Six months in – here are the highlights

This week our family will hit two important milestones. First up, Olly turns 40 (gasp). And second, it will be six months exactly since we got on a plane and travelled 12,000 miles to our new home.  It feels like a long time since then. When we left, Belle was a crawling baby, still on the boob who we could just about squeeze into a bassinet on the flight. Now she’s a walking, almost-talking toddler. We arrived in the heat of summer and when I think back to those first weeks in our temporary accommodation I just remember us sitting around in very few clothes sweating which seems another world from the brisk albeit sunny days of midwinter.

During those six months we’ve come to feel quite settled. Our house kind of feels like our home – OK, we still moan about the disgusting carpet and other things we’d change if it were actually our house.  And the streets of our neighbourhood and beyond are coming to feel more and more familiar. But it’s telling that our plans for the second milestone of the week, Olly’s 40th, are quite muted. After some thought we decided it would feel less sad to pretend it’s not an important birthday than attempt a party lacking in old friends and family. Instead we’ll have a nice family day and a meal out and have the mother of all parties when we get home.

It’s not that we don’t have any friends here. We’re lucky that we already knew and have been introduced some lovely people  but I think I underestimated how important the social networks you’ve built up over many years are and how long it takes you to get anywhere close to those in a new place. I mentioned a similar thought to some friends in the UK recently and they said they felt the same way about their recent move to Hertfordshire, which (I think) was a comfort.

Anyway, rather than dwell on the fact that WE REALLY MISS EVERYONE STILL and sometimes-I-get-quite-lonely-actually, I thought I’d celebrate the highlights of the first 6 months of our New Zealand adventure. So here they are:

  1. The quality of life – it’s undoubtable that life in central Auckland is more pleasant than life in central Tottenham. The air is cleaner, I see the sea every day, the sun shines a lot and whilst I occasionally have to tell Elsie to avoid some dog poo, the streets are not strewn with it and I certainly haven’t come across any human excrement yet. It’s quiet too. I don’t think I’ve heard a siren once from our house. And I know the ‘Nam has many things Auckland can’t offer – like affordable, good humous for one…and yes, I know it’s unreasonable for a white middle class person to moan about poverty and deprivation in an area they’ve bought a house, whose value is rapidly appreciating on the back of their dreamed-of gentrification…but drudging around tough urban streets with a buggy and two kids was hard, even though my life was far more cushioned than many of the people around me.

    Bridal veil falls near Raglan. = Queen is Dead ear-worm.
    Bridal veil falls near Raglan. = Queen is Dead ear-worm.
  2. The holidays – we’ve had three long weekends away now to Coromandel, the Bay of Islands and Raglan on the west coast. All have been lovely – stunning coastline, gorgeous forests, incredible waterfalls. It’s fantastic to have these places two or three hours drive out of the city. Plus living in a different place and only for a finite time gives us the impetus to explore more. Each time we’ve gone away from Aukland  we’ve made a point of travelling in a different direction. Given that Aukcland’s located on an isthmus, it’s probably not possible to do this many more times but it’s been good for the first six months.
  3. Elsie’s kindergarten – or ‘kindy’ as it’s inevitably shortened to here. The kindergarten system is a cherished part of kiwi life. Lots of New Zealanders I’ve spoken to have very fond memories of their time there. Elsie’s is just round the corner and she loves it and asks excitedly every day, “Is it kindy day today?” On paper, there isn’t so much different from the nursery she went to at home – the kids are free to roam between activities and there’s no formal learning. But there’s a huge sense of empowerment given at kindy, really encouraging children to have a go and be independent. I’ve heard the teachers offering  kids advice on dispute resolution for example rather than stepping in to break up trouble. Or my favourite, some days a carpentry work bench is put out with REAL TOOLS and children are left to play at it UNSUPERVISED. Whilst i found that fairly petrifying at first,  I now think it’s brilliant. I mean, talk about allowing kids to learn their own boundaries.
  4. Work – in the last month I’ve landed a freelance contract with a UK organisation I used to work for. It’s only a couple of days a week for a few months but it’s a start and has possibly saved me from going a bit bonkers. I can say unequivocally now that being a stay at home parent is not for me, especially in a new place where I don’t have many friends. I’d like to write something witty here but the huge sense of relief I’m still feeling about not having to look after the kids every day is way too serious to joke about.

