Posts Tagged 'Expat'

Three Soybeans in a Pod: Matching Your Home Life to Your Lifestyle

Auckland, New Zealand

Venus Fly Trap

When is flat hunting not flat hunting?  When it’s an identity crisis.  Once I decided to move out of the hostel, I began looking for a room to rent. More than just a place to store my stuff, I wanted a home and a home life that would contribute to and facilitate my experience in Auckland.  Since I wasn’t unhappy at the backpacker’s per se, I had the luxury of time. I was prepared to be picky.

When selecting a flat, there are four key elements to consider: price, location, physical space, and flatmates, in no particular order.  I’ve lived in spectacular neighborhoods, but paid such a high premium for that privilege that I couldn’t afford to leave my bedroom.  I’ve lived in an apartment where I had my own bathroom and balcony, but so despised my flatmate I couldn’t stand to be there when she was home. In her presence, the house wilted like a flower deprived of sunlight and water.

Since I had already been living in Auckland for a few weeks, I held the advantage of having a sense of the personality and highlights of the various neighborhoods. I narrowed my search down to two: Parnell, the self-proclaimed “Creative Quarter” and Grey Lynn.  Both are young, affordable, and accessible, and boast an assortment of bars, cafes, shops, restaurants and parks.
Although they are equidistant from my office, Parnell and Grey Lynn are on opposite sides of the map. Parnell has a French market, Grey Lynn a Woolworths.   Parnell is trendy, Grey Lynn bohemian.  Parnell has hipsters, Grey Lynn feral hippies.  Parnell has a website, Grey Lynn does not. I could see myself living happily in either.

Through Trademe, I found candidates in both neighborhoods.  The house in Grey Lynn was cozy; and by cozy, I mean small.  However, it possessed that lovely broken in feeling of your favorite pair of jeans.  The flat occupied the back half of a split house, and was tidy, quiet, and warm, decorated in deep reds, dark woods, and creamy whites. The front door opened onto a luscious garden with fruit trees, fresh herbs, and wild flowers.  The house may have been crowded, but thanks to an abundance of windows, it was neither dark nor stuffy.

On the other hand, the house in Parnell was multi-storied, with a huge garage-cum-man-cave in the basement, a spacious common room with a large, flat-screen TV, an ample kitchen, and two full-baths.  The available bedroom was no bigger than the one in the Grey Lynn flat, but it came furnished.   The price was slightly higher, but still safely within my budget.  So far, cat’s game.

The final round was between the flatmates.  The Grey Lynn flat was shared by two thirty-something Kiwis, Jane and Alex. Jane was a buyer for a well-known New Zealand mid-range clothing line.  This struck me as odd, as Jane was dressed from top to bottom in black, including her hair, which was dyed black, and the clips in her hair.  Alex, who reminded me vaguely of a tattooed Buddy Holly, worked the overnight shift at an airline.  As Jane was rushing off to meet friends for dinner, Alex emerged from his room to prepare himself breakfast.   “This is Alex,” said Jane, “he’s somewhat of a vampire.”  “A corporate vampire,” clarified Alex.  A Goth and a vampire: I worried the brightness of my wardrobe might turn them to dust.

Yet for as apparently different as we were, we shared a great deal in common.  We were all vegetarians, with an interest in healthy living and spirituality. Jane and I discovered that we had been in the same yoga class the night before. After she left, Alex and I became engrossed in an intense conversation about religion and philosophy.  Even if we don’t live together, I thought, I hope we can be friends.

In the Parnell flat were one American and two Kiwis, who were all, well, normal: just your average beer loving, meat-eating, pub-crawling, social twenty-something young professionals.  There was nothing offensive or special about them, except that the girl had the most obnoxious laugh I had ever heard.  Even though I didn’t particularly identify with them, they were comfortingly mainstream and familiar.

The two flats were so unalike that on a Venn diagram of their interests, you would need a magnifying glass to see the overlapping part.  In high school, the Parnell flat would have mocked the Grey Lynn flat, and the Grey Lynn flat would have judged the Parnell flat.  I felt like the new girl in school trying to decide where to sit at lunch. I thought about a poster I bought as a kid that said, “What is popular is not always right, what is right is not always popular.”  More importantly, I thought about what having that poster said about me as a person.  With that in mind, I made my decision: I wanted the flat in Parnell.

I pictured myself in Parnell on the weekends, perusing art galleries and stationery stores, and taking my MacBook to the Chocolate Boutique Café, where I would write witty blog entries while sipping frothy cappuccinos served by surly waiters.  My flatmates and I would stumble home together after a night out on the piss, and join each other for brunch the following morning. Now I imagine myself there, feeling relatively deprived, out of place, and incurably hung over.  I am just not that girl. Fortunately, the cool kids had the good sense to send me where I belong.  They gave the room to someone else, and I moved into the flat in Grey Lynn.

