Mice, bad flats, good coffee: my first four years in Wellington

The Lido is a cafe on Victoria Street — not a cinema in Epsom.

The city fringe suburb Newtown is where you’ll find the cafe Baobab — not the city fringe suburb Newton is where you’ll find the cafe Benediction.

Flight Coffee is the best coffee — not Roasted Addiqtion is the best coffee.

Fidel’s has great vegan muffins — not The Stone Oven has great vegan muffins.

Commonsense Organics is the awesome hippy health food shop — not Harvest Wholefoods is the awesome hippy health food shop.

Let’s go for a walk up Mt Vic — not let’s go for a walk up Mt Eden.

It’s been almost four years since I moved to Wellington. My brain has been slower to relocate. I still refer to Auckland as ‘home’. Some sentences and points of reference I’ve had to work extra-hard to get used to.

I flew down on a Saturday morning in mid-June.

My carry-on contained work clothes, work out clothes and my laptop. Everything else would follow when I found a flat. When the plane landed, I went straight to the hotel my new job had put me up in, dumped my luggage and went for a walk.

Two hours later I posted this photo to Facebook, with the following status update:

“Hi there Wellington I live here now. In my first few hours as a resident I found a cute, flattering and practical hooded raincoat with an umbrella pattern in a second hand shop, then walked past a pub that happened to be playing my second favourite George Harrison song. Continue like this, Wellington, and we’ll get along just fine.”

She did, and we have.

That’s not to say there haven’t been bumps in my road from being a born and raised Aucklander to becoming a Wellingtonian.

I was decisive that the move was the right thing to do. I loved my Auckland life. I had strong networks of friends there — the smart women in my book club which only read New Zealand literature (but mostly talked about our private lives); sharp current and former colleagues in the media who worked quickly, questioned everything and were as cynical as me; most of my family. But…I’d been going to the same places for so many years. Friday nights were Mea Culpa, Sunday nights were the Ponsonby Food Hall, when stressed one drove to Piha, after extra-long days at work there was solace and vegetarian thali at Xotic Sweets & Snacks in Sandringham. I had a lot of little rituals for every conceivable scenario in life, most of them involved food. (A flat white and Richie slice from Ripe on Richmond Rd for weekend stress! A flat white and almond croissant from Ripe on Richmond Rd for weekend joy!) Many of my friends had left, most to go to Melbourne, within a year before I did. Everyone outgrows their hometown eventually, at least temporarily. I’d already left once, years before, moving to Sydney where I’d fallen in love with frangipanis on footpaths, trains, the louder pulse of life, a half cafe/half bookshop on Oxford St. That ended badly and too soon. This move to Wellington was a choice, made from a positive place: I had a good life. But I wanted to see what else there was, who I would be without the courtyard out the back of Atomic (or whatever it called itself now) to retreat to with coffee and carrot cake on weekend afternoons. Everything was familar. I’d explored all the corners in my little patch of Auckland. I needed new corners. I was familiar to everyone in Auckland — it was full of people who’d known me my whole life. I wanted my own place that I’d chosen, a place that was mine where my family hadn’t been before, like I had with Sydney but…this time my life wouldn’t implode, I was stronger than that.

My first flat in the capital was shared with four other people in a converted brick building above a bar in the middle of the CBD. Apparently it was once a factory. My room was a loft without any windows to the outdoors. It was cold and I felt myself turning slowly stir-crazy for lack of fresh air and natural light. I would run along the waterfront on mornings when I woke with an urge for oxygen, tugging on merino tops to stop the chill. In my pre-Wellington prep, I’d stocked up on merino long sleeve shirts and long johns in Auckland so I could cope with whatever weather was in store. I never wore the long johns. Wellington’s not quite the Arctic, Aucklanders.

Taken on a dawn run one morning when it was only three degrees

The gym was the same, and that was comforting. I transferred my Les Mills membership to the ‘Extreme’ branch on Taranaki St. My membership fees were the same as in Auckland, despite fewer classes (BodyPump only two mornings a week, instead of every day?!) and no steam room or spa pool. Still, the choreography and cheerful barks of instructors in fitness classes were identical. I began to wonder if being told to sing along to same lines of songs during classes was even part of instructors’ training. There was so much space between class participants that it was seemed ludicrous to a girl who’d always been crammed into BodyPump classes with mere inches between yourself and the next sweaty participant. Did Wellingtonians know how good they had it?

