Friday, 16 September 2016

More kindness in the world please!

What on earth is going on in the UK?

Why is corporate greed winning over common decency?

Do those in positions of responsibility and influence not care about the human race and the planet we inhabit?

Of course the answer is that a huge number of people with responsibility and influence do care. They care very passionately, but it is hard to see any of this being translated into good decision-making at government level. The government, I would argue, does not care.

I don't think the British people will look back on this moment of history with pride: failing to help children from war-torn countries, privatising the NHS, allowing (if not positively encouraging) the sale of weapons to oppressive regimes, demolishing the welfare state, undermining democratic processes in elections... the depressing list goes on.

It is strange witnessing this from the other side of the world. Some problems are world-wide of course. Britain has done a few things that should be held up as exemplars, it's worth remembering that it's not all bad. Charging for plastic bags was a great step in the right direction for minimising their use, for example. I was surprised that re-using bags doesn't seem as commonplace here in NZ. (Plastics depress me. I still have far too much plastic in my life. I don't dedicate my life to avoiding them, but my awareness of their environmental impact makes me feel a mixture of guilt, impotency and frustration.)

As a migrant to NZ I have been aware of how different my experience is from that of an asylum seeker. With a visa in place I was welcomed at the airport. I can apply for jobs. We have unquestioned access to education and health care services. I have the language to ask everything I need to know.

The move was expensive but we were able to bring our possessions with us, and familiar things around us has helped us settle. I smile to see our books on the shelves, the blanket box which once belonged to grandparents, the Supermum mug the girls' gave me a few years ago. So many small things which turn the house into a home. It is hard to imagine what it must be like to leave home with nothing but fear, a phone, some money, a favourite photo or two.

I hope that my experiences here will make me more welcoming to strangers. I have appreciated the kindnesses we were offered on arrival, and the emphasis on inclusive community in general.

In terms of what is happening in Britain and what the future may hold, I was heartened to read some of the recent resources shared by Young Quakers. I knew that they had published their 'Living our beliefs' book, but this week was the first time I properly dipped into it. I really liked it, and hope it will be a positive influence for all ages. Thank you to the team who worked on it.

I love that they have created a resource that quotes Mahatma Gandhi alongside David Mitchell (Ghostwritten), established Quaker writings, and even Elvis!

You can find out more here: http://www.yqspace.org.uk/living-our-beliefs

All we can really do in response to the rot is to continue to breathe life into our beliefs. I suspect I am have said similar in previous posts, but it is how I feel and is worth repeating. We need to lead by example showing love and respect, supporting things that are good in the world, avoiding inadvertent support for things that harm. We can start small if it is too overwhelming to start big. A small act of kindness can make someone's day.

The Young Quakers'  'Living our beliefs' contains a great reminder of the words of Gandhi:



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Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Birdsong and feathered friends

When we arrived in New Zealand I thought all of the wildlife would be different, so I was somewhat surprised to be greeted by the sight of blackbirds and sparrows in the garden. Of course I now realise that the early European settlers brought many bird species with them, keen to be surrounded by some familiar feathered friends in their strange new world.

However, it didn't take long to discover that these introduced domestic birds share their habitat with their native cousins. The tui (Maori name: tūī  - pronounced "too-ee") are regular visitors to our patch, and their distinctive call reminds you that you are a long way from home. 

At first glance, the tui looks black with a white ruff at the throat, but catch it in the right light, and its coat is irridescent with dark green, blue and purple hues. Apparently they have a double voice box which enables them to create a range of sounds, and they mimic the call of other birds as well as throwing in their own chattering.

I recorded this example on one of our first walks from home with the girls. It doesn't really do justice to the concerto of song we enjoyed, but it does give you an idea of how different this is from a starling (another familiar garden visitor) or a blackbird.

video 

Less vocal, but also easy to identify, are the fantails. I've only seen them in our own small garden a couple of times, but occasionally they can be seen around the neighbourhood - I think it may depend which bushes and trees are in flower at the time. No prize for guessing why they are called fantails. 

Of the introduced birds, I am very happy to see a couple of thrush which seem to be thriving in their new home. I don't know whether it is the species, or a phase of evolution, but the markings of their speckled breasts seem to be especially pronounced.

Many of the other wonderful native and endemic birds we've seen have been at the local nature reserve - the fabulous Zealandia. I've posted pics of some of these already from the school trip I went on with Susannah, but here is a photo of the kaka (kākā). We are probably fortunate that this is not a regular visitor to our garden as it is a noisy beast.



Just for completeness perhaps I should also mention seabirds. The gulls look like the gulls of pretty much any coastline I've visited. Also by the shore we've spotted gannets, a lone kingfisher, cormorants and shag. The latter come in different forms, including the New Zealand pied shag with its white breast. There are many nesting at Zealandia. 





