Before arriving in London last August, the two girls I was traveling with and I did a quick tour of part of Scandinavia – Sweden, Estonia (okay, not technically Scandinavia), and four days in a lake house in Finland. And as wonderful as the views were and as much as the three of us didn’t want to leave, I also could not wait to board that plane to London. I remember likening the night before we left to Christmas Eve, of the impossibility of sleep and the crushing anticipation of the morning to come. What would be waiting for you beneath the tree? That was exactly how London seemed to me – a flat, a job, a new group of friends, a new city to explore and to get to know – all presents I was dying to rip the wrapping off of and discover.
And so I found myself in Invercargill on the last morning of my Deep South NZ roadtrip, wanting to see the city yet anxious to get back on the road and get down to business…Queenstown. I’d heard so many things about the town, I’d seen pictures, even watched The Bachelor’s season finale filmed there – but my life in Queenstown? Even though I had a flat and job sorted before ever leaving Christchurch, there was still so much marked TBD – To Be Determined, that is. Just another set of gifts, another set of unknowns dying to make themselves known.
In his book Goodnight, Mister Lenin: A Journey through the End of the Soviet Empire, Italian author Tiziano Terzani perfectly captures what I’m trying to describe:
“In any case the expedition gave me a good reason to travel again, to feel again that unique thrill understood only by those addicted to the drug of departures, the sense of freedom on arriving in places where you know no one, places you have only read about in other people’s books – that incomparable pleasure of seeking to know at first hand, and to understand.”
That is why I left Christchurch, that is why I sat in my restaurant one night after we’d closed, polishing fork after fork, knife after knife, saying to myself, “You have to go. You can’t stay.” If such a drug of departures exists, it’s clear I’m addicted – or rather, to a drug of arrivals. I can do without departures, without tear-filled farewells, without goodbyes and the pain of leaving the ones you love behind. But the arrivals are always worth the pain to me, the thrill of the unknown always outweighs the comfort of the known. I left Christchurch for a change of scenery – in both a literal and figurative sense – and I got everything I bargained for.
If you can, imagine the route I took from Christchurch to Queenstown like the letter J. From Christchurch, it was straight down to Dunedin before curving around to Invercargill. Stewart island fell at the bottom of the J before I looped up again towards Queenstown. It was on that final loop that the reality of the move I was making really hit me – from the flat coastline of Invercargill the snow-capped Southern Alps suddenly appeared in the distance along State Highway Six. The change came before you could note it happening, a bend in the road and there was a lake, with its still waters filling the nooks and crannies of the hills that rose from its shores, and hazy sunlight gleaming on the surface of the lake, diffused by low-hanging clouds. It was pristine, it was rugged, it was awesome in the truest sense of the word.
Someone had obviously anticipated the effect the fjord-lake setting might have on the likes of us accustomed to the Canterbury Plains and ingeniously created turn-off after turn-off along the road, even if it was just a few spare meters of gravel to pull into instead of risking the lives of others, myself, and my camera to record that visual feast. Just when I thought I had pulled over for the last time, the lake would widen or the mountains would grow whiter or the sky would open, spilling out sunlight, and I couldn’t resist the invitation.
But even as inspired as I was feeling by the newness of the scenery in front of me, I felt slightly less so about the prospect of starting over in Queenstown. Words that come to mind might include overwhelmed, panicked, or confused. As I drove through the rather average-looking suburb of Frankton and made my way into the heart of Queenstown, I began to doubt my decision to come here at all. Maybe I would’ve been better off just visiting the town, like so many people in Christchurch advised me – why do I always have to up and move somewhere?
But doubts and depression had to wait – practical matters, like always, took priority. I had my rental car booked until 5pm that evening, meaning I needed to find my new flat, drop off my stuff (of which there was more than usual, being that I drove rather than flew, I didn’t need to purge as much before the move), and return the car all within a couple of hours. The flat wasn’t hard to find; it was a typical sort of house with a picnic table outside and an outline of the United States crafted from bottle caps pressed into the ground. Thankfully a guy was home and I went in to introduce myself.
His name was Laurent, a Frenchman, and in broken English attempted to tell me that there weren’t any open rooms in the house. Remember that feeling of panic I was talking about? I raced to explain myself, “No…you don’t understand…Rick is my landlord in Christchurch…there has to be a room…this is 253 Thomson Street, right?” It was like the panicked mumblings you spit out to airline representatives at the check-in desk when you’re on standby, or the train you’re trying to catch is due in any minute and you’re twenty platforms away – “But sir, do you understand me? I have to be there by 12:30.” It was every bit as hopeless as it sounds.
