the mouse that quibbles

the mouse that quibbles

Saturday, August 2, 2008

How NOT to Move to New Zealand - Part Three (or 'bloody hell! It's three months later and I've survived! Who'da thunk it?')

To my surprise, and a bit of embarrassment, it’s been months since my last blog entry. In my defence, I have been rather busy, frantically rewriting my doctoral proposal so many times I’ve lost count of how many versions it’s gone through. I also finished a novel I’ve been overdue on the contract for, turned it in last month. It’s scheduled for publication winter of 2009, and I’ve already seen the proposed cover art, quite nice. I’ve managed to write a few posts for John Amato and his much bigger blogsite, C&L, but not as many as I would normally have liked. I’ve become involved in the founding of a local writer’s group, dubbing ourselves ‘Seven Kiwis ‘n’ a Yank’. But mostly, I’ve been waiting to see if I would survive here, and be allowed to stay in New Zealand after all. It’s been a tense and traumatic six months since my world imploded and I found myself tossed out on the street, homeless and scared stiff, my options exceedingly limited. Time was running out, and I’d resigned myself to preparing for the worst – my home in the UK is long gone, and I would have had to lean upon the kindness and hospitality of relatives, which since my aunt is an absolutely lovely woman would admittedly have scarcely been that much of a hardship – I was almost disappointed I wasn’t ‘going home’ to the States when the Kiwi cavalry rode over the hill in the nick of time.

A scant two weeks before the very last extension on my New Zealand Visitor’s Visa was to expire and I would have to leave the country forever, a pleasant young lady from Massey University pasted a blue sticker with a shiny silver hologram of a fern leaf into my passport which took up an entire page. I am now proudly (and with enormous relief) a bona fide holder of a Student Permit to study for my Doctor of Philosophy degree. Multiple entries allowed. Funds and outward passage waived. Part time work permit granted, full time during the summer. Sweating blood and sleepless nights no longer necessary.

It was cutting it damned close, but I’m on safe and solid ground for at least the next year while starting work toward a long-cherished goal – my PhD. It’s a ground-breaker at that, being the first doctorate in Creative Writing ever to be offered in New Zealand. I have to write a novel (hmm, not like that’s something I’ve never done before), and – far more challenging – a supplementary critical component wherein I shall endeavour to examine in proper academic navel-gazing fashion the intellectual process of writing said novel. Should be fun. I actually do mean that.

Meanwhile, my living situation has gone from tenuous vagrancy, periodically reduced to having to live out of my car and sleep in a tent on a beach, to the more stable and long-term decision of flatting with friends out on a small farm north of Auckland. I’ve lived out in the countryside in the UK, but rather than puttering genteelly about in an English style cottage veggie garden, this is closer to the real thing: rolling green hills, black and white Oreo cookie cows, a stroppy horse, a dozen sheep, pet tame chickens that lay eggs on your doorstep. The homekill butcher came out a couple weeks ago to shoot the two pigs, named Bacon and Sausage, now interred in the freezer as… bacon and sausage. This morning, one of the ewes had to be helped to deliver an overly large lamb, which unfortunately was born dead, the perils of winter lambing. The paddocks are a sea of trampled mud after several weeks of atrocious winter weather, two near-hurricane force storms wreaking havoc, some shattered glass and minor flooding, power outages and – since the farm survives on collected rainwater – no toilets or running water without a petrol generator to run the pumps. It made me appreciate how truly self-sustaining my solid stone and brick little 19th century miner’s cottage in Northumberland had been, with a boiler behind the fireplace for hot water, and the wood-fired 1920’s oven inset capable of baking hot casseroles and fresh bread. But the lack of internet access, television or video games brought back the fun of board and card games, charades, candle-lit dinners (albeit takeaway fish and chips) and the old-fashioned pursuit of conversation while the winds howl and the rain lashes down. And in the morning, rainbows and relentlessly cheerful Kiwis abound.

I keep being asked by Kiwis with various degrees of perplexed expressions, of all the places I could choose to live, why New Zealand? Six months ago, I’m not sure I would have had that much of a coherent reasoning, other than one of sheer stubborn defiance – I refused to be cavalierly discarded like so much unwanted rubbish by an ex-employer in the expectation I would be forced to leave the country and thus solve any conundrum. But over the past six months, I’ve met the most amazing people, and made the most remarkable and wonderful friends here. I’ve travelled around the North Island and been astounded by the sheer physical beauty of this country – and I’m told that the South Island is even more spectacular. I’ve been overwhelmed by the innate decency, kindness and integrity of the vast majority of Kiwis.

