Sofie Jacobs, Dunedin (South Island)

Who are you?

My name is Sofie Jacobs. I am a 35 year old woman from Belgium. I have a master in Graphic Design and a Teaching Diploma. After I finished my studies I worked several years in the graphic industry. The last ten years I have worked as an arts teacher for different age groups in Belgium. Currently I live in New Zealand and work for a private childcare business. I do several tasks for them such as being a head supervisor in the after school care and the holiday programmes. Besides that I provide craft activities for the children and also work in their office as a resource manager.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

I came to New Zealand in October 2012.My initial plan was to do a one year study in a Steiner Education Programme on the North Island in combination with travelling the country. The study was about to start in February 2013. I came three months earlier to travel before the start of the school year. Unexpectedly I met a very nice New Zealander on the first day of my arrival. He invited me to visit him in Dunedin, a city in the bottom of the South Island.

I did not have a fixed travel plan so I was pleased with the idea of a week free accommodation in Dunedin. We got on so well that I have never started my study. We have been living together now for more than eight months and all goes well. My initial plan was not to settle down in New Zealand, but because we have such a nice relationship and the life quality is very good here I have decided to stay.

What challenges did you face during the move?

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I came here on a student visa. Because I withdrew from my course I lost my permission to work as a student.

After four months I tried to get a work visa under the ‘Partnership Category’ and luckily the visa was granted to me. Once I have received my work visa I started applying for jobs. That was quite a challenge because I never applied for a job in English before. My partner helped me with my cover letters and CV’s. Of all the jobs that I applied for on paper I was never invited for a job interview. I could not understand why because I am high qualified.

My partner advised me to go ‘door knocking’; this is a common way to find a job here. It means that you go around all the places you would like to work, even if there is no vacancy. You ask for a short talk with the principal or director. Once you are in his or her office you try to present and sell yourself the best you can. This technique helped me to get my current job. I even offered a few voluntary hours of my work so they could see that I am a valuable employee. I have gradually worked my way into the business by doing lots of relieving work and being ‘on call’ every day. After two months I have managed to get a part time permanent contract. All goes well and my boss is very happy with me. For the moment his business is in a growth and that means I will have a full time contract within a few months.

Meanwhile I have got my diplomas assessed by NZQA, New Zealand Qualifications Authority. This was another challenge on the side because it involved a lot of paper work. My diplomas are assessed now, but my Teaching Diploma did not get the same recognition as it had in Belgium. Because I would like to become a teacher in New Zealand I have to gain teacher’s registration from the New Zealand Teachers Council. This is another paper adventure that I have in front of me and I will probably have to do some extra teaching training.

How did you find somewhere to live?

That was actually very easy. I moved into the house of my partner with my two suitcases. I am very lucky because he bought a beautiful house on a hill with stunning views over the ocean. It is the most beautiful house I have ever lived in. In exchange for doing the whole household and some extra tasks in his architecture business I could stay in the house without paying rent and costs.

We made this agreement because it took a while to change my student visa to a work visa. Meanwhile I could not work and earn money. Once I received my work visa it still took a few months to get a part time job that can make me a living. We shared the costs for food which I paid for with my savings from Belgium. I also would like to point out that the average New Zealand house is badly insulated and draughty; especially the beautiful looking old villas are like a fridge in winter.

Are there many other expats in your area?

I live in a neighbourhood near the ocean which attracts quite a lot of expats. I have contact with two Belgian ladies who have started a business here. Two of my best friends here are expats, one from Brazil and one from the United States. The majority of the expats are Asians, especially Chinese. In Dunedin they have even build a Chinese garden to attract Chinese expats and tourists.

There is also a large group of expats from the UK. From the conversations I have with other expats I hear that they struggle with the same issues as I do; such as getting a visa, finding a job, making friends, feeling homesick. Sharing the same difficulties creates a certain kind of bond. I am happy not to be the only expat here. We give each other a lot of advice and support.

What is your relationship like with the locals?

In the first place I have a loving relationship with my New Zealand partner. Most of the people I know here were introduced to me by him. I also have a good relationship with my boss and colleagues at work. Because of my work I meet a lot of children and their parents. I still have to get used to the way of working here and the way people communicate. It seemed all quite European to me, but there are remarkable differences.

