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!

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!

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.