Healthcare in New Zealand

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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.

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.

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Well That Was Scary

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I’d never felt an earthquake before. We were just about to go to sleep when the bed started juddering. At first I thought Tim was wriggling about, but it didn’t stop. Then the door started swinging back and forth, back and forth, shrieking like a poltergeist. We looked at each other.

It dawned on us.

By now the bed was swaying, but I was almost too freaked out to leave it. We stumbled into the lounge. The floor was dancing about; I was scared the walls would fall in. Tim said he felt like he was nauseous and I agreed. That or very drunk.

We wondered what to do. It wasn’t stopping. Should we get under the table, or into the cupboard, or just leave the flat entirely? By the time we’d decided it would probably be best to get outside and make for the big, open park across the road, the shaking stopped.

Had it stopped? We had trouble telling.

Yes, it had stopped.

new_zealand_topographic_mapWe immediately turned on Tim’s laptop and went to geonet.org: there had been a severe earthquake near Christchurch.

So severe we’d felt it all the way up in Hamilton.

Memories of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake churned in our stomachs. One hundred and eighty-five people had died in that one.

Our next port of call was Facebook. Everyone had felt it. People up in Auckland had felt it. Our friends in Christchurch were okay. Our friends in Wellington were okay, but there was damage. I found myself breathing a little easier, but we knew there’d be aftershocks.

We decided to get dressed and sleep in our clothes, just in case. I made sure my mobile phone and precious notebook were right next to me. We told each other, “I love you,” with even more fervency than usual. In the end, we felt no aftershocks. Still, getting to sleep was hard.

In the morning, the first thing we did was check the news. Two people had died. Quakes had continued up and down the country. High school exams disrupted; houses destroyed; roads blocked. People have been told to stay clear of the Wellington CBD.

Wow. Small-scale earthquakes happen all the time in New Zealand. My mum’s felt a few. Until last night, I was jealous I’d never felt any. Fifteen years living in New Zealand and I’d never felt the slightest tremor. I’d been in a few earthquake simulators at museums – enjoyed going in them in fact… but now…

I hope it’s not a sign of worse to come.

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Christchurch is still recovering from the last one.

Is New Zealand Backward?

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One thing you always used to hear about New Zealand was how backward it was. Behind the times.

“It’s like how England was in the 1970s,” people would say.

This, apparently, was a good thing. New Zealand was a country living in the past, when life was slower and things were simpler. Certainly, when I arrived in New Zealand as a precocious ten-year-old, in 2001, this seemed at least in part to be true.

In the months leading up to my family’s epic migration, I’d been rather worried that New Zealand wouldn’t have things like electricity. I’d half expected, when I arrived, to see a tribe of excited natives rubbing their bellies and pointing to a large pot. Of course, I quickly found this wasn’t the case, but I still felt like I’d stepped back in time, if only a little.

old-1299417_960_720Coronation Street was years behind for starters, and we had to wait ages for any good television shows to reach us. The latest gadgets were slow to come, but that was never a problem. The biggest blow for me was not being able to find anyone to play Pokémon with. I remember watching an interview with John Cleese: he said that the first time he visited New Zealand, in the 1960s, people hadn’t heard of the banana split!

When I returned to England for a holiday in 2008, seven years after I’d left, I was almost blown away by what I’d been missing out on. What where these newfangled self-service checkouts?! It wasn’t until a few months later that New Zealand started getting them.

New Zealand gets things a lot quicker now than it used to. It’s not just caught up to the rest of the world – in some ways it’s surpassed it. The Internet is to thank, I think. New Zealanders demand to have things, especially television shows, at the same time as the rest of the world these days, and if they’re not delivered, well, people will find other ways of obtaining them.

sword(The Internet also makes it easy to buy goods from overseas – and you can usually get the same goods far cheaper from overseas than you can in New Zealand, even including expensive delivery costs. It amazes me, for example, that I was able to order a Lord of the Rings sword for my dad’s 50th from England – and have it delivered to New Zealand – for less than a quarter of the cost of purchasing the same sword in New Zealand. And to think The Lord of the Rings was made in New Zealand!)