I remember for example my job interview and the huge amount of documents I had to sign about children’s safety and so on. I had to supply a police check and two reference checks. My first impression was that all would be very strict, high controlled and ordered on the work floor. But that is totally not the case. In fact it is the most chaotic, most disorganised organisation I have ever worked for. Some of the staff is incompetent and not able to take responsibility over a group of children.

I have noticed that the New Zealanders have lots of paperwork and declarations about how everything should be, but in reality they work a little bit like what I would call ‘farmer-style’. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is quite confusing for a foreigner that on paper everything looks so classy whereas the reality is quite low quality. It seems to me they want to keep up with Europe but don’t exactly know how to do it. To conclude this paragraph I would like to point out that most ‘Kiwis’ are very amicable people.

What do you like about life where you are?

I live on the South Island and there are approximately 1 million people in an area of 151,215 km². Where as in Belgium 11 million people live in an area of 30,278 km. For people like me, who love space and empty beaches, it is a paradise.

There are hardly any queues. In the supermarket I am almost served immediately. I absolutely adore the nature and the wildlife here. I only have to go for a 30 minute drive to beaches where penguins and seals come out of the water every day. I saw a whale a few days ago. This connection with the wildlife is gold to me. It makes me realize on what a wonderful planet we live and also how important it is to protect this environment.

I especially like living in Dunedin because it is a cultural city with a university. I grew up in Leuven, Belgium and I still have the same access to knowledge and culture here as I had at home. The big difference is that I only have to do a four hour drive to the Southern Alps, Wanaka, Queenstown. It only takes a day to get to Milford Sound. All these places are regarded as among the most beautiful places on earth.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

I feel homesick, but I still want to live here. That is sometimes a difficult inner struggle. I literally live on the other side of the world; it takes a 33 hour expensive plane trip to get here. It is not very likely for my friends and family to come and visit me. Unfortunately Dunedin is a town with a beer drinking culture, the same as in my home town. I don’t like alcoholics. But it is not difficult to avoid these kind of people because they always hang out in the areas where I don’t go.

The wages are low and the costs are high, especially the basics such as food are expensive. I was shocked about the prices when I went to the supermarket for the first time. Insulated houses are uncomfortable for someone who is used to live in a central heated house.

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

Make sure you have quite a lot of money in your bank account.

New Zealand is very expensive, especially the food in the supermarkets. Collect all your official documents in your home country. For more information about the required documents search on the immigration websites. I have made the mistake not to bring every little small document you can think of they might ask you. All your school diplomas, even the diploma of your secondary school are necessary. These documents, first need to be legalised by your government and then translated and legislated by the court.

Furthermore think about all documents you have from placements during your study. Make sure you have reference letters from your previous employers and their contact details. You might need a police certificate and birth certificate.

Also make sure you have a certificate of an IELTS English language test. This is a difficult test that requires a few months of study.

Every single document needs to be in English.

Think about a budget of 1000 euro or even more just for the whole bureaucracy process. Make sure you have a strong will to live here otherwise you might not want to do all the effort.

Look at the beautiful pictures of New Zealand and try to imagine how these environments feel like when it is cold, windy and rainy. Although it is quite unpolluted here, it is not the Garden of Eden either.

In certain areas there are possible earthquakes to expect. Wellington just had a 6.5 earthquake. Some volcanoes are still active. A man was killed by a shark a few months ago. An Antarctic storm hit a part of the country a few weeks ago. As long as you are aware of these potential threats there is not so much to worry about. The New Zealanders are used to all these dangers and I am learning to be not so scared of it anymore.

What are your plans for the future?

I want to apply for residency in a few months. I also wish to find a better paid job and become a teacher in a school. On the other hand I feel attracted to start my own business here. It is easier to start an own business in New Zealand than it is in Belgium, especially the first two years they make it very easy for starters.

It is a big dream of mine to run my own art studio near the sea where I would like to give private art classes to children and adults. I still am building a network here and saving up money to realize this. I see it as a few years plan. My partner is an architect and I also see myself doing some design projects together with him. He dreams of designing and building his own house. He likes my art studio idea so maybe, if all goes well I have an art studio next to our new house with access to the beach in a few years. That would be wonderful.

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