Ten years ago, when I was 18 years old, I Ieft my home town of Canberra and moved to Sydney for uni.
At the time, being a Canberran didn't feel like a particularly strong part of my identity - everybody I knew lived in Canberra. We all spoke the same language of Big Splash, Birrigai and Belco. We navigated by topographies of the Garema Goon Bag and the Mooseheads car park. We knew to watch out for blue-green algae in Lake Curly Gherkin. All of this was entirely unremarkable.
But moving cities changed that. Suddenly, my home town became a point of difference between me and my new friends and classmates. And in the same way that you only notice your native accent when you travel, my Canberran-ness started to become visible to me.
"No, I haven't done an HSC, or a VCE." "Yeah, my public school didn't have a uniform." "No, I don't have green P plates but yes, I can still do the speed limit." "What do you mean you don't know Prime Possum?"
Living in the middle of the city, I started to notice the absence of things I had taken for granted. Like "the local shops". In Sydney, there were none of those familiar suburban islands where IGAs nestled up to family-owned bakeries and chemists. No dogs tied to benches outside the community takeaway store. Nobody stopping for a chat.
Even when I ventured out into Sydney suburbia, things weren't the same. Trains rumbled past backyards. Actual fences ringed front yards! Where were the rockeries and hedges? Wide streets and even gutters?
In the scheme of things, my cultural dislocation was small. But that didn't stop it from being meaningful. When I met fellow Canberra expats we'd end up comparing notes on schools and sports clubs, how many pairs of fisherman's pants we still owned from the Folk Festival, and how often we thought about the laksa at Dickson Noodle House. My identity as a Canberran became important to me in a way it hadn't been before.
In the first half of my decade out of Canberra, I came home often to see friends and family, as well as to perform and participate in the local music scene. The city evolved, but I was around to see the evolution in progress. I watched Braddon car yards become coffee roasters, and boxy orange ACTION buses become bike-rack green. Cocktail bars budded and bloomed.
"Getting Brodburger" stopped meaning "sitting in a car park late at night" and started meaning "grabbing Sunday lunch at the markets". Canberra was changing, but it still felt like a change I was part of.
But as my music and media career grew, so did my disconnection from my home town. I made fleeting trips every few months. I lost touch with people from school, as you do. And now when things in Canberra changed, it would take me by surprise.
An IKEA sprung up overnight, emerging from a field outside the airport like some giant blue and yellow mushroom. Whole suburbs I'd never heard of appeared on Google Maps like dewy fresh spiderwebs. Mysterious forests of restaurants, galleries and apartments suddenly grew tall along the Kingston Foreshore and at the ANU.
One afternoon, I woke up from a nap on a Murrays bus to the sound of the driver's announcement. "Ladies and gentlemen, we will shortly be arriving at the Jolimont Centre ...". I knew when this announcement usually happened - about halfway down Northbourne Avenue. But when I looked out the window I was completely disoriented. This wasn't Northbourne. Where was I?
But it was Northbourne. The trees on the centre strip had been swept away under a river of torn concrete and plastic barricades. Canberra was unrecognisable.
Was this even really "home" any more?
I still didn't feel like a Sydneysider, with a tribal affiliation to a suburb and an obsession with "what school" someone went to. Sydney's a house, not a home. But if that's the case, and if Canberra feels alien to me, then where do I belong?
This is the question that's in my head as Google Maps politely directs me to turn left off the Federal Highway and onto the new (in my mind) Majura Parkway. It's night and there's barely anyone on the road. For nostalgia's sake, I flip the radio to 104.7, but I don't recognize any of the presenters - it's just a syndicated Top 40 something-or-other. I zip along under rows of perfectly symmetrical, totally unfamiliar highway lights to some perfectly autotuned, totally unfamiliar pop song.
But then I take the exit and turn onto Hindmarsh Drive. I drive past Mugga Lane, and yep - there's that weird cluster of boulders that I stalled in front of on a driving lesson. A bit further up is the big water tank - there's a mural painted on it now, but it still seems like an old neighbour. And when I crest the hill at the top of Hindmarsh Drive, I can see Woden Valley spread out in front of me - lights twinkling, and that single white tower block that nobody knows the name of giving me a big, familiar thumbs up.
It feels like catching up with an old childhood friend. At first, you worry that you won't have anything in common any more. But then you realise that you're both still the same, deep down.
Sure, Canberra has a slick new light rail - but it's still got a sprinkle of concrete bus shelters that are part Soviet Russia, part Duplo. There's green P plates here now, but I'll bet that 18-year-olds still get dropped off in the Mooseheads car park. Maybe Skywhale went and got married, but that big owl in Belconnen is still single and looks verrrry ready to mingle.
And even if Canberra's not home, it'll always be my home town.
- Sally Coleman is a musician, writer and former host of triple j Breakfast.