New Zealand actually gets some things before the rest of the world – Eftpos, for example. The country is often used as a guinea-pig market-wise, in part due to its isolated population. We were one of the first countries in the world to get Pokémon Go – something I never thought would happen! (It was released here a full week before it was released in the UK.)

Thinking more widely, New Zealand has often been ahead of the trend socially too. It used to be known as a ‘social laboratory’ – again, due to its small, contained population. Women were granted the right to vote in New Zealand way back in 1893. (For comparison, women weren’t granted full suffrage in the UK until 1928.) New Zealand was also ahead of its time in terms of its treatment of indigenous people.

road-151436_960_720So, to the question of whether New Zealand is backward, I’d have to say… not anymore. It’s caught up quickly in the last few years. In some ways, such as housing, it’s behind; in some ways it’s ahead. Some people still feel like they’ve travelled back in time when they come here, but that’s due, I think, to the tiny population and wide, open spaces New Zealand possesses. (New Zealanders are more relaxed when it comes to work-life balance too – just like in the old days.)

Friends on a New Zealand campervan hire tour were astounded to discover, for example, that the old country road they were driving on was, in fact, a highway. A pair of Canadian hitchhikers we picked up recently had the same reaction. We promised to drop them off in the centre of Hamilton. When we arrived, they said, “This is the city centre?!”

Hamilton is the fifth-largest city in New Zealand.

🙂

The Best Place to Live in New Zealand

Mount Maunganui

Since moving to New Zealand, I’ve lived in four very different places:

1) Waiuku, a sleepy town south of Auckland,

Waiuku

2) Tauranga, a peaceful city in the Bay of Plenty,

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3) Auckland Central, the busiest part of New Zealand’s busiest city, and

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4) Hamilton, a city that’s mocked by the rest of the country, but actually has a lot going for it.

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I’ve also experienced life out at Bethells Beach, as that’s where my partner’s from. He’d tell you it’s the best place to live in the country hands down, but I’m not so sure. Yes, it’s close to a very beautiful beach and boasts magnificent valley views, but it has its disadvantages too.

The mysterious West Coast (Bethells Beach)

So what is the best place to live in New Zealand? Obviously, I can only speak from my own experience, but someone somewhere might find this useful. I’m going to attempt an analysis of the four places I’ve lived, plus Bethells, beginning with…

Waiuku

Waiuku Weather StoneI was ten years old when we found ourselves in Waiuku, a small town surrounded by farmland. It’s located at the southern tip of the Manukau Harbour and is within easy driving distance of several beaches. The two nicest are Awhitu and Kariotahi, which, despite being quite close to one another, are whole worlds apart. Awhitu has calm waters and golden sand, making it perfect for picnics, whereas Kariotahi has wild waves and velvety, black sand, making it perfect for surfing. It’s also perfect for watching the sun set over the Tasman Sea from the cliff tops.

Waiuku Clock TowerIn Waiuku, we lived within easy walking distance of yet another beach, this one called Sandspit. I was always wandering down there. There was a big slide in the water… It’s still there, actually. I went to Sandspit Road School, a primary school that starts at Year 1 and finishes at Year 8. I remember being quite disappointed that I wouldn’t move up to “big school” in Year 7, as I would have done in England, instead having to wait until Year 9. I was bullied quite badly in the mean time. (I believe this had more to do with New Zealand’s – and especially small-town New Zealand’s – tendencies towards anti-intellectualism and tall poppy syndrome, though, than with me being an immigrant. See The People of New Zealand for an account of my first day of school in New Zealand.)

WaiukuDespite the bullying, Waiuku always felt like a safe town to me. My parents were letting me walk places on my own within days of settling there. The town centre was quiet, but lovely, with a few nice cafes and historic buildings. When my family first moved there, we believed it a wonderfully idyllic place. It was only after a few years that we were itching to get out. My parents both taught at Waiuku College, which had a rather high proportion of newly-emigrated teachers. We soon found out that was because no one who was familiar with Waiuku wanted to teach there. The newly-emigrated teachers were, like us, still seeing things through rose-tinted glasses.

