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!

De-stressing, the NZ way.

Last weekend we got our first taste of the loveliness New Zealand has to offer outside of Auckland. Forced to leave our temporary accommodation for a weekend because of a prior booking, Olly and I packed up the car and headed to the Coromandel Peninsula about three hours drive away for some good old-fashioned sun, sea and sand.

Are we there yet?
Are we there yet?

The trip couldn’t have come at a better time. I think I had my first wobble last week. It wasn’t home-sickness, more the stress of all the things we’re juggling right now. All the usual things that cause you anxiety – house, money, work, family and the fact of having to deal with them all at once.  I decided to make the focus for all this my hunt for childcare, specifically trying to find the ideal arrangement for various hypothetical scenarios which may or may not happen. By Wednesday, I’d got into such a flap, going round and round in circles with various possible configurations of nurseries, nannies and pre-schools that I had to curtail more than one phone call to a childcare provider because I’d started to sob. At that point I decided to give up planning for not yet acquired employment and enrol Elsie for her free place in our local Kindergarten and deal with Belle when the need actually arose. Phew.

The stress wasn’t helped by the fact that we had to pack up all our things and clear out of the little apartment we’ve been calling home but not so that we could move into our new house (which isn’t available until next week). No, just so that some people on a stag-do or  similar could come into the flat for a long weekend. This felt like a particularly arduous and unsettling task, which I found myself quite unable to engage with until about two hours before the owners came round to clean the apartment, at which point we had to dash round randomly shoving things in suitcases and black bin bags. It felt like one of those awful flat-moves from your mid-20s, except we piled everything into a people carrier instead of a shopping trolley.

But it turns out we’d been done a massive favour, as we were pushed into getting out of the city. Coromandel, which according to the Lonely Planet is where New Zealanders go on holiday, is absolutely stunning. Covered in forested hills and edged with golden sand beaches, it’s one of those places that makes me want to give up completely on normal life and live in a bender on the beach.

Mind you, it still took us a while to get into it. Olly especially was suffering from a severe case of the decompressions. That is, the need to take a huge sigh and get rid of the stresses of new job, house hunting, home-sickness and all the other mixed-up emotions we might have been feeling underneath the excitement of the first couple of months. In him, this manifested itself as severe grumpiness on day one of our mini break. Admittedly not helped by our misguided decision to stay in a cut-price cabin in a holiday park, which resembled a building site portacabin with bunks that had been conveniently placed opposite the campsite sluice. A setting which was only enhanced by the presence next-door of a chain-smoking forty-something  in the process of a difficult break-up, which she needed to discuss at length on her mobile. Sweet.

But after a few dips in the crystal clear ocean none of that mattered. By day two we’d regained our sense of adventure and embracing the Octonauts’ motto (Let’s do this!) did the walk from Hahei, where we were staying, to Cathedral Cove round the coast. This formed an early stage of our programme to get Elsie walking, the overall aim of which is to get her up a mountain before we leave. Walking tracks here are all really well-marked and the Department of Conservation (DOC) usually gives estimates of how long a specific walk should take you. Without kids, on shorter walks, the times given seem ludicrously over-estimated but they come in about right when you’re dragging an unwilling three year old around. Obviously we used all the usual bribes and incentives: snacks half-way, promises of ice-creams, exaggerated claims of potential wildlife spotting opportunities (“Well, I suppose we might see some orcas,”) but the thing that really got Elsie motoring was a couple of boys about her age passing her on the track. Come on, let’s beat those boys, I said and off she went. All complaints of tired legs gone. I feel a bit ashamed to have fallen back on inter-gender competition, but ah well, can’t be any worse than coaxing a child down a track with half a mars bar, can it?

Beat those boys, Elsie!
Beat those boys, Elsie!

And by golly, was it worth the minor amount of whingeing.  A forty-five minute walk through shady ferns and pine trees dropped us down to a beautiful cove, split in half by a spectacular stone arch. The water was just right, cool enough to be refreshing but warm enough to dive straight in. There was a rock about 50 metres out you could jump in from and the water was so clear we spotted little shoals of fish right up close to the shore. There was even shade on the beach where trees were overhanging, so the kids could amuse themselves for a while without fear of sunstroke. Yes it was busy but who cares? It just meant there were other kids for Elsie to play with. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

As Olly said in a Facebook post, it’s times like this that will make all the upheaval worth it. This was what we came all this way for – wrenching ourselves away from dear family and friendships we’ve been nurturing for twenty years – to be able get in a car after work on a Friday and drive for three hours to somewhere so beautiful and life-affirming that you end up not caring that people are emptying their chemical toilets ten metres from your breakfast table.