Thinking of moving to the Garden City? Get ready to hear the same tired jokes from every single Aucklander you tell, warns Alex Casey.
I have lived in Ōtautahi for six months now, and although it’s still early days I believe I have unearthed the single most surprising thing about moving here. It’s not the unnerving flatness. It’s not the crazy right turn system, although that is right up there. It’s not even the ungodly amount of men who look like the drummer from Zed I see roaming the streets. It’s the reaction that I get whenever I tell people in the North Island where I live now.
They scoff, they snort, they gasp, or they just look at me in silence with so much horror and disgust that I might as well have revealed a full colour back tattoo of Don Brash with his shirt unbuttoned. Then, more often than not, they’ll make a joke feigning pity (“Oh, I’m sorry”) or outrage (“Why the hell would you do that?”). Worse still is being met with an awkward twitch and a 404 Not Found behind the eyes, a total lack of computation of a world south of the Bombay Hills.
I always thought the North/South divide was just a boring deck furniture piss country observation. Now, like many who have joined the tide of people relocating south, I realise it unfortunately could not be more real. “To many North Islanders, the South Island may as well be another country,” one former northerner told me. Another was asked: “Isn’t there nothing happening down there?”
“Isn’t it… ruined?” they’ll say. And aren’t you worried about the cold? The quakes? The culture?
In a way, it makes sense. Since leaving our biggest city, it’s immediately obvious to me how little love this place gets in the national conversation, and how you might easily form an idea about somewhere when it only ever pops up in relation to its horrors and atrocities. The city has some unfathomably dark moments in its past, but, as Cantabrian Jack Tame wrote after a euphoric jog around Hagley Park, is also careening towards a very different future.
When people snort like I’ve moved to the Pacific Garbage Patch, I want to show them everything I’ve loved so far. Devouring movies at Alice Cinemas. Seeing Vera Ellen in Lyttelton. Chanting “trams for trans” at the Posie Parker counterprotests. The most delicious Burmese food I’ve ever eaten at Rangoon Ruby. Great comedy at Little Andromeda. Walking in the Port Hills, delighting in having a green bin, truly noticing the seasons for the first time in 31 years.
Not to say that this is a perfect place, either. The lack of diversity is stark and the conservative views are much quicker to reveal themselves in casual conversation. Like anywhere, my experience would be very different if I wasn’t white, and that privilege is felt much more acutely here. It’s also really weird how many spooky suburban malls there are, and the other day I drove past a car spray painted with the word “slut”, which wasn’t great for morale.
I’m certain I’ll feel differently again after a year, and I’m certain my experience of this place deviates wildly from those who have lived here through everything. But now that I’ve made the move myself, I just wish that people were less quick to judge why someone might leave Auckland (we have our own personal reasons, but you don’t have to look hard to find some very obvious reasons), and less shallow in their assessment of somewhere they probably haven’t visited since 1998.
(To be clear, if you’ve ever lived in a place, you can say whatever the hell you want about it forever thanks to the “I can be mean about my mum, but you can’t” clause.)
And for those who haven’t spent any time in Ōtautahi since Todd Blackadder was the mayor (a joke), or for those of you who have never been here at all, I implore you to simply try and think of a more nuanced reaction than “can you even get a good cup of coffee down there?” Yes, we have wi-fi. Yes, there’s a Mecca. Yes, there are cinemas. Yes, there are restaurants and bars, live music and art galleries. Yes, there is still, somehow, a wizard.
The last time I got The Scoff, I once again whined to my cluster of recent arrivals. Everyone, including those who aren’t even particularly staunch defenders of their new home, said the same thing. “If people only came here, I do think they would be pleasantly surprised,” mused one. “People think Christchurch is very rural and uncivilised,” another replied. “But then what happens is they actually come here, and they’re like ‘Wow… I might move here.’”
Give it a try sometime – I promise you there’s coffee.