The Kentish Hotel, WaiukuNot that rose-tinted, though. I mean, compared to where we’d just come from, Waiuku really was great. People mock it, and it does have its bad aspects, but it’s not a bad place to live. I recently returned there for a few hours with my partner, only to find that it’s actually improved in the ten years since I lived there. And it’s set to grow even further. With the Auckland housing shortage and rocketing house prices, Waiuku’s becoming a popular place to commute from. It’s only a fifty-minute drive from Auckland City. Well, fifty minutes without traffic, that is. With traffic, I shudder to think.

WaiukuOnce, I would have said don’t live in Waiuku. Run from it. But I’m not going to say that now. If you’re after a peaceful, small-town life that’s not too isolated, you could do a lot worse. Waiuku’s problems are the problems you’d expect of any small town; its rewards are many.

Tauranga

Mount Maunganui BeachWhen my family lived in Waiuku, we once went on holiday to Tauranga. I never dreamed we’d end up living there! It’s somewhere rich people live. We were never rich. We lived in a tiny terrace with a shared garden in England, but, lifestyle-wise, we got very lucky, I guess. When we moved to New Zealand in 2001, the exchange rate was three New Zealand dollars for every one pound, so we ended up with a house far nicer than we ever could have had in England. Then, when we moved to Tauranga, my nana sold her house in England and came to live with us, so we could get an even nicer house… Yeah, we got lucky.

Red Square, TaurangaTauranga is a balmy, coastal city that’s an extremely popular retirement destination. I love the fact that while it has all the amenities of a city, it’s still quite small. It feels so laidback, especially compared to Auckland – even Hamilton. It has lots of flash bars and restaurants, and plenty of awesome places to go shopping, but it’s relaxed. You can stroll along the harbourfront and climb Mount Maunganui, and you can take your pick of beaches.

TaurangaOf course, being a city, Tauranga has a few different schools to choose from. The school I ended up at, Otumoetai College, turned out to be a lot better for me than Waiuku College had been. Waiuku College had been too small to offer subjects such as Classical Studies, which turned out to be my favourite subject! There were simply more opportunities at Otumoetai. I wasn’t bullied there, either, although that might be to do with the fact that I was now in Sixth Form, or Year 12, and bullying tends to drop off at that age.

Mount Bench(My little sister got bullied there, though. One boy in particular wouldn’t leave her alone. Until the day she lost it in front of the whole school and started beating him up. The teachers hated to punish her, really.)

I was only in Tauranga for two years before it was time to leave for university. I chose the University of Auckland partly because it’s the only university in New Zealand to be ranked amongst the top 100 universities in the world, and partly because it’s only a three-hour drive from Tauranga. My parents still live in Tauranga, so I go back a lot and, every time I do, I marvel at how wonderful a place it is to live.

Auckland Central

Sky TowerI lived in Auckland Central from 2009 – 2013. Three of those years I spent on Whitaker Place, the most densely populated street in New Zealand. (Parking was a nightmare.) Whitaker Place is five minute’s walk from the main University of Auckland campus, so, naturally, it’s chock-a-block with student accommodation. When I lived there, a single room cost about $200 per week to rent and, knowing Auckland, it’s probably gone up significantly since. (And the Student Loan still only goes up to $176.86 per week.) Yes, Auckland prices are horrendous, but what’s it like to live in the city?

Auckland Domain Winter GardenActually pretty good. Auckland’s a very walkable city, and while its public transport isn’t the best, its buses are adequate. There are several great areas you can walk to from the centre: the Domain, Albert Park, Mount Eden and the harbourfront all come to mind. Being New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland has the most jobs and the most things happening. Not being in Auckland, I miss being able to easily get to so many events. Many tourists and immigrants actually find Auckland a peaceful city, because, comparatively, it is. Fewer than two million people live there!