Perhaps I had been hasty in leaving the hostel.  My first paycheck went to three-week’s bond and two-week’s rent; I couldn’t afford a bed, bedding, or bedroom furniture.  I borrowed an air mattress, which I inflated nightly as if it were a pair of Reebok Pumps.  I didn’t sleep for weeks.  Eventually, I was able to buy a bed and a couple of sets of plastic drawers, and Jane gave me her old desk.  By some miracle, all of my worldly possessions fit into my tiny room.  Better still, I fit perfectly into the flat.

Just as you should buy clothes suited to the life you have, you should choose a flat suited to the lifestyle you lead.  One of the reasons I wanted to live with locals was to benefit from their insider knowledge.  The question was, knowledge of what?  Thanks to Jane and Alex, I know where to find the best vegetarian restaurants, organic markets, and bulk food shops.  We exchange books, ideas, recipes, and discuss our ambitions for the future. For the first time, I feel encouraged and enabled in my choices.

The other day, we had a flat meeting to discuss what to do about the plague of flies that has descended upon our house.  This is the environmentalist’s dilemma: chemical pesticide or carnivorous plant?  There is now a Venus Fly Trap on our kitchen window sill. I might wish that the flat weren’t so cramped, damp, or moldy, but I am so glad the other one turned me away.
Recently, I faced a similar conflict when trying to decide what to do for New Year’s Eve.  At first, I agreed to volunteer with two friends at Rhythm and Vines (a three-day music festival on a vineyard in Gisborne).  No sooner had we received confirmation from the volunteer coordinator than the emails began to fly.  “I can’t believe how much they are charging for camping!!!” “Check out this other festival!!! “Let’s just go to the beach?!?” Suddenly, I remembered how much I hate New Year’s Eve, crowds, electronic music, and exclamation marks.

In the diversion created by my friends, I snuck off and made alternative plans.  I signed up for a ten-day silent meditation retreat that I’d been interested in attending for over a year.  While my friends will be working in the VIP tent, I’ll be learning to practice Vipassana.  When I told my mother, she rolled her eyes.  When I told my coworkers, they averted their eyes.  When I told my flatmates, they didn’t bat an eye – they’ve both completed the same course.


Halfway House: Starting Over in a New City – Again

Auckland, New Zealand

Except for that time in high school when I got kicked out of a party for talking about the hostess behind her back (she was totally asking for it), I avoid conflict.  While altercations of all kinds make me uneasy, I particularly abhor domestic quarrels.  I would rather listen to an amateur hip-hop DJ practice his set at 1am or clean up after someone else’s 10-person dinner party than confront a flatmate.  You can imagine how disconcerted I was when my new roommate yelled at me less than a week after I moved in – over a frying pan.

For a nomadic pseudo-hippie, I have an absurd amount of stuff.   If money were no object, I would happily board a plane with just a good book, an empty suitcase and a credit card.  If I were less hygienic or sartorially inclined, I would emulate my parents, who spent an entire summer in Europe with little more than a toothbrush and two pairs of underwear.  Alas, I am too high-maintenance and too low budget to travel light.

When I left Wellington, I left nothing behind.  The trunk of the rental car looked like a bag lady’s shopping cart.  Batteries, a Rubik’s cube, secondhand bunny ears, and an art smock were among the items that made the trip not just from Wellington to Auckland, but from Argentina to New Zealand.  I have no excuse; I’m just that ridiculous.

There was simply no way my belongings were going to fit into a bedroom already containing five bunk beds and the personal affects of ten tourists.  I figured that booking a room in a full-serviced student apartment would be better than staying at a backpacker’s hostel, especially since I had no idea how long it would take for me to find my own place.  Before leaving for Auckland, I reserved a double apartment for my friend and I.  She only lasted two nights.

That they were still standing was the only redeemable aspect of the apartment building, a grey high-rise tower located in the heart of the University of Auckland’s city campus. The entire building smelled like an unsettling combination of Thanksgiving dinner and the dentist.  There was no hallway, dining area, or living room, but there was a hot water kettle crawling with fire ants. The kitchen and bathroom were so close together I could open the fridge while sitting on the toilet.  As we stood in the doorway, I was hesitant to even hazard a sarcastic comment or look my friend in the eye.  Marriages have ended over less.

Forty-eight hours after we moved in, my friend moved out (she would have left sooner had we not paid in advance), and I was relocated to a different apartment. The first thing my roommate, a twenty-year old Korean girl, did when she met me was to tell me that the chopsticks were hers.  The second thing was to ask me how long I was planning on staying. When she returned from the library, she was carrying a handful of “roommate wanted” posters collected from the bulletin board.

