It was no small thing for me to move out of Sydney. I had been born there, in Glebe no less (does it get any more Sydney than that?), and had lived and worked there my whole life. There was a brief period when I worked in Campbelltown, but I staunchly commuted each day from Marrickville, in case you’re wondering how one clocks up 90,000km in a year.
So I was all about the Sydney. I loved it and knew it like the back of my hand. And I did love it. It had a vibe to it, like all great cities do. It had an identity, and it had all the things I needed in my life.
But then, bit by bit, I started to hate on Sydney. It was not one thing. It was a combination of things. And these were all things which were crucial to my quality of life and my mental well-being. None of which was apparent to me until I left Sydney. But I’ll get to that.
So what were these things that were feeding my hatred?
The traffic was getting worse. It’s never been great – Sydney is one of those cities that grew organically. Nothing was planned. It’s not at all like the dank fishing village of Melbourne, which is basically a giant grid of freezing identikit suburbs centred around a city whose centrepiece is a casino and an upside-down river full of stolen council bicycles.
Sydney was a free-formed catastrophe of narrow, often winding streets, and signage which meant nothing unless you were a long-term resident. It was a bit like Hotel California. You could check out any time you liked, but you could never leave. You had to “know” Sydney to get around Sydney. It took no prisoners and showed no mercy. I liked that.
On top of the traffic – and the concomitant parking issues – there came the toll roads. Poorly planned, poorly executed, and hideously expensive to use, they did nothing to alleviate Sydney’s congestion issues. Things actually got worse. That’s what happens when you build a two-lane tollway, then close it to widen it to a three-lane tollway, and it still runs into a suburban choke-point. It’s like the state government and the local governments were taking the piss.
Then came the sell-out to property developers. And my once unique city became this vile urban nightmare of poorly-designed boxes, residential towers, and strip malls. It was obvious we gave up on building beautiful buildings which would stand the test of time, and settled for architectural eyesores so that robber barons…oops, property developers would make a great earn.
So we’re at the very ugly and very crowded point. And that’s when things started to get hard. Getting around was hard. Much harder than it had to be. Catching public transport was not a realistic option – our public transport is garbage. Not just in Sydney. This is an Australia-wide issue.
Public transport is expensive, unreliable, and needs to be endlessly patrolled by cops lest it become the rapey, gak-fuelled stabfest it’s designed to be.
So you need your own transport to get around. And for decades I was ahead of the curve because I owned a bike and I could lane-split like a demon. But for the last eight years of my 40-km commute from the Hills to the CBD, I would lane-split the whole way.
Once, the traffic was only bad during Peak Hour. Then somehow Peak Hour started at six am and went until 10am, paused briefly for lunch, then resumed at two pm and went until it was dark.
I was committed and resolute. Fuck all y’all. I got a bike. So I persisted and while my lane-splitting skills became something truly god-like, I knew this was a zero-sum game. One day, someone was going to take me out. It was going to happen, regardless of my skill level. One day, I would take my eye off the ball for a second, and it was going to cost me.
And I was no longer really enjoying the ride. This was a big thing. I always enjoy riding motorcycles. There is nothing else I would rather be doing. But when the majority of your riding is lane-splitting with your awareness levels turned up to 12, and the bike hardly ever out of third, then that gets pretty old pretty quick.
If I wanted to go for a ride on the weekend, then I would have to commute for at least an hour to get to a road where I could maybe find a few corners. Now if I wanted that to also be a road the Highway Patrol wasn’t carpet-bombing with revenue-raising hatred, then I’d have to ride for at least two hours.
I did not realise how bad it was because it was what I knew as “normal”. I was that frog swimming around in a slowly-heating pot. I had no idea how bad everything was because I had not noticed how warm the water was getting because the increasing awfulness was incremental.
What I did know was that I was angry all the time. I was stressed out all the time. I was exhausted all the time. And that’s a combo that doesn’t come with a bright future.
My wife, Lynette, was in the same boat. But with her health as a constant Damoclean sword, the need to do something about our lives was pressing. Hell, she worked five kilometres from our home and it took her almost an hour to drive to work each day. It was making her crazy, and it was making me crazy – and we didn’t even realise how crazy were both becoming.
The crazy got dialled up a few notches when I was made redundant. When that happened, I saw my doom. I have a very narrow skill-set, and back then I was much closer to 60 than 50, so there wasn’t a whole lot of career opportunities that would come close to replacing my six-figure salary.
Lynette and I talked long and long about our options. They were very limited. Our house was in urgent need of big renovations. And we still had a sizeable mortgage. You see, we did have a plan, once upon a time. But that all went to shit when Lynette got sick. Our energies and our life-focus all went on fighting her cancer. Putting a new roof on the house was not even on our radar.
So after many nights of “What the fuck are we gonna do?” conversations, we came up with what we hoped was a solution. We would leave Sydney.
We figured we’d get a good price on our run-down suburban brick-veneer, pay off our mortgage, and look to buy a much cheaper place somewhere within a two-hour drive of Sydney. We needed to be close to Sydney because our son, Andrew, was living there, and my mum, who has since passed, was in aged care. So the boy had to be supported as he made his way in the world, and the nursing home had to be supervised lest the staff decided Mrs Mihailovic actually enjoyed kerosene baths.
But where to go? We ruled out the coast. We could not afford it, and I see no point of living on or near a beach if you don’t surf. The salty air ruins motorcycles, and each weekend, your beachside suburb turns into a shitfest of Sydney tourists.
