As the days and weeks dissolve into the previous pages of our calendar, we are feeling more and more at home here. The shock period over the holidays morphed into an adjustment period during which we were trying to re-gain our footing after dismantling and transplanting our life, and now we feel like we’ve traversed the turbulence and we’re in control of our ship. Life has been smooth sailing recently and we have reached a state of homeostasis here in Wellington.
We’re living at the top of a hill overlooking a real live storybook city. The sun rises each day over the Rimutaka Mountains and the small cluster of towers sparkle aside the ever-changing mirrored surface of the Wellington harbor. In the evening, the moon becomes yet another brilliant focal point in what is a surreal panorama, and a string of lights wraps northward around Oriental Bay, outlining the base of the mountains that erupt from the harbor. The streets that once felt foreign are now our everyday routes. The mountains that triggered heart palpitations are now our everyday backdrop. I find myself basking in little things—a newfound sense of mindfulness; the satisfying slow climb up the hills in our 1988 Ford Laser, the strange and machine-like Tui bird calls that stop me in my tracks to tilt my ears towards the trees, the sweet ease of riding the impeccably clean bus down the hill into the city, and the thrill of the fast-changing, unpredictable weather. At night from our bed, the clouds are up-lit by the city lights and the winds pull them across the sky like a show. We lay in bed and blurt out what shapes we see; it reminds me of a book I loved as a kid, “It Looked Like Spilt Milk”.
Wellington is the windiest city in the world! It’s fantastic, though. The weather is passionate—it can go from dazzling to downpouring over the course of ten minutes—but this gives everyone something to talk about and personally, it suits my personality even more than I realized! It’s a real treat being so in tune to the wind direction and watching systems cross over the mountains on a beat towards the city. Beware those blistery Southerlies from Antarctica! The winds also give everyone an “I don’t care what I look like” attitude, which is excellent since good hair days have always been a struggle for me, and because Brian and I are living comfortably with very tiny wardrobes (it is a disgusting and embarrassing fact that I have approximately 15 times the number of clothes and 10 times the number of shoes back in the States that I have here!). We have had the most gorgeous Autumn weather these past couple months; diffused sunshine warms the sidewalks and spreads across the landscape, warping the water into a patchwork of texture and the hills into waves of green ombre.
By some stroke of luck or perhaps divine intervention, we found ourselves a flat. The process was tedious and stressful due to unfortunate timing—we were on the same hunt as a huge demographic population of the city—the university students! Add to this a growing housing shortage and a dynamic landscape that makes a north-facing house on a hill a hot commodity and a south-facing house in a valley a damp dungeon that’s guaranteed to give you pneumonia come winter. We showed up for scheduled viewings only to be awkwardly shuffled through an apartment with over 60 other people. We left countless viewings feeling dejected and worried about whether we’d be homeless once our friend Hooman’s family arrived to the house from Dubai and we’d have to leave. To stand out, we wrote a CV with all our education and work experience outlined, attached recommendation letters, and even included photos of ourselves! After a few disappointments, we finally got a call-back from the property manager at our dream flat (a north-facing house on top of a hill…with a view that we couldn’t have dreamt up and a spare bedroom!). We are pretty certain that our street has one of the best views in the entire city and we are still in shock every time we look out our living room and bedroom windows.
We have established a routine here, but Wellington is extraordinary so the novelty has not subsided. We have been repeatedly surprised while exploring the nooks and crannies of this little city. There are more restaurants per capita here than in New York City! There is a huge multicultural population, so you can’t go wrong with any type of ethnic food. I have tried the Malai Kofta at almost every Indian restaurant within the city limits! A great selection of craft beers is standard at most bars, and every restaurant is a BYOB, so you can sip local NZ wines with any meal. We’ve found a bunch of gems here: a secret music venue in the most bewildering building, a cozy planetarium at the top of the botanical gardens, and some excellent beaches to watch New Zealand’s dramatic sunsets. We frequent the bustling and bountiful farmers market on the waterfront each Sunday morning, sipping flat whites and sampling nibbles from the food trucks. And to watch our waistlines amidst of all the good food and alcohol, we run the challenging hills through the enchanted old-growth forest that borders our street.
We have become great friends with our former AirBnB host Hooman, and his brother Kayvan and sister-in-law Alexi, who just moved here from Dubai in January with their two-year old daughter. We’ve been so grateful for their friendship, (Iranian) hospitality and up-for-anything attitudes, and when the pangs of homesickness strike, it’s a blessing to have friends to lean on here. It amazes me how many people we’ve met here who are transplants from other parts of the world—we have shared wine and meals with people from Argentina, Sweden, Germany, France, Holland, South Africa, Canada, the UK, and Russia. We have only crossed paths with a handful of Americans. What’s so striking is that living abroad is like a normal thing in life for almost everyone we’ve met from other places. We notice how nonchalantly people talk about ‘the time they lived in Hong Kong for 5 years’ or ‘the time they worked in Thailand for 2 years’ or ‘the time they volunteered in Kenya for 8 months’. We feel a bit like amateurs in comparison as we have our technological umbilical cords keeping us comfortably tethered to home, and it has become boldly apparent that in America we generally live in a bubble (further showcased by the shameful fact that my 11-year-old students seem to know more about the American and European political landscapes than I do).