One morning, I decided to make toast for breakfast.  As the apartment had no toaster, I grabbed the nearest frying pan and heated my bread on the two hot plates that passed for a stove.  A few hours later, I heard a knock on my bedroom door.  “I’m not happy,” announced my roommate. “You used my frying pan and now it’s scratched.” She was so angry and serious I felt that I should at least try to defend myself or express remorse. But when I opened my mouth, all that came out was, “I’m leaving in a few days.  Get over it.” I packed up all of my stuff, called the taxi company, requested a van – yes, just for one person, and moved into a hostel.

I’ve never been fond of staying in a backpacker’s when you’re not actually a backpacker. They are typically dirty, crowded, noisy, smelly, and distracting.  You have a better chance of spotting a unicorn than finding peace, quiet, and privacy.  Forget about a good night’s sleep.  People get drunk and eat the chocolate cake you baked for your friend’s birthday and were naïve enough to leave in the communal fridge, use the computer to upload pictures to Facebook, and have sex on the bottom bunk.  And even though there are always interesting people with funny accents around, making real friends is practically impossible when the last people you see before you go to sleep are never the same people you see when you wake up in the morning.

Yet this time, I was actually looking forward to moving into a hostel.  The truth is, when you’re fresh off the airplane, unemployed, and have no friends, furniture, or agenda, there is no place better for you than a good hostel.  Luckily, I discovered a great one – clean, bright, cheap, and not a bunk bed in sight.  The best part about it was the enormous, secure-luggage storage area in the basement.  The excellent location, large garden, spacious lounges, and ample kitchen so well equipped an episode of Iron Chef could easily have been filmed there were just bonuses.

Hostels, I’ve discovered, are a lot like dormitories during Freshmen welcome week in college – everyone is friendly and outgoing, every night is a party, and there’s always someone to look out for you. But eventually, classes start and you no longer appreciate returning from the library and discovering that you’ve been sexiled by your roommate and the guy she met earlier that night in the communal bathroom.  For a while, I truly enjoyed living in the hostel.  I didn’t have to pay bills, make the bed, or clean my room.  I never ate a meal alone, even if I wanted to.  And I even found a cute Dutch kid to take me out on the weekends.

All that changed when I got a job.  I soon became annoyed with laying my clothes out at night and getting dressed in the dark, so as not to wake my sleeping roommates at 6am.  As my Canadian friend sipped boxed wine from a tin mug and stared at me with sympathy and horror while I packed my lunch for the next day, I realized the hostel and I had grown apart.

For me, hostels make excellent halfway houses – a place where you can stay while you secure employment and housing, and where you can begin to build a support network and integrate into society.  Of course, if you have no intention of or desire to lead a conventional life, there is no need or even benefit to leaving the hostel.  There are a lot of costs associated with moving into a flat, and they are hardly worth assuming if you are merely passing through.  But once it became clear to me that I was going to stick around Auckland for a while, it also became clear to me that it was time to move out.  Fortunately, the hostel had wireless Internet, so I could hunt for a flat while everyone else played drinking games.

No Shortcuts: Assessing My Skills

Wellington, New Zealand

Sign at Wellington City & Sea Museum

Sign at Wellington City & Sea Museum

Not counting that brief stint in graduate school in Buenos Aires, my academic career ended over four years ago. Yet curiously, I spent Tuesday evening in the library preparing for an exam.  As vexing as this was, of all the activities and professions that I have tried in my short but random life, the only one that I ever truly mastered was school.  Even though I was out of practice (and decidedly uninterested in staging a comeback), I assumed that studying was as unforgettable as riding a bike.

However, despite my previous level of expertise in the subject, I found myself seated at a desk, with water bottle, snacks, and computer placed before me, entirely uncertain of how to proceed.  I used to be so good at this, I moaned to myself in utter despair, before remembering that delaying the inevitable is a healthy part of any exercise program, like retying your shoe laces or uploading music to your iPod before running.

Since procrastination is a natural part of the education process, I gave myself permission to compose a list of bad similes and metaphors, which is at least more productive than reading my friends’ away messages on AOL Instant Messenger.   Eventually, like a homosexual Belgian man resigned to marrying his best girlfriend for a Green Card, I acquiesced in confronting the task at hand: cramming for a Microsoft Excel and Word skills test.

After four months in Wellington, I am relocating to Auckland.  Everyone I met while living in Wellington gave it rave reviews (which isn’t surprising, considering the population sampled), and everyone seemed to be having more fun than me (which is to say, having any fun at all).  Wellington is undeniably a delightful town, with its beautiful harbor, pervasive café culture, manageable size, interesting architecture, thriving arts scene, and lively nightlife.  In fact, that’s why I stayed as long as I did: I kept waiting to be let in on the secret.  Ultimately, the way I feel about Wellington is similar to how I feel about George Clooney: while objectively I can appreciate their appeal, neither of them do it for me.

