After spending September – January in almost constant motion, the past five weeks in Mount Maunganui, New Zealand have provided a delightful taste of “normal” life for the Demers family. Since the beginning of February, we have been living in a rental home across the street from one of New Zealand’s best beaches and just down the road from the public schools that the girls are attending. We have had exactly two cloudy days (one with some light rain) since our arrival, and the summer temperatures here hover between 70 and 80 degrees. We couldn’t have picked a better spot in which to settle down for February and March; we are indebted to our Kiwi friend back home, Tania Marino, for suggesting this region of New Zealand to us and putting us in touch with her close friends who live here and helped us get settled!
The first thing we did when we arrived at our new home was to unpack everything in our bags, dump it all on the floor in a giant pile, and start the laundry. This was one of Blair’s favorite moments of the trip (ha!). We were amazed at what trickled out of the deepest pockets and secret zippers of each bag. Shell fragments from Kenya’s eastern shoreline (gathered in October and promptly forgotten about), unwritten postcards from our September days in Scandinavia, an item of clothing that perhaps had been worn once since our departure yet somehow was still taking up coveted space, and, in Thayer’s case, piles of small, pink plastic treasures and way too many stuffed animals that she had been steadily collecting and hoarding over the course of the past five months.
We only had four days to really settle in here before the first term of school started on February 3rd. We spent those days frantically shopping for some new clothes, locating a school uniform for Schuyler, purchasing a car (in NZ, buying used and then selling is much more economical than renting for 2 months), stocking our cabinets and fridge with school lunch supplies, and generally adjusting to our new surroundings.
Before we knew it, the first day of school was upon us and with it came a familiar routine of waking up to an alarm in the morning, packing school lunches, managing school notices that come home each day in backpacks, and making decisions about extracurricular activities, playdate options, etc. We are going to do a completely separate post about the girls’ school experiences, all of which have been fantastic, because they have so much to say about it. For now, we’ll just say that they are having “heaps” of fun and seem like regular little kiwi kids!
LIFE IN “THE MOUNT”
Mount Maunganui (affectionately known as “The Mount”) is a suburb of the city of Tauranga on the North Island’s east coast. Named for the small mountain that sits at the north end of the beach, The Mount is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and is teeming with hikers, joggers, paragliders, and of course, surfers galore. We can cycle to the base of the mountain in about 10 minutes, and the hike to the top takes between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on whether we have kids in tow.
What do we DO all day, you might wonder, now that we are glued to one spot for a while? Well, for starters, we spend a lot of time enjoying the beach. Zoe and Jeff made a pact to swim in the ocean every single day and thus far have stuck to their goal, albeit sometimes taking their dip in the pitch dark at the end of a busy day. Zoe has a calendar on her wall and is systematically checking off the days after each swim, so this is a serious goal.
Jeff and all three of the girls have enjoyed some surfing lessons (particularly Schuyler and Zoe) and in between trying to catch waves the girls are learning so much about how to safely swim in big swells. It will be fun for them to bring their skills home to NH this summer and continue to enjoy the ocean in our neck of the woods.
There is a sport in this part of the world called “Surf Lifesaving,” and the girls were invited by some new local friends to participate for a couple of Sundays to see what it’s all about. The concept originated in Australia in the early 1900’s in response to the need to develop volunteer lifesavers to prevent ocean accidents and drownings. Surf Lifesaving has since become a competitive sport in addition to a vehicle for training lifeguards, and the junior program in which the girls participated has become a very popular summer sport for New Zealand’s youth. The sport includes events both on the beach and in the ocean, and it was fascinating to join in the classes for a couple of weekends and get a taste of life as a budding kiwi surf lifesaver!
ADDITIONAL FEBRUARY HAPPENINGS….
The month of February brought two important holidays: Jeff’s 40th birthday and Valentine’s Day. We celebrated both with cozy family parties at home, enjoying the benefits of having a kitchen in which to drum up a “caramel birthday cake” per Jeff’s request, and to concoct some very pink cupcakes on the 14th!
