I’m in the customs hall at Auckland International Airport, tired and dishevelled after four days’ travel through three countries; full of the Malaysian banana leaf curry from 12 hours ago; and somewhere between nervous and excited because I’m about to see my mum in the flesh for the first time in two years. Will I cry? I know she will.
Two years in England, one in Germany. I’m super happy to escape yet another snowfall in Berlin, and I can’t wait to see my family. But I feel sick and kind of terrified as well, and can’t help but wonder if coming home was the worst possible idea. People say it’s horrible, readjusting to life in New Zealand. Surely it can’t be that awful, I think. I’m be about to find out.
I moved to London in May 2010 because that’s what you do when you are a young Kiwi – it’s what I’d been intending to do since the age of 12. Beers, bicycles, council estates, Percy Pig lollies, the Owl and Pussycat pub late on a Friday night: that was my living in London story, and one you’ve heard a million times, in a million different ways. But, like anything, it had to come to an end at some point.
As a young New Zealander with no ties to Britain outside of being the Queen’s subjects, I was entitled to a two-year working visa. Two years seems like a long time, but it isn’t. Moving to a new place inevitably takes some getting used to: there’s a lot of frustration expended before you find your feet.
A year in, I was just starting to feel like I’d settled and then the inevitable panic of finding a job that would sponsor me or a Brit who would marry me set in. Neither eventuated, and when April 2012 came around there was nothing for it – it was time to head off.
READ about Michael Oliver's experience "in the belly of the beast" in London.
But New Zealand seemed small and provincial from afar, especially from the seething mass of humanity of London. So I decided to extend my adventure – a silly, misguided idea for which I was not financially prepared – and moved to Berlin. No, I didn’t have a job there. No, I don’t speak much German.
A year. A whole year I tortured myself in Germany, ‘freelancing’ (a word which essentially became a less stressful way to tell people I was unemployed). It was cold and lonely, I had no money and even fewer friends, and there were times where only listening to Taylor Swift and eating brotchen could give me comfort.
In March 2013, I booked flights home, ostensibly for a three-week holiday to go to a friend’s wedding. I had a quick look at Seek, though, just to see what was out there and to keep my options open. I applied for one job, and after a series of late night Skype interviews, felt like I had some decisions to make.
The wedding was lovely. New Zealand was in the throes of an Indian summer and I went swimming for the first time in three years. On my 28th birthday I was offered what was essentially my dream job – but for the fact that it was in New Zealand. After a couple of days of tears and soul searching I decided to stay.
The first three or four months were the worst, which, looking back now, is not surprising. My close friends were still in England, and apart from a few notable exceptions, it was hard to reconnect with the friends who had stayed behind. They had houses and babies; I had a mountain of debt, a portfolio of freelanced ramblings, and a heart which remained firmly, completely in Europe.
I fell into strange patterns. With only sleep-ins to look forward to on the weekend, I willed Mondays to come. I went to Piha alone, I hung out with my sister. I sat in cafes with my laptop.
After a few weeks of living with my parents, I ended up moving into a huge, dilapidated house on Vermont St in Ponsonby, the main drawcard of which was cheap rent. At the viewing I met some of the flatmates. They seemed nice enough, but this round of flat-hunting was not without a little bit of desperation: if I was going to retain my sanity, I was going to have to find flatmates who would be my friends. There were five others here, which seemed like good odds, so I told them I was interested and they offered me the room.
The following weeks became a series of occasions at which I forced myself to socialize. After five months of avoiding my flatmate in Berlin, I was acclimatised to sitting alone in my room, but occassionally I said yes to flat dinners at Ponsonby Food Court or group viewings of Game of Thrones. I was frequently outside of my comfort zone, which, essentially, was in my bedroom with the door shut.
Slowly, surely, bonds began to form. By the time our flatwarming party came around, I liked all of my new flatmates. A couple of months later I loved them: we were a tight unit of six. Innocent trips to the kitchen to make a cup of tea would turn into staying up until 1am on a school night talking, and at parties people would ask: “Is Vermont coming?”
I finally had places to be on the weekends and people to chat to on Facebook who actually lived in the same city as me
And from that, miraculously, a social life grew. I finally had places to be on the weekends and people to chat to on Facebook who actually lived in the same city as me. England friends began to drift home as well, which was lovely: these were friends I hadn’t seen in a year or so, because I’d been in Berlin. They felt a bit like home, truth be told: a familiar and easy way for me to contextualize my own life.
One such couple was Shelley and Rory, with whom I’d been friends for years. They moved to England a year or so before me and we’d fallen out of touch a little, until Shelley, dressed as an Oompa Loompa, recognized my sister at the London Sevens. We caught up for a couple of ciders after that, and they became a part of my London.
They left that city a couple of months after I did, although through the luxury of choice: Rory’s English passport meant they could take their time at getting sick of London, so instead of doing the usual 24-hour plane journey home, they took a year-long detour through eastern Europe, Africa and South America. They arrived home a couple of months after me and their welcome back party was illuminating: the friends who hadn’t traveled all went home around ten, while the friends who’d been in London did too many tequila shots and stayed up until four in the morning. Shelley says of the occasion: “Even now, it will just be the London crew left at the end of the night.”
Whenever I see them we end up chatting about London, much more than we ever talk about anything else. It’s nice to have people here that I can reminisce with, and Shelley reckons that even though they’ve been back a year, they’re still closest to the people they shared London with. “It’s just easier, because they get what you’re going through, and you don’t have family when you’re overseas, so your friends become your family.”
My London family was still off being fabulous in London, posting pictures of beer gardens and canal boat rides on Facebook, while I was back in New Zealand sleeping in the bedroom where I’d written essays for seventh-form history a decade prior. Even putting aside the complications of time differences, Skype is a poor substitute for beers and Vietnamese food in Shoreditch. But, like anything, missing people gets easier, and at any rate, they’ll come home sooner or later. Or that’s what I tell myself anyway.
I had dreaded coming home: the thought of coming home felt like admitting defeat, and kind of like I would be trapped in New Zealand forever
In April, a full year had passed since my return, and I spent a couple of days telling anyone who would listen about my astonishment that the year had gone the way it did. I had dreaded it: the thought of coming home felt like admitting defeat, and kind of like I would be trapped in New Zealand forever.
But it wasn’t even ‘not as bad as it could have been’, it was – straight up – a good year. I had taken a huge step in my career, going from unemployed to having the seemingly-unobtainable job title that I had wanted since I was 22. And I’d constructed an entirely new social circle, of people I’d never met before, acquaintences, and old friends.
In short, coming home was only super hard in the act of coming home itself. As is the case when you move overseas, there’s that adjustment period: finding your feet, finding a flat, finding the people that will make the city come alive for you. It was hard and frustrating at first when I wanted to be back in Europe, and I still kind of do – but I am pretty happy with what I’ve got going on here.
It’s the same New Zealand I left four years ago now, but I’ve changed. And so, really, New Zealand has too.
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