There was also the issue of the “young person’s trifecta”, a concept recently introduced to me by a good friend.  She postulates that all young people strive to attain three things: a pleasant living situation, meaningful relationships, and a satisfying job.  In Wellington, I was struggling with all of them, but the final category was by far the most challenging, demoralizing, and influential on my quality of life.

Unbeknownst to me, I had not been hired part-time at the bookstore; I had been hired on a casual basis.  In other words, I was their scheduling bitch: they could put me on or take me off the roster as they saw fit.  Coincidentally, they happened to need me a lot on the weekends, which meant that I was only working when I didn’t want to.  Promotions were certainly amusing (especially for the people lucky enough to witness me walking down Lambton Quay dressed like a one dollar coin) and profitable, but also highly unreliable.  With no fixed schedule or guaranteed number of hours, I was unable to take a second part-time job or budget.  My social life suffered and I was hemorrhaging savings.  Worst of all, I was unable to explore or experience my new city and country.

My free time then became dedicated to finding full-time work, itself a full-time job.  At first, I applied only to roles that sounded at least somewhat interesting, but as my desperation increased, I sent my CV to every employer with an email address.  Most didn’t even have the courtesy to acknowledge receipt of my application.  In fact, just yesterday, I received an email from the human resources department of a major publishing company thanking me for “taking the time and effort to apply” and informing me, “although your skills and experience are impressive, we have selected another candidate.”  I took the time to apply over two months ago, but it was nice of them to formally communicate their decision, in case I had been hoping all this time that no news was good news.  Even though I didn’t take the rejection personally, it did nothing to improve my condition.   Under these circumstances, I would have been unhappy in Disney World.

Upon reflection, my approach to life in New Zealand has been misguided.  I came here with one lofty objective – to find a job whose principal task was writing – but I was unrealistic about how long and how many steps it would take to achieve my goal (and perhaps about how unqualified and inexperienced I am).  If you’re going to reach for the moon, it helps to have a solid base to stand on.  I was too anxious and impatient to start at the beginning; I was naïve about the way global events would impact my personal life; and I was arrogant, believing that I would be the one to defy the odds.  I realize that I need to modify my expectations, priorities, and timeline, and begin again.  Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to get a fresh start in a place where I have history.

Apparently, if you have a dream, you also need to have a plan for making it a reality, which is why I’m considering enrolling in a Master of Creative Writing program next year. Since I no longer feel the urgency to write professionally, my ambition for the remainder of my Kiwi experience is simply to enjoy myself, and to see as much of this incredible country as I can.   This means establishing financial solvency and job stability, so that stimulating, productive, and entertaining extra-curricular activities can become part of my regularly scheduled programming.

This time around, I’m going to be as aggressive, proactive, and flexible as possible. If you’re on a working-holiday visa, your employment opportunities are limited, especially if you’re in a country that respects and adheres to immigration laws. Restaurant, retail, and hospitality jobs are typically available. However, for many, the best option is temporary office work (which often leads to an extended contract or even a permanent position), and the best tactic is to sign up with a recruitment agency.

Before leaving for Auckland, my flatmate generously offered to forward my details on to his contact at one of New Zealand’s bigger and better staffing agencies.  An HR consultant phoned to invite me in for an interview and skills assessment.   Bearing in mind that the market is so tight Kiwis with 20 years of experience are fighting for the same short-term secretarial roles as gap-year travelers, I told the consultant that I was open to all possibilities.  This was a mistake.  Agencies will not consider you for or place you into a role without first evaluating your aptitude for such a position.  The more open you are, the more tests they give you.

In my case, this included tests on data entry, customer service, typing, sheep herding, apple picking, and goat milking.  I couldn’t believe that I had to go through all this just to have a chance at answering phones and making coffee. Suddenly, I empathize with people attempting to adopt a child. When I asked the consultant how long I could expect the assessment to take, he politely suggested that I pack a lunch.  He was also kind enough to recommend, in a lowered voice, that I memorize the drop-down menus of Microsoft Word and Excel, as shortcuts (and mistakes) are not allowed.

I know as much about Excel as I do about fixing hot water cylinders; and while I use Word daily, I could not tell you the precise path for placing blinking Christmas lights around text (Format -> Font -> Animation -> Las Vegas Lights).  Determined to prove myself a strong candidate, I made flashcards like I was prepping for the GREs, except that acing the GREs promises entrance into a top university, while acing a systems test promises entrance into the mail room of a major company.

Once I completed the epic testing, the consultant called me into an office to review the results.  “How’d it go?” he asked, as if he were asking me where I was on the night of June 24.  I found this question strange, as he already knew the answer.
“Well,” I began to humor him, “it took some time to get used to the test.  Also, I have a different version of the programs at home.  But overall, it was fine.”
“You’re in the 99th percentile of all candidates we’ve tested in the past three months.”
“Oh.  Then I’ll stop explaining myself.”

