Christchurch: Then and Now

The whole world heard about the Christchurch earthquakes.

The first one came on September 4th, 2010, damaging many of the city’s older buildings and leaving residents without power or clean water for days. There were no fatalities, however, (unless you count the one person that suffered a heart attack during the quake,) and it was with a sense of relief and optimism that the repairing and rebuilding began.

My parents visited Christchurch the following January, observing the fenced off areas with interest before moving on. There had been a few aftershocks in the intervening period, including a particularly strong one on Boxing Day, which had hampered the city’s recovery by bringing down more buildings, but Mum and Dad were impressed with Christchurch’s attitude.

Then came the February 2011 earthquake. Over half the buildings in the central business district were damaged beyond repair, thousands of people were left homeless and 185 people died.

Since then there have been numerous aftershocks – none fatal – and the rebuilding efforts continue to this day, though not at a pace people are happy with. Again and again plans are frustrated, but last month (July 2013) there came a happy breakthrough: Christchurch’s iconic Cathedral Square was reopened to the public. The Chalice still stands; the cathedral doesn’t.

Christchurch Cathedral’s demise was a tragedy. The city’s main attraction for over a hundred years, it survived the first quake with only superficial damage, but then the February 2011 earthquake collapsed its grand spire and further aftershocks wrecked its rose window. The decision was made to demolish the whole thing.

I have not been to Christchurch since the quakes: I have only my memories of how it used to be. It was nearly ten years ago when my family flew there from Auckland. I think the first thing we did after picking up our New Zealand campervan hire was head to Cathedral Square.

Chester Cathedral

Chester Cathedral

I remember having a wonderful bagel at a café on the periphery and posing in front of the Chalice, which really is a beautiful sculpture. I’m glad it didn’t get destroyed. I remember thinking that the cathedral itself was not that impressive, but only because I had been spoilt in my childhood by the cathedrals of Chester, Lincoln and York. It was still wonderful climbing up the steps of the tower.

I also remember an enchanting tram ride. A cathedral, a tram – it was like I was back in old England! Unfortunately, due to the quakes, the tram is no longer running.

We loved Christchurch. In fact, before the quakes, I would have said that it was the New Zealand city I would have most liked to live in, primarily because it was the most English-feeling of New Zealand’s cities. I remember a little, stone pub with a garden and being taken down the River Avon in a punt – just like Cambridge! (That’s the proper Cambridge in England, of course, not the place in New Zealand near Hamilton.)

White FlowerSpeaking of the River Avon, next to it are the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, which, thankfully, weathered the quakes relatively well. They were my family’s favourite bit of Christchurch and, by all accounts, are still magnificent to walk around. Incidentally, they celebrated their 150th anniversary this year.

I want to go back to Christchurch one day, especially to the gardens, but also to retrace the steps of our South Island campervan holiday. From Christchurch, we drove up the peninsula to Akaroa, which I was possibly not old enough to appreciate and dearly want to see again. Maybe I’ll write about it soon.

Fur Seals on the Otago Peninsula

New Zealand fur seals are really cute. They’re small and brown with pointy noses and long whiskers. They also have an uncanny ability to look dead when they’re just resting.

Fur Seal 3croppedYou can find them in abundance all around New Zealand, wherever there happens to be a rocky shore. You can get right up close to them too, like I did on the Otago Peninsula.

I was twelve years old when we went there on our South Island campervan holiday. The Otago Peninsula is absolutely wonderful for observing wildlife in a dramatic setting.

Not only did we see plenty of fur seals, we saw snowy white, fluffy albatross chicks being nurtured by their parents in the world’s only mainland royal albatross colony.

Fur Seal 2croppedI loved getting close to the seals. (If I look miserable standing next to my little sister in that photo, it’s because it was quite a cold day.) I was wary about getting too close in case it made the seals uncomfortable, but they didn’t seem to mind. They must be well used to tourists.

Other popular places to see New Zealand fur seals are around Wellington, Kaikoura and the Catlins. Supposedly the best, or at least the most accessible, place to see them is Ohau Point, just off State Highway 1 between Kaikoura and Picton, which is perfect if you’re doing a self-drive tour of New Zealand. And if you do the Ohau Waterfall Walk – a few minutes along a picturesque boardwalk – you might be lucky enough to see seal pups swimming up the creek and playing around the waterfall.

Now that would be amazing.

fur seal 4

The Existential Crisis of the Immigrant Child

A couple of years ago, when I was in my third year of uni, I was crippled by anxiety and depression.

I was terrified of everything, even descending the stairs to leave my flat. I actually sat crying at the top of them, shaking and gasping and clinging to the banister, certain I would slip and break my neck if I stood up. Totally alone.