Auckland Book SwapAuckland feels very fresh as a city. Being right on the sea helps, I suppose. There are so many beaches, and nature walks are only half an hour’s drive away. Auckland was recently ranked as the world’s third most liveable city, because it does have a lot going for it. I managed to enjoy living there and, being a student, I really didn’t have any money to spare. If you do live in Auckland, though, be prepared to spend well over half of what you earn on housing, and be prepared to get stuck in traffic.

Hamilton

Garden Place, HamiltonDue to the Auckland housing crisis, more and more jafas are moving down to Hamilton, which is driving up Hamilton house prices, which is p**sing off all the Hamiltonians now having to compete for flats. (Jafa = Just Another F**king Aucklander.) Whenever this fact is mentioned, my partner and I look awkwardly away and begin to innocently whistle. Hamilton is an hour-and-a-half’s drive south of Auckland, and whilst some people are prepared to commute that far, my partner and I came here because it’s where he happened to score an IT job out of uni.

Waikato River, HamiltonWe also chose Hamilton because we wanted to live far enough away from our parents to feel independent, yet close enough to visit easily. Hamilton is an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Tauranga, where my parents live, and two hours from Bethells Beach, which I’ll talk about next.

That’s the thing about Hamilton. People are always talking about how conveniently close it is to other places. Oh, it’s great if you want to visit Raglan, or Waitomo, or Hobbiton… As for Hamilton itself, well…

Casabella Lane, HamiltonWhen we said we were moving here, people laughed at us. Hamilton is a small city, larger than Tauranga, but seen somehow as being comprised of farmers with ideas above their station. People mock it as the STD capital of New Zealand, even though statistics show that it’s not. True, the city centre of Hamilton isn’t particularly nice, except for Garden Place and Casabella Lane (in the picture,) there are a lot of beggars, and there’s not all that much to do, but, in all seriousness, Hamilton doesn’t deserve the reputation it has.

Chinese Garden, Hamilton GardensHamilton has three great things going for it: Firstly, the Hamilton Gardens. They’re officially amongst the best gardens in the world and they’re free to enter. Secondly, the Waikato River. While it’s polluted by farm run-off to the extent that you wouldn’t want to swim in it, (though people still do,) it looks very pretty, running directly through the city with plenty of trees, parks and bicycle paths along its banks. Thirdly, Hamilton Zoo is just as good as good as Auckland Zoo, if not better. Hamilton’s also got a lake that’s pleasant to walk around, walking distance from the city centre. Just don’t go there at night.

Parana Park Childrens Garden, HamiltonMy partner and I actually quite enjoy living here. It’s nice to be able to walk and cycle places. (We only use the car for visiting our parents.) It’s got a few excellent playgrounds, (not that we’re planning on having kids any time soon,) and nice-looking houses. Whenever we go back to Auckland, my partner looks out of the window and goes, “Wow, look at the all the tall buildings and flashy lights! I’m not used to it anymore!”

Bethells Beach

Bethells BeachAlthough we met when we both lived on Whitaker Place, attending uni, my partner is from Bethells Beach, a community out in the wop-wops, on the very west coast of Auckland. It’s a rugged place, full of aging hippies living alternative lifestyles. It’s so peaceful. The only sound you occasionally hear echoing through the valley, my partner once joked, is that of a police helicopter searching for marijuana patches. Also known as Te Henga, Bethells Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in the whole of New Zealand. I’m not biased. Well, I am, but it’s not just me. So many films, television series and music videos use Bethells for a location, especially those in the fantasy genre. It has a magical quality, something that just draws people to it… The community at Bethells is closer than in any place I’ve lived. People don’t just know their neighbours, they invite them to parties. They even have bands down at the beach in summer.

