Monday, 6 September 2010

A Brit abroad in wild Wellington, New Zealand

Now that I'm resident in the UK again, I've turned to Brits abroad in other countries around the world to share their stories. Starting the series is Kerry-Ann, who lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

"In January it will be five years since my husband and I disembarked slightly green at Wellington airport. All I knew about my destination was that we had a bank account, accommodation for two weeks and our shipment of belongings arrived in 6 weeks. I was also told Wellington was famed to be the only capital city situated in the roaring 40’s zone. (As if I really wanted to know that!)

My relationship with Wellington has been rocky. It started with incredible disappointment after my first sighting of Wellington housing. I slapped myself a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t having a bad dream. No, it wasn’t a bad dream: I really had entered a time warp. I thought I was coming to a first world country; instead I seemed to have landed in a pioneering village. This shock and disappointment was soothed only by the incredible beauty of the bays, sea and mountainous area.

View of Wellington and suburbs

First on our agenda was finding somewhere more permanent to stay. Because my husband had already started working, it was left to me to find a place. Armed with a bus timetable and a street map I invariably got so lost that I rarely made the rental viewings, and the viewings I did make always ended up being up a steep hill accessed only by slippery, mouldy stairs. How anyone was supposed to do grocery shopping and get the shopping home I had no idea!

Most of (but not all) of Wellington suburbs are built on hillsides which means the roads are narrow, twisty and steep. One day while complaining about another twisty street on a bus the passenger next to me told me that the streets of Wellington were designed in London. However, when they came to building the roads in Wellington they realised they had forgotten one very important feature: mountains. This means in some areas you drive down a road, carry your car up 70 steps or so, set your car down and continue driving as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Only in Wellington!

Houses in the Wellington suburbs

Our first month

When I look back on our first month in Wellington, we now live in luxury. I eventually found a rental for six months, which had 10 stairs to the front door and an oven. We had no car, no washing machine and no fridge. To do my washing I walked to a lady’s house on the opposite side of the valley then walked back with wet washing. Once a day I walked to the corner shop and bought ice to keep our stuff cool and we borrowed a mattress that served as our bed at night and sofa during the day.

That house taught us that houses are not insulated; they do not have central heating, do not have double glazing but are incredibly well ventilated. The gaps in the floor board were so big that the wind used to lift the carpet up. Two heaters and jumpers were just enough to stop us from turning into ice men! It also taught us what was most important when we bought our own house. A North-facing house. We were so particular that if we stopped at an open home and our compass said anything other than north-facing – we drove straight on. We didn’t even go in and have a look.

View from our house

Getting to grips with Wellington's atmosphere

When I was in the UK I lived just outside London. London taught me what vibe, buzz and culture was. I loved London and spent hours exploring and enjoying its liveliness. Wellington on the other hand was quite different! Cuba Street and Courtney Place are the main cultural hubs. When we first arrived my cousin took us to explore this heaving, buzzing centre, thinking it would cheer us up.

Cuba Street

I still believe that my cousin was hallucinating when he made this suggestion. Or maybe he just forgot I was a Londoner? Whichever, my first walk through the heaving culture centre reminded me of walking through a ghost town. Since then I have discovered the wonderful riches and gems of Courtney Place’s international restaurants, cinemas, theatre houses and tea shops. I love spending time there and don’t need much of an excuse to meet a friend at a coffee shop.

One other thing I learnt about Wellington is that during the summer holiday the population halves. The masses disappear, So if you want to experience Wellington, don’t come during January - you'll probably be the only one around!

Wellington Wharf area

Settling down

It took me a while to learn to appreciate Wellington’s roughness, its friendly locals and relaxed lifestyle. And now I cannot bear the thought of leaving this rugged capital city. It has so much going for it. Where else can I walk across the whole capital city in 25 minutes? Or walk between client meetings via the beach front? And where else could I be among the ‘heaving’ city throngs and five minutes later be lost within mountainous beauty, or driving down the rugged beach front miles from the nearest person?

I have loved and hated Wellington – in turn Wellington has thrown tantrums, produced the unexpected and wooed me with its beauty. It has been a fiery relationship in which I was determined to make a break at the first opportunity, and Wellington has been determined to keep me here. I think Wellington has won the struggle!"

