Anna JohnstoneIntroducing Anna Johnstone, who is returning with her family to live in NZ after 17 years abroad. Over the next year we’ll be checking in every few months with Anna to find out how she and her family are finding the return. In this first interview, we catch up with her a couple of weeks before she is due to leave the UK.

How long have you lived abroad? Where & Why?

I’ve been living abroad for 17 years, 16 of those in the UK and one year in Switzerland when I did my MBA at IMD.

I first moved to the UK with my then boyfriend, now husband, in 2002. We made the move, primarily to further our careers since we both felt that there would be more opportunity for growth & development in a larger market. My husband is in banking and the big three cities for that are London, Hong Kong and New York. At the time we moved, I was in HR and got my first with role with Shell, initially with responsibility for EMEA (Europe, Middle East & Africa) and then moved into a global role.

After I did my MBA, I moved to Mars and took on a series of commercial roles, finishing up as the Commercial Strategy Director for the UK. At that stage, I decided I wanted to do something else so retrained as an Executive Coach which is what I’ve been doing ever since. I specialise in supporting women into leadership roles.

I also have an important family connection to the UK. My mother is English and a lot of my extended family still live here so it’s been great to have that experience. On top of that, London is a large, international city with a dynamic cultural scene and a rich heritage and history. Not to mention, it’s also a true gateway to the world. In the time we’ve lived here, we’ve travelled to over 25 countries, within Europe and beyond.

What prompted the decision to move back to NZ?

Along the way, we’ve also had three children and with that has come the realisation that we can’t really continue to live in London the way we did when it was just the two of us. We did try one year to take our 18 month old to Cambodia but he got sick and so, since then, we haven’t done much in the way of adventurous travel or weekend city breaks.

More recently, this has led to a rethink about how we want to live and the realisation that the lifestyle we want with, and for, the kids is actually more easily achieved in New Zealand. This hasn’t been a quick decision. Two or three years ago my husband and I sat down and listed out what is actually important to us – career, family, lifestyle, the kids’ education. Then we ranked those in order of relative weighting and figured out that family and lifestyle were becoming more important and led us to decide to move back to New Zealand

This isn’t to say that our careers are no longer important to us but we’ve sort of decided to think about our careers in two parts. The early career, we’re we’ve been very driven and focused on pushing ourselves and progressing as much as possible – which is more possible in a large, international market. The next phase, when we move back to NZ, we see as being much more about challenge, purpose and variety, while still developing and progressing. We are also looking for more flexibility to spend more time with family.

NZ appeals in terms of the kids’ education too. They have a very high standard of education in the UK but it’s very academically focused whereas in NZ we feel that it will be much more holistic and focused on creativity, problem solving and team work.

For a time, we had a slight concern that we might be limiting their future opportunities by not educating them in the UK but then we realised that we’d both grown up in NZ, going to the local state school and public universities and that hadn’t held us back at all so now we’ve got less concerns in that regard.

Walk us through the process of making that decision?

Initially we thought we’d make the move at the end of 2020 but last year we were in NZ for a holiday. We spent the day in Nelson on Rabbit Island and the kids were in wetsuits and boogie boarding and playing in the water for hours and we just thought, why wait. This is the childhood we want for our kids – time outdoors and lots of freedom – so why not just get on with it and make the move.

After that, fate kind of stepped in in the form of a serendipitous meeting between my husband and his now boss. My husband had applied for a job in NZ, which he didn’t get but, through that process he met the founder of the company with whom, it turned out, he had a lot in common. They got talking and, long story short, my husband got a great role which helps facilitate the financial side of the move to NZ.

How have you prepared for the move? Practically? Emotionally?

Practically, we’ve focused on sorting the big stuff first. We always knew that we would move to Christchurch since that’s where both sets of grandparents live, as well as where we both have old friends.

We bought a house at the start of this year which we’ve got tenanted. So in the meantime, we’ve rented a fully furnished house to see us through until our container arrives from the UK. Buying the house also meant we could enrol the kids in the local primary. Grandparents helped out there by going along to school open days and the timing of our return means the kids can go along this year and meet their teacher for next year along with all the other pupils.

Financially, we’ve sat down and taken an honest look at our finances to work through the worst case scenario i.e. how long could we last financially if neither of us was in work. Plus we’ve had to work through all the boring, but important, things like transferring UK pensions, trailing tax liability and so on.

We’ve both decided to take about three or four weeks off work when we first arrive but then plan to dive straight back into it. My husband is already sorted with his job and I’ve been putting out the feelers for the last few months.

I’ve found people in NZ have been really friendly and helpful, putting you in touch with others who might be interested in working with you. There’s no sense of the suspicion or fear of competition that you get in the UK which has been really nice.

I am keeping on with some of my work with international clients such as Amazon – stuff I already do virtually – and have already got myself a non-executive Director role with Canterbury Cricket. I joined the Institute of Directors and this role came up so I applied, did a Skype interview and have participated in a Board meeting at 4am UK time already!

Emotionally, we didn’t tell anyone else until we had made the decision since we didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up if we decided not to come. Once we did tell people though, we’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response, especially from both sets of grandparents. None of my siblings, or my husband’s siblings, live in NZ so our parents are really looking forward to having us home, and to being able to spend lots of time with their grandkids.

