It’s just a long way to go: When expats’ fantasies of trips home meet reality

Almost every Kiwi who moves to London tries to soften the blow to family and friends by claiming they’ll regularly return. But, writes Elle Hunt in her regular Elleswhere column about life as an expat New Zealander, such hopes are rarely borne out.

Just before I left New Zealand again, my mother told the rest of my family that she thought she was only going to see me 16 more times before she died. She was, I think, being melodramatic about my pursuit of my career, which had led me first to Australia and now to the UK; and my dad’s dislike of flying, which made their coming to visit me unlikely.

My sisters and I already had an imperfect track record of attendance at Christmas: “2/3 ain’t bad,” she captioned a photo of them wearing party hats on Facebook on the day.

All the same, 16 seemed weirdly specific. I wondered – did she know when she was going to die? If so it seemed like a pedestrian use of her powers. And if not – well, the figure was in my mind now, a target to beat for all its questionable grounds. I would not be able to resist counting every time I saw Mum until we got to visit #17 and we could decisively put any question of her extrasensory perception behind us.

I know she resents the space between us, and so do I, often. It is hard to feel in touch with those you love in dribs and drabs of contact: the fortnightly call where you don’t know you’re on speaker until Dad bellows about “Mrs May” seven minutes in; the odd unsatisfactory Skype, their faces rendered impressionistic through pixellation.

I would like nothing more than an unhurried catch-up with my sisters, my parents, my old friends, perhaps over a date scone at Fidel’s or a chili cheese scone at Mojo’s – they could choose, as long as they chose one of those two. (You really cannot get anything like them over here.)

But any suggestion that I might visit soon makes my heart sink. The thing is: New Zealand is really far away.

To visit takes a sizeable chunk of cash and about a third of your annual leave balance, before you even get to spending 21 hours in a metal tube and the two to three days of waking death that follow.

When I left Australia and New Zealand in July last year I told friends I’d be back to visit eight months later, this March, partly as a deliberate strategy to tone down any emotional farewells. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back before you know it!” I said brightly, backing away as they had advanced with hugs. “It’s only a flight away!”

But I’d never flown 21 hours before.

When I finally landed at Heathrow – hollow-eyed, burgeoning spots, a nascent cold picked up somewhere over the Atlantic that would plague me for days, apparently hallucinating a harnessed cat on a luggage trolley (there was a harnessed cat on a luggage trolley, it turned out) – I swore: never again. Or, if not never: certainly not within a year. Eighteen months on, having finally recovered, it still feels too soon for a visit.

That is not a journey anyone undertakes lightly. (Apart from my flatmate, who once flew from Sydney to London twice in a six-week period, for weddings. The impact on his bank balance was significant and immediate; on his life expectancy, not yet known.)

To make it worthwhile, you’ve got to go for at least two weeks and while it is truly a joy to be reunited with friends and family, all the more for its infrequency – they have lives of their own. You meet them at Fidel’s or Mojo on their lunch break, then they go back to work and you’re left wandering the streets of Wellington on your own private and pointless audit of which shops have opened and which have closed down since your last visit. And all for six to eight times what you’d pay to spend a week on a Greek island.

Jetlag, time and money sound like an unforgivably feeble excuses for not making the effort to go home and see your family, I know; the best, most idealistic part of me curls up in revulsion every time I hear myself go over it again with Mum (“six to eight times!”).

But I have another reason for not wanting to go back to New Zealand, one I am less likely to volunteer: to make an international move work, you’ve got to invest in where you are.

For the first six months after I moved to Australia, I flew back to New Zealand every six weeks, because it was too cheap and too close not to. But it was too often. My new life didn’t feel real to me because I hadn’t properly let go of my old one. In hindsight I think it set me back on my path to seeing Sydney as home by about a year.

They say you can’t go home again, meaning that if you try to return to a place from your past you’ll inevitably fail. When home is nearly 20,000 km away you are less inclined to even attempt it. Sure, the distance is a barrier. But it is also a buffer. It’s easier to blag out of a visit claiming time or money, to say you don’t want to go back than it is to admit you’re afraid you wouldn’t want to leave.

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