Bye-bye, Berkeley

By Annie Keig

There’s paint on my laptop. I’ve spilt paint on my laptop. Maybe if I let it dry, my computer won’t die and I can keep watching Ironman

This is what went through my head as a cup of paint sloshed over my keyboard. Like everyone else in lockdown, I bounced between hobbies trying to distract myself from the special cocktail of boredom and loneliness I was choking on. I made greeting cards out of coffee-table books, took up poetry, attempted sourdough bread and decided to paint some op-shop finds. All these hobbies did nothing to curb my existential dread, so I added one more thing to my plate: A Netflix Party Marvel Movie marathon with a friend back home in the US. I flew too close to the multitasking sun and nearly destroyed my laptop – one of my few tethers to the outside world and home. 

I spent the weeks before lockdown in decision paralysis. While everyone else scrambled to get somewhere safe, I tried to decide what to do. Stay in Wellington or go home to California? California with my older-than-usual parents, surrounded-by-fires sister, and sweet, forgetful 97-year-old Grandpa. Back to the States, which were literally and figuratively on fire. Everyone I asked told me to stay put.  The world started talking Covid-19 seriously. Fellow travellers rushed back to their respective countries. Three French friends decided to go to Indonesia before heading back to France. Some of my Kiwi friends started filling their freezers with legs of lamb.

When Wellington went into lockdown, I was packing web orders at Unity Books. ABBA played over the speakers as Jacinda announced Level 4 and my coworkers started calling their families. Knowing me, knowing you (a-ha). Overnight, families were shut into their homes or flats. The borders closed and everyone that didn’t make it under the wire was shut out. I was locked in. Or rather, I watched the door closing and didn’t move. That’s how I think about my decision not to go home.

I got lucky because I fell in love with Wellington’s hills. They reminded me of Berkeley, CA. I found a small flat with a garden on Mt. Victoria and landed a job at the bookstore. With super fires, riots, inflammatory tweets, and a global pandemic, the contrast between New Zealand and home was surreal. For four weeks, I wrote cheerful book reviews, took artsy photos for the company instagram, went for runs along the waterfront, and listened to news from home in absolute horror.

There’s an odd survivor’s guilt that comes with not being in one’s country during a global pandemic – like I cheated by not experiencing the hardships that my friends and family did or that I somehow conspired to be in the safest place on earth when the shit hit the fan. I could have gone home, but who would be stupid enough to give up the safety of New Zealand in a pandemic? On the other hand, who could be selfish enough not to go home and be with their family? 

It’s hard to say where home is for me now. When I arrived in New Zealand in February 2020, I thought “one and done”– one year and that’s it. Well, it’s been two years in New Zealand and three years away from California. How long can you spend in a place before it sticks? 

I think a lot about home these days. Sometimes vivid memories burst into my brain. I see white daisy bushes and I’m back in my Grandpa’s garden, petting a cat and eating fajitas in the sun. Berkeley has a specific smell and soundscape; I hear a train and I’m transported to nights spent on Grizzly Peak overlooking the hundred thousand lights of San Francisco.

I’ve been thinking about choices and how they ripple out – like a flowchart made of dominos. I topple one, and boom – a path forms out of my control. All the things that I thought were temporary turned out to be foundations of a life. I stayed. I worked in a bookshop. I heard about the Whitireia Publishing Program. I got accepted. I moved to the waterfront. I found a cafe, a favourite sandwich, the perfect milkshake, the best place for karaoke, camping spots, running trails, bike paths, and an incredible network of outrageous friends. In choosing to stay, I chose to build a home instead of returning to one.

Annie Keig is a California-to-Wellington transplant. A current student of the Whitireia Publishing Graduate diploma, she pledges her eternal allegiance to the en dash and can be found reading textbooks on the beach, biking along the waterfront, and doing her best not to get caught in the rain. 

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