Posts Tagged 'New Zealand'

Bring a Culture to Pass: Confronting Cultural Stereotypes Abroad

Auckland, New Zealand

My team is the poster child for workplace diversity.  We have staff members from Australia, England, Ireland, France, India, Japan, the United States, and yes, even New Zealand.  In fact, the only institutionalized discrimination I’ve noticed at the office is towards contractors.  Sure, I’ve heard a few people complain about how difficult it is to understand some of the foreign customer service representatives; but this is often followed by the recognition that international employees are a reality of international business.

Personally, I find the broken English comforting.  When I worked in Argentina, I was hyper-aware of my accent and self-conscious of my Spanish.  I lived in constant fear that someone would make me answer the phone. Now that I work for a large, multinational corporation with a large, multicultural staff, I realize that for some people and in some parts of the world, living and working in a second language is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.

However, the best part of working with such a heterogeneous staff is that I get to learn about other cultures. Did you know that “pom” is a nickname for a Brit or that a Pimms No 1 Cup is a classy English cocktail served during the summer at garden parties, croquet matches, and tennis tournaments? How about that in India, pregnant women are warned to stay in bed and avoid holding sharp objects during a solar eclipse or else her baby will be born with dark spots on its body?

In Japan, you can hire actors to pretend to be your family, friends, or colleagues. Special visitors to my company are greeted with a powhiri, a formal Maori ceremony of welcome. As far as I can tell, New Zealanders love outdoor music festivals and respect work-life balance (either that, or a striking number of Kiwis get sick when the weather turns warm).  And if you want to know anything about Ireland, from the speed of the Internet to the cost of electricity, just ask the girl who sits next to me.

Another great place for cultural observation is a hostel.  Most backpackers I’ve met are happy to explain their practices and rituals, as long as you are open to and accepting of the new and different.  Of course, you have to be careful not to generalize. One example is not a trend, and a trend is not a truth.  If I formed stereotypes based on the limited exposure I’ve had to members of certain nationalities, I’d believe that all Germans are chatty, all French people are cliquey, and all Dutch people are rational. I even have to be careful not to extrapolate from Aucklanders to New Zealanders, as Auckland is to New Zealand what New York City is to the United States.

Still, I must admit that I love it when someone turns out to be a walking cultural cliché, unless that person is an American.  One of the most interesting things for me about living abroad has been discovering what non-Americans believe about the United States.

What you’re about to hear will shock and appall you.

It represents one of the greatest threats to freedom and democracy.

Finally, the secret will be revealed: Americans send their children away to summer camp!

The question is what are YOU going to do about it?

See what I did there?  I “Americanized” my blog.  Apparently we are suckers for sensationalism and guilt.  Also, to the horror of one local radio announce, American parents ship their kids off to overnight camp in the summer against their will, scarring them for life and giving them abandonment issues that only years of therapy will resolve.  That a Kiwi would find the concept of summer camp distressing is particularly odd, as New Zealanders are known for flying the nest.  The New Zealand Government’s Population and Sustainable Development website states that approximately 600,000 Kiwis live overseas.  The total population of New Zealand is only 4.2 million people.

The Titanic Awards, a website that celebrates the “dubious achievements of travel”, features polls on topics of interest to travelers.   Categories include world’s rudest, worst dressed, most easily fooled, and cheapest tourists.  Americans rank among the top three in all categories.

Those results don’t necessarily strike me as suspect.  But when I saw that the United States was also voted as one of the places where you’ll find the worst tasting drinking water (behind India and Mexico), I began to question the validity of the poll.  I’m fairly certain that there are numerous countries whose drinking water is worse than that of the United States, both going down and coming back out.  This leads me to believe that the people surveyed either travel in a very narrow circle or are voting based on prejudice rather than direct experience.

If I ran the website, I would add another category: “Most Likely To Talk Badly About Their Own Country”.  No doubt, American tourists would top the list.  Gone are the days when American travelers affixed a Canadian flag to their backpacks in an attempt to disguise their identity.  Nowadays, those wishing to distance themselves from the ugly, arrogant masses do so by openly bad mouthing America.  In a roomful of backpackers, the most emphatic critic of the United States is likely to be an American.

Not long ago, I met a young African-American man from upstate New York, on holiday in New Zealand before returning to his graduate studies in veterinary medicine.  His primary conflict was trying to decide if he should specialize in horses or dogs.  When I told him I had been living abroad for four years and had no plans to move back to the States, he remarked that I must be, “as disenchanted and disillusioned as he is.”

