I have a theory about living in another country.: in a lot of ways it is like entering a new relationship. It is easy to be impressed in the first few days or a week when everything is new, shiny and exciting. But the real relationship only begins after the first 4-5 months are over and you start to see beyond first impressions.
That is why I really dislike generalizations: it takes a while to understand people and I prefer to treat them as individuals, instead of lumping them together into a simplistic stereotype. New Zealanders are this. Bulgarians are that…I don’t think millions of people could or should ever be summed up in one sentence. But then again: culture does shape our attitudes, values and (patterns of accepted) behaviour.
With this caveat in mind, I want to share what impressed me the most in my first interactions with New Zealanders, through the lens of an (Eastern) European.
Kiwis are the Canadians of the Southern Hemisphere
I apologise to Kiwis if such a comparison feels inaccurate but my impression as an outsider is that Canadians and New Zealanders are like birds of a feather when it comes to friendliness and politeness.
If there are two words I hear all the time here they are “Sorry” and “Thank you”. I was amazed that many people greet the driver and shout “Thank you!” when they get off the bus. It makes sense: you pay respect to the person providing a service (and that person respects you in turn).
From the get-go, people seem genuinely nice, polite and very approachable. I think I can count on one hand all the times I hard somebody raise their voice or say something rude. This feels incredibly refreshing when you come from a place where recreational meanness, cursing and frowning are a national sport with many Olympic champions. I cannot even count how many times I have heard people back home say that polite smiles are “annoyingly hypocritical”. Yeah, nah. I love smiles and polite people.
Maori culture and Te Reo (Maori language) are fascinating
I remember the first time I attended an open lecture on science in society at Victoria University and it started in Te Reo…and did not switch to English for a long while. I felt confused and ashamed that I am not prepared to understand a word of it.
Out of respect, official events are always opened in Maori with at least a few words (depending on the language skills and knowledge of the speaker and the audience). I still have not communicated a lot with Maori people outside university events (it is always easier to bond with other newcomers from different countries than with the locals because locals have a life and strong friendships already) but I would really love to learn more about their culture. I really love their concept of Kōrero(rero): gathering, sharing opinions and coming to understanding through debate and conversation.
Our favourite Saturday surfing spot: Lyall Bay
The Kiwis I’ve met are very, very, very chill and down to Earth. They have a very professional attitude at the workplace but you can also see that having a good work-life balance is more important than being fiercely competitive. Kiwis seem content with what they do and I have heard that they do not like “tall poppies” or people who are trying too hard to stand out and show off.
The workday here finishes quite early: most people are done by 4 or 5pm and having an after-hours drink (mostly beer) is very common. The downside of this is that many places close very early but it also allows for a lovely and relaxed lifestyle. You can finish work and go on a bike trip to the beach and still have the whole evening ahead of you.
Casual weekdays, glam weekends
One thing I could not help noticing as a girl coming from a part of Europe where women put a lot of effort into their clothes, makeup and the way they look: Kiwis don’t care.
A lot of Bulgarian girls would not even go to the local grocery store without makeup and a cute outfit: there is a lot of (unnecessary) high maintenance going on into simple everyday activities. Here, during the day and on weekdays, people are very casual and low key. Parties and social events are a different story: I have seen people in Wellington looking like movie stars on their night out. It really depends on the context and the person but in general, it feels like people back home are trying very hard and Kiwis are way more casual and laid back. The heavily emphasized brows and Instagram-girl makeup are trendy here as well, but it feels like there is much more emphasis on looking natural.
Coats and Jandals. Jandals and socks. And Bare Feet
One thing I will probably never get used to is the variety of human responses to the climate here. It is very common to get on the bus and see a person with a winter hat and coat sitting next to someone with shorts and naked legs.
In winter (in the Southern Hemisphere”Winter” is roughly the period from June to August) many people routinely wear jandals (flip-flops). Some wear jandals with socks which is like Next Level Sandals and socks.
But my favourite ones wear no shoes at all. It is funny because many people here wear shoes inside their homes, yet they walk barefoot on the street…During the warmer months I often so little kids (like 2-year-olds) who were not only walking around with bare feet: they were also with bare butts. This is enough to cause a heart attack in most Bulgarian mothers, not to mention our Primary Authority on Child Rearing: Grandmas.
Kiwis have…interesting drinking habits
Eastern Europeans drink a lot but we do it socially: drinking, talking and hanging out are synonymous, ongoing activities which can go on for many hours. Getting too drunk is an unwanted side effect, not a goal of a night out. As a local friend put it “It’s a drinking marathon, not a sprint“. In the UK, Australia and New Zealand, the party culture is different and a night out is often about quick binge-drinking. Many venues have a Happy hour as early as 5 or even 4 pm! As a result, by 9 pm on a Friday night, many people have already been drinking for 5 hours straight!
By 10.30 pm Courtney place (the so-called party hotspot of Wellington) looks like a battlefield after a drunken Viking raid: it is full of barely naked people shouting, singing and trying to remember the intricate art of walking on two feet. Totally not my kind of place.
If you want to be around people who are still pretty fun and drunk but are not into speed-drinking themselves to death, opt for the bars around Cuba street like the pirate-themed rum cocktail bar R or the awesomely casual The Rogue and the Vagabond. I think my favourite bars are the sci-fi themed PhotonFlux and Moon:the Intergalactic headquarters of Wellington (full of interplanetary sightings of drunk people, kids, pets and anything you can imagine).
Fair & Equal
New Zealand is an egalitarian society which puts an emphasis on respecting people and treating them equally regardless of their social and financial status. There are many wealthy people but they don’t flaunt their wealth. The humble person in jeans and casual sweater next to you could easily be living in a million-dollar home and you would never guess by the way they are dressed or how they treat other people.
I really like and respect this because I believe that real confidence is down to earth and concerned with doing something important not being someone important.