I am a firm believer that a good, 20-second hug with a loved one can make you feel calmer and happier. Hugging is likely to release oxytocin, one of the trio of neurotransmitters called the “happy hormones” along with dopamine and serotonin. Whether science can back this up or not, a good hug with someone you care about always gives you that toasty, peaceful feeling.
I love that feeling, but over the past year or so I could count the number of proper hugs I had on one hand.
I moved from Wellington to the Sunshine Coast in Australia on January 6th, 2020. When people have asked me how long I’ve been here, this date brings a moment of realisation: “Oh shit.” This is compounded when I tell them that I moved here on my own and that, no, I didn’t know a single person on the Sunshine Coast when I arrived. Everything was challenging but fine for two months. I found somewhere to live, started my job, and met colleagues who would eventually become friends. But then the borders slammed shut. My flights home for Easter were cancelled and I was suddenly in lockdown on my own, in a new country, for nearly 60 days.
This is my first time living overseas, but I think that moving to Australia is very different from the more traditional OE. When you move to the other side of the world, you’re probably more emotionally prepared to be gone for a while. But there are over 600,000 New Zealand citizens living in Australia and it’s only a four-hour flight away. When I moved here, I was comforted by the knowledge that if I needed to, I could just go home for the weekend. But it would be sixteen months before I could see my family again.
I booked my flights home two hours after Jacinda Ardern announced the Trans-Tasman Bubble. The second I clicked confirm I burst into tears. Sixteen months of resilience and saying with a smile “Yeah I’m okay,” cracked when I realised that I would get to hug my Mum again.
I cried when the plane took off. I cried when I caught my first glimpse of Aotearoa. I went into a kind of shock along with all the other passengers after we landed in Auckland and were told that there had been a breach at Brisbane airport, and some red zone passengers had gone into the green zone. But finally, after an incredibly long announcement, the MOH official said, “You are all considered low risk and can continue on your journey.” Throughout her speech the tension had been palpable. Then as one, over 200 people exhaled in relief. Every single person on that plane was desperate to see family that they had been separated from. I struggled to keep it together through customs and passport control. And finally walked through the arrivals gate.
Mum had already been there for forty minutes, watching endless reunions as two other planes from Australia landed. Parents seeing their children again, being introduced to new partners, siblings reuniting, grandparents meeting babies. She said it was like being stuck in the opening montage of Love Actually. I had thought about this moment for over a year. Imagining what it was going to feel like to hug someone I really loved was often how I got to sleep. As I walked through the gate, I saw my friends Paul and Acushla first, and then I saw Mum running towards me. They had all been talking about whether they were runners or waiters, and the second Mum saw that I was already crying, she knew she was a runner. Those sixteen months melted away during that hug. And every time I hugged family while I was home, or friends who had known me for years, it felt like cartoon hearts were exploding around me.
I was only home for a week, but I got to see my nephews and show them that Aunty Hannah doesn’t live in a screen. I sang and played music with my brother and sister; made pizza with my parents; had gin tastings in Rotorua; walked in the wonderfully cold Whakarewarewa forest; fed the ducks with my nephew in Masterton’s Queen Elizabeth Park; ate the best opera cake in the Wairarapa; and drove down the North Island on a blue sky day with a dusting of snow on Mt Ruapehu.
It was such a packed visit that I only had one day in Wellington. And in classic form, the commuter train from Featherston was replaced by a bus. I was gutted to miss that perfect train view as you depart the station in Petone and then suddenly Te Whanganui a Tara and the cityscape open up sumptuously in front of you. But to my delight, my day in Wellington had the perfect weather. Blue skies and sunny but with that sharp cold wind that I had actually missed. There are many days living in Queensland where I long for a good southerly to slap me in the face. It was emotional but also incredibly comforting. Walking around Victoria University’s Kelburn campus, the waterfront, and Cuba St was almost like an out of body experience. It seemed strange and yet utterly normal for me to be here. I may have only had a day, but I still managed to drink far too many coffees and delicious craft beers. And of course, I bumped into two separate people I knew on Cuba St, because that’s the rule.
After a week with just my family, my Wellington day was an explosion of hugs and tears with friends I love. I had an hour where I was alone, though. I sat in Goldings Free Dive and had a beer. It was a necessary moment to breathe and reflect. I realised that despite Goldings being one of my favourite Wellington bars I didn’t think this was something I had ever done before. Sitting in a favourite place by myself is something I do a lot in Australia. Standing in the water at Mooloolaba beach and watching the sunset over the ocean gives me the same toasty, peaceful feeling as a good hug. Wellington felt different this time, maybe because I’m different now, but still familiar. It doesn’t matter how many shop fronts change, how many new restaurants have popped up. I spent over a decade in this city, and it will always feel like home.
Leaving New Zealand again was difficult. Returning to Wellington airport felt like going back in time. I relived every moment of that morning when I said goodbye in January 2020. I wish I could give that version of me a massive hug. She had no idea what was ahead. This time around it was hard to not feel like I was going back to another year of separation. Even now that week in New Zealand feels a little like a dream. I think when family and friends come and visit me here, to see this life I’ve built, it will finally feel real.
I’ve never considered myself to be a particularly brave person. I think I’ve always had a fairy-tale idea that to be brave means that you’re never afraid. I know now that isn’t true. I’m often afraid, but I know that the thing that scares me is often what I need to push myself into. Except if that thing is dealing with a spider. I know my limits… Back in Australia there are times when I’m sitting in my apartment, surrounded by furniture that I put together by myself, and the magnitude and bravery of what I did and everything I survived hits me all at once. It’s a crashing wave of conflicting emotions. But it always retreats and I breathe out. I look around and know that I’m okay. New Zealand is always going to be my home, but I’ve made a new one here and it finally feels like mine.
Dr. Hannah Banks is an academic, theatre practitioner, and writer. She completed her PhD at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington in 2018. She is one of the founders of award-winning theatre company My Accomplice and was a recipient of The Richard Campion Accolade for Outstanding Performance at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards in Wellington in 2014. She also received a PGSA Postgraduate Teaching Award in 2017 for her work at Victoria. In 2020, Banks moved to Australia to take up a lecturing position in Theatre and Performance at the University of the Sunshine Coast.