I arrived in Sydney to two days of solid rain. Solid. Rain. I was very cross about having to wear my jacket and buy shoes for the first time in months. Nonetheless, I liked it a lot.
We went and stood by the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. There were lots of tourists. We went on beautiful coastal walks. There were less tourists. We explored Kings Cross and Bondi and Newtown. We craned our necks over fences in North Sydney to get a glimpse of the mansions behind.
We puzzled over the price of groceries and the inefficiency of public transport. We marvelled at how little litter was scattered on the streets. We enjoyed remarkably stress-free rush hour trains. We talked, again and again, about how Sydney felt so much more clean, pleasant and safe than London.
For those first few weeks, Sydney made so much more sense than our smoggy hometown. Every time I’d catch sight of kids playing on the beach or gaggles of new mums making friends in seafront cafes, I thought, ‘What a place to grow up’. Brighton, which is probably Londoners’ nearest place to see the sea, is a brilliant seaside town for many reasons, but its stone beach and uninviting grey water can’t compete. The lawns are manicured, the properties are huge. Yoga studies outnumber betting shops. Joggers outnumber smokers.
The question I found myself dwelling on, despite all of Sydney’s seductive sheen, was: where’s the shit? One of the books I have most enjoyed this year is Juno Dawson’s Clean, in which she writes, ‘London has dirt under her fingernails.’ This description seems so apt to me; the city is fucking filthy.
It’s riddled with rats. I’ve seen people piss and vomit both on public transport and on the street, and by ‘people’ I mean myself. Everyone pays at least half of their salary to rent a room the size of a shoebox, in a shared house with several other shoebox renters. Or they begrudgingly moved in with their parents and now spend hundreds of pounds a month waiting for the piss-and-vomit-soaked trains.
If London has dirt under her nails, Sydney just got a fresh Shellac manicure. Of course, she paid full price: Treatwell doesn’t exist in her city. London guzzles Apperol Spritz and warm Red Stripe. Sydney politely sips a glass of crisp white wine and tells you about her latest trip to the Hunter Valley with her incredibly rich boyfriend. She doesn’t like to talk about her Goon days.
London smokes roll-ups or straights she bought as a Duty Free impulse buy before taking a Ryanair flight somewhere. You wouldn’t catch Sydney dead on a shit flight or cigarette in her hand. London gets the night bus, or the Night Tube. Sometimes she sleeps through her stop, and sometimes she befriends strangers. Sydney is already tucked up in bed; she got an Uber. London is unpredictable and sprawling and always broke, but she always has a hilarious story to regale or a fun new drinking hole to haunt. Sydney is measured and manicured and predictable. She’s pleasant, but not exciting.
When friends ask what the biggest cultural difference I have observed between London and Sydney, I find it difficult to verbalise. I find it easiest to imagine the two cities as these women. The first is an unreliable mess, but when she pulls through with a plan, shows you an exciting new depth to her personality or gets everyone together for Carnival, you remember just how fabulous she is. Does Sydney ever break her immaculate composure and let loose in the same way? Not to my knowledge, but perhaps I’m too quick to judge. Let’s see what Christmas and new year in the sandy city looks like. Watch this space!