Six people, twenty two pieces of luggage, three international flights over twelve thousand miles, seven hotel and resort rooms, four yellow cabs, one Hollywood premier and a swim in a waterfall – the last three weeks have been like no other in my life. Whilst I set out with the intention of posting my thoughts, impressions and feeling as we travelled, the simple practicalities of taking notes whilst in transit, finding time to write them up and securing decent internet access have conspired to extinguish the little incentive I had left at the end of each day. Moreover, I was conscious that I wanted my emigration experience to be a participative, family one, not that of a stand-alone observer watching from the outside, dutifully taking notes. So, rather than a day-by-day account of the ‘what I did on my holidays’ genre, which would undoubtedly turn out to be the written equivalent of viewing someone else’s holiday slides, what you have below is a collection of notes typed at various points along the way.
Staring at my own reflection in the toilet of a Air New Zealand 747, thousands of feet high over Hudson Bay, it still hasn’t sunk in. The redundancy has happened, our home and car are sold and our belongings together with our pets have been shipped to the other side of the world. The tearful goodbyes and leaving parties must surely count for something, as must the swapping of email addresses and promises to keep in touch, but I feel strangely hollow right now. The ever-increasing whirlwind that we have been through seems to have numbed me to a point where I cant quite put my finger on what I am meant to be feeling right now. I feel tired but that can be put down to the cumulative effects of recent weeks activities – the last days of commuting, the packing and re-packing, the phone calls and the visits, the arguments and the funny moments. I feel restless after too many nights when my mind wouldnt stop churning things which then gave way to last few nights of fitful rest on a friends floor until, with the arrival of this morning, there are, as the youngest would say, no more ‘sleeps’ to be slept. Most of all I feel impatient, no make that keen; keen for us to be done with all the planning, all the preparations and be on our way.
After two days in Los Angeles, we’re finally at gate 27 at LAX waiting to be called for our flight to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. The blinkered and zenophobic attitudes that are now part and parcel of airport transits in the US are enough to leave a bad taste in the mouth of any ‘alien’. Such Homeland Security hoop-jumping would be enough on it’s own but the local check-in agent here was keen not to be outdone. Despite Air New Zeland allowing us to check 12 bags and a child’s car seat in London, ‘Hello, My name is Raoul, how can I screw up your day?’ had other ideas. He of the name badge, nylon blazer and Supa-Size attitude insisted that we may only check 12 with his airline, regardless of any previous arrangement in London, for ‘security reasons’. Quite how a Mothercare fabric and polystyrene car seat poses a threat to the Free World is unclear but Raoul was unmoved by our logic. Unmoved that is, until we removed the smallest case, reducing the pile to the required twelve pieces, stating that we’d take it as carry-on luggage instead. With his frozen smile changing to a death mask, Raoul insisted on measuring it in the hope that it will be too big or over-weight but eventually. We tried not to smile as he begrudgingly accepted the cases & car seat to tag and send on their way.
Or so we thought. With the grinding inevitability that follows all Pyhric victories, Raoul has the last laugh. We arrive in Rarotonga in the early hours of the morning to find that we are short one piece of luggage – the car seat. Of course, it turns up later, after a day or so, just long enough to make sure we know who is really in charge. I should have known better than to piss Raoul off. I knew a military logistics guy who, upon being abused by a condescending officer heading for UK from the Falkland Islands, redirected the officer’s personal effects to a camp in Canada where they were snowed in until the spring thaw the following year.
I like many things about America and have a good few friends across the US but, make no mistake, there has been a definite increase in their very special brand of self-assured, swaggering arrogance and cosy insularity since 9/11. In recent months, when mentioning to a US-based colleague that we were emigrating from the UK, they would invariably ask ‘Which state are you heading for?’, as if the United States was the only option worthy of consideration. Strangely, there are a fair number of superficial similarities between the US and New Zealand: the grid-based street layouts; the canopied shopping strips of the small towns along the State Highways; the dollar sign and old Chevrolet pickup trucks are all reminiscent of small town America. However, within minutes of our landing in New Zealand, our progress through the arrivals hall at Auckland airport only served to highlight the difference in attitude towards visitors and the cultural mindset in general. Where immigration at LAX offered one queue for non-US passport holders and 8 channels for returning citizens, Auckland offered an equal number of channels and, for those like us with young children, a separate fast-track channel. Even with six passports and visas to be reviewed, scanned, processed and stamped, we were politely dealt with and on our way inside 15 mins. In a world that is increasingly wary of those who seek to leave their birth nation to seek a new life in another country, it speaks volumes that the NZ immigration officer actually smiled and wished me good luck in finding the job I need to secure the longer-term visas we need to remain in New Zealand.