“Not exactly.  American does a lot of things really well; but there are other ways of doing things that are just as good. I’m just exploring the alternatives,” I explained.

“That’s very wise of you.”

“Thanks.  By the way, I love your t-shirt.”  He grinned and puffed out his chest, where “MY PRESIDENT IS BLACK” was scrawled in large capital letters.

I’m no nationalist nor would I ever advocate defending America’s honor at all costs.  Certainly, the United States can stand up for itself (which is why everyone hates us in the first place).  American citizens should be honest about the mistakes and shortcomings of our country of origin.  However, in mixed company, maybe we could try to downplay our defects and emphasis our strengths. That American citizens are able to publicly denounce their country without fear of imprisonment for treason may be one of the highlights of American society; but it seems to me that we’re abusing that right.

You may think that by trashing the United States, you’re improving your own reputation, but really, you’re just reinforcing negative stereotypes that will later be used to judge you.  In my experience, many foreigners ask about the United States in the hopes that you will confirm what they already believe.  When you don’t, they grow bored and impatient and move on in search of someone who will.  Besides, someone who sees you as a nationality before they see you as an individual is not worth your time.

Recently, I listened to a group of travelers discussing the movie Bruno. “I’m so embarrassed by how many stupid Americans there are,” sighed the lone American in the pack of Europeans.  “Hey,” I interrupted, “if there’s one thing I’m certain of it’s this – all countries have stupid people.”

For more tales of cultural quirks, traditions, customs, and clichés, check out Glimpse, which features real stories from real travelers from all over the globe.


Wide Open Enclosed Spaces: Contracting My Services

Auckland, New Zealand

Auckland Skyline

Even before arriving in Auckland, I had registered with recruitment agencies. After months of living off my savings while applying in vain to any role remotely related to writing (including sub-editor of the New Zealand Seafood Industry Magazine), I was willing to surrender my career ambitions for the sake of my finances and self-esteem.  I just wanted a job.

Whereas in Wellington I had been persona non grata amongst the human resources community, I had three interviews in Auckland within the first week.   While each agency seemed to have a special relationship with a particular company or industry, they all offered more or less the same opportunity: a full-time, temporary, decently paid data entry contract with a multinational corporation.  The agency would pay my salary, and as a contractor, I would receive no compensation for sick days, holiday leave, or health insurance. As there was not much difference between the positions, I made my choice based on a popularity contest.  I went with my favorite consultant: a delightful Canadian woman (a redundancy in terms, I realize), refreshingly honest and reliable, who placed me in the finance department of a large software company.

The part of my job I most enjoy has to be the walk to work (or, better yet, the walk home from work).  The office is located an ambitious forty-minutes from my flat. I’m certainly not an early riser, but there’s no way I would trade my early morning meander for an extra half-hour in bed, even if it does mean wearing trainers with my work clothes and changing shoes at the office.  (Personally, I think that, just as there is a law that kids must wear helmets when riding a bike, there should be a law that all women have to walk to work in comfortable shoes.  Then we could all wear sneakers with black nylons and a skirt with no shame or stigma.)

My South African hair stylist recently confessed that when she first moved to Auckland after living in London for eight years, she was miserable.   Auckland may be a wonderful city and place to live, but it wasn’t London, which she missed terribly. “You always hate it when you first get there, don’t you?” she sighed. Committed to staying here with her Kiwi boyfriend, she began going for a run every day and forcing herself to focus on the positive aspects of Auckland. It took time (about a year), patience, and will power, but eventually, she came to accept and embrace her new home. That is exactly why I walk to work.

Auckland is hardly the highlight of New Zealand or the epicenter of the cultural universe, but of all the major cities I’ve visited or lived in, it’s certainly one of the most manageable, breathable, and balanced.  The hills provide awesome views of both the skyline and the harbor (and my legs look amazing). The whole city smells of cut grass and fresh flowers, and the streets are lined with trees, homes, and gardens.

And then there’s the weather.  I used to mock anyone under the age of 65 who said things like, “we live in Florida because it’s sunny all year round,” but it’s amazing how dramatically a few degrees and a little bit of sunshine can change your quality of life.  When I left the house in Wellington, bundled in wool from head to toe, I felt like a child forced to wear a winter coat over a Halloween costume.  But in Auckland, it’s so humid that as soon as you start to generate body heat, you feel as though you are trapped inside a wet suit.

