Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Trip Around the Sun: Kiwi style

Good thing I put, out of pure laziness, this blog post on hold for a bit. Originally, I was heading down the literary path of explaining that “living the dream” is never quite what it seems. I drew a parallel with the cruising lifestyle where the landlubbers believe it’s all Piña Coladas on the beach: far, sometimes very far, from reality. Now that summer is in full force and the rain has stopped, our lives are indeed damn close to Piña Coladas, or at least Margaritas, on the beach. (I mean this quite literally: read on.) To our dear friends and family, we’re just really, really sorry that you can’t all be here with us to share the experience! We are importing you as fast as we can for visits!

Compared to vacationing, living, as in working for a living, in a foreign country provides a different perspective, a different take on the land and the people. It also provides a different take on ourselves. With this post, I’ll share both: a bit about what we have done and our lives here and a bit more about our take on New Zealand and New Zealanders. It’s been quite a ride!


It has been awhile (13 months exactly), so perhaps a quick review of how we made it into NZed (not NZee) would be in order? We rode into town on a “skilled migrant” visa, which gives us two years of residency and the right to work in NZ. We’re not allowed to travel much out of the country for that period of time, but, assuming good behavior, we may petition to convert to permanent residents after two years, lifting the travel restrictions. We’re past the age limit to ever become NZ citizens, but residents have most of the benefits afforded to citizens, including health care and the right to vote and work. For my yearly physical blood test, I just walked into a lab around the corner, sat in the waiting room about 30 seconds, had the leeches applied. Just kidding, had the usual poke, and off I went without paying a dime or showing any proof of insurance. Cath had her mammogram (the squeeze was a bit strong, but in NZ you have to man-up even for a mammogram) at no cost as well.

If all that sounds pretty cool, here’s the catch. You get a skilled migrant visa by having enough points. You win points for having years of experience in a skill on an official skill shortage list. Senior software engineers win lotsa points. Advanced degrees from recognized institutions win you points as well. You also need to be under 56: I was 55 then; that was close. Oh yeah, you’d better have a job offer in hand. Then there’s being in good health and of good character. Before you fall off your chair laughing about that one, realize that Australia is next door. The bar is just not that high. The skill of zinging Australians is something you learn after you move here.

A day in the life ...

In most ways, now that we’ve settled in, our lives are not that different than anyone else’s in a first world country working in the technology sector. We live across the harbor from Auckland, a big city, and commute by bus in world class traffic. We almost always cook dinner at home, fairly late, chill, crash, and repeat. There’s definitely a Kiwi tint to it all, which I’ll get into later, but the daily grind is familiar to most.

The highlights of our existence here are weekends, vacation time, and, occasionally, an evening out of the ordinary. Take Tuesday evenings. Staying fit while living in a city is challenging. Aucklanders flood a plethora of gyms after work or over lunch. Cath is sorta OK with them, but I hate gyms. I’d rather be in the nature for my exercise. To that end, I took up distance ocean swimming (quite popular here) and dragged Cath into it. We live within a few minutes walk of Takapuna beach and every Tuesday evening there’s the Beach Series run and swim. It’s a family affair with shorter runs and swims for the kids and longer swims and runs for the adults with a stand up paddle board event to boot. We kick off work early on Tuesdays to catch the 4:50 bus, stuff a banana down (bananas are to cramps what garlic is to vampires: keeps them away), stuff our bodies into wet suits (the standing joke is that we’re ferocious leopard seals), and walk down the beach to the start area. The flag goes down and I’m off for the 2km swim followed two minutes later by Cath for the 1km swim. Swim, swim, swim we go. Out and back again a swimmer’s tale. After finishing, we strip off our seal skins, throw on some beach clothes, and head to Mexico on the beach for margaritas and NZ-style mexican food. Sated, we try to remember our swim gear and toddle back down the beach to the house, rinse, and crash. I love Tuesdays!

On the weekends, we often go out for a leisurely ocean swim in the morning(s). In fact, we did so today. Swimmers typically swim along the chain of no-wake buoys about 250m offshore, so it’s not unusual to see others while you’re out there. Today we met another couple, at buoy number 2, who was waiting for the rest of their group to catch up. Or maybe they got behind. Who knows. It was pretty rough water and about the only thing you could spot from water level was the Rangitoto volcano to the East and the Takapuna apartment building to the West. So here we are bobbing around in the middle of the ocean chatting it up. The waves were significant, so whoever you’re talking to would disappear from time-to-time, but you carry on. Very Kiwi. Eventually we swam back to shower and headed out for a hike.

And hike we do. We hit the trail just about every weekend: someplace within an hour drive. In over a year, we’ve never hiked the same trail twice! We especially love the trails around the west coast beaches such as Karekare and Piha. They are special places and rarely crowded outside of tourist season. Today was our first hike this year that we weren’t up to our ankles in mud. Yeah, NZ is muddy. Way muddy. Watch “The Piano” (filmed and takes place in NZ) to understand muddy. If the Inuits have 50 words for “snow”, I’ll bet the Maori have 50 words for “mud”. It’s no wonder the entire country is continually sliding off into the ocean.

I always struggle to talk about our life here because it comes off boasting. It would be if we deserved it, but we don’t. The reality is that we lucked out and have a naive tendency to jump blindly at opportunities. Having a job offer was almost an accident. The Visas landed in our laps some months before I would be too old to qualify. One of our favorite phrases is “Oh why not!” and it has served us well. It also feels like I should balance the scales with a dose of negativity. We have had our struggles here. There have been tears. We’ve had moments of depression, though never regret. We miss our friends and family. I wanted to be there with our son Spencer to help set up his lathe. I would have liked to hang with our daughter Shelby and hubby David to help paint their new house. Still, when looking back the negatives fade out: not a bad way to be.