The following day, a consultant from the Auckland office phoned to discuss my details.  The optimism and confidence of the previous afternoon were soon shattered, when she revealed that Auckland had been hit harder in the recession than Wellington and was taking longer to recover.  I may be valedictorian of the staffing agency, but I appear to be destined for data entry.  Spending forty hours a week performing the same mindless activity is to me what getting stuck in an elevator with a clown is to a claustrophobic person.

My immediate reaction was to panic, and cry, but when I calmed down, it occurred to me that the agency was helping me to take the first step that I should have taken four months ago.  Boring but temporary entry-level positions can lead to more dynamic roles, friendly co-workers, rent, a sense of purpose, a routine, after-work drinks, an office romance, and free pens and notepads, all things that are necessary for my happiness and missing from my life.  So, while I may be disappointed over leaving Wellington and uneasy about moving to Auckland, if nothing else, I can feel good about the fact that I type 71 words per minute with 100% accuracy.

Can You Spell That, Please?: Speaking the Kiwi’s English


A woman walks into a bookstore in Wellington.  She is well dressed and well mannered, probably an executive assistant for the CEO of a dairy company, or some such profession.  She approaches the information desk and asks the salesgirl, an American, for help finding a particular title. The salesgirl begins to enter the customer’s request into the computer’s search engine, but hesitates:

“I’m sorry ma’am, but can you please repeat the title of the book?”
Sick and Violent,” says the woman, a hint of annoyance in her voice. Trying not to judge, the salesgirl assumes her position at the keyboard.
“S-I-C…” She stops, and again asks, “Um, can you repeat that one more time?”
Sick and Violent,” snaps the customer.
“Yea, ok, can you spell that for me, please?”
“Oh, second!” exclaims the salesgirl with a sigh of relief. She pauses. “And the last word?”
Second Violin! I thought you said ‘Sick and Violent.’”  As the woman looks mortified, the salesgirl tries to alleviate the tension with a joke, “I swear we speak the same language.”
“It must be my accent.  I’ll go home and practice my English,” replies the customer, with not a hint of a sense of humor. Sadly, this type of misunderstanding happens all the time.

I understand how pathetic this is; but one of the reasons why I finally decided to leave Argentina was that I missed English.  Or maybe it was that my English had gone missing.  I had already been living in Buenos Aires for nearly two years when my friend came to visit.  After a few minutes of conversation, she remarked, “I’m so happy that you don’t sound like a Neanderthal.” She was right: thanks to my job as a customer service manager for a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, as well as my American friends and co-workers, my English was still standing; but it was also starting to deteriorate.

Between living in Spanish and studying French, my total vocabulary had no doubt increased considerably.  However, the quantity of English words under my command had decreased markedly (a fact which I successfully disguised with the help of  I no longer noticed when I Espanglishized my speech: “Sure, I’d love to meet you there.  What’s the direction?” (Dirección being the Spanish word for address.)  And don’t get me started on prepositions – do you arrive at, in, or to a city? Honestly, I’m still not sure.  Yet, it wasn’t until the following conversation with my mother about her upcoming dinner party that I realized just how bad things had gotten:

“So, what time are people going to your house for dinner?” I asked.  My mother giggled, somewhat condescendingly, like she was watching an episode of Kids Say The Darndest Things.
“Oh, Amy.  In English, we say what time are people coming to your house for dinner.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” I protested, “I’m not at your house and neither are the guests.  Logically, it should be going not coming.”
“I appreciate your argument, but it’s still coming.”
En serio?
“Yes, Amy, en serio.”

With the decision to dedicate myself to becoming a writer, I concluded that it would be beneficial to immerse myself once again in English.  My father was quick to point out, repeatedly, that in New Zealand, I would have to learn a whole new dialect.  As much as I hate to admit it, he was right.  Differences in punctuation, pronunciation, spelling, and vocabulary abound.  For example, Kiwis seem to have an adverse reaction to the Oxford Comma (such as the one used before “and vocabulary” in the previous sentence), apostrophes, and periods at the end of abbreviations (as in Mr).  Harbor becomes harbour, theater becomes theatre, organize becomes organise, and so on.  I am often accused of being Irish because, as it turns out, only Irish and Americans pronounce their “R’s”. Just what are togs, jandals and singlets, you ask?  You’ll just have to go clothes shopping in NZed to find out.

Perhaps my favorite part of Kiwi speak is its “as” (not ass, as).  “Sweet as” is probably one of the most common phrases you will hear in New Zealand (and see printed on t-shirts in tourist shops).  Basically, it’s just the first half of a simile, and means “cool” or “awesome.”  The “as” format can be used with just about any adjective –  “It’s cold as outside”, “I’m tired as” – and saves you from having to come up with a clever comparison to describe the situation.  Sure, it sounds like people are speaking in incomplete Mad Libs; but while some may call this lazy, I call it genius.

