Hit hard by the global financial crisis, Bianca Rodriguez and her husband Paul Jenkins decided they were done with New Zealand.
Living in Auckland, they found themselves on struggle street after the birth of their first child as Jenkins, who works in human resources, earned just over the threshold for them to qualify for financial support.
Jenkins was made redundant twice while their daughter Ellie was still a newborn and, with a mortgage to take care of as well, they decided life in their homeland had become unsustainable.
“We felt we had to look abroad for new opportunities where salaries were higher and the market more stable,” Rodriguez, 37, says. “Basically we left to keep afloat.”
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Rodriguez had never been to Melbourne or even discussed the city with anyone before they arrived in 2013 and her initial excitement was tempered by feelings of being overwhelmed.
“The city was huge compared to anywhere we had lived in New Zealand,” she says. Indeed, Melbourne’s population of 4.85 million is roughly the same as New Zealand’s.
While Jenkins found work relatively quickly, Rodriguez struggled to find anything for a year despite being qualified and experienced in market communications.
“I felt like an outsider for a while but once I got my foot in the door, opportunities opened up.”
Five years and another child later, Rodriguez says they are much better off financially than they were in New Zealand and that life is “just easier”. And more enjoyable.
Jenkins earns enough as general manager of people and culture for a tech company for Rodriguez to be able to take care of the kids full time and she doesn’t feel any pressure to return to work.
“It’s easy to get around, public transport is amazing, there’s so much variety in shopping, from food to clothes and homewares. The schools are fantastic, there’s lots for kids to see and do. In New Zealand it was a struggle: Less on offer and lower salaries made for a harder life.”
Rodriguez and Jenkins aren’t the only ones to find the living easy in the Victorian capital. Melbourne held the top spot on The Economist‘s list of the world’s most livable cities for seven years running until being overtaken by Vienna in 2018. Auckland, the only New Zealand city to feature in this year’s index, came in at number 12, down from eight in 2017. The Economist’s intelligence unit bases the ranking on 30 factors spread across five broad categories – stability, healthcare, education, infrastructure and culture and environment.
Melbourne is often said to be the most European city in Australia, as well as its cultural and sporting capital, but it’s no Euro copycat (or wannabe). As much as it divides opinion between Melburnians, the Federation Square precinct, aka Melbourne’s “Meeting Place”, is a microcosm of the city at large with its mishmash of heritage and avant garde buildings, diverse eating and drinking spots and full events schedule. Whenever you rock up there’s likely to be something happening: a farmers’ market, film screening, live music, art exhibition, wine or food festival, a quigong session… Much of it free.
But it’s hard to put Melbourne into a box (or, for that matter, square). Its inner-city neighbourhoods have very different characters, defined by the people who’ve made a home there and the businesses they have established.
There’s posh South Yarra/Prahan with its upscale boutiques, restaurants, art galleries and venues beloved by the LGBT community; historic Richmond with its Vietnamese flavours and legendary discount clothing stores; the River District, home to such cultural and sporting heavyweights as the Arts Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, Sidney Myer Music Bowl and Melbourne Cricket Ground; and bohemian Fitzroy, possibly the Brooklyn of Melbourne with its slow-drip coffee houses, vegetarian eateries, proliferation of cocktail, whiskey and wine bars and entertainment options which, this week alone, include an artists’ market, rap, R&B and hip hop night, “crap music party” promising “the worst tunes for the best party times” and “baby drag queens” show. And that’s just a small selection of the city’s sprawling suburbs.
And then there are the laneways that run like arteries through the central business district, delivering cultural lifeblood in the form of world-famous street art and yet more small-but-perfectly-formed cafes, bars, galleries and boutiques. Wherever you head, the city’s creative, bohemian, go-getting but goodtime-loving spirit seems to shine through. For some Kiwis, it’s love at first sight. For others, she’s a slow seductress whose hidden charms reveal themselves one evening or weekend of exploration at a time. Many decide they never want to leave.
Amanda Sheat, who moved to Melbourne from Auckland in March 2014, thinks of her new city as an amped up, more mature version of her hometown.
“It’s easier to get around and much more vibrant and exciting. There are a lot of great things happening in Auckland and it’s changing, but I don’t think fast enough to keep up with a lot of the things that are already established in Melbourne.”
Sheat, who works in communications for Parks Victoria, has also found the career opportunities to be greater over there, meaning you’re more likely to find your ideal job – eventually.
Sheat, 32, decided to move to Melbourne after returning to Auckland from her London OE and finding the City of Sails a little too slow-paced for her liking.
With a brother, sister-in-law and niece in the city and several friends planning to move there, she found settling in relatively easy in some respects.
Like Rodriguez, however, she initially struggled on the work front. She secured a job after a month but it was about a year before she found one she really enjoyed.