I started sweating whenever someone talked to me, avoiding eye contact, convinced I wasn’t worthy.

mirrorlightblackMy heart was perpetually agitated. I couldn’t sleep and when I did I had such nightmares that I woke up with my heart racing, feeling like I hadn’t had any rest at all.

Things that I used to enjoy – acting chief among them – now made me miserable. It wasn’t fair. Throughout high school acting had been my escape from the misery, not just experiencing someone else’s emotions, but the adrenaline of performing. Now there was no refuge left.

All I could do was wrap myself up in my duvet in front of my laptop and watch endless episodes of some TV series or other in an effort to distract my brain from berating me, if only for a while.

Eventually, sick and tired of being relentlessly miserable, I gathered what little courage I had left and went to the university health centre. The doctor immediately prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping pills and referred me to a counsellor.

It was hard opening up to the counsellor – I don’t like “bothering” other people with my troubles – but she pieced together my problems, deducing that they probably arose from the awful bullying I’d received between the ages of ten and fifteen, and the fact that I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere.

She went on to say that it was very common for the children of immigrant families to experience what I experienced. Immigrant children are often bullied when they first arrive in their new country, bullied for being different – perhaps their accent or way of dressing – and for reasons that have nothing to do with inherent xenophobia and everything to do with ten-to-fifteen-year-olds being nasty, peer-motivated adolescents who like to put each other down.

I sometimes wonder if I was bullied because some New Zealanders still see English people as rich, imperialistic, “you ignorant colonials belong to us” royalists, but, despite the fact that when I first arrived my classmates assumed I had a butler and drank tea with the Queen, I never really got that impression. As for the feeling that I don’t belong… well it goes deeper than your typical young person angst. Deeper than not having many friends.

The fact is I have lived in New Zealand for over half my life and I still don’t feel like a New Zealander. Maybe this is because, not having many friends, I spent more time than the average teenager with my parents, watching DVDs of British comedy series. I have not lost my English accent, and of all the qualities that the New Zealand media proudly boasts are Kiwi – such as the do-it-yourself attitude, the love of rugby, the hatred of Australians, and general toughness – I have none.

I am English. I glory in our history, our countryside, our multitude of hilarious accents and our sense of humour! But that’s just it – do I have the right to say ‘our’ anymore? I’m not up with the current trends in England. I’ve set foot there once in the last twelve years. English people think my accent sounds slightly Australian.

When I was talking to some English people I was friends with at primary school, I mentioned going to the dairy to get some milk. From that, they thought that in order to get milk New Zealanders walked down the road to a dairy farm and got it directly from a cow. I had to explain that in New Zealand a dairy is a corner shop, or convenience store. I had said dairy automatically.

I’m not really English anymore, but I’m not a New Zealander either, and that sense of not belonging anywhere is really depressing. In fact it can shake you to the core.

Not to sound overly dramatic, but when my parents decided to emigrate, they destroyed my life.

All my friends, my hobbies, my other relatives, my culture – the only place in my life I would ever fit in because I was born to fit in there – it was all ripped away from me.

I don’t know if I can describe the total loneliness I felt without sounding whiny, but, according to that counsellor, it was the sort of loneliness that can fester and manifest itself years later as clinical depression.

To be fair, my parents must have felt lonely too. We all clung desperately to our Englishness, be it with BBC DVDs or watching the football in the middle of the night. I remember when the English comedian Bill Bailey came to Auckland with his Tinselworm stand-up show: he asked the audience whether they’d heard of ASDA, (a massive supermarket chain that doesn’t exist in New Zealand,) and every expat Brit in the audience, including us, cheered, to which he responded, “You’ve been away too long.” We should not have been cheering for ASDA. Even if it does sell such a variety of food that we can only dream of in New Zealand…

So desperate were we for a little piece of home that when we were travelling around the South Island in a campervan, for example, and we came across a sign for a place called Sheffield, we pulled over excitedly, clamouring for a photo.

173 Back in Sheffield

(In England, the town we lived in was quite close to Sheffield, but, unlike Sheffield, it does not have anywhere else in the world named after it. Either nobody ever left before us, or they were so glad to leave it behind that they never wanted to be reminded of it. Either way, extremely sad.)

So there you have it: my personal existential crisis, and the crisis of all immigrant kids. I wonder how many children of immigrant families actually develop depression as a result, but at the end of the day I’m still glad we moved to New Zealand.

You might be happy to know that in the last few weeks I’ve managed to wean myself off the anti-depressants and only occasionally start sweating when someone talks to me. Or you might not care. But I’ve learned that you shouldn’t be ashamed of taking anti-depressants – they work, and it’s better than being miserable all the time.

UPDATE: It’s been two years since I wrote this. Recently, I’ve written a more detailed account of what it’s actually like living with depression and anxiety. You can find it on the The Writers’ Labyrinth.