    Yes people - THAT is what colour a cuppa should be.
    Yes people – THAT is what colour a cuppa should be.
  5. Visitors – as some readers will have seen on Facebook, we had our first family visitation this month. Woohoo! My parents were the most impatient relatives and so did the schlep first. It was so lovely having them here. So good in fact that I barely felt irritated by them in the whole three weeks they stayed. Plus they brought us tea bags which, like for so many British ex-pats across the world, has become our entry-tax on guests. Saying goodbye was not as hard as I’d imagined and in a couple of weeks a dear old friend of Olly’s is coming for a short visit. I’m not sure he realises yet that he is Olly’s big birthday night out. Good luck Pete!
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Tramping in the rain

Last weekend I did something which I’ve been planning for a while. Something which I’ve kept secret from family and friends, except those closest to me. It’s been difficult for me to talk about because I’m afraid people might think that I’ve become a nerd-girl. But now I’m just going to out myself. OK, here goes…I’ve joined a tramping club. There, I said it. That’s not a trampolining club by the way. I don’t think anybody would let me in their trampolining club. I’d only do about five bounces then run out of puff and feck-off. No, ‘tramping’ is Kiwi for rambling. So yes, my friends – I have joined a rambling club.

I joined because I thought if we’re only in this country for a limited time, I damn well want to do some walking and see some of its great outdoors. Yes, we can do little ambles with the kids but its not the same. And yes, I may in time make friends who I could go out tramping with but I want to do some now. So when I saw a poster in the library for the Women’s Outdoor Pursuits Society or WOPS, I thought hey, I’m a woman and I like the outdoors – maybe that’s for me!

I went home and keenly looked-up WOPS online. Photos and videos of recent tramps assured me that the society would take me to some beautiful places, all in and around Greater Auckland. Yet as I scoured the images I don’t think I could find a face of anyone who looked under 45 and many seemed a lot older.  The FAQs confirmed that most ‘WOPERS’ (teehee) are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Ah well, I thought – just four months until I join that age-bracket, I’ll give it a go.

But getting in was not straightforward. To join I had to complete a two day course – one day in a classroom and the other on a tramp, which is what I did last weekend. I’m not sure what I expected from this – perhaps advanced compass-reading or tips for keeping your kendal mint cake dry. The reality was that WOPS seem to want to check that applicants are capable of putting one foot in front of the other and sporting a kagool before they’re admitted to the club.

I’m being a bit unfair, much of the course was on safety. How not to get lost and what to do if you do, including how to fashion an emergency shelter out of leaves, which was quite cool. Tramping safety is taken pretty seriously here, as there are often stories in the news of daft folks, usually tourists, who have ventured up the wrong track, with the wrong kit and ended up dead of hypothermia or swept away by a fast-flowing stream. The glib part of me (which has previously written about Kiwis making exaggerated claims about risks) is inclined to think that, because of the absence of proper news stories maybe you are more likely to hear about walkers’ mishaps here than you are about people falling off mountains back home. But I decided now was not the time to be glib but instead to take on board what my capable WOPS-leaders were telling me, after all, I don’t fancy getting lost in the woods.

A great deal is made by the New Zealand tramping community about kit and having the right clothes. Olly and I discovered this when we were in New Zealand back-packing a few years ago and walked the Kepler Track, one of the county’s nine ‘Great Walks’. It’s a three day tramp on the South Island, which took us high into the mountains. When we booked, we were bombarded with info about what we could and couldn’t wear. Jeans and cotton tee-shirts were out. Merino and manmade wicking garments were in. Plus we had to have hats, gloves, walking boots and a proper raincoat with hood. Olly and I were backpacking round the world at the time and had none of this stuff. We had trainers, ludicrously heavy backpacks and an irrational dislike of outdoor-wear.

Use the Force Em.
Use the Force Em. Me on the Kepler track in 2008.

On the second day of the trek we had to sneak past the Department of Conservation warden who was checking everyone’s clothes before allowing them to embark on the alpine stretch of the walk in a storm. We were wearing socks on our hands instead of gloves and plastic bags between our shoes and socks. I also had two hats (neither of them waterproof) ratchet-strapped to my head, making me look not unlike one of the rebels in the Empire Strikes Back.

Since then, I’ve matured and accepted that it might be wise to wear proper outdoor clothing for walking, so listened intently on the first day of course when clothing was covered. I was surprised when Claudia, one of our leaders, said that she rarely bothered with waterproof trousers and braved wet-weather in just shorts. The checklist, provided by the trainers suggested that thermal long johns could be worn underneath shorts in cold weather. As some of my girlfriends back home know, much to their hilarity,  I own some thermal leggings made from bamboo, so decided to give the shorts-long johns combo a go, without waterproofs, just like a roughy-toughy Kiwi.