Just as we settled into our new flat, visitors began arriving. First came the little sister of a high school friend (just in time to watch the Super Bowl with a fellow American and Moorestownian!), then our friends Andy and Sarah, Brian’s mom, and my parents. It was perfect timing as we swiftly transformed from newborn aliens into experienced tour guides. Hosting some visitors also helped assuage our worries that no one from home will ever understand our life here. On the other hand, I wonder often what it would have been like to have this experience even just 20 years ago, when the concepts of Facebook and Instagram would have baffled most of us and when making an international call required a landline, a sequence of 25 numbers, and an allotted time slot for both parties. The internet distorts space and time for us; talking to my grandmother on What’s App sounds as crystal clear as if she were in an adjacent room…scrolling through posts on social media keeps my world overlapped with that of my friends. I wonder about my own resilience (and/or my potential) if I were disengaged from the happenings at home the way I would have been 20 years ago. But the reality is that we miss our family and friends deeply and living abroad has provided clarity for why we felt unexplainably compelled to uproot ourselves at this point in life when most of our friends are moving in the opposite direction and settling down.
Over the Easter holiday we flew to the Northland region of the country, camped at a friendly campground next to a world-class surf break and stayed in a cabin in the belly of the Kauri forest, where the ancient Kauri trees summon awe—many of these giants began their lives at the time of Christ. Another weekend we stayed out on the Taranaki coast, a quiet region punctuated by a perfectly-shaped, Mount Fuji-esque volcano and a nighttime darkness that made the Milky Way appear to cascade down from the heavens like a waterfall. It was so magical that we sat on the rocky beach outside of our tent, bundled in hats and gloves, having existential discussions like teenagers. We have learned a bit about what we’re seeing in the Southern skies and how to orient ourselves by clapping our palms together at the mid-point between the Southern Cross and the bright star Achernar.
Being here for 6 months now, I have been ruminating on what exactly it is that makes a Kiwi a Kiwi. In so many ways this first-world, civilized country is so different from home. Of course, the accent is a trip—I still need a few seconds to process whenever someone speaks to me in pure Kiwi English! “How ya goin’?” “Sweet as!” “Have a think about it.” “Let me check my diary (my calendar).” “Put it on the shed-u-ul” (the schedule).” It’s completely fine to walk around the city barefoot—yes, by that I mean in all seasons, showered and educated people from a range of generations walk in and out of restaurants, bars, and grocery stores with bare feet! Sometimes, here in Wellington, you will also see folks dressed like they’re parading at Mardi Gras on any random day and if you’re lucky (we have been!), you’ll see people riding bikes nude! But the differences run much deeper than just being laid-back. For one, we’ve noticed the lack of showy wealth. Titles seem to be irrelevant here. A bus driver garners the same amount of respect as an executive (we get a kick out of the lovely courtesy that everyone always thanks the bus driver when getting off the bus with a cheerful “Thanks driva!”). People build homes with phenomenal views that you couldn’t dream of on the East Coast U.S., but the homes are not obnoxious monstrosities and the homeowners still happily drive dumpy, dated cars. The slower pace of life and the general work-life balance is also extremely refreshing. Brian was stressing about asking for one day off to lengthen the Easter holiday, only to find out that more than half of the office was going to be out for the entire week! People take off work to do 5-day hikes in the wilderness with their families or to post up at their one-bedroom ‘baches’ on desolate coasts. We have decided that what makes a Kiwi a Kiwi comes down to something simple—more nature. Humans don’t rule nature here—nature rules humans; in Wellington, and New Zealand in general, we Earthlings are vulnerable little peons at its mercy. When you go from any point A to any point B and you are unfailingly greeted by steaming pink mountain peaks or crashing surf over jagged rocks or gusty winds that chill you to the bone, you are reduced to a humble human, grateful for your working eyeballs to see all the beauty and whatever roof is over your head to shelter you from the incoming storm!
As for what we’ve been up to, Brian’s coworkers and bosses at his architecture firm are friendly and down-to-earth and the open office space is both serious and exciting. He’s taking on a lot of responsibility and learning a ton. He has reconnected with some old friends from his semester abroad here and he is surfing a lot on the weekends. I have been substitute teaching at a local intermediate school while I wait for my teaching registration to process (this actually has been painfully dragging but anyone who has read this far deserves a hug, not a rant!). I completed two graduate classes this semester and I’m currently in my second term of Spanish language lessons, which is something I’ve wanted to pursue again and never had the time for since I left Guatemala 8 years ago. I recently attended a revitalizing training with an organization called English Language Partners of NZ to teach English to refugees who have arrived to Wellington with little language and/or literacy. I’m very excited to lend a hand in this refugee crisis and to work with adults for a change! I am grateful every day for this opportunity and never have I felt so sure of the universe placing me right where I’m supposed to be.