I perhaps come across as an avid bird watcher with this list of sightings, but I'm not really. I am just enjoying the novelty of the natural world around me. Although Wellington is a city, I am very grateful that birdsong is prominent in its soundscape. The twittering makes me smile, and as for hearing the vocal gymnastics of the tui, that smile often turns into a grin. While I may start to get used to it, I don't expect to ever tire of hearing it.





Saturday, 16 July 2016

Letting kids be kids

We've been here for a little over two months, and the girls have now had several weeks going to the local school.

The school is much bigger than they were used to back in Stony Stratford - nearly 800 pupils from age 5 to 13. This could have made it daunting, but actually it really hasn't taken long for the girls to settle.

There are some things we are sad to miss from the old school (particularly for Pippa: the school residential trip and the year six end of year performance) but on the other hand what a relief to be away from the pressure of the year 6 tests.

The positives of the new school have far outweighed the negatives and it is refreshing to be in a school which is value-led but in a much more multi-cultural environment, without the expectation that everyone will be a Christian unless they expressly indicate they are something else.

A few things about the school that make it different from the middle school they were used to:
  • no uniform. Comfort is generally the key. Leggings, T-shirt, a warm layer and trainers is the usual look. The kids don't change for PE so when cross country is on the cards, a change of clothes in case of mud is suggested.
  • composite classes. This means each class spans two year groups - Susannah is in year 3 in a class that spans years 3 and 4 (the equivalent of English years 2 and 3 - she's gone from one of the youngest in the year group to one of the oldest); Pippa's in year 7 in a year 7/8 class. This means the age range per class is greater of course but it seems to work well, and it means you will get some new classmates every year.
  • less homework. So far Pippa's homework has seemed to consist of a weekly maths sheet, and Susannah's a reading log and a handful of spelling words that are comfortably within her grasp. We probably should be doing a bit more times tables practice at home, but there really isn't any pressure from school about this. It is a welcome change for all of us. Pippa's year 6 homework was onerous earlier this year and if it hadn't been started before the weekend you could kiss most of Sunday afternoon/evening good bye.
  • Maori. Actually they are learning far less Maori language than I had expected, but there are a few regular phases and common words in use. In their classes, the girls are learning Kapa haka - traditional performing arts (singing, but also some dancing). The national anthem is sung at assembly - first in Maori, then in English. Assembly happens twice per term.
  • choices and opportunity. This becomes more obvious in the senior classes, and Pippa has enjoyed being to make choices in her learning - which reading group to join based on the book being studied, and a choice of language for example. She chose Mandarin!
  • playgrounds. The school has fantastic outdoor space - not much greenery but adventure playground equipment and sports pitches. The headmaster believes kids need space to kick a ball around and this happens in separate areas to where people are climbing monkey bars or even trees. The outdoor space is also used during the school day when teachers decide it would be a good idea for the kids to be reading in fresh air for a change, or need a break in the middle of a lesson that's used a lot of concentration. The playgrounds can be visited out of school hours and we've been a couple of times during the school holidays in preference to the local park because there is more to climb on.
  • school dinners. This is a negative rather than a plus. Local takeaways provide the lunches on a given day, so unless you want a Subway one day, pizza the next, or sushi on Friday then it's packed lunches all the way.
  • stationery. Families provide school exercise books, pens, pencils according to lists provided by the school. This means there is quite a cost involved at the beginning of term. What you save in uniform costs, you spend on books.
  • the school year. This is probably obvious, but worth mentioning for completeness. The schools operate a four term system. The long holiday runs from Christmas through January to the beginning of Feb. The terms are about ten or eleven weeks long, with a two week break before the next begins. As I write we are mid-way through the two week holiday between terms 3 and 4.
Pippa is in an innovative teaching block - a novelty for the school as well as for her - and she really likes the atmosphere this creates. It is more like a common room with sofas and comfy chairs, and only a few desks. They use IT a lot, for example writing their own blogs, and doing project work together.

So, all in all it's a big thumbs up for the school in New Zealand. I like it because it is more relaxed and they are learning interesting things. I also see it as a big plus that Pippa is not having to go to secondary school this year. She can enjoy being in primary school for that bit longer, and doesn't have to suddenly grow up as they tend to when making the transition to secondary.

The girls like it because of the playgrounds and because they are having fun while they learn. They are allowed to be kids.

If you'd like to see more about the school, the website is: http://www.kns.school.nz/

Here are a few photos from Susannah's school trip to the nearby nature reserve Zealandia. I went as a parent helper.










Sunday, 26 June 2016

We are still people who care

There is an enormous amount of grief, disbelief and anger, and in some quarters jubilation, about recent historic events in the UK.

