Summer’s End

Summer ended abruptly this year. One day it was warm and bright and cicadas were chirping outside; the next it was cold and dark and my mum had cancer. I mean a month’s worth of rain fell in a day and a night.

There’s flooding, of course, and warnings of more severe thunderstorms to come. Rather ironically, Auckland is now facing a water shortage – unsettled silt in the dams due to flooding, apparently. And my mum has cancer.

It’s all I’ve been able to think about for days.

There was a brief respite when, during a shower, I heard a knocking at the door. I hurried to answer it, flustered, dripping, and with a towel held awkwardly around me, only to find that it was a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

They asked me, quite patronisingly, if my husband was at work.

Okay, one, I’m not married; my BOYFRIEND is at work. Two, I’m also at work, actually, as I work from home. Three, THIS IS THE SECOND TIME IN TWO MONTHS THAT YOU’VE GOTTEN ME OUT OF THE SHOWER.

It didn’t even occur to me until after I’d gotten rid of them that some people find solace in religion at times like this. I’m not that kind of person. I’m the kind of person that obsesses over the worst-case scenario of any given situation. And I’ve been in this situation before. Three years ago, my partner’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. Two years ago, she died.

“I know you’re thinking ‘not again’,” my mum told me over the phone.

She knows me so well.

Fortunately, my boyfriend and I already had plans to visit my parents this weekend. We booked the coach a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, my parents live right beneath the big, red, swirling thing on the ‘severe weather warning’ map. The road there is going to be… interesting.

***

I’m on the coach. The clouds are such a deep grey I can barely see to write. (The light above me isn’t working.) The driver says we’re going a different route because of a collapsed bridge. My mum had surgery again yesterday. I rang today, but she felt too sick to talk to me. Dad’s picking us up when we get there. I don’t know why I even tried to write.

***

I’m at home. My parent’s home. It’s still weird calling Hamilton home. According to our flatmate, the pavement in front of our house is knee-deep in water. It’s not actually too bad here. Weather-wise. There’s more of a depression inside my dad than outside the window. That was a bad joke, but ‘storm’ wouldn’t have worked because he’s not angry. I can barely hear him his words are so heavy.

***

I’m at the hospital. Mum’s good. Well, as good as you can be when you’ve had two major surgeries in as many weeks. She’s had chunks out of her legs and lymph nodes out of her groin, but she’s up and laughing and worrying about her hair.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “it’s only gone all flat and greasy.”

She laughed. She tried to show Dad a picture of her stitched up shin, but he couldn’t bear to look.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “it’s only like Nightmare Before Christmas.”

She managed to do a lap of the toilet block with a walker. (When she came round the corner, I held out a coat like a flag.) She’s doing so well it’s hard to believe she’s got cancer at all. Maybe she hasn’t anymore. Maybe they caught it early enough and it’s all been cut out. Maybe she won’t have to have radiation or chemo. Maybe her legs haven’t been screwed up for life. (Because, you know, removing lymph nodes isn’t exactly good for the body.)

Maybe. We’ll see.

It’s the ‘we’ll see’ part that’s driving me crazy.

***

The old woman in the hospital bed next to my mum’s said, “I’m very fastidious when it comes to cleaning. I can’t stand to have anything crooked; I’m always straightening things. I’m a bit AC/DC, you know.”

Mum whispered that to me. She knew I’d want to write it down.

***

I’m back in Hamilton. And guess what. IT’S SUMMER AGAIN. It’s warm and bright and cicadas are chirping outside. Typical bloody New Zealand weather and, I might add, not at all symbolic. Mum’s still in hospital.

Sorry for the patchy blog post this week, but I’m feeling too weird to fix it.

10 Reasons Living in New Zealand is AWESOME

I moved to New Zealand with my family twelve years ago. At first, I hated my parents for wrenching me away from Mother England, but now I wouldn’t have it any other way. New Zealand is a great country to live in and here’s why:

1)      Nice weather

Somewhere Over the RainbowIt’s common for New Zealanders to complain about the weather. The phrase ‘four seasons in one day’ is used annoyingly often, yet while it can be gloriously sunny in the morning, fooling you into leaving your jacket at home, and then bucket it down in the afternoon, it’s rarely bad for long. Coming from Britain, I can confidently say that New Zealand’s weather is better. It is warmer, drier, sunnier and generally more cheerful. There’s a reason New Zealand’s famous for barbecues and Britain’s not.