In a galaxy far, far away

Much of NZ’s character stems from the simple fact that it is a small country on geographically isolated islands. In the past, this isolation had a profound effect on the culture and cultures carry forward long after the original determinants have passed. The legendary Kiwi resourcefulness and self reliance has its roots here. The flip side number-8-wire-do-it-yourself mentality is that sometimes it comes out as not-invented-here or on-the-cheap. Capital, whether to run a business or to buy a home is hard to come by. (The standard home loan is 20% down, almost 5%, fixed for only one year, and the interest is not tax deductible.) The lack of capital shifts the focus to the short term vs. the long term, to cost rather than value. Cath sees this everyday dealing with the contractor mentality. Businesses are reluctant to commit to long term employment and, thus, to building stable teams. Rather they hire contractors to write the software, let the contractors go, and toss the code to a maintenance team. If you’re in the software business, you know the result. The best known counter example is Xero (the “Apple of Accounting”? Seems an oxymoron to me, but ok...). Xero has taken the best of the Kiwi culture, combined with the best of software development practice from around the world, including a focus on value. Still, there aren’t a whole lot of Xeros ...

The same goes for the importation of labor. We are here because NZ has to import skilled labor. Higher education isn’t great and there’s an emphasis on going straight into the trades because of the building (rebuilding) boom. A longer term view would be to invest in education and grow the skills locally, but that doesn’t seem to bubble up as a priority.

Today, the distance limits tourism (whether you believe that to be good or bad, tourism has surpassed dairy in revenue) and the price/availability of goods. Obviously if you want wool, cherries, or a nice Pinot you’re in luck. Great luck. On the other hand, if you want limes or a high end computer, you’re going to have a bad time. There are funny things going on as well. For example, it was cheaper to buy our swim wetsuits, a NZ brand (Blueseventy), at a discount in the US and ship them here than it was to buy them here. Something’s not right in that story. I really miss Zappos and Amazon Prime. Shipping anything is two weeks and expensive versus two days and free.

Speaking of Amazon, there’s a worried buzz about Amazon coming to Australia/NZ. How will all the brick-and-mortar stores survive? Australians like to joke that when you land in NZ, you set your watch back 20 years. In today’s connected world that really isn’t fair. Kiwis are quite aware of what’s going on in the larger world and active participants. Sometimes though, like the Amazon rumblings, there is a feeling of déjà vu that catches you by surprise.

On a personal note, video chatting makes all the difference for us across the distance and we very much appreciate that the kiddos, friends, and family cut some time to connect with us. A hassle for them no doubt, but a lifeline for us. It helps that while NZ is a loooooong ways away from our kiddos, the time difference (summer) is a reasonable 3-4 hours. (It caught us off guard that we change 2 hours further apart in the winter because the southern hemisphere falls back when the northern hemisphere springs forward.)


From our first days we began building a Kiwi stereotype in our minds. I guess that’s what humans do to understand, literally and figuratively, a new people. As we became more in tune with the diversity, the stereotypes crumbled. There are so many ways to slice the demographics. Maori and Pakeha (of European descent). Northland and Southland. Auckland in particular has a significant Asian component. Even within the Asian component some come from a long line of New Zealanders (Chinese were aggressively imported for cheap labor in the mid-late 1800s), others are students, still others belong to the much maligned wealthy speculators blamed for throwing the real estate market out of whack. The push to import skilled labor has brought in people from all over the globe. In short, it’s a complicated social mix.

That said, there are well worn preconceptions about Kiwis that ring true, in our experience, for those born and raised on the Shaky Isles. (Actually, only the southern island is shaky. The northern island is more about volcanoes.) Let’s take a common list.

  • Friendly. Absolutely. The Kiwis we’ve met would, without exception, bend over backwards to help you out with a ride, advice, whatever. The other side is that while they are super friendly, they are not terribly friend making. New Zealanders are reserved and private: hard to get to know. To us, they sometimes seem lonely. On the really dark side, the high middle age suicide rate is often attributed to loneliness.
  • Humor. I threw this one in on my own. I haven’t seen Kiwi humor ever called out, but we’ve seen plain evidence of a witty undertone. It’s been puzzling for us because most individuals have no sense of humor of which they are aware, yet some, and particularly collectively, have the sharpest, driest wit you can imagine. Seriously, specifically Kiwi, funny.
  • Sunnies and such. Maybe not humor, but funny, almost childish silly. Sunglasses are “sunnies”, an umbrella a “brellie”, best friend a “bestie”, breakfast is “brekkie”, ad infinitum. Probably explains why they call pants “trousers”.
  • Chill. Oh yeah, totally. In terms of attire, more men than women (we are Auckland biased). The city women do dress up. Cath is continually perplexed that the women are so dressy and the guys don’t seem to notice. We’re not in Paris anymore! In terms of mannerisms, Kiwis are easy going, though conflict averse. They work hard not to offend, sometimes so hard they are speechless and leave you scratching your head. We’re not in Paris anymore again!
  • Work/life balance. This is the chill follow on. Coming from the US, we were looking for a better work/life balance. For the most part it’s been great, but it can be a challenge getting work done when primary goal in life becomes bach (a spartan beach house), beer, and barbecue: BBB.
  • Number 8 wire. Whew, this one is a huge topic in and of itself. From their deepest roots, and by necessity, Kiwis have grown to be independent and self reliant. Kiwi ingenuity. Kiwi resourcefulness. All a big part of Kiwi pride. Number 8 wire was fencing wire, often the only thing on hand to fix whatever was broken. The number 8 wire mentality not only rings true, it rings loudly. Occasionally it can go too far and become not-invented-here or short sighted. Kiwis can fix anything with number 8 wire. Problem is that they tend to fix everything with number 8 wire.
  • Tough. Tough as nails with a strong sense of self responsibility: legendary in that regard. The only reason some may think Australians as tougher than Kiwis is because Australians are loud and Kiwis reserved. (Search up some America’s Cup interviews with Peter Burling (NZ) and Jimmy Spithill (AU) and observe the obvious.) Whatever they may be, Kiwis are never, ever wimps. To digress significantly to make the point, my first ocean swim race (2km) was a fitting, first person introduction to Kiwi tough and, perhaps more so, Kiwi personal responsibility. The ocean was angry and we were under a gale warning. The wind and waves were moving the race course markers as we swam, the course crew battling to drag them back into position. Conditions were deteriorating. I reckoned I wouldn’t drown, but swimming did not seem plausible in the least. Nevertheless, swim we did. A few made the personal decision to sit this one out, but 70 started and 60 finished, including some in their teens and a few in their 70s. Even those that couldn’t quite make the distance came out with a smile for the effort. Without a doubt, Kiwi tough one and all. Thing of it was, if anyone was game, the race was on. No one would think of suing the organizers for racing in dangerous conditions. If it was too much, you stood down and didn’t blame someone else: personal responsibility. Kiwis get that.
  • Humble. Understated. Taciturn even. And completely turned off by the opposite: as in loud and obnoxious Americans, Germans, and Australians. Kiwis outside of the city tend to live simple, but full lives taking immense pleasure in what this land has to offer. Kiwis in the city are less so, but the roots show through if you get them out fishing or tramping.
  • Socially progressive. Hmmm, tough one. Kiwis are quick to point out NZ treats the vanquished indigenous (Maori in this case) better than other European conquests such as Australia or the US. From what I can tell, that is certainly true, but that does not mean the Maori were treated well, just better than the tragic stories of the Native American and Aboriginal peoples. The relationship and history between Pakeha (European New Zealanders) and Maori is fascinating and complex. I wouldn’t even begin to go into here, but you might find it quite interesting to read up on and compare with other countries.