If I need to quantify it, though, it helped to read this morning in one of the various farming magazines that come in the post that out of 140 countries around the world, New Zealand has placed seventh by Yale and Columbia University’s Environmental Performance Index for its approach to the environment, health and governmental policies, and achieved a perfect score of 100 in water and sanitation. (The US placed a dismal 39th, behind the UK at 14th and Japan at 21st. Australia, surprisingly, ranked an even worse 46th, with low scores for water, pesticide regulation, climate change and emissions. Switzerland, unsurprisingly, came first on the list). On the opposite page from the article was another announcing the greenest water bottle on the planet being produced right here in NZ, made from corn starch but equally possible with potato starch, or rice or beetroot.

This is one clean, green, progressive, healthy country. It’s a little country with a big heart and bigger ideas, full of vibrant, intelligent and creative people. It boasts some of the best scenery to be found anywhere in the world. And it’s allowing me to stay and chase my dream of a doctorate. I’m an extraordinarily lucky person, what more could anyone ask for?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Conquering Mountains

'Each of us has to discover his own path. Some paths will be spectacular, others peaceful and quiet'.
– Sir Edmund Hillary

One of the ways I’ve been keeping body and soul together after having been metaphorically shipwrecked on the shores of Auckland has been house-sitting. It’s had some unexpected, and mostly quite pleasant, side benefits. I met one of my now best friends this way, after house-sitting for her over Christmas, and through another house-sit connection had a great day out on a charter boat serving drinks to a contingent of the Olympic Committee while watching the women’s international Laser class yacht racing in the Auckland Harbour (both girls from the USA, I’m pleased to say, did rather well).

I'm now house-sitting in this nice little place in a semi-posh suburb of Auckland (it's only recently become ‘posh’ in the past ten years or so, and still has a quite middle-class feel to it despite all the upmarket house construction going on). Most house-sits are more to take care of the resident pets than to ‘guard’ the property, and this one is no exception – I’m here to take care of a little black Lhasa Apso dog as well as the next door neighbour's cat. The lady who owns the house is 90, lives with her son, with her daughter and son-in-law living in the house next door, which I'm also keeping an eye on. I came early the day they all left for a month in the UK, was treated to a very nice G&T and lively conversation about Nepal and the Himalayas and Tensing's kids and the tiny Sherpa lady who wanted them to take bags of potatoes down in the helicopter and wasn’t that fun riding up the foothills of Everest on the back of a little horse... It slowly starts to dawn on me...

‘Did you guys actually know Edmund Hillary?’ I ask rather naively.

The 90-year-old lady laughs. ‘I'm his sister, June. We're off to Windsor for his memorial service, and I’m having an audience with the Queen after. That’s why we’re going to England, I thought you knew...’

Um, no. Not really. I look around at the house. It’s a modest little house, with the kind of eclectic decoration you'd expect from any ordinary 90-year-old woman... until you start to notice the details.

Hand-painted Nepalese watercolours and photographs of snowy mountain peaks amongst the old prints of English churches and Norfolk countryside. Sun-faded and crooked family photographs in picture frames so basic you wouldn’t look at them twice in a charity shop, just ordinary people doing ordinary things, boating and birthday parties and barbecues, and mugging for the camera… except that one of them looks rather familiar. So familiar, in fact, that it’s the face on the New Zealand five-dollar banknote.

So, somewhat awe-struck, I sit and sip my G&T and listen to family gossip and what June plans to say to the Queen during her audience, practicing it to get it perfect, with a wicked twinkle in her eye as she winds up her kids tut-tutting over her other less than PC declarations, and think to myself how surreal and yet so normal this all seems.

There’s no point in writing up too much of a thumbnail history of Sir Edmund Hillary here; far better works have been written on his life, and that’s not really what this post is about anyway. It’s about the perception vs. the reality of greatness.

The perception – particularly the American forged perception – is that the great and the famous are from backgrounds very different from yours or mine. They live in remote fancy mansions surrounded by acres of sculpted gardens to isolate them from their nearest neighbours, museum quality art hangs on the walls, they have unlisted phone numbers and a surfeit of personal secretaries to keep the grubby public at bay. Even those who archetypically rise from abject poverty and overcome gruelling obstacles, they’re different than the rest of us - the great and the famous have personality traits far superior to us mere mortals, they’re innately more talented, born smarter, stronger, faster, sexier, more charismatic, they get all the bloody breaks, the bastards. You and I? Let’s face it; we’re never going to be great or famous.

