I’m a Melburnian but also a realist – Sydney is by far the better city
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The news last week that 15,000 of the globe’s residents chose Sydney as the best place in the world to live has stirred up a predictable mix of outrage and pride. There’s not many Australians who don’t have strong feelings, one way or another, about Sydney’s virtues and vices.
As a Melburnian, I should be responding to the results of the Brand Finance survey with indignation, stomping my black-clad feet in protest while the hand that grips my strong macchiato shakes with contempt. I’m supposed to tell you that Sydney is all surface, while Melbourne reveals her charms slowly, like a Sports Illustrated model in an ankle-length puffer. That Melbourne has repeatedly taken the title of World’s Most Liveable City in other surveys. But when I think about where in the world I would choose to live – if money and family arrangements were of no consequence – it’s always Sydney. Give me the charm that I don’t need a pair of prescription lenses to see. Give me the beauty that announces itself as soon as it comes into view from the air. No one – no one – has ever gawped in wonder at the aesthetic grandeur of the descent into Tullamarine.
Which city is more liveable, Melbourne or Sydney?
Yes, Sydney is too expensive, the roads choked 24/7, the concentration of extreme wealth in certain areas morally repugnant. But, hey, no one’s perfect. Sydney atones for her crimes by virtue of sheer bloody gorgeousness; it’s easier to get away with bad behaviour when you’re pretty.
I am one of a small, quiet minority of Melburnians who understand that to live in Melbourne is human, to live in Sydney is divine. Like Sydney, Melbourne has prohibitively expensive real estate and a rich selection of perma-snarled highways and roads. Unlike Sydney, those roads don’t tend to take us any place special. We can’t unwind after a week in service to our inflated mortgages and rents by jumping into an ocean pool in Bronte, or Curl Curl, or one of Sydney’s countless other picture postcard spots. There are no whales to be watched within an hour of the CBD. We can’t walk off a big breakfast on the Manly to Spit trail, or by strolling the perimeters of the harbour, from Lavender Bay to McMahons Point and beyond. More than once, looking into the window of a high-rise apartment, I have considered the thought that a cat with a harbour view has a better quality of life than me. In Melbourne, the scope of our outdoor options is limited; an ice-cold plunge into the open sewer of a Port Phillip Bay beach cannot, even with the most optimistic of hearts, compete with a morning swim at Mahon Pool in Maroubra.
It’s heretical to be from Melbourne and not fiercely defend its myriad charms – the cultural life! the coffee! the food! – and it’s not that these charms are exaggerated. They are, however, common to many big cities. Melbourne friends, lean in close; Sydney has a cultural life, too. It’s just not wholly dependent on it for its self-esteem, as we are in Melbourne. We’ve had to load Melbourne up with arts festivals and film festivals and tiny bars because the city itself – flat, cold and physically unremarkable – hasn’t given us much in the way of raw materials to work with. Brett Whiteley described Sydney Harbour as “optical ecstasy”. There is no optical ecstasy to be found in Melbourne, only optical antacid. While Sydney’s cultural life is arguably not as rich as Melbourne’s, its bohemian spirit is not dead. Look beyond the pokies lounges and you can still feel the romance, coming off the walls, in Kings Cross and Potts Point. Its visual glory is a kind of creative force in itself; if Sydney’s beauty doesn’t inspire a poetic thought to pass through your head, I don’t know what will.
It’s not that I don’t like Melbourne. I just don’t have an inflated sense of its magnificence. It’s my home, that’s all. I can appreciate many things – walking the streets where I spent the first half of my childhood bathes my synapses in serotonin. So does driving out to the semi-rural enclave my family moved to when I was 11, which I loathed with an unbending resolve for the entire eight years I lived there. Now, all I see is its loveliness – the rolling hills, the kangaroos, the smell of horses and wood smoke. There is good food on every corner of every suburb; if you eat poorly in Melbourne, you have only yourself to blame. I am capable – in the way a Sydney resident could never be – of deeply enjoying a Sunday amble alongside a sliver of creek, situated in the pocket of a roaring highway. And I can equanimously ignore the miasma and mucky water of the tawdry little canal near my home, and feel gratitude that it exists, and that this is where I live. But I can only do so by tucking thoughts of Sydney into the furthermost corners of my mind, with my overdue phone bills and tax returns.
When I took my kids to Sydney late last year, my youngest daughter, contemplating the boats bobbing on the harbour, the sweet heavy frangipani air, and the sunshine, turned to me and asked, with a perplexed look on her face, “Why doesn’t everyone live here?” Exorbitant house prices notwithstanding, it’s a question for which I have no good answer.
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