You’re now about two weeks out from leaving the UK – how are you feeling?

I feel stressed because there is still so much to do. Practical things like scrubbing football boots and cleaning the underside of the trampoline so we get through the NZ customs check. We’ve also got to sell the car and arrange the moving trucks, figure out what to put in the container and what to take in the suitcases, in between both of us still working full-time.

I’m also trying to stay (or at least give the appearance of staying) really calm for the kids. What’s getting me through is the thought that in a few weeks I will be able to relax and chill out on a beach with a glass of wine!

So I guess, how I’m feeling is a mix of stressed and excitement. I’m sad to be leaving my UK friends but excited to connect with old friends who still live in NZ. One the one hand, I’ll miss the dynamism and diversity of London but, on the other, I’m looking forward to hearing birdsong, instead of sirens, every day.

Have you been doing anything special to transition out of your London life?

With the kids, I’m making a conscious effort to create some nice UK memories. We’ve been doing a bit of a farewell tour taking in all the things that are important to the kids. So far we’ve been to Wimbledon, because they love tennis and we’ve been to Lords. One of my sons is a huge Spurs fan so we went to watch a match and visit the new stadium.

We’ve also been ticking things off the London list – Tower Bridge, Tate Modern and so on. I even ran the London marathon this year because it’s an iconic run and I don’t know if I’ll have another chance – as well as a round of good-bye coffees and dinners with friends.

What are your expectations for your new life in NZ? Hopes & fears?

My biggest hope is that we get to spend more time as a family. I hope the kids will be happy since that was a big part of the decision to do this. They are all sporty so we think they’ll fit into the lifestyle quite easily but every now and then they come out with some quintessentially English saying that makes me wonder whether it will be as smooth a transition as I would hope.

I’m also hoping that life will be easier in terms of juggling work and family time. We’ve already lined up the boys’ grandparents to help with childcare and we’re also bringing our nanny to help with that. The other reason for bringing our nanny is to give the kids that sense of continuity while they are integrating into their new life. That will be especially important if my husband and I are travelling a lot for work – at least there will be a familiar face and routine at home while they are getting used to their new life.

I’m personally a bit worried that I’ve been away for so long that I will experience a cultural gap between how NZ was when I left and how it is now. Christchurch might seem less open-minded than London and that there won’t be the cultural diversity which I’ve come to love living in an international city.

Additionally, I’m very aware that I haven’t lived through the recent events in Christchurch – both the earthquakes and the shootings earlier this year. I’m worried that this will mark me as an outsider and make it harder to connect.

Our plan for all of this is to treat the move to NZ like it’s a brand new country, to go in with an open mind and be prepared for whatever differences we have to navigate. As well as that, we’ve already set into motion the lifestyle things we are moving back for – enrolling the kids in tennis & cricket and, buying a four wheel drive to give us the freedom to really go off road and explore. I’m also considering taking Te Reo lessons to connect more with Maori culture and, as for the rest, we’ll just have to see how that goes.

What are the key lessons you have learned about planning a move back to NZ?

If you are moving with your partner, you have to be on the same page. Talk a lot up front, over years if necessary, before you make the decision but, once you decide, make sure you commit.

Start to plan early. Do the practical (boring) stuff like housing, finances and schools first. Ask for help and pay for help, if you can afford to – anything that helps take the burden off you. For example, we asked our families to help with going to school open days and they’ve even bought all of the children’s Xmas presents so that’s one less thing we have to do when we arrive.

We also divided and conquered on the tasks according to our relative strengths. My husband did most of the paperwork while I’ve taken the lead on practically packing things up and also the emotional side of leaving for us and our kids.

What advice would you share with others who are at the start of that process?

Really think about what is important to you in terms of life priorities and revisit this list over time because it might change. Ask yourself ‘how would living in NZ help achieve these goals?’. Evaluate and re-evaluate until you feel confident that the move to NZ is the right one for you. And then, once you’ve decided and you truly ‘know your why’ – just get on with it.

Can we catch up with you again a few months after your arrival in NZ to hear how things are going?

Yes, absolutely!

While you are here – complete the NZ Repatriate Survey

Are you a NZ Citizen or Permanent Resident who has lived abroad and already returned to live in NZ? I’d love to keep adding to the insights we have about the NZ Repatriate Community as reflected in this post. So, if you haven’t already, click through to read the introductory blog and find the link to the survey. It should take about 5-10 minutes to do both. Thanks!

About me & the blog

Originally from NZ, I spent 12 years living and working in the Netherlands, the UK and the US. In 2017, I returned to live in Auckland with my lovely husband and crazy cats. Inspired by the stories I had heard from those who had made the move before me, I started the blog to tell the stories of a diverse group of Kiwis who have lived abroad and returned to NZ. It’s a mix of interviews and insights, exploring the reasons so many Kiwis head off to see the world, their expectations and experiences and, ultimately, what brings them back.

Through these stories, I also explore the themes around what makes coming ‘home’ a really mixed bag of emotions and, pull out the key insights and tips on how to make this as happy an experience as it can be.

By sharing our stories we hope to help those Kiwis living abroad but thinking about moving back and those who have recently arrived. If you’ve got a question, a comment or a story you’d like to share, please feel free to get in touch via the contact page.

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