Birgit and Ian McConnachie put a lot of thought into the decisions that led them from coastal Spain to Kerikeri. But son Sean had fun in mind when he had his say on the house they bought, explains Birgit.
“Our son was so keen on cutting the lawn, he wanted to ride a John Deere [a brand of ride-on lawn mower]. That actually was the reason why we decided. It’s a big plot and he still cuts the grass,” she says.
The family had visited New Zealand a few times while deciding where to live, and on this occasion Ian was here by himself. “Ian sent me an email with lots of pictures – in the middle of night, of course, with the time difference. Sean and I got up in Europe and had a look at the pictures. I said, ‘That looks good. Do you think it’s okay?’ and we bought it,” explains German-born Birgit.
She is a GP (general practitioner, or doctor), and had her own practice in the small Spanish city of Denia. Ian was born in England and moved to Germany when he was 22; while in Denia, he worked as Birgit’s practice manager and as a TV and stage presenter for multinational companies.
After living in Spain for 10 years, Birgit and Ian decided it was time for a change. They chose New Zealand, and visited the North Island one August to see if they could live with the winter weather. “Northland was fantastic. It was raining but everything was so green and nice,” says Birgit.
Ian says buying a house nine months before they moved to Kerikeri made the move easier. “We shipped our personal belongings here once we sold our house in Spain, and rented a house in Spain for the last six months while selling the practice and cars. A major move like this is very complicated and it’s impossible to time everything to work to a certain date,” he says.
Birgit had to register her qualifications with the Medical Council of New Zealand, and pass the difficult IELTS English-language test at an academic level. She recommends other migrant doctors pass the language test first, before registering with a medical employment company to look for a job.
“English isn’t my mother tongue, and to work as a doctor, you need it on a high level. So I had to put quite an effort into the language skills and it took me a while to pass the exam,” she says.
Birgit now works as a GP at Broadway Health in Waipapa, just outside Kerikeri. For the first year, she worked ‘under supervision’ – an experienced doctor introduced her to the health system here and oversaw her work.
Northland is a rural area, and some residents have high health and social needs. Birgit has also found it is full of different nationalities: Māori, other Kiwis, and people from Asian and European countries. “It’s very interesting but demanding work.”
The family had a perfect introduction to Kiwi life: on the day they arrived in March 2014, someone from Sean’s new school phoned them to ask if Sean, now 13, wanted to join his new classmates on a school camp.
“Then they asked, ‘Do you and Ian want to join as well?’ So we spent the first two days in New Zealand on a school camp in Tauranga Bay, which was just fantastic. We met other parents and got quite quickly into society,” Birgit says.
Ian decided to set up an art gallery in Kerikeri. He and Birgit also have a house in Phuket, Thailand, and after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, he began buying paintings and selling them in Spain to raise money for Thai artists. His gallery, Masterpieces, sells local and Thai art.
If they are not at work or school, you will find the McConnachie family somewhere outdoors. “If you live here, you have to be an outdoor person,” says Birgit. “We joined the Kiwi lifestyle; we have a little boat and we have learned to use it.” Ian adds, “I have finally taken up playing golf, which was ridiculously expensive in Europe. We often go out on our stand-up paddleboards, and there are some magnificent coastal walks in the Far North.”
There are always adjustments to make. Birgit misses Europe’s culture, history and old buildings. Ian finds the lack of motorways makes travelling tiring and slow. “Coming from Europe, we are used to cities being connected by good highways going around town centres, and also having the train as an alternative. Here in the North, there is no train network at all,” he says.
“Also, I’ve found Kiwis are sometimes too laidback. Builders often didn’t send us quotes or didn’t turn up for work when they said they would. Good weather can just mean they’ve gone fishing, and work is put off for a day or even much longer.”
Still, a casual lifestyle is part of why they love New Zealand – and it is good for Sean, says Birgit.
“He took his shoes off and became a little Kiwi boy.”