The building where I work follows the “open spaces make happy spaces” philosophy of corporate architecture, and looks as if it were designed and decorated by Oprah. The outer walls are floor to ceiling glass.  There are breakout areas with magenta couches and stacks of magazines.  Instead of cubicles, there are pods.  The columns are wallpapered with images typically reserved for children’s pajamas – sharks, crayons, and French fries.  And everyday is casual Friday.

My team is comprised almost entirely of women in their late-twenties (maybe that’s why my manager sits on a different floor).  We all get on really well, which means that everyday I eat lunch and have tea with friends.  And there are the fringe benefits – monthly back massages, team lunches, free movie screenings, gift vouchers to bars in the Viaduct. Really, I can’t complain; but of course, I do.

It may be a wonderful place to work, for the most part, but the work itself is not so wonderful.  At first, I was doing routine data entry so mindless I was able to perform my job while listening to podcasts (check out the “When You Should Be Working” list to the right for recommendations) and keeping up on current affairs.  My attitude was something along the lines of, “As long as I don’t get fired…”

Then, team members quit or went on holiday, and my manager passed some of their responsibilities to me.  Suddenly, I had deadlines and stress.  If I made mistakes, it mattered and people noticed.  I ate lunch at my desk and worked overtime.  I had to focus, unable to listen to a single song or read a single New York Times article. I had not anticipated having to learn complicated processes or make challenging decisions.  Antsy I could handle, but I didn’t appreciate feeling anxious. I became irritated and aggrieved.

Perhaps the part of my job I have least enjoyed has been my initial approach to it. Each day, there were a few (or five) moments when I was taken over by the Rage.  I would think of all of the things I could be doing, like writing, or reading in the park, or lying on the beach, and start to resent spending the best hours of my day copying and pasting numbers into spreadsheets.  But with the help of a little deep breathing, I’ve stopped seeing my job as a waste of time, and started to see it for what it truly is – the best-case scenario.

Making your dreams come true is a long process, especially when your life lacks continuity. Given where I am in the journey, this is pretty much good as it gets; and I’m fairly certain whining never made things move faster.  Surely, it’s possible to work hard without all the gratuitous blood, sweat, and tears, and to take my job seriously without losing perspective. The global economy will not crash if I don’t upload forms into the database by day’s end, but it might cause more work for my colleagues.

Above all, I keep reminding myself that this situation is temporary.   Those flashes of boredom and anguish arise and pass, if I let them. The distress of being trapped inside all day evaporates as soon as I walk out the front door.  And this phase of my life, when I have to do unfulfilling jobs to finance my gypsy lifestyle and literary aspirations, will not last forever.  In fact, the department director has decided to downsize my team at the end of January, which works out perfectly, as I had planned to travel for the month of February before moving to Australia.  They can’t make me redundant; my visa expires.

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.

The Left Side is the Right Side: Road Tripping from Wellington to Auckland

Motorway 1, North Island, New Zealand

Hitching a Ride to the Top of Whakapapa

Hitching a Ride to the Top of Whakapapa

I was leaving for Auckland in less than three weeks, yet no one knew of my plans.  Even though I was committed to and eager for the move, I was avoiding accepting the consequences of my decision. I could only predict the reactions of my flatmates, who were convinced that I was staying “indefinitely” (or at least longer than a month); my manager at the bookstore, who would no doubt tell me “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed”; and my friends, who would be left heartbroken to confront their abandonment issues.  I considered penning a few witty but apologetic post-it notes.  Eventually, I summoned the courage to break the news face-to-face.

As usual, it was not nearly as awful or dramatic as anticipated.  (I swear my imagination could twist a full-body massage into a life threatening experience.)  One flatmate secured me an interview at a recruitment agency (the others posted an ad online for my replacement), while my manager offered to contact the various Auckland branches on my behalf.  That just left my friends.

Over drinks with three former roommates from the hostel, I blurted out, “I’m leaving Wellington.”

“Wait. What? Really? Cool!” Somehow I had forgotten that they are all fellow expats, accustomed to losing friends to travel and unselfishly enabling of wanderlust.

“I’m moving to Auckland,” I continued with renewed confidence.

“Oh. We’re not angry, we’re just disappointed.”

