An expat in New Zealand

September 1, 2015

I met Lucie at the beginning of this year when we were both working as temps on a local council project.  She quickly became my favourite Welsh friend. We laughed often, had some fascinating conversations, and enjoyed several leisurely lunches eating dumplings in a nearby park. Once the job finished we kept in touch and caught up for the odd cocktail, glass of wine or gin.  Sadly she left a few months later to return home with her partner- but before doing so agreed to let me ‘interview’ her about her time in New Zealand.

I’m endlessly fascinated by how others view and experience my home country, the things they notice and the things they don’t, the parts they like and the things they find missing. I hope you find Lucie’s story as interesting as I do!

an expat in new zealand - the traveling anthropologist  ↑ Lucie and Adam ↑

In what ways was NZ different to what you were expecting?

When I arrived in New Zealand for a year of exploring, experiencing the culture and occasionally doing some work, I expected a very green, luscious land with mile after mile of open countryside. After all, everyone’s seen the beautiful cinematography in the Lord of the Rings. But what I hadn’t appreciated was just how remote much of New Zealand is. Generally just one road leads to where you’re going, and occasionally that road is unsealed, compared with the tight patchwork of motorways and pot holed B roads that criss-cross the UK. I suppose it’s unsurprising when you look at the stats. With a slightly larger land mass than the UK, the NZ population is just under 4.5 million, against almost 64 million in the UK. Incredible.

And, of course, nothing actually prepares you for the NZ wow factor. Particularly driving through South Island you do find yourself saying ‘wow’ at virtually every corner. Before I left the UK, a friend had described the landscape to me as “like the UK, but on steroids”. In parts of the country I was amazed by the thick bush spanning for miles, with so much plant life you almost wonder how the earth underneath can sustain it all. Although of course there is now a fraction of the bush there was before the influx of man. I was also wowed by the wonderful bird life, the sounds of every day are so different, as well as the marine life and the more relaxed pace of human life. I felt closer to nature living there, even based in the city of Wellington, not least because of the ‘emergency’ box above our fridge reminding us of the daily risk of earthquakes. In the end, New Zealand met all my expectations and just went way beyond them.

How would you describe NZ culture to someone back home?

I’m always fascinated by the myriad of cultural differences you find when visiting other English-speaking countries. Naively I tend to expect things to be more or less the same but there are always little customs and expressions that throw you. Random words I would use to describe New Zealand culture are traditional, nostalgic, community, ancestry and – I can’t resist – afternoon tea. 

In terms of the wealth of Maori culture, whilst I tried to learn and absorb as much as I could, I only scratched the surface of a rich, proud and traditional heritage. For me there is a kind of aura and magical mystery around Maori culture that is inseparable from the natural world through its myths and legends, songs and art. In terms of descendants of European settlers, from conversations I had I felt there is an awareness of it being a relatively short history, but this just makes the stories and legends so much more accessible. Especially as so much could be photographed and chronicled.

When you visit those remote parts of the country you can actually imagine the hardships of the settlers, both Maori and European, who, having left everything they know behind them and travelled for months on wooden vessels, arrived in this beautiful but not always hospitable land. It took a certain type of person to make that voyage. I do find it curious that many kiwis, whether of Maori or European descent, usually identify themselves through their ancestors before New Zealand. From the waka they arrived on or the ‘homeland’ their ancestors left. But I am no Travelling Anthropologist. There is too much I don’t know or understand to delve any deeper.

doubtful sound new zealand - the traveling anthropologist↑ Doubtful Sound ↑

What are your favourite and least favourite memories from your time here?

Least favourite first, and much shorter and easier. Kiwis are in denial about their country being cold in winter. The season comes around every year but somehow central heating and insulation have not been widely embraced as standard for all housing. It was enlightening to learn how cold a house can get even when the outside temperature has not even hit zero. But when there is no insulation and you rely on an electric heater, your bones chill in a way I have not experienced before. I also never appreciated quite how far away New Zealand is from Europe, at the opposite end of the world and the day. I did miss my family and friends back home, which was not always easy.

Favourite memories is an impossible question. Walking the Routeburn Track and all my experiences in the NZ bush and on NZ boats. I have absolutely fallen in love with the beauty of the land and its wildlife. The views I have seen are imprinted on my brain, and just as well as no photograph can capture it adequately. Most of my fondest memories are of nature and its inhabitants. Seeing dolphins, whales, seals, spotting a shark on my way home from work in the capital city for goodness sake, and hearing the coughs, grunts and wheezes of tui’s out of my back door. Kayaking in Abel Tasman national park, exploring the beautiful Catlins, the lovely, welcoming people and wonderful, windy Wellington. I loved exploring the city, looking out for new street art and great views.

What makes kiwis the best people in the world?

Everyone is friendly. Well, nearly everyone. Even bus drivers are lovely. And kiwis are considerate to the point of it becoming dangerous. I’ve had cars stop for me half way up a road because they could see I wanted to cross it, despite there being other cars behind them and no actual pedestrian crossing. As a consumer I don’t remember ever being angry in a shop or any other situation because someone had been unhelpful or rude to me. And if everyone’s friendly and considerate it makes it impossible not to reciprocate. I have noticed myself become a more considerate and relaxed driver, why race to beat the red light? I’m not in a hurry.

The kiwi work/life balance is also much more in tune with what it should be. For me this was more difficult to adapt to than I would have imagined. I’ve worked with colleagues who will, of course, work very hard when required but other days will saunter in at 10am and leave by 3pm. Particularly if it’s a good day for going out in the boat. Generally kiwis are pretty unstressed and because they live in a country like NZ, most people I met have a great sense of adventure. Perhaps it’s their ancestry. Trips abroad are usually for longer periods, because it’s a long way to go, and lengthy car journeys and outdoorsy adventures in the beautiful countryside are just part of being a kiwi. So New Zealand itself is part of what has shaped kiwis into the best people in the world.

Except for the Welsh, of course.

the catlins new zealand - the traveling anthropologist

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