Posts Tagged 'living abroad'

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.

There’s a Good Chance That Today Will Suck: Dealing With Depression Abroad

In the Doldrums, Wellington, New ZealandInstallation Piece in Downtown Wellingotn

You know how I know I’m depressed?  It’s 9:30pm on Saturday night and I’m lying in bed, lights on, fully clothed, listening to Radiohead.  Given that my musical tastes tend to be more bubblegum than bittersweet, when my personal soundtrack features angst-filled alt-rock, you know things are bad.  The only thing missing was a rain-streaked bay window for me to look out while running my fingers through my tousled hair.

In my defense, I was nursing a wicked hangover and had just returned home from a day of arguing with customers over the injustice of being charged 10 cents for a plastic bag (‘all proceeds go to charity’) and helping middle-aged women locate science fiction-romance novels written by # 1 New York Times bestselling authors (a distinction I used to cling to like the ‘verified’ status on Internet auction sites, until I realized that earning that title is a lot like being crowned Prom Queen: some writers are better than others at printing buttons and baking muffins).  Although, I must confess that when the store is exceptionally ‘quiet’, I pass the time reading summaries of these books in our catalog:

When Luci, a beautiful archeology student, decided to spend her Spring Break in the Arabian Desert, she had no idea of the      treasure awaiting her.   Trapped in a terrible sandstorm, Luci is rescued by a mysterious stranger on horseback.  Who is this handsome but guarded to whom she owes her life?  Slowly, Luci digs away at his layers, and uncovers two shocking secrets: he is a Sheikh, and a werewolf.  The next full moon is fast approaching.  Will their undeniable sexual chemistry be strong enough to overcome their differences in class and biology?

To make matters worse, the owners of the house were I had been staying were due back the following morning; the place was a mess and my personal belongings were everywhere.  Still, on the eve of the big move into my new flat I should have been elated, not stewing in a pot of my own purple funk.

There is a widespread misconception that when you go abroad, it’s all sunshine and roses.  Allow me to clarify: it’s not.  I’m not being negative or pessimistic.  Just think about it: can you remember a six-month period of your adolescent/adult life when you were happy every single day?  Probably not, because bad days happen, even to the best of us, regardless of where we are living.

Yet, most of us, myself included, naively believe that when you leave home, you leave your troubles behind.  Unfortunately, many of your problems sneak into your suitcase while you’re not looking.  Your support system and comfort zone, on the other hand, see you off at the airport.  Even worse, once you land, you pick up new issues that you’ve never seen and for which you have no remedy, like mutant strands of psycho-emotional swine flu.

The stigma attached to being depressed at home is nothing compared to the shame associated with being down in a different country.  We all secretly hope that going abroad will be the best time of our life. Consequently, when you feel lonely, homesick, frustrated, or confused, you also feel like a failure.

In an effort not to disappoint or worry, you write a lot of emails that sound eerily like the letters you used to send your grandmother from summer camp: “Everyone here is really nice. I’m having a lot of fun and the food is better than I expected.  I miss you.”  No one, especially your mother, wants to hear about being defeated by the subway; getting ripped off by the laundry mat, which dry-cleaned all of your clothes, including your socks; or eating meals at McDonald’s because you’re too intimidated to sample the local cuisine.  They want to hear about the different accents you’ve slept with; the nights you’ve spent partying until dawn; the spontaneous weekend getaways; and the sophisticated dinner parties hosted by foreigners that you’ve attended.  They want to picture you in paradise, with a spare bedroom for visitors.

Now, I’ve had plenty of great trips that have played out like a montage of best moments.  However, sometimes things just don’t work out in your favor.  You choose a destination based on the best information available to you at the time.  But there are things that you can’t know about yourself or the place you are going until you get there; and there are factors that will influence your experience that are simply beyond your control.

Transitions are hard. Period.  Some days, you will feel like you’re recovering from a head injury: you have to relearn how to talk, getting dressed is a challenge, and feeding yourself is a notable accomplishment.  An expat friend living in Auckland told me that during her first few weeks in New Zealand, she began each day by telling herself, “there’s a good chance that today will suck.”  Then, she got out of bed and forced herself to do something – sign up with a temp agency, take a class, go for a walk – even if it felt like a lost cause.   Earlier this week, I decided to take advantage of my part-time unemployment: I visited a museum, treated myself to lunch at a café, and spent the afternoon reading and writing.  Normally, I would describe such a day as my version of Christmas morning; but given my current state, it felt more like a white elephant gift exchange.  Still, it certainly didn’t suck.

Depending on circumstances and personal characteristics, some people adjust, adapt and settle more quickly than others.  Often, it’s just a matter of stamina, like one of those “last man standing” competitions where you can win a new car simply by touching the vehicle for long enough.  The trick is not to lift your hand too soon; and not to let your sense of proportion cloud your sense of perspective.  When you only plan on being somewhere for a short while, a few difficult weeks represent a significant percentage of your total stay.  Taking a broader view, your overseas experience, whether you consider it a vacation, gap year, or working-holiday, is just another chapter of your life; and what are a few bad months over the course of a lifetime?