    Likewise, NZ claims the earliest women's suffrage. True, yet abortion is, strictly speaking, illegal, requiring the consent of two doctors agreeing that it is medically necessary for reasons or life or sanity. Medical care is socialized, including accident insurance (ACC) that covers even tourists, but funding is tight and there are gaps, most notably in mental health: a big topic in that last election and possibly a key contributor to the high NZ suicide rate.
  • Agriculture. Tourism has exceeded agriculture as the number one economic driver in NZ, but tourists stick to well worn hot spots. Out and about around most of NZ agriculture still rules. For us, this means totally yummy, fresh produce. If you’re into slaughtering young mammals, the lamb and beef are first class. Sushi grade yellowfin tuna sometimes costs less than chicken. Dairy is a huge industry, though mostly for export to China. Food stuff not grown in NZ is harder to come by. Limes are only occasionally available, from the US. Albacore canned tuna we’ve never seen. Trout is protected. Golden kiwi fruit, cherries, custard apples: mmmm!
  • Grammar. Alright, we’re all speaking English here, but ... Kiwis have two basic sentence structures. The first goes “I reckon, <insert-something-here>, eh.” There’s more reckoning going on in NZ than in all the spaghetti westerns combined. Is the “eh” evidence of some distance connection with Canadians? Dunno. The second sentence structure is a response to a yes/no question: “<random-stream-of-conscience>, yah-nah.” The stream is the vocal expression of a real time decision process tortured by your Kiwi’s innate desire to never say “no”. You can safely ignore it; the important part comes at the end. Pay close attention. You will hear one or more yahs, nahs, sounds good, etc. Only the very last syllable of the entire monologue will answer your question. If it’s a “nah”, it means “No, but I’m really uncomfortable saying no.” That one tripped us up on several occasions.
  • Driving. What do Kiwis do when it rains? They wreck. Kiwis have a reputation as poor drivers, but we’re not buying it. There was a news story running recently that the accident rate is up and completely out of hand. Looking in the WHO accident database, Kiwis do about as well as any lower European country (as in not Sweden, ...) or the US. Some of the roads here are kinda tricky: narrow and twisty with ridiculously high speed limits. Given that, it’s rather amazing that the accident rate isn’t higher than it is! Furthermore, Kiwis are usually courteous, rarely honk, and good about leaving room for cross traffic at intersections and such. You can’t ding kiwis from a pedestrian perspective either. Culturally, pedestrians are expected to keep clear and you will get your ass run over pronto if you walk in front of a car. They aren’t trying to run you down, being mean, or bad drivers. They just never even notice you because that’s the way it is here. Best not to walk around with your face in your phone.

  • Politics. Wow. Coming from the US, politics are tame in comparison, perhaps even quaint. Yeah, they are still politicians, but predictable and it isn’t too hard to read the game. You have a few months, not years of campaigning to endure. It is also cool that the rhetoric is free of extremist groups (like the religious right in the US) and lobbies (like the gun lobby) that paralyze change in the US. Change can and does happen here, when it makes sense. The two things that Kiwis cannot understand about US politics is the price of medical care (or insurance) and why there is no effort to stem gun violence. It’s painfully hard, and embarrassing, to explain those away.
An unfortunate and sad trend, driven by (or at least blamed on) foreign speculators, is that NZ is becoming too expensive for Kiwis to live here. Housing, whether to buy or rent, in and around Auckland (and to a lesser extent the other metro areas like Wellington) is frightfully expensive and beyond the average wage earner. It is challenging to find a nice two bedroom apartment for less than $700 US a week! Given that a high tech wage is on the order of $70-85k US a year, you can see the problem. Fixing the housing crisis was a major agenda item for all the political parties for this last election. We’ll see. A couple of months ago they did shut off the real estate market to non-residents. (As an aside, Matt Lauer might lose his prime property here because he testified as being of good character as a purchase condition. Apparently he is in violation of the purchase agreement on those grounds. I hope they seize the land and turn it into a park. Asshole.)

Another struggle with a more hopeful outcome is the effort to restore and preserve the native wildlife, plant and animal. The NZ land mass has been separated from the rest of the world for some time now (that’s an understatement in case you missed it) and has many unique birds and plants that have evolved independently and not found elsewhere. The bird life, much of it ground dwelling, in NZ was never threatened by land animals because there weren’t any around. No snakes, no foxes, no coyotes, no bears, no mountain lions, no nothing. All of a sudden man comes and starts mucking everything up, as usual, by bringing rats, dogs, hogs, rabbits, wasps, ... into the picture. It didn’t take long to hunt the Moa into extinction and the Haas eagle, dependent on the Moa, followed shortly thereafter. The mighty and culturally significant Kauri tree, only found in the north of New Zealand’s north island, was threatened first by logging and now by Kauri dieback disease, brought in by man. This fungus is why you’ll get your boots cleaned at the airport. NZ is working hard to right these wrongs against the environment and has made significant progress on many fronts.