My least favorite part, in case you were wondering, is how excessively polite people are:
“Your total comes to $100.”
“That’s lovely.  Eftpos [debit card], please.”
“Your card was declined.”
“Cheers.  I’ll use a different card.”
“You entered the wrong pin.”
“That’s lovely.”
“Is that your baby?  I ask only because it’s hideous.  Seriously, get it out of my face.”
“Thanks. You have a wonderful day. Taa.”

They also have a penchant for shortening words and adding a “y” or “ie” to the end of them – brekkie for breakfast, cardy for cardigan – making it sound like the language was invented by two ten-year old girls named Tiffany and Brittany while playing with their Barbies.  Then again, if you’ve ever heard a rugby player ask if you’ve seen his sunnies, you might find the practice more charming than juvenile.

What really gets me into trouble is Maori, especially in place names.  When a customer returns an item, we have to ask for their address, which often goes something like this:
“Can I ask for your city/suburb?”
“Sure, it’s Paraparaumu.”
“Your papa raises emus?”
“Para-para-umu.  How could you miss that?”  At least most cities are spelled exactly how they sound.

The other day, one of my coworkers came up to me with a giant grin on her face,
“When it’s time for your break, there are Shrewsburies, Squiggles, and Tim Tams in the staff room!”
“I want you to know you just sounded like a passage from Harry Potter to me.  What are all those things?”
“You’re so cute,” she laughed.

Most people find such barriers to communication amusing, and are eager to explain to me the meaning of Kiwi words, phrases, and product names.  Unfortunately, when I can’t understand their accent, most people seem to find that offensive.  When we learn a different language, we tend to ignore the accent, concentrating on memorizing vocabulary and mastering grammar (this is likely due to embarrassment, as no one wants to speak French like the chef from The Little Mermaid).  However, this is a huge mistake.  It doesn’t matter how complex are your sentence structures if people can’t understand a damn word you say.
Trust me, there is nothing more frustrating than asking the cashier at the supermarket if you can pay with a tarjeta de crédito while waving your credit card in front of her face, and having her spit at you, “no te entiendo.”  On more than one occasion while living in Argentina, I had someone stop me mid-conversation to ask, “what language are you speaking – English or Spanish?”  And then there were the infamous “I don’t hear the difference” exchanges:
Dónde está el libro?
El qué?
El libro.
El qué?
El libro.”
Ah, el liiiiibro!”
“I don’t hear the difference.”
Eventually, I resigned myself to the importance of the accent, and set about relearning how to pronounce Spanish words.  By that point, it was too late for perfection, but at least I wasn’t humiliated every time I spoke.

Just as Argentine Spanish (Castellano) sounds radically different from Spanish, Mexican, or Chilean Spanish, Kiwi English sounds radically different from English, American, and yes, even Australian English.  In “Eh?”, a recent article featured in Your Weekend (the Saturday supplement of Wellington’s Dominion Post), David Killick explains, “Want to talk like a Kiwi?  Easy.  Put a peg on your nose. Now, change the vowel sounds: A to E; E to I; I to U. Talk in a monotone, and finish each sentence with an upward inflexion, like a question.”  So, for all you Flight of the Conchords fans out there, the answer is yis! Kiwis really do talk like that, sort of.  According to the article, many New Zealanders themselves struggle with New Zealand English, deeming it ugly and incomprehensible.  Even Prime Minister John Key has come under attack for his strong Kiwi accent; although the article is careful to emphasize that clarity, not accent, is the real problem.

In fact, the New Zealand accent may be a solution.  I have read elsewhere that New Zealand’s departure from the Queen’s English mimics the country’s attempt to distance itself culturally and politically from its former colonial ruler.  Following this line of argument, New Zealand, a young country just now entering its rebellious teenage years, is using speech to establish and assert its unique identity.   Personally, I support and empathize with New Zealand’s attempt to create (or find, whichever you prefer) itself, even if I can’t always understand what its saying.

I’ve long since believed that the way you speak says as much about you as your actual words.  I finally came to embrace my accent in Spanish because it perfectly expressed my experience in Argentina: I lived there long enough to insert myself into the local community and adopt many local customs and colloquialisms, but not long enough to abandon my native tongue or disassociate from country of origin.   Already, I have versions of my CV and cover letter in Kiwi English, and the words “reckon” and “meant to” have been sneaking into my speech more than I would care for them to (as in “What do you reckon the Prime Minister meant to say?”) There’s no telling how much worse it will get.  Just do me a favor: if you ever hear me say “cheers” in place of “thanks”, smack me. Taa.

Acclimatization: Weathering Windy Wellington

Wellington, New Zealand

Because even teapots need help staying warm

Because even teapots need help staying warm

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.

