Belonging in a new city
When you first move to a new country, it can be hard to find your groove. Charlie Hale discovers that belonging has almost nothing to do with the city itself, and everything to do with its inhabitants.

Back in late 2016, when I sat in front of a wildly overenthusiastic travel agent booking my flights from London to Sydney with the last £800 in my bank account, I was picturing three months’ worth of solo lunches and a mountain of paperbacks to keep me company. The idea of making friends hadn’t occurred to me. It certainly wasn’t why I was making the 30-hour journey across 17 time zones. But three months of paperbacks quickly turned into six, and more than three years later, I’m still here. A walking cliché of the English ex-pat fallen in love with the warmer climes down under. And in case my story wasn’t hackneyed enough, I fell in love for real.

So it was that Sydney turned from a temporary getaway into my “home”. I say “home” in inverted commas, because belonging isn’t something you can find in the reviews section of an online city guide, beside “Top 5 Rooftop Bars in the Eastern Suburbs”. No. The funny thing about belonging is that it has almost nothing to do with the city itself, and everything to do with its inhabitants. Belonging is about connection, and connection is about people. I would never belong in Sydney if my only source of connection to the locals was getting yelled at for not swimming between the flags.

I already had a job, a tax file number, a Medicare card. I booked a surfing lesson, drank my beer from a “scoona” and ate oysters on Christmas day. So far, so Aussie. My wardrobe’s sundress content more than doubled and I was educated in the cultural significance of “activewear”. I swapped my overpriced rented room for a set of keys to my boyfriend’s place and even got my head around the social politics of Sydney’s suburbs: no easy feat.

I etched my name into the soul of this strange city with as much vigour as any determined teen in a rundown bathroom cubicle. “Charlie was here. 2017.” But I was yet to find my people.

Not my person. I already had him. In a weird twist of fate, he appeared when I wasn’t looking. He was why I had thrown my carefully curated life to the wind, in a move not dissimilar to a parachute-less skydive. On my free-fall down, I discovered a country in which I didn’t belong and, to shield my inevitable crash, a man I belonged with most of all. But, if I was going to make Sydney my home (the sort without any inverted commas), I needed to fill the other side of my heart. The one whose sign read: reserved for friendship.

Slowly, and excruciatingly to begin with, it started to happen. I made awkward, and eventually not-so-awkward lunch friends. Then drunk Friday night friends that turned into regular coffee-break friends, and kind-of-friends-colleague friends. Those people became friends to beach-trip with, the sort willing, without any fuss, to cover my freckled shoulders with endless applications of sunscreen, and put up with my godforsaken navigation skills on the drive home. I even found a friend to run around with every Saturday night, with one of my many new sundresses pulled over my head. And 16 months on from when I dragged my 32kg, broken suitcase on a map-less wild goose chase from hostel to Airbnb, in the pouring February rain, I finally found a truly good friend.

The type of friend who grabs your hand at a festival and doesn’t let go of it all weekend. The type that brings you into her life. Into the centre of it, in the living room, on the couch, with her mum. The type that I could call up at any hour of the night to rant, rave and cry to. Thank god for her. She’s the one I ran around with every Saturday night. Reader: don’t underestimate the power of the drunken chat when it comes to making friends in your 20s.

It’s taken me a while, but my time of scrolling Instagram in the middle of a party, because my now-fiancé is taking a badly timed bathroom break, is over. That’s not to say existing continents away from those who have spent over a decade lifting me up and pulling me down a few pegs (when necessary) is easy. It’s often excruciatingly hard and sometimes gut-wrenching. I’ll never know what it is to have both, simultaneously. But I will know what it is to belong, both on this side of the equator and the other, simultaneously.

They say home is where the heart is, and if that’s the case, I will always be part Londoner. But now I’m part Sydneysider too. At least until they find a better word to describe someone who lives in Sydney.