Student tide ebbs and flows, city abides

Much like those sea lions, is Dunedin somewhat misunderstood?
Much like those sea lions, is Dunedin somewhat misunderstood?
Student Emile Donovan muses on his love of Dunedin.

I find Orientation Week in Dunedin fascinating, if only for the aesthetic effect an influx of 20,000 young people into a modestly sized city offers. In the blink of an eye, the sleepy streets of summer are flooded with new faces - a new generation of Scarfies eager to snatch their freshly lit torches of independence and disappear down the rabbit hole of the university year.

I found it especially interesting this year because I returned from my own holiday quite early, in late December, and was therefore privy to a Dunedin that not many of my peers actually experience: Dunedin in the summer.

Fairly or unfairly, this city has a few stigmas associated with its name around New Zealand: riotous Dunedin, Scarfie HQ; the city in which a tribe of naked 18-year-olds sprinting through the Octagon at 5 o'clock on a Tuesday evening is merely an initiation; where no wheelie-bin is safe; and where drunk students topple out of trees like pheasants in Danny, the Champion of the World. Chilly Dunedin, where the sun don't shine, where the moon don't glow, where chilling your beers means leaving them on the front porch, because - wait for it - it's colder than the fridge.

What was strange about staying over the holiday period was witnessing how one-dimensional this view of the city is.

This is the Impermanent Dunedin: the one that ebbs and flows according to the time of year. It is set on the stage of Northeast Valley and the varsity campus. Its players are the youth of the nation, released from the shackles of parental guardianship. This Dunedin is glamorous, because it is a hotbed of controversy: it's where the kids go, and where there are kids, there's mischief.

What people forget is that Dunedin has a base. There is a foundation of families and professionals on which tertiary Dunedin is allowed to thrive, and the reason we students are so lucky is that this foundation is so embracing of us.

I can still remember my first day at varsity back in 2010: I was walking along Great King St on February 19 and everybody I walked past gave me a smile and a ''hello''. I thought it was strange at first, but that's just how it is here. We are treated with respect, because we bring a lot to the city, and the foundation is mindful enough to accommodate us.

This foundation is Permanent Dunedin: people who smile at passers-by and chat with the lady at the checkout counter, many of whom can be connected through three degrees of separation. This Dunedin boasts the population of a small city, but maintains the genial intimacy of a large town.

This Dunedin moves slowly, and that is a good thing - it means you have time to take a look around and revel in the harmony of the place. Half an hour can take you out to the peninsula, to the freshest salt air and the coldest water you could imagine; it can take you to the top of a mountain, or for a walk through the most beautiful Botanic Garden in the country. Out past Portobello on Victory Beach there is a colony of sea lions. They're big and powerful and you'd be forgiven for finding them intimidating. Most of the time though, they are gentle and docile creatures, content to sunbathe on the coast and roll around in the sand.

Much like those sea lions, I find Dunedin somewhat misunderstood. Modern Dunedin is a tale of two cities: on one side there is the student utopia, of parties and riots, booze and (sometimes) books; on the other, there is the measured, tolerant nucleus. They are like our parents: they shake their heads at our antics, and they chastise us at times, but they bear with us. They love us. They recognise our value.

I am a student, and I am sheltered. I live in my microcosm, and 20,000 others live in a similar bubble.

But after this summer, I've learned something: Dunedin may be labelled a ''university city''; it might be stigmatised as Party Central and typecast as Scarfieville, but this town is about much more than its university. Dunedin is a funny old place, full of funny old people, but I love it. It bears with me while I grow up. It's home away from home. It's welcome and secure, and those feelings of welcome and security are largely thanks to you.

The foundation.

Thanks for having me.

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