The Blue Mountains? We looked. We decided it was nothing but suburbia with bushfires. One road in. One road out. Traffic as bad as anything in Sydney. Blisteringly cold and wet for much of the year, and waiting to be torched in summer. And also not cheap. We could afford it, but we’d have no safety net.
We also looked at Bathurst. Too far from Sydney.
Goulburn? Closer, but full of sheep-fuckers and appalling Police Academy twerps, and it’s also cold as Hell for much of the year, whereupon it becomes hotter than Hell’s other version.
We could not afford to buy coffee in the Southern Highland wanker enclaves of Moss Vale and Bowral, let alone a house, so we didn’t even look there.
“I know,” I said one evening as we skated around Google maps. “Singleton!”
“Where the fuck is that even?” my wife asked.
“At the end of the Putty Road,” I chimed.
“That’s that road you and your mates are always yelling about. The one that kills idiots all the time.”
“That’s the one.”
“How big is Singleton?”
“I reckon it’s big enough. Let’s go and have a look.”
The next day we were in Singleton. Lynette was astonished. It had everything we wanted a town to have. It also had coal mines, but none of them were in the middle of town, and Black Lung takes years to come on, so both of us would be properly dead before that was an issue.
We went a few more times, spent a few nights in town, and looked at maybe 20 properties. All of which we could easily afford. Some of them were acreage, some of them were half-acre blocks with near-new master-built houses, and some of them were idyllic old school cottages in the middle of town.
We chose a half-acre block with a huge house and garage, a bare ten-years old with nothing to do to it, and made the move – believing even then, we would probably regret it. We were both Sydney-born-and-bred, and the idea of leaving a city like that and moving to a country town…well, what the fuck was even going to happen there?
What happened there, in Singleton, was that we both very suddenly and very easily became much happier than we had been in years. The reasons were very simple. Permit me to list them for you…
Singleton is very much like Sydney was in the 70s. By this I mean the people are pretty easy-going and very friendly, and things don’t move quick here. You go to one of the four supermarkets in town, and you will have a yarn with the checkout lady.
There’s money in town. You can tell this by the number of jewellery stores, nail salons, and hairdressers available. Miners have money. Their wives like to spend it. Most of the cars are high-end Rangers or Hi-Luxes, with a respectable scattering of Mercs, Beemers and Audis.
There are seven pubs and four clubs in town. And the food is pretty damn good in each of them. If we wish to eat upmarket, then we drive for 15 minutes to one of the 15,000 wineries in the Hunter Valley (and we are part of the Hunter Valley) and eat at restaurants with food and service as good as any in Sydney.
There are five butchers in town, and they love meat like I love meat. I am on a first-name basis with all of them. Especially the bloke who makes his own jerky and gets his dead cows from his mate on the edge of town who grows them in the most delicious way possible.
I am also a regular at one of the five bakeries – which makes the most amazing chicken-salad sandwiches I have ever eaten, as well as the finest pies on earth, and wins awards for its cakes and biscuits at all the ag shows.
I have found the tradies to be exceptional. On time, every time. They make no effort to rip you off or do work that isn’t needed, but quote honestly and work efficiently. Sometimes, they don’t even charge you to come and have a look and maybe flick a switch for you.
My Internet is faster. I can get free fibre to the home, so it will be faster still. And in terms of shopping for stuff like furniture and computer gear, then all of that is less than half-an-hour’s drive away in Rutherford – or if I want city-like stuff, then Newcastle is 40 minutes away. With its beaches. Which offer easy parking and access. Been to a beach in Sydney lately?
I am minutes away from the Putty and the Wollombi racetracks. It takes me half-an-hour to get to the Bylong Valley Way, and there are lots of hidden little road-gems I’m still finding while the Highway Patrol is out sowing hatred and fear elsewhere.
There are four gyms in town. One has three swimming pools attached to it and a sauna. None of them are crowded, and parking is something I once again take for granted. I can park in front of the post office. Whenever I like. Or in front of one of the coffee shops.
And I want to go to Sydney in a hurry, I am exactly one-hour-and-forty-minutes from my door to the end of the freeway at Wahroonga. Or if I’m not in a hurry, the same amount of time puts me in Windsor after blasting the Putty.
It’s not really country – not like Warren, or Cowra, or Moree. But it’s not suburbia and it’s not a city, or even a big rural centre like Tamworth or Dubbo. It’s rather unique.
I thought I would struggle living in Singleton. I certainly thought Lynette would. But each morning we wake up to birdsong instead of traffic noise. At night, the sky is crowded with stars, and now and again you can hear a far-off train whistle – which is hugely evocative. Most of the time the only noise you’ll hear at night are plovers fighting with cats – a brief and strangely beautiful battle.
Our lives are more peaceful and far less stressed – and that has everything to do with how and where we were living, as to how and where we are living now.
My neighbours keep to themselves, but we chat now and again, so none of that’s intrusive or awkward – which is a huge change from the vile fuckwads that lived all around me in Sydney.
Our lives have become…well, easier, in every sense of the word. I sometimes wish we had made this move sooner, but it was not an option, given where we worked. But in the end, that whole job thing went to shit, and I figured if I could earn enough money to feed myself and pay the bills, rather than pursue some inane dream of monetary wealth, then I would be wealthier in other ways.
And so it has come to pass, I guess. I left Sydney after 56 years. Years in which I pursued career success and material wealth like one of those fast-moving zombies – single-mindedly and without a thought for the actual quality of life my family and I were living.
I have come to understand – perhaps somewhat tardily – that it is precisely that, quality of life, which is what is valuable. And if that, for you, can be measured in peace and ease, then maybe don’t wait to leave the big cities for as long as I did.
If you can get out, get out. Find your peace. Live your life.
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Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.