New Zealand, New Flatmate
Owen Powell – 22nd May 2007
My landlord Phil got engaged, so he moved out of the flat we had shared for about five years. I moved my brother in, we did some rent calculations, I moved to the tiny spare bedroom and we looked for someone else to put in my old room. We interviewed quite a few people, but as soon as Elisha arrived for a look around, we’d pretty much decided we’d offer it to her. She was great – funny, charming, relaxed and generally quite enthusiastic about life. It was only a few days after she’d moved in, and I was explaining to Alex about my new living circumstances and why my bedroom was so small, that I connected life-events with project-events, and realised that while we had been racing around trying to find people from overseas living in London, someone from overseas had moved into my flat.
Brilliant, I thought. While Alex is off scouting round restaurants and embarrassedly asking people in shops where they’re from, all I’ve got to do is put the kettle on, open a packet of biscuits, and ask Elisha what it’s like to be a New Zealander in London. I’ll get that done tomorrow. Or next week.
This was last November. I don’t think I actually told Elisha what we were up to until Christmas dinner. Not real Christmas dinner on Christmas Day, but that new kind of Christmas dinner you get to have in your mid-twenties in about the second week of December, when you and your friends get drunk and act a bit like your parents, wearing stupid jumpers and comparing techniques for carving turkey. I explained the idea behind the project, and asked if she wanted to be involved. Very enthusiastically, she said she did. We clinked glasses and pulled a cracker.
Weeks passed, then months. We discovered people from Guinea, from Kazakhstan and from Honduras. “Interviewed Elisha yet?” Alex would sometimes ask me. “Would be good to keep the numbers ticking over ...” (Alex couldn’t quite understand why, given the fact that I lived with someone from New Zealand, the words ‘New Zealand’ weren’t appearing on our little list on the website. It was almost like he was getting angry with me, but – here’s a little secret – Alex isn’t very good at getting angry. Or, rather, he’s brilliant at getting angry, because he can’t really do it. If everyone was as good at getting angry as Alex is, we’d live in a much more peaceful and laid-back world). I would murmur something about doing it next week.
One of the problems was that although we lived together, we hardly saw each other. I spent roughly half my time at Rachel’s house, Elisha roughly half her time at her boyfriend Matt’s. Some weeks, those house-swaps would coincide so precisely that I would put my key in the lock as Elisha turned the handle on the other side on her way out. Sometimes, though, there was just good stuff on the telly (Elisha introduced me to The Apprentice) or meals to be cooked (in particular, lots of burritos). Also, it felt a bit like taking work home.
It’s slightly embarrassing to admit that I didn’t get round to interviewing Elisha properly until after she had moved out. She came back round to the flat again for an evening to pick up some bags she’d left, and I grabbed my notebook and had a quick-fire ten minutes, filling in some of the gaps I didn’t already know from her story. Her interest in coming to London had been fired at the age of 18 when her older brother came to work here. Since his time here, however, the visa rules have changed, meaning that while you can still stay for two years, you can only work for one (unless your employer sponsors you for a further year). This means that (having arrived in April 2006) her time in London is nearly up, and she’s planning to fly back south in September, taking Matt with her to Sydney to see how he’ll get on in a foreign country.
Coming to London is quite a popular move for Kiwis of Elisha’s generation. “It’s known as the Big OE,” says Elisha, “The Big Overseas Experience. It’s different to a European’s gap year – you guys travel more, where we come to work. Having said that, it’s good to base yourself in London as you can see a lot of Europe while you’re here.” Ah, yes, I’m just remembering another reason why it was hard to interview Elisha while she was living in the flat – the long weekends away. She’s visited Italy, Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Cork, and is about to go on an extended trip with her parents through France to Spain and Portugal. “Christchurch will feel a bit small when I go back there now, a bit of a ghost town.”
Elisha acknowledges that being in London has changed her. “I’m much more confident now. Even just silly little things, like I sing when I’m in a shop now – I’d never do that in Christchurch, as I always thought that everyone else around knew me. Here, you can start to create a new character for yourself. Like when I met Matt – I was staying with a friend of an old college friend, another Kiwi, and Matt was her flatmate. When I moved out, I just stuck a note on his door with my phone number on it – I would never have done that back home!”
There were some dark days when she first arrived. “There’s such a sense of space in New Zealand, which I really miss. Wherever you are in London, there’s always someone else around. And it’s a bit of a concrete jungle. In my first few weeks here, I heard a scream and a car screeching outside on my street – a kid had nearly got hit. And my first job was a bit depressing as well. It was at Bulldog Communications, an internet company, and on my first day they stuck me in front of a computer and I had to start to deal with this backlog of 5000 complaint emails – calling people up who’d been ignored for a month. Some of them couldn’t really speak English, or I couldn’t pronounce their names. I only lasted seven days.”
She then moved to the Evans head office on Oxford Street – a job she has only just left when her visa ran out. She says she’s learnt loads, and enjoyed it at the start, but there were lots of crazy people in fashion that made it quite hard work. “It’s all good experience, though, and I’m hoping to keep working in fashion when I move to Sydney as well. I’m glad I didn’t just work in a bar, like lots of other people from New Zealand and Australia.”
There is also one hidden bonus to moving from the other side of the world, although it didn’t seem like a positive thing to start with. ‘When my brother was here, he told me stories of leaving the house to go to work in the dark, then leaving work at the end of the day and it was dark again – I thought he was exaggerating. I really hated winter here – and having Christmas when it was cold was just weird.” Elisha laughs. “But the best thing is, I’ve missed out on two whole winters by travelling at the right time. I came to London at the end of our summer, and the start of yours, and I’ll be going back at the end of yours, and the start of ours, in September this year. That’s not too bad.”
And so, her bags collected, Elisha left the flat again (hopefully not for the last time – we’re planning quite a few parties through the summer). And I picked up the phone. “Horne? Are you there? We can tick off New Zealand now ....”