Cities (and Stories) Are All the Same … Except When They’re Not

Flinders Street Station transit hub, Melbourne, Australia

Flinders Street Station – a major transit hub, Melbourne, Australia

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I’d travelled more than half a day into the future; perhaps journeying more than half a day closer to my final day.


“I don’t feel like I’ve just come halfway around the world.”

These were among the first words I spoke on Australian soil to my Aussie-born friend and former Vancouver roommate who was the impetus behind my recent trip Down Under.  This after she’d retrieved me from a very crowded Melbourne airport and pointed out all her favourite cafés, restaurants, shopping areas and, walking paths during the drive to her apartment.

“That’s because you slept,” she replied, pointing out that which I’d have thought a given for all my fellow airplane passengers  considering the flight was at night, began by us being plied with pillows, blankets, a huge meal, and free alcohol, and then plunged into near-complete darkness.

An urban Cockatoo, Warrnambool, Australia

A wild cockatoo, Apollo Bay, Australia (Victoria)

“And,” my friend continued, “because cities are really all the same anyway”.

This latter statement kept me pondering for the next couple of days.  My friend is a seasoned world traveller the way almost all Australians  are (a combination of generous vacation policies and their near-isolation from the rest of the world).

I could kind of see her point, especially with her constantly referring to different parts of Melbourne as the “XYZ” of Vancouver.

Cities may cosmetically and architecturally differ, but they do all basically contain the same stuff.

Not unlike stories.

It’s all the same to me

All cities have their metropolitan or downtown core:  in Melbourne, this is referred to as the Central Business District or CDB; in Vancouver, we just refer to it as Downtown.  Cities have their shi-shi, boutique-laden shopping areas: in Melbourne, it’s Brunswick Street and also Chapel street; in Vancouver, Robson Street as well as West 4th Avenue.

Some of the delicious dishes from the Moroccan Soup Bar family style feast

Some of the delicious dishes from the Moroccan Soup Bar family style feast, Melbourne, Australia

Every modern city of a certain size I’ve been to has a trendy, all- or mostly-vegetarian restaurant where all the cool kids hang out that’s near impossible to get into: it was Moroccan Soup Bar in Melbourne (and it was fantastic); in veg-friendly Vancouver, we have two: Acorn for the east side cool kids and The Naam for those on the west.

Cities also have large, public parks; rich residential areas; poor residential areas; a bustling central public transit hub, and  a body of water flowing above or below or right through the middle of town.

Stories aren’t much different.  Once you’ve read about seven – especially seven old ones – you’ve read them all.

Any differing architecture just signifies a different story genre.

It’s almost not worth it to travel – or read – at all.

A portion of the Great Barrier Reef from a helicopter overhead, Queensland, Australia.

A portion of the Great Barrier Reef as viewed from a helicopter, Queensland, Australia

Vive la différence

Except, cities aren’t really all the same at all, for each one has its own culture – its own feel.   Here are some ways Melbourne is dissimilar to Vancouver:

  • Food is way more expensive
  • The minimum wage is a living wage
  • There’s no culture of tipping
  • Pub culture is huge
  • Pedestrians don’t have the right of way
  • Combining sweet and savoury flavours in food is considered unpalatable
  • The people shorten the names of everything (e.g. McDonald’s is called Macca’s – it even says “Macca’s” on the sign)
  • Municipally owned and operated public toilets a) exist, b) are conveniently located in the downtown core, c) are immaculate
  • Eucalyptus trees and birds more commonly found in North American pet shops predominate in the urban wilderness
  • Houses lack central heating and good insulation (even though Melbourne does experience winter) and the typical house is built on stumps rather than having a concrete foundation
  • Smoking on patios is permitted
  • Credit card surcharges are generally passed onto the consumer
Grazing kangaroos, Grampians National Park, Australia

Grazing kangaroos, Grampians National Park, Australia (Victoria)

Not to mention the fact that they drive on the left-hand side of the road and have that distinctive, diphthong-heavy accent.

