Sunday, December 23, 2018

Merry Christmas from Down Under

The dripping rains of winter (June-July-Aug) have come and gone in NZ and we are so glad the dripping rains of summer (Dec-Jan-Feb) are here. Surely it will stop raining at some point.

Our first winter was fun because, well, it was the first, and any first is always fun (to me at least!), and also because we got to do heaps of muddy hikes. Deep, soupy mud because it rains a lot here. Oh, already said that...

Our beach and our favorite volcano - Rangitoto
The novelty of an austral winter gone, this winter was more of a slog; it felt colder. While the temperatures rarely get down to freezing ("ça descend, ça descend, ça descend"), the lack of central heating makes homes colder than Colorado homes! People rage on about poor insulation and single panes. Portable radiators only go so far to heat a room and waking up with a headache from the cold night is no fun. We read posts from Michigan folks that declared their NZ winters their coldest!

Winter was also less fun because there was simply less to do. Many of the nearby tramping tracks, and some of our favorites, have been closed to protect the indigenous kauri trees from dieback disease, caused by a pathogen that kills every tree it infects. Dieback disease started infecting kauri forests 10 years ago, and this year the Department of Conservation decided to take drastic action by closing many tramping tracks to minimize infection from trampers shoes. (Also why they are picky about inspecting your camping gear and hiking boots at the airport.)

So that left us with… brrrrrrr…. ocean swimming in 12C (54F) water. You get a full on ice cream headache from that too!

While our first year in NZ brought newness and excitement, we found our second year more of a pondering experience. I don’t know why but we tend to ponder a lot while in NZ!

We tried to pinpoint why we found NZ attractive (aside from the stunning landscape), and the words that best capture it are chill, simple (life), and quiet.

Chill - Kiwis are just chill people. They are so accepting of everyone’s way. Auckland is a big melting pot and everyone seems to get along. I just came back from Xmas food shopping and while everyone was buzzing about in the store, and the car park full, there was no honking, tire screeching, or swearing, and drivers backed up to help each other out. They are so disciplined at not blocking intersections. It is just a marvel to watch, and takes the stress levels down a notch. Even the dogs are chill. You should see them run around unleashed on the beach, never fighting or growling. The only barks you hear are of excitement to fetch or play!

Simple (Life) - A minimalist life and NZ go hand in hand. We get hardly any mail, other than love letters from our kids (and not that many actually!) We don’t use checks. Internet banking is prominent. People share their bank account to be reimbursed or paid for services. Our rent includes utilities, so we pre-programmed a weekly recurring internet banking transaction (you pay rent per week and we won’t tell you how much or you may fall off your chair). We had two medical incidents (nothing serious) that took me to urgent care on a weekend. No wait, no issue parking right in front, and a mere $100NZ ($70US) bill per visit (remember we pay zippo for medical insurance so that’s a bargain). Prescription refills are just a text away. No tipping at restaurants. And the nature is, really, simply stunning.

Quiet - It’s peacefully quiet here. Kiwis rarely honk. We rarely hear loud music. People speak softly. On most hikes we run into only a few souls. We wake up with the birds, not traffic sounds or dogs barking. Quiet in a nice, but sometimes sad, kinda way (more below).

When we start feeling native, we remind ourselves that we still have no tattoos (no plans there), we have not adopted the F bomb (no plans there either), we don’t walk bare feet on the street or supermarket, and we do like to joke :)

There is one thing puzzling us in NZ. That’s a sad sense of loneliness. As we mentioned in previous posts, making friends here is hard. You would think speaking the same language would help (ok kiwi have a special english for sure - see here!) but there is definitely a cultural difference (more here). We find connecting with people at a deeper level challenging. If you talk about yourself, you are viewed as bragging. If you ask questions, there is a reluctance to open up (very private). Maybe because people tend to come and go often - either for an OE (Oversea Experience) or going back to where they came from. The Bon Voyage card section is quite indicative of how often people say goodbye here. While kiwis are super helpful if you ask for help (and that may be all you see as a tourist), we witness little in the way of affection between couples or camaraderie between friends. We hear about domestic violence, mental health, and suicide rate being higher than other countries, which does not seem to jive with being so chill. We're still trying to noodle out those inconsistencies.

Mr and Mrs Leopard Seals

We met only a few Americans in our 2 years here, but found a US expats forum enlightening with tips and tricks on adapting to the NZ culture. Seems like, as gorgeous as NZ is, some long term expats have never come to terms with the lack of human, person-to-person connection.

Oh… Speaking of connections, we accidentally connected with the owner of Eddyline. Our Colorado friends and family may know that Eddyline pizza from the Buena Vista location. Two years ago, the owner sold the CO business to his employees and opened an Eddyline in Nelson, NZ. He reported a lot of Colorado folks in that region, which does not surprise us as that is the area we liked the most so far: hiking, biking, kayaking, swimming, craft beers, ciders, wineries, and (arguably) the most sunshine in NZ.

The other puzzle: what is up with the housing market? Houses sold on auctions, mortgage rates fixed for no more than 5 years. One of our swimmer friends (a mortgage lender) explained to us that because kiwis are unable to save (how can they with poor wages and expensive housing options), kiwi banks simply don’t have enough cash to lend. They turn to US financial institutions and, as such, take a cut of both the interest and risk compared to a US mortgage: there you are. Hardly anyone can afford to buy a house around the largest cities, especially Auckland. Outside Auckland is cheaper but there are no jobs, only sheep.

After swim brunch with chill people - highlight of our week!
NZ remains a fascinating country to us. Some crazy innovative stuff like Rocket Labs, America’s Cup boat design, Internet banking. You find gems in the middle of nowhere like first-class chocolatiers, rustic places with food out of this world, or an awesome unknown Pinot Noir. While there is (mostly domestic) violence, we feel very safe here. We are shocked by housing costs. Kiwis are shocked by US medical costs. (One kiwi in particular was looking a little faint when we had to clarify that, no, the insurance premium wasn't per year, but per month.)

