Accepting New Zealand as Home

I did not immigrate to New Zealand willingly. When my parents informed me they were dragging me to the other side of the world – in an Italian restaurant in Edinburgh when I was nine years old – I threw a tantrum and threatened to run away. I’ve already told that story in Last Night of the Poms: The Story of Our Move to New Zealand. In the end, I say I’m glad now that we moved; that I wouldn’t have it any other way. Clearly, I’ve come to accept New Zealand as home.

But when did that happen?

I pined for England for years after moving to New Zealand. Only recently, I uncovered a video diary I made when I was seventeen. Just the one entry. In it, I’m sitting on my uncle’s old bed at my grandma’s house, and I’m crying my eyes out.

It was the first time I’d been back to England since emigrating, and I was flying back to New Zealand the next day. I’d been staying with my grandma for three weeks. It wasn’t enough.

“I’ve just done something I haven’t done for seven years,” the seventeen-year-old me says, showing the pretentious dramatic flair that, apparently, my whole career has been built on. My nose is pink; my eyes glossy. Above my left eye is a fresh, red scar. (I’d fallen on my face at the school ball a few weeks earlier.) My voice is a blubbering whisper:

“I’ve just sobbed into my pillow.”

After a brief hesitation, during which I no doubt I felt very silly, I continue:

“It didn’t even feel like me sobbing… It… There’s something so deep inside me I can’t even reach it. Every sob was wrenched out of me… I was just clutching the edge of the pillow and I was trying to imagine it was someone’s hand… It’s just… It’s like I’m ten years old again, about to be ripped away from everything I’ve known, and my home, and I… I don’t want to leave. I really don’t want to leave.

“Elizabeth’s here.”

A selfie I tried to take of me and Liz

Elizabeth was my best friend. After moving to New Zealand, I never found another friend like her. I have never been as close to anyone, except my partner, Tim. When I returned to England at the age of seventeen, I was terrified that we wouldn’t fit together anymore. But we did. Things immediately snapped back into place, like I’d never left.

“She came round this afternoon, when I was packing. We made a video of us singing Mamma Mia together, and I’ve just watched it, and we’re both pissing ourselves laughing and falling about on the bed. It was wonderful, and I started laughing watching it, but then I started crying as well, and I just… I cried so, so much and now I can’t stop.

“I hate this. This is my home and I don’t want to leave it. I mean, obviously, I want to see people in New Zealand, but I want to see the people HERE as well. I just… I don’t… It’s going to be another few years – YEARS – before I’m back here. Before I can afford to come back here, and… and when I’m in New Zealand, yeah, it’s a home, but it’s not MY home.”

At this point, I become incomprehensible. The next thing I can make out is, “I need to blow my nose,” and, “Some video diary this is.”

My final view of Grandma’s house… from the pavement beside Uncle Damon’s car

After a somewhat mucousy interval, I continue: “I can just imagine it tomorrow. We’re going to be standing on the pavement by Uncle Damon’s car, just like last time, and Gran will be there, crying her eyes out, and I’ll be trying not to cry, but inside I’ll be so sick – it’s like my stomach’s tearing itself apart and my chest is breaking and my heart’s just… going down a whirlpool… that’s full of thorns… What the…? A whirlpool full of thorns – where did that come from?!

“I’m seeing Liz again tomorrow. It… It was like, even though we hadn’t seen each other for seven years, even though we’d missed out on everything, like puberty and all that stuff, it was as if no time had passed. But now, the next time we see each other, we’ll be adults. It’s like… this is the last time I see my best friend as a kid… like… like…” And, in the video, the seventeen-year-old me cringes at my choice of phrase here. “Those blissful summer days are gone.

HISTORY!

“It has been a good summer. And every day since I’ve been here, I’ve been so incredibly, incredibly happy. And now I’ve got to go back.

“Mum and Dad think I’m unhappy because I have to go back and immediately start revising for exams. I don’t mind exams. Once you’re inside, they’re quite relaxing. You just sit there, and it’s nice and quiet, and you write down what you know for a few hours. I don’t mind going off to uni either. Not really. It’s just… I don’t want to get on with my life and get stuck there. I want to come back here. I want to do comedy. I want to get my books published. I want to make history documentaries.