JEFF: One of my most prized birthday gifts was a coupon book from Thayer, filled with homemade promises for various delights such as “doing the dishs,” and “free 10 minuts foot massaj.” My personal favorite was a coupon that read “complments on yur clothz for a week,” which was promptly followed up by a bedtime note under my pillow that read “i like yur pjs.” So I may be going grey and entering a new decade, but at least Thayer promised to remind me that I am still stylin’ for 7 straight days.
BLAIR: Once again, a holiday away from home and some surprising revelations about how a different country celebrates. Valentine’s Day is recognized here in New Zealand but seems to be geared toward couples, perhaps in a way that it used to be celebrated in the U.S. before we injected some steroids into it. Schools here do not throw Valentine’s Day parties in the classrooms, nor do children bring in individual Valentine cards for all of their classmates. Store windows aren’t adorned with hearts and cupids, and the supermarket aisles are empty of Valentine-themed candy. Yes, there were some displays of heart-shaped boxes of chocolates near the check out lines, and some bouquets of red roses for sale, but the consumerism and frenzy around Valentine’s paraphernalia just doesn’t exist here. The focus seemed to be more of a gentle reminder to recognize the love in your life, whatever shape or form that takes. Similar to my experiences around Halloween in S. Africa and Christmas in Australia, I was once again struck by the depth to which our society has taken on a consumer and marketing mentality around our holidays. It was relaxing to just find a few little heart-shaped treats and decorations for the girls, and to write each other heartfelt Valentine’s cards that we exchanged over dinner.
A SPECIAL VISITOR
The month of February also brought a short but VERY sweet visit from Blair’s Aunt, Jean Beard, who had been traveling in New Zealand with a friend for a couple of weeks and lovingly tacked on a few extra days to visit us in our new digs. The girls practically bowled her over when she got off the plane in Tauranga, and we relished every minute of our two days with her!
Thank you, Aunt Jean, for such a fabulous visit! Once again, we feel such gratitude for family visitors who bring with them the familiarity and love of home. How lucky we have been to see many members of our family throughout this time abroad.
For a few other examples of how we spend our free time…
While we haven’t taken any big road trips since settling down here, we have taken a few side trips including this one to McLaren Falls. Our new kiwi friends (thanks to Tania back home!), the Carr-Manoits, invited us along on a hike to this waterfall in a lush nature reserve. We hiked down to the waterfall and then and tested our bravery by jumping off a cliff into the cold waters below.
We also take time to explore our local area on bikes. Just down the beach, before you get to the actual Mount, there is Leisure Island that you can wander and climb around on. Here are some photos of our little field trip out there one evening before dinner.
The girls have also spent time getting to know their new friends, with playdates after school and slumber parties on the weekends.
We have loved having our own kitchen after so many January days in holiday parks on the South Island, and we make good use of it! Zoe and Schuyler have been cooking and baking up a storm (literally, when they are done it looks like a cyclone landed).
While Schuyler and Zoe have decided not to pursue any extracurricular activities other than school and occasional weekend surfing lessons, Thayer has signed herself up for every possible opportunity that comes her way. School choir? Yep. Junior Hip Hop class before school on Tuesday mornings? Yep. Gymnastics? Yep. “Kapa Haka” Maori Cultural Club? Yep! She’s game for it all, and seems to be loving it. Thankfully, most of this takes place during her school day as opposed to after 3pm. Perhaps it is because of Thayer’s age (6) that these demands on her time feel exciting and welcome. For the older two, who in their lives back home have weeks packed with sports practices, music lessons etc., their inclination here has been to completely eliminate all the demands on their time and just “chill.”