2)      Beautiful beaches

Beach 1Nearly three-quarters of all New Zealanders live within five kilometres of a beach, most of which are ten times more beautiful than any beach that Britain has to offer. They are less spoiled for starters, boasting not only pristine sands of the yellow and white variety, but luxurious soft, black volcanic sand. They range from wild, rugged surfing beaches to relaxing swimming and sunbathing beaches, all with picturesque geological features. In Britain, going to the beach was a rare treat; now I can walk to one whenever I want. New Zealand’s beaches are truly a wonder.

3)      Lots of green countryside

In Britain, one of the main things you hear about New Zealand is how green it is. Mostly, this is meant in the sense of the ‘clean, green’ environmentally friendly image, but New Zealand is also green in a literal sense: there is a great deal of protected, unspoiled countryside. Kiwis seem to have an innate appreciation for nature – the great outdoors; God’s own – and pursuits such as camping and tramping are very popular. New Zealand’s native bush is incredibly special and the ‘bush walk’ is something you cannot escape if you come here.

4)      Unique wildlife

New Zealand Tour 2003 003Contained within New Zealand’s bush is a collection of endangered birds that exist nowhere else in the world, the most famous of which is the kiwi. I have never encountered a kiwi in the wild, but seeing a mating pair at Auckland Zoo was an enchanting (and highly amusing) experience. I’ve seen plenty of other examples of New Zealand’s unique wildlife actually in the wild, though. My two favourite native birds are tuis – songbirds with shining plumage adorned by a duet of white baubles at the throat – and keas – alpine parrots with devilish intelligence and barefaced cheek. New Zealand is also the best place in the world to swim with dolphins.

5)      Exotic volcanic activity

White Island 018Depending on your point of view, an abundance of volcanic activity may not seem like a reason to live in a country, but everything – the threat of natural disaster included – is relative, and I for one love living within easy driving distance of the utterly magical sights of geysers, hot pools, mud pools and lava flows. Britain seems boring by comparison. There’s something mysteriously exciting about the eggy smell; the steam rising around you; the thought that the hidden underworld is close at hand. Places like Rotorua and White Island are literally on the edges of the earth.

6)      Small population

Culture 3New Zealand is famous for being a small country – its population has only recently broken the four million mark. Compare that with Britain’s excess of sixty million. But what many people don’t realise is the actual land area of New Zealand is larger than the land area of Britain. No wonder it seems like Brits are perpetually elbowing each other out of the way to get to where they want to be. The people of New Zealand actually have space to breathe. To be individuals. To live.

7)      Friendly people

armageddon 13 001croppedKiwis are an undeniably friendly race. When I first moved to New Zealand, it was almost disconcerting how interested in me strangers were. Brits are so cold by comparison. They also whinge while kiwis maintain a more positive attitude. The people of New Zealand are not so judgemental – image is less important to them – and anything goes. New Zealand has no class system. People from all walks of life end up here. To me, it’s always felt like a safe place, but I didn’t realise how much I’d come to take that security for granted until I returned to England for a visit a few years ago. Kiwis smile at you in the street. If there’s anywhere in the world you can rely on the kindness of strangers, it’s New Zealand.

8)      Laid-back lifestyle

I was a child when my family immigrated to New Zealand, so while I can confidently say that school in New Zealand is easier than school in England, I have never experienced the demands of working life in any country other than New Zealand. However, every adult I’ve talked to who has tells me that life in New Zealand is far simpler than elsewhere in the western world. The wages may be lower, but the quality of life is definitely higher. Life is lived at a slower pace. There is a healthier work-life balance. In New Zealand, expectations are lower – in a good way. There is less pressure. Good enough is good enough. Go with the flow. She’ll be right.

9)      Multicultural society

Montana walkNew Zealand is a country of immigrants – even the Māori, the native inhabitants, are relatively recent arrivals. It is nice to live in a place where tribal culture and the values that go with it are still in evidence. The presence of Māori names, art, customs and tourist experiences make New Zealand unique in the world, not just another European/Americanised western country. Of course, New Zealand is a Europeanised country, but it has so many influences from so many places around the world, especially Asian countries, that it’s a complete melting pot. It has an abundance of wonderful and, compared to Britain at least, relatively cheap restaurants that serve delicious fusions of tastes. Since moving here, I’ve become a real foodie.

10)   It’s already the perfect place for a holiday

dunedin3 027New Zealand is the ultimate holiday destination – even if you already live in it. The country is so varied you can never tire of exploring it, so buy a campervan in New Zealand and get out there! Seriously, you can’t drive anywhere in New Zealand without passing at least one campervan on the road – and it’s easy to see why. This is not a country you can experience from one spot. The North Island is so different from the South; the east coast so different from the west, and it’s down the side roads that the special places lie. So my advice would be to hire a campervan in New Zealand when you come, be it to live or just for a holiday. One thing is guaranteed either way: you’ll never want to go back. Life in New Zealand is AWESOME.