Why do we unabashedly and greedily steal each other’s enthusiasm, like bullies stealing lunch money in the schoolyard?  For the record, when someone tells you they are so unhappy that they have decided to relocate to a different city, “Ew, why would you want to move there?” is not an appropriate or appreciated response.  Allow me to propose an exercise: the next time someone shares with you their hopes and dreams, regardless of how unappetizing or unrealistic they may seem to you, try to be encouraging.  If you don’t have anything nice to say, be vague.  My two favorite pleasantries are “I hope that works out for you” and “Let me know how that goes.” But I digress.

When I announced my departure date, Kate, my closest friend in Wellington, unexpectedly exclaimed, “Me too!”  Unhappy in her receptionist job and due to start WWOOFing in the Coromandel at the end of the month, she had decided to quit work early in favor of exploring the North Island.

“I have an idea,” I shouted spontaneously, “let’s do a road trip!”

“Wicked!  Except I don’t have a driver’s license.”

“That’s okay, I do!”  And just like that, I had agreed to drive us from Wellington to Auckland, on the left side of the road.

I learned to drive at the tender age of fourteen and nine months in an automatic sedan in a small town in Michigan.  Other than driving to school with my head out of the window in the winter, I’m not particularly skilled at operating motor vehicles.  Only once have I been behind the wheel of a manual transmission, and that was in the parking lot of the Veuve Clicquot champagne house during a day trip to Reims, France with my parents.

Given the dearth of automatic cars abroad, I’ve always been wary of not knowing how to drive a stick shift.  In Argentina, I even toyed with the idea of taking lessons.  However, the chances of me wanting or needing to drive were so slim it hardly seemed worth it.  New Zealand is a different story.

With a total land area of 268,680 sq km, New Zealand is similar in size to Japan.   But Japan has an estimated population of 127 million people; New Zealand 4.2 million, and over 80% of that tiny population resides in cities.  In other words, nearly everywhere in New Zealand lies off the beaten path.  Sadly, public transportation in New Zealand is either inadequate or inexistent.  Buses, both within and between cities, are expensive, infrequent and their routes are limited to only the most urban destinations.

Those brave enough or on a tight enough budget may try their hand (or thumb) at hitchhiking. New Zealand remains a relatively safe place to rely on the kindness of strangers, though not entirely devoid of crazies (just ask my Chinese-American friend who was picked up by a war veteran who spent the next two hours telling her, to paraphrase a line from Kill Bill: Vol 2, how much he hates Asians, despises Americans, and has nothing but contempt for women).  Nevertheless, the best method of exploring the country is by car.  But I couldn’t possibly drive in New Zealand – Kiwis drive on the opposite side of the road.

As it so happens, I could drive in New Zealand, at least legally if not very well.  All that’s required to take to the road is a valid driver’s license from your home country.  I find this curious, as I question the prudence of allowing me to drive in say, Los Angeles without further instruction, let alone in reverse.  Nevertheless, I was hardly going to pass up a road trip and the chance to decompress before starting over in Auckland over something as silly as mono-motor-vehicle-dexterity. Since Kate is British, I figured that she would instinctively shout out before allowing me to turn into oncoming traffic or sideswipe a parked car.  Besides, for just an extra $10/day, we could reduce our insurance liability to zero.

At the rental agency, we filled out paperwork for a Nissan Sunny. Keys in hand, I opened the front door, and immediately began rummaging through the glove compartment.  “Just looking for a map,” I offered with a lighthearted smile.

“Aren’t you still holding the one I gave you earlier?” asked the rental agent.

“Oh, so I am.”  Nothing inspires confidence like a driver who can’t find the steering wheel.

Surprisingly, the biggest challenge turned out not to be driving on the left side of the road, but sitting on the right side of the car.  With a little practice, I soon became accustomed to both.  Correctly using the turn signal, especially in a roundabout, still eludes me.

Lake Taupo

Lake Taupo

Since we had given ourselves less than a week, we were only going to two places: Mt Ruapehu – a popular destination for winter sports enthusiasts, and Taupo – a tiny town on the edge of the incomprehensibly enormous and enviably photogenic Lake Taupo.

Frankly, I am not enthusiastic about winter, but I wanted to cross “learn to snowboard” off my to-do list.  Other than the fact that the car radio turned out to be a diehard fan of Christian rock music (further evidence that rural New Zealand is identical to rural America), it was an easy four-hour drive to the mountain through scenic landscape and small towns with names like Bulls (incredi-bull!) and information centers shaped like a dogs.

