Wellington, New Zealand
When I awoke on Friday morning, the house was rocking. And yes, I had slept alone the night before. As it was only 6am and my eyes refused to open more than halfway, my first instinct was to incorrectly blame myself for the swaying. But when I steadied myself against the bathroom counter and the mirror continued to bounce merrily like a child on a pony ride, I quickly surmised that the shaking was structural.
Far beneath New Zealand, the Pacific and Indo-Australian Plates are engaged in an ongoing, geological Sumo wrestling match. The result of all of this tectonic butting, crashing, and slipping is New Zealand’s diverse and shapely landscape. Geothermal wonders, such as geysers, mud pools, and hot springs, rank among the North Island’s most popular tourist attractions. The Southern Alps were born of plate subduction, and volcanoes are to blame for the Waimangu Valley, the Central Plateau, and Lake Taupo. Given that an earthquake registering 7.9 on the Richter scale leveled the town of Napier in 1931, I couldn’t help but wonder if I wasn’t experiencing my first taste of seismic activity.
But alas, it was merely another windy day in Wellington. The weather in New Zealand’s capital is real shit. Temperatures may be moderate (annual averages range between 6-20°C), but it’s the wind that’ll kill you. The gap between the North and South Island is a natural wind corridor, and as air passes through the Cook Strait it becomes faster and stronger. Consequently, Wellington averages 173 days per year with powerful gusts (winds faster than 60km/hr), and those winds often travel with a posse of purple rain clouds that pass overhead like a stampede of buffalos. At least on those days I don’t have to worry about watering the plants.
Of course, I knew this before choosing Wellington. But I was promised that the city compensated for its climate. People assured me that with so many great things to do, places to go, and people to see, Wellington’s meteorological shortcomings would be reduced to small talk. They were wrong. No mixed drink, hip club, or Kiwi bloke has yet to convince me to shed my leg warmers and hooded sweatshirt, leave the space heater at home, and go out in a torrential downpour.
However, I can’t help but think that maybe my friends were onto something. Every time I walk home after work on a Friday night, I pass hordes of co-eds in short, strapless cocktail dresses, an entire can of Aqua Net sprayed in their hair, walking like Quasimodo in their four-inch heels. One would assume that they are all dressed up because they have somewhere to go (like Shooters on Courtenay Place). I guess my invitation was lost in the mail.
Recently, it has occurred to me that Wellington, like all cities, is an exclusive, members-only club. If you want access to the best bars, flashest stores, top neighborhoods, finest classes, and coolest cultural events, you have to be an insider, or at least be friends with one. But I am still the uninitiated new girl.
However, it seems as though I am slowly gaining entry. The woman who co-owns the hostel where I used to stay recommended the Wellington Community Education Centre, where I am now taking an acrylic painting class on Thursday nights. (Either I’m the next Picasso or I should have signed up for a drawing class). Last week, a flier delivered to the bookstore informed me of an event at the Te Papa museum featuring six international authors nominated for the prestigious Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. And just tonight, a friend told me about an outlet mall located a short train ride outside the city. Now that Wellington and I are getting to know each other, and I’ve earned its trust and respect, it’s starting to open up to me.
I’ve taken to viewing the weather as Wellington’s version of hazing. Rather than tie two 40oz bottles of beers to your hands or knifing you in an alley, the city sends the wind to weather-beat you. If you hope to make it here, or anywhere really, you have to prove just how badly you want it. (To give you an idea: you know when a little kid tries to fight a bigger kid and the big kid defends himself by simply placing his outstretched hand on the little kid’s head, leaving the poor, misguided attacker to flail his arms in desperation while running in place? That’s what jogging in Wellington on a windy day feels like. I joined a gym.)
Truthfully, if I do end up in Wellington long-term, I doubt I’ll ever cease to comment on the weather. I lived in Buenos Aires for over three years and never stopped moaning about the humidity, overcrowded subtes, and missing monedas. In my experience, a city’s faults become part of the shared experience, and rising above them brings residents closer together and distinguishes them from other communities. Complaining is an integral part of the collective narrative. It is also a source of pride, because staying with a city despite its flaws indicates that you have a profound connection to and a rewarding relationship with that place.
I don’t know if Wellington and I will go the distance. But I’m not ready to give up on it yet. I have a good feeling about this city and we’ve had some good times together. And as time passes, I am more comfortable and at home here. Besides, after careful calculation and scientific analysis, my fellow expats and I have concluded that eight months is the magic number – you simply can’t determine if a city is right for you any sooner. Who knows, maybe I just need to buy some warmer clothes.