Wellington, New Zealand Report of what it's like to live there - 03/30/16
Personal Experiences from Wellington, New Zealand
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
West Coast USA. From LAX or SFO, it's about a 14-hour flight to either Sydney or Auckland, then a connecting flight on a smaller plane into Wellington's wind-buffeted sneeze of an airport. Transiting through Auckland involves lugging all your checked luggage between the domestic and international terminals, while a trip through Sydney involves having to deal with Australians.
3. How long have you lived here?
One full tour, and not a day longer.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Assigned to the U.S. Embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
The housing market in New Zealand remains tight due to a continual influx of people, as well as limited land for new buildings. Post's housing pool is a mix of older, owned properties and newer leases which are spread far and wide throughout Wellington and its suburbs. Although there's a range of apartments, townhouses and single-family homes available in the pool, there is no excess inventory so the assignments can be a crapshoot based on your arrival date. Commutes range from a 20-minute walk to over an hour's drive each way. If you plan to have your kids go to one particular school, make sure to let the Housing Board know well in advance so they can try to accommodate you.
Make-readys tend to be very casually done here, and as a result of the relaxed culture you'll find that painting or cleaning might not be done like you'd expect at a larger post with more resources. GSO is very limited for warehouse storage, so you get what you get when it comes to furniture and furnishings. Gardening seems to be a prized hobby in New Zealand, so you'll be expected to be thrilled about the prospect of maintaining your own lawn, shrubs and trees. Several employees have said that they felt like they were living in a construction site due to the fact that their older, poorly maintained homes were always in need of repairs.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Large chain stores such as New World and Countdown have the basics covered. For household stores there's the Warehouse or Farmers, which bear a strange resemblance to a Sears in 1992. Food is slightly more expensive here, although you can save by becoming a regular at the local butcher or farmer's market. Household goods and clothing are generally lower in quality than you would expect, so plan to either rely on Amazon through the DPO or load up your HHE.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Everything that you actually need can be found locally, although your favorite brands will only sporadically be available. Pack heavy on your favorite American foods and staples, since they're not generally carried in Wellington. One supermarket chain, Countdown, does have an American foods section with Old El Paso taco shells and Aunt Jemima pancake mix. No syrup though, go figure.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Takeaway shops and bakeries are ubiquitous, although they mostly offer low-quality pies and fried food. McDonald's, Subway, KFC and Burger King are all widely available and offer a little taste of freedom. New Zealand has no unique cuisine of its own, so brace yourself for an onslaught of bland British food.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Not very many, which is fortunate because most housing does not have central heating or air conditioning. On summer evenings, be sure to turn off the lights or else you'll have hordes of moths fluttering in through your windows.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO for care packages, but allow 3-5 weeks for standard delivery from the U.S. NZ Post is also a reliable option for receiving local shipments, although the mail carriers will have no shame about reading your postcards.
2. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
New Zealand is often described as a sport-crazy country, but that doesn't necessarily imply athleticism. Many fans are content to sit on the couch, drink beer and watch cricket on the telly. Gyms are generally available, although they vary wildly in terms of quality. Plan to pay about $15 NZD per week for something that resembles a hotel fitness center with equally limited opening hours. There is no gym at the Embassy, and no showers are available for the bike commuters or lunchtime runners.
3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Both are safe to use, although many businesses simply do not accept credit cards. Get a local EFTPOS (debit card) bank account through Westpac as soon as possible, since it's the preferred method of payment. A lot of places will even act as if you're causing them a personal inconvenience when trying to pay with cash.
4. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I've been told that the people here speak English, but it's hard to be certain since many New Zealanders are extremely soft-spoken. Also, the local patois involves adding “i.e." to the end of words: breakfast becomes brekkie, presents become prezzies, etc.
5. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Although the city of Wellington is easy enough to get around, you would quickly experience cabin fever if you tried to stay in town for weeks on end. Most of New Zealand's natural attractions are far-flung and unimproved, so a disabled person would end up feeling left out. Also, the Embassy is currently undergoing a seismic upgrade project, so the entire building has been transformed into a construction site until at least 2018. The one elevator remains out of service, and there is no timeline for it to be operational again. Bathrooms are few in number and regularly out of service, which means that employees would have to negotiate flights of stairs on a regular basis.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
All are safe and generally affordable. A monthly Tranzmetro rail pass will cost between $100-$150 NZD, and most people in the suburbs will take this route. You'll see a lot of free range parenting here, with kids as young as 8 or 9 allowed to take the train or ride a taxi to school by themselves. It's almost impossible to go completely carless, though, as there's no kind of alternative options like SmartCar. You'll need a vehicle to get out of town during your tour, or else you'll go stir crazy by staying in Wellington.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
I'd recommend against shipping a car due to stringent restrictions on imports, most of which seem arbitrary and whimsically enforced. Even if your current vehicle is right-hand drive and meets the necessary emission standards, it might still take several weeks and thousands of dollars to have the headlights realigned. Secondhand cars are cheap and widely available for purchase, although many have been salvaged from either Australia or Japan. Expect to have an unusable FM band, as well as a GPS programmed in a foreign tongue. On start-up, one of my colleague's cars would always announce something like "Konnichiwa, honorable driver, please to fasten seatbelt for safe driving pleasure experience." Maintenance costs are slightly higher here, especially with replacing tires due to the poor quality roads. Car insurance is not compulsory, but it's inexpensive (~$500 NZD/year) and highly recommended.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
To live in New Zealand is to live at the end of the Internet. Regular in-home service is available for approx. $100 NZD/month, though reliability is spotty. When traveling, most hotels still charge you to access the Web, and the smaller mom-and-pop places will actually charge you based on data usage. 3G coverage varies by city, and there are several hours' worth of dead zones along major highways.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Surprisingly not, and as a result many EFMs choose not to work for a tour. EFM vacancies at the Embassy are routinely going unfilled.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Plenty. New Zealanders are generally joiners, so there's a volunteer club for all kinds here.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business at the Embassy, despite all the dust and smoke from the ongoing demolition. Kiwis are more casual, though, so Wellington is one of those rare places where you'll find yourself dressing down before you go to a meeting. It's anything goes after hours; New Zealand seems to be a grab bag of styles, although going barefoot seems to be a thing for all ages. The locals look for any occasion to wear costumes (known as "fancy dress") to office parties or get-togethers at the pub.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
None that you wouldn't have in any other small city, although at first you'll be surprised by New Zealand's overall lack of security. Most police aren't typically armed, and many airports don't bother themselves with such mundane tasks like screening passengers or their luggage. Typical crime reports often cite alcohol as a factor, though disorderly conduct and robberies are commonplace in and around Wellington. Also, it seems like every few weeks there's a report of an attempted child abduction somewhere in the country.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Generally good but it varies, and the techniques are dated but with a new-age feel. As there's no RMO or RMO-P at post, you'll have to rely on word-of-mouth referrals to locate service providers. For follow-up care, there may only be one or two specialist providers available in Wellington, so don't count on being able to get a second opinion. There are no specific health concerns here, although depression is a reality here due to the weather and the working conditions. Like most well-to-do and government employees, doctors routinely take most of December and January off for the holidays.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
There is no air pollution here, although the weather does get fairly gloomy when it's overcast for weeks at a time.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Although many restaurants feature allergy-sensitive or gluten-free menus, it's a challenge to shop for a specific diet on a regular basis. If you need lactose-free milk, you've got to check the supermarkets daily as there seems to be a local cabal of tiger moms that goes around buying it in bulk. Seasonal allergies are a danger year-round, so come prepared with a stock of medications.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
When it's not raining here, it's going to rain. When it's sunny you'll burn. You'll quickly become acquainted with SPF 70+. Try to get out and enjoy those rare days of good weather, though, as the climate seems to take a toll on people.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
This is a mixed bag, and your happiness with schools may depend entirely on where you're assigned to live. Check with the CLO or your sponsor for the latest advice, and stay on top of your housing assignment so you can reach out to find the public school nearest you. Also, many schools require kids to wear the full Brit-style uniforms, which can cost up to US$1000 for an initial issue. The majority of schools in Wellington are single-gender.