“My worst fear is I’ll wake up, early thirties, and still be living over there.”

Wow. So… I said that. Huh. I’m in my mid-twenties now. Umm…

“I’m going to stop this now, I think,” the seventeen-year-old me says. “Yep. Maybe I’ll look back at this one day and be inspired to write new material. Maybe. I’m dreading tomorrow. I need to sleep now, or when I get back to school I’ll be so, so jetlagged that I won’t be able to catch up on my work. But, at the same time, I’m scared that if I fall asleep I’m wasting the precious hours I have left here. So… Goodbye.”

And the video ends.

The next day happened exactly how I imagined it. I flew back to New Zealand (on my own) and I never saw my grandma again, because she developed Alzheimer’s and died before I could get back. (Incidentally, I tell that story in Saying Goodbye.)

I went on to ace my exams and spend the next four years at the University of Auckland, where I developed severe depression. A uni counsellor told me that it’s not unusual for immigrant kids to develop depression, (and you can read more about that in The Existential Crisis of the Immigrant Child,) but I don’t know if moving to New Zealand is solely responsible for my mental health issues. I mean I find it extremely difficult to interact with people, but that might have happened anyway as I grew up. Even when I lived in England, before the age of ten, I was the sort of kid that wished other kids would leave me alone so I could read. (Except Elizabeth.)

Maybe I was always destined to never fit in anywhere.

Obviously, I didn’t accept New Zealand as home back when I was seventeen, but I’m twenty-five now. I’ve lived in New Zealand for three fifths of my life. If I can’t call New Zealand home, I can’t call anywhere home. And I do like living in New Zealand. Everything I’ve written in this blog is true. It wasn’t New Zealand’s fault that I didn’t accept it as home. It was just that my heart belonged to England. Now, however, my heart belongs to Tim.

Port SunlightI met Tim in my final year of uni. I was a post-grad; he was a third-year. (But we were the same age. I started uni when I was seventeen.) I’d never met anyone like him. He thought like I did. We fit together. I hadn’t fit together with anyone since Elizabeth. This was what I’d been missing. For ten whole years of my life, I’d been missing someone with whom I could share my life.

It’s such a terrible cliché. It really is. But when I’m with Tim I feel whole.

We’ve been together five years now. We’ve known for a long time we’ll be together forever. We might still go and live in Europe for a bit, but we want to settle down, raise a family and grow old in New Zealand.

Across the Sea: A Brief History of Immigration to New Zealand

POMS AWAY!

When I was eleven, my class studied a topic I’ll never forget. At least I’ll never forget the image of a dead baby being thrown overboard wrapped in a Union Jack. The topic dealt with the history of immigration to New Zealand.

Each member of my class had to write a pretend diary from the perspective of an English immigrant making the long and perilous voyage to New Zealand in the nineteenth century. As I was an English immigrant whose family had moved to New Zealand only a year previously, I found the topic particularly affecting.

Of course, my family had not come to New Zealand by ship, but by plane. And it had taken us twenty-four hours of travelling, not six months. And none of us had died on the way. Still, I understood the heartbreaking enormity of leaving your home for a strange country on the other side…

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How I Caught a Kiwi Accent

The last two weeks have been bad. They found cancer in my mum’s lymph nodes, they sent her for surgery, and we visited her in hospital. That was covered in my previous post. Since then, my body has gone and decided that my mum really shouldn’t get all the attention.

Certain problems that have been developing in the background for some time have suddenly jumped to the fore. On Thursday, I woke up in agony and ended up in hospital myself. That was the day before we were due to travel to New Plymouth.

You see, I was expecting this post to be a happy one: a return to the traditional travel blog format. My partner, Tim, and I had been planning this trip to New Plymouth for a while. It was the weekend of our fifth anniversary.

We were supposed to travel down with our mate, Ems, meet up with Tim’s family, spend a day at WOMAD, (a hippy music festival,) a day at my favourite museum, and then head back to Hamilton. Even with the day in hospital, it still looked like this was going to happen.

