Finding home in New Zealand
The island nation feels like it could be paradise—but it's a paradise isolated from everyone and everything you care about
It was during my first trip here, approximately 20 years ago, when I first heard it: “Yea,” he said in that hard-to-imitate Kiwi lilt, vowels drawn out, delivered even-keeled, without a care in the world: “I reckon New Zealand is paradise.”
This was Bryce, the 50-something-year-old owner of the climbing hostel I was staying at in the middle of the North Island. Bryce had developed much of the sport climbing in the area, and now acted as guide, proprietor, host, and mentor to young climbers passing through on their youthful adventures.
During the days, if we were lucky, Bryce would come climbing with us. He liked to lie to us about the grades to get us onto harder climbs than we’d otherwise choose, and when he belayed he would flick the rope up between your legs to hit your crotch if you dilly-dallied clipping the first bolt. It was his way of telling us to toughen up our mental game, quit whining, and get on with trying hard.
During the nights, we would drink beer and talk politics. The U.S. was on the verge of invading Iraq and the global “war on terror” was in full swing. Bryce was tuned in to world events, but also keenly aware that none of what happened elsewhere seemed particularly relevant for this small country of 5 million, tucked safely into the southwest corner of the Pacific Ocean.
Fast forward to today, and that isolation feels to a lot of people like a precious perk, from bazillionaires who purchased “bug-out” property here to liberals upset about the sorry state of progress in the world to families concerned about the impacts of climate change.
To a lot of people in a lot of places, New Zealand really does seem to have it all together.
The case for New Zealand
The case for New Zealand as the world’s leading paradise is not hard.
First, Jacinda’s pandemic response has been outstanding by anyone’s standards, and it’s not just about her amazingly empathetic Instagram posts (although, public health officials around the world could really learn something). With a strong sense of social cohesion, the vaccination rate here is 80.9% (it’s 67.4% in the U.S.). Per capita deaths from COVID in New Zealand are approximately 30 per 100,000 people. In the U.S., the number is 308 per 100,000.
If the pandemic was a trial run for where in the world you might be safe from civilizational collapse, New Zealand has proved it likely deserves the top spot. While me and my son and our family were sheltering through wave after wave of COVID death, my sister and her family were safely ensconced in a country that was counting new cases on two hands. By the time Omicron finally snuck in for good, much of the country was already vaccinated.
But it’s not just the COVID response. New Zealand undoubtedly has some of the highest quality of life in the world. There is a strong social safety net, monetary allowances for children and daycare, and quality, affordable universal healthcare. In every corner of the country, there are meticulously well-managed outdoor spaces for hiking, sailing, climbing, skiing, biking, or virtually any outdoor activity you might want to devote yourself to. Meanwhile, the country is about as insulated from climate change as a country can get, while the weather is brilliant almost year-round.
I could go on, but there is one particular fact about New Zealand that tends to sum it up. When a local describes the points in New Zealand’s favor regarding its nomination for paradise on Earth, they always bring up this: New Zealand has no—count them zero—poisonous animals, either on land or in the water. There is literally nothing here that is trying to kill you.
I mean, what else can you ask for… right?
My sister’s move to New Zealand
In the two weeks I’ve been here so far this time around, I’ve chatted with a few casual acquaintances back in the U.S.—oh my God, have an amazing time!! they all say. One said that if she were me she would try to figure out a way to stay here. Roe v. Wade was just overturned, after all, and things are going to shit back home (see last week’s Keep your historical perspective for my thoughts on that).
My friends back home think I’m vacationing in paradise, while really all I’m doing is working and writing in between helping to clean the house and wrangle the toddlers. Still, they suggest, wouldn’t living in New Zealand be great? Wouldn’t any sane person choose here rather than almost anywhere else, if they had the option?
That is indeed the choice my sister faces. Her husband is Kiwi. Her twins were born here. She could stay if she wanted to.
