Newtown, Wellington, New Zealand
Due to my commitment issues and mood swings, I don’t typically plan in advance. But I knew exactly how I was going to spend last Friday night, long before it happened. During my friend’s wedding, she and her husband introduced me to friends of theirs, a couple, who live in Wellington. Not only are they stylish, intellectual, and gorgeous, they are also unnecessarily generous. Just days after we met, they gave me the greatest gift I’ve ever received – they asked me to house sit for six weeks. And we’re not talking just any house, but a newly renovated house from the 1900s with high ceilings, wood floors, natural light, and a garden. Did I mention they don’t have any pets?
Given that I’ve been living in hostels, sharing rooms with up to nine other people, and sleeping on air mattresses, pullout couches, and bunk beds for the past two months, if someone had offered me my own teepee it would have been too much. The offer to live alone and rent-free in someone else’s spacious, modern home was like asking to borrow a cup of sugar and being handed an apple pie. The day I moved into the house, I could barely concentrate on the homeowners’ last minute instructions. Luckily, I didn’t have to, as they had left me a note detailing phone numbers, security codes, and the location of the Tupperware and extra towels. It was like the first day of college, and I was waiting for my parents to leave and the fraternity party to begin. Except that binge drinking was not on my agenda for the evening.
As soon as the couple pulled out of the driveway, my night began. I turned on the radio, dumped out the contents of all of my suitcases, stripped off my clothes, and did laundry naked, because I could. Then I soaked in the claw-footed bathtub, made snow angels in the white sheets of my double bed, and fell asleep under the down comforter. Oh, the joys of being a single girl in a new city where no one knows you.
This house performs miracles. Lately, I’d been having a crisis of faith, uncertain if things were going to work out for me in Wellington or if I have what it takes to become a writer, here or anywhere. The truth is that things are already going well, it just didn’t feel that way. I’m impatient and anxious by nature – once I know what I want, I want it now, and the idea of “enjoying the process” is a little like trying to enjoy getting vaccinated before going on an African safari. But this time, I wasn’t just talking about moving faster towards my goal. I was talking about trading in my dream for another one.
I started to feel jealous of my roommates, with their nine-to-five office jobs and exam schedules (or maybe it was resentment over being woken up at 6:30am every morning). They had somewhere to go and something to do each day, and something to show for it. I began to covet my neighbor’s routine. I wondered if being my own boss wasn’t a failed experiment, if I shouldn’t give up my desperate housewife lifestyle and literary aspirations and return to the office. Or worse, return to school. Luckily, before I could trade in my pen and paper for a business suit or textbook, I left the hostel.
One of the first things I did when I moved into the house (after cleaning up the mess I’d made and getting dressed) was go for a run. There is a closed track around the corner, and I resigned myself to running around in a circle for 40 minutes while people in spandex mocked me openly. But before I even finished my first lap, I saw a paved path in the distance, heading uphill. Hmmm, I wonder where that goes? I thought, and I was off on an adventure. I discovered children playing soccer (on a field next door to a pistol range), numerous parks, the bus stop, post office, supermarket, and library. As I ran, uncovering the secrets of my new neighborhood, I was like a pig in mud. I remembered how much I enjoy exploring, and how liberating it feels to be able to go with the flow because you have nowhere you have to be next. I remembered how thrilling it could be to veer off the beaten path, as long as you have somewhere safe to return to.
Many people like living in hostels. Because their only ambition is to finance their travels and have a good time while they’re in town, they happily trade privacy and freedom for constant companionship and zero responsibilities. But I have other priorities and other needs, and I found the hostel tiring and oppressive. Hostels may seem like a community, but they are governed by the Law of the Jungle. Everyone circles the two computers like vultures circling their prey, boxing out anyone who tries to cut in before their turn. Food left on the counter for more than five minutes is consumed before it can be placed in the free food container. And then there’s the battle for the bottom bunk.
Personally, I waited two weeks for one of my roommates to vacate her bed. When I returned to the room on the day of her departure, I found that a new girl had claimed it, even though I had already placed my belongings on the corresponding shelf. I kindly corrected her error, moving her stuff off of my bed. Later, I discovered that she had made the bed, placing her possessions on top. Again, I was forced to remove her things and replace them with my own. When I got home that night, she was fast asleep in the top bunk. All’s fair in love and bed wars.
Used to setting my own schedule, I found conforming to the pace of the hostel difficult. I didn’t understand why strangers should inform when I eat, sleep, read, or go to the bathroom, and I hated having to lock my suitcase every time I left the room. What it takes to reach your goal is stamina, but fighting for counter space, waking up early to take advantage of the free breakfast, and waiting in line for the shower left me exhausted. I wasn’t starved for stability. I was desperate to get out of the hostel. I literally felt like I was being pushed out the door. However, without a home base, I was much less willing to venture out into the great unknown.
When I moved into the house, the only thing that really changed was that I had heated floors in the bathroom. But that changed everything. With a comfortable place to call my own (even if just for six weeks), I can finally see that I’m in a great place in my life. I no longer feel limited by other people’s stuff or agendas. I signed up for classes and returned to my interests and activities because I have space to spread out and the resources that I need in order to stay organized. Content with meandering towards my goal and easing into my new life, I no longer feel the need to rush anywhere. Sure, I have to find another job (because the one I have won’t pay the bills) and a flat (because, unfortunately, I can’t stay here forever), but not this week.
The first phase of moving abroad is definitely the hardest, full of uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety. It’s easy to lose perspective, especially when you focus on what you gave up to come here rather than on what you already have or stand to gain. But it can also be the most fun because everything is new and novel, and everyday is unpredictable and exciting. For a while, I was so unsettled that it was upsetting, distracting, and demoralizing. But now I’m ready to face the world because I know that at the end of the day I can come home and slam the door in its face.