Images of New Zealand

I reckon (see) that most foreigners know NZ from images in film, a significant industry here. LOTR and the Hobbit of course, but also others, like The Piano, that take place in NZ. Some (The Worlds Fastest Indian) are obviously New Zealand, others (The Last Samurai) not so obviously. These images are no exaggeration. This land thrust up through the ocean, formed of earthquakes and volcanoes, is nothing if not dramatic. Our neighborhood volcano (Rangitoto) is 2km off our beach, an imposing sight in the middle of the harbor. The black sands (ironsand) of the west coast beaches come from Taranaki area volcanoes. Some of the harbors, like Akaroa, are ancient volcano craters breached by the sea. Auckland sits on some nineteen long quiet volcanoes. (No wonder they like electric bikes; it is hilly here to say the least.) In the grand scheme of things, California is going to slide into the ocean and the north island of NZ is just going to blow up.

There are other images of New Zealand that don’t quite hold water. One of them is being “green”. The only reason the air is clean here is because, being islands, the wind blows all the pollution elsewhere. There are no emission standards for cars. Trucks still use old school dirty diesels. People still run (and can buy!) two stroke outboards and personal watercraft. Agriculture runoff has rendered many rivers unswimmable (think the Neuse River in the US). Power is still primarily hydroelectric (followed by coal), but the dams have destroyed entire ecosystems. It will be important to both the local people and to tourism to get this mess under control. When NZ criticizes the US on environmental issues, they are right, but glass houses ...

Wish you were here

We miss you all and hope that someday you can visit New Zealand (if not us). We also hope that we have given you a peek at life here as a resident foreigner, different than either a citizen or a tourist. Finally, we wish you an outstanding 2018 of your own! Cheers!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Spring is here! (Auckland escapes)

Toto at the Hot Water Beach in Coromandel!
Since our last blog, we got lazy writing blogs and fell back to weekly updates on Facebook. We aren't sure who actually reads the blog… You no read, we no feed. Ok, in all fairness we were in a funk at month 9 so we decided to punt. Who wants to read depressing blogs? Depressed in NZ? What do you mean? How can you be depressed in NZ? Well did you know that the rate of teen suicide is one of the highest in the world? Ok, we were not that depressed. Anyhoo. Apologies to those we let down, you'll get over it. To make it up, I posted most of the pictures we took so far (there are a lot!), nicely organized by region (I really should be a travel planner). Mister does not like to include too many pictures in our blogs and I can’t stop taking pictures, so here's to “the best of both worlds”... We are halfway through the spring and the summer is approaching so spirits are on the rise!
Wet flashy green winter hiking!

The winter (June-July-August) was rainy and cool, but not to the extent we feared. We mastered mud hiking (this is a seriously muddy country: just watch The Piano) and learned to just forget the weather forecast; it changes so fast that you give it a while and the sun is back on. Mostly. The spring however started very wet, even by NZ standards. We stopped counting the days with rain. It’s finally looking like fine days ahead and suncream will be needed soon!

First month of the spring (September) was national election month and it was fascinating to watch the election campaign. The good part: it only got into high gear 3 months before election day. Public debates were friendly and respectful and overall there does not seem to be much mud slinging or bad mouthing. The puzzling part: election term is only 3 years yet most of the projects cannot be realised in less than 10 years it seems. Auckland will have a light rail from the city to the airport (yeah!). ETA: 30 years (ugh). The weirdest part: the election happened with one candidate getting 46% of the votes, but because it was less than 50%, one of the smallest political parties gets to decide who will be Prime Minister by adding their votes to whichever candidate they favor (you can imagine the negotiations and incentives: cough, cough) to build an alliance and form a government. They call this little guy the "King maker". How weird is all that? And to make matters worse that small party candidate is Trump-esque. Déja vu…. It was like the big "decider" All Blacks rugby match that ended in a draw without overtime. Wah? Must be a kiwi thing. Sigh… 

Cathedral Cove in Coromandel
After exhausting all walking, busing ,and ferrying options in the city, we bought a car in June to expand our travel horizons. Toto, as we affectionately call her (from the Rangitoto volcano across the bay, and because we are not in Colorado anymore!), Toto took us to the Coromandel peninsula (Aucklanders escape to beaches, with Cathedral Cove), the Bay of Plenty (retiree heaven of NZ), the western black sand beaches (where The Piano was filmed), and many regional national reserves surrounding Auckland. Bill is doing well driving on the left side of the road, but I am not getting much practice as he enjoys having a dedicated navigator (me). He does have to put up with my choice of music. Maybe if I keep playing Adele, Whitney Houston, and Johnny Cash, he’ll let me drive more so he can listen to the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and Little Big Town.

Mt Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty
When we arrived last year everyone was planning their Christmas vacations and we saw Kiwis flock away from work for 6 weeks at a time. With only a single NZ income at the time (yeah, you do need two incomes to live and travel here!), all we could do is watch in envy. As a diversion, one of us poured herself into some fake work to not go cray cray (“wanau ana” as they say here. That’s the first word they taught us in the Maori awareness week. We wondered why that word, but we are finding needing it quite often somehow). This year, Ms. planner (yours truly) would have none of that. I got it all ready for our kiddos to come visit us, each accompanied by their partner (I love the term they use here to keep it all ambiguous, especially as Auckland is an openly gay city). Sadly they both are stuck on US job leashes, so will only come for 10 days. What a shame, but hey we’ll take what we can get. We are actually very proud parents of a soon-to-be Doctor in Nursing (Shelby, assuming she survives) and a spacecraft engineer (Spencer) who is focusing on putting the right blades on the NASA Mars 2020 NASA helicopter. Or something like that. We're never quite sure what it is he does. Yeah compared to that, we are a bit boring :) We are so glad we’ll have them here soon, to show off our NZ chops.
Bill's latest crave: ocean swimming in 58F
water off Takapuna beach with Rangitoto in
the background.
Work-wise (yeah, we still have to work to fund our crazy travel dreams) Bill has been steady at Vesper Marine, his work leading to an innovation award for the deckWatch app he created.  After a hectic start, and some well-spent professional training, I am finally enjoying my agile and product management consulting stint.  