Now that summer is back, ocean swimming season is in full swing. We have upgraded our distance targets from last season. Bill signed up for several 10K marathons, while I am now comfortable swimming a 3.5K in choppy water and a bit of surf thrown in. We love the swim part but, above all, we love the multicultural social scene that comes with our little swim group.

For Christmas, we will be staying put and enjoying Auckland’s holiday quiet. Like August in Paris, most of the natives have left town for the holidays. Besides, we already had our Christmas gift: permanent residency on the best little nation in the Pacific! We can now come and go (and work) as we please with no expiration date. What's next? :)

Down Under Santa
2019 will be yet another interesting year for us. Our loose plan is to visit the south of the south island (Lord of the Rings territory), take Alizée out of her shed, and figure out how to escape cold winters wherever they are found :)

One sleep left before Santa comes. Sleep tight, and make sure to leave milk and cookies, and apparently a carrot for the reindeers (first I heard of that one).

Merry Xmas, happy new year, and, above all, good health, laughter, and happiness in 2019!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Winter is Coming.. Again!

We are approaching the 18 month milestone and I realized we have not written a single blog this year. Where did the time go? Time to reflect back and look forward at the same time.

After the kiddos fantastic visits over the Xmas holiday, we have pretty much been working during the week and ocean swimming on the weekends. We had a great visit in March from one of our dear Boulder friends, Susan, who we took along to our Bay of Plenty swim event. Other than that escapade, no exciting travel adventures to report. Sorry. We kinda visited as much as we could on the North Island and now longing to visit the South of the South Island (Lord of the Rings gorgeous sceneries) which will take some planning (and a well fed bank account) to do properly.

Family reunion: Madison, Spencer, Bill, Cath, Shelby, David
Work-wise, Bill went back to his normal job at Vesper Marine while I looked for new consulting opportunities. It turned out to be harder than expected to find another consulting gig, so I decided to take the plunge into a full-time contractor position to experience kiwi working life, complete with the same bus commute as Bill every day. Sometimes we think we are back to school sweat hearts. I am now an Agile coach at Auckland Transport, the government-funded agency managing the public transport in Auckland. It is very cool to see, behind the scenes, the bus and ferry services we have been relying on for the past many months. As a testimony to how serious Auckland is to build a bike-able city, they imported someone from the Boulder city planning group (small world!) to learn from our beloved Colorado network of superb cycleways. Replacing car lanes with cycleways is a controversial proposition in a city where people love driving their cars. As of today, it is still not safe enough to bike in town and since we now live in a beach community across the harbor, we couldn't bike to work if we wanted to. 

The work scene here has been an adjustment from the US. Due to a shortage of skills, half of the workforce in Auckland is a diverse population of contractors, many from South Africa, India, China, and Britain. Contractors are brought in for their skillset and tend to work on exciting projects while "permies" (permanent staff) maintain the new shiny things the contractors built. It makes it a real challenge to establish stable agile teams. One can't be agile purist here. You gotta figure out what works best. Because healthcare is covered by the government (yeah to socialized medical care like France), the difference between contractors and permanents is mostly higher pay (contractors) vs better job security (permanents). Contractors don’t get company training or time off, but contracts tend to be 6-12 months long so you can plan an extended vacation between contracts. See where I am going with this? Travel freak has found a gem. We’ll use my August break to visit Spencer and friends in Boulder, Shelby and David in California and my mom in France. 

Swim marathon man with his kayak escort
Weekend-wise, Bill has passed on his ocean swimming obsession to me. Heck, I was not going to watch him have that much fun alone. Turned out to be quite an experience. How hard can it be if you already are a pretty good swimmer? (hint: ocean swimming is much more of a mental game than a physical challenge. Tells you something when many 60+ folks are faster than we are). Boy was I in for a shocker. It started with frustration and even panic, but slowly grew on me. 

Our social Sunday brunch
We joined a social swimming group that swims from one bay around Auckland to the next every weekend, then have brunch together. That was a pretty good motivator to get with the program and keep up with everyone. Swim first, then you'll get your flat white Cath!. The group is pretty eclectic: an Italian working at Rocket Labs, the latest aerospace NZ endeavor (you may have heard of the controversial Humanity Star?) an Irish gent (that I can barely understand, but is funny as heck), a Canadian, a Dutch, a Zimbabwean, several Brits....We add to that diversity with our American and French flair. We finally have a social circle we feel part of and with whom we can be our funky selves! Only took over a year…: as long as driving solo on the other side of the road. As we say in France "good things take time".

Take a peek at this inspiring video from one of the NZ ocean swimming series event we did (ironically in a lake, but nevertheless part of the official series). Gives us the chills every time we watch it. We also collated our swimming season in an album, including Bill's end of season swim marathon that took 4 hours to complete. Next weekend we signed up for a “swim safari”… you swim around a harbor for four hours stopping to discover caves and jumping off bridges. 

As we approach our second winter in NZ, the water is getting colder by the week (17C right now, will go down to 12C) just like it warmed up over a couple of weeks in the summer. Water temps fluctuate 10C during the year. The goal is to equip ourselves (neoprene gloves, booties and cap) and keep swimming like Dory says. Bill is more hard core than I am but I have a warmer body temp than he does, so between the two of us we should manage. There is always the pool, but seeing a wall every 25 meters is such a drag now. If swimming gives us too many brain freezes, there is always winter muddy hiking. Never a shortage of physical exercise in the land of the long white cloud to compensate for full time work in offices.