Before work, I would get flat whites from Memphis Belle that were heavenly in their creaminess. On the weekends, I went for lots of long walks, exploring the city by wandering for hours. It felt like I was on a little adventure all the time. A lady-explorer, conquering our nation’s capital in Converse, armed with a takeaway coffee in one hand for endurance.

Spotted on one of my early walks in Kelburn

There were no malls in Wellington city. That was cool until it got annoying. What on earth did Wellington women do when they wanted to go to Farmers for more mascara, get a quick bikini wax without a booking, get the supermarket shop over and done with then treat themselves to a sickly Wendys Mega Choc Shake they’d later regret? Where did they buy their work clothes without a Portmans?

I learned quickly that the colder climate affects your skin. My knuckles became scaly from walking around in winter. I bought leather gloves, catching on to the fact wind could still cut through the possum ones my Auckland colleagues gave me as part of my going-away present. “You’ll need them!” they’d laughed, at the bar on K Rd where we downed beers after work. Ha, ha. The Shiseido Moisture Mist make up I’d worn all my make-up-wearing-life no longer worked. In the cooler weather, the beauty cake literally couldn’t spread on to the sponge smoothly. I tried using warm water on the sponge, it didn’t help. The ladies at Kirks (not Smith & Caughey’s) sorted me out by suggesting I switch to powder.

Between the five flatmates in my inner city pad, there was only one bathroom. There was always someone else in there when you needed it. The flatmate who held the lease wouldn’t put the pitifully small monthly broadband allowance up. It was a selfish attempt to keep her own expenses down, and we were always running out of internet for the last 10 or so days of the month. When it reached its unreasonably low limit, she’d switch off the modem (which she kept, of course, in her bedroom). We had mice. If you went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, on the way you’d spot one of them on the kitchen benchtop. None of us knew how to kill them cheaply and humanely. I came home late one night in loud high heels on the bare wooden floorboards, then baked apology cookies the next day. Downstairs there was a live jazz band on Sunday evenings, which was awesome until it got infuriating. The dryer was broken the entire time I lived there.

I loved the Back to the Future poster in our living room, adored the one minute commute on foot from my bedroom to the nearest cafe and delighted in the sheer urbanity of it all. The rodent problem, however, eventually proved too much. I started looking for another flat. I wanted clothing that wasn’t damn well damp.

To better my living conditions, I decided I was willing to pay as much for a room in a flat as one would fork out in Ponsonby. What I was used to, in other words. The quality of Trade Me listings rose in line with the price bracket. A flat in Roseneath had an open viewing between 6–6.30pm one night after work so I went along, bracing myself. The last time I’d looked for a flat in Ponsonby, some 30+ people had been jostling to see the Summer St room at the same time. It was horrible. There was only one other potential flatmate poking around this Roseneath room, though. Did Wellingtonians know how good they had it? The house was enormous. Five bedrooms — the two downstairs both had ensuites, one of the upstairs bedrooms was an office where the resident entrepreneur worked from home. You could see the ocean from most rooms in the house. The appliances were so fancy that the refrigerator had an ice-maker and water filter built into the door.

I loved living there.

The view from my Roseneath bedroom

Aside from the entrepreneur, my flatmates were a British guy who worked as a policy analyst at the Treasury and an American girl who worked in some department of BP’s corporate office that I didn’t really understand. She travelled a lot. There was no television in the flat, something I celebrated. We threw open-door BBQs regularly which was wonderful until it got unbearable. At Guy Fawke’s we all invited everyone we knew over — I made trifle that had custard I’d made from scratch with cream and egg yolks, the entrepreneur made paua fritters with paua he’d gotten while out diving. When I came home after a long day’s work and just wanted to take a bath but found yet another BBQ and more strangers milling about, I soured on the flat. When the entrepreneur had a very loud threesome one weeknight (yes, there were definitely two girls — like I said, it was very loud) I decided I’d had enough. Back to living alone I would go.

I paid even more for my one bedroom flat in Mt Victoria than I’d paid for the room in Roseneath. My transport costs had diminished from heaps back home to nothing in Wellington though, I reasoned. The flat was half a converted villa. Being the back half of the house, it got no sun. There was just a very thin wall between me and another girl around my age in the other half of the house. She had two cats and was already, we soon discovered, a friend of mine on social media. Wellington constantly proved it was as small as Aucklanders had warned me it was (what they didn’t know was that it was a good thing). I bought my own dryer and had to keep it in the kitchen due to lack of space. The place was tiny but I made it homely.

