Expats at ease


We settle into a daily expectation of subzero-to-single-figures temperatures and become almost blasé about the thick white frosts that linger all day in the shady parts of the section. Hapless returns from a four-day visit to “wet, green” Auckland with something like relief. “This definitely feels like coming home,” he says, as we negotiate the sleepy streets of downtown Wanaka, empty at 5pm on a weekday. “Which is a bit of a worry.”

But are we really at home here? We’re not quite assimilated as locals: we still drive at an irritating touristy 80 along the open roads, marvelling at the scenery, while our neighbours blow past us with a toot, on the way to kindy or the supermarket. Hapless still regularly pulls over to pore over the map, vainly trying to identify the names of all the mountains and ranges, driven by a hard-wired male urge to name and conquer.

We still dash outside at every change in the weather and conditions to take photos, roaming the section to find the best vantage point to capture the mountains/sunrise/ sunset/mist/fog/frost, while the neighbours smile indulgently out their kitchen windows. We dash up the Crown Range at the first skiff of snow and frolic like foreigners on the track just off the summit car park, barraging each other with great handfuls of crisp powder.

We’re also marked out as immigrants by our dependency on our mobiles, including my nasty citified habit of whipping out my iPhone to take photos and worse, post them to Facebook. Cellphone coverage is patchy and landline use, even for brief messages, is therefore routine. Here, people give their phone numbers as just four digits, since the entire district shares the prefix 443 (“What’s your 443?”).

My clothes – the dozen garments I wear in rotation – are also not quite local, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. My jeans, jerseys, jackets, sneakers, all seem slightly… foreign – and I guess they are, purchased a thousand miles away from the handful of Queenstown and Wanaka boutiques that are the only local shopping options. Three-quarters of my (I thought) tightly edited wardrobe gathers dust, being unsuitable for warmth, practicality and my unvarying itinerary of home, school, supermarket and library. (To be fair, I did know I was bringing too many clothes, but had to cover off the possibility of needing to get a job locally; and I did think we might actually manage to be invited out occasionally.)

But it’s our lack of social integration that really means we’re not really quite at home in Hawea. Rather than differentiate us from the tourists, our story (‘We’re here for a year!’) simply confirms us as fly-by-nighters. Our itinerant status is probably an inhibitor to the nurturing of friendships on both sides; we’re not quite worth the investment of time and effort, and not quite motivated to invest it ourselves.

We’re asked to donate time for school and fundraising activities, but I’m so jealous of my already-eroded writing time that I guiltily say no, closing off the guaranteed avenue of chumminess that is community good works. There are local events – quiz nights, indoor bowls – but babysitting is problematic, coupled with a slight queasiness on both our parts at the prospect of evenings of small talk with hearty rural strangers.

The truth is, we treasure our quiet evenings, slumped on the matching beige buttoned-velour sofa and La-Z-Boy in front of high-quality drama series from Fatso, or engaged in peaceful parallel play with our intimacy-avoidant Apple devices. We love our commitment-free weekends, so conducive to luxurious amounts of sleep and satisfying quantities of reading and habits of antisocial thriftiness.

We love the spontaneous family adventures, the aimless sightseeing excursions, the increasingly adventurous and imaginative roaming enjoyed by the boys in their great tracts of unstructured leisure time. Because while social isolation isn’t sustainable in the long-term, it is very, very, very restful.

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