Catching up with recent returner, Anna Johnstone, a couple of months after the move to NZ
Last time we spoke, you were about 2 weeks out from leaving the UK? How was the last couple of weeks and how did you feel when you finally got on the plane?
The last couple of weeks were stressful, which I guess was to be expected. There were a whole lot of last minute things to do – like we were still filling the shipping container on the day we flew out. My husband and I were especially busy trying to wind down our UK lives at the same time as we were managing some set up things in NZ as well. It’s fair to say that the kids spent a bit more time on their devices in those last couple of weeks than we would normally allow.
It was a weird feeling in that last couple of weeks that you were doing everything for the last time or seeing people for the last time. Some of the good-byes were especially tough because, even though you want to stay in touch and see each other again, you don’t really know if, or when, that will happen.
The day we actually left was a completely surreal feeling. We headed to the airport in two minivans with ten pieces of luggage (while the shipping container headed to the port) and got on the plane to start our new life. It didn’t quite feel real but landing in NZ was a kind of ‘ahhhh’ moment. I actually felt myself physically relax as we landed, letting go of a lot of the stress.
You’ve been back just over two months now, how are things going? Family, social life, professionally?
Overall, it’s been great, although I recognise we might still be in a ‘honeymoon’ phase. Arriving in the summer was perfect. Day two and we were off to the beach watching the kids digging in the sand thinking ‘yes, this is what we came back for’. I had completely forgotten how beautiful NZ is and how easy it is to get out and enjoy nature. We’ve made a conscious effort to be tourists and have done lots of day trips to Hanmer, Castle Hill and Akaroa and other places around Christchurch as well as up to Nelson and Kaikoura. It’s actually been great having our English nanny here because we also get to experience NZ for the ‘first time’ through her eyes.
We’ve been here two months now and are starting to feel more settled, although it will take some time to feel properly settled. The kids have started school which is going really well so far. The teachers and other children have been really welcoming and I’ve been impressed by the approach to learning that the school has adopted. It’s much more holistic and seems to teach a really rounded set of skills. For example, one of my kids told me that they had to debate the question ‘would you rather be deaf or blind?’ which meant they had to use both debating and listening skills. Then they had to present back to the class. That’s quite different to the more traditionally academic approach they had in the UK and I think it’s great.
It also feels like the pace and pressure of schooling here is down a notch from the UK which the kids are responding well to. They’re making friends, getting involved in sports and telling me that ‘school is great’ so I’m really happy about that.
Housing-wise we are still in a temporary rental but moving into our own home quite soon. I think that will help us feel even more settled and we’ll be even closer, within walking distance, to the school. One of the things I am less enjoying about being in NZ is having to get in the car for everything. After enjoying London’s fabulous public transport for so long that’s quite an adjustment to make.
Social-wise, things are good. We’ve been catching up with old friends. One adjustment we’ve found is that people prefer to socialise at home and seem to do a lot of home baking. That’s been an adjustment, since we were more used to meeting up with people for a pub lunch or at a café.
I do like the spontaneity of socialising here, both with friends and family. We’ve had invitations to meet in the park and BYO picnic and even the invitations we’ve had to work related things have been very low key and relaxed.
Professionally, there is a lot to learn. My husband and I were both back at work in the first week of January not realising that the rest of the country would still be on holiday for a couple more weeks. My husband spent most of January in the UK as his job spans both locations. I’ve still been working with a few European clients which has meant a few late nights because of the time difference.
In NZ, I’m just starting to build up my coaching business, The Female Career, from scratch. I’ve been meeting a lot of people to learn about the local market and start to build my professional network. I’m so appreciative of how open and friendly people are, always willing to meet for a coffee and a chat but I have had to readjust some of my expectations around pace. I’m still operating in London mode but realising that things are a bit slower here and take a bit longer than I am used to.
Has your experience of NZ met your expectations?
I’m really delighted to be home and loving spending time with family. It has been a bit of a surprise how easy it is to get around Christchurch and how quick. Now I can easily do four or five things in a day where in London you’d be lucky to do one or two.
The kids are really happy and talk a lot about their NZ friends. They’re not pining for the UK which I was worried could happen. I’d say things are as good as they could be two months in to being back – but again, this might just be a ‘honeymoon’ phase!
Has anything really surprised you? Practically? Emotionally?
Pleasantly surprised at how accessible it is to do outdoorsy stuff and go to festivals and markets and, how much of it is free! Less pleasantly surprised at how many bugs there are in the great outdoors and how windy it gets in Christchurch which means we can only go to the beach in the morning.
Having to get in the car for everything has been an adjustment and making packed lunches for the kids is new for me. We also the great ready meals available in the UK whereas here there is more cooking from scratch! There’s also the two degrees thing which I knew about intellectually but didn’t really appreciate how often I’d be running into people I knew or who knew me through a mutual friend. It is quite freaky to begin with but I like that village feel it brings.
When we talked about your biggest hopes for a life in NZ, a lot of these centred on your children being happy and having more family time – how is that playing out?
Really well, the kids have adjusted beautifully and are really happy here. They’re enjoying the outdoors and spending time with grandparents. They do miss their UK friends a lot, but have been emailing and doing the occasional FaceTime call – technology has certainly helped. Now the kids are feeling more settled, my husband and I can now start to think more about how we begin to enjoy living in NZ ourselves.
You had some concerns about making the transition from London to Christchurch – from dynamic & diverse to smaller and potentially more close minded – how have you found this?
I’ve found NZ to be very dynamic since I came back. There’s a thriving innovation scene and the diversity in my kid’s school is as diverse as the school they were at in London. Christchurch has an international population and you see a lot of that come through in the range of foods that are available in the city – like at the Riverside Market. Scale-wise, it’s a lot smaller than London, and Christchurch is still traditional in many ways but for its size, I’d say Christchurch is quite dynamic and diverse.
You were also a bit worried about being marked as an outsider because you haven’t lived through Christchurch’s recent history – have you found this to be the case?
No, that hasn’t been the case at all. I’ve been really open with people about my concerns on this but everyone has been really reassuring that this is not how they see me. There is the occasional reference that I don’t get but I’ve actually felt very welcomed since I came back.
How do you feel about the UK now?
It feels like a previous chapter of my life. I’m sad for the UK in terms of the direction it’s chosen to go in with Brexit and I’m sad that London no longer seems to be the open, growing city I moved to. I definitely miss my extended family and all my UK friends. But I also feel that this is my life now and that I need to make NZ my new home.
What are the key lessons you’ve learned about moving to a new place? How have you adapted your thinking based on these insights?
If you have kids, time your arrival for the start of summer so they can have a great holiday and start the school year with the rest of the kids. That also gives you time to treat the first few weeks like a holiday and be in tourist mode while you reacquaint yourself with the country.
Accept and expect that things will be different and try to focus on what’s positively different. For us that’s been things like trying out all the NZ ice-cream flavours that aren’t available in the UK or letting the kids go kayaking in open water, which I never would have done in the UK. But it’s part of the freedom and responsibility that NZers give their kids so I’m embracing that approach.
Based on your experience, what advice would you give people about to move back to NZ, in relation to the first few months of the return?
Consider living outside of Auckland – it’s cheaper & easier to get around. And, it’s really easy to fly domestically and even work some days in other cities. That’s becoming more of a norm.
Try to appreciate the small things that are different. So for me, that’s enjoying the fact that my commute to work is now a 25 minute walk through a lovely park. Or being able to leave home at 7:15am to catch an 8am flight – and still having time to pick up a coffee before I board!
If you’d like to read my first interview with Anna, please click here
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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.
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