Good While It Lasted: Managing Transience

Wellington, New Zealand

I may be a fan of The Power of Now and a proponent of living in the moment, but if I’m being honest, I don’t and can’t always practice what I preach.  We live in a fearful, future-focused society that encourages us to help our children plan for retirement rather than talk to them about safe sex.  Delayed gratification is a virtue, while instant gratification is seen as hedonistic, frivolous, self-indulgent, and worse, irresponsible. But I believe in the short-term.  I believe that we should allow ourselves to do the things that make us happy now, even if they won’t do anything for us later.  Call me a utilitarian (actually, please don’t), but I believe in the intrinsic value of pleasure.   Yet lately, I’ve been plagued by the question what’s the point?

Considering that I’ve only been in Wellington permanently (and given the nature of the current discussion, I use that term reluctantly) for a few weeks, things are going well.  I live alone and rent-free in a beautiful house, and I have a fun part-time job, friends whose company I enjoy, and a good-looking English guy to give me something to think about.  In other words, there are a lot of things to be happy about.

But happy is not exactly how I’ve been feeling lately.  And trust me, there is nothing more frustrating, obnoxious, or unattractive than being able to count your blessings but not being able to appreciate them.  It’s a little like finding out that your boss, who has a wife and twin girls, is having an affair with the young man who works in the mailroom, and not being able to tell anyone about it.  At first, hormones were my only explanation for this unwarranted and irrational display of indifference.  Until I realized that rationality was actually to blame for my bad mood.

Yesterday, after dance class, I met a friend for coffee.  She had spent the weekend in the mountains, interviewing for seasonal work at a ski lodge.  A lot had happened since we had last spoke, just a week before.  We sat for hours talking psychology, dating, and the hardships of being an expat.  It was one of those great conversations that graduate the relationship to the next level of friendship.  However, when we said goodbye, I didn’t feel satisfied.  I felt empty.  During the evening, my friend had revealed that whether she gets the job or not, she will likely leave Wellington within the next month. And it hit me just how temporary my life is at the moment.

The pleasure we derive from doing certain things, like buying treasury bonds, lifting weights, or shaving our legs is based on the promise that our actions in the present will pay off in the future.  Sure, the more masochistic among us may find such activities amusing (I, for one, do genuinely like going to the gym), but for the most part, we suffer these tasks in silence because we understand that they are part of the creative process.  All of these actions, and the subsequent sore muscles and nicked knees, are necessary in order to reach our objectives.  And it is the knowledge that we are building a foundation or nearing our goal that makes these steps not just bearable, but rewarding.

So, it’s a little disheartening and disappointing knowing with certainty that I will soon have to say good-bye to many of the wonderful things in my life, like the house, my job at the bookstore, and my friend.  And it’s discouraging sensing that the energy I am currently expending will not be compensated.  I just can’t help but feel burdened by the expiration date.  Which brings us back to the age-old question: is it better to have loved and lost or to have never loved at all? When I think about my time in Argentina, this blog, or the recent coffee date with my friend and how comforting it was to share stories, worries, and plans with another person, I would definitely place my vote on the former.

Besides, as my friend pointed out, as much as I need a certain amount of stability and control, I also need to explore, experiment, and evolve.  If everything were sorted and settled, eventually I would get bored and crave change.  Rather than resist or resent the transient nature of my existence, perhaps I should try to accept and embrace it, as it gives me the opportunity to constantly refresh and do-over.  The problem is when something ends before you’re ready to give it up.

It’s exhausting to think about starting anew, again. Especially for a girl who may or may not be writing this at 1pm from her bed because she can’t be bothered to get dressed.  I had been hoping to put on cruise control and just coast for a while.  However, in the immortal words of Bryan Adams, “Ain’t no use in complaining when you got a job to do.”  And there’s also no use in staying at home on a Saturday night, even if it is raining, just because your partner in crime won’t be around the following weekend.  So, I guess I’m going to get up, brush my teeth, and make dinner plans with a friend who is leaving for Asia next week.  I might as well enjoy what I’ve got before it’s gone.

For This They Pay Me $30/hr? : Job Hunting in New Zealand

Wellington, New Zealand

Promoting $3 Parking

Promoting $3 Parking

When my savings dwindled and I could no longer justify or tolerate starting each day at 2pm, I began to look for a job in Buenos Aires.  At that time, I was willing to do whatever it took to stay in Argentina.  With the exception of pornography and prostitution.  All I needed was an income and a reason to get out of bed in the morning other than to go to the bathroom.  An equal opportunity job hunter, I didn’t care if the position was “black” (under the table) or “white” (on the books), stimulating or mind-numbingly boring, as long as it paid the bills.  I dropped off my CV everywhere, from toy stores to nightclubs.  But in the end, I decided to do the one thing I had vowed I would never do – teach English.

Don’t misunderstand. I have nothing but respect and appreciation for teachers.  But I’m not one, neither by training or disposition.  And just because you know how to do something, doesn’t mean that you know how to teach someone else to do it.  Most days, I felt more like an actress (or a con artist) than a professor.  Some days, I felt like a complete ass.  The way I explained phrasal verbs, prepositions, and idioms sounded a lot like the way the dad from Calvin & Hobbes explained science.

