After 12 years away, I chose to move back to SA – here’s why


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By Vanessa Keys

In the winter of 2016, I started thinking a lot about moving back to Adelaide, the city where I’d been born and raised. I’d left in 2007 at the age of 21 and moved to Sydney, swapping my shared workers’ cottage that was spitting distance from the Adelaide Central Market for a two-storey terrace in Darlinghurst with walls so mouldy that they quickly consumed all the pictures I naively hung on the walls.

I wanted to work in the media, and Sydney was the place to do it. I lasted in the Darlinghurst sharehouse for another six months, and then lived on my own and loved it. At holidays, I’d come home, always visiting the same places: Amalfi, the Wheaty, Lucia’s, Coriole, Henley Beach. The city felt comfortable and safe, like an old friend who didn’t really change that much but it was okay, because they were always there for you.

Vanessa Keys, pictured in Milan, moved back to SA recently after more than a decade living away from home.

In 2012, I started plotting my next move: London, a city that my sister had moved to a year prior. I’d never been but that was okay, because everyone spoke English, right? Plus, I told myself, I’d be perfectly happy just working in a pub. (Reader, she was not perfectly happy working in a pub.) It was not love at first sight: I struggled to find a permanent job, a decent flat, functional flatmates. Simple tasks were a constant battle.

But with each year came better work, and with better work came better money, and with money came travel and restaurants and proper winter shoes and share houses with just one mouse instead of the whole measly family. Our friends were our family, and we all worked very hard but we played very hard too, and sometimes it felt like we’d tricked the system, like we’d found a way to be young and have fun forever. If someone had told me they’d invented a way to freeze time, I would have gladly cashed out my life savings.

I’d been spending Christmas in Adelaide since I’d moved but when I went back in 2015 the city felt different, or maybe I’d just been too in love with London to notice. Side streets I’d not known existed had born cosy bars and everywhere I looked there were new cafés and restaurants. I noticed First Fridays, innovation hubs, underground radio stations. I bumped into people I knew and didn’t hate it, and not one person asked me what school I went to. The wineries felt closer, the beaches sandier. How was wine this cheap?

Vanessa and her partner Aaron at The Bluff, Encounter Bay.

When I returned to London, missing the sun, I realised that what I’d come to love about London wasn’t the allure of the big city but the community of the small neighbourhood that I’d come to call home. Age changes what you need from a city, and as much as I would have loved to stay 30 and live in Hackney forever, I knew London had an expiry date. I thought briefly about returning to Sydney but the enormity of the city no longer appealed.

Over the next year, things started to fall into place: my friend and I decided to start a business together, and we decided that business would be in Adelaide, and I met my partner, who Googled ‘living in Adelaide’ many months before I asked how he felt about leaving the city that he’d been born and raised in. (He said yes.)

If I make it sound easy, it wasn’t. I was nervous about what a life in Adelaide would look like, and knew my partner would be homesick, just as I was. Working for yourself is hard, and even harder in a city where you don’t know anyone. I worried about being bored, about my partner being bored, and not being able to fly to Europe for a long weekend (I know, I know).

Vanessa, right, and her business partner Lizzie at Shaw and Smith in the Adelaide Hills.

We’ve been back for five months now, and what our life looks like is this: we pay half as much rent than we did in London for an apartment on the city fringe with views of the Adelaide Hills. The noises that I hear at night are not mice, and we don’t have to worry about our boiler breaking. Boredom hasn’t even crossed our minds. We enjoy Adelaide Fringe shows, new restaurants, wine bars, beaches, wineries and galleries. I still can’t believe it only takes 40 minutes to get to a sandy beach. Europe is no longer on our doorstep but that’s okay, because Hobart, New Zealand and Asia are.

Curiosity abounds: people want to know what we’re doing, why we’re here, how they can help. We’ve both fallen hard for the community that Adelaide fosters and the drive and energy that small business owners have. There’s so much pride that comes from living in a state that supports local trade. And, unlike London, you don’t need as much money to have a good life. Everything feels a little easier.

I’ll be forever grateful to everyone that stayed, to those people that banged on the table for change, and even more so to the people that made that change happen. I can’t wait to be a part of what happens next.

Read Vanessa’s Brand SA News stories here.

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