Mark Longbottom on being a ‘boomerang’ repatriate
Mark Longbottom is the quintessential ‘boomerang’ repatriate having moved back and forth between NZ and the UK many times over the past 30 years. He talks to Tricia Alach of How to Have a Happy Homecoming Blog about what motivates him and his family to live in this way and why he thinks the most recent move back to NZ is different to those that have come before.
Can you tell us the abridged version of your moves between NZ & the UK over the past 30 years?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a massive obsession with everything English. I was a huge football fan – the FA Cup final was the highlight of my year – and even loved watching Coronation Street and Eastenders, wished I had an English accent and even tried to convince my parents to immigrate to the UK on a number of occasions.
So as soon as I was able, I started making plans to move to the UK. In my last year of high school I was working part-time to earn the $4K I needed, which was a fortune at the time. I finally saved the money, booked my flights and headed off on my own, into the unknown. The only people I knew in the UK were an English guy who had worked in NZ as a semi-professional footballer (for a club on the North Shore) and his girlfriend, who ended up picking me up at the airport.
That was 1989 and I only lasted six months. Initially I wanted to live in Tottenham, because I was a huge Spurs fan, but I ended up spending some time in Earls Court and then the Midlands, basically touring around the country watching football.
Then I fell ill and my family wanted me to return to NZ so I did. In all honesty I was pretty lonely and homesick by then so going home was the easy option and it was a fairly smooth transition back into NZ life. I got a job and basically started saving to go back to the UK again but with a plan to do it a different way.
In 1991 I went back to London again but his time I took an equally football mad friend so I had some company. This was more a classic OE – we both got bar work, travelled, went to a lot of football games which was a much better experience than my first time around. But I realised during that time that life without a degree would always be harder from a financial point of view so I decided to go back to NZ again and go to university.
This is when the dates start to get a bit fuzzy because I moved back and forward a few times for varying lengths of time. I was in NZ roughly from 1992 to 1998 completing my degree in Sociology and then starting work for the Auckland City Mission.
In 1999 I moved to London and worked for the Terence Higgins Trust. It was during this time that I really started to love my UK life. When I was in London, I was hanging out with a bunch of old school friends from Takapuna Grammar and I also did a lot of travel around Europe on the hop-on, hop-off bus. I mainly travelled on my own so I met a lot of different people which was really cool. The only downside was that I lived right outside the Arsenal stadium which was a bit grim for a Spurs fan.
In 2003 my (now) wife and I went back to NZ with a view to this being a semi-permanent move. But we fell pregnant and my wife decided she wanted to be in the UK, near her mother, for the birth of her first child so we moved back to the UK in 2004. Initially we lived in London but then moved to Bristol in 2006 where we lived until 2019.
During that long period in the UK, we always talked about moving back to NZ and there were times that I really wanted to come back. But, we had built a really good life in the UK. We’re close to my wife’s family so always spent a lot of time with them, including sharing a house for some time. My wife and I both love our work and had great jobs. I managed a charitable foundation for a large wealth management company and my wife was founder CEO of a non-profit organisation that facilitates the sharing of cancer research.
Life was very full-on. During the week all activities were more or less centred around getting to work or being at work – I had an hour and a half commute each way. We’d also had three kids so family life was pretty full on as well.
In 2018 we started talking more seriously about moving to NZ as a way to have a different kind of life. To be honest I didn’t think it would happen because I was very settled in my UK role and I wasn’t convinced that my wife would really want to live that far away from her family, given that they are so close.
I was wrong about that though and, after I managed to secure a job in Auckland while still living in the UK, it became a reality. In January 2019, I basically flew over and dropped off the family and then came back to the UK to work out the rest of my contract before moving to moving to Auckland myself in February just in time for the birth of our fourth child.
I found the transition to NZ life tougher than I had anticipated it would be. I had a good job and it was great to be back living near my family, who I am really close to. But, I missed my English identity and the rhythm of our UK life. Things came to a head around August when we had to make a decision about our 15 year old daughter’s education – we had to choose between her doing her NCEA exams here in NZ or, sending her back to the UK to sit her exams over there. We also had some family commitments in the UK to attend to.
Ultimately we decided to send her back to start the school term in the UK in September and then my wife and I decided to move the whole family back again in October. We arrived in the UK and experienced almost instant regret because we realised that the reasons we had left in the first place were still there.
So we decided that, rather than stay in the UK and rebuild our life back there, we would turnaround and come back to NZ to give it another go. This time I felt much more confident about making the move and didn’t worry about looking for a job before I arrived. In some ways I feel like that six months we spent in NZ in 2019 was kind of a reconnaissance trip that helped us make the real move back in 2020.
Can you help us gain some insight into what motivates the moves back and forth? What’s the thought process that goes into making that decision?
My wife and I are both instinctual people so we don’t put a lot of effort into thinking too much into the future. But we are holistic in how we make decisions so we always take a range of factors into account. Jobs and family are the main anchors since those are the two most important things in our lives and then we think about lifestyle, what kind of childhood we want for the kids and what kind of tempo we want to live by at that time in our lives.
