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Tania Bearsley and her family spent 15 years living in London. Finding themselves in NZ at the beginning of lockdown, they initially thought they’d extend their holiday for a few months but, as time went on, they made the decision to stay. Find out how this happened and where they are up to now.

What’s your story? How have you ended up unexpectedly living in NZ at this time?

Hubby & I were in NZ as part of our first ‘empty nester’ grand tour which we had embarked on in February. Our daughter had moved from London to Melbourne the previous December so we had planned a trip to visit her, celebrate a friend’s birthday in Samoa, attend a family wedding in NZ and have a week on the beach in Malaysia on the way back.

We were all, my daughter included, in NZ when the talk of lockdown started. We had been planning a research trip to Northland with view to scoping out whether that could be a place to live when we eventually returned to live in NZ – which at that time we were anticipating was about two to three years away. Unfortunately, due to a family bereavement, we didn’t make that trip and instead headed to Hawkes Bay to be with family during that time, and then on to Wellington as talk of “get home or stay put” messaging started from both NZ and UK governments.

Once talk of a potential lockdown started, our first priority was to get our daughter back to Melbourne and the life she was starting to build there. She set off on 22nd March but was denied boarding at Auckland airport because the Australian authorities refused to let her in. So she came back to stay in Wellington with us thinking we could work through proving her residency in Australia and get her on a future flight. Unfortunately, within a few days, she was made redundant so that effectively brought her Australian life to an unexpected end.

My husband and I had been watching the global travel situation since January, and as further border closures began we were trying to figure out if it would be best to stay put for a while or to try and travel back to the UK. In the end the uncertainty over whether we’d be able to transit through Australia & Malaysia meant we decided to stay for another month, at that stage thinking we would head back to our UK lives in late April or early May.

When we got into level three, we started making a Pros & Cons list for staying in NZ vs. going back to the UK. By this stage my husband had seen his contract opportunity in the UK disappear as people were made redundant, while I was lucky to be able to continue working remotely on my role with Kea New Zealand and another project I had on. Staying with family also meant we had reduced outgoings so could manage, financially, on one salary. That tipped the balance in NZ’s favour from a practical perspective, while the increasing uncertainty over what we’d be going back to led us away from the decision to return to the UK.

Finally, in level two we made the heart-wrenching decision to step away from our London life and focus on building a new life here in NZ. It was a total emotional rollercoaster and the hardest decision either of us have ever had to make.

Tania Bearsley and family, 2020

How have you experienced this process of transition? Positives & negatives
My overwhelming feeling of this time has been of living in a transit lounge for the past five months. This was especially so during level four lockdown when I was essentially locked away in an office for two months with virtually no contact with the local community. I had this really strange feeling that I only existed online.

It’s been really hard to tell our UK based friends that we’re not coming back and it’s taking us some time to connect physically with the local community, especially since most of my work and a lot of our socialising still takes place online. We haven’t pushed ourselves in regard to this because we know it’s important to give ourselves time to make the adjustment to physically living in NZ. More recently though, we have been socialising more locally which is helping us feel more connected to where we live now.

The whole experience has been a real seesaw of emotion. For every person in the UK who is sad to see us go, there’s a NZ based friend or family member who is really happy to have us stay. We’re coming to terms with the fact that the professional lives we spent 15 years building in the UK have ended and now we’re having to reimagine what our careers will look like going forward. That’s both scary and exciting.

We’ve felt really lucky at all the people in NZ who have reached out to help. Everyone wants to give guidance and help out practically where they can. This has been a really different experience to when we first moved to the UK and, other than the amazing friend who housed us when we first moved there, you really do have to figure everything out on our own. Logistics and legalities, like opening bank accounts and renewing a driver’s licence, are also so easy here which has really helped on the practical side of things.

One of the things that’s been both easy and hard at the same time, was deciding where we want to live. For now the Northland dream is on hold – to be reviewed in a year or two – with the priority being to find a place to live that provides good job prospects and easy proximity to family. That meant Wellington was the obvious choice for us.

But, the hard part was that, initially our criteria for ‘where in Wellington’ was a list of things that would let us replicate our London life to a certain extent. What I mean by that is that we were thinking we’d want to be in the heart of downtown, close to the theatre and other cultural events so we could still enjoy being part of a city vibe.