P.S. – This is a list from my new website, NZ Top List. Check it out to browse more lists about life in New Zealand and the many fantastic places to go.

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The Great Kiwi Barbecue

Here’s another difference between Britain and New Zealand: barbecues.

Before my family moved to New Zealand, I’d only ever been to one barbecue, and we didn’t spend much of it outside. (I remember we were actually forced outside by our friend’s elderly golden Labrador letting one off in the lounge.)

We’ve spent much more time outside since moving to New Zealand, and had barbecues beyond counting. Of course, the weather is to thank. (As I write this, in the middle of winter, I’m sunbathing on my parents’ deck, and the sunlight is glaring off the pages of my notebook, and the cats are sprawled out next to me, and I hear a tui in one of the trees… I suppose, to be fair, Tauranga is one of the sunniest places in New Zealand.)

If I ever go back to Britain, I’ll miss Kiwi barbecues. They’re awesome.

You’ve got the smell of the oil, the smoke, the caramelising meat, the citronella to keep the mozzies at bay, the waft of the cool potato salad as the cling film is lifted off; the cats darting towards us when they realise dad’s firing up the hotplate. And the steak. The STEAK. It’d better be done no more than a minute on each side or so help me!

IMG_1078The wine, the lager, the ginger beer for the kids, the kebabs, the sauce, the corn on the cob oozing juices down your chin… I know I’m just listing now, but there’s so much to a great barbecue, and not just the food and the aromas. There’s the sitting around talking as the sun goes down, lighting the candles and the brazier and letting the darkness place a comfortable blanket around us. We feel warmly full and slightly drowsy, drinking and talking and not wanting it to end. Perhaps there’s ice-cream; there’s always laughter.

The barbecue is a very typically New Zealand thing, although it is one of the ways in which New Zealand is similar to Australia. (Sorry, Kiwis.) When a Brit does an impression of an Australian, they’ll invariable call people Bruce and say, “Throw another shrimp on the barbie.” No matter how culturally accurate or inaccurate this is, it shows how the act of barbecuing is a very laid back form of cooking, perfect for both Australians and New Zealanders.

It’s great for bringing people together: everyone can contribute with minimal effort, just bring a pack of something to slap on the hotplate. The common expression here is, “Bring a plate,” an instruction that often confuses recent immigrants, us among them. We, and so many others before and since, thought it meant, “We don’t have enough plates for all our guests, so please bring your own.” So, much to our new friend’s amusement, we showed up to their barbecue with an empty plate each, only to be told that what they actually meant was, “Bring some food for everyone to share.”

Of course, we don’t just have barbecues in each other’s gardens. It’s common in New Zealand to have a barbecue on the beach – indeed; a barbecue on the beach is the traditional image of the Kiwi Christmas Dinner.  The barbecue is such a Kiwi icon that many beaches, parks and New Zealand campgrounds have permanent barbecues that are free for the public to use. Sometimes there is a small fee, and sometimes you have to book ahead, but it’s a fantastic idea and one that tourists should take advantage of more often.

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If you ever have a holiday in New Zealand, you absolutely have to have a barbecue. I’ve found it’s a brilliant way to eat when you hire a campervan – it gets you out of the tiny campervan kitchen while retaining that important quality of self-cooked meals: cheapness. You can find a recipe for a Great Kiwi Barbecue here.

And it really is the best way to eat steak.

Four Seasons of New Zealand Weather

You often hear New Zealand weather described as “four seasons in one day” and I’m sick of it.

Not the weather, the saying.

Yes, it’s true the weather’s changeable – my jacket’s on and off like a Game of Thrones costume – but the prevailing conditions are usually sunny, and winter never seems to come, except in the south of the South Island.

Let me put it this way: in Britain, you can’t not have a big, warm coat; here, I didn’t even own one for years, and now I own one I don’t ever wear it, or my scarf, or gloves, or a fleecy hat. Most New Zealand houses don’t even have radiators.

You can’t go around quoting “four seasons in one day” when the weather merely switches from sun to rain, or windy to not windy. It’s three seasons in one day, tops.

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Honestly, kiwis have nothing to complain about.

