7 Things I Learned the Hard Way in Wellington

Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

I’ve been given the most amazing experience I could ever have dreamed.  And it has been wonderful.  But as with any transition to a new culture, it isn’t always easy.  There are hiccups, embarrassing moments, and cultural misunderstandings. I’ve definitely cried into a jar of Nutella. But that’s all a part of the journey.  I won’t grow if I don’t encounter obstacles.

The following are the seven things that I’ve learned the hard way in the first month of living in Wellington, New Zealand. Some are small, some are big.  Some might be funny, others more serious.  But all will contribute to my growth.  I can’t wait to walk away from this experience a more confident, mature, and culturally competent woman when I step on that plane back to my homeland.

  1. Snapper cards

Bus rides took me a bit to figure out. You use a bus card (called a Snapper card) to tap against a machine when you get on and then you tap off it when you exit (they call it tag on/tag off).  You then get charged by how long you ride, similar to the zoning on the London Tube station.

The first time I rode the bus, I  happened to sit behind a college-aged student who was explaining to her parents that you had to tag off or you would get a fine.  Oh. I thought.  I would never have thought to do that.

Picture of Snapper card and Garbage bags

Here are pictures of my two frenemies: my red Snapper card and yellow garbage bags.

But even with her helpful advice, I just can’t seem to get into the habit of tagging off. Once, when my flatmate Tricia and I were riding to the Karori campus, I slipped my Snapper card into my wallet and stuffed it in my coat pocket. When we got to our stop, I hopped off without even thinking about my Snapper card.  I looked back to see what was taking Tricia so long, and my eyes bugged out of my head when I saw her taking the time to tag off.  In panic, I fumbled my hand into my pocket in an attempt to retrieve my Snapper card, but by the time my fingertips felt the red plastic, the bus was happily pulling away.

A few days later when I rode the bus again for the first time since my mistake, the tag on/tag off machine shouted for all to hear, “Penalty applied.”  So not only did I get the full cash fare fine for not tagging off, but I also had everyone in the whole bus hear my transgression.  If kiwis had judging eyes, I’m sure I would have felt them on me as I walked down the bus aisle to an open seat. Now, whenever Tricia or I forget to tag off, we will call the next bus ride experience the “walk of shame.”  As in, “oh man, I really hope there aren’t many people on this bus because I have to do a walk of shame today.”

I’ve now taken to holding my Snapper card in my hand within my line of vision so that I do not forget to tag off.  However, last week, there was a spout of warm sunshine that sparkled out of nowhere. I felt like an audience member on an “Oprah’s Favorite Things” show. Soon, I found myself stripping off my winter coat, feeling pleasantly and unusually warm. As I daydreamed out the window at the beautiful hills rolling outside, I suddenly snapped to reality in the tranquil bus and realized we had reached my stop.

Jumping up, I went to tap my Snapper card against the machine and realized that I had somehow wrapped my scarf around the hand that held it.  In panic, I tried to use my semi-free hand to untwist the scarf free, but my effort was made difficult by the fact I was juggling my lunch box and laptop case.  It seemed that the harder I tried, the more I couldn’t get my hand free.  A couple of people in the back of the bus started giggling at my obvious frustration that I couldn’t find my hand.  Finally, I waved at the bus driver to go to the next stop so I could calm myself enough to figure out how to free my hand.  He shook his head at me, letting me know he would wait.  I took a deep breath, figured out that I had somehow created a knot around my hand in my panic, unknotted and wrestled it lose, tagged my card, and walked out into the now, suddenly misting Wellington air.  Man.

Lesson I learned: get the mini Snapper card that you can attach to your key chain.  And laugh at yourself when your hand gets eaten by a piece of cloth.

  1. Mold

Mold is now my greatest enemy.  My mouth fills with venom whenever I think of it.

When I first arrived, I lived with or Axford fellow Ben before he moved on to travel the world.  Those first couple of days before he left, I noticed that he always had the curtains open and would even go so far as open the windows.  Who is this guy? I would think to myself as I shuddered in the winter wind. He must be Wolverine.

After he left, I shut the windows and closed the curtains to try to keep the fleeting summer rays trapped inside each room.  But one day when I set my laptop back down and opened my bedroom door, I was slammed in the face with a putrid smell.  Mold!

Sailboats in the rain

Even though the weather is sometimes cold and windy, Wellingtonians will still brave the weather to sail. Amazing!

I opened the curtains to see that there were tiny black spots dancing along the edges of two of the curtains. I clutched my chest thinking that I was surely dying of a black lung.  I did what many people do of my generation: I jumped online and googled the harmful side effects of mold on the human body. After reading about the various neurological and respiratory diseases that can come from mold, I had to leave my apartment to gulp the fresh Cook Strait air.