Plus, if one ventures to the wilderness beyond the city limits – the best part of travelling, in my opinion – the Australian plants and animals are about the closest thing to alien life that occurs naturally on Earth.

It’s a similar situation with stories as well.

There are no original stories in the world.   Every story you’ve ever read or ever  will read has been told countless times over.  The practice of pitching new stories by comparing them to existing ones is evidence enough of that.

My day at Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas, Queensland

My day at Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas, Australia (Queensland)

Yet stories differ in what each writer has to bring to them that’s new.  We are all different people with unique experiences and perspectives.  Given the same story prompt, no two writers would craft the same tale.

I used to want to write a completely new story that no one had ever read before.  Now I know better.

I realize that it’s the familiarity of a story’s premise that cues our emotional responses to it – indeed, our ability to respond to it.

From there, what we writers need to do is to overlay the familiar with our unique experiences and perspectives, thus creating a lens through which the story – and the world – can be perceived in an entirely different way.

We also need to continue living our lives and seeking out new experiences to help broaden the horizons from which we enrich our writing and storytelling.

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Which is yet another reason to travel, whether on a plane while chasing tomorrow, or in the points and beats of a story.

What experiences from your life have you drawn upon in your writing?  What stories have inspired your own work?  Let me know in the comments.

(Images: J.G. Noelle)

6 thoughts on “Cities (and Stories) Are All the Same … Except When They’re Not

  1. Good piece (as usual). Cities are amazing in the way they are the same and different. Walking down the street in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington DC (AKA the northeast corridor)… they all have stores and restaurants and hotels and people and gravity and light and dark, yet you’ll never forget which one you’re in. The trees hand differently, the open spaces and narrow spaces are laid out differently, people look at your differently…

    To answer your question, I’m rarely conscious of my borrowings from real life when I write. I only notice later that I stole from reality.


    • People look at you differently
      Yes, that is definitely true; I usually like to remain as unobtrusive as possible, but have been to some cities where I may as well have been lit up in neon lights. But, for me, due to my ecological training, it’s usually the urban wilderness that conveys the greatest difference to me, particularly if it’s done up with some of the region’s native vegetation (as opposed to ornamentals).

      I’m usually pretty conscious of what I’m mining from my life when I write, largely because writing is one of the ways in which I analysis and make sense of my experiences.


  2. I’m so glad you’re enjoying ‘down under’ 😀 I love going to Melbourne even though i live closer to Port Douglas. I’m glad you pointed out the differences between Vancouver and Melbourne because i wouldn’t have known our differences. This is one of the things I love about the blogging world – it’s like travelling and it brings us all closer together 🙂

    A lot of my life experiences have been put into my writing. Particularity Let Sleeping Gods Lie because it’s so closely related to the farming community where I live.


    • Another difference I should have also mentioned is that the water really does swirl down the drain in the opposite direction. I first heard about that on that episode of The Simpsons where they go to Australia (and Bart gets in trouble with the government and his punishment is that they’re going to kick him with a giant boot – have you seen that one?), although I didn’t think it was actually true.

      My friend tried to explain why it happens- something about your proximity to the Equator – but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. In truth, I still can’t believe I flew halfway around the world, lost half a day of my life, and then got it back again by arriving home earlier than I left. Time is one of the craziest things humans ever invented!


  3. Thanks for all the pictures! Some cities are all the same, and if you stick to airports and hotels and fast food joints, pretty much go ho-hum boring everywhere, but when you get and explore them, some cities stand out. For me that’s New York because of the Metropolitan Museum and Hong Kong. Ok, I give, Tokyo to, and Seattle. It’s awesome that you had a tour guide! That always helps take the lid off a city! Thanks for the pictures. Slide show was neat!


    • Thank you! New York and Hong Kong are two cities that are on my bucket list to visit. Tokyo would be awesome too. Part of my trip to Australia was to test how I fared on such a long-haul flight. Now that I know I can do it, the possibility of someday visiting Asia feels much more feasible.


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