Every time someone asks where I lived in Sydney, I say ‘Manly’ and get an affirming coo. Manly is a tourist hub, bursting with freshly arrived Brazilians and Chinese stepping off the ferry with thongs and sunglasses clutching their guidebooks.
It’s a destination, a bubble. The punchline to the pickup: ‘you look like my favourite beach…’
If you live in Manly you get a reputation for not wanting to leave Manly, even if the city is a half hour ride away.
It’s one of those places you know you’ll never settle in and the rent kills you, but you do it anyway because you’re young and #yolo.
When you’re a few years older and wiser and saddled with a mortgage you sigh and think, ‘those were the days.’
I lived there when I was 26.
Every morning I would walk, alone or with a friend, along the path weaving from Manly Beach around the cliffs to a little cove: Shelley Beach. I’d pound the pavement, coffee in hand, the fresh salt air whipping through me.
The Bold and The Beautiful swimmers scrambling to pull their hot pink swim caps on and stumble into the brisk water to swim across the channel. You could hear them chatting, breathlessly, in between strokes. So enthusiastic, so full of life. I wondered if they had ‘Seize the Day!’ posters stuck up around their homes and offices.
Some mornings there were dolphins. Other mornings the surfers were out bobbing up and down on the horizon. The sun would tinge the clouds with radiant sparkling light reflected on the rippling water.
The promise of hope, a new day. The Norfolk Pines lined the waterfront, standing strong and steady.
There was always something to do or some place to go: the hip new coffee bar with beans roasted in Guatemala and here’s a picture of the coffee farmer! Did you bring your keep cup?
A Swedish brunch café heavily featuring smoked salmon and a bakery which specialises in artery-choking croissants stuffed with cream. A café pumping out Nepalese momos and Poke bowls. You name it, someone was about to open it.
Then there was the floatie race from Manly Beach to Shelley, where a ragtag bunch of revelers dressed as pirates festooned in leis cavort down the channel in giant unicorns and swans.
At night the fire-twirlers came out, whirling their flaming batons in the tradition of many a hipster-backpacker.
There was always a festival, streets brimming with party-goers, clutching plastic wine glasses with live bands and markets selling exotic food.
One week there was a paella competition, chefs sweating over huge black iron pans, four people needed to carry them over to the judges. My brother and I had a small bowl of it each and it was divine, like the mussels were plucked straight from the ocean.
My 30th was at a small bar on the esplanade called Hemingway’s with its red-painted lintels and an aura of bookish charm. The menus were on pages of books and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined the walls. We booked out the whole upstairs floor and at one point there was an unfamiliar couple there. “Who are you?” I asked. “We’re here for the party!” “Well, I’ve never met you and it’s my party!” I replied.
Good on them for trying.
Then there was the Manly to Spit walk, a 10km walk wending around Sydney harbour through bush and picnic spots and secret beaches. When life was hard or overwhelming, I would walk; plug in some podcasts and walk. I’d absorb the restorative effects of nature and lust over expansive beachfront houses with jetties and pools and revolving driveways.
At night, the town heaved with drunken tourists and locals partying together, stumbling up dark streets to find their house or Airbnb. I once had a fight with some drunk guys who were chatting outside our share-house at 2am. “Shut up! People are trying to sleep!” I said. “You shut up!” One of them slurred back.
Then there was the Brazilian flatmate who always had a different girl over. I didn’t know if they were friends or dating but I didn’t ask. One night I came home to find him at the head of the table surrounded by girls like some old-school pimp. I said goodnight praying that there would be no noisy late-night romps.
There were the dates, the candlelit bars with strangers. The air filled with nerves and hope and hormones. The awkward walk back to the car. Some were fun, many weren’t. If it bombed early at least I was out in Manly. This was living.
It was a playground for the young, the fit and the fun. Always something to do, always somewhere to explore.
These places embody a moment in your life. For me, I was single, working in a good job nearby with lots of friends, paying too much rent. I was wrestling with this giant question mark over my life: will I meet someone?
I spent way too much time thinking about it. I look back now with rose-tinted glasses, forgetting about the obnoxious flatmates or financial strain.
Memory has a way of painting over those details, preserving the good, which is better than being haunted by the bad. It’s never quite the same on return.
You notice how busy it is, how chock-a-block the streets are with ridiculously expensive parking. How a schooner of beer is over $10.
The freedom was a blessing and a curse. The world was my mussel but having too many options gave me choice paralysis, like staring at a wall of shampoos.
My priorities have changed. I’m one of those women who once appeared so foreign to me, pushing a pram, fussing over wet wipes and Vegemite snacks.
Home now is still in a beautiful location, but it’s not the main event anymore. It’s the people, the friends, the other mothers on the roller-coaster of parenting. My family.
I certainly don’t need to look for things to do, my time is a rotating schedule of sleeps and feeds.
A glimpse of the ocean once a day is nice. It’s not better or worse, it just is.
It’s a new season and a chance to make new memories I can visit, like a town I once lived.
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