And there’s no use even commenting on the utter impossibility of contacting my landlord – lost cause doesn’t even come close to describing it. I phoned and texted him non-stop for an hour, much like a crazed ex-girlfriend in denial after a break-up, but to no avail. It was one of those moments in life where I quite literally had absolutely no idea what to do. All I wanted was someone to swoop in and say, “Do this. Go there” – anything to help me break through the fog of disbelief that I had no place to stay for the night. I love traveling and being in New Zealand and it isn’t often that I wish I wasn’t doing it alone, but just every now and then, I just want someone else to help me through all the decisions. The first was flat-hunting in Christchurch – there’s only so much advice friends and family can give you halfway across the world. That night in Queenstown, I could’ve used someone by my side.
I off-loaded all my bags into the front entryway, for lack of a better plan, because flat or not flat, the rental car needed returning. I caught a bus back from the airport (for an exorbitant fare as well, I might add, so that didn’t help my day any), on which the driver had a bit of a senior moment. All the passengers had gotten off on the way through Frankton, leaving just me to ride it out into central Queenstown. The driver looks in his rear-view mirror at me, curled into a feeling-sorry-for-myself ball in a seat towards the far back and asks what I was still on the bus for. Mildly confused, I reply, “I’m wanting to get into town?” in that statement-as-question tone where the inflection of your voice goes up as you doubt the validity of your response. He stares at me for a moment then admits he thought he’d already finished the route for the day. We sort of both shook our heads, had a laugh about it and carried on.
When I did reach town, the first thing to catch my eye were the Golden Arches, and right then I thought nothing could be better than a little greasy comfort food. I snagged a booth to myself (selfishly inconsiderate, I know), pulled out my book and took a look around, starting to get to know my new home for the next few months. If the snow caps and Lake Wakatipu weren’t signs I was somewhere completely different, then the crowds of people milling about in their ski gear definitely were. In Christchurch, Kathmandu had a hold on the market for winter gear, with probably close to 97% of the residents wearing identical black puffer jackets. But in Queenstown, the names you see are Burton, Rossignol, Ride, Roxy – all ski jackets in every shade and style imaginable.
The whole alpine-orientation of the town was going to take some getting used to. I’m a beach girl – always have been, always will be. I grew up visiting my grandparents in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and hitting up Virginia Beach with friends during summer breaks from high school. As a family, all our vacations and holiday trips took place in the summer to other equally hot places. During the winter, we stayed put, except for one Thanksgiving when I was seven and we went away…to the beach. So one look at the snow-gear-clad crowds of Queenstown and I just didn’t feel like myself.
Back at the flat, I begin getting to know to the motley crew that was my nine new flatmates – an American guy, an Australian couple, two guys from Belgium, a Kiwi girl, a Scottish girl and a Scottish guy who has since been replaced by another American girl. They all immediately sympathized with my plight, either having had similar experiences with our landlord or just familiar with his slipshod nature, and offered to let me crash in their lounge for the night until everything could be sorted out. The thought of having to move all my stuff – down an insanely steep hill at that – and trying to find a hostel that late into the evening was too discouraging to even entertain, so I was all too keen to sleep on a couch if I had to.
The conversations from that evening were incredibly enlightening into beginning to understand Queenstown as a place. There’s no doubt whatsoever that people are here for two things – the snow and the nightlife. My flatmates couldn’t believe I had no plans of buying a season lift pass. One of the Belgians asked, “So what are you going to do then?” I answered, “Uh…work?” rather hesitantly, starting to doubt the decision myself. I looked at the collection of snowboards and skis propped along the front wall, at all the ski gear draped across drying racks, and felt so out of place. Back in Christchurch, two of my flatmates also held two jobs, so I didn’t feel bad for it – work was what we did. But several of my new flatmates in Queenstown didn’t even have one – not that they weren’t looking for employment, of course – it just meant that there seems to be more people around the house now when I come home in between jobs who make me ask myself, “Am I working too much?”
And if days are for the snow, then nights are for the parties – it’s a two-item agenda in this town. My second night, my flatmates were asking each other if they were going out that night – “On a Monday?!” I wanted to ask. But weekends are clearly irrelevant in Queenstown, as your two scheduled days off may not be over the traditional Saturday/Sunday weekend at all. Thus, if you have Wednesday and Thursday off each week, Friday becomes your new Monday and Tuesday your new Friday. It’s just about as bizarre and disconcerting as it gets.
By Monday night, though, the lack-of-an-open-room situation had resolved itself. A handyman employed by our landlord finished up a new addition, letting the Scottish girl move out of the room promised to me. I started work at the supermarket that day as well, so between settling into my new room and showing up for my new job every day, I had plenty to keep my mind off the fact that while this change of scenery was oh-so-welcome, like any big change it was going to take some getting used to.