Bethells BeachBethells is surrounded by the emerald bush of the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park. Whenever we’re driving there, when we get to the edge of Auckland City and the trees start coming up around us, my partner simply sighs in relief. Of course, its isolation is both a pro and a con. It’s a half-hour drive along narrow, winding and sometimes unsealed roads to the nearest shops, further to a big supermarket. It’s ironic that people trying to lead such environmentally friendly lifestyles are forced to use so much petrol. Until recently, the Internet out at Bethells was almost unusable, but it’s getting better. The biggest drawback for me is all the mosquitoes, but apart from that, life at Bethells is almost perfect.

Bethells BeachIf you love nature, want to know your neighbours, enjoy a quiet life, want beach views, don’t get car sick and don’t mind long drives to buy food or, indeed, go anywhere else at all, Bethells Beach is a great place to live.

Tauranga Rocks 4I honestly think you could be happy living anywhere I’ve mentioned. I think it’s obvious, though, that my favourite is Tauranga. It’s peaceful, with beaches right on your doorstep, not to mention Mount Maunganui, and other nature walks an easy drive away, but with all the convenience that cities bring.

10 Strange Things I Found When I Moved To New Zealand

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I moved to New Zealand when I was ten years old. Before that I lived in a small town in England, so while moving to New Zealand wasn’t a total shock to the system, there were still some things I found strange. Here’s a list of ten:

1) Houses without stairs

family-home-153089_640As someone who grew up surrounded by tall, narrow houses with pitiful gardens, the fact that New Zealand’s houses are mostly single-storied and set apart from one another threw me at first. The ten-year-old me actually started missing stairs. I was delighted to find that one of my new Kiwi friends lived in a multi-storied house! Of course, this was in a small town in New Zealand. The new houses going up around Auckland all have stairs, being built tall and narrow to save space.

2) People going around barefoot

pedicure-297792_640No one goes around barefoot in England, except at the beach. In New Zealand – or, at least, in small towns in New Zealand – people go to school barefoot, and down the high street, and round the supermarket… Kiwis found the ten-year-old me strange because I hadn’t got toughened, hobbit-like soles. People laughed at my inability to go barefoot, but I haven’t really gotten any better at it in the last fourteen years.

3) Ferns the size of trees

fern-159715_640Well, actually, they are trees. The tree fern is the most iconic plant in New Zealand. They’re everywhere. In England, ferns are low-growing plants you don’t take much notice of. In New Zealand, they tower over you. The ten-year-old me used to expect dinosaurs to come crashing out of them! Today, whenever I return from overseas and see tree ferns at the side of the road, I know I’m home.

4) Primary schools without uniforms

boy-310099_640There are probably a lot of New Zealand primary schools that have uniforms, but no uniform seems to be more common. The ten-year-old me was delighted to find I no longer had to wear a uniform. In England, our primary school uniform had ties and everything – even for girls! And, if you were a girl, you were only just allowed to wear trousers in winter. Being forced to wear a skirt in an English winter is just cruel.

5) Warm winters

girl-162122_640In England, hot weather is rare. When it does get hot, however, it gets hotter than New Zealand. That’s too hot. New Zealand gets almost too hot in summer, but is nice the rest of the year. What I found strange when I first moved here was how warm the winters are. Often, New Zealand in winter is warmer than England summer. (And, don’t forget, it’s happening at the same time. Relatives on the phone get so jealous!)

6) Houses without radiators

stove-575997_640New Zealand houses aren’t built with radiators. Instead, they have wood-burning stoves. When me, my mum and my seven-year-old sister first arrived in New Zealand, my dad picked us up from the airport and took us to the one-storied house he’d rented. As soon as my little sister set foot in our new lounge, she flopped down in front of the wood-burner and let out a disappointed wail: “That’s a really small television!” I should point out that, immediately to the left, was a big television.

7) People talking funny

sheep-303453_640When we first moved to New Zealand, the ten-year-old me sometimes found it quite difficult to understand what people were saying. The Kiwi accent is like a less stressed version of Australian. For example, to me, the word ‘ten’ sounded like ‘tin’, and the word ‘deck’ sounded like… a story I’ve told again and again for the last fourteen years. Being told by a fellow ten-year-old to go and sit on the dick… anyway.

