We talk to locals whose lives abroad were turned upside down by Covid-19, and although they returned to the relative freedom of Aotearoa, their homecomings include some complex emotions.
“Having been in various lockdowns for ten months in the UK and then coming to a place where
it’s pretty much life as usual, I have really appreciated the smallest of things — the birdsong, time
in nature, family time, ginger crunch!” says Fran Bailey, who made the decision to head home to Mount Maunganui in December last year, after living in London for nearly a decade, .
“I left the Mount in 2012 thinking I’d be in London for three to five years, but that turned into nine years!” she says. “A winter of lockdown in the UK was starting to take a toll on my mental health
and my work [running her own PR business], so I was really weighing up my options.”
Since Covid-19 first began to throw the world into disarray just over a year ago, thousands of
Kiwis like Fran have chosen to up sticks and head home. While overall they’re relieved to be back
in New Zealand, close to friends and family and in relative freedom and safety from the virus,
many arrive with some fairly complex emotions and often a big dose of uncertainty.
“It wasn’t straightforward getting back here,” Fran says, “and I made the decision to leave quite
last minute. My boyfriend decided to stay in London, and I felt a bit like I was abandoning everyone
in what was a really difficult time, especially knowing many would be spending Christmas by themselves. But at the end of the day, you have to do what you think is best for you.
“Right up to the last minute, I didn’t know whether my flight would actually go ahead — airlines
were cancelling flights all the time and if they did that you’d lose your MIQ spot, which is like a
lottery ticket. There were so many stories of devastated families who’d left their jobs, sold their houses, packed up their lives, only for borders to shut and have their flights cancelled. So I felt extremely lucky and grateful when I set foot on New Zealand soil.”
For fellow former locals Mike Cassidy and wife Sharon Ward, leaving Dubai, which had been home
for so many years (15 for Sharon, 13 for Mike, who followed Sharon after finishing up an apprenticeship), was already on the cards. But the global pandemic meant changing plans from
an adventure travelling in a 4x4 around Central and South America with their two daughters
Safie, 8, and Jett, 6, to heading back to New Zealand to recalibrate.
They returned, however, in possibly the best way imaginable — as a Christmas surprise for their families, having managed to keep the entire enterprise completely secret right up until they walked through the doors of their parents’ homes. “There was screaming and crying and laughing,’’ says Sharon. “The best reaction ever. It was absolute gold!”
And despite living for so long in Dubai, the pair admit that no one in their family is really missing
it much. “Dubai never really locked down like the UK has, but it never got out of what you’d call
level 2, level 3 for New Zealand. So we have had some flexibility but obviously it has just not been pleasant,” she says.
Safie and Jett, who Mike says were already “fairly well used to travel,” have transitioned well to
life in the Bay. “They love it, they absolutely love it,” says Sharon. “I think the biggest joy for them
is bare feet, no masks, running around with family, and it’s just completely unrestricted. Obviously
at this time of year it’s so beautiful, and to be here just lapping up a Mount summer, and then after
all the busyness of summer, to still be around and to see it quieter, walking on the beach and
having it to yourself…”
Adrienne Pitts, another returnee from London, says she did want to come back “at some point” but that the global pandemic definitely forced her hand. “I’m the first to admit I didn’t want to come back to New Zealand, in that I wanted it to be on my terms, I wanted it to be when I was ready,” she says.
“London, it was really, really bad, it was becoming really scary, so it took me a few months before
I stopped panicking. I’d walk into a crowded cafe here and have to remind myself it was okay.”
“I think it was about four or five months into lockdown in London and I was in the four walls of my flat… You can’t really go out and do anything — I wasn’t in London, I was in the four walls of my flat.
It was illegal to see my family and friends, and I was going through a really bad break up at the time as well, and to top it off, my dad’s health back here in New Zealand wasn’t the best. It all just sort of added up.”
It was emotional leaving what had, until the final months, been a “really wonderful” life she had established over nearly 14 years. However, Adrienne says, “the closer I got to it happening, the
more I was realising how bad things were in London.”
Being back in New Zealand also came with a fairly intense adjustment period, from getting used
to being physically close to other people, to having to start over with work and friendships knowing only a few people.
“In managed isolation in Auckland, I would look down at people on the street and think to myself, they’re not wearing masks and they’re all walking shoulder to shoulder — and that whole concept just freaked me out, because I’d become very used to really guarding my personal space. I mean London, it was really, really bad, it was becoming really scary, so it took me a few months before I stopped panicking. I’d walk into a crowded cafe here and have to remind myself it was okay,” she says.
“I grew up in Auckland, then basically left New Zealand when I was early 20s. My parents moved
to the Bay of Plenty about 20 years ago, so I’ve been coming here for Christmases for that long,
but I didn’t grow up here, I don’t know it like a local and I don’t know many people — I’ve got, like,
two friends here… So it’s definitely very humbling to be starting from scratch, both socially and
career wise — everything.
“My father actually unexpectedly passed away three weeks after I got back here, so I’m really
grateful I had those three weeks with my dad, but now my mum’s alone. I also have a brother here, and nephews and nieces who I adore, so I’m like, maybe these are all signs telling me to stick around for a longer period of time than I had thought.”
“It’s really wonderful to be home,” she says, “but I think when the life that you’ve made for yourself, that you were so happy with, just kind of disappears, there’s definitely an adjustment period, and
just learning to let go of what was and try to figure out what’s coming. Everything I thought was happening is no longer happening. I’m going to have to just go with the flow here…”
First published in issue 33 (April/May 2021) of Our Place magazine.