Having declared myself in the 'Remain' camp in advance of the referendum, it will not come as a surprise that I was greatly saddened by the result. However, I find I am more bewildered than angry.

First of all, I'm rubbish at being angry - I'm all tears in no time. I struggle to know where to direct the anger. Possibly this comes hand in hand with being empathetic: I don't like anger being directed at me, so don't want to direct that on someone else which means it inevitably becomes an internal mess. I do know people who voted leave and they are not suddenly my enemy. I care about them too. That's not to say I never get angry - a handful of people make my blood boil, Nigel Farage being one of them - but I still finding it hugely unsettling to get into that destructive frame of mind. I am more of a quiet moper in these situations than a shouty, sweary person.

Secondly, although the Brexit campaign 'won', in truth I don't really think it would ever be a winning situation for either side. More than 15 million people voted to stay in the EU. That is a huge number of people. The remain campaign wasn't entirely unsuccessful - it just wasn't successful enough. People on both sides of the debate became impassioned by what they believe in. That said, it was awful to see how negative the campaigning was, and although a lot of argument was about what people believe in - it was also about what people fear. Shame on those that exploited the fear element to persuade people to their view. The referendum has divided the population of the UK very nearly 50-50. There would have been work to do, to heal the division, whichever side came out in front.

We fear the future, but we still don't actually know what the reality will be. We mustn't become impotent and unable to be part of shaping a future that we believe is right, even if the foundations we would have chosen are no longer available. When there is change there is also opportunity.

The worst thing in my opinion is the hatred that has been unleashed. It is sickening to the core to hear of individuals being attacked for the way they look or dress - an assumption that they should be sent home when the UK is the only home they have ever known. And I am horrified that as a nation we don't seem to have more respect for people who have come to the UK with the best of intentions - to work hard, to contribute, to make a better world for their families and for us all. Horrified that we don't have more hospitality to offer those who arrive traumatised and in desperation, who have struggled to escape their homeland because it has been ripped apart by war and they are seeking refuge only to find there is none.

The vote was one monumental day in our history. It was one choice we had to make that had such enormous repercussions. But every day we have choices to make and we need to keep working towards a better world.

In New Zealand there is an emphasis on building resilience - in buildings and communities. Neighbourly-ness is encouraged, with an awareness that if the big one strikes [earthquake] a thriving community will cope better and recover more quickly.

In the UK, communities now need to rebuild, and as individuals we need to model the behaviour we want to see: treating friends and strangers with an open mind and an open heart. We all have a different story to tell. Our voting preferences are one part of us, our ethnic background another. But we are all people facing ups and downs in our lives - some on a harder path than others. We need to stand up to aggression, so that violence and hatred don't become normalised. We need to challenge inequalities in society, for this is another source of division. We need to be gentle with each other and gentle to ourselves. At the end of the day we are all people, and generally we are all still people who care.










Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Finding our feet and homesickness




We've been here for about four weeks now. We've been busy trying to set down some roots to make us feel more at home.

In the first week we joined the library, enrolled the girls at school and made enquiries about gymnastics. Since then they've managed a play date each and we've met up with the very small number of people we knew here before we came. I've been to the Quaker meeting and we're sussing out dance classes for both the girls and me.

With the girls out at school I have kept up with the work I've been doing for the UK-based College of Mental Health Pharmacy.

Weekends have been busy with plenty of exploring, highlights being finding great walks to do from home, visiting the marine education centre at Island Bay, seeing seals close by in the seal colony, a wonderful day at Makara beach only 20 minutes from home, and enjoying the Sunday market at the Harbourside.

A full happy time and there are lots of photos of us smiling.

But, of course, it is not as simple as that.

The girls are terribly homesick at the moment. They are missing friends and family: school friends, Holiday School friends, cousins, grandparents... walking down the street and seeing familiar, friendly faces. They are missing their usual home comforts (the house here is very sparse with the majority of our belongings still on their way in a shipping container). They are missing their usual activities and routines. It is hard to see them so sad.

So, it is each day as it comes. We are loving the beauty of the place, the outdoor opportunities, and the variety of the city. When we are absorbed in an outing or activity as a family we are genuinely enjoying ourselves, but there are plenty of times at home when we are having to administer tissues, cuddles and soothing words.

We've been calling this our New Zealand adventure - and I guess having an adventure means being ready to take the rough with the smooth. It will take time, but I am sure we will gradually find our feet and the homesickness will hit less frequently and with less intensity. In the meantime we'll continue to make connections and make the most of what life has to offer here.

Here are some photos of what we've been up to in the first month.

