After years living in New Zealand with her family, English writer Jai Breitnauer is going home. Or is she?
I bloody love New Zealand. That might not always come across in the pieces I write, but I do. I love Jacinda and our lefty, greeny, don’t-mention-Winston government. I love the people who take their actual furniture on a camping holiday with them. I love bare feet, everywhere, all year round. I love the fact that recently, when my car key snapped off in the ignition at a gas station, the tradie filling up next to me lent me some pliers to get my car started, and didn’t bat an eyelid. He waka eke noa, here, in Aotearoa. I know that now. And yet, we’ve decided to go home, back to that Borisy, Brexity Britain. We must be mad.
It’s my home really; my husband is a Kiwi. My kids barely remember what the UK looks like. To be honest, I feel like a Kiwi now too. I don’t have the passport, but I do have the accent and the attitude. We also have friends here, a great big group of lovelies we know we can rely on, plus most of my husband’s family … Stop! I better stop, or I won’t get on that plane at all.
You see, like many an expat before us – and many Kiwi repatriates from overseas – we aren’t leaving because we don’t like it, or it’s not working, or we think we will be better off elsewhere. We are leaving a good, happy, productive life simply because we have this other life, 18,000km north, and we hear it calling to us a little louder every day.
We didn’t leave the UK because things weren’t working out, either. In fact, so confident were we that we would be back in 12 months, we left everything we owned stored in a garage and arrived in Christchurch with just a suitcase each. Over the years we’ve been here, we’ve developed an entirely new narrative for ourselves – new art work, new furniture, new sporting likes. We own skis now, climbing gear and a kayak. But the rowing lycra and road bikes are gone. We brew our own beer, but picking fruit to bake into pies are memories from that other, more British life.
Inevitably, we’ve doubled up on things. That Rocket Giotto coffee machine sitting in a garage in Bristol, well, we got one here too. We own two identical tents, printers and dining tables, two hemispheres apart. Our kids had two of all their toys – two marble runs, two Little Tykes cars, two sets of Operation and Snakes and Ladders. And now they’ve grown out of those toys, moved on, and we will be heading back not just to a place from our past but to a time long gone; to a brick-and-tile sarcophagus containing our former life – much of which is woefully inappropriate for our current needs.
When we first left, we Skyped our friends. We emailed regularly. People sent us little gifts in the post, and even came to visit. That first year, we had more than five sets of people come and stay with us from Europe. But no one from our old life has been since 2017. That’s OK, it’s a long way. I understand. Still, we see snippets on Facebook of the life we left behind. Is that little John starting senior school? Is Helen really graduating from university already? I can’t believe Dean has taken early retirement, when we left he was training for an Iron Man … We’ve watched our friends, like digital voyeurs, as they’ve got married, had children, bought homes, bought another, traded up cars, downsized. One even died. Photos, silent smiles reminding us of shared jokes from years ago, our faces absent from the milestones we always assumed we would share.
Those voices whisper, quietly, at night when there’s nothing to distract us, but the voices of our family in the UK, well they shout. Recently, it’s become a scream. My parents are 70 this year. And then there are my husband’s mum and step dad who live there, plus his step sister and brother, the nieces who barely know who we are. There are the cousins, the ones I grew up with, and also the one whom my husband grew up with in the southern hemisphere, who no doubt grapples with these questions, these decisions, in the same way we do.
We miss them all, and we know they miss us, even if some of them only think of us once in a while these days.
Moving overseas has never been more simple, cheap or more common. According to Statistics New Zealand, around 45,000 Kiwis a year leave NZ on a permanent, long-term basis. With social media thrown into the new global package, at first at least it seems easier than ever before to create a new life while maintaining the old. But eventually you become strained. Eventually you become divided. You forget birthdays, become confused by the seasons, lose touch with politics. But I still wake up at night convinced I’m in my bed in Bristol, convinced the sound of the waves from the west coast beach is the laughter of some students making their way back home. I still sometimes say pounds when I mean dollars, miles when I mean kilometres. I tell stories from the old country to our kids, and they say, “Can we do that one day, Mummy? Can we catch a ferry to France? Can we walk up Scafell Pike? Can we swim in a, what is it? A lido?”
So, now they can. And I’m sure over the next year or so, we will Skype our friends in New Zealand, and some will come to visit. My sister-in-law has already booked her bed. I’m sure that we will get trinkets in the post, and celebrate birthdays over the internet, and feel as connected, if not more connected, with our beloved Aotearoa. But I also know that connection will begin to fade. We will forget the route we used to drive to our favourite cafe, and we will begin to pronounce Tauranga and Taupō wrong. We will see a new baby, or a marriage, or perhaps even a tangi, and our hearts will be there but not our bodies. And I wonder just how long it will be before we hear the voices calling us from the south, calling us back home.