Then, there’s the reality. The reality is that Edmund Hillary was a painfully shy kid who – along with his brother Rex and sister June – had a pretty crap childhood not so much different from a whole lot of other peoples’ crap childhoods. He was lonely and unhappy, bullied by boys at school and dominated by his father at home. Academically, he was a terrible student, ranking at the bottom of his class, and dropping out of college after two failed years to work on the family beekeeping farm. Physically he was so skinny and unathletic his Physical Education teacher mocked him, calling him ‘deformed’. He was so bashful that his future bride’s mother had to propose marriage to her own daughter on his behalf over the phone. As a result, he suffered from an enduring sense of inadequacy and fear of failure that he struggled all his life to overcome.

His sister June was an avid hiker, and her bored and restless younger brother tagged along for weekend hikes in the New Zealand foothills with her and her friends, sparking his interest in mountaineering. After a hike in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, he watched two climbers who had just returned from the summit of Mount Cook being showered with admiration and fawned over by adoring young women. He, too, compared his disappointingly dull life to theirs, looking at the great and the famous, and wrestled with the envy and crushing doubt that he would ever lead a life anywhere near as wonderful as he perceived theirs to be.

It’s this – not being inherently better or confident or more exceptional than anyone else – that drove Edmund Hillary up the face of Everest. He harnessed his self-doubt and frustration into a force that wouldn’t allow him to quit. Ever.

And once he was great and famous? He went up the mountain as an ordinary Kiwi, and came down it to discover to his horror he’d been knighted by the Queen of England – he wasn’t good enough to be ‘knightly material’. He settled back into Auckland with his new wife and, since he hadn’t been paid to climb mountains, made a living beekeeping with his brother Rex, and supported his growing family with endless speaking tours and writing books.

So what do you do for an encore after you’ve just climbed the highest mountain in the world? Well, you go drive tractors across Antarctica, you go look for Yetis in the Himalayas, you build schools and hospitals for Nepalese Sherpa children. You trek down the entire length of Ganges River in India.

When your beloved wife and youngest daughter are killed in a plane crash, you publicly put on a stoic face, while fighting black despair in private. When you have an attack of high altitude sickness that causes cerebral swelling and memory loss, preventing you from ever climbing above 14,000 feet again, you forge a new path, becoming a spokesman for the environment and conservation, human rights, fighting poverty and political corruption. You sign five-dollar bills with your face on them for school kids in classes where you’ve been talked yet again into giving a lecture, because you’re a genuinely nice guy and all of Auckland knows it. Your telephone number isn't even unlisted, anyone can ring you up.

And if you’re truly great, you never lose sight of who you are. Just an ordinary person, like anyone else.

Except that you’ve climbed a mountain. That’s it, really.

‘I’m not a hero at all. I firmly believe that I am the creation of the media and the public. I am a person of very modest abilities.’

When I woke up this morning, I opened my eyes to a huge photograph of Mt. Everest, with a white Nepali silk scarf draped over it. And realized something – maybe something important. My mountains are quite a bit shorter than Sir Ed’s Everest, and so far – thank god – my tragedies less cruel. I’ll be happy enough if my path is more quiet and peaceful rather than spectacular. My self-doubt and frustration is probably no better or worse than anyone else’s. I don’t know if I’ll ever be great or famous (probably not), but whatever successes I do achieve in my life won’t be because I’m more talented, smarter, stronger, faster, sexier, or more charismatic than anyone else.

It’s because I know my self-doubt and frustration won’t allow me to quit.


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

How NOT To Move to New Zealand – Part Two

(or ‘Things To Do in New Zealand While You Wait to See If The Sky is About To Fall’)

Not too long ago, I learned some rather difficult lessons on how not to move to New Zealand, due to the capricious and unreasonable motives of a now former boss. It also has put me in a steep learning curve on Part Two of my personal saga, how to survive in a foreign country with no home, no job, and no work visa – on only limited personal resources of my own and the massive generosity of new friends and allies (some of those even in the New Zealand Immigration Department itself, I’m astonished, and incredibly grateful, to report), the majority of Kiwis I’ve met appalled that any of their fellow countrymen would ever do such a thing to anyone.

It’s been complicated, finding inventive ways to survive without actually living out of the back of my car (the first thing I had to buy after I’d been unceremoniously chucked out on the street right before Christmas), and without either violating Immigration regulations or overtaxing the kindness of friends who’ve opened not just their hearts but their guest room doors for me. I highly recommend house sitting. It’s not a permanent solution, and hardly a seamless or steady one, but it’s been a great way to live in lovely places all over New Zealand, rent free, allowing me to stretch my limited budget to the max. It's also been a conduit to some wonderful friendships as well.