And what about the parents? What are we doing with our five hours of free time every day? Aaaahhhhhh. Exercise. The nomadic lifestyle is full of lattes and croissants, but not so much time in a gym or for sweat-inducing hiking, jogging, or walks on the beach. We are making up for lost time in this regard. We have coffee and lunch dates during which we actually start, enjoy, and finish a conversation or even two conversations! We are meeting and getting to know other parents here. Jeff is exploring the world of architecture and design in this area, chatting with local builders and professionals to learn about their systems, trends and materials. We are deeply focused on trip planning for our upcoming spring months in Asia. We are connecting with friends and family back home via phone, Skype and email. Jeff has volunteered already at the girls’ schools as a chaperone for Zoe’s bike safety course and a helper in Schuyler’s robotics class. Blair has spent time doing brief classroom observations to get a better sense of a day in the life of a Kiwi student. And, for Blair, a nice hiatus from the blog (sorry about that to our loyal readers) and lots of reading time. For Jeff, diligent work…. on his golf game. Here is the photo to prove it.
It has been important for us to have leisure time away from the kids, and also to a certain extent, away from each other. We can finally breathe a little better with all the personal space, mental space, peace and quiet that comes with the school routine after so many months without time off from parenting. Of course, as is true back home, the time while the kids are actually in school always flies by and Jeff and I often look at each other at 2:45 and wonder where the day went. This is one phenomenon that remains static among the many differences in our lives as pseudo Kiwis.
BLAIR’S MUSINGS ON LIFE IN SLOW MOTION (OR NO MOTION)
Putting down roots in the Mount has been a gift to us all. We are recharging our batteries for the travel weeks ahead this spring. We are remembering what ‘normal’ life feels like in some respects, yet acknowledging some significant variations such as: two non-working parents to share primary care giving duties like grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, homework help, school drop offs and pick ups, etc.; almost no extracurricular activities for the kids which results in dramatically less frenzied afternoons. evenings and weekends; a lack of chronic interruptions from a ringing phone or the barrage of daily text messages we used to consider altogether normal; no house-related responsibilities (get that couch cleaned, call the pest control for the mouse infestation, manage the massive amount of clutter that infiltrates on a daily basis when life is super busy); no doctors or dentist appointments; no rushed attempts at exercise; no school volunteer meetings or functions to attend; hardly any errands to run (really, what do we need besides groceries?); and no driving for hours every day just to get the kids to and from their various schools and after school activities! We almost feel like actors on some kind of movie set, pretending to live a normal life but without all the trappings of a normal life. If we were going to be here for longer than 2 months, we surely would have a lot more on our plates as we’d have to integrate more deeply into our existence here, investing time in career pursuits, personal relationships, extracurriculars, and the list goes on. But for now, we are taking the easy path at every turn, using this time to get to know a place while we get to shake off a little travel fatigue. We feel about as happy with our decision to settle down here for 9 weeks as we look in this “selfie.”
And yes, we spend a fair amount of time contemplating Jeff’s hair, which hasn’t seen a pair of scissors since last August. All four of his ladies are encouraging him to go the distance on this one.
I must say, as much as Jeff and I have been immersed in a great deal of “down time” here, Schuyler, Zoe and Thayer have been immersed in an intense social, cultural, and academic experience during their weeks in the local public schools. Schuyler attends the Mount Intermediate School as a Year 7 student (equivalent to something between 5th and 6th grade at home) with close to 600 other 11-13 year olds. Zoe and Thayer attend the Mount Primary School with 480 other K-5th graders. All three girls have come from a small Montessori school at home, so the combination of a new country (complete with strange terminology like “togs” which means bathing suit or “interval” which means recess), a new academic structure and teaching style, and a very big pool of unfamiliar faces from which to find friends, has resulted in quite a heavy load of adjusting for them. They have embraced it and then some…. Jeff and I are really proud of how quickly and happily they have integrated into Kiwi school life. They now ask if they can bring a “mate” home from school, or holler things like “I can’t find my togs!” on the mornings when they have swimming for PE class. Resiliency and adaptability — kids are better at this than adults for sure.
A brief glimpse of the school post to come, in photos…
I’ve let the girls off the hook on this post as far as personal comments are concerned, as they are in charge of the school-related entries to come (hopefully soon). On a final note, Jeff and I have updated our itinerary to include the following stops during the months of April, May, and part of June: Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, China, Japan, Hawaii… then HOME. Our 10 months abroad are steadily slipping by – so much to see and do still, but it’s amazing to think that we are well over half way into this adventure.
As always, thank you for tuning in!