A letter from Singapore: What Sydney expats miss

A letter from Singapore: What Sydney expats miss

When at home we dream of travel, and when abroad we idealize home. An exiled Sydneysider tries to solve this puzzle

Sometimes I pretend I’m still living in Sydney.

I walk 10 minutes to my local café, but there’s no Sonoma sourdough on the menu and no up-and-coming artwork on the wall. My Keep Cup is received with a confused look.

I shouldn’t be surprised -- it’s a Starbucks in Singapore.

Singapore is becoming more like Sydney: There seems to be more independent fashion retailers, but none quite like the boutiques in Paddington and Woollahra. There is nightlife on the water, but Singapore River doesn’t have the same ambience as Opera Bar on a Friday afternoon.

No cliff-top walks, no Turkish pide pizza, no beer gardens, no expansive national parks -- and no (natural) beach.

But then, life in Sydney isn’t as perfect as we expats like to fantasize.

Sydney can be rough late at night, but cabs are so expensive you may as well stay out for the long-awaited morning train.

We chose to leave, but Australian expats are always overwhelmed with nostalgia -- constantly trying to capture that elusive Australian dream.

Like petty thieves, we swipe old copies of Australian magazines from cafés for the plane journey. We cram one more frozen scotch fillet from the AC Butchery into our suitcases. (Why is there no Harry’s Café De Wheels at the international airport?)

We’re always trying to import our heritage to wherever we’ve chosen to live.

But there is a fine balance between missing home and turning it into an idealistic fantasy -- or a kitschy, embarrassing stereotype.

Once I was peer-pressured into the inevitable expat January 26 green and gold celebrations -– the annual Australia Day Ball. When I saw the band was helmed by a former cast member of "Hey Hey It’s Saturday," I knew I’d made a big mistake.

It’s that same shameful cultural cringe I get when I listen to Aussies overseas drunkenly discoursing about the merits of Australian democracy to a poor Indonesian barman -- who probably doesn’t have a passport or money.

Or when I see a restaurant that’s unfortunately decided to name itself “Boomarang” (sic).

These are the moments of clarity. Australia is not idyllic or un-flawed. While there is no equivalent to the vast beauty of Centennial Park or the pungent beef pho at Pasteur, these memories also lose their glory when you have to drive (or walk) along George Street.

And yet, nothing fills the void left by a big blue Sydney sky. Nothing sparkles quite so brilliantly as those glimpses of the harbor on the drive from Hunters Hill along Victoria Road.

Memories of walking through Surry Hills to discover a tiny shop selling only design magazines leaves a dull ache in my chest. Remembering the bustle of the grungy, eclectic folk along King Street, Newtown, on a Saturday morning makes me positively desperate.

We expats have to remind ourselves that it’s these day-to-day experiences which make the city special, not the clichés.

So here’s what I would pack in my imaginary suitcase:

A cheerful pub counter meal at any corner hotel, especially in Balmain.

Marcus Zusak interviewing a new author about a book I’ve never heard of before at Gleebooks (and it’s captivating).

Being spellbound at the harborside Ensemble Theatre

Being torn between coffee and art on Danks Street.

The community feel of Five Ways at Paddington or Bronte Beach.

A cheap chardonnay from the deck at the Sydney Flying Squadron.

Tropfest (whether live or via free DVD the next weekend).

Imported Tooheys, a DVD of "Underbelly: The Golden Mile" or Australian flag paraphernalia don’t capture the real Sydney, I know. But the glorious springtime jacarandas along Milson Park in Kirribilli, that’s a hard one to pack in a suitcase.


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