I recently spent a few weeks down in Wellington, and got to see the south end of the North Island, then bought a small tent and a sleeping bag, and a copy of Gay Kerr’s enormously helpful book, New Zealand Camping Guide, before wending my way back up the east coast to Auckland.

I stopped for a couple days in fabulous downtown Foxton, a small town on the west coast where a good mate from my Ceroc group is renovating his house. There, I learned quite a lot about a popular Kiwi obsession – renovating houses for fun and profit. Who knows? Even in the current housing market crisis, there are hundreds of small towns with thousands of the distinctive New Zealand houses in need of a bit of paint and TLC; there might be one just waiting for me around the next corner...
Napier was lovely, but I breezed through it far too quickly to do it justice – nowhere to park, as Tom Jones was in town for a concert at a local winery and half of the North Island seemed to have migrated to this gorgeous coastal town. I highly recommend a quick stop off at the Crab Farm Winery (a rival to the one hosting Mr Sex Machine) in Hawke’s Bay, just outside Napier, for a bottle of their Sauvignon blanc and a delicious Reserve Malbec.

I stopped for a day on a nearly deserted beach on the Bay of Plenty, ate a steak seared to perfection on a BBQ, swam in the surf while watching the sun slowly set, then lay on my back with the tent flap open to stare up at a clear, night sky with more stars than I’ve seen since I was a kid. (And for a Certain Idiot in Britain who asked me didn’t I miss the stars, yes, dear, you can see the Milky Way in the Southern Hemisphere, as well as Orion and a couple other constellations I vaguely remember from Girl Scouts but can’t name. Still hunting for the Southern Cross, though…)

I spent another incredible night huddled with two other refugees from a raging thunderstorm, wind and rain lashing down, sheltered in a quite comfortable backpacker’s camp in Te Araroa at the tip of the East Cape – my own room, shared kitchen and bathrooms, and a very well-stocked library. One of my fellow 'backpackers' (which seems to mean something different in New Zealand than I thought) was a ranch hand/cowboy from North Dakota who had rented a car while on a break from Kiwi Tours, the other a biker lad from Islington. And a very pleasant evening was had by all.

The next morning, the weather was still sullen, but safe to venture out in again. The storm had triggered several slips on the road, both rock slides onto the road, or the road simply washed away, all along the coastal motorway, making driving an – erm – interesting if rather slow experience. At one point, I noticed a large four-wheel-drive pickup that stopped behind me, the Maori driver waiting to be sure my little definitely-not-four-wheel-drive car actually made it onto the other side of a partial washed-out road before turning around and driving away with a smile and a wave. This is a place where the impulse to help thy neighbour is ingrained, a matter of mutual survival in a beautiful but often unpredictable countryside.

I’m now back in Auckland, my transcripts have finally arrived from the UK, and I’m well on my way to filing my application to a PhD course with Massey University, having already met my supervisor who is almost as excited about my thesis as I am. I’m hoping to soon write Part Three of How NOT to Move to New Zealand, with a happy ending. So stayed tuned. There are worse ways to spend your time while biting your nails, isn’t there…?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

How NOT To Move to New Zealand - Part One

(photo credit:

Just a quick, and rather abbreviated update, for friends and family - I've had a recent crash course in how NOT to immigrate to a new country, learning the hard way. Lesson One - don't accept job offers off the internet, especially those without references, no matter how perfect it seems. If it seems too good to be true, believe me, it is. Lesson Two - don't be pressured to move to a new country so quickly for said dodgy job that you don't check out and follow immigration requirements thoroughly! And don't believe what they'll tell you at the New Zealand job fairs in the UK that it's quick and easy to get a visa and work permit in New Zealand, if you have a job offer. Depends very much on the 'job offer'. Lesson Three - don't be a woman and work for a single man with a jealous girlfriend. Lesson Four - make damned sure that you've got enough emotional strength, personal resources and good friends for when it all explodes on you and you discover yourself suddenly homeless, jobless, carless, and sponsorless in a foreign country where you've only been less than six months. Thankfully, I do. And thankfully, it's New Zealand.

At the moment, it's likely to end up in some messy litigation, so that's about all I can really say about my situation, other than - although still homeless and jobless - I'm not as bad off as I could have found myself, and there is reason for me to be happy and hopeful. I will be okay. It's just going to take a lot more work and headaches than I anticipated.

So posts on this blog will be sporadic at best for awhile. But please stay tuned...