When we came home in March this year, we had to reach four “bases” before I would let myself believe it was actually happening. The first base was our plane taking off from Heathrow. That was easier said than done. We collected a small folder stuffed with paperwork, departure forms and supporting documents and Covid tests. Our first flight was cancelled just weeks before we were due to fly; we hastily shelled out and rebooked with Qatar Airways, to bet on a new horse.
We self-isolated for two weeks beforehand, got our Covid-19 tests 72 hours before flying. When we got the email saying we were negative for Covid, I burst into tears. We got to Heathrow for our 8am flight, waited nervously as the woman at the check-in desk tried to put a call through to Brisbane International to check whether we would be allowed into Australia. The first phone didn’t work; neither did the second. It took her several phones and several minutes to make the call, each more nerve-wracking than the last.
The second base was our plane landing in New Zealand, the pilot saying, “Welcome to Auckland.” The third base was putting my head down on the pillow in our MIQ hotel room (where, instead of working on my novel or engaging in other grand plans, I spent afternoons watching Pitbulls and Parolees on Animal Planet). The fourth base was hugging my mum.
Now we’re here, it’s easy to forget that we so nearly weren’t. Being back in New Zealand feels like being on another planet, as we join the rest of the country living a relatively normal life, observing the pandemic from a distance. I kept reassuring myself that this trip was justified. We had been away for two years; we needed to see family; other people were travelling too. But I still felt guilty for leaving, knowing others would come with us if they could.
On being there, by Adam
The painstaking process of Getting Back Home capped off a difficult twelve months. We’d moved to London to study and work in theatre, and after six months in the city we were remarkably, impossibly living those dreams: I was studying towards my Masters in Dramaturgy at Goldsmiths University of London, while Harriet was working for the Olivier Awards. Harriet was hooked into a new improv troupe, I was interviewing theatre makers I’d only dreamed about talking to for my dissertation. We were lucky to begin our time in London staying with family, and we were looking for a place of our own.
When the initial lockdown hit, we hunkered down with Harriet’s brother and his family in rural Norfolk. We moved back to London three months later in June, flatting with a friend from New Zealand. I lost my job in July; Harriet was furloughed until August, and the rest of the year we battled depression and unemployment. I worked in customer service for an online grocery for two months, (regrettably) working through Harriet’s birthday and my online graduation. Making better choices, Harriet opened an art store and wrote her first novel.
We lived with the ambient anxiety of Covid-19, the fear of catching it and infecting someone else. We worried about picking it up on the train to Norfolk; I had panic attacks in Morrisons about catching it in the packed aisles and tight queues. Harriet told me that she was habitually smelling her coffee each morning, just in case she’d lost her sense of smell.
Instead of going to the cinema or hanging out at the pub, we took very long walks around North London suburbs – but everyone else was doing that too, and I know I annoyed Harriet every time I insisted we cross the road to avoid crowds in Haringay or in Highbury Fields. Every cough in our vicinity was like a siren. That kind of persistent low-level panic wears you out; our patience and sense of security frayed at the edges.
The last two months have been like a plunge pool after a sauna: bracing, rejuvenating, almost exciting in their shock. Here, we’re able to go to cozy haunts like BATS and Deluxe and the Embassy without worrying that we might slip up and become a Super Spreader, a risk to the community and people we love. We’ve travelled without limits, visiting family in Auckland and attending my sister’s wedding in the Pohangina Valley.
These are the headline changes, the easy things that we lead with when people ask us “what’s different?”. It’s harder to explain the biggest benefit: the release of pressure.
On being home, by Harriet
Coming home was incredibly overdue and emotional. We were away from our family and friends in New Zealand for almost two years. Seeing them after such a long time was jarring; how do you sum up your experience?
The strange thing is we didn’t often have to. I was prepared for a barrage of questions about what our year had been like, but the truth is that people haven’t asked us all that much. I remember asking Adam, “Do you feel that people here only want to talk about their own lockdowns?” It makes me feel like a deep-sea diver hearing someone talk about their swimming lessons, but I can understand where it comes from.
Our return coincided with the one-year anniversary of the first New Zealand lockdown, when everyone was nostalgic for their Kiwi lockdown: temporary, short, sunny, warm. Our experience challenged that perception. Our lockdown didn’t fit neatly into their past tense. But ours is not the only one that doesn’t fit, and even as precarious workers we’ve been lucky compared to so many: essential workers, those living in poverty, those for whom home is not a safe place.
Early in the pandemic, I remember worrying about this chasm, this gap between what we were experiencing in the UK and what our friends and whanau were experiencing in New Zealand. This disconnect has been isolating and tough to navigate. People have been talking about the hard work they’ve done to keep New Zealand Covid-free as though people in other countries aren’t also doing that work, even if that work is being compromised by government mismanagement, social media misinformation, and media run by corporate ghouls. It felt like the Team of Five Million were choosing players, and those of us living overseas were being left out. I have dual citizenship; the question of home is more complex for me. It was like being caught in the middle of your parents arguing.
On going back, by both of us
People are shocked when we tell them that we’re going back. They ask us why when it’s so safe here, it’s so bad over there.
We’ve been telling them that we don’t feel like we’re done yet, which is half an answer. We fell in love with London and the life we had there. The six months we had before lockdown were wonderful and exciting and expanded our creative minds, and that isn’t something that just disappears. Even during lockdown, even when life has been radically different, we’ve found light in dark places.
We started a book club with some Kiwi friends who live around the corner from us, hosting intimate dinners and sticking it out even when we’ve been forced to meet on Zoom. Harriet started cycling, exploring the city’s remarkable cycleway network with friends. We gathered the people we could for Adam’s birthday – he was the only one of all our friends who had a birthday out of lockdown – huddled (in a socially distanced way) around the brazier in our backyard. We’ve discovered inner strength, skills we didn’t know we had.
It isn’t an easy equation, black and white, New Zealand good and everywhere else bad. We uprooted ourselves because we wanted to experience life in a new country, to challenge ourselves and learn more about our chosen craft and why we’re doing it. There’s still so much left for us to explore and we’re hopeful – though not without reservation – that there might still be opportunities for us there.
We don’t want to leave the UK before we’re ready. We’ve felt a lot of skepticism, judgment, and condescension for that decision. It’s common to hear people talk about New Zealand like it’s a fortress, like it’s safe behind the walls and everywhere else is troubled, unsafe ground. But it’s more complicated than that. We have family and loved ones in both places, support to carry us through. Troubled ground can still be a home, can still feed you and enrich you.
We’ll be ready to settle back down here soon, in a few years perhaps. We’re just not there yet.
Harriet Hughes is a writer, artist and theatre maker from Wellington. Harriet grew up in Shropshire in the UK, and moved to Wellington as a teenager. Before moving to London, Harriet previously worked as a family lawyer for a number of years.
Adam Goodallis a freelance writer, copywriter, critic and dramaturg from Ashhurst. He was previously the Theatre Editor of the Pantograph Punch and has been published at a number of other New Zealand and international outlets. He has a Masters in Dramaturgy and Writing for Performance from Goldsmiths University of London, with a focus on new writing development.