About the author:
Kerry-Ann is an entrepreneur, Internet Marketing consultant, outsider, foreigner, traveller, hybrid-nomad, and home maker.
She says: "My blog Audacious Freedom is a diary of the highs and lows, the personal growth, challenges, obstacles and triumphs I have had, as I have learnt to be flexible and adapt to life on the move, from travelling to international relocations. Join me on this journey and if you are thinking about moving abroad – then take the step. If you don’t like it you can always go back!"

Friday, 3 September 2010

Hasta luego Madrid

After almost a year of living the expat life in Madrid, I received an offer that seemed too good to refuse in London and decided to go for it, putting career above lifestyle, better weather, good coffee and cheap tapas (err... remind me again why I thought this was a good idea?). Leaving behind the life and friends I made was difficult, but I hadn't quite bargained on feeling like a stranger in my own nation.

It's now been a month since I left Spain's capital for my home country's and, while there are no regrets at present, I'm certainly very aware of what the experience taught me. I learned how to conceal half an enormous holdall behind my back to outwit EasyJet staff and not have to pay to check it in. I learned that you can in fact find good curry in Spain. I learned that despite the fact that some people expected me to come home for Christmas with a tan, winter in Madrid is bloody freezing and saw the deepest snow I've ever seen in the nearby sierra.

Accustomed to the more stereotypically Spanish way of life in Andalucia after my previous experiences of living in Seville, I also saw a more fast-paced, businesslike side to Spain in the hustle and bustle of Madrid. That said, bureaucracy remains as maddeningly inefficient in the capital as in provincial outposts: my most memorable brush with the authorities involved the funcionaria at Social Security putting me down on the database as a Dominican citizen, and my new place of work frantically calling me to tell me I couldn't work legally in Spain. After a few days as la dominicana, I managed to convince the mistake-maker's more efficient (or even just more awake) colleague that I did not in fact need to be deported and got my nationality back. 

I also witnessed the paralysing effects of la crisis, as Spain struggles with one of Europe's highest unemployment rates. Friends found it hard to get jobs; beggars on the street with placards claiming 'I'm hungry and unemployed' were commonplace. Yet despite the obvious economic slump, most Spaniards seemed just as keen to have a good time as ever, with nightlife still as hedonistic (and late) as before.

On a more personal level, I was reminded that voluntary exile brings together expats who might not be friends other under circumstances, but who happily reminisce together about the joys of Marks & Spencers over cups of the Yorkshire Tea that every visitor from England is obliged to bring as a 'thank you' present. When in Spain I feel incredibly English with my blonde guiri looks and different dress sense (yes, I think bare legs are OK before July, I'm from Preston). I was unfathomably proud of the kettle M and I scouted several chinos for, and was known for being polite and punctual (and for leading the office tea consumption stakes). But whenever I returned to England I felt like a foreigner, moaning about the weather and so confused by the London tube map I had to ask an attendant if the complicated route I had planned was in fact the only way of reaching my destination (it wasn't).

Returning to England on a more permanent basis was a shock, not least because the tube is ten times more crowded than the lovely air-conditioned metro in Madrid and most coffee tastes like dishwater compared to the smooth café con leche prepared by office favourite Gerardo at the downstairs Haagen Dazs. London is more expensive, more modern, less traditional, trendier, more frantic. After the initial struggle to adjust  and the odd attempt to pay in Euros, I'm now reacclimatising and attempting to make sure I remember that I found life in Madrid hard at first too. Getting used to the stares on the metro (especially when wearing open toed shoes), being treated like a criminal every time I entered Banco Santander (gotta love internet banking) and coping as a non-meat eater all took some time, but the perseverance paid off and I became accustomed to big city life and grew to love Madrid. It was one hell of a year: I started a new job in a new country, made some wonderful new friends, my blog was born, I saw my first Easter parades and had my first swim in a natural mountain pool, Spain won the World Cup and I proposed marriage to Sergio Ramos. Apart from Ramos's lack of response and the near-brawl in the bank, I wouldn't change one second of it.

If you're interested, you can read about my London adventures on my new blog This Reluctant Londoner. Now that I'm no longer a Brit Abriad (sniff, sniff), I'll be handing the reins over to a series of expat guest bloggers until my inevitable next move. Watch out for the first post from the new Brits Abroad, coming next week.

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