A Kiwi Christmas Story


Mele kalikimaka is the thing to say on a bright, New Zealand Christmas day.

I’ve been playing a lottery each night when I go to sleep—an emotional lottery, that is; hoping for the best but never knowing what I’m going to get. Each morning, sometimes even before I open my eyes, there’s a heart string vibrating. Sometimes I can tell that it was plucked by a face in a dream—the youthful glow of a lifelong friend or the comforting smile of a grandparent. Sometimes it’s frequency seems directly related to the warmth and wavelength of light leaking into the room. But even bright, sunny mornings are sometimes accompanied by a melancholy tone echoing deep in my chest—the unmistakable, lonesome bellow of homesickness. And sometimes on the dreariest of New Zealand days, my eyes will pop open as some happy symphony crescendos. Whatever the feeling, whatever the key, I am more in tune with this than ever, so I have made it a habit to just lay there and let it resonate within me.

We’re in one of the most beautiful small cities on Earth but the unfamiliar streets and absence of familiar faces and places gives me this feeling of vertigo similar to when I look down from high heights. Long before we arrived here, we were craving the discomforts of being alone with ourselves in foreign lands. New languages, new accents, new scenery, new customs. Our travels before we arrived to New Zealand quenched much of our thirst for adventure. But, having stopped to just be in one place has been a totally different type of thrill—more of a challenge, really.

It’s been a rough transition from being on an exhilarating backpacking high to the cold blast of reality that has consisted of interviews, visa applications, immigration health checks, Justice of the Peace appointments, teacher registration documents, internal revenue numbers, rental car damage fees (a.k.a. Brian hitting a rock and crushing the bumper because of interview nerves!), accidental speeding tickets, and the (irritatingly warm) reality that was celebrating Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere. I suppose we knew this reality would come—we carried our birth certificates, college transcripts, criminal background checks, and other documentation of our human existence and character with us in our backpacks for 3 months. However, we didn’t expect the complications of having to resubmit fingerprints to the FBI (FYI—state background checks do not search the national FBI archives!), of having to have original diplomas mailed to New Zealand (thanks, Mom!), or of having to fork out so much money for my teaching certification here. When I first looked at everything that I needed to supply the New Zealand authorities in order to be able to stay here and be qualified to get a teaching job, I wanted to give up right then and there and go home.

Eleven days before Christmas, Brian was off at work and it was a beautiful, warm day, but I was determined to stay above the weather and get into the holiday spirit, so I put on my favorite Christmas album, drew up a Kiwi Christmas card, and addressed green envelopes to family and friends in festive silver and gold markers. Then, regrettably, I had a bad run-in with a rare, mean Kiwi at the local office supply store. She was very rude and unhelpful as I tried to get my cards printed, unwilling to spend the few seconds to flip the paper in the printer so I could make greeting cards instead of post cards. After reaching my limit of patience with this imbecile lady, I passive-aggressively paid for the stupid post cards and left them on the counter right in front of her. I stomped out of the store in an irrational rage that inflated to a pitch when I heard a guitarist gleefully singing, ‘Sleigh bells ring, snow is glistening!’ in the middle of a sunny, hot day with people walking around in shorts and flowers blooming everywhere. Like a twisted, inside-out, upside-down Grinch, I shouted in my head, “This isn’t Christmas!”. As I drove back up the steep hill to the house, I was so furious that I imagined that I was the main character in a movie and I sobbed melodramatically behind the wheel, pulling over because I couldn’t see the road behind the wall of tears. I sat in the hot car, sweaty and fuming over the fact that my semblance of a Christmas spirit had been shattered to smithereens. (After a pep-talk from Brian and a feverish nap, I re-formatted my card in Photoshop and sheepishly went back to the store to try again, with success.)

