New Zealand doesn’t exist. So goes the meme, an internet in-joke arising from the frequency with which the island nation is left off world maps, and amplified by the whimsical news stories that often emerge there. For instance: a city road was recently closed for an entire month to allow safe crossing for a family of sea lions. How is New Zealand even real? As a citizen, with a black-and-silver passport to prove it, I have caught myself asking that question since I arrived back here from London a month ago. How can this place – where you can hug your parents, go to bars with your friends, and live life more or less like it’s 2019 – be only a flight away from the one I left behind?
I left London, where I’d been living since 2017, a few days before Christmas, just as coronavirus cases started rising again rapidly, and the government braced, too late, for another lengthy lockdown. “Getting out, are you,” a man had said, eyeing my bags on the bus to the Piccadilly line. At each stop on my journey to Auckland, totalling three planes over nearly 24 hours, my phone had lit up with news of the rapidly deteriorating situation I’d just fled. Two weeks later, I was released from my government-managed quarantine hotel into New Zealand, where there had been no local transmission of coronavirus since November. It felt as if I had slipped into another world through the back of my hotel wardrobe.
The sense of normality was surreal. I walked around my parents’ town in silent wonder, eyes wide at strangers clustered around communal cafe tables, having unhurried conversations about mundane things. Even the beauty of the natural landscape – which, as a New Zealander, you can grow immune to – seemed hyper-real after a year spent mostly inside my London flat: the flax seed pods grouped like the fingers of a cupped hand, the unfamiliar bird calls crashing and clanking like movie sound effects. On a hike with friends, I kept commenting on the smell of the bush, sucking in great, greedy lungfuls of it. My masks languished in my suitcase. I looked strangers full in the face and smiled reflexively.
But there was an adjustment period. At first, in crowds, my nerve endings felt supercharged. If a stranger came near me, I jumped out of her way. In London, this would be a considerate gesture; in New Zealand, it seemed passive aggressive. Having thought I had coped relatively well with 2020, it was only when I felt joyful, safe and at ease that I realised the erosive, depressive toll the pandemic had taken. Sometimes, in a bustling shopping centre or cafe, I felt unexpectedly anguished, even tearful – overcome by a desire to accost strangers with the words: “You don’t know how lucky you are!” Instead, I stuck to telling my parents and friends, with the single-minded urgency of a survivor – all the while acutely conscious that, in leaving when I did, I had skipped the worst of it.
Back in March 2020, when New Zealanders overseas began to bolt for home, it never occurred to me to do the same. London was home; whatever was to come, I would weather it there. The desire to return snuck up on me, in increments – such as the day I spent listening to Don’t Dream It’s Over by Kiwi band Crowded House on repeat. A commission for a New Zealand magazine on the theme of freedom seeded the idea that it was there to be seized. And while knowing that my parents were safe brought me peace of mind, I had also never felt further away from them. By November, I realised that – more than I cared about my career, or where to put down roots – I wanted to be with my family.
Being single and self-employed, with some savings, I was able to arrange a swift exit and a four-month stay. I knew I was lucky, but not the extent of it: in the days after my departure, New Zealand introduced further restrictions to guard against the new coronavirus variant. Now, Kiwis seeking to return face a months-long wait for a spot in quarantine; many who strived to put down lasting roots overseas, like me, are now reconsidering what they are willing to sacrifice to maintain them.
Growing up, I had railed against how removed New Zealand could feel from the rest of the world; right now, that fact is heady, intoxicating. While great, global cities have been brought to their knees, Jacinda Ardern’s “team of five million” is still standing, at least for now. Though the government is urging against complacency to “make summer unstoppable”, a national commitment to contact tracing is slackening and, despite strict border controls, an incursion is considered inevitable. This week the government reported three new cases.
“What if every person who was in New Zealand during Covid-19 has become fundamentally incapable of empathising with everyone who wasn’t?” wondered a friend on Twitter recently, tweeting a gif of people dancing inside a bunker, oblivious to the apocalypse raging outside. Meanwhile, we recent returnees have reached out to each other. We compulsively follow news of the pandemic, ranking alongside the road closure for sea lions on the radio bulletins. We share surrealist sketches of normality and voice the guilt we feel for seizing a lifeline not available to others – for enjoying this unstoppable summer while our friends see no light on the horizon. Are our photos and anecdotes a welcome distraction, or a painful reminder?