My little kitchen shelves in Mt Vic

My partner soon moved in with me. In summer, he took me to feed the lions by hand at Wellington Zoo. In winter, we watched our way through Twin Peaks including Fire Walk With Me, then the first season of the Sopranos.

When my partner moved in, I captioned this one on Facebook “The trouble with co-habitation”.

I went to China for work for a week. I went strictly vegan, again, and got so into it for a while that I started a recipe blog and made almond milk from scratch. We both went through restructures at work. It was so cold in the ice box of an old house, without any insulation, that we needed two heaters going full bore in the lounge while we watched TV wrapped up in a rug. There were unsettling earthquakes so we broke Dry July to console ourselves with pinot noir. We went on holiday to the United States to see our best friends. When we got home, we discovered a leak in the flat. An internal wall that backed on to the bathroom had a busted pipe inside that had been leaking a constant stream of water for weeks. The landlord was a family trust. They sent round a plumber who hacked open the wall to see the problem and stop the stream of water. They were going to fix the hole in the wall “soon”, they said. The oven was so old it had an open gas flame at the back (difficult to bake in, uneven heat distribution), it one day stopped working altogether. The landlords were going to fix that “soon”, too. I developed a large repertoire of stovetop recipes. We had a mouse who chewed through packets of cumin and cinnamon I bought from Moore Wilsons and shat in the pantry. I spotted him running behind the oven on two separate occasions. We didn’t know how to kill him cheaply and humanely. The landlords still told us they were going to fix the leak “soon”, which was fine until it was outrageous.

Black mould that grew on the busted open bit of wall where our leak had been in the Mt Vic flat

When the black mould multiplied to the point where we didn’t want to go home, we sent the landlords a strongly worded email demanding we be let out of the fixed term lease.

Our new flat in Mt Cook was sunny and bigger than we needed. We paid about the same as I had for my room in Roseneath, each. It was worth every penny. There was a dishwasher (flash!), a balcony and a small veggie garden. Passionfruit and grapes grew on the property. It was only a two minute walk away from the top of Cuba St and those vegan muffins at Fidel’s. The landlords were a nice, older couple who had owned the place for many years. They provided a fridge, a dryer and a Korean washing machine that played a dainty tune when the laundry was clean. The landlords came over quickly when the waste disposal stopped working and fixed it without fuss. We had a spare bedroom with a blow up mattress. Our families availed of it, taking turns coming down from Auckland for a weekend every few months.

Sun-dappled sofa in our Mt Cook flat for reading on in the afternoons

Shortly after we moved in, I changed careers from business journalism to communications. I went from working as the only woman in a team of business reporters in a loud and constantly exciting newsroom, to having my own quiet office on The Terrace. I put my back out badly when I did a BodyPump class and went for a 5km run within a couple days of being hospitalised for lady-health problems (*shrug* I’d felt fine. No one at the hospital gave me any advice on after-care). I went from running for an hour and a half on the weekends to being in so much pain I could barely walk. Before, I’d gone to the gym twice a day regularly (on Wednesdays I’d do a Step class at 6am, then BodyPump Express at 12pm). The change in my exercise abilities and habits combined with the dramatic change in my working life was a little jarring. I got diagnosed as having super-common but super-complex Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. I went from being a person who refused to take Panadol unless circumstances were dire, preferring to rely on the powers of good nutrition and running, to being a person who needed to take pills with every meal. It was awful until it got ok. That winter, the first in our Mt Cook flat, we watched all five seasons of The Wire right through.

Then we got a puppy, and named him Avon Barksdale.

Avon Barksdale

Communications wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. I wanted to get more qualifications so I could move up in the field and enrolled in Victoria University of Wellington’s Postgraduate Diploma in Marketing. You could cross-credit it to the MBA, they told me. How ridiculous, I thought— I wasn’t old enough or serious enough or senior enough for an MBA. I didn’t know any other women who’d done an MBA, just my friend’s 45 year old husband in Auckland.

The puppy was a delight. He needed a lot of training, toilet training especially was traumatic until it got easy. He ran around our ankles when we got ready for work, he lay on his back demanding belly rubs and displaying extreme cuteness when we were getting ready for bed, he shat on the carpet when we weren’t looking. I love him to pieces. With the dog, we explored even more corners of Wellington. Turns out there are loads of bushwalks within the city bounds aside from Mt Vic. There’s Otari-Wilton’s Bush, Trelissick Park along Kaiwharawhara Stream, Seton Nossiter Park, Central Park up to the Brooklyn Wind Turbine and more and more. We’re still finding new ones. The first winter with the dog, I was studying a lot. We got really into watching The Walking Dead, Veep and Broad City. Lighter things.

