A Life Less-Spanish

By Philippa Hadlow

When Sandra Sánchez and husband Gonzalo booked a flight from Madrid, Spain, to Auckland, New Zealand, they had no inkling of what the weather had in store. It was January 2011 – high-summer in New Zealand – and the Land of the Long White Cloud seemed more than appealing. The couple were hoping for a temperate climate with tranquil, sunny skies and pleasant locals. They lucked out with the locals but fell headfirst into the wettest, coldest summer Aotearoa had experienced in two decades.

Ironic that it was Spanish-named weather pattern La Niña in full-force greeting mode when Sandra and Gonzalo checked into Auckland. Translated, La Niña means The Little Girl. Well, hardly little in effect and perhaps the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA)'s description simply as 'cold event' would be more apt. In 2011, La Niña brought gale-force winds and record-level rainfall to the City of Sails; and it’s fair to say, this was weather at its most extreme.

By Philippa Hadlow

When Sandra Sánchez and husband Gonzalo booked a flight from Madrid, Spain, to Auckland, New Zealand, they had no inkling of what the weather had in store. It was January 2011 – high-summer in New Zealand – and the Land of the Long White Cloud seemed more than appealing. The couple were hoping for a temperate climate with tranquil, sunny skies and pleasant locals. They lucked out with the locals but fell headfirst into the wettest, coldest summer Aotearoa had experienced in two decades.

Ironic that it was Spanish-named weather pattern La Niña in full-force greeting mode when Sandra and Gonzalo checked into Auckland. Translated, La Niña means The Little Girl. Well, hardly little in effect and perhaps the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA)’s description simply as ‘cold event’ would be more apt. In 2011, La Niña brought gale-force winds and record-level rainfall to the City of Sails; and it’s fair to say, this was weather at its most extreme.

There wasn’t a lot of sailing to be had, but Sandra and Gonzalo have a good sense of humour. They playfully and briefly considered going home again, and the thought of a cool Spanish winter seemed slightly more welcoming than Auckland’s murky moistness. Made of sterner stuff, they decided to stay put. And that’s when New Zealand lucked out, too, because Sandra and Gonzalo have embraced their life less-Spanish in this country like troopers.

The decision to leave their Madrid home was all about timing; and avoiding the long term fall out of the Global Financial Crisis in Europe meant leaving Spain in semi-recession. Sandra remembers: “It wasn’t looking good, it wasn’t great. We have no kids, no mortgage; if we’re going to get out of here, it’s now or never.”

They wanted to master better English, and “since many English-speaking countries (like England) have terrible weather!” they chose New Zealand.

New Zealand? A far-flung country of complete strangers and even stranger summer weather! But well worth it, according to Sandra and Gonzalo, as they shook out their brollies, grabbed their student visas, and readied themselves to become English-proficient.

Recognised global English school Education First (EF) offered them a top-flight nine-month course at a top-flight price. EF also took care of their immigration and accommodation paperwork via the New Zealand embassy in London. Why not the embassy in Spain is another oddity. And unbelievably, that paperwork crossing the borders by post cost more than it would for Sandra to fly from Spain to London to deliver it by hand.

Immersing themselves in Auckland was wetting but exciting: “Auckland is super-welcoming; everyone is coming from somewhere, everyone bends over backwards to understand (your language), and you never feel out of place,” Sandra tells me.

Nine months on, the EF course was over, and Rugby World Cup action hit the city. Lodgings in Auckland proved challenging, especially when the landlord mentioned they could expect to pay double rent for the 45 days of Cup frenzy. Sandra and Gonzalo had graduated successfully, and their student visas indicated they could now work up to 20 hours per week. They moved on to look for a job.

Enter another anomaly and a big ‘No’: If Sandra and Gonzalo wanted a job, they would have to change the conditions on their visas. And for that to happen, they would have to pass the notoriously demanding International English Language Test (IELTS) with excellent grades.

