Building a community in a foreign country
Olivia Townley and her Kiwi husband, James Gemmell, moved to New Zealand at the end of 2021 when James was given an opportunity to run a New Zealand branch of his UK company. Since arriving, the family has experienced lockdowns, a wet New Zealand winter, and an even wetter summer complete with flooding and cyclones. Kea caught up with Olivia to discuss expat life, what’s surprised her most about moving to New Zealand and the challenges that the partners of Kiwi returners face when trying to find their place in a foreign country.
For Olivia, it was never a question of if the family would move to New Zealand but rather a question of when.
“In the UK I was the only person in my social group who had an expat partner, which meant I was the only one who knew my life was definitely going to change. Most of my friends were making plans to buy homes near their families and look at schools, they understood how their lives would unfold, whereas I didn’t. James has always helped me see the adventure in moving abroad but it was a scary notion that at some point we would be leaving everything I knew and starting over. It was probably a good thing that it happened quite suddenly in the middle of the pandemic, James was offered the right job and we decided quite quickly to just do it.”
While Olivia had some reservations about the move, she says she recognised it as a great opportunity to support her partner while also introducing her two preschool-aged boys to a different culture. However, her perceived timeline of how long it would take to adjust to living in
New Zealand was quite different from the reality.
“We arrived in the pandemic, so it was really desolate, nothing was open, there were no groups to join, or places to go to meet people, then we sort of headed into Christmas and I wasn’t prepared for how long the holiday period lasts here – in the UK, Christmas is celebrated in a more intensely social December, but over here everyone seems to go on holiday until about February. It was much harder than I expected to initially meet people and make friends and I was really lonely.”
“It’s really taught me the value of social connections. I always knew I liked people and I liked socialising, but I didn’t realise how much I needed it until it was gone. The moment I found that social connection again, I felt better, happier, and I’m very grateful for any connection that I have now.”
Olivia decided to use her background as a personal trainer to help her meet more people and after some discussions with an old boss in the UK, she launched a New Zealand franchise of One Element, a UK based social fitness company, which aims to bring people together for friendship, fitness and fun, much like that of a sports team.
“One Element aims to create a welcoming community sense through our group workout sessions and events. After every training session, there is the chance to go out for coffee, or a drink after the evening session; we have just celebrated 6 months with a ‘HIIT and Hooley’ social and in a few weeks we’re going to hike Rangitoto. I’m planning a mid-winter Christmas event too. As the business grows I want to introduce more events. One Element aims to create a team nature, because the belief is that if people turn up for each other, the fitness will take care of itself.”
Through the launch of her business, Olivia has met a lot of other expats or partners of expats
and says she’s come to realise that her experiences of struggling to create a community are
“My advice to other people who are moving home with Kiwi partners would be to say that it might feel bleak to begin with because there aren’t as many open invitations to join new groups as you might expect, but if you take your time and hunt out your communities, or take part in groups connected to your passions, you will settle in, and when that happens it will be really meaningful and there’s probably a lot that you’ll learn about yourself during that time. I would also recommend people actively work to meet people and make friends, no matter how long it takes, don’t give up. It can feel like it’s impossible to meet people and break into a group but all you need to do is meet that one person and all of a sudden you end up with an abundance of opportunity and it’s so worth it. Seek out community groups and activities and people you think
you could click with – I treated meeting people almost like finding a job, it can be hard work but it’s worth it in the end.”
Almost 18 months into their Kiwi adventure Olivia says she’s now found a group of people she
clicks with and their life has picked up momentum. There are still uniquely Kiwi things she says
she can’t imagine getting on board with – such as New Zealanders tendency to walk around barefoot in places like shopping malls and supermarkets, but other quirks such as DIY she is
“I have quite a lot of banter with my British friends because we are like, right, we’re really going
to have to sharpen our DIY skills. We’re just going to have to start painting a deck or building a fence or mowing the lawns. When we first arrived I couldn’t get over how everyone works on their homes on the weekend – how are you supposed to meet anyone if they are all home mowing the lawns or painting something? In the UK if you want something done you call someone, but here you guys just get on and do it, which is admirable. We have a deck out the back of our house that was covered in moss and black stains; the father of a friend at my group fitness sessions came round with some ‘Hit the Deck’ and showed me how to clean it. I was genuinely proud of myself to clean a deck properly for the first time!”
She’s also embracing the Kiwi outdoors and appreciates the unique experiences New Zealand
has to offer.
“I love how vegetables taste like vegetables in this country, I love how easy it is to drive places, I can get from St Heliers to Takapuna in 25 minutes off peak, and there is so much free parking. In the UK you have to pay to park on your street and you can never get a park right outside a place like the museum, or Kelly Tarltons, or a restaurant. New Zealand is also ridiculously beautiful on its calm and sunny days; I took the boys up to the Whangaparaoa Peninsula one day and we were the only people on Army Bay beach. Out of nowhere, a pod of dolphins swam into the bay – I couldn’t believe it, it was just a regular day and here we were swimming with dolphins, that’s really special. As the boys get older we can’t wait to explore further and discover more of this country and all of the special things it holds.”
One Element is a social fitness group operating in the Auckland suburb of St Heliers. If you’re
interested you can find more information here.