It’s strange, this whole ex-pat thing. My inner monologue is sometimes a chaotic crowd of voices as the new intersects with the old. Each trip to the grocery story, I try to blend in, while off the shelf I pull item after item, each one reminding me that I’m in a new place (manuka honey, courgettes [zucchini], SuperWine biscuits [they’re cookies, and there’s nothing “Super” or wine-related about them so why are they called this?!?]). I relish in the good life that this new place offers (an excellent work-life balance, an easy-going pace, a sunny disposition), while clinging to the memories of the faces of the people I love who are too far away. I take pleasure in what still–remarkably–feels new, (the rolling green hills, the crashing of the surf, the white cliffs of Young Nick’s Head, the birdsong of the tuis and fantails and blackbirds) but hate that I still–remarkably–have halting conversations as my foreigner’s ear struggles with the Kiwi accent.
This clanging of old and new is mostly manifested as I take in the local beauty of Gisborne and then immediately imagine sharing this with a friend or family member from my old life.
“See? This is what it’s all about!” I imagine telling them. “Can you believe this sun? Can you believe that endless blue water and sky? Isn’t that sheep-dotted hillside the most charming thing you’ve ever seen?” I think the question deeper down in the roots of those fantasies is the question, “Don’t you want to live here too?”
Despite that discordant soundtrack that accompanies my life (occasional harmonious strums of a harp, followed by an out-of-tune violin, and then punctuated with a grand piano falling out of a second story window), we’ve settled in to this life, even if it is the life of a newcomer, perpetually reminded of how new we are. In fact, we’ve settled in so much that we’ve bought a section of land, the one in the picture below, on which to build a home. (Queue the piano.)
The people here are warm and welcoming and we’ve made great friends. But I inevitably butt up against a thin, transparent bubble that reminds me that I’m the outsider. I’m reminded of it when I can’t understand someone on the phone. (You’d be surprised how hard Kiwi English is to decipher when you have no visual clues and you’re straining to hear over a less-than-great connection.) I’m reminded when I don’t know the name of a cultural icon or when I still have to look twice at the money to make sure I’m paying correctly. Or when a car is parked the wrong way on a residential street and I have the briefest of panic attacks as I immediately look for other reassuring clues that I am indeed driving on the correct side of the road.
I’ve become deft at dismissing this everyday strangeness. But when I find sameness, I embrace it. The other day, I was chatting with some friends and we were commiserating about the struggle of getting our kids to listen to us, particularly when trying to get out the door in the morning. We laughed and joked and I exaggerated and dramatized a scene between the kids and I, and they laughed and it was the best. thing. ever. “You’re not the only one,” one of the ladies said. What I heard was, “We’re the same.” Despite the Kiwi slang and their celebration of the Queen, at the heart of it, we are the same. It’s the sameness that makes the sun brighter and the soil warmer and the water more refreshing.
And so, like a stem of a plant that has been cut and then is set down in a favorable location, a little sunny, a little wet, the roots will grow without asking permission. And that is what has happened to us. We like it here. And even though there is that mostly invisible bubble that encapsulates me wherever I go and whatever I’m doing, there’s a lot of time that I see right through it. I don’t see the glare. I don’t see the rainbow iridescence. Maybe the bubble is weakening. And maybe one day it’ll burst and there I’ll be, laughing with friends or on the beach with our family or out for a run on the country roads and there will be an explosion as a seam tears the bubble apart and the skin snaps away from itself and claps to the ground and I’m unprotected and exposed, but part of it. A part of this place. And it will be as much of home as I’ve ever known.