Good marks in the test meant Sandra found work as a nanny, and one of her charges, a charming young girl called Amorita, is still part of the family. Gonzalo struggled to excel in his exam, but in all fairness (and to maintain marital harmony), Sandra had the English-speaking advantage, having taught a little in Spain.

Canterbury called, with nursery, viticulture, and horticulture opportunities – as approved by Immigration New Zealand’s Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO) list. With a shortage of Kiwi candidates for these jobs, both biologists were soon fully employed.

Sandra and Gonzalo loved Canterbury. They loved working with plants, loved the dry summer heat and chilly winter frosts (similar to Spain), and loved the people. And even though their first year in Christchurch was challenging (whispers: “Ooh, that’s the wife of the foreign couple …”), Sandra and Gonzalo put themselves out there; volunteering, coaching, and chatting (in exceptionally good English). They soon found that: “Once they (the Cantabrians) let you in, they will defend you with their life. They are an amazing community,” Sandra says.

They didn’t want to leave Canterbury, but ANZSCO’s List dictated, and it was constantly updating its mandates.

Applying for residency means adapting and kowtowing to immigration policy. From Sandra and Gonzalo’s perspective, the system is fraught with inconsistency; its rules morph, demand more and get tougher year by year. Sandra reckons some immigrants have an easy time, receive good communication, clear direction, helpful advice, and some don’t. Ten years on, the couple is still fighting to achieve their dream. They’re passionate about New Zealand and long for that legal symbol of belonging: “We’ve just been unlucky. But it is what it is.”

 

When Gonzalo found Immigration-approved work in Taranaki as an arborist and Sandra as a maths tutor, they were grateful but exhausted. She then filled a maternity leave position as a research technician until finally landing her current role in a horticultural nursery.

She was willing to take on anything, saying: “I just want a job; I’m happy to work outside with plants; I’m not expecting anything extraordinary – I just want a job.”

Sandra’s work ethic is typical. It’s ingrained because, in Spain, Job is Paramount – it comes first, always. It’s all-consuming, super competitive, and you need to show up and hang on tight, or you’re out. It’s busy and pressured, and there’s no leisure till late at night.

She is still amazed by New Zealand workspaces which value staff, support family time, and, incredibly, say ‘thank you’ to employees for doing their job. These traits are unheard of in Spain: “In Spain, you go to work, go home as quickly as possible and then it’s rush-rush-rush again. You see your friends in the street, and it’s ‘Hi, how are you!’ We use it as a greeting; we don’t expect an answer. In New Zealand, it’s ‘Hi, how are you?’ You really want to know!”

Those social mores often take centre stage in New Zealand culture. Example: Sandra’s at the supermarket. She’s in a hurry and itching to get through the queue. The checkout operator asks everyone how they are. And wants to hear the answer! “My God, just get on with it! But then you change. In the beginning, it used to frustrate me, but now it’s one of my favourite things – it’s great!”

You could call it Kiwi-time, and it walks (slowly!) hand in hand with the Kiwi-care attitude: “So, you learn to slow down … and though everyday tasks might take a little more time, they are not stressful. And the fact that we have time to enjoy life at home, well, it makes you more relaxed. Work-life balance is achievable – and people do care!”

But moving so often to please the visa makes it hard to find friends who care: “There are days that you need a good friend, one who really knows you. That’s not going to happen yet – maybe eventually.”

Sandra’s social lifesaver is getting out in the community –  volunteering, participating, contributing. Lately, she has met some lovely people whom she calls friends. She realised: “This is a really good region. It’s a region that grows on you very quickly as soon as you give it a chance … beach, mountain, bush. New Plymouth is a perfect-sized city. We love it in Taranaki!”

Spanish cultural pursuits are on the back burner. Sandra and Gonzalo are people of the Land of The Long White Cloud now; this is the culture they chose, and they’ve embraced the New Zealand way, 100%. And though the much yearned for residency is an ongoing challenge, this positive young couple seems to have their life less-Spanish, A-OK.