Calvin: “Why does [the sun] move from east to west?”
Calvin’s Dad: “Solar wind.”

Quite honestly, everything I know about English language and grammar, I learned from Schoolhouse Rock! Not surprisingly, my students, typically middle-aged businessmen, weren’t too keen on singing “Conjunction Junction.”  That is, assuming that they showed up for class.

I can’t recall the number of times that students simply failed to come to class with no warning.  Because their companies paid for the classes, there was no financial disincentive to playing hooky.  But even Ferris Bueller had the decency to call in sick.  And I’m fairly certain that none of my students ever used the extra hour to hijack a parade float and lip-synch “Danke Schoen” while driving down Avenida 9 de Julio. Sure, it was nice getting paid for taking a nap under my desk.  But while I was willing to do just about anything for money, I wasn’t interested in getting paid for doing nothing.

After nearly a year in Buenos Aires, I finally landed a real job (expat parlance for a stable, salaried position, typically executed in an office between the hours of 9am-5pm, for which a work visa is either required or provided).  The actual tasks I was expected to perform were dreadful.  If the infinite monkey theorem states that “a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare,” then a trained monkey certainly could have done my job, and probably would have complained less.  But it wasn’t teaching English, and fortunately, there were enough benefits, like amazing coworkers and great pay, to compensate for the boredom and soul sucking.  Not to mention the fact that it kept me in Buenos Aires.

After nearly two years, my brain had atrophied and my mood had defaulted to depressed. The real wake-up call came when I found myself awake at 2am, hovering over my computer in a darkened room, writing computer programs.  It was the most mental stimulation I had experienced in nearly two years, and it was addictive.  Fearful that I would eventually turn into a coder, I was compelled to quit my job. There was another reason for leaving – I had found my passion for writing.  And working all day as a customer service manager left me with no time or energy to explore my talent or pursue my new career objective of becoming a writer, in New Zealand.  (No, I didn’t really think that last part through too carefully.)

Unemployment has been stressful and uncertain, but I promised myself that I wouldn’t compromise my dream for a paycheck. I came to New Zealand with a specific goal – to find a job in publishing.  While I’m open to taking on any role where the principal activity is writing or editing, I’m not willing to do just any job.  So someone please explain to me how it is that I ended up spending Saturday night walking around windy, wet and cold Wellington in a two-piece leopard print outfit that resembled a “sexy Wilma Flintstones” Halloween costume, trying to convince drunken men to stop grabbing my butt long enough to sample a new deodorant body spray?  The answer’s easy, really – I got paid $30/hr.  Degrading?  Perhaps.  But let’s be honest, for $30/hr., you would do it too.

For nine glorious months, I haven’t had a boss, schedule, or professional responsibilities.   But I haven’t had a paycheck either. I’m committed to being an artist, just not of the starving variety.  And since arriving in New Zealand, it’s become clear to me that if I want to stay here long enough to make my dream come true, I need money. It’s also become painfully clear that, instead of setting up a trust fund for me and my brother, my parents have spent all of their hard-earned money on travels and expensive jars of mustard and jam.  So, when I got to Wellington, I signed up to work on a casual basis with a promotional staffing agency.  Besides, I’m the new kid in town, and having a job, any job, is a great way of getting integrated into the local community, meeting new people, and killing time.

Unfortunately, promotional work is unreliable, so I applied for a part-time job at a bookstore as well.  As far as menial jobs that pay minimum wage go, it’s my best-case scenario.  Not least of all because the manager is such a dandy that I half-expected him to pull a pair of gloves from his breast pocket, slap me across the face, and challenge me to a duel in place of an interview.  He also likes to compare retail to theater, which possibly explains the dramatic pauses he inserted into our conversation.  “Honestly, Amy,” *cocks head slightly to one side while pausing meaningfully* “the dress code here is ‘express yourself.’” I start on Friday, and something tells me that he and I are going to have great fun together.

The truth is that I’m looking forward to having an activity and income that I can count on.  I’ve even been practicing saying things like “Sorry, I can’t.  I have to work tomorrow.”  But I also keep telling myself that one day, these jobs will make great material for interviews, when people ask me to describe some of the things I did before I made it big as a writer.  (And of course, these characters and experiences will make great material for my memoirs).  I guess we all have to pay our dues.  Which seem to include a bad cold, sexual harassment, and a boss that uses jazz hands when explaining the store layout.  When it comes too quickly or too easily, you don’t trust it and you feel like you don’t deserve it.  So, if this is what I have to do in order to win a Pulitzer or become the Arts & Entertainment Editor of The New York Times, bring it on.  I’m not afraid of a little hard work.  Waking up at 7:30am on Friday morning, now that’s a different story…

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