You should know straight up that everything you thought you knew about Sydney is probably wrong.
Unless you’re one of us.
By ‘us’ I mean the small gang of people convinced that you don’t live in the same city that we inhabit. You don’t breathe the same air or see the same things. There are people who declare that Sydney can be defined by the people who inhabit it, but it is one of the few places in the world that almost has nothing to do with the people who live there. Sydney’s casual indifference to the often intoxicating mess of people who abuse its beautiful face, is what sets it apart.
Some people see this big, sprawling mess of a city on the surface and judge it instantaneously. But have you ever swum in its harbour beach embrace at 4am in the morning? Walked through the canopy of Hyde Park trees at midnight searching for the taco truck? Have you even seen the cemetery of white crosses on the Clovelly Cliffside overlooking the ocean? Or casually perused the leafy streets of Bourke Street by way of bicycle? Have you ever water taxied your way to a floating bar, sipping honey whisky from a red and white candy striped straw while staring at the Opera House?
We’re all crazy, mad; deliriously in love with the place.
Sydney has always been home, with a few excursions out of it here and there, from anywhere between a day to a year. I grew up in a Catholic migrant community in the north-western suburbs in the safe, sheltered confines of a private school bubble, where the biggest drama was usually found in girls not wearing their hats or failing to save the world from every social justice issue. I found my way out of that altruistic, hat-wielding nightmare and took the express train to CITY TOWN, DESTINATION: UNIVERSITY and soon Sydney started to expand and conflate into a giant rubber duck of new areas and new people who lived in places I had never heard of and believed were made up, forcing me to stare inquisitively at everyone I met, particularly those opting to wear hats indoors (I did a writing degree).
It became a drawn out quasi-nightmare of long, sticky train commutes, running through underground tunnels to get to class in time. We cruised through house parties in ridiculous suburbs like Bronte, Coogee or Marrickville depending on wherever students dwelled. There were hotels and fancy dress parties and far too many questionable fruit flavoured alcoholic spirits. Generally I really hated it, but this might have had a lot to do with the fact that I never really lived in the one spot, had zero to no money and often had to walk everywhere, dodging crazy old man stalkers in my Grandma’s suburb where I lived for a time.
I left Sydney for a whole year and forgot about it for a while but not for long. I was caught up in the tiny, winding laneways of Europe that would eat you up in a heartbeat and callously spit you back out. I discovered love and urban bicycle transportation. I’d buy bread every day and never sleep, only dance on broken glass and dodge smoke clouds in bars. I avoided near death experiences in Valencia, Pamplona and Ibiza and famously fought off a street attacker in Raval. Barcelona and Europe were great but it was never really home. We dreamed too long of Pad Thai and fresh air and diversity that didn’t include naming convenience stores after the ethnicity of the people who predominately worked in them (‘let’s go to the paki’ they’d say cheerfully in Spanish).
The return made Sydney into a kind of surreal painting. Was it always this painfully beautiful? Why is it torturing us by being so expensive while we, so poor? The uni days dragged on, marred by red bull and endless all nighters. By now we had lost any last shred of discipline, barely handing in assignments and not even showing up to class, unless they were creative writing classes or film screening lectures.
Sydney started to emerge from its slumber in the most formidable way. While Clover was busy bringing in small bar laws that would radically change the nightlife scene, we were finding alternative things to do on our own accord, like underground poetry readings which were actually above ground in random squatter buildings, walking up flights of stairs covered in graffiti to get to them and then letting old poets speak to us in lyrical verses. We kept ourselves busy during the day with second hand bookstore-turned-cafes like Gertrude and Alice. The unique, well thought-out, impeccably designed and super little cafes with perfect flat whites started popping up everywhere, culminating in the greatest cafe name to date – Fleetwood Macchiato.
