I grew up in a small, brick house at the end of a terrace of small, brick houses at the end of a street of terraces of small, brick houses. It was kind of a dull street. Cramped too. Late-nineteenth century houses all jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder; cars parked nose-to-nose down both sides, reducing the road (and pavements) to a single lane.
Each house had a garden at the front and a yard at the back, and each terrace had a shared drying green. The gardens were like pens, so claustrophobic as to be unusable – not that the views were any good anyway. We never even used our front door. The path up to it was slimy with moss, never receiving any sunlight.
Running parallel to the street was a railway line. Trains were always thundering past, dragging endless processions of coal. Our whole house would shake, the crack under the bay window widening ever-so-slightly each time. I quite liked the rumbling, though. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I missed it when we immigrated to New Zealand, but…
You always had to be careful when you walked up our street; constantly look down to avoid the broken glass, nettles and dog dirt. There was a lane at the end of the street that we all called Dog Dirt Alley. It was on our way to school. In winter, you could go ice-skating down it. What we called ice-skating anyway.
I’m probably making it sound like I grew up in a Dickens novel. It wasn’t that bad. It was bad compared to the street we ended up on in New Zealand; it seems bad looking back on it. At the time it was normal. I had a happy childhood. I can’t remember anything really bad. If the street was in any way dodgy, I was oblivious.
In 2001, we sold our house for £27,000 and headed to the airport. It was time to leave cramped, overcast England forever. I wasn’t happy about it. I was ten years old and I didn’t want to leave my life behind. I didn’t care that it was for the best. I didn’t care that New Zealand wasn’t cramped or overcast.
One of the first impressions I got of New Zealand was of lightness. This wasn’t just because it was sunny when we arrived, despite being winter. The whole country seemed to me to be airy and open. No oppressive buildings towering over me, blocking out the light. It makes sense: New Zealand is larger than England and has a population far, far smaller.
My dad had moved to New Zealand six months ahead of my mum, my sister and I. When we arrived, he was living in a rented house on a street that seemed, to my jetlagged mind, oddly idyllic. More American than English. The road was wide, as were the pavements. The pavements had generous strips of grass either side of them – and little or no dog dirt!
The houses were all single-storey and spread out as though lounging lazily in the amber light. They all had large gardens surrounding them. Our house was actually pretty crappy. Dad was renting it from the school he was working at. All the new teachers got ‘school houses’ until they could find houses of their own.
Our house wasn’t the worst example of a Kiwi rental property, but it was, if the news is to be believed, fairly typical. It was cold and damp, especially my room. There was mould on the ceiling. The carpet was thin and hard. I couldn’t understand why the kitchen and lounge had such an unpleasant smell, until I heard the rats scampering in the roof cavity above.
Old Kiwi houses are generally poorly insulated; their only source of heating being a small wood-burning stove in the lounge. My sister and I had never seen a wood-burning stove before. The first thing my seven-year-old sister did upon arriving at the house was plonk herself down in front of the stove and let out a disappointed moan: “That’s a very small telly!”
Being from England, we were used to having radiators in every room of every house. Old Kiwi houses weren’t built with radiators. Maybe people thought they didn’t need them, which is rubbish, because although it’s not as cold as England, New Zealand still gets cold in winter. Maybe people thought, “She’ll be ’right; toughen up.” Ha. That’s more likely.
Luckily, we bought and moved into our own house very quickly. And because back in 2001 the exchange rate gave us $3 for every £1, we got a house far nicer than I’d ever allowed myself to dream we could live in. It was warm and dry. It had four bedrooms, including one with a walk-in wardrobe and an ensuite with a spa bath!
It had an enormous lounge with a stained-glass window, a spacious garden with a pergola, and a long deck that my bedroom actually opened onto. My bedroom was pretty massive too. We could never have had a house like it if we’d stayed in England. There was just so much space. So much light.
In 2014, I took my Kiwi boyfriend to see the street I grew up on. It was a lot dirtier than I remembered. The one pitiful patch of grass and trees at the end of the road – upon which I’d spent many hours of my childhood playing – had been paved over for extra parking. Many of the gardens were in disgrace; many of the houses had broken windows.
As for my old house, the grass looked like it hadn’t been mown since I was ten years old. One of the windows was boarded up. There was graffiti on the wall. The big, metal butterfly was still above our backdoor, but its wings were now made entirely of rust. My boyfriend suggested I knock on the door and ask to look around, but I was too scared.
It seemed unreal that I’d grown up somewhere so oppressive. So cramped. My boyfriend grew up in the New Zealand bush. At his family home, you can barely even see the neighbouring houses, let alone touch them. It’s surrounded by trees, and you can see down a luscious valley to a beach. When I think about how different our two childhoods were… It’s quite staggering, really.
No wonder Tim was rather adamant about finding a flat on the ground floor, with a garden. He hates being cooped up. Well we found one, and I think we were very lucky to find a rental property this nice. It was renovated only a few years ago, so it’s properly insulated with double-glazing and has a heat pump (that we hardly have to use.)
If you buy or rent a house in New Zealand, make sure it’s properly insulated. If the property is pre-2000, there are no guarantees. Thankfully, recent changes to tenancy law are forcing landlords to improve the insulation in their properties. This might mean a slight rent increase, but it needs to be done, and will mean less has to be spent on heating, and fewer people will get sick.
So anyway, Tim and I were very lucky. Tim actually didn’t think the street I grew up on in England was that bad. To him, all the late-nineteenth century houses – so common and mundane in England – seemed wonderfully old-fashioned. New Zealand still has some nineteenth century houses, but they’re different: colonial-style villas made of wood. (Poorly insulated, of course.)
But you move to New Zealand for the space – the light – not the buildings. Space is rapidly running out in Auckland; high-density residential areas are desperately needed there, but everyone’s come to expect a house with a garden. One of those lazily lounging houses that made such an impression on me when I first arrived in New Zealand…
To me, the wide, relaxed streets of New Zealand seem to reflect the Kiwi attitude to life. The ‘she’ll be ’right’ mindset. In contrast, the claustrophobic streets of England like the one I grew up on seem uptight; stressed out. It’s like you can breathe easier in New Zealand. I don’t know. I’m probably talking bollocks. Typing bollocks. Whatever.