Later that day, I met up with my new friend Max, and I very dramatically told him about my mold infestation.  Now, I know I was being melodramatic–I mean, I understand that having a few spots of mold on a curtain does not equal a spore takeover–but I had assumed that I’d get more than a “meh” from Max. But that is really all I got–a noncommittal, so-what-“meh.”  Apparently, mold is just a “thing” in New Zealand.  Because it is so cold and damp here and most don’t heat or insulate their houses (and many houses in the valley are in the shade), mold is just kinda an everyday problem here.

Max taught me that I have to open my curtains each day to let the sunlight in and that I should crack the windows during the day and shut them at night.  So that “strange behavior” I noted when I first arrived is actually quite normal behavior in New Zealand.  In fact, there are whole documents that give you tips on how to prevent mold.  And when you talk about mold with New Zealanders, they’ll just look at you blankly like, “so what?”  It’s just part of life here.

The good news is that I won’t die of a black lung while in New Zealand.  After talking with our landlord, we discovered that the mold on the curtains already existed.  We are lucky in that we are located in a place that gets sun all day long (when it’s sunny), so we rarely even think about the mold anymore.  The place where we actually do have a heater–although it took me a week to discover it–is in the bathroom, so we don’t have to worry about the moisture there.

Even so, Tricia and I have been super paranoid about mold. If there is anything slightly dark on anything, we will shriek “mold” and shake our fists to the sky.  Most of the time, it’s just a crumb or a sequin.  But just today, Tricia washed her water bottle and left it out to dry in the morning. By the time we arrived  home to cook dinner, our most hated enemy had found its way inside because grey clouds had blanketed the sky.  Curses!

Lesson I learned: Read about a country’s climate before arriving in said country.

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Five Little Things I Love About Wellington

Now that I’ve gotten my sea legs and can see without a jet lag haze, I’ve come to really appreciate Wellington.  In a week, I’ll take my first real venture outside of this beaut of a city, but it’s been important for me to spend some quality, uninterrupted time in the city I’ll call home until the season of Santa hats and jingle bells.  The following list includes the little things that have touched me about Wellington.  And even though they are little, I think they speak volumes about what I’ve noticed about the culture as a whole.

Note: I recognize that these could apply to other cities in New Zealand or even the country as a whole, but because I haven’t seen other cities, I don’t want to make any assumptions!

1. The grocery store

Now, keep in mind that my only routine experience with grocery shopping is at New World because it’s right on my way home (although I love Moore Wilsons, which is their equivalent of Whole Foods). Almost every day I’ll pop in to get something, partly because of how much of a kick I get out of shopping here.

The first thing I love about the store is that when you first walk in by the flowers, there will be an 80s or 90s music video playing. As you travel through the fruits and vegetables, you’ll see another screen with the same display.  And then there will be another one above the meats, etc. And whatever video is playing, that song will play throughout the whole store.  Yesterday, I was serenaded by Whitney Houston’s “How Will I know?,” Backstreet Boys’, “I Want It That Way,” and Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam,” for example.  It makes figuring out what the heck a kumura is an experience when you can hum along to some “Mmm Bop.” (kumura is sweet potato, by the way).

The second thing I love is that at all times of day you will see several people working in the aisles making sure that each and every label is perfectly straight. I don’t know why I find this so amazing/humorous/endearing, but sometimes I’ll catch myself staring at the employees fixing each and every soup can, box of cereal, and soda bottle. A weird side effect of this love of this aspect of the grocery store is that when I put something back, I will now stand there until the label is fixed just right. I want to make sure that, like the rest of Wellington, I show that I care about how things are presented.

Picture of jars perfectly aligned

Here is an example of how the jars will look. Amazing, eh?

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2. Bus rides

I’ll tap my Snapper card and make my way to the first empty seat.  Most of the time, the bus will be completely silent.  Even if you see a couple who have just picked up groceries or a few old friends who have formed an impromptu reunion on the bus, most people will remain quiet.  In Chicago, on the other hand, it’s common to hear groups laughing over a recent event, someone blaring a favorite track over his cellphone, and sprinklings of people talking on phones or watching YouTube videos.The only times I’ve experienced quiet buses is when the second city is either waking up for a new day or turning down for the night.

So I noticed right away how quiet these Wellington buses are.  But it’s not the quiet that I love so much, it’s the juxtaposition of this quiet and what happens each time the bus stops. As each person leaves, he or she will punctuate the silence with a “thank you driver!”

Now, for some reason when I try to imitate this gesture, I sound like Oliver! the musical by Lionel Bart.  But it’s only because imitation is a form of flattery.  I love that the Wellingtonians, as quiet as they can be (seriously, I often can’t hear them when they speak to me), will suddenly yell out from the back of the bus to thank the bus driver as they exit.

It feels like this should be a natural thing–you thank a server when she fills up your water glass, and you thank the clerk when he gives you the movie tickets you just purchased.  Why wouldn’t you thank your bus driver for getting you to your destination safely?  Wellington does this right.

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A Lesson in Warmth

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.

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