I moved to New Zealand from the US in the usual, time-honored fashion. First, I got rejected from every graduate school I’d applied to. Then I pulled out a calendar and contemplated spending another year in my soul-killing, $10-an-hour receptionist job. Then I started crying.
And then I had a lot of beer and sent a drunken email to my scholarly hero, a biographer whose work has been called “monumental” by The New York Times. He wrote back with a gracious and encouraging reply—so encouraging, in fact, that I decided to enroll in a master’s program at the New Zealand university where he is a professor.
I thought that moving to New Zealand would turn me into a new person—someone much more sophisticated and adult. Instead of staying up half the night guiltily clicking through slideshows of Britney Spears’ most daring outfits, I’d read only serious publications. I wouldn’t sleep in until 10 am; I’d get up at dawn to hike for hours through pristine countryside. I’d become so worldly and enlightened that American graduate schools would rue the day they’d rejected me.
Instead, I moved to New Zealand and remained myself. But going there did help me shake some major illusions about what it means to be an adult.
Americans love to imagine that moving a vast distance will transform us, as if by magic, into better versions of ourselves. Apparently the behavior is so common among addicts that 12-step programs even have a term for it—“pulling a geographic.”
Because it’s a beautiful and remote country, New Zealand serves as a convenient backdrop for escapist fantasies. Because it’s a beautiful and remote country that most of us have only glimpsed in movies, New Zealand serves as a convenient backdrop for such escapist fantasies. (It came as no surprise to me when, a few weeks ago, the entire internet seized on a false rumor that a small South Island town, Kaitangata, was offering to pay $160,000 USD to anyone willing to relocate.) The country seems to promise a simpler, slower way of life among hilly fields and flocks of sheep. And it also appeals to the specific liberal fantasy of living in a place so far removed from war that nuclear submarines are forbidden to visit.
Of course, there’s no such thing as paradise on earth. But parts of the year my husband and I spent moored in Auckland really were magical. We were newlyweds, and New Zealand seemed like a kind of extended honeymoon. On weekends, Chris and I would take the ferry across the harbor to Devonport, a sleepy tourist village with horse-drawn carriages and winding paths up North Head, a massive hill overlooking the gulf and Auckland’s Rangitoto volcano. Or we’d lay reading on a blanket in the city’s Prince Albert Park—giant trees all around us and the sky so big it seemed vaulted.
My academic idol turned out to be a fascinating and lovely man, and I taught under his supervision for a semester. With a wide-ranging syllabus, our weekly sessions were freewheeling and exhilarating: Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss, Art Spiegelman and Jane Austen.
We quickly blew through our savings and the money we’d received for our wedding—some $10,000. But there were some major downsides. For one thing, we were broke. New Zealand is an expensive country, where a paperback book will run you $25 USD and a trip to the grocery store can lead to an encounter with a $10 head of cauliflower. We quickly blew through our savings and the money we’d received for our wedding—some $10,000—in part because the exchange rate kept moving against us.
We couldn’t afford more than a tiny, one-room student apartment (private bath, shared kitchen). And we were much too short on cash to travel outside Auckland—which meant the most beautiful, picturesque parts of the North Island, as well as the entire South Island, were out of reach.
Even more stressful than the cost of living was the remoteness of New Zealand—the very thing that had attracted me to it in the first place. When I’d pictured writing my thesis in New Zealand, I thought the isolation of living in the remote South Pacific would help me concentrate. I didn’t realize these same things would prove distracting—and that they’d drive Chris and me both a little crazy.
There’s an amazing (but scary) true story about Janet Frame, New Zealand’s greatest writer. In the early 1950s, she was being kept in a mental hospital on the South Island, and was just about to receive a lobotomy. Then her first book won a literary prize, so the doctors decided not to perform the operation. Not long afterward, she moved abroad, understanding that if she were to stay in New Zealand, she might get locked up again.
The physical distance between New Zealand and the rest of the world made me feel as if all of life were taking place elsewhere. Unlike Frame, my own tendencies toward anxiety and depression were never misdiagnosed as schizophrenia. But I also found it hard to function normally in my adopted new home. The physical distance between New Zealand and the rest of the world made me feel as if all of life were taking place elsewhere. It was painful to scroll through Facebook and see photos of all my buddies going to parties I’d be attending if I were home. After reading my dad’s loving emails, I’d put my head down on my desk and sob.
Most distressingly, my mother-in-law back home was receiving treatment for cancer. We worried about her constantly, and being so far away naturally exacerbated that worry.
You might think the digital age would make living on a remote island less crazy-making. In the 21st century, Robinson Crusoe could have just texted his friends back home and made funny Vines while waiting for his rescuers to arrive. It takes milliseconds, not months, for messages to reach far-flung friends and family. But for me, having the people I loved so close and yet still out of reach made me feel more lonely—not less.
And so when Chris and I finally moved home at the end of the year, we both felt incredible relief. The entire 18-hour plane ride, we were giddy. We couldn’t wait to resume our boring old menial jobs and our sometimes-complicated family relationships. Our grand adventure had made us newly appreciative of the lives we had back home.
This wasn’t the first or the last time that I’ve made a big move in an attempt to take a shortcut into a whole new life. Immediately after college, I spent a year living and working in Singapore. And in 2013, Chris and I moved to Australia’s Gold Coast, staying there for two years in a not-dissimilar pattern of bliss and pain.
Watching Tom Hanks in Castaway, I thought, “Hey, this looks exciting. Let’s fire up the laptop and see if Expedia has a package deal.” This behavior might seem troubling, as if I’m only dragging my cage from place to place even as I try to escape it. And sure, my wanderlust is motivated in part by deep-set, probably immutable personality flaws. I feel envious of literally everything—not just other people and their lives, but other countries’ mountains, trees, and even smells. And I covet every adventurous experience, no matter how terrible or grueling. Watching Tom Hanks in Castaway, I thought, “Hey, this looks exciting. Let’s fire up the laptop and see if Expedia has a package deal.”
But my desire to try out new places also comes from a real thirst for adventure, change and transformation. As the travel writer J. Maarten Troost puts it, “The desire to experience the far side of the world reflects the optimistic hope that a little skull-jarring dissonance could stir the soul.”
Living in New Zealand shook up my worldview in just the way Troost describes. It was liberating to separate the fantasy of the country—and of my mature, independent New Zealand self—from reality.
By now I understand that no place will ever be a cure-all for my problems. But I still haven’t quite learned my lesson. Earlier this year, I tried to convince Chris to leave our home in Virginia and relocate to Malta. “Picture this,” I crooned. “The blue Mediterranean, ancient ruins, and Rome just a quick flight away!”
Unfortunately, he said no. But I’m still working on him.
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