Our first working day since we moved to Australia began with DD combating the worst bedhead in living memory and a 7am delivery of groceries piled four crates high. Now, with baby dead to the world after his local playgroup debut, I’m sitting in our bungalow staring at the autumn leaves outside, ignoring the uneasy feeling that I should be unpacking suitcases instead.
So far, life in Canberra seems even more neat and peaceful than I’d imagined, so much so that it’s a little spooky. The city is so small and carefully laid out that there are no traffic jams to speak of, and you barely see any advertising on the roadside, just signs warning of wandering kangaroos. Suburbs are self-contained with their own humble cluster of shops and there are a handful of shopping centres, but outside those areas both pedestrians and commercial vehicles are sparse. Bins are put out in neat rows on front lawns which collection trucks with automatic levers hoist up, tip out and place carefully back on the grass like some retro computer game. The sky is almost always clear and pierced only with steeples of modern-build churches, trees are dripping with honey gold and velvet red leaves, and at night it’s so dark outside that for the first time I can see a black sky full of stars in the heart of a capital city.
Another thing that has gradually dawned on us is that commerce in Australia doesn’t seem to be a race to the bottom like in most places we’ve known. There are only two major supermarket chains, and coffee shops, though popular, usually only have one barista at the machine who diligently but unhurriedly works down a growing list of flat whites. Shops don’t stay open late, apparently because the minimum wage here is high and it only makes sense to do business during peak hours. On public holidays staff are paid more and consequently customers pay a surcharge.
All this is a world away from the 24-hour, fever-pitch glitz and grime of London, Tokyo and Beijing. As a result I’m slightly a rabbit caught in headlights and can’t let go of the sense of suspicion and hypersensitivity that I’ve forever associated with city living: Is it really safe to leave doors open at night with just the critter doors shut? Why aren’t we being run over by bikes and tuk-tuks? Do I actually respond when staff at the till ask me how I am?
Partly because the suburbia idyll in Canberra is so textbook perfect and partly because in a bungalow there’s a ground floor window looking in on us in every part of the house, I feel like we’re the unwitting stars of The Truman Show 2. Any moment now, a voice might boom out of the sky or a massive wallpaper tear might appear in the back garden, and it transpires we’d been the subjects of an experiment to see what would happen if you pluck a hapless young family out of a tower block in smog-ridden Beijing and plonk them 600 metres above sea level in technicolour Canberra. Can we make them so terrified of skin cancer with tales of Australia having the highest rate in the world and Canberra having the highest rate in Australia, that they’ll spend 20 minutes every morning caking themselves and their son in sticky cream? Will they really believe that, come spring, they’ll need to wear crazy hats with fake eyes to stop magpies swooping down on them? And what happens if we take Weetabix off the shelves and replace it with a horrible alternative called Weet-bix – how long will they keep buying it?
It must be said, if this is a TV reality show, we would be the dullest contestants in history. But if we really are in The Truman Show 2, I’d ask the producers to keep the set up a little longer, perhaps, if I could make one request, with a little less magpie and a little more neon. Otherwise, for now, we’re happy to play along.