I was sent home from hospital loaded up with painkillers. (They can’t do anything until I have an ultrasound; it will be weeks before I get an ultrasound.) Ems joked that it would be okay – we could just share her wheelchair at WOMAD! And it would have been, but… then came the flu.

By the time Ems came to pick us up, I had lost my voice. It was still fine. I realised I must have caught it visiting my mum in hospital, because my mum had it too. (On top of recovering from surgery!) I was just a little frustrated sitting on my own in the back seat, unable to communicate.

The drive down from Hamilton to New Plymouth takes three and a half hours. Once you’re past Te Awamutu, a small town just south of Hamilton, mobile reception becomes practically non-existent, so make sure you have physical maps available.

It was late when we got to where we were staying, and my illness had worsened. My body couldn’t decide whether it was hot or cold. I was barely aware of my surroundings. In the morning, I felt thoroughly beat-up, but it was time to go to WOMAD.

I was drenched with sweat before we’d even entered the park. I volunteered to push Ems’s wheelchair because I needed something to lean on as I walked. We joined the growing line of aging hippies eager to get into the festival.

I’d been to WOMAD before. I knew it wasn’t really my thing. I mean I don’t mind the interesting music from around the world. I don’t mind the exciting variety of food stalls. I don’t mind the market filled with beautiful, hippy clothing. It’s just that being in a crowd makes me uncomfortable.

I get panic attacks. And now I was battling a steadily worsening bout of what I was coming to realise wasn’t just a cold.

It was bearable at first. We got there early, so there weren’t so many people. They were still setting up, much to the confusion of these two geese:

We got breakfast from one of the food stalls, (a gorgeous Polynesian raw fish salad,) and I was able to join in the conversation, albeit in a whisper. At some point, Ems asked me why I was speaking in a Kiwi accent.

I’ve lived in New Zealand since I was a child, but I still have a British accent. I find it difficult even to fake a Kiwi accent; whenever I try I sound Australian. The reason, I think, is this: the Kiwi accent is incredibly lazy.

Seriously. As soon as you put any effort into a Kiwi accent, it becomes Australian, and it’s difficult to fake an accent without putting any effort in. Now, however, here I was, speaking Kiwi. Whispering Kiwi.

I realised that, because it hurt so much to talk, I was putting as little effort as possible into making my vowel sounds.

“You’ve caught a Kiwi accent,” Ems laughed.

Whatever I’d caught, it became harder and harder to endure as the day wore on. The whole thing’s kind of a blur. Here are some photos I got:

That was funny. Can see what the sign below it says? PLEASE DO NOT CLIMB ON HISTORIC CHIMNEY.

And oh yeah, that was where I bumped into someone from the same obscure, little town in England as me, but couldn’t say anything to him, so he wandered off awkwardly.

I’m dying in this photo. Like just take it. Please, just take it. I’m about to collapse. No, please, no more, just let me die.

Pretty trees. Can’t breathe. Can’t go on…

And that’s where the weekend ends, pretty much. We couldn’t go to my favourite museum. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. Besides, by now Tim was getting sick too. We just had to go home.

The last few days I’ve been drowning in the worst flu of my life. I’ve been coughing up blood and, well, I won’t say what else. Tim’s bad too. What an anniversary weekend! I pictured us lying in bed together, but not like this. Not like this.

What the Internet’s Like in New Zealand

It’s the year 2000, and you’re trying to connect to the Internet. You grit your teeth through the cacophony of chirps and screeches, like crickets being tortured through a transistor radio.

(Yes, kids, that was the mating call of the dial-up modem.)

You think you’re finally connected when suddenly your mum’s voice starts coming through the computer speakers. She’s on the phone; your very important MSN Messenger session with friends with whom you’ve just been at school will have to wait. Your initial annoyance is replaced with the thought that this would be a great way to spy on people…

Those were the days. The days of asking Jeeves, in grammatically correct sentences, the answers to your homework. Of logging into chat rooms just to see if there were any of those bad people you’d been warned about. Of wondering what on earth a Trojan was and why it had anything to do with horses… For me, those were the days just before my family immigrated to New Zealand.

