‘Christchurch is so well suited to family life’
My New Zealand: Teacher Sarah Lynch and her young family live in Christchurch, where her QS husband is helping rebuild the city
Sarah Lynch with her husband Barry and son Oliver (1)
Teacher Sarah Lynch and her young family moved to Christchurch in 2012 after her husband, a quantity surveyor, lost his job. He is now helping to rebuild the city after the two earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.
Why did you decide to emigrate?
We left for Christchurch on July 4th 2012 with our then two-year-old son, Elliot. My husband Barry is a quantity surveyor and had been made redundant when Elliot was a few months old. He set up on his own, but met many obstacles on the way and it didn’t work out. We couldn’t sustain our mortgage on my teacher’s salary so something had to give. It was a tough decision.
New Zealand was our first choice as Barry’s brother Rob lives in Wellington. He has always spoken highly of New Zealand. Initially we were bound for the capital, but when Barry ventured over to do interviews, it became clear the work was in Christchurch. The city centre had been virtually wiped out in the earthquakes and aftershocks of 2010 and 2011, and there was extensive residential and retail damage in the wider Canterbury area. He secured a job with a small PQS firm, which offered a good salary and relocation costs. We headed off four months later.
What type of visa are you on?
We were granted a three-year work visa and are currently applying for residency. I wanted to stay at home to get us settled, and then we had Oliver a year ago, so I haven’t worked as a teacher here yet. But I do intend to. It involves getting my qualifications recognised and registering with the teaching council, which will cost upwards of $800 (€495). I have loved staying at home with the children, an opportunity I would not have had at home. I’ve also had an opportunity to get to know other families, and we have a good network of friends now.
Where do you live?
We live in a nice suburban area just outside the city centre. The houses here are generally ancient, draughty and damp. We’ve been very lucky in that we found a house with double glazing and heating. It might be hard to believe, but this is a rarity, especially in areas close to city centre. Most of the houses are one-off properties on tree-lined streets, which is a nice change from the housing estates at home.
When we first arrived, the devastation of the earthquakes was still so apparent. The city centre was inaccessible. On every street we saw wrecked houses, huge gaps where homes once stood, with plastic patching where there once were chimneys, windows, or roof tiles. It’s come on so much now as the rebuild continues, with new houses popping up all over the city. There are playgrounds and beautifully kept green areas everywhere. The city is now open and there are businesses re-opening every day.
Cities rarely get an opportunity to revamp, rebuild and start again, but there is a lot of debate around it, as one can imagine. People lost not only their homes but their social lives too, as pubs, stadiums, and other social facilities were levelled.
It’s all coming back though, and better than before. Christchurch would not have been a party town when compared to Wellington or Auckland pre-earthquake, but some great pubs and restaurants have opened up since the rebuild began, and there are more to come.
Is there an Irish community there, and do you participate?
Everywhere I go, I meet Irish people. It honestly feels like there’s no one left at home. At first, I avoided meeting other Irish, because whenever I did, we’d end up sharing our sad “leaving Ireland” stories, and that was just unhelpful. It’s not so painful now after two and a half years.
I’ve got a good few Irish pals and I’m involved in teaching an Irish class to adults at the Christchurch Irish Society. We have about 10 stalwarts who are keen to keep up their Irishness. It becomes more poignant when you leave home how beautiful and unique our culture is. I’ll honestly never take it for granted again.
Describe your husband’s job
My husband works as quantity surveyor for a small firm involved in rebuild projects big and small. He is a managing QS (with two Irish lads under him) and has shares in the company. His experience from Ireland far outweighs that of any QS here in New Zealand. When he interviewed to register with the NZIQS, the representative admitted it was merely a formality.
Christchurch is experiencing a building boom even bigger than the one Ireland had during the Celtic Tiger, and is benefitting greatly from the vast experience of Irish construction employees. When his firm advertise for a new QS, they find it almost impossible to get anyone as qualified or experienced enough. So there’s plenty of work here in construction.
I’ve also met a lot of Irish who work for the council, and in property. The earthquakes were unspeakably awful for the people of Canterbury, but some in the construction and property market would say they were the best thing to ever happen for their businesses. It’s booming.
What is your impression of the economy in New Zealand?
The current government has been re-elected with an almost full majority. New Zealand is doing well. There is lots of work, but it does depend on your industry. The IT and finance sectors are growing, but farming is a huge industry also. New Zealand has the same population as Ireland, but Ireland is only half the size of the North Island. That’s a lot of wide open space.
How have your children adjusted? Is it a family-friendly place?
We left at a good time in our child’s life. At two and a half, his parents were still his world and he went with the flow. He’s been here now as long as he lived in Ireland. It’s heartbreaking saying goodbye to family and friends and I can imagine that would be very hard for older children.