But as time went on, and downtown options didn’t work out for one reason or another, we started to review our criteria and actually realised that wasn’t the right choice for us in terms of the life we wanted to create in NZ. So instead, we’ve opted to move back to the place we left 15 years ago which is out of the city and on the coast. This is a much closer fit to the lifestyle we want to have in NZ and, most importantly, our new house will let me enjoy one of my favourite views in the world.

How have you managed the ambiguity of the situation?
We do feel so lucky to have a safe place to stay with family at this time. This has meant we were able to move out of survival mode relatively quickly and focus instead on setting up for the next phase. I know my parents love having us home, just not sure they expected us to stay for 5 months.

My husband and I are both project planners in our day jobs so that’s the approach we’ve taken to managing the practicalities of this move. Once we had made the difficult emotional decision to stay, we created a formal Project Plan which we use as a living document to map out and complete all the tasks involved in both winding up our UK life and creating our NZ life at the same time.

One of the things we have had to accept is that we need a lot of other people to help us implement the decision we have made and that we can’t control every aspect ourselves. For example, we’ve needed to negotiate with our UK landlord about ending our lease early, with the rental property company about vacating the property and, organise a shipping company to go and pack up our stuff.

We had to find a new home for our London kitty which, emotionally, was one of the hardest things but we’ve had amazing support from our UK based friends who have stepped in to help where they can.

Some days have been really difficult. There was one day where we had so many plates spinning and all of them out of control. My husband and I sat down and pragmatically went through the list to see if there was anything else we could do to try and regain a sense of control of the situation. We realised that the only thing we could do was decide where in NZ we wanted to live, so we made that decision a priority and let the other things go for a while. Making that decision actually turned out to be a catalyst moment from which other things started to fall into place.

One of the other things that has helped is getting the local life admin under control. Because we lived in London for so long, neither my daughter nor myself had a current driver’s licence. Since coming back, she has passed her learner’s licence and I’ve renewed my restricted. We joke that we’re having a competition to see who can qualify to a full licence first which is a bit of fun.

Have you made any decisions about the place of NZ in your future? Do you feel like you have now moved home ‘for good’?
Yes, I do feel like we are home for good. Our plan was always to move back to NZ as our forever home in about two to three years. We’ve accepted that, for the time being, our NZ life is not going to be quite what we had envisaged but we’re OK with that.

In the future, when the borders open up, we will go back to creating a life that involves lots of overseas travel and ongoing adventures but, for now, we’re excited to explore what NZ has to offer, both from a personal and professional point of view.

It’s also really interesting to be here and be experiencing NZ through the eyes of a nearly 50 year old, which is so different to the experience I had of NZ when I was in my 30s. I’m jumping at opportunities I wouldn’t normally explore and am finding that I’m getting great pleasure out of things I wouldn’t have in the past. For example, spending time with our younger family members has become a great source of joy, equal to what I used to feel when exploring some of the world’s greatest tourist spots. Reconnecting with family has been really special.

As I said, the Northland dream is on hold for a while but we are still committed to creating a NZ life that is less busy than our lives in the UK. In that regard, the place we’ve chosen to live is the perfect mid-step. It’s coastal and has a lovely village life but it’s also only half an hour by train from Wellington and all of the great city-stuff that we still enjoy.

What advice would you give to others in a similar situation?
It’s OK to have days when everything doesn’t feel so great. It’s OK to reach out and ask for help and connect to others who are going through the same thing. That might mean joining a facebook group like Kiwis Migrating Home or making more connections face to face. Realise that you are not alone and that all of us going through this experience can help each other out.

Even though you will have to make quick decisions, try to spend some time thinking about the life you want to create within this new reality. Think of it like moving to a new country and remember that you are coming back with the riches of the experiences you gained overseas. These will be really valuable to you as you set up for the next phase of your life, here in NZ.

This story was created by Tricia Alach, creator of the How To Have A Happy Homecoming blog, check it out for more stories of Kiwis coming home and resources for making a smooth transition back.  

Offshore Strategy Director 

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Part 12