8) Mosquitoes

insect-158565_640I got bit so much my first year in New Zealand! I started to dread summer, because it meant the arrival of the mosquitoes. I would bath myself in repellent yet, somehow, still end up with itchy splotches that drove me insane. The last few years, though, it hasn’t been so bad. Maybe you get used to them? People often have citronella lamps in their gardens here, so you can sit outside during the long summer evenings and not be bothered by them so much.

9) Streets with grass verges

grass-309733_640Where I lived in England, there were no grass verges. The narrow, terrace-lined streets were grey from edge to edge. Half the pavement was taken up with cars parked nose-to-tail down both sides. It was effectively a one-lane road, as you had to drive carefully down the centreline to get to your house. When I moved to New Zealand, I was struck by how wide and pretty the streets were. And everyone has garages, so you don’t have the street parking problem.

10) Beaches with black sand

The ten-year-old me had never even heard of black sand! The first time I felt it I just luxuriated in it. It was like velvet. It gets really hot, of course, but my first New Zealand beach visit was in winter. I remember my dad explaining how the sand was volcanic, which just made it seem more exotic and wonderful! When I lived in England, beach visits were a rare treat, and the beaches were always crowded and tacky. In New Zealand, the beaches are just beautiful.

Bethells Beach

Bethells Beach, Auckland

Why New Zealand Made Me Write

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I’ve nearly finished my novel. (For real this time.) And I’m terrified. This world and these characters have been consuming my life for nearly two decades. (I’m only twenty-four.) They’ve been my reason for living – my only reason until I met Tim. But the novel might never have happened if my family hadn’t moved to New Zealand.

When I was a little kid, living in England, I never dreamed of being a writer. My parents were teachers, so I wanted to be a teacher. I went to dance lessons, so I wanted to be a ballerina. I went to violin lessons, so I wanted to be Vanessa-Mae. Then, when I was six, my nana gave a notebook. It was a very ordinary-looking notebook, but it had a hardcover. That made all the difference.

Books with hardcovers, my six-year-old brain thought, are for Very Special Stories. So I sat down and I wrote a Very Special Story with a Carefully Drawn Front Cover and Everything. The story was called Sarah and Anne. (It was supposed to be Sarah and Annie, but on my Carefully Drawn Front Cover I’d accidentally missed out the ‘i’ and no, Mum, I couldn’t just squeeze one in – that would ruin it!)

book-730479_640It wasn’t a novel.

It was simply a piece of meandering prose about the daily lives of a girl and her favourite doll, who could talk. (I’d recently seen Toy Story.) It was finished when I reached the last page of the notebook. Nevertheless it was a masterpiece.

I presented it to my mum and, without really thinking about it, went to the local and stationer’s and bought a second notebook.

Soon I was staying up long into the night, hastily flicking my bedside light off whenever I heard my parents’ footsteps on the stairs, filling notebook after notebook with the adventures of Sarah and Anne. I still didn’t dream of being a writer. I just had a story in my head that wouldn’t stop and needed exorcising.

fairy-tales-671406_640As the years went by, my stories – well, one continuous story, really – took on the influences of what I was reading. It had the children-from-our-world-entering-a-magical-world of Narnia, the fantastic castle of Harry Potter, the enchanted forest of The Magic Faraway Tree… It was also part-diary: the mundane things that happened to me/Sarah at school side-by-side with the fantasy.

But something was about to happen to me that wasn’t so mundane.

When I was nine years old, my parents told me that we were moving to New Zealand. My world was shattered. Everything was gone: my best friend, my grandma, my dance lessons, my violin lessons… because the small town we moved to in New Zealand didn’t have any dance schools or violin teachers. I was lonely. I was just so, so lonely. And bored.

book-2869_640Boredom was the thing, really. I was sitting around one day, no friends to hang out with; no dances or violin tunes to be practising, and I thought to myself: what can I do? Well I’d obviously found writing enjoyable enough. Why not do that? But PROPERLY this time. I’d write a novel. A proper novel. How hard could it be? It was just something to pass the time; it’d be finished by Christmas.

