Sunday, February 15, 2015

You Must Love Sydney!

By now I've been a Sydney-sider long enough to know that whenever anyone who has lived here longer than six months asks what I think of the city, it's just a formality, a trick question. I answer at my own risk.

It's like "How are you?" -- or "How are you going?" in Aussie-speak. It's a rhetorical question. The answer is assumed before it's even asked. Of course, you must love Sydney!

With that in mind, I proceeded with caution when the American expat from Chicago asked me the expected question. It wasn't just that I knew exactly how he would react to my response. His forced confidence (he was like the hammiest actor chomping up the scenery) and smug demeanor made it feel more like a challenge than a conversation starter. He seemed almost to be daring me not to say the right thing about hallowed Sydney.

He wore his seven years here like a badge of honor, and just in case I didn't notice it dangling from the chest I half expected him to start pounding, he announced "I'm even an Australian citizen now" in a perfect Aussie accent. He looked at me as if he was expecting a standing ovation. He was, after all, a black American who had made it in Oz -- if obtaining citizenship and the ability to mimic the local dialect is your idea of "made it."

I can't say I was thoroughly unimpressed. I take note whenever any fish out water survives in new rarefied air. As an American expat for going on nine years, I respect the art of assimilation…and it is high art indeed. Kudos, I thought, as I started to answer his question…cautiously.

"You know, I understand Sydney's appeal. It's a beautiful place, but I just don't love it as much as everyone else seems to."

I winced, waiting for the whip to lash me across the face. The smack didn't come, but his response was just what I'd expected it to be, for I've been hearing it regularly since my first trip to Sydney five years ago.

"Give it time. Sydney takes a while to really appreciate, but once you do, you'll be totally in love with it."

And thus began the latest testimonial about the wonders of Sydney, how the city's appeal takes you by surprise and once it grabs you refuses to let you go.

I listened to his monologue and when he was finished, I just stared at him. I really didn't have anything to say. Obviously, there had been only one right answer to his question. There's always only one right answer to that question.

Then he asked another one.

"So what don't you like about Sydney then?"

I didn't want to go there yet again. I was over spinning my own broken record with the repetitive beat, the one where I go on about how Melbourne is warmer (the people, not the climate), more welcoming, more rock& roll, how the gay men in Sydney are flaky and cliquey, how Sydney promises endless sunshine and then fails to deliver it, how life is not a beach. I just couldn't bear to hear myself singing that same old song one more time.

Furthermore, his Sydney sermon had been such a turn off. He was pontificating in a loud, forceful manner that made me feel like he wanted me to justify my position, not explain it. I had tuned him out halfway through, hoping he would eventually lose interest in me and let me enjoy my quiet time in the park in peace. I did catch his explanation that whenever he really loves a city, like his hometown of Chicago, he wants everyone to feel the same way about it, so he might go overboard in his zeal to sell the place.

His explanation made sense, but I wondered why it seems to apply to everyone in Sydney who isn't from Melbourne. Sydney-siders are constantly telling me how I should feel about Sydney or how I will feel about Sydney after a few more months here. It's not like I hate the place. There are things that I really like about Sydney. But we just don't click the way Melbourne and I do. What's the big deal?

There are always going to be different opinions of any city, and every city will have its non-fans, regardless of how much time they spend there or how many friends they make there. Why should Sydney be exempt from that? It might partly be the constant pressure to love it that keeps me from falling in love with it.

My relocation here was strictly business. I came here for work, and one can be hired in far worse places. Once or twice I've felt like I was on the brink of getting it, but those were fleeting moments. Full appreciation has remained just out of reach. Shouldn't loving a great city be easier? I know that if I stick around, I'll eventually cultivate a little community here and become part of Sydney's social fabric, but there's more to city love than assimilation.

I may have said some of this, but mostly I sat there in silence, hearing him, but after a while, not really listening anymore. Eventually he got the message and left me in peace.

As he walked away, I wondered why Sydney-siders are so precious about their turf. In all the places I've lived, I've never seen anything like it. It's more than local pride. It's almost like some kind of manifest destiny to be able to call Sydney the world's most livable city (an honor that's already gone to Melbourne, which might actually partly explain the Sydney oversell).

Why else would it always be necessary to defend its honor? A lot of people adore Sydney -- most every non-Melburnian I know who has been here does. At least three of my former bosses -- two American, one British -- have lived here, and all of them rave about it to this day. Sydney is not wanting for admirers. So what difference does it make if little old me is not part of the breathless fan club?

There's a lot that I miss about New York City, but right now, I'm really homesick for the take-it-or-leave-it New Yorker attitude. No New Yorker would ever waste their time trying to explain why anyone should love New York. Either you do or you don't, and if you don't, well the exit door is always open.

Oh, there's no place like home.
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