There have been surprisingly few tears and tantrums thus far. We have had the usual arguments and moods but, as yet, no major explosions of emotions over leaving the UK for the unknown of our present life in New Zealand. Climbing wearily onto the plane for the middle of the three legs, the youngest was heard to say that she wanted to ‘go home’. Having been awake for the 12 hours preceding a 12 hour flight, it seemed that her idea of home was wherever she could lay down and sleep, which she promptly did for most of the flight.
With the snickety-snick of the hire car’s handbrake, we finally stopped travelling five days ago. For now, our home is a friend’s beach house, set at the end of a road amongst the wind blown sand dunes of New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast. From the windows and the deck outside, we can watch large grey rolling waves, driven by the Westerlies crossing the Tasman Sea from Australia, break on the wide and wild expanse of sand that stretches for miles in each direction. The small township in which we are staying boasts a small bar, a smaller police hut, a fish and chip shop, a diary (corner shop), a service station, two schools, two churches, two bible camps, several hotels and camp sites, a sailing club and collections of small individual homes strung along quiet streets. Backtracking five kilometres back east brings us to the nearest small town which is pretty much the same but only larger by dint of the fact that it sits astride the State Highway, itself a simple two lane road with occasional passing places. Once the home to a thriving flax industry that is now reduced to one carpet factory, Foxton proclaims itself to be ‘Hometown, NZ’ on its sign and quite rightly, for it appears to be the quintessential small town with just enough of the necessary infrastructure intact to function and serve local folks immediate needs. Twenty kilometres south, Levin is a good example of the best of both worlds, the old fashioned canopied stores lining the main street and adjacent side streets interspersed with small malls and arcades of shops. Car lots and service industry outlets cluster at either end of the main street, just before the points where the speed limit signs allow the through traveller to accelerate back onto the rural highway. Tucked away behind the facades of the main street and down the side turnings, the chain supermarkets jostle with the small office buildings of the local professionals. This seems to be the pattern across a significant proportion of NZ with folks seemingly prize local services and streets fronted by family-owned stores, ahead of chain stores and out-of-town retail parks. Quite how long this state of affairs will last I’m not sure. With the weekend paper carrying a big feature story about the techniques supermarkets use to part shoppers from their cash, it would seem that the Kiwis may soon be subjected to the rampant all-conquering commercialism of the 24/7 megastore culture so prevalent in the Northern Hemisphere.
It has only taken a few days to drive home (pun intended) the fact that New Zealand is a car-driving, road transport-orientated country. We are covering distances that we’d rarely need to in the UK just to get to the places we need to be in order to get our new lives set up. The nearest internet access, for we have no phone line at the house, is 20kms away in a public library but limited to simple read/write activities. For the high speed, high bandwidth access I need for sending CVs, downloading tax documents and handling any volume of email, it’s a 2 hour, 100km trip to the nearest wifi hotspot (in a Starbucks coffee shop of course) in Palmerston North. Already our London-raised kids are becoming hardened to the fact that if you want anything more than the local store offers, it means at least a twenty minute car ride. Given that the location of our first proper home in NZ will be pretty much dictated by where I can secure employment, I suspect that there are a few prayers being said for Dad getting a job in the heart of one of the cities and a home in the suburbs. Having said that, none of us have really begun to adjust yet. That we are here for the foreseeable future and not heading home after a holiday is slowly becoming clear and I am sure that each of us will have moments when we might wish otherwise. I came close today when the umpteenth attempt to get a rudimentary dail-up connection via my cellphone at the beach house failed, the lack of my familiar broadband connection to the rest of the world only emphasising the enormity of the decision we made in coming here. A couple of hours and a few words of prayer by SWMBO later, I managed to get connected, albeit at an excrutiatingly slow speed and the dark moment passed. Tomorrow sees that beginning of another week and the continuing tasks of setting up home and getting employment, though if the first week is anything to go by, we’re in for more cultural adjustments and frustrations mixed with new acquaintances and humourous goings-on.
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