead of gracefully down my cheeks).
‘I hate this place,’ I sobbed to my boyfriend. ‘I hate it.’
It wasn’t the hour-long wait for the patriotic pastry that upset me – although I’d chosen it because I wanted to be low maintenance and thought it would be easy to whack on a plate. Nor was it the fact that when I did actually eat the scroll, it was disgusting. (Way too much vegemite.)
What had set me off was that I was trying really hard to build a new life for myself – working a new job and living in a new apartment in a new city, eating at new cafes. And Canberra didn’t seem to give a damn.
In my first few weeks it felt as though the people I was dealing with as I tried to settle in were being deliberately unhelpful. For the first time in my life, smiling and being well-mannered wasn’t getting me anywhere, and it was a massive shock.
(‘Do you know where I can find this document?’ I remember asking a new colleague after 15 minutes of fruitless searching. ‘Yes,’ he replied, refusing to elaborate further.)
With the benefit of hindsight, I suspect my experience had more to do with my state of mind than an ACT conspiracy to make outsiders feel terrible.
After a long, stressful and lonely year of living alone in Sydney while my boyfriend worked in Canberra, I’d changed my whole life in four days. Finishing up at my first grown up job on the Friday, moving out of my first grown up flat and driving interstate on the Saturday, moving into our new apartment on the Sunday and starting brand new job on the Monday. In hindsight, this probably burnt me out.
Moving to a new city was the biggest change I’d willingly put myself through and the culture shock was real. Who would have thought moving three hours down the motorway would require such an adjustment?
Mundane things drove me crazy. Why was it impossible to find a doctor that bulk-billed and stayed open after 5pm? Why were people in restaurants and cafes so rudely protective of the unused chairs at their table? Why were there literally no cars on the road after 9pm? How would you ever be able to tell the difference between the end of the world and an ordinary Tuesday night?
Before I’d moved, my job had been my whole life and most of my friends were part of the same industry. I was part of a hardworking team and had the freedom to show a lot of initiative. Then suddenly I was in a role where, not only was I not expected to check my email at all hours of the day and night, there was actually no way for me to do so. In fact, there was no way for me to accomplish much at all without a long approval process.
While I dealt with this new and shocking lack of responsibility, I was also coming to terms with the harsh truth that some of the people I’d adored in Sydney weren’t as invested in keeping in touch now that we didn’t see each other everyday. Watching your friendships fade right in front of you hurts like hell – there’s a special kind of agony that comes with seeing that your Facebook message has been read but not replied to.
It’s one thing to be objectively aware that settling in takes time, but when you’re the one struggling to find your place somewhere new, it’s hard to believe things will get better.
For a few months, I was in limbo. I refused to even think about Canberra as my home but whenever I went back to Sydney, I didn’t feel like I belonged there either. (Had the traffic always been so terrible? Was that acquaintance I’d bumped into really so busy that she couldn’t stop to say hi? Why were there so many people everywhere and why did they walk so goddamn slowly?)
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I mentally accepted the nation’s capital as my home, it was probably more of a gradual change. Things started to fall into place when I left the job I’d originally moved here for in favour of somewhere I knew I would be happier.
Instead of scorning the quiet, I began to enjoy it. The constant underlying anxiety I’d been riddled with when my career had been my whole identity was not, as I’d assumed, an unavoidable part of working life. My skin cleared up and it became rarer for my mind to keep me awake worrying in the middle of the night.
My ambivalence about this new city of mine has, for the most part, faded. (Although why on earth must it be so bloody cold in winter?)
While I miss my regular haunts in Sydney (bookshops, cinemas, parks, burger joints – this essentially encapsulates how I like to spend my free time), I’ve found new places to wander, browse and feast.
Thanks to the wonders of technology, I still talk with my good friends regularly despite the distance separating us. And though I’m not sure making new friends gets easier as you get older, I’ve met some lovely people here. It was one of these lovely people who, in my first week in Canberra, gave me the advice I’ve had to remind myself of frequently in the last seven and a half months.
‘I think you should try to be kind to yourself,’ she said after I’d overshared about the loneliness and frustration. ‘Give yourself time.’
If there’s anyone out there who’s feeling like I was back on Australia Day, crying into their metaphorical vegemite scroll, know that it won’t always be this way. Be nice to yourself. And make smarter menu choices when you’re out for breakfast.
Manda Diaz is the co-creator of The Regal Fox. A pop culture nerd with a fondness for books and red pandas, she works in communications in Canberra. You can follow her on Twitter at @Manda_Diaz.