… and Back Again

I was soon to learn that Newcastle is a notoriously hard place to meet people.  Probably not so bad for my daughter’s age group as it is for people over the age of about 40.  It’s a University town and there was plenty there to keep her occupied and she made many new friends, but apart from work contacts and some family living outside of Newcastle but in NSW, I was pretty much on my own.  Coming from a small community where you can’t walk down the street without seeing someone you know, I was finding this hard to come to terms with.  I missed having proper friends rather than casual acquaintances, and I began to get homesick.  And then I began to get sick.

Sick is probably too strong a word for it.  But I was at the beginning of a long and very bewildering journey that led me down a lot of blind alleys and cost me a lot of money.  It started as a pain in my arse (literally) and one leg that gradually became weaker and weaker until I found walking very painful and difficult.  I went to four different GPs, three physiotherapists, two chiropractors, two Bowen therapists, two masseuses, an acupuncturist, an Orthopaedic Surgeon, a spinal surgeon and a neurologist.  I had two MRI scans, a cortisone injection, two x-rays, a nerve conduction study, and an ultra-sound.  Apart from ‘normal degeneration for my age’ everything appeared to be in good working order … except my bank account.  As I didn’t have any medical insurance in Australia all of this was self-funded, except the GP visits which I was able to claim on Medicare.

The adventure was over.  By this time I was well fed up and just wanted to come home and be re-united with my wonderful friends and family, not to mention my NZ Medical Insurance policy (which thankfully I still had) before I spent everything I owned (and didn’t own) on medical bills.  My daughter and I booked our tickets, the removalists (which I had to pay for myself this time) came and packed up our worldly goods and on 26 July 2013 my daughter wheeled me onto the plane back to Christchurch.  Within a week of our return I had found a wonderful place to live with magnificent views of the harbour in the community I had longed to return to, I found a job and I bought a car.  And yes, I did get to what I then believed was the bottom of the pain and leg weakness.  I saw a neurosurgeon in Christchurch who instructed an MRI which revealed that a bone in my back had slid forward over the bone below it causing the nerve roots to be squeezed.  In June 2015 I underwent four hours of spinal surgery which I was told would relieve the problem.

I will never regret the experience of living and working in Australia – there was plenty of laughter as well as tears, even if it was just to teach me how to appreciate what I have in the here and now, wherever that may be.  But I know that for my here and now that place is New Zealand.

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The Move to Newcastle …

I have never been one of those moaning Minnie’s who bang on about greener pastures in Australia at the first hint of a problem, but towards the end of 2010 I’d had enough.  I’d had enough of looking for work in New Zealand after being made redundant, enough of jumping through hoops at recruitment agencies, enough of the low wage economy, enough of the soaring prices, and I’d had enough of being woken up in the middle of the night to yet another seismic reminder that Mother Nature was clearly as troubled as I was.  As much as I loved New Zealand and particularly the community and space where I lived, I couldn’t eat it.  What I was eating was into my precious capital which was rapidly diminishing whilst I lurked without impact on the periphery of recruitment success.

I found the earthquakes a lot less alarming than the bizarre nightmare occurring in the Christchurch Recruitment scene at the time.   One job I applied for (an Office Administration position) required applicants to do six quite complex and time-consuming ‘tasks’. A little after the style of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire but without the dragons. I set about my tasks with grim determination and spent a whole day researching my material and presenting it in a way which I was sure would impress. And it must have done because I managed to get selected for the coveted shortlist of three. Only by this time the job specs had changed somewhat and they now wanted someone who could not only assist with accounts preparation and maintain their website but could also fix a leak in the plumbing, unblock the odd drain and do hands-on property repairs and maintenance. I imagine finding someone with such an eclectic mix of skills on the pay they were offering would have been the hardest task of the lot!