Housing-wise, we just decided to move out of our little under-dwelling to live in a beach community. Look right. That beach. Enough of the 6am wake-up calls, dog barking, and rugby fans screaming and stomping above us. We will be moving to a cute little cottage 2 min from Takapuna beach and we’ll be joining the slew of bus commuters (cuz ain’t no place to park Toto in the city). Bill is absolutely stoked to be so close to a beach to practice his ocean swims and maybe invest in kayaks to add balance to our "bike, sail, hike, kayak" mantra.  We haven't had much of any of those lately. Hiking may have to take a break for a while. Sailing? Well... That will have to wait for now, too. Make do with what you have and there's a lot o' ocean to swim around here!

Enjoy the pictures and look for a commemorative blog to reflect on our first year in NZ. Stay tuned! 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Winter is Coming! (Christchurch and Akaroa)

Before the winter kicked off (officially 1 June, as they say), we made one last trip to the South Island, which we learned has fewer inhabitants than Auckland alone. No wonder Auckland is bursting at the seams. We heard Christchurch was not worth visiting due to earthquake rebuilding progress - or lack thereof. Such statements always perk our interest. Our last experience in Dunedin was so good for a city ‘not worth visiting’ that we thought we’ll give Christchurch a fair chance. It did not hurt that it is only a 90 min drive from the most French region of NZ. Ok, I kinda admit it, Christchurch was a bit of an excuse...

You may recall that Christchurch experienced a devastating earthquake about 6 years ago. The whole downtown was shaken during work hours and 185 people lost their lives that day. A memorial made of 185 white chairs is a poignant reminder of the impact on the city. 
The 185 white chair Memorial
Walking the city was a sad experience seeing buildings still in need of major repairs and demolition. When we stopped by the main cathedral, a local (and earthquake survivor) was eager to share his experience and told us the current struggle the city is facing to decide what to do with the cathedral rebuild/replacement. Not long after the earthquake, they stood up the ‘cardboard cathedral’ as a temporary replacement, but the reconstruction of the original is at a standstill because the current bishop (a Canadian woman) wants to raze the original cathedral to rebuild a new one while the local kiwis want a restoration. It's a bit amazing to us that the decision would be not be an easy one to conserve the NZ history. Sometimes we feel NZ allows way more external input than they should. Did you know for instance that while we don't even have a permanent resident status we can vote?
The Main Cathedral still awaiting its fate
The rain was getting old in the city so we jumped on a tram (something like the SF street cars) to do a city tour hoping to learn more about the rebuild progress. Instead the woman tram driver pointed out all the new shopping malls sprawling as part of the rebuild. One of those malls is made of containers which happened to be a creative way to carry on with business after the event. If you think about it most of what comes to the country comes in huge container ships, so reusing those "boxes" makes sense. Some bank branches are still operating in containers. While we were hoping the tram tour would be more educational, we pondered if this was not the attitude locals had to adopt to deal with such ordeal. Many people have chosen to relocate north after the devastation. 
ASB bank container office
Artists were called on to help bring some joy back to the city and the street art they created was reminiscent of Dunedin's. We are hopeful Christchurch will become the most modern city in NZ, as it was pointed out to us by one of our recent hiking buddies. What they are rebuilding is modern, but it is just taking a whole lot longer than one would hope.
Street art in Christchurch
After a day in Christchurch we drove to Akaroa, the main town in the volcanic Banks Peninsula close to Christchurch. The peninsula is basically a big (really big) volcano crater with finger bays all around it. Quite a site from the air. I have been wanting to go there since we arrived in NZ as the French influence is apparently the strongest there. Akaroa has only 600 year-around residents yet it has 3,000 (yes three zeros) houses, most of them owned by Christchurch inhabitants. 

French bakery in Akaroa
The tourist season in Canterbury ends at Easter, but we decided to take a chance with the avoid the crowds, and crowds there were none. While the weather did not cooperate much, with heavy fog robbing us of what we read are spectacular views, we enjoyed muddy hiking in drizzling rain and soaked socks, followed by superb food for such a small place. 

Onewa hike (credit to the awesome Frenzy NZ guide)
What made up for the poor weather was access to the America’s Cup broadcast in our little La Rochelle’s motel room. In Auckland we only have the basic cable channel our landlords grant us so we have been keeping up via post-races online news reports which was less than satisfying. Having early morning live access from our hotel room meant we could deal with any weather after that. We expected a lot more excitement from kiwis about the Cup, but the lack of accessible covfefe (new word for ‘coverage’, we hear) has made the event barely an event here. Very sad.

Let's just hope the US stays true to this treaty
On our way back to Christchurch to catch our flight we stopped by the International Antartica Centre. Christchurch is known as the gateway to Antarctica, providing 5hr flights to the Scott Base for several nations, including the US. This is the location of the United States Antarctic program funded by the National Science Foundation. We got up close and personal with our favorite blue penguins as the Centre has a rehabilitation unit for those poor birds who could not survive in the wild. We got a bit more educated along the way; did you know Antarctica is the tallest continent (the Arctic is only floating ice) and that you only find polar bears in the Arctic and penguins in Antarctica, while seals are found in both?  Now that we exhausted our South Island options for the coming winter months (we are here to stay warm), the "should we buy a car while we are here" topic is coming back on the table with a vengeance. With the weather becoming finicky (and damp) in the winter, visiting the North Island will become our focus. Stay tuned....