I’ve carved out lots of new rituals: after a play, because one goes to a lot of theatre, get a hot chocolate or peppermint tea and a cookie or slice of cake from Midnight Espresso; when Auckland friends come to town take them to the Matterhorn for an Old Fashioned then Scopa for dinner then if they’re up for it Havana for another cocktail then Sweet Mother’s Kitchen for brunch the following day (the Eggs Herbert blows the Eggs Benedict at Fridge in Kingsland out of the water). When you want to hang out alone in public in a cafe courtyard go to Olive, after an extra-long day at work find solace in chicken lemongrass noodle salad at the Willis St Food Court or order Pomodoro Pizza to be delivered, when you want to treat yourself to a greasy work lunch get vegetarian dumplings from Dumpling’d on The Terrace, when you want a long restorative midweek lunch get chicken miso ramen from Hey Ramen! on Willis, when you want a quick lunch get the spinach pie from Sir Breadwins that you can microwave back at the office, when you’re tired get an ultra healthy smoothie from Seize, when you’re sulky get a hot chocolate from Bohemein on Featherston. On your birthday, get a vegan cupcake from Deluxe for breakfast.

Many days I choose to walk the slightly longer way to work down Cuba Street, or the slightly longer way home up Cuba St. Most days I think, “I love Wellington.” It might be the bite of the weather (so different to the muggy fug at home!), it might be watching the people around me, seeing the Harbour out the window at work, seeing the bushy hills behind the city, glimpsing the Beehive like it’s no big deal while going about my business, noticing the architecture of the Public Trust building, poking around Unity Books or just the light that sparks the affectionate thought. I tell my partner regularly, “I’m so glad we live here.” I miss my Auckland friends, but they’re still there, we still talk, and when I’m home we catch up like I never left. I’ve made new friends: sharp former colleagues in the media who work quickly, question everything and are as cynical as me; sharp current and former colleagues who didn’t work in the media but are quick-thinking, supportive, curious, bright and kind; brilliant female entrepreneurs who are a force of nature that lift me up into their pace and encourage me to see the world as a basket of never-ending opportunities the way they do; poets; two different lovely, big-feeling and bright people who run two different literary journals; sharp people who work extraordinarily hard in film and are as cynical as me; sharp, kind, hard-working MBA classmates from government and education and telecommunications and healthcare who all want more for themselves and from their lives; whip-smart and intellectual feminists who want to talk in big conversations and want to hear what I think; kind, clever, supportive and encouraging older women who are further ahead in their careers than me and want to see me succeed too.

The entire city of Wellington is like the suburb of Ponsonby in that when you live there, every time you go out you will see someone you know. A friend, a colleague, or just a person you recognise from the neighbourhood — one of the guys who works at Flight Hangar, or a personal trainer from the gym. Just yesterday, I took the dog for a walk and ran into one of the board members from my work on Oriental Parade. Later, I went out again, to the supermarket — and ran into a girl from my MBA class in baking aisle.

This winter, my partner and I are building a house.

Our house, mid-construction, the other day

It happened almost by accident. We’d been looking at house and land packages thinking vaguely maybe if we liked what we saw, we’d start seriously saving towards it. We really liked the first one we saw and asked the bank about it basically as a lark. Our Kiwisavers had grown in the background without us really noticing, the bank liked us as a financial proposition because we didn’t have dependents and my partner had finally paid off his student loan — we just, just, barely got approved for the mortgage. The house is free-standing, two stories, freehold, with a fenced grassy lawn and a tiled courtyard area, fully insulated, gas radiator heating throughout, double-glazed windows, an internal garage, plenty of cupboards in the kitchen and no mice that we know of. The price wouldn’t even buy you a mailbox in Ponsonby. We know how good we have it.

When we told our families we were building a house, a family member said, “I guess you’re really not coming home anytime soon, are you?” I guess not. Not for a long time, at least. I love Auckland. It is home. I don’t see how I could live there, with the lifestyle qualities I enjoy so much about Wellington now, without winning Lotto — and I don’t gamble.

Not only do we love this city, now we own a little corner of it. I still go for a lot of long walks, but I’m never alone anymore.