Christmas was really tough. We had an ‘orphans’ Christmas’ with our AirBnB family—Melanie cooked French specialties like Buche de Noel and Boeuf en Croute and I cooked American specialties like Green Bean Casserole and Parker House Rolls (reciting the mixed-cuisine menu aloud made us all crack up!). On Christmas Eve we all sat around a bonfire on the beach and admired the Southern Cross and the Milky Way. On Christmas Day, we watched A Christmas Story and drank hot chocolate while we waited for the U.S. and French time zones to catch up to us. We got dressed up and wore Santa hats for fun and exhausting Skype chats with our families, but we all had sad pits in our stomachs the whole time. The song ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ had serious relevance this year.

I fell in love at first sight at a used car dealership with Winnie, our new ‘old girl’, so we bought her on the spot and it was grand to have our own wheels! But then Brian and I got a little ahead of ourselves; we felt anxious to get out and see some of the beauty of New Zealand that we had harbored in our minds for close to a decade. For some reason it felt that the hourglass of our dream trip was emptying very soon so we impulsively took the ferry to the South Island to hike in Abel Tasman National Park and camp in the lush, majestic areas of Marlborough and Nelson. We made the amateur mistake of attempting too much in too short a time and while we had fun exploring and loved being immersed in nature, we could see in retrospect that staying in Wellington and making moves to settle down may have been a smarter use of our time. We postponed our flat-hunt two more times—once to camp out on the refreshingly quiet Wairarapa Coast for a few nights after Christmas, and then to go back down to the South Island during the week of New Year’s, one of the busiest and most expensive weeks of the year. Afterwards, we’d arrive back to our AirBnB, unpack our backpacks, stare out at the purple mountains, and fret that we hadn’t really broken ground to stay here for a while. Being so unsettled was causing one of us to wake up each day with those melancholy tones vibrating in our chest, and the threatening question of “Should we just go home?” escaped our lips too many times to count. Then we would snap out of it, “No, keep moving forward…It’s okay to feel homesick sometimes.” We went to a comedy club one Saturday night so we could just laugh instead of think. We went to a folk show another Saturday night to bask in sounds that remind us of home (when a male/female duo belted out ‘Angel from Montgomery’ the way my dad sings it, my heart felt like it would burst). The next Saturday, we sat in a small crowd of the average age of 70 at an Irish harp and Celtic guitar show and got comfortably lost in complex melodies.

On a couple of consecutive mornings, I sat in the middle of our AirBnB living room with a mess of forms swirling around me like a tornado and about 35 different tabs active in my internet browser. I was swimming through the directions on which forms to complete, documents to organize, and signatures to obtain in order to apply for a work visa, an international qualifications assessment, and a teacher registration number. I was so overwhelmed after hours of note-taking trying to figure out that I needed to certify copies of this thing before sending the originals in for that thing, and apply for that thing in order to complete the application for this thing, and pay for this other thing before submitting for that, etc. I realized at some point, after a couple of days of paddling through papers and battling the bureaucracy associated with being an immigrant in a foreign country, that no one was going to be swooping in to hold my hand through this process. Fortunately, I woke up one day with a surge of ambition and a mantra of, “F-YOU N-Z! I WILL decode your system!” (please excuse my language). I took out a notepad and my markers and spent almost an entire working day making a three-page, three-column outline of steps, color-coded with footnotes of fees, addresses, and hours of operation of the various offices that I would need to visit. I went out and bought a printer and colored paper clips and by 5:45 pm, I was sipping a well-deserved happy hour beer, admiring the neat piles of paperwork that covered the living room floor like a patchwork quilt. Since that day, I have signed, sealed, and delivered those piles of papers, and now it’s just a waiting game.