Friday, May 12, 2017

Abel Tasman, Citizenship and 6 month Retrospective

Seal pups
It has been 6 months since we left Boulder. Bill has been clear as NZ beach water that we will retrospect at 3 months, 6 months, 1 year and 2 years, celebrating every milestone along the way and being intentional at deciding what’s next. The outcome of our 6 month retrospective is to stay another 6 months to see what this NZ winter is about. Everyone seems to be dreading it so we want to experience the misery.
Abel Tasman National Park
We celebrated this milestone with a trip to Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay on the most northern part of the south island. We booked a trip through an established touring company (they sure know how to organize trips - awesome!) and enjoyed kayaking and tramping (hiking) with 2 other kiwi couples and their 26 year old feisty independent daughter (she made us miss Shelby!). It was a real treat to share the adventure with kiwis instead of tourists. We absolutely love the northern end of the South island: sunny microclimate and all kinds of fun activities - biking, tramping, kayaking, wildlife, scenery, wineries, cute towns.

Abel Tasman National Park

Housing-wise, after considering a more private place, we decided to stay put in our little dwelling. The rental market is so crazy and our landlords are taking good care of us, pitying me when I was laying our bed sheets to dry on the outside drying rack that they are replacing our washing machine with a washer/dryer so we can ‘survive’ the winter damp.

In order for a froggy with a green card (yours truly) to stay in NZ longer than 180 days at a time (says the US government), I had to complete my US citizenship application in Denver this month. I was sworn in on Shelby’s birthday (so I’ll never forget the date), 30 years after arriving in the States. Ironically it just had not been a priority until we decided to stay out of the US for longer than 180 days (6 months). No, it does not mean I will start eating hot dogs and drink cheap beer, thank you very much, and for the record I am franco-american. The certificate of naturalization is a bit presumptuous at listing France as my “former” citizenship, like I would drop my French roots. Phfffft. I think I butchered the anthem but with the other 38 people from 21 countries singing along, don’t think anyone noticed. Work in progress. The best part of the naturalization ceremony was President Obama welcoming me (on video) as a US citizen. Thank goodness the new administration had not yet recording the new one yet. The icing on that cake for this long trip was to meet long-term friends and our kiddos, starting with Shelby in California who took me on a whirl of house showing as she and hubby David are looking into buying a house. Then spending time with Spencer buying tools at McGuckin and hunting for winter clothes in our garage packed with our stuff and our current tenants stuff, as they opted to un-furnish our house and put all our furniture in the garage. Sigh. Being back in Boulder was great fun I must say.
US citizenship celebration with Catherine and John

Work-wise, Bill is settled at Vesper, taking on a product owner role so he is my #1 client but does not pay me squat, as usual. He does enjoy cooking for dinner so I settle for that. As for me, I continue experimenting being an agile coach. It has been and continues to be an interesting ride. I did not quite know what I was getting myself into with that one but I still have a strong sense that at this point in my career it is time to pass on my experience to others. As Bill said in the previous post, asking powerful questions (the #1 skill of a coach I hear) does not quite come naturally to me :) so I took a 5 day breakthrough life coaching class, I am reading many books and blog posts, and I keep practicing. I am now solely working with the #1 health insurance in NZ, supporting their agile adoption. They are kind to me and eager to learn about agile from

We finally signed up for a rec center membership to exercise other muscles than the legs that take us everywhere. We still don’t have a car - which shocks many people - although we still have the itch to discover what’s driving distance from Auckland. Work in progress. In the next 6 months, we hope to find creative ways for our children to come visit us. They are already in the hum of active US working life with pitiful amounts of vacation time, so it is turning out to be a bigger challenge than we’d like.

Winter is officially coming in June. It is getting chillier, and we’ve seen several late season cyclones dump their remnants on us. Downpours are actually fun to watch... from inside…

Recent learnings and fun NZ facts:

  • Many kiwis look forward to an OE (Offshore Experience): spending a year or two in England or Australia as a way to experience life off the island. As a result, the card section in bookstores has an unusually large section of “Bon Voyage” cards.
  • Tourism just surpassed dairy as the #1 export income, with China now the largest tourist population just passing Australia. As a result, more cities such as Queenstown (the Vail of NZ) are suffering the same housing shortage we see in Auckland.
  • Kiwis use the F word a lot. For some people, it’s just as common as any other words. For people (like me) who taught my kids not to use that word, it takes some getting used to.
  • NZ has produce I have never seen anywhere else - feojas, tamarillos, persimmons. They also love smashed avocados!
A year ago we started this blog to document Alizée's story and other adventures we had no idea about at the time. Although we have done very little sailing since we arrived in the city of sails, we made some progress on the kayaking part of our dreams. The Alizée story published in the June edition of Woodenboat magazine filled out hearts with pride. Hope you enjoy it too!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Tertile retrospective on New Zealand life

I'll save you the trouble; "tertile" is a third of something. Like a year. As in four months. As in how long we've now been breathing the fresh New Zealand air and mixing it up with the Kiwis. If you want to street view us or send money (preferably the latter, living in Auckland is frightfully expensive) check out 7 Emmett Street, Auckland. Nice house. We live in the basement. Yep, we're literally bottom dwellers, as it were.

Apparently Kiwis are the 8th happiest folk in the World, probably due to their laid back, noncommittal nature. Chill reins. Though I'm sure it happens, we have yet to hear a word raised in anger and nary a toot on the horn in what is world class traffic. On the other hand, sometimes it is a little hard to know where you stand with a Kiwi because they express commitment in muted tones compared to the US. It's kinda like trying to taste subtle differences in Pinots after participating in a jalapeño eating contest. We've been given a working theory by a helpful local couple based on three states of commitment: yea, nah, or eh. If the sentence ends in an enthusiastic yea, you're golden. nah? Ain't happening. Watch out for the eh: shaky ground. You have to be listening for it as the sentence trails off. It means, usually, no but I don't feel comfortable saying "NO!". Sometimes, there's waffling and you'll hear "Yea, nah, eh." in one quick diminuendo. It is absolutely critical that you know whether you ended on a nah or an eh. Sometimes, eh works to your advantage. I bought a 3D printer here months ago and have yet to be billed. We must have ended billing terms on an eh.