After that experience, I decided to look at jobs in a greener and less shaky pasture – Australia.  I found one instantly that seemed to match my criteria perfectly.  I applied.  I heard back (this in itself was quite an amazing turn of events), but it gets better … I heard back within the hour.  Unheard of!  AND they agreed I had that Royal Flush of Recruitment– a matching Skill Set!  But wait, there’s more – they were actually prepared to pay me reasonable money to do the job.  I nearly fainted.  And all this using the identical CV I’d been using in New Zealand.

After being flown to Auckland for an interview and without having to do any absurd ‘tasks’ that involving unblocking drains or doing a spot of rat poisoning, I got the job.  The company paid for my relocation and initial accommodation and by the end of 2010 I was shipping steel out of Newcastle to New Zealand.  That I had gone to the only place in Australia to have ever suffered a fatal earthquake was an irony that was not lost on me and although I was deeply relieved that my daughter and I were spared the experience of the February 2011 quake, watching it from afar and worrying about the family and friends we had left behind was heart-wrenching.  Because my job required me to have quite a lot of contact with New Zealand, I heard about it from one of our Auckland based customers and immediately went to the Stuff website and saw an unthinkable image – “the cathedral has crumbled!  I need to go home now!”, I remember saying to my boss in Newcastle.  He must’ve thought I was deeply religious and needed to take time out for contemplative prayer.

Settling into the job in Australia was easy – the people were great, I loved the job and particularly having the contact with the New Zealand customers and service providers.  Not long after I arrived we had gardeners come to our work, to whipper-snip the garden area outside our office. Two men in smart suits standing at the printer took a whiff of the warm breeze coming through the open window and simply said: “Aahh.  Two stroke”.   I couldn’t be anywhere else but Australia.

But settling into Newcastle life wasn’t so easy.  At first blush you could be forgiven for thinking that Newcastle is just another industrial town – hastily built around the steelworks and showing signs of wear, particularly around the steelworks where I was working at the time.  But Newcastle is better than that.  It knows it’s a bit bogan but it is what it is and it makes no excuses for it.  And what it has is some of the best beaches in Australia and some wonderful quirky places to explore in the central city.  The Hunter Valley wine region is only about an hour’s drive away and the Honeysuckle waterfront area which was rebuilt after the earthquake in 1989 is a lovely place to spend a lazy Sunday sipping a cold drink and people watching.

However at the time we arrived, which was at the height of the mining boom, it was not a great place to be looking for accommodation with no rental history and a large dog.  I was blissfully unaware before left New Zealand that Newcastle was in the grip of a housing crisis with just a 1% vacancy rate for rental homes.  Just getting to inspect the inside of one was a major mission especially since we were unable to connect to the wireless internet at our temporary apartment on weekends.  During the week it was OK as long as we put the laptop in the middle of the bed, turned it at a 45 degree angle, held our tongue in the right position and prayed for favourable winds.  Given that cyberspace is where you had to register your interest in a property to receive a text message as to when it was open for inspection, having a reliable internet connection was an absolute must.  So we initially spent an unfortunate amount of glorious weekend time sitting amongst groups of kids playing games like Zombies in darkened internet cafes that advertised LAN parties and lockdowns whilst we earnestly surfed the Ray White Real Estate website for a 3 bedroom villa.

The inspections weren’t that dignified either and  nor was the intrusive application process.  We had to provide a raft of pretty personal and confidential information, including copies of bank statements, payslips, copies of our passports, birth certificates, drivers licences and two or three references.  I was giving serious thought to throwing in a copy of my dental records just for good measure.  The one thing we had to avoid at all costs was to make any reference to the possibility that we might own a dog.  This would be worse than saying we were looking for somewhere suitable to manufacture P.

Through a series of happy coincidences we finally found a place to rent through a private advertiser rather than one of the over-officious agencies.  Like a lot of places in Newcastle, it was a bit run down, was on a busy road and didn’t have a particularly nice garden but we tarted it up a bit and it eventually became home.