Beer and Other Sins: Life of the party on Queen Street

People used to mistake Karen Wenham’s shyness for snobbery. It had been a problem for her growing up but over time she learned that if you don’t make the first move and say hello to the person next to you, you’d likely end up bored and alone.

Karen, 55, and her partner, Greg, 54, are sitting on chairs over by a Queen Street restaurant taking in the scene when she leans over to say hello. She’s two glasses into whatever’s in the bottle of white over at the restaurant bar and turns down an offer of a third.

“Oh my god, I’ve had too much to drink already,” Karen says, raising her voice above the music and chatter of the Queen Street crowd.

Croydon used to be the kind of place where you didn’t want to end up, a no-go zone for the well-heeled parts of Adelaide society. What the upper crust didn’t want was left to the Greek, Italian and eastern European migrants who moved in after WWII. They built elaborate churches, planted citrus trees, grape vines and occasionally sub-divided the land in preparation for the day they would retire.

These days the weathered ‘Mediterstralian’ vibe and Federation-era houses have real value in real estate terms. The place is now home to the artists, weirdos and creative types Adelaide is so desperate to attract. Croydon, the locals say, represents the best of Adelaide. It has fine cafes, a train line and is only 10 minutes out of the city. Every year they close the road, build a stage and hold a block party right in the middle of Queen Street.

Right now it’s starting to fill with people and the vibe is decidedly PG. There are babies in prams, young hipsters in flannel, middle-aged parents and assorted locals. Some of them Karen and Greg know. Some they don’t.

Karen and Greg have only been here a little while. They came out from Perth when Greg took a job working as a manager at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. He moved here first to find a place before Karen followed. It took him three months to find a spot in Croydon.

At first, Karen thought she’d be spending her days sitting indoors, but so far events haven’t played out that way. Every weekend there is something on, or something to see, making the Adelaide chapter of their lives another story to tell in a life already full of them.

“I might have once been a party girl,” Karen says about her younger self, though she doesn’t elaborate. All she’ll say is that she had entered her 20s wanting to be a business executive and conquer the world, and put off marrying to instead go roaming. Once she had gone backpacking in Borneo on a whim. Another time, she travelled halfway around the world with a man who had invented a solar-powered air conditioning unit. Eventually it was bought out by a Saudi with connections, though not before she had a chance to see London and New York.

These are the kind of stories she’d tell her grandkids one day, though her clan hasn’t grown that wide just yet. Maybe that will soon change. Her son just married a Japanese girl and they did it the traditional way. Karen and Greg flew back this morning. It was wonderful, Karen says, more fun than the usual way of doing things. Her own wedding was held on the banks of the Swan River and to give it a little more oomph, her mother had spread pink plastic flamingos around the wedding area. Greg was horrified.

A quarter of a century later and they are still together. Karen can’t pinpoint the secret to making a marriage last.

“It’s not all love, roses, chocolates and Champagne,” she says. “Some days it’s beer, baked beans on toast and meat pies. You take the good with the bad. And you drink a lot.”

As the sun heads for the Indian Ocean, the families start to fade away into the darkness. For Karen and Greg, the travel fatigue is starting to kick in, and like the parents with young children, they leave the street to the under-30s who are lining up in numbers to buy beer for six bucks a glass.

“I’m 35 years’ older,” Karen says. “Tame. That’s the part of the life we are at at the moment. We go to things. But you’re not outrageous. You do ‘em as adults and respect everything. I couldn’t run amok like I used to.

“The young kids are still doing what we used to do,” she adds. “They’re still partying and going to events and drinking too much.

“Nothing’s changed.”

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