Academics are a crapshoot, and many parents find that the curriculum is less challenging than in the U.S. Most schools require parents to sign blanket authorizations for spontaneous field trips during the school day. Lesson plans and schedules are seen as more like rough guidelines.
2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
There are many options for daycare, but these vary widely in quality from in-home providers to regional chains. Do your research before trusting someone with your kids, as Kiwis have a much greater tolerance for risk when it comes to child-rearing. It's not unusual to see kids as young as five or six walking themselves to the dairy during free periods.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, although most of them are run through the schools, which seem to enforce mandatory athletics participation in order to build character. Rugby, cricket, and something called netball are big here.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Tiny and lousy. Remember that the people make the post, so be sure to do your due diligence and Google searches when bidding. The current Embassy construction project is akin to 4o hours of sheer torture each week, with no realistic end date in sight. If you enjoy drafting cables with a jackhammer pounding away next to your desk, or if you just adore the idea of partaking in three unplanned fire drills each week, Wellington might be for you. Also, the Embassy has quite an impressive problem with limited resources and funding, so don't expect any of the usual support systems or offices that you'd find at a larger post.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Not a lot. Most of the local nightlife ends earlier than you'd expect, and in the suburbs the streets roll up at 7pm sharp. Walking out of a movie theater at night in New Zealand will make you think the apocalypse must have happened while you were inside.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
No/No/Yes. Wellington is an extremely small city, and for some reason families with young children seem to suffer when coming here. Likewise for singles, as the social scene is limited and fairly insular. Childless couples and empty nesters seem to enjoy New Zealand the most by taking full advantage of the in-country travel opportunities. This is not a very tight-knit post, and most employees do not socialize outside of working hours.
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
In general no, but people of an African descent are still somewhat rare in New Zealand. It's not uncommon to be seen as a novelty, which may result in being treated differently or being asked inappropriate questions.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Seeing some moderately impressive landscapes while listening to Lord of the Rings fans describe in detail which scenes were filmed there. Enjoying the gorgeous harbor views while stuck in traffic jams on the one motorway leading into and out of the city. Queuing up behind hordes of Asian cruise ship tourists while waiting for weak beer and watery coffee.
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Lonely Planet magazine dubbed Wellington the "coolest little capital in the world" although in truth you could cover most of the major highlights here in a few long weekends. Try to get out of Wellington whenever possible.
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Wool socks, wool shirts, wool hats, wool jackets, and lamb chops. New Zealand doesn't seem to make much of anything that's not sheep related, so you probably won't overload your HHE coming out of here.
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
New Zealand is, without a doubt, the most beautiful second-world country I've ever seen. There's literally tens of bucket-list things to do, each of which will keep you entertained for up to an hour at a time. Unfortunately, all of these places of interest are at least a 2-3 hour drive apart, so plan on embracing the carsickness along all the winding, unsealed roads.
9. Can you save money?
Yes, if you're not trying to keep up with the people who seem to continually be flying off on bucket-list trips every Friday afternoon at 2:30.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
That New Zealand is a place where people come to do amazing things, but not necessarily to do amazing work.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
No. I know the term mutual break-up is somewhat of a cliche, but it's time for me and the Kiwis to go our separate ways. Please note that your results may vary-- this beautiful country would be the perfect R&R destination by anyone's standards, but spending a full tour at this too-small Embassy is just too much.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Used tents, dirty hiking shoes, filthy gumboots, and anything else that might get seized by customs for a biosecurity violation. Also, don't bother bringing any expectations of personal privacy or top-rate customer service.
4. But don't forget your:
Sunscreen, patience, flavored coffee creamer. Your favorite cassettes and CDs from the 1990s.
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Flight of the Conchords.
6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Anything but the Hobbit please.
7. Do you have any other comments?
I'd recommend confirming that the current Embassy construction project is over before placing a bid on this post.