Life has taken Kiwi expat Debbie Oakes to Thailand, Japan and London... but it hasn't always been easy
How long have you lived in London?
This time, for two years. It was my destination 30 years ago when I left New Zealand on the proverbial "Big OE" after Vic Uni. However, after a pit-stop in Thailand, we decided that it would be a travesty to go all the way across the world without experiencing Asia. I ended up smitten by Japan and left 10 years later.
By the time I first arrived in London 20 years ago, I had acquired a holistic spa and beauty diploma, so I set up a small spa and beauty room in a hotel. That was where I met my husband, who was the General Manager. I married the boss! After all those years travelling, I had pushed the boat out as far as it would go, so our two boys followed in quick succession.
Strangely, his job took us back to Thailand, where we lived for many years. That's where the story takes a bit of a tragic twist. He became very ill with early-onset Alzheimer's while the kids were still quite young. The worst thing about that disease, when it happens so young, is the devastation it wreaks on relationships before you have an inkling of what it could possibly be!
So - long story short - he was in a care home in the UK, while the boys and I remained in Thailand. I tried to support us as a freelance writer for a while but ultimately, I was faced with a decision: turn left and go home to New Zealand, or turn right and go back to the UK, so the kids could be near their Dad.
My decision to come back to the UK was not completely altruistic as my biggest fear of returning home permanently has always been being so far away from the rest of the world. Although the decision to leave Bangkok seemed somewhat forced by fate at the time, I now thank God every day that we moved when we did, or our situation in Bangkok now would have been dire.
What do you love most about living in London?
The first lockdown happened within months of us arriving back there. So all the things I traditionally love - proximity to Europe, the melting pot of culture, art and food - were suddenly moot. I'm looking forward to loving all those things again.
What has the Covid response been like there?
Initially, PM Boris Johnson, (somewhat unsurprisingly, in my opinion) made all the wrong decisions. As he was initiating the whole "herd immunity" debacle, I had been watching very closely what was happening in Italy and couldn't believe my ears. So, although the kids were still at school, my freelance status meant that I could be careful. When the kids returned home from school the rules were: shoes off (good habit from Japan days), clothes in the washing basket, and shower.
I remember feeling extremely envious when Jacinda made one good decision after another and locked NZ down.
What was lockdown like for you?
When lockdown proper was finally announced, I could not believe it had taken so long, it was such a relief as my nightmares were plagued by the sight of coffins piling high in Italy! After the first week, all the adrenaline of being in survival mode - moving new countries, getting kids into new schools, seeing their father in a care home, making sure they were okay, finding work, finding a life - dissipated. So it was a real highlight for me when that grand weight of worry lifted.
Another highlight, although it sounds silly, was the sense of community unity when clapping for the NHS. The lowlight was the horror of watching on the news so many people die - the minor imprisonment of lockdown pales by comparison.
Since Covid began, have you considered coming back to New Zealand?
I confess that watching Kiwis barbecuing, socialising, living normal lives on Facebook during our last winter lockdown was a hard pill to swallow. I did wonder more than once if I'd made the wrong turn back when I left Bangkok. But there was no turning back... not when children are involved.
What was the last overseas trip you did?
July to August 2020, in between our two big lockdowns (March to June 2020 and December 2020 to May 2021), together with a huge group of friends and our kids. We hired a big villa in Umbria. Carpe diem (seize the day) surely is one of the biggest learnings of the lockdown. The sunshine, olive oil, art and wine of those days got us through the worst of the winter lockdown watching Kiwi summmer via Facebook!
What is life like now?
Very much more masked than it was before! Everything has supposedly returned to normal but we (in my family) are cautious, jabbed and wear masks on public transport. This is still a requirement but not a legal one so 20 per cent-ish of people ignore it.
We still don't seem to be able to travel freely without expensive test requirements upon return. Everyone feels a lot poorer and fatter than before but grateful to be alive.
Do you have plans to travel this year/2022?
I will be going back to Umbria. I am looking forward to getting outside the city... feeling alive, free and connected to nature again.
What advice would you give to New Zealanders who are in lockdown in Auckland?
Make the most of it: study something new, acquire a new skill you've always wanted to, get fit online, forgive yourself, meditate, think about "what's next", talk to your people.