Christchurch is so well suited to family life. There is a lot you can do with a young family cheaply or for free, and children, especially under-fives, have free healthcare and free admission to most places. Being a stay-at-home parent means I have made lots of friends with other families with children of the same age. When Oliver was born a year ago, they all rallied round in place of family, and I didn’t have to cook for weeks.
What is your experience of the health system?
There is a similar health system to home, in that lots of things are free or subsidised, but it is far more efficient and easier on the pocket. For example, once you register with a GP, and you have a working visa (in Canterbury at least) it costs $60 for a visit, under-5s are free, over-5s are $30. Prescriptions cost $5 per item. There was no comparison whatsoever with my experience of having a baby in hospital in Ireland, apart from both being free of charge. It was far more positive.
In Ireland, you are on a ward with three or four others, but in New Zealand everyone gets their own room. You also get your own midwife, who is available to you 24/7, with whom you have all your visits, who makes referrals if necessary, and is present on the day your baby is born, at home or in hospital. The same midwife will make home visits for six weeks after the birth. In Ireland, you’ve got your GP, who won’t be there at the birth, and a public health nurse who is generally not a midwife.
Here, it is assumed you’ll breastfeed, and you are provided with all the necessary help by properly trained midwives, both in hospital and at home if necessary. It’s also a boob-friendly place, which I didn’t find to be the case in Ireland, where I failed at my first attempt at breastfeeding.
How does the education system compare?
The primary school education system is heralded as being one of the best in the world, and friends who have studied Masters in Education have told me the all the research and examples of good practice come from New Zealand.
Third level education is not “free” like at home, but the fees are almost the same as the registration fees in Ireland now.
My eldest will start school in March when he is five. They all start at their fifth birthday, at different times of the year. This seems mind-boggling to me, but the classes are very small. There will be no more than 12 pupils in his new entrant class. This sounds like heaven to me.
How does the cost of living compare to Ireland?
Groceries are one of the most expensive things. There’s no Lidl or Aldi here. Power is expensive also, as is clothing, but there are regular sales. Bins, street maintenance and water charges are all covered in your rates, which are a percentage of the value of your house. Activities are cheap, like going to a wildlife park, or an amusement park, where under-fives are generally free and there are deals on annual passes.
Are there any downsides?
Obviously, the major downside side is being so very far away from our family, and the huge cost involved in visiting home. Flights are cheaper from Ireland. Plus, over-twos are charged almost full price, so it would cost us about $12,000 (€7,430) to travel home at Christmas, for example. Christmas is so weird here. It’s summertime so there’s lots to do, but it doesn’t feel one bit Christmassy.
In many ways, Christchurch feels like Ireland was 20 years ago, though that’s often a good thing. Clothes are expensive though, the quality is woeful and there’s much less choice.
Driving here is a bit of a risk. The “motorway” is the equivalent of a badly-maintained dual carriageway at home, you can drink and drive (though they really are working on that), and people tend to show each other little courtesy. Zebra crossings must be a pretty new phenomenon too, as drivers often forget to stop.
What are the main cultural differences Irish people should be aware of?
“Bring a plate” means bring a plate of food. In the construction industry, Barry finds his everyday dealings to be far less aggressive than at home. They invest huge amounts of money in people, especially in families. The parks and recreation areas are beautifully maintained and respected by users. Kiwis love the outdoor life, rain or shine, and place great importance in it. As a result, Kiwi television is terrible.
Do you get homesick?
I left home plenty of times when I was single and didn’t bat an eyelid, but it’s incredibly hard when you have children. I miss seeing them with their grandparents and aunts and uncles. Our two are the only grandchildren on both sides, and half of the family haven’t met our youngest yet.
It’s tough, but we are giving them and ourselves a fulfilling experience. Even though they don’t see our families in the flesh too often, they are getting the best of us, which they wouldn’t have Ireland given the financial strain we were under.
I’ve learned never to take anything or anyone for granted, not to sweat the small things and find happiness in everyday things.
I do miss our warm, perfectly insulated houses, misty rain, Barry’s Tea, proper sausages, and a proper fire (you would be lucky to find house with a fire in Christchurch).
What tips or advice would you give others considering a move to Christchurch?
Research the employment market well. Be prepared to live in a cold house. Christchurch is an emerging city with lots of charm, spectacular beaches, mountain ranges, skiing, hot springs all within an hour’s drive. We love living here.
Have you made plans for the future?
We don’t like to look too far into the future. We have applied for residency and if that goes well, we’ll be here for another few years. We didn’t think three years ago that we’d be living in New Zealand, so we’ll see what happens. You never know what’s around the corner.