Brits get so little sunshine they’re all miserable and Vitamin D-deficient. Something like seventy-five percent of days are overcast, whereas in New Zealand I find myself hoping for a bit of cloud cover so I don’t get fried on my way to the shops. (Summer’s only just ended here. It lasted well into autumn this year and, frankly, the rain came as a relief.)

New Zealand gets so much sunshine you have to be careful. My friend’s mum’s known exchange students from Africa with extremely dark skin, who’ve come to New Zealand and been sunburned for the first time in their lives! I’m sure you know all about the hole in the ozone layer, the legacy of mankind’s reckless use of CFCs, which New Zealand was rather unfairly burdened with. It means you absolutely have to wear sunscreen in summer (and on sunny days in spring and autumn, as this year reminded me,) and nothing less than factor thirty will do. Also, you need a hat, or you’ll get a headache and a burned parting that’ll hurt like hell in the shower and look like bad dandruff when it starts to peel.

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New Zealand’s got one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, about four times higher than Britain, thanks to all those nasty UV-B rays let in by the depleted ozone. But if you don’t let yourself get some sun exposure, you risk other diseases like rickets. You just can’t win!

All this to say New Zealand is hands down warmer than Britain, often at the same time, despite the seasons being the opposite way round. Yup, a New Zealand winter can be warmer than a British summer. My mum still marvels that she can sit on our deck in shorts and T-shirts in the middle of winter here.

Sometimes it does get “too” warm, which is why my favourite season is spring, but I can tell you that Australia is far worse. I went on holiday to Brisbane a few years ago. It was the middle of winter and you could have cooked bacon and eggs on the pavement. I don’t think I could live there. Living in New Zealand is just right.

A sunbathing seal

And this sunbathing seal seems to agree!

The weather in New Zealand means you can do so many more outdoor activities here than in Britain, such as barbecues. Before I moved to New Zealand, I’d attended a grand total of one barbecue in my life. I couldn’t tell you how many we’ve had since. Partying outside is just what you do here, and when it gets cooler you light a fire. But, as my dad learned, you do not want to throw a couple of giant candles onto that fire.

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It did look cool, though.

The mostly-quite-warm weather also means that camping in New Zealand is generally a much more pleasant experience than it is in Britain, though I still prefer to do it in the comfort of a campervan!

Yes, the weather makes for a perfect New Zealand holiday, but be warned if you wanted to come in the “off” season: in winter it still rains a lot. Doesn’t mean you can’t go out – my birthday’s in winter, (which is messed up because I was born in summer,) and my celebrations have never been disrupted by rain. Besides, more rain means fewer tourists, and one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had was swimming in a hot pool in the rain.

Wonderful as the New Zealand weather is, however, there’s one aspect that – even after eleven years – doesn’t sit right with me: the idea of Christmas on the beach.

Trade your turkey for barbecued prawns; your snowflake jumper for a bikini – actually that does sound nice, but, trust me, the novelty soon wears off.

Christmas is a time for tradition, and spraying water at my little sister in a sun-soaked garden with the water blaster I’d just unwrapped simply wasn’t part of my Christmas tradition. We should have been having a snowball fight, not a water fight! Better, we should have been indoors, all snug and cosy. The sky should have been dark, so the candles looked pretty. All our family should have been there, not twelve thousand miles away.

That first year was hard.

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We still make Mum do our traditional Christmas dinner every year, even though it’s much too hot and humid to eat such a meal. We still spend Christmas resolutely at home, not at the beach, even though the sun beckons.

My uncle’s coming this Christmas. It’ll be the first time since leaving England that a relative who doesn’t live with us will be with us actually on Christmas day. I’m excited, but the picture still won’t be entirely complete.

I miss snow. Not that we got proper snow all that often in Retford.

I miss “ice-skating” on the frozen puddles in the street.

I miss going for walks along the iced-over canal, all wrapped up and wearing wellies, laughing at the ducks skidding along and that big, white swan that came in to land, slid uncoordinatedly for a bit, and crashed through the ice with a plop.

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My family are so desperately nostalgic for snow that, one winter, when we were driving up Desert Road, one of the highest roads in the country, and came across some, we got out of the car and revelled in it. I’d forgotten how much I loved the soft crunch snow makes under your feet! Unfortunately, we weren’t dressed for snow and soon got very cold. I’d forgotten how snow makes your toes tingle painfully inside your shoes. I’d forgotten that even snow loses its novelty after a while. It’s pretty to look at, but I’d forgotten how uncomfortable it was to be in.

Maybe Christmas in New Zealand isn’t so bad, I thought.

But by the time Christmas came around again, I was back to dreaming of snow.

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