Try not to judge the city, or your connection to it, until you’ve managed to crack the surface and throw down some roots.  Be patient, be resilient, and most importantly, relax.  Moving abroad is an inherently stressful situation; seasoning it with your own special blend of neurosis is a bit like squeezing lemon on a grapefruit.  Once you’ve done your part, and while you’re waiting for the Universe to meet you half way, try to have fun.

Unfortunately, sometimes the Universe stands you up, leaving you sitting alone on the curb like a total chump.  In which case, unless you’re an actor, putting on a non-stop one-man show does you no favors.  You can’t fix a problem until you admit that you have one. I know this because I recently took that first step: “Hi, my name is Amy and I’m not happy in Wellington.”

The truth is that so far, not so good.  The possible reasons why are endless: simple incompatibility, unrealistic expectations, bad timing, global economic crisis, wrong approach, and the list goes on.  (Remarkably, everyone with whom I’ve shared my predicament has been amazingly supportive and managed to say the right things.) All I know is that my present situation is untenable, financially, emotionally, and psychologically.  Rather than invest more time, energy, and savings to maintain the status quo, it’s time to explore other options.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a thin line between quitting and hubris.  Walking away from something that isn’t good for you; isn’t actually what you want; or can’t offer you what you need, is not admitting defeat; it’s taking care of yourself and moving on with your life. There’s no shame in trying something new.  Once you hit your wall, don’t torture yourself with “maybe if I stay longer, things will get better” or “maybe there is more that I could be doing”.  All you can ever do is your best; give it a fair chance, and then come up with a plan B.

No final decisions have been made, but I am currently contemplating ideas for my immediate and short-term future – moving to a different city (other than the one in which I was born and raised) where I have friends and there are things to do other than drink coffee, applying to master’s programs in creative writing – some of which I had never before considered.  When I was living in Buenos Aires, I rode the bus everywhere.  On certain occasions, when made to wait an unreasonable amount of time, I would change my mind and decide to take a taxi or walk.  Without fail, the bus would pull up an instant before I turned away.  Now that I’ve genuinely committed to looking elsewhere, one of two things will happen: Wellington will show up at the last minute; or it won’t, and I’ll go through with my exit strategy.  Either way, I no longer feel stuck.

You know how I know that I’m going to be okay?  It’s Sunday evening, a week after moving into my new flat, and I’m finally unpacking my suitcases.  In the middle of hanging up my clothes, a Justin Timberlake song comes on and I stop organizing my belongings to stage an impromptu fashion show/music video in front of the mirror.  As long as there is choreography, lip-synching, and catwalking in my life, all is not lost.

We Just Live Together: Hunting for Housing in Wellington

Wellington, New ZealandKitchen: Not clean or tidy

Men complain about how complicated and dramatic women are; but I still can’t get a handle on the opposite sex.  After exchanging a few delightful emails with someone that I met online, we decided to take our virtual relationship to the next level and meet in person.  Even though I found his suggestion to have coffee at his apartment to be a bit forward for a first encounter, I accepted his invitation.

The day of our date, I anguished over what to wear like I was debating the best tactic for dealing with the Cuban missile crisis.  I wanted him to find me attractive; but I didn’t want to appear to be trying too hard (especially given the location of our rendezvous).  I wanted my clothes to reflect my personality and style, without scaring him off or giving too much away.  Finally content with my outfit, I made my way to his building.  I announced my presence with a nervous ring of the buzzer; and a few seconds later, the front door opened to reveal a handsome, strapping young man: bald and muscular with a big smile.

Inside, we drank hot beverages and talked.  Just as I expected, we had a lot in common: we both speak Spanish (he’s planning his first trip to Argentina in July); we both studied economics and international relations; and we’re both non-hippie vegetarians.  At the end of the evening, he promised to be in touch; and I believed him.

Days went by with no word, text, or email.  After passing through all five stages of mourning – denial (maybe he dropped his phone in the toilet), anger (how rude!) bargaining (if only I’d worn more makeup), depression (it’s not him, it’s me), and, acceptance (whatever) – I took to the Internet to search for something better.  In my experience, men possess a sixth sense for when a woman is about to move on; and sure enough, just as I finished arranging to meet someone else, Bruce Willis’s gay doppelgänger texted me: “Sorry didn’t get back to u yet about flat.  Need to talk w flatmate b4 we make our decision…will let u know soon.”  I swear, finding the father of my children will be easier than finding housing in Wellington.

Argentina was my first experience outside of college with real estate and randoms.  My initial roommate (or in Kiwi speak: flatmate) was a French girl that I found on Craigslist.  She quickly became not only one of my best friend’s in Buenos Aires, but one of my best friends, literally, in the world.  I was devastated when she returned to Paris, not least of all because it fell on me to retrieve our security deposit from our Latin American landlord, a feat akin to stealing gold from a leprechaun. The good thing about the whole affair is that I learned how to threaten to break someone’s legs in Spanish.