A view from Wright's Hill Reserve - a walk from home

Wright's Hill Reserve look out point

Wright's Hill Reserve look out point

Trying out the outdoor gym equipment at nearby Karori Park

Hands on tank at the Marine Education Centre

View from the Skyline Walkway - a walk from home
T-shirt weather in winter! - Makara Beach
Susannah's seal picture

Cafe at Makara Beach
View from cliffs by Makara Beach


Monday, 30 May 2016

First days exploring

I had spent so long saying to the girls how much I was looking forward to living by the sea, Susannah was rather disappointed to find that our house is not a sea front property with immediate access to a beach.

But, it is only a bus journey away. On our first morning in New Zealand we were keen to start exploring. We bought our 'Snapper' cards for the bus and headed into the centre. After the long flights followed by fitful jet-lagged sleep, it was wonderful to get to the harbour - looking sparkly in the Autumn sun.  It had been a stormy night, but we have had a rapid introduction to the changing weather of Wellington - blowing a gale one minute, and clear blue skies the next. 


Occasionally dolphins and rays can be seen in the waters, but I suspect not all that often and we made do with some little fish darting along the harbour edge. Bruce introduced me to the NZ cafe culture with my first flat white, and we wandered along to the museum Te Papa.

We concentrated on the natural history section, including some hands on activities and even the opportunity to crawl through a life size model of a blue whale heart! 

On the second day we were back down into the centre. We were starting to notice errors in our packing - my waterproof in a shipping container instead of plane luggage.  So we did a mixture of shopping and absorbing the sights and sounds of Wellington.

Looking back, these early days are a bit of a blur. We hit huge waves of tiredness in the late afternoon or early evening. But we also managed to buy groceries and get meals on the table. I obtained an NZ driving licence (a straight forward, friendly process). We unpacked, and the girls tried to work out how to personalise their rooms in the absence of their usual home comforts.

Also, early in our time here we had a lovely treat from our next door neighbours. Their elder daughter (who is a year younger than Pippa) made a fabulous chocolate cake to welcome us. She came in with her parents and sister to chat a bit. It was great to meet some friendly faces nearby and find out more about the local school and amenities from them.

On Sunday, I went to the Quaker meeting. I hadn't necessarily thought I would get there on the first weekend with the need to settle as a family, but in the end it seemed natural to fit it in and I was off again on our number 3 bus that seems to serve us well from suburb to town.


On Sunday afternoon we went for a drive: more views - this time from the top of Mount Victoria, and a 'proper' beach at Scorching Bay.

From Mount Victoria you can see across the harbour to hills beyond. Although Wellington surrounds a harbour it also has peninsulas so you can see sea and mountains in lots of directions. If you lose your bearings, there is a large sculpture pointing due south.

We chose Scorching Bay for our beach visit largely because we liked the name of its cafe Scorch o Rama! Also, on-line recommendations suggested it was one of the best beaches in the area.

We weren't disappointed. It is indeed a lovely spot and I'm sure we'll visit again. It is too cold for bathing this time of year, but bare foot is perfectly acceptable and quite the norm for Kiwis.

The Cafe will also no doubt receive multiple visits. Ice creams, brownies, coffees: all good!


Our first weekend drew to a close, and with Bruce going back to work it felt as though we would need to start moving on from being tourists on holiday to longer term residents of this gem of a city.

More on that anon...

x




Thursday, 26 May 2016

Welcome to Wellington

We've been here two weeks now and already the journey seems a long time ago.

We were lucky with the flights. Susannah hadn't been in a plane before, and Pippa was a baby last time she flew but they set themselves up with headphones and watched the hours away like seasoned travellers. There was hardly anyone on the first leg - to Singapore - so we could spread out and lie across seats for some sleep (we set off late evening).

We found the recommended roof top pool for a freshen up at Chingi airport, but sadly the butterfly garden was in darkness by the time we got round to that just before boarding to Brisbane, our last stop before New Zealand. If you are going long haul, in my limited experience, Singapore airlines with a stopover in Singapore (even just for a couple of hours or so) is a pretty fine way to do it.

Of course when flying from Brisbane to Wellington most of the journey is over the sea, but it was a beautiful morning and when we reached the dramatic coastline of the South Island we could tell why people love it so much.

Going through the airport in Wellington went smoothly - visas checked and boots declared suitably mud-free. The passport official was the first to welcome us to New Zealand.

The next to welcome us were Bruce's colleague with his teenage daughter who had both helped set up our rented house with some basics. With various items of furniture lent by other colleagues, some hospice shop kitchenware and groceries in the fridge and cupboard we could start to settle in straight away. We even had homemade cookies and cake, and tulips on the table. Thank you to the Wilsons and other university folks who helped make this happen.

So that was us, arriving in Wellington and made to feel welcome. More about our first few days exploring in the next post...