I'm in the midst of finishing a few last hours of work when starting to write this. Next to me are some empty boxes, soon to be filled with whatever I decide to take with me. In a few days I'll be leaving Ōtautahi / Christchurch behind - the city I've been calling my home for the past couple of years.

I arrived in Ōtautahi in February 2020 and moved into my partner's flat. This was just a couple of weeks before New Zealand's borders would close to international tourism for over 2 years. Another couple of weeks later the country went into a nationwide lockdown as a reaction to a pandemic that was spreading across the globe. Lockdowns, face masks, absence of international tourism would soon not just become a new normal worldwide. but a major part of how I came to know Aotearoa. This new home of mine, at the bottom of the South Pacific. One that used to be packed with tourists, as I've been told.


View of the city from Mt Vernon, one of the peaks in the Port Hills


I had been able to get a glimpse of Ōtautahi just before the lockdown was announced, thanks to Darryn, my partner, who was showing me around a little bit. Nothing beats being introduced to a new place through the eyes of a local. I'd see a little bit of the Port Hills, run a few runs in North Hagley - the large green space just across the road from where we live, climbed a few times in my new local bouldering gym and even enjoyed a couple of meals eating out.


View of Lyttelton Harbour and Otamahua / Quail Island, also from the top of Mt Vernon


Meanwhile what had started as sort of whispers from a virus outbreak in China while I was still in Santiago in Chile some weeks earlier was making it's way across the globe. The whispers became louder and louder. When NZ's Prime Minister announced the lockdown in March 2020 I'd already made my peace with a few weeks of isolation at home. Naively I wasn't worried at all. While the world seemed to go crazy on toilet paper and other panic buying I was recounting my experiences of weeks living on a cargo ship traveling to the South American continent a year prior. Or being stuck in a small village in the middle of Ecuador unable to move much for a week due to protests and road blocks everywhere. Can't get that bad, ey? I was confident about the situation and even grateful to have something like North Hagley so close by. This meant I could go running / walking in a bit of green space and still get a bit of exercise in. Way more enjoyable than running on a treadmill in a sweaty window-less gym full of hearty odour on board of a freighter. Running laps on deck wasn't really an option for most of the journey as the temperatures and the heat reflecting from the deck felt like being baked in an oven, very slowly.

Little did my overly confident self know by then...

I highly, completely and utterly underestimated the vast impact two months of almost total social isolation would have on me. Social interaction with different characters was something I had on the ship and in Ecuador but lacked almost entirely during lockdowns in NZ. As I was slowly running out of the last bit of money I had and only one person per household was allowed in supermarkets, one of some of the only facilities that remained open during that time, Darryn did all of our grocery shopping. In summary, that reduced my social interactions to pretty much him. This is not counting the daily updates by Jacinda Ardern on screen and the few very far away encounters with other people in the park, everyone keeping their distance. I kept going with Darryn on every single grocery shop. Even though I would just be waiting in the car. Just to get out of the flat. Just to have a bit of a change of scenery and see different real life people, again only from a distance and through a window of a car.


Exercise stations in the park remained closed for quite a while


All that while, I continued to think I was fine. Just a few weeks of being at home, right? I was more worried about friends and family in Europe and other parts of this planet than myself, protected here in this isolated collection of islands at the end of the world. The first time it hit me and I realised that maybe something is not quite so fine was when I went into a grocery store again for the very first time, also the first time with a mask on. It only took a few minutes in the shop until I started panicking. It was a small store. I was completely overwhelmed with everything. It took me quite a bit to talk myself out of simply dropping everything and running out of the store. Thousands of thoughts racing through my head. I've always been an "overthinker" but that was way more than usual, even for me. Anything from thinking I can't breathe. Tricky with that one: the more you think you can't breathe, the more your body is under stress, the heavier and irregular the breathing. Hm, very nasty vicious circle. Over analysing how to get past people without getting too close. Or what if I have to sneeze suddenly.

The toughest doubts of all though and one that lingered in my mind for a very long time was not wanting to stick out as a foreigner. With borders closed and having only spent a few weeks in the country before they did, I couldn't quite shake off the feeling that I don't belong. (To be clear no one ever said anything to make me feel that way. I was simply beating myself up. I'm quite good at that at times.).