Back then, I knew very little about New Zealand. I was a nine-year-old living on the other side of the planet. The image I had was of the sort of South Pacific island that cartoon characters tend to get stranded on, populated by primitive tribes. The chances of them having the Internet, I thought, weren’t high.

Obviously, I was wrong.

We moved to New Zealand in 2001. Over the next decade, we progressed from dial-up to wireless broadband, but it was slow, unreliable and expensive. If you ever asked why, you’d receive a vague reply involving New Zealand’s low population density.

Our usage was carefully monitored to make sure we didn’t go over our data limit each month. You know when your dad stalks around the house turning off heaters to save money? Well it was like that, but with YouTube. When I left home for university in 2009, I had decent Internet access for the first time in my life.

I was living at a university hall of residence. I was amazed: YouTube videos played without buffering! Like at all! It wasn’t wireless, but I wouldn’t get Internet access that good again for another few years. In 2012, I lived in a building that charged you $10 for 1GB, and it expired after a week. I used to ration it out so carefully, consuming it slither by slither. I had just enough data per week to do all my uni work and watch ONE episode of Game of Thrones.

Internet access in New Zealand has gotten better over the last few years. Speeds have greatly improved, and fibre is more widely available. Even now, though, you’re looking at $100 a month for unlimited Internet plans.

I will say, if you’re looking to move to New Zealand, don’t be put off by the relative crapness of its Internet access. I mean I work from home; my job depends on the Internet, and I’m fine. I only occasionally experience frustratingly slow speeds and am rarely unable to connect at all. I do, however, live in a city. If you’re planning on running an Internet-reliant business in New Zealand, it would probably be better not to live anywhere rural.

If you’re looking to travel around New Zealand, beware that mobile data coverage is patchy. You can buy mobile data for about $20 a month for 10GB a month. More and more city centres have free WiFi now, and many cafés do. Libraries, information centres and museums have it, but don’t expect much.

For more New Zealand holiday tips, check out my 10 Totally Awesome New Zealand Holiday Tips. (They’re totally awesome.)

Healthcare in New Zealand

New Zealand has always been an attractive destination, but now it seems more so than ever. My Best Place to Live in New Zealand article suddenly became popular at the end of last year – no prizes for guessing why – and continues to be one of Poms Away’s most-viewed. So, with no sign of global interest in moving to New Zealand slowing down, I thought I’d write an article of use to both potential immigrants and tourists. (Also, I registered at a new medical centre just this morning, so the topic happens to be on my mind. I moved house last week, you see.)

Socialised Healthcare

In New Zealand, the medical system is socialised. This means that hospital visits are free for citizens and permanent residents. Even tourists can get help with accidental injury treatment costs through ACC, the Accident Compensation Corporation. Yes, it means you pay for the nation’s healthcare through your taxes, but most people are fine with that and wish more was spent on it. And it means you’re not screwed if you can’t afford health insurance.

Health Insurance

Only about a third of New Zealanders have health insurance. It’s a good thing to have if you can afford it, as in the public system waiting times for surgery can be horrendous. (But, hey, it’s a lot better than nothing at all.) Obviously, you can get a better quality of care if you go private.

Doctors’ Visits

doctor-1825417_960_720Seeing a GP in New Zealand isn’t free, but it is subsidised as long as you’re enrolled at the medical centre you’re attending. Enrolling is free – just make sure you take your passport with you. Depending on which medical centre you choose, visits can cost anywhere from $10 to $70, with about $40 being normal. Under-13’s are generally free. You usually need to book appointments a few days in advance, but you can get emergency appointments, or go to an emergency clinic – but they’re quite expensive, maybe between $50 and $100 per visit. (This is New Zealand dollars, remember.)

Prescriptions

Most medicine you get on prescription is subsidised, so you’ll only pay $5 for it, no matter what it is. There was a bit of excitement recently following the announcement that the contraceptive pill might soon become available in New Zealand over-the-counter, but my excitement dissipated when I read that it would cost $45 for a three-month supply. (That’s the same as the cost of a six-month supply of on-prescription contraceptive pills, including the doctor’s visit you need to obtain the prescription.)