John and Catherine from across the
street and across the world!
We've had a host of visitors pass through Auckland, not to see us mind you, just passing through. Friends and neighbors from Boulder. The Boston contingent. Esteemed colleagues. All have been good sports as we did our best to play local tour guide during their brief sojourns. The irony of working in NZ, is that our dear friends have now seen more of New Zealand than we have. We are working on it though.

That we have no wheels, of any sort, has not deterred us from visiting the terminus of just about every ferry, train, and bus. People complain about the Auckland public transit and while it ain't Paris or DC, it deserves more credit than it gets. Sometimes we find a one man tour operation that will shuttle us where we want to go and leave us alone otherwise. That's how we saw the beautiful volcanic beaches of Piha and the neighboring KiteKite (say KittyKitty) falls. We took one train to the Tasman Sea and walked back to the Pacific Ocean! Sounds more impressive than the five hour urban volcano hopping hike that it was, but still very cool and a chance to see new parts of the Auckland area.

Dunedin street art
We took our biggest trip (since the Queen Charlotte Track in December) flying south, south, south to Dunedin, the first New Zealand city with Scottish flair. Our Aucklander friends had us wondering why we would bother with Dunedin (Dunners they call it), but, in fact, we loved it. Playing hide and seek with first class street art murals was a great introduction to the city. The food and cafe scene was tops, better than Auckland in many respects, and the train station? Wow! That's just the town. Get out to the Otago peninsula for killer hiking up grassy bluffs and through pine tree stands. And then there's the beaches! Now the water is, well a bit chilly. Make that blue balls cold. After all, this is penguin country where we watched some eighty blue penguins (a rare, very small penguin) come home from the sea in the chilly dusk.

The blue penguins of the
Otago Peninsula
To tour Dunedin area we did what we've been dreading since we arrived four months ago: we drove. (NZ drives on the right. Or is it left? At any rate, opposite the US.) Before we drove, we maxed out the rental insurance. Then we drove. In the end, no worries and no damage. I think all that walking we do has taught us where cars come from and where they go. You see, as a pedestrian, if you don't learn quick you're dead. No two ways about it. Cars have priority. It's not like the drivers are malicious, they just do not see you. You can tell from their eyes that, as they are running over your toes, they look right through you to check for traffic. Pedestrians are absolutely invisible.

A beach to remember
Being self-employed, it's taken awhile to fill the pipe (especially given the summer break), but Cath is off with a bang now. Too much really: time to slow the pace to a more sustainable trot. The new Cath has a pretty good hold, but struggles with this new coaching role thing. She would prefer to just tell 'em what to do rather than engage in socratic tedium to guide them along, but those of you who know Cath know that already!

Life, in general, not just people, like the climate here. Plants grow like crazy and keep a small army of ground keepers in business. And along with the plants, we have insects. The mozzies (mosquitoes) are around, but hardly a bother. But larger creatures lurk. We have no dryer, so we leave our clothes to dry outside on a rack. I grabbed a pair of shorts from the the rack and slipped them on on my way out. Yow! I stripped right back down licketeysplit and shock out those shorts. Out fell the biggest freakin' insect I have ever seen! After a little investigation, turns out it was a weta. Still gives me the shivers ...

We still enjoy the easy breathing, wrinkle erasing humidity, though that may wear thin in the winter when it becomes just damp. 25°C (77°F) feels pleasantly warm, almost hot, even with the near constant breeze. A/C (almost always reverse heat/heat pumps here) is not common, so inside buildings can be toasty given enough people or equipment. At least that's the excuse Cath gave me for buying a new wardrobe!

Even the grocery stores have French grade produce, particularly the fruit. No need to worry about the seasons for each one because you'll only see them in season. Cherries, mangoes, kiwiberries... often make an appearance for only a couple of weeks. Get 'em while they have 'em: yummy. We still go to the farmers market on the weekend for some specialities like smoked salmon and hand made ravioli. Typical local fish are snapper, salmon, lemon fish (a small shark), and monkfish.

We have not yet found our exercise rhythm. We've done a bit of biking on the weekends, but this isn't Portland or Boulder and riding for fitness in the city is a challenge. Kiwis are fitness oriented, however. There's a gym on every corner. Over lunch and after work we see groups in the parks doing everything from yoga to boxing to touch rugby (figure that one out). We don't have a great situation right now for storing toys like bikes and kayaks, much less transporting them. We'll see: a work in progress.

Adele live in her last 'dry'
March 25th was a special day when we cashed in our Adele tickets bought in a hard fought battle back in November. It was a crazy good show: we were lucky to have the chance to see her in one of her very last tour performances. Even more so since the very last performance, on the following day, was in a real sky fall: non-stop torrential rain.

Our adopted sailing team needs all you guys to channel energy to make those pedals spin for the America's Cup. She's all alone here in New Zealand while everyone else is warming up in Bermuda. It's been kinda a rough road of it this year with tight funding compared to the giants in the field. But hey, who doesn't love the underdog!

We continually work on our Kiwi vocabulary, phraseology, and pronunciation. Now repeat after me. "You walk with your leegs and stand on you heed." Say "yees" a lot. Really a lot. The snapper fishing tourney started on a cracker of a day, which is way better than fine and unlikely to ever go to custard. Those are pretty much the three key states of weather: cracker, fine, and custard. And then there's "deck". Even the Kiwis know they can't say it right, so they make a joke, or an advertisement, of it. I'll duck out and leave you with that brilliant one ...

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Wellington, Marlborough, Onward to 2017

The Cook Strait ferries are huge sea
going ships. They have to be to keep
operating in the frequent gales in the area.
Since most kiwis take an extended break at the start of their summer (Dec-Feb), which coincides with the end-of-year festivities, we decided to play kiwi and enjoy some time away from the city.  Because we don’t have a car, we pieced together public transportation to take a peek at the South Island: flight to Wellington (the capital), then ferry across Cook Strait to the Marlborough Sounds in the northwest tip of the South Island. 