The night before our induction tramp, I scurried about the house, trying to tick-off the other things on the compulsory check list. Whistle – check! Packed lunch – check! Extra snack – but of course! Survival blanket – err, well, never mind, maybe next time. I was packed and ready to go!

Who are you calling nerd-girl?
Who are you calling nerd-girl?

Now, earlier posts in this blog may have had you believe that New Zealand was the land of endless sunshine. Indeed, for the first four months of our stay it was. Now it is quite different. It’s quite wet. Actually it’s more than quite wet. It really bloody-well rains here. Like one minute it’s dry and the next, a huge amount of water is falling out of the sky, often with very little warning. And on the day of our tramp, it pretty much rained all day long. But did I tog-up in my waterproof trousers? No sir, I did not. I was not going to be a namby-pamby Brit. I was going to tough it out in my super-wicking shorts and long-johns – even when it turned out that most of the other ladies on the tramp were in waterproofs. And guess what? I got soaked. And quite chilly. It didn’t help that my boots seemed to fill with water too. Thanks Gor-Tex. I’d have been better off with plastic bags on my feet.

Surviving the long-haul

This week I feel like I’m facing my first big test of being away so far. Olly left yesterday on a work trip – a mammoth one, taking in four European capitals in a week and leaving me on my own long-haul  – 10 days as a lone parent, 11,000 miles from home and all my usual support networks. Help! However, am I going to cope?! Will my sanity survive?! Will the children survive?! Will our kiwi adventure survive?!

‘Course they will.

Two things are getting me through. First up, I actually do already know a few people here. And they’re really nice. Last week we bravely threw a little housewarming, inviting people over for drinks on Sunday afternoon. Obviously we were gripped with the usual oscillating panic. One minute – no-one’s going to come, we’ll just be handing round nibbles to a neighbour and the man from the corner-shop (a bit like Daisy’s housewarming in Spaced). The next,  imagining the whole Greenpeace office might descend demanding vats of homemade humous and feijoa wine. Of course the reality was somewhere in between and we had a great bunch of people here – a mix of friends of friends, colleagues old and new, neighbours and one or two mums I’ve picked up along the way. They’re quite a friendly bunch these Kiwis it turns out.

But having some people drink wine in your garden, nice as they are, doesn’t completely keep the home-sickness at bay. I have plenty of moments where I remember Elsie scooting around with her bessies, or think of a night out with my ladies and have a little cry. But that’s expected. We’re three months into this daft caper and it’s inevitable that once the novelty wore off and daily life set in that there’d be a few speed bumps to contend with.

My second strategy to keep me going in Olly’s absence, is to do nice things and have some treats – starting today. After a lot of shitty weather, the sun was shining, so I took the girls for an explore to Vineyard Quarter, a regenerated dockland area in the centre of the city. It’s like what Cardiff Bay would be if the sun shone and shitloads of millionaires turned up in yachts. It’s got a really cool playground nestled amongst old fuel silos, bars, cafes, street performers etc and a nice vibe. It feels less

Ice cream - it can only make things better.
Ice cream – it can only make things better.

corporate than similar redevelopments and has quirky installations and exhibits, like a reading room in a shipping container, which Elsie loved. The water is blue and sparkly. And did I mention the sun was shining? So we played… we mooched…we picnicked… Elsie had a look for seals…we ate posh ice cream. It was a really very pleasant day out – even with two small children.

And then when we got home, one of our ‘new friends’ popped round for a cuppa.

Well isn’t that a pip!

Soya-lattes here we come!

Life for my clan is steadily approaching becoming settled. We have sealed the deal on a house, bought a car and I’m about to enrol Elsie in a pre-school. Next steps find work and friends!

Getting the house was a huge relief. The rental market here in Auckland is pretty bonkers, especially as we timed our arrival perfectly with all of Auckland’s uni students’ return for the new academic year. Houses up for rent have viewing times of 15 minutes only during which tens of people descend on them, barging each other out of the way to get a first look and try to charm the agent. At one viewing of a slightly stained and damp house, some students looked visibly crest-fallen when I walked through the door with my kids – aka proofs of being a responsible grown-up – and tried to persuade me that the vast garden wasn’t big enough for a trampoline, as if that was a household necessity for a family.