Doctors’ Visits for Tourists

Long story short, if you’re going to be visiting New Zealand as a tourist, get health insurance. Casual appointments for non-residents can cost in excess of $100. And don’t even ask about the cost of an ambulance.

Ambulances

Okay, I’ll tell you anyway. If you have to take a ride in an ambulance and you’re not a New Zealand resident, it’ll cost you $800. (Yeah. Get travel insurance, tourists.) But it’s less than $100 for residents, and if you’re rushed to hospital following an accident, ACC pays.

Abortion

Abortion is legal in New Zealand up to 20 weeks, but only if two separate, properly certified abortion doctors declare you physically or mentally unfit to have a child. There are allowances for cases of incest, sexual abuse, foetal abnormality and extremes of age. After 20 weeks, an abortion may only be performed to save the life of the mother, or to prevent serious permanent injury.

Dentistry

Children can visit the dentist for free in New Zealand, but adults can’t. For the majority of the population, dentistry isn’t subsidised at all. Indeed, less than half the population sees a dentist on any kind of regular basis. People simply can’t afford it. You’re looking at an average of perhaps $100 for an examination with x-rays.

Optometry

Similar to dentistry, children can get free vision checks in certain places, and people with community services cards are entitled to a children’s spectacle subsidy, but not so for adults. The cheapest eye tests I’ve found are $60, and you can expect to pay up to $600 for mid-range glasses. The ones I’m wearing now cost, I think, $250, including lenses.

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Overall

Overall, I’m happy with the quality of healthcare available in New Zealand. Because it’s socialised, I’ve never had to worry about going to the hospital. People looking at immigrating to New Zealand, however, may have their application declined if it’s judged that they would be an undue burden on the health system.

I would like to add that, last week, my mum had to have surgery. She doesn’t have health insurance, so, of course, it was done through the public health system. She says she is very pleased with how everything went: she felt the treatment she received was professional and efficient, and her standard of care was excellent. The surgery would have cost a lot of money, but she didn’t pay a thing. I’m especially thankful for socialised healthcare right now.

Six Books, a Bach and a Wizard’s Robe

Getting away to “the bach” is a Great Kiwi Tradition. A bach is a holiday home, and it’s pronounced like a batch of cookies, not like the Baroque composer.

bach

Baches range from old shacks to modern mansions, although anything too “flash” isn’t really seen as being in the spirit. It’s supposed to be about getting back to basics; enjoying the beach with your family, free from technological distractions. As such, the traditional Kiwi bach is usually quite rundown. Worn-out couches, rusty kettles and board games with missing pieces are commonly found accessories.

Ruakaka Beach

Once you’ve arrived at your bach, there’s nothing to do except go to the beach. When I was younger, I despised it. I thought: I know we’re supposed to be grateful for the little things, but if you’re grateful for this, you’re an idiot. I mean this is the pinnacle of the Kiwi dream? This? But I think I get it now. “Getting it” could be to do with, you know, growing up, but I’ve also had some more positive bach experiences in the last few years.

Ruakaka Beach

I’ve had some “How’s the serenity?” moments:

Yes, that’s an Australian film, but you know… certain attitudes are similar.

Ruakaka Beach

Sometimes, having nothing to do except go to the beach is a good thing. You get there and suddenly nothing matters except the people you’re with. Earlier this year, my partner and I went to a bach with a large group of friends – a New Year getaway. The bach was in Ruakaka, in scorching Northland. When we arrived, Tim nearly passed out from the heat. Wading into the Pacific Ocean was absolute bliss.

Waipu Cove

As nice as Ruakaka Beach is, a short drive up the road lies an even nicer beach: Waipu Cove. After a couple of days lounging around in Ruakaka, Tim and I decided to visit Waipu. We returned with six books and a wizard’s robe.

waipucove5

Our friends joked that only Tim and Abby could go to the beach and come back with books and a LARPing costume. (And if you’re thinking but there are only five books in the photograph – I got another book after it was taken.) There was a mobile library at the beach, you see, and they had a table full of old books they were giving away.

