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What We'll Leave Behind

I mentioned in this post that the catalyst to actually getting off our asses and moving out of Sydney was a scouting trip to Tasmania. Tasmania has all kinds of appeal. It's got the cooler climate that I prefer, it's easy to move to as we don't need to worry about visas or work permits, it's still in Australia so we don't need learn a new language or culture, and even in the capital Hobart, rent and house prices are several times cheaper than Sydney. We loved it so much we had literally started planning our move before we got back to Sydney.

The view from the top of Mt Wellington in Tasmania. Photo © Lee Nutter.

And in many ways Tasmania is more appropriate than Cambodia. We could buy a house just outside of the city in a suburb that is growing quickly and has enormous potential, a solid investment that would set us up financially. We could build a network of contacts down there, take advantage of the cheap flights to Melbourne and work there when we need to, and still be within reach of our network back in Sydney. We could continue more or less on our current trajectory, with very little disruption outside of the initial move, but instead we decided against a sure thing and took a gamble on Cambodia. Why?

When we were in Tasmania and talking about what we'd miss if we moved one of us noted that almost everything we love about Sydney is already gone. It was a pivotal moment. So much of what we have loved in Sydney was the result of a set of circumstances that disappeared as quickly as they arose, or evaporated slowly over the course of a few months or couple of years.

Part of this was just life, the natural ebb and flow of circumstances that both giveth and taketh away, but as the Australian government became increasingly generous to the already wealthy, and greedy baby boomers starting using their superannuation to purchase inner city properties, the conditions that allow culture to flourish were happening less and less. There was a lot less giveth, and a lot more taketh away.

On the surface Cambodia seems like a strange choice. When we floated the idea of Tasmania people seemed excited. It made sense to them. When we floated the idea of Cambodia, people were confused and concerned. Sure, moving to Cambodia satisfies a childish pipe dream, but what can it really offer us long term?

A personal hero of mine is Henry Miller. When I read his writings I feel understood. Despite being separated by time and space, in Henry Miller I see a kindred spirit. Australian society has never really sat right with me. I've never felt at home here. There are pockets of people who I can relate to, who I admire, but for the most part I just cannot connect with the country or its people.

Henry Miller felt this way about America, so he fled to Paris. It was the 1920's, The Jazz Age. Almost all of my heroes came of age, or at least produced some of their most important work in that one decade, in that one place. Eugène Atget, Man Ray, Dali, Picasso, Matisse, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Anaïs Nin, Ezra Pound, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, Cole Porter, Luis Buñuel, Coco Chanel, Constantin Brâncuși, amongst Henry Miller and many others.

I've spent most of my life looking for the 1920s Paris of today. It obviously won't be the 1920s, and it definitely won't be in Paris, but what were the circumstances that lead to so much creativity and culture in one place at one time, and where are circumstances similar today?

Without having been there, I can only guess. Part of it was likely the energy and enthusiasm of the post World War 1 party, but there's more to it than that. I would suggest that two essential ingredients for creativity and culture are cheap cost of living, so that people can spend their time creatively instead of just slaving away to make rent, and lax immigration laws, so there's the potential for a cross cultural sharing of ideas and perspectives. 1920s Paris had both of these things.

What has this got to do with Cambodia? What has this got to do with Tasmania? Well, Tasmania might look like a fairly safe bet right now, but the same reasons that make it appealing to us make it appealing to investors, and just as the proximity to mainland Australia and lack of language and culture barriers would make the move easy for us, it makes it easy for other Australians to make the move too. Tasmania is too far gone, and it won't be long before the price of a house in Hobart is pushed up to Melbourne and Sydney levels, and that will push the creatives out. It's a few years off being just another Sydney.

And what about Cambodia? Well, the cost of living is cheap over there, especially for those coming from the west. This means that expats can spend their time creatively rather than slaving away in the hopes of making rent. Just like 1920s Paris. Also, because Cambodia's immigration laws are more relaxed than almost any other country on earth there's a thriving expat community, so on top of the local culture, and the remnants of the French colonial culture, there's cultures from all over the world, all congregating in one place. Not unlike 1920s Paris.

And on top of all that, there's something of a cultural renaissance going on in Cambodia as refugees who fled Pol Pot's murderous regime return to their home country. A lot of them were children when they fled, and are returning to Cambodia after growing up in other countries all over the world. This new influx of energy could be compared to the post World War 1 fervour that contributed to the creative explosion that happened in 1920s Paris.

So what are we leaving behind? A culture in decline, unaffordable living, an overly privileged, overly politically correct population obsessed with petty penny pinching issues while ignoring anything of actual import. Unfortunately we'll miss a few good people and a familiar way of life too, but is it worth the gamble? Only time will tell.


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