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?