Waipu Cove

“If every beach was like this,” Tim said to me, “we’d get you outside more.” True as that may be, even I’ll admit that Waipu Cove is worth visiting irrespective of the presence of a mobile library. Even the toilet block has a lovely mural painted on it, chronicling the history of the Waipu settlement.

Waipu Cove Mural

As for the wizard’s robe, that came from a junk shop on Waipu’s main street. (Waipu has a few junk – one might hesitate to call them antique – shops.) The town was settled in the nineteenth century by a group of Scottish immigrants who’d had quite a time of it. They were led by a very dour-looking religious chap who fell out with the Presbyterians in Scotland because they weren’t dour enough. He took some members of his clan off to Canada, but the whole thing was a bloody disaster, so they built themselves a ship and sailed to Australia, but Australia was too full of prozzies and booze, so they got another ship and sailed to New Zealand. There they settled, and when the dour guy finally died they let their hair down and started having all the fun they’d been forbidden from having because, apparently, God hates fun. This particular brand fun included nostalgic celebrations of Celtic culture, and Waipu holds annual highland games to this day.

Waipu Museum

That’s what I gathered from Waipu’s rather excellent museum, anyway. It’s worth a visit if you’re up that way. Here’s the website. Apparently, the highland games are worth a visit too. Here’s that website.

For more of my adventures up north, read What to Do in Kerikeri.

My First Christmas in New Zealand

Christmas in New Zealand on a Beach

When you’re an immigrant, that first Christmas hits you hard. The rest of the year, you’re distracted by work and house hunting and getting on with life. Then Christmas arrives and everything stops. You realise what’s missing: family.

My first Christmas in New Zealand, the house felt empty. There was tinsel everywhere, draped over everything except my mum, dad and little sister, but it couldn’t fill the hole. There were presents – I remember getting a Harry Potter wand, but opening them felt weird. There was a turkey, but I could barely eat any of it.

The absence of Grandma, Nana, Grandpa and Uncle Damon had drained all the Christmas spirit from the air. It didn’t help that the air itself was warm and humid. Our windows were thrown open to catch the non-existent summer breeze. They should have been closed, with the curtains drawn, keeping out the winter gloom. Maybe curtains were responsible for keeping the Christmas spirit in.

christmas-1904536_960_720Years later, my mum admitted that she cried, that first Christmas in New Zealand. I didn’t cry – I’d already cried enough that year. I simply felt numb.

Someone suggested that we go to the beach. That was what New Zealanders did at Christmas, right? But we couldn’t bring ourselves to. We sat around our dining table, forcing ourselves to eat a heavy mid-winter meal in the sweltering heat. Stubborn Brits if ever there were some.

Just as I’d resigned myself to a Christmas of misery – well, not even misery, just… nothing – the day was saved. By Super Soakers.

Santa had brought them. (My little sister still believed in Santa.) We filled them up and went out into the garden, into the scorching sunlight. We were wearing T-shirts and shorts and no shoes, and soon we were wet through. On Christmas Day.

I began to have fun. Perhaps Christmas in New Zealand wouldn’t be so bad after all. Perhaps we were lucky. I mean my friends back in England certainly wouldn’t be able to have a water fight on Christmas Day! They wouldn’t be able to sunbath on the trampoline, or drink a cool Buck’s Fizz on the deck.

christmas-village-1088143_960_720As the years went by, I got used to Christmas with just my mum, dad and sister. Our other relatives rang, of course. It still doesn’t feel right, though. Things improved when my nana emigrated from England to live with us. Now, every Christmas, she turns her lounge – and our garden – into a perfect winter wonderland. Even though it’s summer.

I wrote about my nana’s winter wonderland – and the mind-boggling paradox that is the New Zealand Christmas – in my Christmas in New Zealand article. I quite like the Christmas we have now; the traditions we’ve created over last fifteen years. One day, though, I’d love to spend Christmas in Europe again.

wreath-1809335_960_720