Eventually, we reached Ohakune, a quaint village 20 minutes from the Turoa ski area.  Ohakune is also the carrot capital of New Zealand and the host of the annual carrot festival in July.  And yes, there is a giant carrot stationed at the town’s entrance.  

We checked into the hostel, which was owned and operated by two brothers who had clearly missed their calling as video store clerks.  When I asked the younger of the two to please lock my laptop in the safe, he stared at me like I had just demanded the cube root of 81.  I repeated the question, this time pointing at the computer.  “Oh, man, I totally thought you wanted me to put that in the safe,” he said, nodding towards my pink Nalgene water bottle.

In the lounge, Kate and I discovered a lit fireplace and not one, but three Frenchmen sitting beside it: Henri, Victor, and Philippe, a dead ringer for Asterix’s sidekick Obelix.  In Wellington, my friend had been casually dating Henri, another long-termer at the hostel.  He was leaving for Australia in two days, but had dragged his friends to the mountain for one last run and one last good-bye.  How romantic, I’m sure.

As neither my friend nor I had any snowboarding experience, I suggested we start the following day with a course.  She suggested that we start our day messing about with the French guys on the bunny slope.   Who was I to argue the injustice of majority rule with citizens of the birthplace of modern democracy?

The following morning, we arrived at Turoa and waited in an interminable line to rent snow pants, boots, boards, and wrist guards, but not gloves.  Those you have to buy for an additional $20. When we finally waddled over to the beginner’s area, I dropped my board onto the snow and it immediately sped away like a rogue shopping cart in a supermarket parking lot.  Luckily, I managed to wrangle it before it bulldozed a pair of instructors.  If I couldn’t even set my board down properly, there was no way I could go down the mountain on top of it.

Suddenly, I remembered that a charming Kiwi bloke from the hostel had offered to teach me to snowboard, free of charge.  More out of boredom than anything else, I sent him a text message, but he was already on his way back to town.  Tired of waiting, I strapped on the board, and with a little help from Victor, coasted to the bottom without falling on my face or maiming a small child.  Just like that, I was hooked.

I fared far worse without my French training wheels.  Your coccyx may not serve any functional purpose, but it still hurts like hell when you land on it. In a moment of desperation, I fashioned a makeshift buttpad by shoving my hat down the back of my pants.  Of course, this did little more than transform me into an extra from a rap music video and give me the courage to keep going.

The next day, I left Kate to eat carrot cake in a café while I snowboarded.  After lunch, we loaded the car and began the drive to Taupo. On the way, Kate and I made a pit stop at Whakapapa (pronounced, to the amusement of my adolescent sensibilities, Fa-ka-pa-pa), the ski field on the other side of mountain where Kate’s friend worked in the repair shop.

Interestingly, while Kate hates snowboarding, she loves ski lifts. “Do you think they’d let us just go for a ride?” she whispered.  It never would have occurred to me to go sightseeing at a ski field, and I was fairly certain the staff wouldn’t be too keen on us treating the ski lift like a red double-decker bus.

“It’s a chair lift, Kate, not a camel. Probably not.”  Kate looked like a child who had just been told she couldn’t press the buttons in the elevator. “But it doesn’t hurt to ask,” and with that, I reluctantly trudged my way through the snow, in grey canvas Converse sneakers, to bat my eyelashes for a free ride on the ski lift.

After a long and majestic ride to the top of the mountain, we were instructed to dismount the lift.  I landed with all of the grace expected of a former competitive gymnast, only to discover that my zipper was caught in the wooden slats of the chair.  “Help!” I shrieked, running alongside the chair to avoid being dragged behind it. “I’m stuck!  I’m stuck!  I’m stuck!” I am now that girl who stopped the ski lift.

View From Whakapapa

Kate is a genius.  The view from the summit was spectacular – certainly worth defying death for.  The setting sun backlit the fluffy white clouds, making them glow like roasting marshmallows.  My feet turned blue before Kate begrudgingly agreed to return to the base of the mountain, where we said good-bye to her friend and resumed the drive to our next destination.

Taupo, both the city and lake, are located in the Taupo Volcanic Zone.  Unbeknownst to me, the area is something of a geothermal wonderland. And as I’ve come to learn during my time in New Zealand, where there’s geothermal activity, there are hot springs.

