Judging A Book

Trip Start Dec 14, 2006
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Trip End Mar 10, 2007


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Flag of Australia  ,
Sunday, February 11, 2007

On paper Canberra is not unlike Ottawa, a government town full of civil servants and foreign diplomats and hangers on. With a population of 328,00 it's quite a bit smaller than Ottawa though, and not nearly as old or stately. The present Parliament House was only built in 1988. The city itself didn't become the capital until 1908, when it was chosen as a compromise between Sydney and Melbourne.

Canberra was a planned city designed by Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin, who lent his name to the artificial lake in the city's downtown. It's a very green city, surrounded by parks and natural vegetation and nicknamed the "bush capital."

Unemployment in the ACT is half the national average, Canberrans have the highest weekly disposable income of any Australian capital city, and one of the highest population densities in the country. And despite all the stats Canberra has a dismal status for being downright dull, a reputation potent enough for a joker to plant a crude line in the Wikipedia page on Canberra stating that "the capital city of Australia is boring and you should never go there. Why are you even looking it up?"

After spending months looking at Canberra on a map, seeing in person the place names and neighbourhoods I'd practically memorized was fascinating, buut I felt rather let down, as what I'd envisioned to be shop-lined avenues turned out to be long, wide boulevards banked by apartments and office buildings.

And at first glace I wanted nothing more than to go back to Adelaide. I like my cities city-like, with a nucleus of activity and action. Canberra is more like a collection of neighbourhoods, with their own little hubs of stores and restaurants. Because I don't drive I've always been attracted to city centres, and at first glance I saw nothing of the downtown area that gave me hope of finding a vibrant and comfortable living environment.

We traveled south towards parliament and tawny, inner south suburbs of Kingston and Manuka, where cafés, restaurants and bars were doing a brisk Saturday night business despite the rain. I spied places that I could see myself working at, but was in no mood to feel optimistic. It was bright and busy at least, and we found a decent meal at a Malaysian restaurant. But I spent the meal in a sullen mood, a funk that didn't abate after a tour of other neighbourhoods nearer to ANU.

After a long day of driving Alice was keen to sleep, though I felt restless and unhappy. It didn't help that in a room across the courtyard from her window a group of students were drinking and signing along to a very bad guitar player. There are very things more excruciating than hearing drunken voices belt out Hotel California. And belt they did, long after it seemed reasonable.

Next day was busy for Alice, as she attended meetings and consultations and tried to get her bearing in her new environment. I stayed in her room and sulked. At about midday the sky began to clear and I had my first glimmer of hope, via one of the most round about reunions I've experienced.

Just over 3 years ago I worked with an Aussie barman named Damian, at the last restaurant I worked before leaving for Korea. He and I became fast friends, and along with another coworker, Nick, we formed a kind of brat pack, drinking late into the early morning after work, cracking inside jokes to each other, and generally having a ball. I still remember the night we said goodbye, knee deep in snow on Dundas Street, when Damian was leaving Toronto to join his fiancé in New York City.

Damian grew up in Canberra, and when I emailed him to say I was moving there he replied that he would be in town to attend his sister's wedding. A few phone calls and meeting arrangements later we were sitting on a patio at Gus's Café, in a part of the civic centre I hadn't seen before. Aside from the chance to see a good friend and catch up Damian and his wife, Rebecca, gave me a glimpse of the city I hadn't yet seen.

Alice joined us and we sat for an hour or so and then parted company. But I felt invigorated and reassured that the city was not as bad as I'd first thought. Alice and I left the CBD to have another look at Dickson, a suburb not too far from ANU and one that has perhaps the hippest reputation north of Kingston. In Dickson we found what passes for Canberra's Chinatown, and I've always loved Chinatowns. Something about the cheap, good food and inexpensive rent.

On a wander I even found a swish little cocktail bar practically hidden on the outskirts of the main shopping plaza, and was tempted to poke my head in looking for a job, but a few day old beard growth and dirty jeans convinced me to hold off. I still don't even have a place to live.
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