I became completely obsessive about checking Trademe, NZ’s version of eBay on which property ads are posted. Having bragged of my reduced smart-phone usage a few weeks ago I was now reloading the Trademe app every ten minutes or so that I could be the first to call an agent the minute the ad for our perfect home had been placed. Finally, after three weeks of looking and several upward reviews of our budget we found a place in Westmere, a central suburb right next to Grey Lynn, which is as much like Stokey as you’re going to get in New Zealand: health food shops, yoga classes, nice parks and hipsters. After our year in the badlands of Seven Sisters there was no way we were being ousted to an outlying area away from our tribe – even if it does mean paying through the nose.

Belle absolutely insists on sour dough with her soft-poached eggs.
Belle absolutely insists on sour dough with her soft-poached eggs.

I want to be somewhere I can take the kids to music classes run by out of work musical theatre actors with ukeleles; where gluten intolerant vegans are catered for; and where I can feel secure in the knowledge that I live close to some really cool vintage stores, even if there’s absolutely no way I can ever afford to shop at them.

So now we’re just waiting for move-date. Out container has apparently arrived and is waiting for custom clearance, so we should get our stuff within a day or two of moving in. The other day we passed the docks and had a moment of excitement wondering if one of the shipments we could see on the harbour contained our things.

Is our stuff in there?
Is our stuff in there?

There’s definitely going to be a few surprises when we unpack it. The removals guys were so efficient, sweeping through the house like a swarm of packing-locusts, that I’m pretty sure a box destined for the charity shop made it in there. I just hope it wasn’t joined by any garbage bags, especially of the dirty nappy variety.

Fun in the country, fun in the town.

It’s been a long weekend here in Auckland as the city has been celebrating its 175th anniversary. That meant me and the family had ample time to sample both rural and city pursuits. On Saturday we were invited by one of Olly’s colleague’s to stay at her house at one of the west coast beaches. It was lush – lovely big lawn overlooking native bush; pizza oven in the garden and close enough to the beach to throw ourselves into the ocean the next morning. The house itself was amazing –  built by Olly’s colleague and her ex and looked like something out of grand-designs – all glass windows and recycled materials.

Elsie on tramp

It was a fun night, chatting to locals – most of them escapees from the city. Elsie especially had a wild time trampolining until well-well past her bedtime with a gaggle of other barefoot kids.

Then today we headed down to Auckland’s harbour area where loads was happening as part of the anniversary celebrations. Food-stalls, buskers and fairground rides amidst tourist bars and luxury yachts. It felt a bit touristy but fun nonetheless. E thought a unicycling juggler called Justin was silly and it felt good to be part of hustle and bustle in what can be quite a sleepy city.

Ol and else

So how did our contrasting excursions influence our ‘where to live’ debate? Well, I’m sat here itching my legs off because of mosquito bites endured in the bush. And despite getting a good vibe from the mum’s I met on the west coast, we can’t quite place ourselves living that remotely for now. So we’re going to look for a home in the city – exorbitant rent and all. It feels good to have made a decision and now we can get on with stuff. Top of my to-do list this week – FInd. A. House.

Hello from a long way away!

On the suggestion of Tim Kerton, I’m starting a blog. It feels a bit naff but I figure it might be the best way to share snippets of news and random thoughts. It won’t be beautifully written or well-desinged and I imagine it will peter out over time. But still, it might be the best way to share a bit of what’s going on with our move to the other side of the world.

I’ve called it Barefoot Elsie because daughter number 1 has immediately adapted to Kiwi life and has shunned shoes. And clothes for a lot of the time too. Things are definitely more relaxed over here.

Probably one of the reasons we haven’t shared much news so far is that life at the moment seems very absorbed with getting ourselves set up. Boring stuff like car-buying and finding somewhere to live is taking up a lot of our time. Property is crazy expensive and we’re continuing to debate whether to live in the city or head out to the sticks. We change our mind on a daily basis.

An initial drive out to the country made us both feel quite panicky. Me especially. I’m not sure I can survive without key mums and kids’ facilities like playgrounds and libraries. And living in the city here would still be a far cry from our life in Tottenham. Inner city suburbs are are filled with quiet tree-lined streets with quaint colonial villas. No crack-houses, dog poo or men pissing in alleys.

But still, a part of me thinks I’m missing a trick in just attempting to transfer our London life to slightly more pleasant surroundings. Are we lacking imagination if we rent a house by a park, close to some vintage shops and kookie cafes? Should we be seeking out adventure in the hills or beaches north of Auckland City? We could live the good life, keeping chickens and making jam – but what if I became psychotic and murdered the family!? The debate continues…