I haven’t attended much recently to describing my experience of settling back into New Zealand. In the main, this is because restarting work and buying a house are time-consuming activities.
It is also not easy, I think, to get a clear handle on precisely what I feel. And, lest this be seen as a cop-out, confusion is probably the most honest description of this part of the resettlement process. Just as I found the process of deciding to return to New Zealand a rather bipolar experience – with my volition alternating between “London days” and “New Zealand days” – resettling is not linear, but volatile. Some days it seems clear that we have made a brave and wise choice to be part of our young homeland in the context of friends and family. Other days, particularly as the sky darkens early and the southerly continues churning up the harbour, the place can seem less welcoming. Compared to the bright lights of New York and London, the relative solitude amid the elemental, inky black, darkness can have a disconcerting mien; though it makes the stars seem much closer and luminous than I had remembered.
There is a series of clever adverts for HSBC which have recently adorned arrival terminals of international airports. They consist of two photographs, each described by different one-word captions; and then the same two photographs, in which the captions are reversed. The objective is to illustrate that values depend upon one’s point of view. An example is a picture of a full moon and a picture of the Earth as seen from the moon; each captioned, alternatively, “romance” and “madness”.
I am still at the stage where I am not sure whether a decision to live and work in New Zealand is romantic, mad, a masterstroke or merely routine. That is, I am still trying to unpick what is real and important in my experiences and what is ephemeral or merely a passing fancy. I suspect this can make me appear obtuse, or possibly evasive, when being kindly asked how I am finding things. The truth is that it depends very much on my precise mood when I am asked. In this way, it is a bit like being a teenager all over again. And just as teenagers tend to give non-committal replies to questions because they have not yet mastered their conflicting emotions, I’m not yet able to formulate a response, even to myself, which renders my different experiences and thoughts into a coherent and stable whole. Even if I could, it would take a good while to relate it.
To make matters even more confusing, after less than two months in the country, I have just spent two weeks working in Europe. If I thought it was strange getting used to the idea of living in Wellington again, it was positively surreal to find myself back in London, working with my former colleagues in my former office and catching up again with friends, but living now in a hotel and not a home. My last night in London consisted of a BBQ at a flat in Tooting. It was a great and memorable evening. But in terms of layers of significance, it resembled a Charlie Kaufmann screenplay. I was back in London, though living in and about to return to Wellington, sitting outside wrapped up against the chill on a windy night, with several dear friends who used to live in Wellington. There is no clear parable to this encounter; it was just all very self-reflexive.
Its effect was to make me feel elated, even through the hangover and tedium of a flight back; and then flat, even though I was returning to my first night in my new house which my wife had heroically moved us into during my ill-timed absence. It was clear to me that that day that my reactions to everything – from the blue and white walkway between the Auckland terminals, which seemed a perfect emblem of homecoming; to our lovely new home, which, despite containing the reassembled pieces of our former lives, seemed somehow bereft – were being coloured a lack of balance and stability in my judgments and feelings.
The best word for what I am experiencing is dislocation; in the sense of not being fully connected with where I now live. As I sit here, trying to think through the fog of jet-lag, it strikes me that the dislocation is itself a form of jet-lag; a consequence of living between different places and not being fully in sync with any of them. Of course, it was partly this nagging feeling which led me to decide to return home. While that may indeed be the cure, it doesn’t have immediate effect. My sense, though, is that a period of short-term confusion is a necessary step along the pathway to long-term happiness.
This, I think, is the great difference between coming home and moving to a new place which carries no emotional significance. Wellington has many objective merits: it is attractive, energetic, cosmopolitan and navigable. But to a returning Wellingtonian, these merits are filtered, unevenly and unpredictably, through a web of recollection and emotional response. Just as the thought of the green belt, the blue harbour and a good flat white are powerful forces drawing one back, Wellington is also inhabited by ghosts of people who now live elsewhere, and bears the burden of having to live up to one’s present-day aspirations, which have in the meantime been moulded by other places. Just as with getting over jet-lag, there is no quick fix; the best approach is just to get out there and engage. And eventually, I figure, the fog will clear.