Our hostel owner suggested that we walk to Spa Thermal Park, where we would be able to bathe in mineral pools au naturel.  She also recommended that we wear our swimsuits under our clothes, sound advice that we acknowledged but ignored.  The pools are completely exposed to the elements, which is of course part of the fun.  But they are also completely exposed to the eyes of passersby.  Despite the park’s abundance of trees and plants, there was nowhere out of sight for us to change.  Not to mention that it was the middle of winter.  We stood at the water’s edge, debating our options.  Intoxicated and seduced by the pungent vapors, we dropped trou in the middle of the woods, much to the delight of the father and son team that coincidentally walked past at that very moment.  Unsurprisingly, the pools were positively delightful – hot, shallow, surrounded by nature, and best of all, free.

Hot Springs in Spa Thermal Park, Taupo

Hot Springs in Spa Thermal Park, Taupo

The rental car was due back at noon on Sunday.  We woke early that morning and hit the road to the “big smoke”.  (Calling Auckland the “big smoke” is a little like calling a library loud.  I guess when you’re used to immaculate even spotless seems dirty by comparison.)  At eleven a.m., we arrived in Auckland.  At 11:59am, we arrived at the car dealership.

I can summarize the route from Wellington to Auckland in two words: Motorway 1. Thus, Kate’s navigational duties had been no more challenging than locating the cleanest rest stop.  It wasn’t until we were irrefutably lost in Auckland that I noticed that not only does she have a terrible sense of direction, she is actually cartophobic.  Nevertheless, we brought the car back on time, without so much as a scratch on it or our friendship.

The sight of snowcapped Mt Ruapehu rising from the Central Plateau transformed Wellington from an open wound into a distant memory, and reminded me of what a magnificent country New Zealand truly is.  The experience solidified my friendship with Kate and delivered me to Auckland energized and optimistic.

I hate to think of all the previous trips I never took because I was afraid to take the wheel.  Now I’m left wondering – how often do I say, “I can’t” when what I really mean is “I prefer not to”? How often do I convince myself that I am incapable of doing something, rather than merely unwilling?  How often do I conceive plans, but never execute them? How often do I bemoan my bad luck when I should be decrying my cowardice?

Financial concerns, prior engagements, no organizational or time management skills, complete lack of interest in the proposed activity or, as is most often my case, irrational fears are all legitimate reasons for not doing something, but they are not can’ts.  Can’ts are insurmountable obstacles or acts of God, not minor inconveniences or personality flaws. There are so many factors out of our control that dictate the terms and conditions of our lives, why do we deny ourselves the few chances for adventure, immediate gratification, or happiness that are afforded to us? We should all be more mindful of and conservative with our can’ts, for can’ts kill possibility.

Just as “I’m fine” can mean everything from, “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life” to “I’m the closest I’ve ever been to taking my life”, “I can’t” has become a euphemism for everything from “you couldn’t pay me to attend a Teletubbies tribute to Michael Jackson on ice” to “I have a triple bypass scheduled that afternoon”.  In both cases, no one even bothers to call us on our ambiguity; no one except my friends.

If you start a sentence with “I’d love to but…” my friends immediately start working on solutions, like your life was a word problem about trains leaving Boston.  In a few weeks, a friend from home is coming to Auckland.  She’s in med school at the moment, saddled with ludicrous student loans that will take several generous kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies to repay.  Those same student loans paid for her flight to New Zealand.  When you’re already $100,000 in debt, what’s a $2,000 plane ticket?

My friend turned what for most of us would have been a dead end into a means. Where most of us would have seen an excuse, she found an answer.  Clearly, not all of us would consider this a sound calculation.  The point is my friend doesn’t have more resources or opportunities than anyone else; she just has a different set of values, priorities, and basic accounting skills.

I’ve realized that being honest about your motives for saying no and acknowledging that you have a choice is empowering. Cutting back on “I can’t” may not make you anymore brave or proactive, or your life anymore exciting or fulfilling, but it will stop you from feeling like a victim of circumstance.  It also gives you the chance to change your mind and behavior.  I’m fairly certain that it would be easier for me to eliminate like from my vocabulary than can’t; but I’m going to try, because I’m tired of living in a world full of walls with no windows.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to consult a thesaurus.

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.

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.

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