When I tell people I’m originally from New Zealand they stare at me like I’m insane.
‘What?’ they gasp. ‘You left there, for… here?!’
Sure, I was swapping blue skies and green pastures for the grey clouds and concrete plains of London, but as stunning as Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand) was, I wanted to explore the world. I needed something bigger and more fast paced, with more chances to fulfil my journalism dreams.
When I first arrived the plan was to work for a couple of years, then settle back in Sydney, but I didn’t count on falling completely and utterly in love with the UK. I was amazed by the history, and charmed by the culture, and thrilled by the fact you could jump on a train in London, and get off a few hours later in an entirely different country.
For a girl who’d spent her entire life tucked into the corner of the South Pacific, that part was crazy amazing.
I’d found my spiritual home.
The only downside – I was now literally half a world away from my family. We managed to get back twice before the girls were born, but then we were grounded by the cost and difficulty of getting home with two little ones in tow. Then some of my Kiwi family offered to help us to make the trip home for Christmas. It was too generous an offer to pass up, so we booked our tickets.
When we boarded our flight late last year, it had been 10 years since OH and I had last been in New Zealand – the girls had never been.
I’d slotted so naturally into British life I genuinely didn’t know how it would feel to go home after such a long time. Would it seem familiar, or would I no longer recognise anything? Would I now love the laid-back lifestyle that had originally pushed me to leave? Would I want to move back?!
Today there are almost one million MORE people in New Zealand than when I lived there – a rise of nearly 30 percent – which has definitely had an impact on its ‘small town’ charm. But I was reassured to find Kiwis are still pretty chilled, and life still moves at the slower, friendlier pace I remembered.
Some things were so familiar – Antipodean songs I hadn’t heard in years (but still knew every word to), telly celebrities I recognised from childhood, and little Kiwi quirks I’d forgotten about – like the way we call convenience stores ‘dairies’, and finish every sentence with ‘aye’.
But things were really different too.
My little sister had an eight and a 10-year-old, who I’d only met once before, and I was returning with my own children in tow, whose English accents – out of their usual context – made them sound like characters from Oliver Twist.
Returning home made me realise just how different I sounded now too: while my Kiwi accent is no longer strong, Britons can spot it within a few seconds of me opening my mouth. But to everyone back home I sounded as plummy as Queen Liz which – while amusing – can give you the feeling you don’t quite belong anywhere anymore.
Other changes weren’t so pleasant.
The centre of Christchurch, where I’d begun my career as a professional journalist, still lay in ruins from the devastating earthquake that killed 185 people six years ago.
My dad drove me through the area where I’d worked, but without any landmarks to help me get my bearings, I recognised nothing. The CBD had been reduced to fields of rubble, and abandoned, half-demolished buildings; it literally looked like a war zone.
That evening, as I sat outside at my sister’s house I had one of those ‘take-your-breath-away’ moments. Staring up at the night sky, I saw the Milky Way galaxy glittering down at me. While you can spot this here, in the southern part of the sky, in New Zealand it stretches directly overhead, and it’s unbelievably beautiful.
I saw the Southern Cross, the stars you can see on the New Zealand flag, as well as the small cluster we used to call ‘The Pot’, which – I’ve only recently discovered – is actually the Orion constellation, but viewed ‘Down Under’ it appears inverted. Go figure.
Seeing those familiar stars twinkling down sparked a rush of memories stretching back 35 years – when I was Big Sis’s age, and my own Dad pointed them out to me.
That sense of familiarity and just belonging felt quite magical. But did it make me want to move back to New Zealand?
No, quite the contrary. Rather, it reinforced to me that the UK is where my family and I need to be right now (although if someone could invent a cheaper, quicker way to pop back to the Land of the Long White Cloud, so I could see the rest of my family more often, that would be amazing, thanks.).
Now, rather than feeling like I don’t completely fit in anywhere, I realise I’m lucky to have two homes – one I was born into, and the other I adopted.
And both fit me perfectly.
• if you’re interested in reading more about New Zealand as a family travel destination make sure you’re following me here, or on TWITTER and FACEBOOK; I’ll be writing about some of our destinations, including the fabulous Rock Ferry Winery and the stunning Wai-O-Tapu geothermal reserve.