Recently my brother sent me a link to an article on a British news website about New Zealand being a great place to retire. It cited the quality of life, how cheap things are here, how great is our healthcare, etc. I read most of it with a wry smile, wondering where on earth this paradise was. Cheap is not how anyone I know describes living here, and our health service, like the one it is modelled on – the UK’s NHS – is in crisis after decades of underfunding and a crippling pandemic. One important point the writer omitted is that to even contemplate getting NZ residency in retirement you would need to have some serious funds in the bank to prove you could support yourself financially.
In the month Neil and I celebrate twenty years of living in New Zealand, reading the article reminded me of the information we received from NZ Immigration when we were considering the move. It’s hard to think that online information was rare a mere couple of decades ago but it was, and we were sent a nice little folder with details of what living in New Zealand meant, the climate, cost of living etc. It told us how fortunate we would be to arrive here with our pockets stuffed with English pounds, ensuring we would easily be able to afford the Kiwi dream of house, bach and boat. It listed prices of furniture and household items to help us decide whether to ship our own or buy new when we arrived. It extolled the virtues of living in a clean, green paradise. We wish we’d saved it for those times when we need a really good laugh.
I point out now that neither of us is a fool and we never expected paradise. Nowhere is perfect. We knew there would be challenges and that no amount of information from a government department would fully prepare us for what we would find when we actually landed in the country. We would be on our own with no friends and family, no support but each other. Neil would have to drop down the career ladder a couple of rungs before he became established, and in doing so would take a serious pay cut. We knew that financially it would be tough, at least for a while. Still there were surprises.
Twenty years ago a British pound gave us three dollars (now it’s lucky to buy two). Imagine our shock to see that, even allowing for this exchange rate, many food items cost more. The first time we went to buy a book I nearly dropped it, the £4.99 listed on the back of it translating to $19.99. CDs were the same and we realised there was no benefit whatsoever of having the buying power of the pound. How on earth did Kiwis afford to buy things? We learned that many don’t and, as in the country we’d left, there are people who face a daily struggle just to afford the basics in life. We may be half a world apart but many of our problems are interchangeable.
There were other issues, some of which we laugh at now – the helpful folder told us what to expect to watch on TV, but not that bringing TVs over was a waste of time as the broadcast frequency is different – you will get either sound or vision but not both. Not so funny was that not only were house prices much higher than we’d been led to expect, mortgage rates were almost double what we’d been paying, meaning repayments on somewhere to live would be challenging enough without even thinking about the bach or boat.
Why did we stay? Hard to point to an exact reason or three. Really it came down to the simple fact that, despite the financial challenges, we felt at home. If we hadn’t, the sacrifices would never have been worth it. Anyone who’s read any of my posts will know we’re no longer poor, and that we have a very nice lifestyle. ‘Lifestyle’ is generally claimed as the main benefit of life in New Zealand, but what exactly does that mean? A fellow immigrant once said: I had to tell my friends I spend my weekends doing what everyone does – washing, cleaning, shopping – and that I’m not out bungy jumping or white water rafting. Notwithstanding that, it is true that life here feels much more relaxed than it did in the UK. Whenever we return for a visit it doesn’t take us long to feel the stress, how hectic life is there. We struggle to explain it past issues such as the traffic, the crowds, the daily grind, how busy everywhere seems, but I think Kiwis in general are much more laid back and tolerant than my countrymen farther north.
Both Neil and I get irritated when someone asks how often we get home. Every night, Neil usually replies. If we didn’t think that we wouldn’t live here. There are many things we miss from the UK, not least our friends and families, and the countryside. Yes, New Zealand is beautiful but so is the UK, and I’ve previously rattled on about lack of access to NZ’s countryside so won’t bore you again. If we moved back there we’d miss just as much from here.
No matter how many fairy tales you read, be they online or in a handy little folder, the reality of somewhere is always different. Any sensible person will know that. There is no such place as paradise, or if there is, turn a corner and you’ll find washed-up debris from the real lives people live. There are challenges to living anywhere, and the ones we personally face are, for the most part, those of the first world. What makes it easy to overcome any challenges is the support of those around you. When we arrived we had each other. Two decades later we are lucky to have some amazing friends here. We celebrated our Kiwi-versary last weekend with many of them, both in Ohakune and Wellington. The cake, made by Estelle and decorated by Jenny, was a wonderful surprise.
We’ve never regretted our decision to stay and are proud to call ourselves Kiwis as well as British. One thing we toasted this weekend was the success of the Black Ferns in retaining the World Cup. They beat England. Rugby is one thing we do better here.