“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
“Voyage, travel and change of place impart vigor.” – Seneca
Since coming to New Zealand, and to Queenstown especially, it’s funny to be able to catch myself changing. To make a decision and say, “Whoa, I wouldn’t have made that same one this time last year.” Because – as the above quotes relate to – one would hope that as you travel, the scenery is not the only thing to change; that as the horizons of your world broaden, the same would occur to the horizons of your mind. New perspectives, new paradigms, new ways of living and thinking and seeing the world around you.
To be terribly honest, whilst living in London, I wasn’t all that interested in meeting other Americans. Not that I didn’t enjoy the ones I did meet, but I wasn’t exactly rushing out to attend American Expat social events either. Most of my new friends were from New Zealand or Australia, with a handful of English thrown in there – I loved the international aspect of our friendship, of comparing accents and pronunciations and being told to “Stay out of it, America.” Whenever I was introduced to another American, I think the person introducing us was usually the most excited about our common country of origin. It was just that I felt that if I had wanted to meet other fellow countrymen, I could’ve stayed in New York or Boston – wasn’t the whole point of moving to London, the melting pots of melting pots, to meet people I couldn’t have met back home?
I didn’t encounter too many Americans in Christchurch, besides the typical slew of tourists I served, mainly a girl my age from Texas at my restaurant and a woman from Illinois at my office. So it’s been interesting to be in Queenstown and find myself excited – to actually look forward to – meeting people hailing from the same Motherland as myself. Which is a fortunate development to occur, considering they are all over – whether on holiday (“vacation,” in Americanese), here for the season, or having bit the bullet and made a permanent move to this part of the world. And no one was I more excited to meet than a guy named Jared at the bar. He was one of the first people I met on the night of my trial and we both quickly picked up on each other’s accents. “So where are you from?” he asks. “Virginia?” I answer in that questioning way as you wait to hear what state another American is from, so as to determine how much you actually have in common. I’ve met other Americans in the bar from states like Montana or Nevada, but just about all we share is a president, a national anthem, and, if not a love for baseball, at least a complete lack of understanding of cricket.
Jared’s jaw dropped as he told me he, too, was from Virginia, state of all states. We both couldn’t believe our common status as Virginians, the state of Sic Semper Tyrannis and “Virginia is for Lovers.” Even though we happened to be from completely different regions, there was an instant sort of comfortability with him – there was a sense of being known, no need for explanations or extensive background information. I soon met his flatmate Brad, another Virginian who went to high school with Jared and is now traveling with him. Both of them have brothers who went to my university and are familiar with the traditions, customs, the Greek System and even Foxfields, an annual horse race that’s basically an excuse to get dressed up in bowties, seersucker, and sundresses and drink all day while achieving a less-than-ideal sunburn. While it was weird talking about my university in such a specific way again, it was also such a good feeling to have a past again, not just some nebulous existence in the present with people from all over where neither of you have a true understanding of where the other has come from. And as interesting as the conversation in my international friendships can be, filled with the new slang and phrases of another country’s jargon, hanging out with Jared and Brad has been a small taste of home, of being able to ask where their “trash can” is rather than the “rubbish bin” and passing the “ketchup” rather than “to-mah-toe” sauce.
And furthermore, our status as Americans abroad lets us relate to each other in a pretty unique way. For so many of the British, European, Aussie and Kiwi friends I’ve made, what we’re doing – an OE, or “Overseas Experience” – is the norm – not entirely out of the ordinary. Not to discount their move in any way, for it still requires the same level of preparation and courage, but with statistical myths stating 25% of New Zealanders live abroad, it gives you an idea of the popularity of the OE. That doesn’t seem to be quite the case for many Americans, though. I’ve run into Brad several times while out, and maybe it’s just the time of night, but we seem to always end up having those epic late-night conversations about “life” and our plans and a common desire to break out of the high school-college-job-marriage-mortgage pattern. We understand what the other has left behind – it’s not that we think we want something better, it’s just that we want something different. Last night at the bar, I served two women from the States – one is the defense attaché to the US Embassy in Wellington, the other is earning her PhD in psychology to work with war veterans from Vietnam and Iraq, both having served in the Navy for over twenty years and traveled to over forty countries. I couldn’t have left my conversation with them more inspired. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” they said to me. To see two women living the kind of life I hope to lead was incredible, and further reinforced my new love for fellow American expats.
But it’s not just my circle of friends that I find expanding – I’ve surprised myself at how at home I feel in Queenstown, despite it being such a small town. I’ve always considered myself a city girl, comfortable in the anonymity of millions, content on a subway of people I don’t know. And it’s what I never liked about Charlottesville, the town of about 40,000 that I went to university in – the fact that it always seemed too small. One friend who worked at a local bar complained about seeing the same crowd, the same people, out every night. I hated never being able to go somewhere without seeing someone I knew, be it Harris Teeter, Starbucks, or the mall. Sometimes you just want to escape it all, you know? Thus my love for Boston and London and the blessed seclusion of the big city.
