GUEST POST: Blast From the Past

Canberra Guest Post Michele Steffens US in OZ

Michele Steffens was first posted to Australia more than 20 years ago. She and her family have again returned to Canberra, on their second tour. I've always loved chatting with her, and was thrilled when she so willingly agreed to share her wisdom, insights and experiences here at post. 

With that, I'll let Michele take it away ... 

Steffens Family by the beach with a kangaroo in the 1990s

Steffens family (Michele, Fred and baby Cooper) taking a picture with an obliging roo by the NSW coast in 1996.
What are some of the main differences that stand out to you ? Has the culture and vibe of the city evolved ?
The capital has "grown up"
  • Canberra has changed in that it has a bigger footprint and is a proper urban area now. When we lived here from 1996-1999 it was pretty quiet - there wasn't much of a downtown.
  • The Sydney and Melbourne Buildings were there, but Canberra Centre was about a third of its current size.
  • There was only about one square block of restaurants.
  • The casino was fairly new and was one of the few places that was open past 9:00 pm. That was pretty much it for "downtown".
  • If you missed the hustle and bustle of city life, you went to Sydney for a weekend.
Businesses operate for longer 
  • When we first lived in Canberra, retail businesses rolled up the carpets at about noon on Saturday, and didn't roll them out again until Monday morning.
  • Shops closed at 5:00 pm on weekdays. Only a few of the larger grocery stores in the big town centres had extended hours.
  • To compensate for being closed most of the weekend, stores had later hours on Friday evenings. We avoided shopping on Friday evenings if we could help it - it was a usually a zoo.
Trades-offs between life in OZ and the US
  • Eventually we appreciated that there wasn't much open on weekends, which forced us to run errands during the week.
  • We did miss those less-hectic Canberra weekends when we went back to the States, but we also found shopping in the U.S. to be a welcome breath of fresh air.  I remember being struck by what a HUGE selection of goods were available at home compared to in Canberra. 

Reverse culture-shock

  • Before staring our second tour here, the one thing that really prepared me for how much Canberra had changed was learning that there was an IKEA here. My mind was blown (and kind of still is).
  • Finding out that there was an outlet mall, a Costco, a tram, and a train to Sydney sealed the deal - Canberra would be much different than it had been!
  • Like Canberra Centre, the town centres at Belconnen, Woden, and Tuggeranong have all tripled in size since our last tour. (The Gungalin town centre and Majura Park didn't exist).
It has been fun trying to figure out exactly where the old and new parts of the malls are. Every now and then I get a flashback and remember what store used to be in a particular location.
  • For grins, here is an aerial picture of Canberra on the cover of a souvenir book I bought during our first tour. You can see how much smaller Civic was. If you are curious about what Canberra looked like in the past:

What were some of your favourite things about Canberra that you haven’t been able to find here on your second tour? 
That is a VERY short list of things as Canberra has only grown, not really changed, but first and foremost:
  • The freedom to travel. The pandemic totally stinks.
  • Free parking. We didn't realise how good we had it on our first tour - metered parking wasn't just about everywhere like it is now.
  • It's only a very small thing, but we were a little sad to find the Pancake Parlour restaurant gone. It had been in the basement of the Sydney building. In recent years it was rebranded Capital Pancakes, but then it was a casualty of the pandemic. It had been our favourite family restaurant - a cozy place that was great for a long, lazy weekend breakfast.
What are some of your favourite things about Canberra that weren't here during your first tour? 
  • The National Arboretum: What's not to like? Fabulous views, lots of walks, interesting gardens, a great cafe for breakfast and lunch, and a good gift shop.
  • National Museum of Australia: It is a great addition to the museums here. It seems especially kid-friendly and has a great gift shop.
  • Federation Square at Gold Creek: There are SO many fun shops to explore and different things to do there: the aviary, a great tea room, mini golf, a candy store to rival Hogmeade's Honeydukes, and more.  Also, free parking.
Steffens family at Canberra Balloon Spectacular in 2020
The Steffens family (not-so-baby Cooper, Fred & Michele L-R) at Canberra Balloon Spectacular in 2020.
What are some of the biggest differences about being an expat in Australia between then and now?  
We didn't take as many pictures 
  • There were no smart phones then, or even camera phones. Digital cameras were just starting to sell for below the $1,000 price point.

We didn't stay in touch with family as often

  • Overseas phone calls then were expensive - we talked with family infrequently, and never for more than 20 or 30 minutes.
  • Some people, but certainly not most, had email.

Amazon was a cool online bookstore

  • There was this cool new thing where you could buy stuff online - books in particular - it was called "Amazon". I remember thinking it was a weird name, but what a great idea and the books were WAY less expensive than they were in Australia!

Thank you, again, Michele, for your insights -- this was such a fun read for me, and hopefully, a lovely trip down memory lane for you! xx

Older Post