Winter in Christchurch and Mt. Hutt

As we made the last-minute decision not to travel to Europe as soon as the first flights were available, we needed to regroup and see how we would stay in NZ a bit longer. Our visitor visas got automatically extended until mid-September, and our thoughts were that we would at least remain there through July and August until the start of kids’ new school year in Seattle. We talked about how we would use the privilege of being in the only part of the world that could freely continue living without the devastating effects of the pandemic ravaging the rest of the world.

My main focus was to connect our family to the local community. The starting point, and always the easiest, was to connect Petra to a local Ultimate community. Ultimate folks worldwide, but especially in Christchurch, New Zealand, are the most inclusive, kindhearted, super athletic, and fun people we’ve ever come across. Petra ended up playing a couple of pick-up games at the nearby park and then got invited to join some “training” on a cold Sunday afternoon. We later learned that this was actually a tryout for one of their winter leagues. Petra did well enough to be picked up by one of the teams, and she played in Elite Sixers Winter League, the start of her most fun Ultimate year yet. Our whole family was immediately part of the big Canterbury Ultimate family, and later on, Credo Ultimate Club.

I looked for a Serbian (Balkan) community in Chch to see if there were any folklore groups that Petra could join. I didn’t find any (for another few months).

We rented a violin for Petra to have something else to do. Then a couple of weeks later, I came across the University of Canterbury Christchurch Youth Orchestra. I was told that Petra could possibly get an audition to play with this orchestra. It turned out that this was a pretty serious youth orchestra, with most kids being the best music students either of Christchurch School of Music or Burnside High School Specialist Music Program. Once we met the conductor, she was willing to give Petra an out-of-turn chance to audition and Petra, once again, did well enough to be offered a spot in this orchestra. This win turned out to be of significant importance later in our NZ adventure.

Since Maksim got his new skateboard for Brother’s Day in June, he wanted to spend every single free moment at skateparks.

We spent hours and hours there even though it was the middle of the winter and some days were windy as heck. I tried to meet other parents at the skatepark, but that was a rough process. Every meeting felt like a sales job – “Hi, how are you? Who is your child? Where are you from? What are you doing here?” I would try to get people’s phone numbers or FB contact to meet up again. It felt like I was always trying to ‘pick up’ friends at the park. Such a weird process to make friends randomly like this, at this age, under these inorganic circumstances. However, this is where Maksim found his first Chch friend Matai and I made friends with his mom Olivia. Olivia was the most gracious friend and kind to invite our whole family for a surfing competition where we met her husband and the rest of the family. We ended up striking a great friendship during our time in NZ. July was also when we met our (now) good friends Tracy and Adam (via WhatsApp group chat) and Amy and Paul (I eavesdropped on Amy talking with her family and picked up on her North American accent). The whole topic of making friends at this age, under these circumstances, probably deserves its own write-up.

I looked for ways to get Maksim into school in NZ, even if just for a couple of months, but that turned out to be nearly impossible. It took hours and hours of calls, conversations, changing processes of the Nz Ministry of Education, and 13 principals saying No before I got him into school, 7 months later. I also tried to connect with other families that were in NZ, in the same boat as us. Over 10K tourists that were in NZ when the pandemic started decided to stay put for the time being. I thought we could connect with some of them, but that wasn’t easy either. Connecting a family of 5 with another family with kids is no easy task. Too many personalities have to click, different locations, timing, etc.

I tried knitting but produced a product that looked like a giant Pinterest fail. I also made another needlepoint with New Zealand scenery, sheep, and rolling hills.

I still absolutely love it. I checked into Student Volunteer Army to see if I could land a hand in any local projects.

I didn’t find anything right then as it was more important for the kids first to find their tribes. It turned out that Petra went on an assignment with this group a few months later.

Our landlords helped us get library membership, and we were at the central, brand-new, Christchurch library almost daily.
Turanga Library in Christchurch was one of my favorite places in that city. It is a community gathering place, offering not only books on loan but also sewing machines, 3d printing capability, music recording studio rooms. Kids can come and play video games there on a giant screen. I found that most of the NZ community/kids-related offerings were either free or very affordable, making family life in this beautiful city almost ideal.

Since we lived in downtown, we walked around a lot, every single day, sometimes just ‘hunting for murals,’ other times going for a treat at Rollickin Gelato on New Regent Street, and always stopping by the library for either a quick video game or to pick up/drop off a book.

I was looking for every opportunity to get Maksim involved with other kids or to offload any part of homeschooling on someone else. This is how I came across a good writing class offered at another local library that Maksim attended weekly for the next 10 weeks.

Our wonderful neighbors were our main consistent friends, and we were bugging them daily. This friendship made our time in New Zealand incredibly special.

Our landlords lent us ski clothing, and Petra, Maksim, and I went skiing to Mt. Hutt with our neighbors. Gorgeous day.

I signed myself up for a Spanish class during lunchtime, once a week, and enjoyed it very much, even though I never really studied or did the homework. I had fun with the people in the class, and that was enough for me. It was my time away from the family, and I needed it.

We celebrated my 47th birthday, and I made myself the biggest bday cake ever. When you live in a place meant to be an Airbnb, you don’t have all the conveniences such as baking equipment. Thanks to our wonderful neighbors, we had their professional style mixer and food processer residing in our place.
For my bday, I ended up making a 4-layer cake (2 baking pans), and with all the frosting, it was humongous. It could barely fit in our fridge. Pedja and the kids made fun of it, saying that the cake was so big, it couldn’t pass through the doors, to take it to neighbors for them to enjoy some too. Still, Maki and I ate that whole thing in just a few short days. We ate tons of kiwi fruit that July. Kiwi fruit is usually expensive in the US, and it never tastes as good as it did in NZ. We ate pounds and pounds of kiwi fruit, green and golden varieties. Pedja and Petra started eating it like apples (how some Kiwi (people) eat it), with the skin and all. That’s the only way now the two of them will eat kiwi fruits. I also learned not to call people, bird, and fruit just by saying Kiwi. Kiwis are the New Zealand people, while that brown/green fruit is kiwi fruit, and the funny looking bird is a kiwi bird.

July in Chch can be cold, at times rainy, and quite windy, but overall still gorgeous. Christchurch will stay in my memory as the place with the most fantastic blue, purple, orange skies appearing at least every other, if not every day, at least for a few hours. I didn’t feel the winter in Chch as much as I am now feeling the heaviness of a (gray) winter in Seattle. July passed in a jiffy. Since we had our visa automatically extended until September, and even though we thought that the most likely scenario would be going home when kids started the 2020/21 school year, we still thought we should have an alternative option if needed. If we were to try to stay in NZ past September, we needed to extend our visitor visa to 9 months which would get us until December. However, when I started to look into this process, I realized that Maksim and Petra’s passports were expiring in March of 2021, and NZ immigration would not extend us the visas if all of our passports didn’t have at least 6 months of validity left. I had to look into renewing their passports at the US Embassy in Auckland. As it usually happens when I get on a roll like this, I expanded our passport renewal trip to Auckland by adding a weeklong side trip to see the far north part of NZ, Northland.

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