Vanesa came to New Zealand from Argentina in 2013 on a working holiday visa. She is a petite woman with a laugh that is larger than life and like many Argentinians, she likes to say “blah,blah,blah” when she tells stories. She is a peaceful woman and this personality trait is, according to her, diametrically opposed to how people are in Buenos Aires, the town she is from and grew up in. Vanesa had a good life in Argentina. Her family was not rich but they were happy. The country offered public healthcare of a very high standard and the middle class thrived. She was able to refine her creative interests in film making by joining the Universidad de Buenos Aires, the best university in South America and graduated with a degree in image and sound design.
Vanesa had a “wonderful” partner who loved her and wanted to build a life with her, a loving family and many friends. She was about to get married. The date was set and preparations were in motion for the ceremony but she knew deep down that she had always been searching for something… Not necessarily something more because her life was already blooming in Argentina, but something different, something new; something exciting that this life she had been living didn’t have anymore. Her fiancé felt it too. He finally brought it up one day and she admitted to him that she just didn’t feel ready to live this life yet. They broke the engagement even though Vanesa tells me that he was just a great man and knew that he would have loved her and cared for her; and a few months later, Vanesa who was then in her late twenties, made the conscious decision to change her life. It was very difficult but she knew in her deepest self that this was something she had to do for herself.
She wanted to learn English, she wanted to see the world and she wanted to be excited by life again.
Initially, Vanesa backpacked around New Zealand for a year before settling down first in Christchurch and then in Ashburton. The first thing that struck her about New Zealand was how much brighter everything was here. The flowers, the sun, the sky, the leaves rustling on windy days…everything was so bright and intensely colorful that it made her eyes hurt. After all, Vanesa trained as a film maker and it is therefore not surprising to me that her skills of perception allowed her to register these visual differences so deeply. She had left many things behind; a whole life indeed, but she was now discovering a whole new one.
What is interesting is that many migrants talk about going through similar experiences when they arrive in their new home. Everything is brighter, scents are stronger and sounds are louder and denser! As a migrant in a foreign place, Vanesa, like many of us, made herself stop, look and listen in order to engage with and interpret this new environment. This in itself is at once a cultural response to a drastic change but also a human one. As foreigners, we experience and make sense of newness and difference by diving into our own world of sensations. These experiences of seeing, hearing, feeling and so on are what feed our individual imaginations and allow us to register difference and deal with it and find our place within it. This is how we begin to make sense of and comprehend the immensity of our migrant experience.
Vanesa tells us that her excitement for living was renewed the day she began her new life in New Zealand. She explains that it felt like “I started to live”. Her life now is certainly very different to what is was like when she was backpacking. Then, she was constantly meeting new people, learning English but also still speaking Spanish a lot with other Spanish speaking travellers. There were many new life experiences, explorations, adventures and the freedom that comes with being somewhere new so far away from home. Now, she goes to work every day and sometimes works on audiovisual projects and has dinner with her friends; but Vanesa explains that the biggest reason that drove her to decide to stay in New Zealand is the sense of peace she feels here, that she never did back home.
Yet, it wasn’t always easy. Vanesa tells us that the language barrier was a tremendous obstacle for her. She came to New Zealand without much knowledge of the spoken English language and was very scared of speaking or even being spoken to. For a long time, she couldn’t even go to a shop by herself, for fear of someone asking her questions that she wouldn’t be able to understand. She only had one friend, who was also Argentinian. The best piece of advice she received and which helped her to get over this intense fear came from an Argentinian friend, himself an immigrant, living in Canada. He told her to “take it easy”. She explains that part of her ordeal came from the fact that she knew that she was able to express herself in Spanish but wasn’t able to do so in English. It was very important for her to be able to find that voice to allow her to really cross into the local community. “Maybe it’s a different experience when you are travelling and when you are living. When you are travelling, you know it’s just a short time so you don’t care too much. But when you are living here you realise that you are sitting here and you have friends and you can have a relationship with someone, and you find out that it’s not easy sometimes when you have no luck to get kiwi friends and speak little English.”
Building these human connections is something that is very important to Vanesa. She made a kiwi friend here “in a sad moment” in her life. That friend opened her house, her life and her heart to Vanesa and was a support for her as she dealt with life away from her native Argentina and all the friends and family she had there. She tells us that this encounter made them both realise that sometimes, “it doesn’t matter where you are from; you just have these connections with people, even if they’re not from your own country.” From all these serendipitous life meetings, she wants to learn and to grow. Her heart carries lessons from all the people she has met on her journey who have touched her in one way or another and they have made her a very intuitive woman. She explains that she believes it is important to be open to meet new people and that every encounter “has something very special and important to give you, especially when you are an immigrant”.
It is true. A smile, a hug, someone who cares for you and wants to show you the beautiful things about their country makes a tremendous difference. For many, it is even the difference between staying and leaving.
Now in her thirties, Vanesa is embarking yet on another chapter of her life. She has just quit her job, directed and produced a short film for Crossing The Bridge which you can find on this website and she soon leaves again on a two month adventure to travel through Asia with that very friend who gave her the advice to “relax” all these years ago. English language is still a work in progress and so is her life, but she is confident, open and expansive about her choice. She has no regrets. New Zealand gave her a new lease on life and what’s more exciting is that she has so much to give to it in return!
When I came to NZ the first difference with Argentina that I saw was the brightness of the sun… I remember that my eyes burned, everything was shiny and the colors were more intense.
THE WOOD AND ME
I was born in a huge city, Buenos Aires, everything there is build in concrete. I didn’t have any relationship with wood before I came to NZ. Today, if I think about NZ, I think about wood. Houses built by wood, and firewood! Wow!! For me it was a big challenge to learn how to make a fire. I finally got it! .... now I’m a Fire Queen!
When I came to live in Ashburton, my friend, Lucy, was waiting for me in the front door of the house. I remember that I had paid special attention to this yellow glass, so this photo reminds me of that time.
SCARED ART STUDIO
This is the top room in the Cambridge street house. We wanted to set up an art studio there. It is a beautiful sunny room. But everyday when I came home from work at night I couldn’t stop imagining horror movies, where that room was the set. And I can’t remember a single day where I didn’t look up to that room before I went into the house.
79 CAMBRIDGE ST.
My memory is quite foggy but I still can remember the address of the house that I grew up in back home in Argentina. I used to think that if you can remember an address where you have lived for a while then that place has been special in your life. I’m sure I will always remember my address in Ashburton.
I love sunflowers! And we had some in the garden. For me sunflowers have some kind of magic and unreal fantastical style.