A string of apartments and roommates followed, none as glorious as the first.  For a few months, I lived with an Italian man who was such a cultural stereotype that we shall call him Luigi.  He was a photographer from Milan and wore Burberry scarves, tight black Armani t-shirts, and even tighter jeans (not that I’m complaining).  He drank water from silver Dansk vodka bottles. The only thing I ever saw him eat was pasta with sheep’s milk cheese (cow milk bothered his stomach), which he cooked while complaining about Italy. This, I found amusing, endearing even.  What I found annoying was how he insisted on removing my vegetables from their plastic bags and arranging them in the refrigerator by color and shape.  Then there was the sex.  One night, I was disturbed from slumber by the unmistakable sound of heavy breathing.  I was still half-asleep and the noise was so loud, I thought that Luigi and his girlfriend were having sex on my bedroom floor.  Finally I understood why he ate so many carbohydrates: he was preparing for a marathon.

At some point, I lived with an Argentine girl.  I’m not sure if she was high all the time or just morally opposed to speaking with her mouth open.  Either way, I never understood a single word she said.  Unemployed, she spent all of her time watching videos on YouTube and smoking weed.  She also refused to throw away rotten food or wash her dishes (there are hungry and thirsty children in Africa after all).  When I returned home after a four-day silent retreat to discover the kitchen resembling a preschooler’s found-object art project, I was in such a state of awe and disbelief that I took a picture.

Because I never intended to stay in Buenos Aires longer than a few months, I preferred to rent rooms in furnished flats rather than get my own place.  If I had known then that I was to be there for over three years, I would have done things differently.  What I learned is that your home life heavily impacts your overall quality of life.  Unnecessary roommate drama; depressing rooms with no natural light; and pipes that clog and flood the kitchen with sewage only serve to bring you down, especially when you’re new in town, spend a lot of time at home, and have nowhere else to go.

Unfortunately, since arriving in New Zealand, I have slept on floors, pullout couches, bunk beds, and air mattresses.  I have shared my bedroom with seven other girls, none of whom were relatives. While house sitting has been wonderful for my financial stability and personal freedom, it’s too much house for one person and it’s too far away from the action; isolation is killing my social life.  More than anything, after a while, being a guest in someone else’s home begins to wear out its welcome.

Like Goldilocks, I wanted my next living situation to be just right, as it will likely influence how I feel about Wellington and how long I stay here.  Because desperation does for apartments what beer goggles do for ugly people in bars, I began looking for housing weeks ago.  I sifted through hundreds of listings, setting aside those with promise while dismissing those that mentioned chore rosters, rotating dinner schedules, or vegans who only eat raw produce sourced from their own gardens.  I went to see a few places with little potential because I thought window shopping with no pressure to buy would help me define exactly what it was that I was looking for.

I compiled a list of criteria: location (within walking distance of town); cost (I have a part-time job and earn minimum wage); physical space (nothing too cold, damp, dark, cramped, dirty, or reminiscent of an attic); “clean- and tidy-ness” (hygienic but not obsessive); and most importantly, flatmates (single- and two-bedroom apartments are uncommon in New Zealand, as most people prefer to live in houses or large flats with multiple flatmates).

In the past, who I lived with was less important than where I lived.  I didn’t need or necessarily want for the people I lived with to be my best friends; all that mattered was how well we co-existed.  However, given my current circumstance, I now want to live with people whose company I genuinely enjoy; who have similar interests, lifestyles, and personalities; who are “social but also have their own social lives”; and who make me feel welcome and comfortable.

With such specific conditions, I knew that finding exactly what I wanted would be a challenge; but I hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be to actually acquire it.  In Buenos Aires, securing a flat was as easy as showing up, having a look around, and handing over a large sum of cash.  In Wellington, the (unofficial) application process involves multiple rounds, including an introductory email (I copied and pasted part of my cover letter); one or two visits to the flat (to which some people brought baked goods); and the final decision.  The pressure to impress (and the awkward questions about your income, intentions, and plans for the future) is similar to that experienced when meeting your boyfriend’s parents for the first time.  One girl asked us about our favorite book and our personal policy on energy conversation, at which point I panicked: I had left my swimwear at home and had nothing rehearsed for the talent portion of the evening.

Some flats turned me down (or blew me off); and I did some rejecting of my own (including of the aforementioned indecisive flat).  I began to wonder if I shouldn’t lower my standards; if maybe my dream flat didn’t exist; or worse, if maybe it was out of my league.  I had all but given up hope and resigned myself to living in the suburbs in a converted basement with eight university students, when Prince Charming came along to rescue me.  A few days ago, I found the perfect flat; and this time the feeling was mutual. On Sunday, I move into my new home: a spacious, six-bedroom apartment located in the epicenter of my personal universe.  My room is the perfect size; the price is reasonable; and the flatmates seem great: three Kiwi blokes, a French girl, and one as yet to be determined. There’s just one minor problem: now that I have to pay rent, I need to find a job (other than handing out promotional ice cream cones at movie premieres).

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.

All To Myself: House Sitting for Six Weeks

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.

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