It’s cold in Wellington.
Now, I know this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me; I mean, it is winter in New Zealand after all. I thought I had packed well– I had your basic warm fleece, rainproof shell, plenty of long sleeve shirts. I mean, I’m from northwest Wis-con-sin. I know cold.
Nope. I spent the first three days whimpering like a little wet pup. You see, I had looked at the temperature on my iPhone when I was sitting in 87 degree heat in Chicago thinking, “Ah, 45 degrees isn’t bad. Pssht. That’s nothing!” But there are two keys details I didn’t take into account:
- New Zealanders care about the wind. I mean, to this Wisconsinite transplant to the “windy city” of Chicago, wind is wind is wind. Wellington, nicknamed “Windy Welly,” is exposed to all directions of winds because its location on the Cook Straight. But as my new friend Ben described to me, here, the direction of the wind really matters. For example, you don’t want the dreaded “Southerly” wind, as that wind is coming straight-at-cha from Antarctica (which really isn’t too far away if you look at a map). *shudder.* And it is this artic wind that first chilled my bones when I stepped foot in New Zealand. In fact, after I dropped my luggage down in my new beautiful apartment, and I stepped out onto my balcony overlooking the sea to have a “behold! I have arrived!” moment, I was suddenly bombarded by a weird snow/hail/sleet mixture. I scrambled back inside as quickly as possible. Nice to meet you too Wellington!
- New Zealanders don’t heat their houses. Now, I knew this technically before I moved here, but I didn’t know what it meant until I actually arrived. No heat basically means that after coming inside after being cold and chilled to the core by the wind, and you just want to go inside to your nice apartment and put your feet up and read–you can’t. Because it’s just as cold in your apartment–if not colder–than it is outside. So if you’re cold, you stay cold, and if you’re damp, you stay damp (and so mold is a big problem here, but a different issue altogether). So even though it’s not nearly as cold as it is in Wisconsin, the main difference is being able to walk into a warm home or staying chilly while indoors.
So, I cracked. No matter how many layers I put on, I couldn’t seem to get warm. It was especially difficult because I changed climates so quickly, and my body had yet to acclimate. And it really, really got to me after a while. If you know me, you know how hard it is for me to be cold. I already have those icicle fingers that make people jump when I touch them, but now I feel like they are so frigid, I would suck life out of them with my touch like X-men’s Rouge.
But then the cold brought out the absolute best in my surroundings. Kiwis (the affectionate name for New Zealanders) are known for how kind they are. I moved here looking forward to this aspect of my time in another country. But I wasn’t prepared for the literal and figurative warmth they would provide me.
It all started when my brief roommate Ben introduced me to two of the downstairs neighbors, a super sweet couple named Richard and Lyn. Over a goodbye breakfast for Ben, they asked me how I was finding Wellington. I couldn’t help but mention that it was beautiful and the people are so welcoming, but that I was cold. I spent the rest of the day in the library so I could get some free warmth. Right before I left it to make my way back to my freezing apartment (I’m not kidding! You can see your breath!), my advisor e-mailed me to see how I was doing with the cold snap. I was polite, but honest that I was struggling with the cold.
Thirty minutes later when I arrived home, I found this comforter outside my door courtesy of Richard and Lyn.
And then I checked my e-mail and saw that I had one from Gillian insisting that her and her husband Antony come over with a space heater.
They arrived soon after, and since they had bought a brand new one for me, I was grateful to have their company for an hour while we put it together and chatted. I realized at this point how lonely I’d felt. I mean, Wellington has so much to do and explore, but because I don’t know anyone, I’ve just been exploring solo. Their company was just what I needed, and I felt warm for the first time in three days, and it wasn’t just because of the new space heater.
And the final gesture of warmth, the one that is heartbreakingly touching, comes from my downstairs neighbor Maurice. I have no idea how he found out that I was cold. But last night, I got a knock on the door and opened it up to see an elderly gentleman in a sweater vest. He introduced himself as the man whose music I could probably hear playing each night. I told him that I loved his music, that it was comforting to me because my apartment was otherwise too quiet after Ben moved out, and that he should keep playing it as it was making me feel more at home. In his hands was a newspaper clipping for a sale he had found on electric blankets and two hot water bottles complete with knit jackets that were knit by his “mumsy.”
After he left, he turned his music up. I hope it was just for me.
Side note: I’m new to the hot water bottles. The few people I’ve met thus far were shocked I didn’t own one or bring one with me. Essentially, you heat up water to almost boiling and fill the water bottle about 2/3s full. Then, Maurice taught me that you hold them against your chest and expel the excess air. You screw on the top tightly, put on its little sweater jacket, and then put it into bed with you. Maurice said it was good to put one next to me and one down by my feet to keep them warm.
I rolled the space heater into my bedroom and spent the rest of night unpacking in my nice (now) warm bedroom. I put the loneliness to the back of my mind and began to feel better about my surroundings. Just about the time I was about to crawl into bed, I got another knock on my door.
It was Maurice again. This time, he was holding a winter coat.
He said that he knew I didn’t bring one (again, how does he know all of this?!) and that he stays at home most days because he’s a retired attorney and won’t need it. Before I could refuse the kind gesture, he threw it around my shoulders to have me try it on. He showed me how to tighten it and create a hood to protect from the wind. He left me with the jacket on and a smile on both of our faces.
But when I got back to my warm room, I burst into horrible ugly-cry sobs. The jacket smelled like my grandpa Slavicek, and there were Maurice’s little grey hairs around the collar. Here was this stranger, who didn’t know me but for a two minute encounter, and he was giving me his own and only winter coat during a cold snap. The gesture was such an overwhelming squeeze to the soul.
I slept with the water bottles and got the first real good sleep I’d had in six days.
So today, I walked around Wellington with Maurice’s coat on. And I know I’m going to really like this city, even in the cold. These gestures of warmth have given me so much faith in the power of human kindness. I am so grateful for the reminder that no matter how cold and dark things get, I have so much warmth in my life from both my established loved ones and these strangers that are worlds away from what I know. So thank you Lyn, Richard, Ben, Gillian, Antony, and Maurice for not only keeping me warm, but for warming my heart.
I promise to pass on the torch.
PS: When I arrived at home tonight, Maurice had placed a boombox and some CDs outside my door.