Little Big Smoke

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Downtown Wellington, 18-01-17.

I always feel strange coming back here after a few weeks away, especially in the summertime. I notice the ugliness of the city a lot more when I’ve been away from it for a while. The taste of exhaust fumes stuck on the roof of my mouth. My thighs and calves aching from uphill walks. The soapy stink of public toilets leaking out into the street. Drunk men on Courtenay Place at eleven in the morning on a weekday, their bodies rough and rolling against the walls they lean on. Marijuana smoke stuck in the lifts in my apartment building (once I saw a guy smoking a blunt outside the front door in the middle of the day, he smiled at me warmly).

I think the familiarity is part of it, and weirdly puts me at odds with the city. The main streets have their own microcultures, and I don’t fit neatly into any one. I’m not successful enough for Lambton, not indie enough for Cuba and not (usually) drunk enough for Courtenay Place. I often feel weird in public spaces, not as comfortably invisible as I felt when I was a thick-fringed first year. I know too many people here now, and I’m afraid they’ll catch me off-guard.

A lot of the time I think about European cities I’ve never visited. Or that one Australian city I have visited. Last month sometime my mother said to me, “your brother needs to go overseas” and I thought, what about me? I’ve barely been. Compared to most other people my age, what I’ve seen is nothing.

But I am afraid of travel. I almost went on exchange to England. I was supposed to go in the first half of 2016, for my very last undergraduate semester at uni. I applied and everything. I went to an interview. They seemed happy to accept me. But I got cold feet. Hot sweats of anxiety about it: about being so far from everything I know. I pulled out of it. I still think of that as a failure, even though I know it was the right thing to do.

I need somebody to hold my hand the entire time, because that might be the only way I’ll get on an airplane destined for the other half of the world. I’m not brave. I’m a skittish human. I’m indecisive. I get feverish and nauseous when I travel. I’m not always comfortable away from these familiar streets.

But these streets are getting tired. I’ve been here for four years and I don’t have shiny eighteen-year-old eyes anymore. My favourite spots for brunch and coffee are everyone else’s, and they’re always full. I love the steam of coffee machines and the sharp clatter of cutlery, cafe sounds, but I don’t like sharing space with a ton of other humans all having loud conversations and taking up too much room. Everywhere closes too early and I like to stay up late, slowly sipping cups of tea or red wine until two in the morning while I work.

For now, I want to explore more of this little big smoke. I know there are so many more nice spots tucked away in the jumble of streets. There are so many places here I haven’t been, moods I haven’t felt. Wellington’s not completely worn-through yet. And maybe one day, when it is, I’ll get on a plane and wake up somewhere else. Where the light falls in new ways and the air smells different and the streets are hundreds of years old and wonderfully new.

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Wellington Harbour as seen from the bus, 07-01-17.

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