The city I live in is a pretty one. The natural landscape has been shaped by a fusion of sand, sun, water, bush and even more sand. For a city geographically located thousands of kilometres from any other, little old Perth in Western Australia does quite well for itself. Blessed with rich natural resources, these have become the lifeblood of the State creating an opulent lifestyle for many, yet forging an ever growing divide between rich and poor.
In the more affluent areas of Perth, mansions dot the banks of the city’s greatest asset, the Swan River. Cars more valuable than some houses cruise the streets often desperate to christen their tyres on the rugged terrain they were designed for. On a hot summer’s day boats litter the river and the bays of nearby Rottnest Island as tanned bodies plunge into the cool water. The locals form a second skin as a salty residue encrusts their bodies after their saltwater pursuits. Perth’s is a social lifestyle built around hard work and a yearning to utilise the natural environment and bountiful sunshine.
During my lifetime Perth has grown from a large country town to a city but along the way it has developed an identity crisis, akin to an awkward adolescent growing into an adult’s body. There are familiar complaints that there’s nothing to do in Perth and the people are backward. WA’s moniker has long been ‘Wait Awhile’. But in a brave act of defiance, our largely conservative population has dug its heels into the abundant white sand and resisted changing with the times.
Over time, experts have been called in to diagnose the ailments of this city and I fervently awaited their prognosis. A common suggestion from such examinations was that we needed to ‘be ourselves’. But is it quite simply that this is who we are?
As a teenager I was intensely defensive of my city, but after travelling the world my stance has slackened. It’s not that I want my city to mimic the bright lights of the big cities, but I often mourn opportunities lost and regularly lament the views of my compatriots, particularly when they appear to repudiate progress.
In more recent times the vibrancy of the city has begun to escalate. Led by an enthusiastic band of community members we are beginning to embrace change and form a greater understanding of who we are.
The city has undergone a considerable transformation largely due to a prolonged mining boom. As our city has prospered, it has created an almost tiered community or more crudely – ‘the haves and have nots’. Simple things such as being able to choose where you are going to live and what school you might send your child to are no longer straightforward.
I was interested to find out what a relative newcomer thought about Perth. Although my dear friend Deb has lived here for more than 10 years, she is still undeniably European and this is why I affectionately call her the ‘little Malteser’. I regularly spend time with Deb and find myself paying great attention to my outfit on these days, not that I can ever match it with hers. She has an incredible knack of making anything look amazing. Take the $10 orange Bali dress she made to look like a designer piece. It’s apparent that she will never lose her self-proclaimed ‘I’m such a wog’ tag.
Her warmth, genuine interest and care for people have made her transition into Australian life very smooth. She felt warmly welcomed and almost exotic when she first arrived. “I think Australians in general, but especially West Australians are very open and warm to foreigners,” she said. “Definitely more so than anywhere in Europe – by a long shot.” However, while she did find that people were very friendly, they initially seemed to keep her at arm’s length.
At this point, I’m suddenly feeling a bit proud of my little city, especially as she continues by saying that while she has the choice to live anywhere in Europe or Australia, she chooses Perth. She starts to reflect upon a conversation she had with a friend on a recent trip to her native Malta. They had been to the beach and were watching the sunset over the Mediterranean, it was a wonderfully still night compared to the often windy Perth summer evenings. Her friend asked, “Why would you want to live anywhere else when you can live here?” Her response was, “How do you choose between Paradise and Heaven?”
The cross-cultural move hasn’t been without its shocks. For someone used to getting ready for an evening out at around 8.30pm, it was almost a deal breaker to find that this was the time her local restaurant closed. She was almost ready to pack her bags and head home.
And, in one of those moments where you didn’t realise something was a cultural phenomenon, Deb said she couldn’t understand why whenever she asked someone how they were, they were so quick to respond “great”. “You guys are always fantastically happy – nothing ever goes wrong.” In Maltese culture everyone is blunt when asked how they are, so this was a big adjustment. “I actually felt that people were not being honest, so that unnerved me a little until I realised it was just the Aussie way, people are tough here.”
So maybe it’s time to give ourselves a break. Lose the ‘Dullsville’ label and embrace our city for the beautiful and widely appealing place that it is.