When we were ready for them, the small bars emerged like tiny saviours in the field of dreams. We became friends with all the bartenders (who were all friends themselves) and we would stride in like seasoned regulars. Speakeasies were the flavour du jour and had lines every single night (and some still do after years). Old decrepit pubs were being turned into classy bar/restaurant hybrids or late night dive bars open until 6am. Fake hot dog stands were actually a secret entrance for underground dance venues.
Friends would host galleries and exhibitions in laneways between CBD buildings. The Art Gallery of NSW still to this day hosts old school love films free of charge. Clover threw a spanner in the works for angry cars everywhere with the greatest urban development I’ve ever seen – bicycle lanes everywhere, prompting me to name my bicycle after her (Clomo).
It was all familiar and a little too small, running into people everywhere, realising all the friends we now had in common thanks to all the social media ways. Little communities began popping up everywhere and then actual pop ups began popping up everywhere, starting with the first of its kind, Table for 20, allowing people to eat a home cooked meal side by side with complete strangers on an ad-hoc basis and culminating in our friends hosting their own floating Harbour pop up bar called The Dispensary for 3 weeks, accessible only by way of water taxi. Food trucks came to the rescue of hungry revellers everywhere with anything from tacos to Tetsuyas on offer. Our friends started the Sydney Harbour Bathing Society, a chance to recreate the harbour baths from Sydney’s past at secret locations.
Then there’s the Sydney I can’t even begin to picture, the one I hardly know, the one with the mosques and the legendary folklore of restaurants like Jasmine’s Lebanese Restaurant in Lakemba or El Jannah’s chicken in Granville (okay that one I know). There’s the Cabramatta I’ve been to twice in my life, once to source cheap fashion materials for a dressmaker and that other time to attend a Russian Orthodox Easter mass (an intense six-hour affair with everyone standing up and the women braiding their hair). There are so many Sydneys, so many types of places, that it’s difficult to understand them all. The suburb I currently live in was a complete anomaly to me before I lived there. Now it’s my whole world.
Louise Hawson nailed it when she created Sydney’s 52 Suburbs. 52 and counting, surely. It feels like a mosaic that few people can piece together.
I didn’t realise how far in over my head I was with this city until my Spanish ex came to visit the country for the first time. He declared very openly in the first few weeks that he did not like Sydney.
‘It’s boring’, he said, scrunching his face up at all the large, savoury brunch options on hand at Clipper Cafe in Glebe and questioning why the coffee wasn’t sweet enough.
‘It’s pretty, but where’s the life?! There’s no life here’, he said, perusing the quiet, beautiful, tree-lined terrace housed streets of Paddington.
I thought of Waterloo and Redfern all of a sudden, how the locals just hang out on the street talking to each other while the kids play in the street with hula hoops. I remembered walking through the streets of Darlington at midnight and calling out to the guys who work in the local cafe and them stumbling into a little dance routine. I remember eating Mexican outside on King Street, drinking from cheap BYO and spinning around deliriously. I remember sitting outside on my friend’s balcony one night as Fleetwood Mac played on her vinyl player and someone from below called out ‘IS THAT FLEETWOOD MAC?’ with genuine glee in their voices. I remember sixty friends going from bar to bar for their annual 12 bars of Christmas (sorry everyone in Sydney at that time of year). I remember the picklebacks at Flinders and the house parties and the Florence and the machine and the passing out with arms wrapped around disco balls and I wonder what that word ‘boring’ really even means because I can’t remember it anymore here.
I was walking through Darlinghurst on a sunny day with Messina gelato in hand and a well groomed elderly woman holding hands with her gentleman friend, called out to us inquiring, ‘oh please tell me, are we close to the gelato place?!’
Yes, it’s just around the corner, and I smiled, the sun on my face.
This must be the place. Sydney finally started to dance on its heels. Maybe it was always spinning but we just weren’t there, stoically supporting it like a loyal stead. But now we are right there with it and there’s a hashtag to prove it (#sydneyiloveyou – follow @ccsyd).