“That first year was quite hard, but overall it was pretty easy to settle in. I got myself a little one-bedroom apartment [in Richmond], established my group of friends and made sure I had lots on. I guess it was easy technically but hard emotionally.”
Sheat says she’s been lucky to work in very social environments, but has also got to know people through existing friends and events organised by a friend who runs a Facebook page for new arrivals.
She’s so settled now, she can’t see herself returning to New Zealand, although her home city will always hold a special place in her heart.
Sheat thinks she’s in a similar financial position as she would have been if she’d stayed in Auckland. While she earns more now, she’s also progressed in her career. Rents and house prices, she says, seem to be fairly similar and eating out is probably a bit cheaper in Melbourne.
Not having to fork out for exorbitant cab fares to get from one part of town to another is another big drawcard for her, as is the fact that the city feels alive and buzzing every day and night of the week.
On a recent trip home, she was disappointed to find Takapuna “completely dead” on a weeknight and was shocked to have to shell out $80 in taxi fares to get from suburbia to Ponsonby to meet a friend for dinner.
As an “outdoors-loving Kiwi”, part of the reason Sheat feels so at home in Melbourne is that it’s easy to take a break from big city life whenever she chooses.
She travels to parks and beaches throughout Victoria for work and also goes bushwalking and camping with friends in her free time.
“I was really surprised at all the things that aren’t that far a drive from Melbourne [such as] going down to the Mornington Peninsula to go to the beach or to the mountains. There’s a lot of variation in places to visit.”
Dana Albuquerque, Tania Neale and Rory Howard* also enjoy the vibrancy of the city and have come to think of it as home – for the time being at least.
Like Rodriguez, Albuquerque moved to the city as a result of the recession. The New Zealand office at the company she worked for shut down and her role was disestablished so she thought she may as well give life across the ditch a shot. Melbourne called, she says, as it was a “bigger city with more opportunities for the area I work in and more pay”.
While she had friends in London, she didn’t want to be that far away from her mum whom, after eight years in the city, she still finds it hard being separated from.
Albuquerque found settling in “smooth sailing”, finding a job in marketing and the community of Kiwi expats “very welcoming”.
Initially, she made the most of the surfeit of bars and restaurants but, now that she’s looking after her two small children full time, finds that most of her activities are kid-centric. Still, she feels her weekends are more cultured than they were when she lived in east Auckland.
“The kids love the zoo, Scienceworks and the museum. Now that we live in the city, everything is so much more accessible and you’re not just spending your time at a Westfield.”
Many of her friends have “moved out to burbs” since having kids, however, and as Melbourne is so spread out, it can be difficult to keep in touch.
“It’s easier to drift apart and feel lonely sometimes.”
While the couple earn more in Melbourne, Albuquerque wonders whether they would find it easier financially in New Zealand “with all the family support there.
“The cost of childcare [in Melbourne] kills everything. If we lived in New Zealand, we would be able to lean on grandparents to looks after the kids and we’d be able to save more money. Then again, we haven’t attempted to buy a house in Auckland and I can see it’s a bit ridiculously high there.”
Tania Neale, who moved to Melbourne with her partner in 2012 after he landed a job there, also finds it hard being separated from family in New Zealand, but feels she has a much better quality of life in Australia.
A nurse, she earns almost twice what she did in Auckland, despite now only working part time, and finds rent, petrol and food cheaper.
“I have a lot more spare time to do things I enjoy… whereas if I lived in New Zealand I’d have to work full time to make ends meet.”
Like Albuquerque, Neale, 40, acclimatised quickly to the city, meeting people through work, her partners’ workmates and sports (she’s into athletics, tennis and touch rugby).
Her five-year-old son was born in Australia and she’s happy for him to think of the country as home.
“The longer I’m in Melbourne, the more I enjoy living here,” she says, although she thinks Kiwis beat the Aussies in the friendliness stakes.
“I do find Kiwis in general more friendly and laidback.”
Howard, 26, thinks life in Melbourne strikes an almost ideal balance between slower Auckland and “crazy” Sydney.
He moved to the city four years ago, wanting a change of scenery, like all the other we spoke with, was immediately struck by its liveliness and diversity.
An international compliance manager, Howard earns less than he did in New Zealand, but says the lower cost of living balances things out.
He had friends in the city when he arrived but has enjoyed getting to know people from diverse backgrounds, saying his new mates are “very interested in the Māori culture, as I am with their nationalities”.
He’s still finding new parts of the city and wider area to explore, often heading off on weekend missions along the Great Ocean Road, to the Yarra Valley or the bush to go hiking.
He wouldn’t say he prefers Melbourne over Auckland, noting that both cities have their good and bad points, but like the others we spoke with, he finds the living in Melbourne easier.
“I love my life here. I was recently offered a decent position in New Zealand and I turned it down. It’s much more than financial. It’s the lifestyle.”
* Name has been changed.