Canberra is a young city, designed and built over the past century on an abundance of land and still growing, which is perhaps why it’s decidedly friendlier to cars than pedestrians. Apart from a small city centre, it’s mostly a sprawled out collection of sprawled out suburbs, 120-odd in total, each with a small group of shops. Combine this geography with the erratic existence of pavements, we consider ourselves very lucky to be able to walk to the local shops from our house. The three-minute amble to the supermarket, newsagents, playground and the playgroup held in the church hall is part of our life tapestry, essential time killers for our three year old whether it’s buying a loaf of bread, going on the swings or just sitting by the bus stop pointing out the cars and bikes and trucks that go by. There’s also a pharmacy where I buy breast pads, a barber where DD gets his hair cut by a brusk Iranian and an optician’s where the optometrist who I saw once arrived late and spent our appointment with her skirt tucked into her tights.
For coffee, there’s a nice study of contrasts that goes on between the hippy cafe and the more ‘local’ cafes. The hippy cafe, it appears, is well known among the flat white crew in Canberra. It’s run by a group of young women in blonde plaits, retro denim skirts and oversized glasses and young men who look like Jared Leto and that short chiselled guy from that 90s film I can’t remember the name of. These guys are apparently too cool and laid back to work much, since they shut down the coffee machine by 3.30pm and are never open on public holidays. The cafe itself is nicely situated in the sunshine looking out on to the main road, with a small patch of lawn where kids can play stacking up empty crates in between newly planted trees before tucking into their babycinos. It serves coffee that’s apparently so gourmet that it’s too bitter for plebs like DD and me, but it gets points for being the only place I know where you can get a decent pain au chocolat.
Meanwhile, facing into the square in an area where you never get any sun, there are two more affordable cafes situated next to each other. They’re both run by Vietnamese people, apparently a familiar sight in Australia which I understand is a legacy from the 1970s when this country accepted refugees after the Vietnam War. As such, one serves pho and Vietnamese pork rolls alongside smoked salmon sandwiches and Danish pastries to pensioners and cyclists, while the other sells rice paper rolls as well as pies and cakes to construction workers and parking enforcement officers. The coffee is fine at the first cafe, but at the second one it’s best to stick to Lipton ice tea if it’s the diminutive matriarch behind the counter. The first cafe in particular can be very popular, but if you’re able to get a table away from the air conditioning condensation leaks, you get an interesting and diverse view of the Canberra community.
What you also get a full view of is the block of shops opposite that sits in the middle of the square. It’s currently completely shut down with fencing all around. All the businesses that were in there – a chippie, an organic veg store, and a slightly dodgy looking Thai restaurant cum book store – were chased out around the time we arrived in Canberra, because the owner of the block wanted to turn it into a multi-storey shopping centre. For a few months the controversy was the talk of the suburb, with local residents angry that a tall building would shut out the sun in the square and chase away the old people who sit on the benches in the morning and the school kids who play ball games in the afternoon. That was two years ago, and in tune with the casual pace of this place, nothing has happened since, save for a few protest posters hanging limply from the fencing.
In my current role as housewife and mum to two small kids, this local square is pretty much my zone of terror. It’s not much, even if you add the small motel with the depressing bar and the grog shop that shuts at ten, and certainly a far cry from the trendy pubs in North London, the 24-hour convenience stores of Tokyo or the hazy hutongs of Beijing. But for now, it’s home, and I can be persuaded that one day I’ll look back on this funny little cluster of shops just as fondly.