I am so delighted for my very first Expat Chat to be with a dear friend of mine, Michelle Clark!
One of my first memories of Michelle was when she was dolling me up for a photoshoot (she is an incredible makeup artist!) and she told me that she had lived abroad in New Zealand. Michelle is a bundle of joy and she enjoys traveling, reading, playing with makeup, playing with puppies, eating french fries, and creating and organizing things.
When Sean and I first found out about the opportunity to move to Australia, we sat down with Michelle over coffee to discuss the ins and outs of living abroad to get an insider’s perspective.
Her story was too good to keep to ourselves so without further ado, here is my conversation with Michelle!
Original Home Location Before Living Abroad: Orlando, Florida, United States
Abroad Home Location: Island Bay, Wellington, New Zealand
Current Home Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States
About the Move to Island Bay, Wellington, New Zealand
When did you make the move to Island Bay, Wellington, New Zealand?
Michelle: October of 2009. I can’t believe that it’s been so long!
Why did you decide to make the move? / What motivated you?
Michelle: I was super bored at my job and it was really hot in Florida so I wanted to experience something completely different. My best friend, Nicole and her husband, had been living in NZ for a couple years and she suggested I come over. At the time, if you were under the age of 26 you could get a working holiday visa for free. She works in film as a scenic and props painter and I had goals of working in film as well so I thought why not!?
How many times did you visit your new country and city prior to your move?
Michelle: Never. I really didn’t know what I was getting into!
What was the hardest part of moving / What did you find frustrating during your move?
Michelle: I don’t think that I got frustrated about much of anything. Anxious? Yes, but not frustrated. I was lucky to have had Nicole through the process as she is very detailed and had already gone through it all herself. Since I was going for a Working Holiday Visa for young people, it was pretty easy overall. The hardest part was figuring out what to pack in two suitcases for a year!
How did you break the news to loved ones?
Michelle: Both of my parents are used to me doing random things but this was big news. I knew that I had to tell my mom that I was ‘thinking’ about it even though I had already made the decision to do it. My dad was more like…uhhh do what now? HA! Even though they were both on board, they thought that I was nuts. They would never do anything like that themselves, but they were cool with it.
Did you decide to ship your belongings or to store your belongings?
Michelle: I was 25 at the time and didn’t have a ton of belongings so I was able to get a storage room. Since it was in Florida and can get very hot, it was climate controlled. Everything was still in perfect condition when I came back. By storing my belongings, I realized how much I could live without!
About her Home in Island Bay, Wellington, New Zealand
How did you find your home when you lived abroad?
Michelle: For the first several months, I lived with Nicole and Manuel in their guest bedroom. Then, I had some other friends move over and they found a house so I was able to get a room in with them.
Describe the home – apartment, house, etc:
Michelle: Nicole’s house was on top of a ‘hill’ – it felt like an actual mountain when walking up it and NOT a hill. Her house overlooked Island Bay which was at the very bottom of the North Island and you could actually see across the water to the South Island on a really clear day and it was stunning! The house that I had with the others didn’t have a view but it was a much easier walk and was located right off of a bus route and closer to the city center.
Who were your roommates in your second home?
Michelle: Shawn and Jackie who were fellow Americans and a Kiwi girl as well. Shawn and I went to high school together and he still lives in NZ. Jackie, who always made me laugh, lives in Virginia and we have a solid meme relationship.
What was renting property like in New Zealand?
Michelle: I didn’t deal with the organizing the rental as I was technically subletting. I just gave the roomies my money every week. Weekly rent was the standard over there at the time… might still be.
Did you have any pets? If so, did they make the move with you?
Michelle: I had no pets but there was a cat who visited our garden!
Lifestyle Abroad in Island Bay, Wellington, New Zealand
Why did you choose the country and specifically, the city that you moved to?
Michelle: I really wanted to work in film! Peter Jackson and Weta are there in Wellington and Nicole had already worked on some film projects so I knew that I had a little bit of an “in”. Granted, we were in different departments but still she had some contacts. Unfortunately, about a month before I left, it was announced that Peter Jackson was pushing back The Hobbit. As the film industry is known for being unpredictable, I knew that there was a chance that it may or may not happen but I still wanted to follow through with the move. I just started applying at different makeup counters in Wellington’s city center (downtown area) and hoped for the best!
How long did you live abroad?
Michelle: One year and three whole days. I was an illegal immigrant for those three days! I really wanted to stay but due to an earthquake, the only applicants that they were extending visas for were doctors, nurses, construction, electrical, and other essential personnel.
What have you missed the most about living abroad?
Michelle: Walking everywhere and having access to a great city transportation system. Plus, I loved the people, the country, and the accents are hot! It was such a fun atmosphere and I loved being there. I felt adopted by my friends and coworkers. Several of them even made sure that I had something to do on Thanksgiving as they knew that it was a big holiday for us in the United States even though it wasn’t a big holiday for them in New Zealand. Several friends invited me to their sausage sizzle to celebrate Christmas. You heard me… sausage sizzle! Since their Christmas is in the summertime, it is essentially a cookout. It was also the first time I’ve ever had a winter birthday in August!
What were the most surprising things to you when you moved there and then when you moved back?
Michelle: How cold Wellington was! I had lived in Florida for so many years that I think my blood had thinned. There were some cold winds. You don’t think about a “southerly wind” being cold until you realize that Antarctica is what’s south of you!
How many coffee shops that there were – this was pre-coffee craze here and it just surprised me how much coffee these people drank!
Revlon had a makeup counter, like a proper makeup counter in the pharmacies with testers, a gift with purchase, and everything!