So it’s strange to reside in an even smaller town and find myself happy here, happy getting to know the group of locals living here for the season. Working at essentially the only supermarket in town as well as one of the most popular bars means I meet a lot of people, and sometimes a lot of the same people who frequent both establishments. My absolute favorite moment is when I’ll go to serve someone at the bar whom I’ve rung up earlier that day in Premier Taste – the look on their face, the moment when they realize they’ve seen me before – “Do you happen to work…?” Anticipating their question, I smile proudly and assure them, “The supermarket? Why yes, I do, as a matter of fact.” While walking through the bar last night collecting all the empty glasses, a guy stopped me and asked, “Do you have a sister who works at the supermarket?” I almost died laughing as I informed him, “That’s me, actually!” It’s the best feeling when someone comes up to my section of the bar and shouts, “Premier Taste!” or “Supermarket girl!” And that’s just the tourists…Getting to know the network of other hospo workers and bouncers also has its perks, whether it be getting discounts on drinks, not having to show my ID to get in somewhere, or – best of all – jumping the queue on a Saturday night.
Maybe I’ve gotten over my need to lose myself in a city since my time in Charlottesville, or maybe it’s much to do with the same change in my perspective towards other Americans – it’s that feeling of being known, of having come alone to a foreign country and finding myself connected, feeling like I belong somewhere. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that the more I travel, the more and more I discover the importance of people as well as places. Before I departed for Europe last year, I was consumed with wanting to visit places – any country, every country – and arrived in London with every intention of taking a trip every weekend around the UK and Europe – Bath, Stonehenge, Cambridge, the Lake District, France, you name it. Within a few weeks though, I’d met my new group of Kiwi friends and found myself giving up the trips in lieu of just being with them in London on the weekends. Rather than a series of small trips like I’d originally planned, I ended up going on two bigger trips with the Kiwis – something I would never have imagined happening. But, in a way, it ruined me – it opened up this new world of the magic of traveling with close friends. When I later went to Paris with a group of fifteen random girls through a student travel club, I was angry at myself – “You’re in Paris, Candace, why aren’t you happier?” It just wasn’t the same, though, after Egypt and the French Alps. The inside jokes, the teasing, being able to be grumpy if I felt like it – it was all missing. Instead, it was back to the basics, back to introductions and questions like “Where are you from” and “So what to do you do in London?” As exciting as new friends can be, the trip just wasn’t the same.
So as I travel alone through New Zealand, I’ve started picking up on the “tricks of the [backpacking] trade” – the ways to meet people and put myself in situations with others “of my kind.” In Boston, I rented a single room in a rooming house, hoping to avoid the risk of a bad roommate experience. I started off my flat search in Christchurch with much the same intention of finding a studio apartment or single bedroom flat rather than just a room in a shared house. But when nothing came to fruition, I ended up going with the latter, much out of desperation. It’s cool, though, to now look back on it and see that if I hadn’t chosen that flat, I would never have met my flatmate Kenny, who in turn got me the job at the restaurant, which in turn opened up a whole new group of friends and was in turn owned by someone who hooked me up with my job at Wattie’s – a chain reaction that almost never happened. So when my landlord in Christchurch said his house in Queenstown would come with nine flatmates, he was spot on by saying, “Think of it like having nine instant friends.” A year ago, I would’ve run in the other direction at the prospect of moving into a house with nine strangers – but now I’ve got an amazing group of friends, a quasi-family of sorts, from all over the world. Living alone comes with few risks – after all, the only dishes left in the sink are the ones you couldn’t be bothered washing the night before. After a while, though, all that talking to yourself can get to you. But if you’re willing to risk getting a few kooks and crazies as flatmates, you’ll be in a position to gain that much more when flatties turn into friends and things go better than expected.
The same goes for my hostel-booking habits. When scoping out hostels online for our Scandinavian trip last August – my first Euro-experience – my first instinct was to go for the triples so we could have our own room. Only if the larger dorms were drastically less in price would we book a bed in something like an 8 or 12-bed dorm. But after times like in Prague – where Emily and I brushed up on our Spanish to hang out with our dormmates from Barcelona – or Greymouth – where my new French dormmates provided some unexpected company for the weekend – I try now to opt for a dorm bed. Each experience grows my confidence and courage, as I venture further and further outside my comfort zone and put myself in new situations that are almost always worth the risk of the unknown.
So whether it’s opening myself up to any friendship, any town, or any situation, I am grateful not just for New Zealand, but for a new me – a me who I wouldn’t have recognized this time last year, a me who I hope continues to cherish every challenge as a chance for change.