There are two other American women with kids in the same kindy as hers; they both married men from New Zealand and have made a life here. My sister could do the same. Embrace the social safety net, the beautiful family property they’re on, the easy access to the outdoors, the cheap healthcare, the social cohesion, the good governance, the near-total absence of gun violence, the complete absence of anything poisonous trying to kill her kids if they decide to wander off into the wilderness one day. She could make a life, as they have.
Just a five-minute drive from the house here is a beautiful, wide crescent beach that would rank among the best in almost any country in the world. We’ve gone there twice so far:
When the tide is out, the black volcanic rock stretches for a hundred meters out to sea and a few hundred more as it curls around the peninsula. There are little pools and drop-offs and gulleys that, to a toddler, probably look like a barely crossable chasm of fear (and to a grownup are just about getting your socks wet). It’s the absolute perfect place for three toddlers to go experience some adventure.
My sister has been going to this beach for three years, and she says it’s almost never crowded. “If you’re a beach person,” she said, “I mean with kids, it’s pretty great.”
My sister is not a beach person. But, of course, that’s not the point.
The other day, the twins were in kindy, the house was quiet, and the Internet seemed to be puttering along with minimal interruption, so we decided to call our dad on Whatsapp. He’d wanted to video chat while I was here. He hadn’t seen his two kids in the same room with each other in more than three years, after all. We talked about how to get my sister back to our side of the planet, back to the U.S., or better yet back to the U.K., where she and her husband would really prefer to be living all things being equal.
But there were money issues, and timing issues, and damn, the rent really is high in the U.K., let alone the price of real estate.
What if you just stay there? my dad asked.
The answer was that she could—but that would mean resigning herself to being more than seven thousand miles away from everyone and everything she cares about. Even most of her husband’s family, including three siblings and his mom, had relocated to Europe long ago.
The couples from kindy who have made a home here get visits from significant family members once every three years or so if they’re lucky—and more like once every five if they’re realistic. The fact is, even if no one wants to say it, is that few of us have the bandwidth or the weeks of free time to make this trip worth it on any regular basis.
For my sister, at the end of the day, the thought of that kind of indefinite isolation from loved ones is just too sad.
I’ve known for a while that she wants to leave New Zealand, and I don’t blame her. Finding home is about more than picking a country based on some dispassionate quality of life criteria, especially if that country is far away from everything else you care about.
Government support is super helpful and we should have more of it in the U.S., but it’s not the same as having people who love you and support you be close by. The support needs to come not with a text or a phone call, but by showing up in person, in real life.
My sister and her husband have been raising three young kids here together for the past three years, and it’s been hard. And while it’s wonderful to have near-free childcare and healthcare and all that the good government of New Zealand provides, even those are no substitute for being able to drop your kids off with their grandma for the weekend. What is a country with social cohesion without being able to share a bottle of wine (or two or three) with the people you love the most.
At the beginning of last year, I started a site called Climate Haven Real Estate. The idea was to help people find and invest in climate-resilient real estate, the way I found and bought my house in New Hampshire. As I was writing blog posts filled with advice, I soon remembered there is more to finding a home and buying a house than studying the maps and walking through the list of climate disasters that could affect each area. Finding a home is about love: what draws you somewhere, the people, the community, the environment, your synthetic connections to place. There are a few places where I feel like that, but New Zealand isn’t one of them.
For me, it was the mountains and the climbing that drew me to New Hampshire plus the nostalgia of having worked nearby for three Summers while I was in college. The place just felt like home.
New Zealand is undeniably a wonderful country. Beautiful, welcoming, and easy. My sister is living in her husband’s hometown, Matakana—it’s exceedingly charming, even idyllic. It is ridiculously expensive to buy property here, but if you could, then I’m sure it would be an amazing place to live and raise kids.
But New Zealand’s strength in being separate from the world, and Bryce’s privilege at being able to be unconcerned with whatever war, revolution, or climate disaster may affect everyone else in far-off lands, is also New Zealand’s core weakness: you’ll be fine here no matter what, just as long as you don’t mind being separated from everyone and everything else.
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