For a long time there was also this hangover from a pact I’d made with a friend when we were young. A kind of ‘Peter Pan’ thing where we’d always said that ‘settling down was like retiring’. I think subconsciously I resisted the idea of moving back to NZ for good for a long time, because I thought that was some sort of retirement, although I’m not really sure from what?
Now that I’m older, I can appreciate what NZ has to offer, especially in terms of the childhood I want for my kids. I love the freedom they can have here, the spontaneity of life, that there’s less academic pressure and, that things are simply so much easier to orchestrate and organise.
Do you always know that you’re going to be moving back again?
When I move I always think it will be for as long as it’s the right thing for us. This move feels like it’s probably going to last a decade or so. But, once the kids fly the nest, I can see us moving back to the UK for a time, especially if our children decide to go back to England to study or end up becoming boomerangs themselves.
What are highs and lows of boomeranging? What do you enjoy most about living in two places?
Financially, this is an expensive way to live. The costs of moving back and forth add up and it can be complicated in terms of pensions and tax and all that.
Culturally, the benefits are to do with being able to access the different ways of living, depending on what you want at the time. I love the indoor English lifestyle and love nothing more than getting the Sunday papers and heading to the pub to watch a football match with mates.
There’s also something appealing about being able to choose to live in the place that best matches the tempo you want for your life at that time. For example, sometimes I want the intensity of UK life where going to an English football match means 40,000 fans and that it’s a whole day affair and you have to book tickets months in advance. But sometimes I want the ease and simplicity of NZ life where I can go to a local match in Auckland where there are 40 fans and I can decide on the spur of the moment whether I want to go and be home five minutes after the game has ended. I like both lifestyles, I just want one more than the other at different times in my life.
Which country do you consider your true home?
That’s a tough question. When we came back in 2019 I definitely felt like I was a British immigrant moving to NZ. I had disassociated from my NZ life after two decades in the UK and on reflection it was going to take time to make the adjustment.
This time around, I feel much more like a returning Kiwi. I kind of get how it works here now and I’ve seen that NZ isn’t as narrow, culturally or economically, as I had assumed. There’s been lots of positive change since I have been away and the country feels much more globally connected and less sleepy somehow.
I feel like NZ is the better fit for me at this point in my life. Something has shifted internally and I can now appreciate what NZ has to offer in terms of lifestyle and tempo of life. I think part of this has been to do with a shift around my own sense of identity. I always liked to think of myself as a ‘Kiwi who lived in the UK’ because that felt more special than being a ‘Kiwi who lived in NZ’. Now I feel more like I’m a ‘proud New Zealander who is also quasi-English’ and that I’m more comfortable integrating those different parts of myself.
In practical terms, one of the ways I’ve done this is by moving into an older period house in Devonport which is basically the little England of Auckland. So we’ve got the benefits of an English style home life but within a neighbourhood which is only a few minutes’ walk from good Kiwi coffee and a number of beaches where the kids can run barefoot all day long.
We’ve also started to treat being in NZ as an adventure in its own right, especially in terms of travel. We know that we’ll miss our European holidays but on the plus side we’re looking forward to being able to go to Fiji or even just travel about in NZ and do the things that so many foreign travellers dream about.
Do you feel like you’re now in NZ ‘for good’ and if so, what’s different about this time?
One of the things that is making a big difference to feeling like this will be a semi-permanent move, is that I’ve figured out a way to have the best of both worlds on the professional front. I’m now the CEO of Heart Kids in NZ which is a job I absolutely love. To play a key in role supporting children, families and adults with congenital heart defects is an honour.
But in the evening, I’ve been working on my www.purposelypodcast.com which involves interviewing ‘awesome people doing good’ in the UK and all over the world.
I feel like I’m making a valuable contribution to NZ and maintaining my connection to the global charity and non-profit world which helps me feel connected to both places at the same time.
Your most recent move to NZ was just before Covid-19 became a global phenomenon so you’ve been here through the level four lockdown and as we emerge into our new normal. How have you felt being in NZ at this time?
Talking with UK friends you get a sense of how much closer they are to Covid. Several of the people I’ve interviewed for the podcast have had Covid and we know lots of friends and family in the UK who are same. We feel very blessed to be in NZ at this time because it does feel like such a safe place to be.
We don’t have any regrets or hesitations about being in NZ this time around. We are really committed to being here, putting down roots and building a life. It would be very sad if we couldn’t travel back to the UK to see our family or meet up with them in Europe for holidays. But all of that is so far into the future at this time that we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. We’re just happy to be here, living more of a Covid free existence and getting on with our lives.
What advice would you give to other Kiwis who like the idea of having in life in two places?
Build a good career, work hard and be OK with spending a lot of money on moving back and forth which might mean you can’t save a lot. Embrace whichever country you are living in at the time and don’t worry too much about what you might do further down the track.
Don’t feel like you ever have to settle down completely either here, or there. Just embrace the richness of having this kind of life and the unique opportunities it brings.
This story was created by Tricia Alach, creator of the How To Have A Happy Homecoming blog, check it out for more stories of Kiwis coming home and resources for making a smooth transition back.