Sunrise in the wops. (Photo: Daisy Coles)

Ka kite anō au i a koutou: A farewell letter to New Zealand

After months trying to get back to her husband and daughter in Hungary, Daisy Coles is finally on her way home. So why is it so hard to say goodbye?

In April, I wrote about what happened to my family when Covid-19 came crashing into 2020 like the Kool-Aid Man. Our Hungarian-Kiwi family was split apart by the lockdown. In late March, my husband and my nine-year-old daughter had already returned, as planned, to our house in Hungary. I’d been due to follow them, with my six-year-old and my three-year-old, in early April. But lockdown meant we were stuck indefinitely in New Zealand, living at my parents’ house in Hawke’s Bay.

Well, here we still are, three months on. But now we finally have a ticket out of here; our flight leaves New Zealand later today.

Of course I am rejoicing over this turn of events, and of course I’m counting down the minutes until that flight leaves Auckland, because I haven’t seen my husband or my first-born kid for five months, and it’s been a surreal, painful time. My husband is busier than we thought he’d be with his job in Hungary, which is great, and all of our Hungarian extended family are looking forward to our arrival back there.

It’s all good news – except that, somehow, I don’t want to go.

Suddenly, I’m having vivid, extremely detailed fantasies about packing up everything and creating a permanent life for the five of us here in New Zealand instead.

New Zealand has always felt like home, even during the ten years I’ve been, for all practical purposes, settled in Hungary. I’ve always defined myself as a New Zealander; my feeling of belonging in this place goes bone-deep, family-deep, ocean-deep. Now, more than ever, from a vantage point looking back at lockdown and looking forward to a future in which New Zealanders will be battening down the hatches for a while yet, I want to batten those hatches down too. New Zealand right now feels safe, and safe feels good.

Daisy Coles and her children Nina and Jojo in Napier (Photos supplied)

I have a Hawke’s Bay life right now. It was cobbled together earlier this year, and maintained through lockdown and beyond. It involves my mother looking after my preschooler every day at my parents’ place out in the greenest, woppiest wop-wops in Hawke’s Bay (I won’t even tell you where it is, it’s so precious), while I drive my six-year-old to school every day and continue on into town by myself to work at a rented desk in an Art Deco building on the buzziest little street in Napier.

I bloody love it here. I work next to a bunch of good sorts who have come to feel almost like workmates (before arranging this shared space I worked by myself at home for 11 years, so this has been quietly huge for me). I drink very good coffee. I replay memories of my Hawke’s Bay childhood here: soaking up the sun on Emerson Street, measuring journey distance in Norfolk Island palms, spotting my parents’ friends in the street and waving hello, listening to the bells in Clive Square. On our drive back home every afternoon, I listen to my kid reading Joy Cowley or singing ‘Oma Rāpeti’ and I tear up, because that’s part of who I am and it’s part of who she is now too.

This is my world. It’s the green of the patina on Pania’s bronze shoulders, and the gold of Paul Dibble’s kōwhai sculpture, and the muted Art Deco rainbow of the Soundshell. And the horizon is always blue and silver, and Napier Hill itself is a giant ship that takes its time, daily, carrying us all towards a pink and orange sunset. Did I tell you I bloody love it here?

During level four I had dreams about Hawke’s Bay. I dreamt that it was literally surrounding me, protecting me. I was walking along Napier’s rocky shore and looking at the Mahia peninsula, which is usually a mere shadowy presence even on a hot, clear Hawke’s Bay day. In my dream, it was incredibly close: swimmable, reachable. Mahia was sunny green lawns in my dream, as close as a neighbour’s backyard and as familiar; reliable and known. I knew that Cape Kidnappers, at the other end of the bay, was just as close, and I could almost feel the arms of the land wrapping around me, reassuring me that I belonged.

In level three, our bubble drove in to Napier and we walked along Marine Parade. My kids ran around the empty blue Tom Parker fountain, and we took pictures with the Pania statue. A lady on a mobility scooter stopped beside us (well, two metres from us) while we were there that day, and she told us that she had been to school with the girl who had modelled for Pania, and that she was a lovely person. Well, of course she was. The sun shone and our pre-ordered coffee was hot.

Nina and Jojo enjoying donuts and hot chocolate at Napier cafe Georgia on Tennyson; and at the soundshell (Photos supplied)

At the Soundshell, we saw two women on bikes stop because they recognised each other. We watched them embrace each other, and watched them weep in each other’s arms. This embrace was illicit at that time; we, New Zealanders, were all still keeping the rules strictly and proudly. What was it that made those two women break that rule? What was affecting them so profoundly that they spontaneously agreed to do what we were all told not to do? Of course, the reason must have been family. Of course, it must have been love.

Here I was in Napier, missing two people from my immediate family; without two of my greatest loves in the world. So why did I feel so desperately, precariously content on this stony black shore? Why is it still so hard for me to go away from here?

Well, we love this big group hug of a post-Covid society, and we all still desperately need it, I think. The world as a whole seems to have retreated into its corners. During lockdown, the New Zealanders on my social media feed all encouraged each other to stay local, shop local, eat local, grow local. The Hungarians on my feed were doing exactly the same. In early lockdown, this was a matter of practicality. We avoided buying stuff from overseas because the postal service had become lumbering, unreliable. In later lockdown, as our freedom of movement increased, we started telling each other to explore New Zealand; to go and become tourists in our own beautiful places (may I recommend Napier?). Again, I saw Hungarians doing the same.

Jojo at Spriggs Park, Ahuriri, and with Nina at the empty Tom Parker fountain in Napier (Photos supplied)

Globally, we’ve become new types of nationalists, in a way that we assume and hope is OK – not xenophobic, but good for our health, good for our wallets, good for the planet. We swear that we love and celebrate the difference of humanity, while also celebrating that suddenly there are no foreign tourists in New Zealand, and we’ve got the Milford Track and the Waitomo Caves and the Soundshell to ourselves for once. You can be laughing about those ridiculous new lamington chips when you’re out and about, and if someone overhears it they get it. You don’t have to explain to anyone what a feijoa is. When you sing along to ‘Slice of Heaven’, people are doing the ‘dah-dah-dum’ bit with you. Secretly or not, we love that our team of five million is the original team, and getting more original by the day, as foreigners finally get flights home out of New Zealand, and New Zealanders return to these shores.

I don’t know how healthy all of this ultimately is for our society, but for now this ethos, this New Zealand love-in we’re all engaged in, has become more than a feeling to me. It’s become a way of life; a medicine and a comfort blanket. This feeling of shared experience and shared belonging reassures me fundamentally, reminding me who I am.

I don’t want to leave now. New Zealand, you’ve got me forever if you want me.

This feeling is one of wanting to be home, stay home. When the world is scary beyond your borders, you stay put. It’s like when you’ve walked home through the city late on a Saturday night and you turn the key in your front door and say ‘whew’ out loud and text your friends the same word, so they can stop worrying about you. It’s like stepping in your front door to escape a coastal southerly, and turning the heat pump on for the evening. It’s not lamington chips, my friends; it’s feijoa chutney. It’s like driving half the length of the North Island to see your parents: it’s that moment they sit you down with a chardonnay and tell you there’s a roast in the oven. It’s rain on the corrugated iron roof at night. It’s good, hot coffee. It’s a collective embrace.

It’s my home. Look after it for me while I’m gone, OK? Revel in what you have. Ka kite anō au i a koutou.



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