Little dots, signs and posters all over the city to remind of restrictions


To avoid being discovered as non-local, I subconsciously reduced my talking to the bare minimum. The kiwi accent is quite unmistakable. So, I knew the minute I opened my mouth to speak it'd be more than obvious that I'm not from around. I started feeling very uncomfortable whenever I'd have to talk, even if it was just common small talk. My head would literally go blank in these situations. I'd be looking for words where there were none to find, no matter the language, just a huge blank space. Not knowing what to say I'd very often end up saying nothing at all. If you're thinking, oh, that must've been awkward at times. You're right. Awkward situations became my new normal for a little while.

"Hello there, how are you?"

"Uhm, Good."

"Having a lovely day?"

- Freakishly long break because I'm actually contemplating how my day has been, what to say and if I should say that I'm highly uncomfortable right now. Have I mentioned that small talk isn't really practised in Germany (at least not until 4 years ago) like it is in NZ or the USA? When I lived in the USA for a year at the age of 16 I kind of got the hang of it by the end of that year. It took me a bit to get back into it in New Zealand, especially with my newly acquired friend called social anxiety. -

"Uhm, yes."


In summary, I became very good at how to NOT make friends. That was something I did not see coming at all. A new kind of language barrier in an English speaking country. English has been a part of my life since I was 10. A very vital part since I was 16. As much as I could I'd made English my default (books, movies, etc.) since having spent a year abroad in the USA. Always trying to keep in touch with the fluidity I've learned there. And here I was in Aotearoa, where pegs are pigs (took me just a wee bit of wondering why people here pitch tents with pigs and what that is all about), almonds are ammons, hiking is tramping, oat meal is porridge, pudding is a desert, soda is a fizzy drink, a car is a caaa, so is a bar a baaa, a trunk is a boot, and so on and on. Put a layer of cloth covering the mouth on top of that and you have a very lost German in Ōtautahi. Testing people's patience by asking "Excuse me, what did you say?" too many times. In case, you are wondering, it's usually after the second, sometimes the third, time that folks tend to get slightly annoyed of repeating themselves.


Another dot...


I'm still not entirely over this new, strange obstacle but it's getting there. I don't quite talk or smile like a robot anymore. Occasionally, I even make jokes. Something that used to be a trait of mine. Something that's also really hard when you're anxious about interacting with other humans. But time and consciously putting myself in these situation to get practise certainly helped. So did that the country itself has slowly opened up again. Being locked off from any social activities for a significant amount of time probably took a toll on most of us, I guess. New to a place or not. And, of course, understanding kiwi now, not just the dialect but also the humour and cultural specialties, sure is an advantage.

I've taken a bit of a detour here to explain what's ahead, where I am going and what it means to leave Ōtautahi for a while. My intention was to give you an insight of my connection to it. There's so much more about this place than my wee little story. I've mentioned some things in another post. Don't even let me get started on all the beautiful street art that can be found on the walls here. I guess, we all have our own unique stories of personal connections to certain places. Some of my connections to this city are intertwined with lockdowns, deserted streets, getting used to a new global "normal", for whatever a supposed normal was to begin with, all while being new to a place and also eventually getting used to a new part of me.


The main road in our neighbourhood on my way to the park during lockdown


So, what is ahead?

Basically what I mentioned at the beginning of this article: an extended time off to immerse fully in tramping (= hiking, remember? :P ), climbing, running, writing, ... We will temporarily be moving our "base" to Wanaka and explore the area, primarily by foot, from there. Wanaka is a town located close to Mount Aspiring National Park in New Zealand (mountains, mountains!!!). We travelled their together for the first time during a Christmas holiday in 2020 and both fell for the place.

Our plan is to enjoy a few months of simple life, living in a tent or huts. I'm more than excited for this and have been ever since we first started talking about it. It'll be the first time for me being able to see a little bit of this country without being limited to a couple of weeks. So, stay tuned and I'll soon be back for more in Wanaka :)


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