Windy Welly
Nicknamed “Windy Welly”, Wellington is officially the windiest city in the world. Kiwis who live here love it and don’t seem overly bothered by the regular gale force winds. When asking whether those winds are maddening (we are used to Boulder Chinook winds that make everyone pissy cuz no one can sleep at night), kiwis just shrug and tell you you get used to it, though occasionally an older person is thrown to the ground and breaks a limb, that's all. Kiwis are tough people. Speaking of crazy mother nature, we missed the opportunity to experience a 5.5 earthquake that happened in the area. Our airbnb host and landlords were so excited for us to have the experience but, alas, we were on a water-taxi at the time. Pity. Somehow I think there'll be another chance.

One of the greatest creations
out of Weta Studios.
We enjoyed Wellington, which is small (walkable) yet has lots to do: mountain biking and hiking straight from town (and many out of town), a town beach, the museum of New Zealand (free of charge), and Weta Studios. Next time you watch a movie with special effects - Avatar, Lord of the Rings, Contact, etc.. - , notice the Miramar credits at the beginning. I always though that was the California Miramar, but nooooo.... Miramar is the Wellington suburb where the Weta Workshop and 4 other companies dedicate themselves to creating those special effects. Weta is "New Zealand's coolest little monster, a bizarre and prickly prehistoric cricket" but when we toured their workshop, they joked that Weta stood for “We Employ Total Amateurs”, as in anyone obsessed enough with fantasy stuff to want to work here gets the job! Peter Jackson, who hales from Wellington, is building a museum to put many of his movie props on display. Most props are otherwise destroyed since NZ is too small to store them all and they can't be reused because IP protection - except rocks, apparently. No movie director can claim the rocks made for their movies, some of which we learned are made of toilet paper rolls (most are model-sizes)! Wellington also had a few of the Lord of the Rings filming locations, so we had fun trying to locate them and identifying matching movie scenes.

On the Queen Charlotte Track (QCT)
high above the sounds.
After Wellington, we took the three-hour ferry to the South Island to visit the Marlborough Sounds, which has the famous 3 to 5 day Queen Charlotte Track along one of its peninsulas. What makes this track so popular is the option to stay at lodges each night (with hot showers and dinners with Marlborough wines) and have your luggage schlepped by water taxi to the next lodge so you don’t have to carry a full pack while hiking. Now that’s my type of hiking. You can even opt to kayak a day to rest from hiking, which we did of course. Hiking provided incredible views and the weather cooperated after showing sign of dumping heaps of rain on us.

A "day off" hiking means kayaking!
While hiking the QCT, we met an Australian couple from Adelaide who relocated to Auckland about two years ago, going against the trend of kiwis moving to Australia to earn “less sucky” salaries. Come to find out Dave works two doors down from Bill in Auckland. Dave is an landscape architect and Felicity is a government policy advisor. Both got a job without issue and they have been adapting to life as kiwis. We learned a lot from them, and plan to reconvene in Auckland. Social life here we come! We learned that we may be referred to YAFAs (Yet Another F*ing Aucklander) when traveling outside Auckland. For my French readers, kind of an equivalent to “parigots” (Parisian visiting the countryside with their accent and ways of being). We also learned that we should buy a car NOW, and not wait like they did eighteen months. We have been struggling with that one - considering Bill commuted everywhere by bike while in Boulder and I grew up with public transportation in Paris. Well, Auckland ain’t Paris nor Boulder it seems.

We continue to expand our kiwi vocabulary. Here are the latest additions:
  • Your kids may be wagging (skipping school). That one gives a whole new meaning to the "Wag more and Bark less” bumper sticker.
  • You get meds and insect repellent at the chemist (pharmacy).
  • When bad weather is coming, the weather is fine until it turns to custard.
  • Don't forget your sunnies (sunglasses).
  • A landslide is just referred to as a slip. It’s all relative when you have earthquakes as a regular occurrence!
  • You can have trim milk (skim) or full cream milk (whole). Reminds me of “butter croissants” - what else would croissants be made of and do you really have to remind me before I indulge and enjoy? Fun sucker….
New Zealand has a very young population. Sometimes we wonder where we fit. Thankfully the humidity softens wrinkles. Quite a few folks came with holiday work visas, which we learned are quite easy to obtain: just need a little youth and enthusiasm. They work for nine months and travel for three. Lucky for me, most of restaurant staff have been young adults from France. We hardly run into any Americans, except our kayak guide from Spokane, WA. 

A view from the trail on Mount
Victoria, just outside of Wellington.
When you move to another country, you notice how the world is getting more global every day. Two services could really use an upgrade though: video streaming and banking, with phone plans a close third. It took us over a month to figure a legal way to stream movies, each attempt creating bouts of anger at being misled with one solution or another. Amazon, Netflix and HBO really need to experience the pain they create to watch movies in one country from a subscription bought in another country. And banking, well, let’s just say that for the foreseeable future, you need a warm american body to initiate a wire transfer from our US account to our kiwi account. That must be their idea of security. Wow! Google Fi has been serving Bill well - mostly that he enjoys giving out my local phone number instead of his US number, but standardizing the format of phone numbers world wide would be a huge win across the board. Here, mobile numbers come in a variety of formats, none of which look like the land line numbers.

The summer is short here, so many work places close shop from Dec 23 thru Jan 9. Consulting work stalled late November and will not pick up until late January. That means we still have a couple of weeks to visit places before everyone comes back from the beach ready to resume work. 

We are happy to report that we finally found tenants for our house in Boulder. After two months of low to no activity, we had to settle with dog owners which likely will destroy our hardwood floors. We would have preferred kids and cats but beggars can't be choosers. Oh well.

2016 has been quite a year -  from Spencer's graduation, Shelby's graduation, Alizée's graduation to our NZ adventure. We wish everyone a happy and adventuresome 2017.