The fact that “Blanket Man” was allowed to be out and sun his biscuits in the downtown corner sidewalks and people blessed him with booze, energy drinks, snacks, and I’m pretty sure weed because he was always high.
Even though the English language is what we all spoke, sometimes I got really confused because we have different words for things. I vividly remember a friend yelling across a busy street to remind me, “don’t forget your frogs for the sparkle”. After several confused “MY WHATs?!” yelled back to her, a nice man in a suit said “your togs for the spa pool” to which I also said ”…my what?” Several people snickered and just started calling out words to me and I was like “ooooh my bathing suit for the hot tub!!” to which people just rolled their eyes. I think about that to this day when I need a good laugh.
Burger King is a big deal and McDonald’s is called Macca’s.
The Salvation Army (or any charity shops) are called Sally’s and I love that.
They don’t mix peanut butter and chocolate – I once paid about $10 US for two Reese cup packages…best money I’ve ever spent.
What was the hardest thing to adjust to?
Michelle: Moving there? Walking everywhere. Not that I minded the walking at all but you couldn’t just jump in your car and run to the store. It was so much more of an effort! Moving back? That I couldn’t walk anywhere. I moved in with my brother in Holly Springs when I got back and I was completely stuck there until I was able to get a car because there was nowhere to walk! Also no Target and trips just to buy whatever, because you had to actually carry it home! Rather than ketchup, they have tomato sauce. That took some time to get used to on your fries because it’s thinner and sweeter. Also, that the weta exists and one time there was one in my bed, with me in it! I nearly had to hold my own funeral.
What did you have to sacrifice to make living abroad come true?
Michelle: I cut out a lot of going out and spending money on activities. I would still go out with friends but definitely cut down on my spending while out in order to save money. I also stopped going to Target as much!
Had you ever lived outside of your home country before?
Michelle: I had not! I had only been to Bolivia with my church when I was younger. Going out of the country was exciting but also intimidating and brought on some anxiety. I still get anxious filling out customs forms!
What did you do for fun in your city abroad? / What were your favorite spots in the area?
Michelle: I worked in retail while I was there so I didn’t have a lot of time off. I loved that everything closed at like 6pm unless it was during holiday hours. I usually went out with friends after work in some way. I loved going to hang at Hotel Bristol with Shawn and Jackie plus new friends. We went dancing at Mighty Mighty, Boogie Wonderland (complete with the rainbow light up dance floor), The Big Kumara, and Alice – where all drinks were served in teapots and tea cups! Sadly, several of these places have since closed. I loved the shops, cafes, and clubs on Cuba Street… even just people watching there was great. Exploring the city was so much fun too! Te Papa Museum is beautiful and the waterfront was great to just walk around. It wasn’t in the city, but several times we would put on some fancy fascinators, hop on a train, and bet on the horse races which always made for a fun day!
Did you have your own mode of transportation – a car, bike, etc?
Michelle: No, but I had built in legs and the bus! Sometimes I took a taxi but generally only if I was in a big rush or if it was super duper late.
What do you love about your current city – Raleigh, North Carolina?
Michelle: It’s home and where I grew up! I love my friends and my network of vendors here. Raleigh is also a beautiful city. We have great food, people, and a shimmer wall!
Advice and Benefits of Living an Expat Lifestyle Abroad
When you moved back, what do you feel like you gained from living abroad? / How did the experience enrich your life?
Michelle: It enriched my life in many ways and probably more that I don’t even realize. I gained some amazing friends and through social media, I’m still able to stay close with them. I learned about different cultures and showed them some of ours – totes taught my friends that red solo cups were real at parties and taught them how to play flip-cup. I also gained the desire to travel more and see other places!
Is there any advice or anything that you wished you would have known before your move that you would like to share with someone who may be considering an international move?
Michelle: If it’s something that you are considering, you should just do it! With technology the way it is, you’re able to communicate with friends and family and you will never regret an adventure. I went to the red carpet event of The Lovely Bones and saw AC/DC standing by the gates in the front row in the Wellington Phoenix arena. I learned that I like soccer/football. I stomped around Wellington in cowboy boots literally every day and people started to recognize me. I had a conversation with Jemaine Clement about the roller derby. I did so many cool things and created amazing memories that I never would have had the chance to do if I didn’t just go.
Any other recommendations or words of wisdom?
Michelle: There will be hard days because it’s not magical and it’s still life but it is what you make it! I found people that became like family and I knew that I could count on them. I was never bored and we didn’t have anything other than a TV with a DVD player so it wasn’t like we were sitting around streaming things. I was just having fun and living life and it was awesome!
Is there anything extra that you would like to add?
Michelle: I wish that I had more photos but this was before everyone had an iPhone attached to them so I didn’t always have my camera on me. I had a blog while I was there so that I could update anyone who cared to read while I was there. Mostly it was my grandparents and my stepmom who read it! If you want to read something funny, you should check it out. Especially the post about when we went ‘tramping’. Plus, I carried my Edward Cullen action figure with me wherever I went. If you’re bored, it’s a funny read to see what all he did.
That’s a wrap, folks!
In addition to being a bomb makeup artist, Michelle and some of her friends have recently started up a Disney-themed enamel pin company, Chipadeedoodahs. You can also follow them on Instagram at @chipadeedoodahs and on Pinterest.
I want to say a huge, THANK YOU to Michelle for being my first guest and for answering ALL of my questions. It was really interesting to see how the difference in language and her experiences abroad contributed to her fond memories of her year in Wellington. New Zealand is definitely on our list of places to travel to while we live in Australia as it is close by. I know that we will definitely seek out some of the places that Michelle mentioned.
Let’s hear it for Michelle! 👏 Let me know if you have any feedback or if there are any places in Wellington, New Zealand that you recommend.