But a novel about what? Try as I might, I couldn’t think of anything. Then I felt a little tug on the back of the T-shirt of my mind. “I’m still here,” Anne said.

“Yes, but you’re a doll,” I told her. “I’m too old for stories about talking toys now. They’re stupid.”

“But I’m not a toy,” she said. “None of us are. We’re shape-shifting magical folk. And we’re here to protect you.”

“From what?” I asked… and the novel was born.

Creepy Porcelain Doll

My own picture, (the rest in this article are off pixabay.com) featuring the inspiration for Anne, my porcelain Alice in Wonderland doll

Despite the fantasy elements, it was still largely autobiographical. Sarah was an English girl whose family had moved to a small town in New Zealand. Although her father’s reasons for shifting the family had been rather different to mine. Sarah’s route to school and the school itself were the same as mine. Then there were her friends…

I must admit, loneliness drove me to use the names and basic looks of some of the friends I’d had in England. By writing about them, I felt like I was still interacting with them. Of course, they soon developed into their own characters, separate from the people they were based on, but I wouldn’t blame the people they were based on if they felt a little freaked out.

Years later, I reconnected with some of them on social media. It was a weird experience for me. I didn’t tell them, but I almost expected them to be like my characters. They weren’t. It was worse meeting one of them in person – I didn’t see England again until I was seventeen, so the differences were quite staggering.

The characters have all grownup with me, you see. When I finished the first version of that first novel, I was older, wiser and had better taste in writing, so I had to write it again, better. Then, when I finished the second version, I was older, wiser and had better taste in writing… so… you get the idea. Each time I finished it, I was completely embarrassed by the juvenile crap that the younger me had written.

mortality-401222_640But in-between all the re-writes of the first novel, I wrote sequels to it. The characters aged as I did. It got out of control. The world grew and grew. It got darker. Writing was no longer my hobby, it was my life. I didn’t choose where the stories went, they ran ahead of me, dragging me in the dirt behind them, scraped and buffeted by self-criticism, but unable to stop.

This is the final version of my first novel. I’m nearly finished. Maybe, someday soon, I can regain some sanity. And by ‘sanity’ I mean ‘mental health’, because writers should be a little insane. It’s got to the point now where I couldn’t do anything else with my life if I tried. Writing is the only thing I’m good at.

I often wonder what my life would have been like if we’d stayed in England. Would writing have become my life’s passion if I’d still had my other hobbies? Would I have been bullied in the same way, forced to spend high school lunchtimes hiding in the library, where it was natural to read and write? Life might have been easier if my self-esteem wasn’t so wrapped up in writing.

Kuirau Park

One of my pictures from Kuirau Park in Rotorua

I also think about how much New Zealand, the country itself, has influenced the world of my novel. Have the attitudes of my characters changed? The landscape of the world? I know that there’s somewhere in my second novel that was very consciously inspired by the magical glowworm caves of Waitomo. And another place inspired by the volcanic terrains of Rotorua, Taupo and White Island.

I haven’t used any of the magical creatures from Maori folklore so far, although at some point there is an old woman with removable fingers of fire, obviously inspired by Mahuika from the Maui legends. I remember that story from a Year Eight art class, and I wish I’d been told more about Maori folklore years ago.

One of my favourite fantasy writers, Juliet Marillier, is from New Zealand, but she mainly writes novels inspired by Celtic folklore. I suppose I take my influences from lots of different places, though there’s a certain amount of, as Terry Pratchett put it, re-arranging the furniture in Tolkien’s attic. But then all fantasy is.

(To set my nana’s mind at rest, my book also has a firm basis in the real world. Not that what happens in the fantasy world isn’t real – you just ask Neil Gaiman. I mean that one of its most significant settings is a small town in New Zealand. (My nana thinks fantasy is a waste of time because none of the things happening are real. It took long enough to convince her that ‘writer’ is a respectable career prospect, but ‘fantasy writer’ may need more work!))

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