Bondi Beach

Sydney – a reluctant love affair

22nd August 2010

First impressions are everything, that’s what they say, right? First impressions are certainly important, but everything? Most certainly not. We don’t all fall in love at first sight; we shouldn’t refuse to eat green vegetables because we hated them as a child; and we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. And that is the lesson I’ve been learning with the city of Sydney – some places take a bit longer to reveal their charms to you, and maybe just because you didn’t go weak at the knees the first time you met, it doesn’t mean you should cut them off before you’ve given them a chance.

Sydney Harbour Bridge sunset

Before landing in Australia, I thought Sydney was the kind of city where I would arrive and fall in head over heels in love with it. It certainly has good PR – friends who’ve lived or visited here rave about the relaxed lifestyle: ‘You’ll love it!’ they gush. And how could I not? It never even occurred to me that I wouldn’t love Sydney – I mean, on paper – what’s not to like? Great weather, beautiful beaches, hot boys flaunting their six packs, hot girls with their legs out all year round, BBQs on the beach, a work-not-too hard-but-play-harder attitude. And heck, it’s hardly like there’s a culture shock from the UK – the only difference here being that when people are hungover they go jogging and have a protein shake, rather than lie on the sofa binge eating cheese toasties and watching the Hollyoaks ominibus. But try as I might, I just wasn’t getting it. Maybe my expectations were too high, after listening to all the glowing reports of the city that everyone thinks is the capital of Australia. Maybe, after 4 months of travelling around SE Asia, Sydney just didn’t stand a chance – I mean how can any city compete with the buzz of Bangkok or the deserted paradise islands of Cambodia, and still come out holding the trophy? Or maybe, and I feel I have to say this in hushed tones, just maybe, Sydney isn’t all it’s cracked up be? Now before you hold me up in court for slander, please hear me out.

City of Sydney

Clifftop walk Sydney

I can’t deny, Sydney has a lot going for it. The beaches are undeniably fabulous. It has the friendliest random strangers I have ever encountered, who will practically chase you down the street to give you directions should you even so much as open a map. The bus drivers have the cheery demeanor you usually only find in Enid Blyton novels – sometimes they’ll even hold the whole bus up while they give hapless tourists instructions on how to get to Opera House. The city is clean. And there is just so much space here – I have had to stand up on a bus about twice, and even in the middle of rush hour in the CBD it feels strangely empty. Head out into the suburbs, and you sometimes start to wonder if you’re in some sort of science fiction film where the whole population has been kidnapped by aliens leaving just you to repopulate the earth. But these are all good things, right?

Sydney empty streets

Bondi Junction

Surfer at sunset Bondi Beach

Well, yes and no. Dare I say it, but I found all this niceness and loveliness frankly, a little bit, well… dull. There, I said it, please don’t hate me. I feel like I’m confessing my darkest secret. When I first arrived, if anyone from Sydney asked me how I liked it here, I’d open my mouth and a torrent of gushing praise would tumbled forth. I was starting to feel like a Halls greeting card – sickly sweet but lacking in sincerity, as underneath it all, I just wasn’t sure how much I was really sold on Sydney. As I watched the sun set over the harbour, I started to wonder if perhaps I was I more of Brit than I thought. Did I need to be able to complain about the busy tube, the grumpy bus driver and the rain in order to feel complete? But before you send me off to sign up for the next series of Grumpy Old Women, I don’t think that’s it. It’s more that I like my cities a bit rough round the edges, and Sydney, so far, was seeming a bit sanitised. Don’t get me wrong, I hardly want to be mugged by a gang of knife wielding ASBOs when I’m walking home, but a bit of grit and edge is part of city life, and despite exploring several of the city’s districts, I didn’t think I’d found much evidence of it yet. Even the names of the suburbs smacked of rosy cheeked girls having a jolly good time, Surry Hills, Balmain, Rose Bay… I was even starting to feel nostalgic for the view of the car park from my ex-council flat in Benthal Green, where you have to step over the friendly neighbourhood crackhead on the way up the stairs. Had I totally lost it? What was the matter with me that I couldn’t just embrace the fact that I was living in a nice place? I suppose I was missing the character, the personality and the edginess of London: starting a Saturday day with a fry up in the Astro Star Cafe, buying my vegetables from the cheeky geezers at Bethnal Green Road market, drinking in a bar that consists of little more than an underground bunker with a couple of plastic chairs, dancing to music so strange and wonderful there isn’t even a genre invented to describe it, cycling home slightly drunk, stopping for a £1.50 bagel on Brick Lane, striking up conversation with a man in luminous green leggings and a top hat, and arriving home exhilarated from the delightful madness that is the greatest city in the world.

Manly beach Sydney

Bondi at sunset

However, slowly, I think I’m finally starting to see the Sydney that wins its rave reviews. The actual city itself, I can still take it or leave it, give me an East London tower block over a Sydney Victorian terrace any day. But having moved to North Bondi, I’ve realised that Sydney is all about the beach. Passing the surfers tackling the breakers every morning on the way to work; braving an early morning dip; or simply just contemplating the vast power of the Pacific Ocean, makes you feel pleasantly insignificant. How can you worry about the small things in life, or even the big things, when confronted with that sea? It exhilarates you in a different way. And Sydney is an easy city to spend a lot of time outdoors, even in the winter. There are cliffs to walk along, ocean pools to jump in, and if that’s all far too energetic, a bustling cafe scene that spills out onto the pavements, serving the brunching Sydneysiders after their 10k running sessions. Sydney still hasn’t woven a web around me like London has, nor does it make my stomach flip with excitement like New York, but it’s got other things going for it. I’m still determined to hunt out the grit and grime, as I’m sure it must be there somewhere (I’m informed by a taxi driver with a handlebar moustache that it’s all about Marrickville – I’ll keep you informed once I have investigated) but meanwhile, perhaps it’s time to embrace a different set of pleasures for a while…

Rainbow on Manly

5 Comments...

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  1. Jezz Meister General

    Sydney I praise you!

    22nd August 2010 at 1:59 pm
  2. uncle pete

    You know what they say: ‘Sydney for holidays, Melbourne for living’!

    23rd August 2010 at 12:40 pm
  3. Having just spent a month in Sydney, only toward the end did I start to pick up exactly what you’ve said!

    Try Rum Diaries, on Bondi Road. That certainly helped :)

    23rd August 2010 at 3:00 pm
  4. Thanks Alex – funnily enough I checked out Rum Diaries the other week and loved it! A little slice of London in the heart of Bondi :)

    24th August 2010 at 12:09 am
  5. Lauren Brown

    I was speaking to Charlie the other day about London and he described missing the city almost like missing an itching burning sensation that that city is. Having just spent three months in Toronto, I totally get where you are coming from. The neighbourhood we live in is half an hour walk away from the city centre, yet it has the quaint and quiet feel of suburbia. I rarely have to stand on the subway, even in rush hour. People are in less of hurry and everyone is always doing yoga, going off to countryside cottages or partaking in other wholesome activities. I think at first all of these things are a shock to the system, but ultimately I agree with embracing a different set of values for a while and appreciating what you have right now.

    18th October 2010 at 4:41 pm