Last night we took a long walk along the magical south coast of Wellington. This is the ‘suburbs’ of the city—but happens to be some of the most beautiful scenery that I’ve ever experienced. There are giant, steep headlands framing big bays filled with rock sculptures, dancing thickets of kelp, and South Pacific sea life. It was dusk and the sky was filling with steamy, swirling colors. We walked for almost an hour, constantly snapping photos that would seem obsolete minutes later as the sky’s colors became more rich and dramatic. When we rounded the final headland to the west, we were looking at three mountains on the South Island, perfectly silhouetted in front of a grapefruit-colored sky. The sea looked like liquid mercury—it was rising and falling and leaving pink halos around the giant red rocks along the coastline, which made Brian recall aloud the name of a poem that his grandmother wrote about the sea at sunset—‘Quicksilver’. We kept stretching our arms out to feel our shirts puff up with the first warm evening air we’ve felt here. We kept asking each other if we were dreaming. It was like a fan for the flames of our hearts.



The prettiest blue waters greet you in Nelson.


The hike to Wainui Falls was one of the most special short hikes we’ve done in New Zealand.


Foreign bird calls fill your ears during the New Zealand Spring and Summer.


The gorgeous beach section of the Abel Tasman coastal trek.


Crystal clear water fills the bays near Abel Tasman National Park.


Summertime treats.


A waterfall hike from Pelorus Bridge Campground.


Our prized possession, Winnie. A 1988 Ford Laser that is also a time machine. We took this photo at Breaker Bay, our favorite view of water and mountains in Wellington.


Happy Christmas from the local pub!


The eerie Putangirua pinnacles, just a short walk from our campsite! This was one of the sets for the Lord of the Rings.


Beach walk before sunset at Putangirua campground.


Looking across the Cook Strait, radiance illuminates the tip of the South Island.


Surf is up, set up shop!


A cozy day bed.


Sunset over the Miramar Peninsula from our AirBnB deck.


Wellington’s South Coast.


The photographer.


Sitting on the Red Rocks in a ‘Quicksilver’ sea.


The South Island silhouetted at sundown.

6 responses to “A Kiwi Christmas Story

  1. Wow Karla,

    I’m really impressed with your journey so far. I’ve never done anything like what you and Brian are embarking on. I can only imagine how you guys are feeling. Home sick blended with excitement. Cudos to you both! Try your best to enjoy every moment of this so you can look back one day and smile!

    Speaking of Quiksilver, one of my bands songs got picked up by the surf company Quiksilver! We don’t have all the details yet, but they want to use it in a promo vid of some sort for their brand. We are super excited and I thought I’d share with you guys the news. Made me think of all the summers Darren, Brian and I used to spend sitting in front of the TV watching surf movies. 🏄🏻 🎥

    Anyway, keep your chin up and see where your adventure takes you! And keep sending these lovely photos of your trip! They’re so good!

    Best, Layton

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Karla,

    Reading this made me cry. Sob actually. All the emotions and feelings really strike a chord with me. It is so so hard being away from family and friends and the normal conveniences you grow to love but take for granted. Finn still is not adjusting well, and will look out our window and say, “I’m just looking to see if I can see the USA.” I’m so proud of you for your persistence and getting all those forms in. I know those days you just want to pull the covers over your head and not get out of bed. Not face the foreign city that is supposed to be, “home.” It takes a ton of courage to face each day and do this without having your support system right by your side. I just had to write you a comment so you know how proud I am of you and Brian for doing it. Enjoy it – remember that when you look back on it all it will seem like such a blip of time in your long life. It will be worth it (or so I tell myself each day that I want to crawl in a ball and cry). Thank you for our Kiwi Christmas card. We absolutely adored it and when Finn saw the picture he said, “Look! It’s our friends Karla and Brian!” Sending all our love to you both! Xoxox
    Colleen (and the hadden clan)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Karla and Brian I can’t love this enough. Thank you for your special Kiwi Christmas card. It arrived at the perfect moment while I was recovery from surgery and brought a huge smile to my face. This backstory of its creation brings it even more life now. You’re a phenomenal storyteller. The depth of your journey and your ability to articulate it with crafty words and emotional authenticity is inspiring. You two are the embodiment of “With love all things are possible.” Happy New Year friends!

    Liked by 1 person

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