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A Kiwi in Sheffield

I’ve always fancied being exotic.  That’s probably one of the reasons why I decided to leave New Zealand and travel the world.  Inevitably, along with so many of my fellow Antipodeans, I ended up in England.  Unfortunately for my ambition, being a Kiwi in London is so un-exotic as to be practically run-of-the-mill.  Luckily, I happen to be living in Yorkshire at the moment, where Kiwis are a brown, furry fruit, and New Zealand is part of Australia.

It’s funny the way life turns out.  This time last year I was in sunny Wellington, New Zealand, living with a couple of mates in Berhampore and working at the Alexander Turnbull Library.  Now I am living with 6 mad English people in half an enormous Victorian villa, and working at Ufi, a company that runs online adult education schemes.  (Somehow, with my New Zealand History degree, I have become a database administrator.)  How did I get here?  Itchy feet.  I set off in the middle of last year, and had a wonderful time traipsing around Japan (the tea!), Amsterdam (the coffee!) and Belgium (the beer! the chocolate!), before my tiny New Zealand dollars inevitably ran out.  Naturally, I turned to my extended family to feed and shelter me until I found a job; and, since they live in Sheffield, it made sense for me to settle here too.

Telling people anywhere else in England that you’re living in Sheffield always gets exactly the same reaction.  “But why?!” they wail.  “There’s nothing there!  It’s just a grimy little town!”  And I have to say that if I didn’t have cousins here (and thus free accommodation), I probably never would have even visited Sheffield, let alone moved here.  I’ve heard it called ‘The Armpit of the North’, and, on the face of things, this huge, sprawling, ex-mining-town wouldn’t appear to have much to offer.  But, over the past few months of living and working here, I’ve discovered that it’s actually heaps of fun.  And being pretty much the only Kiwi in Sheffield certainly beats being one of 100,000 Kiwis in London!

For those of you who don’t know, Sheffield is in Yorkshire; an area known vaguely to Londoners, with a shiver, as Up North.  It’s bigger than you’d think: half a million people in 36,000 ha., which makes it the fourth biggest city in England, ringed by seven hills and surrounded by the beautiful wilds and moors of the Peak District.  It’s a city based on the coal and steel industries, and is often associated with the words “gritty”, “grimy” and “post-industrial”.  If you’ve ever seen The Full Monty, you’ll know what I mean.  It was also the scene of huge amounts of civil unrest and industrial action in the Thatcher era – remember Brassed Off?  Billy Elliot?  After La Thatcher mercilessly crushed the miners underfoot, she left the city numb and defeated, in a horrible slump period from which Londoners refuse to acknowledge is has emerged.  But emerged it definitely has, mostly due to its most valuable resource: the local population.  Sheffield is definitely the friendliest place I’ve ever been to.  The people here are as chatty as their accents are funny, and they seem fascinated by the concept of a Kiwi in Yorkshire.

The third thing people in Sheffield always ask me, when they’ve found
out I’m from New Zealand, is “So what are you doing in England, so far away from the sun?!”  Good question.  In the winter, it gets dark around 3pm, and when I walked out of work one Thursday in November, it was snowing!  Actually snowing!  It had been sunny at lunch time!  No one else seemed particularly perturbed, although apparently snow that early is relatively unusual.  Now, I like snow as much as the next girl; but in its proper place, i.e. on mountains, when you’re wearing ski boots and enough swan-dry to upholster a lounge suite.  Snow swirling around in the air when you’re waiting for the bus is an entirely new experience.  It’s like really slow rain, cold and mean and stinging.  The locals just sigh and put up umbrellas, which get whiter and whiter, and soon look like iced cakes. They’re a hardy breed, these Yorkshire folk – I actually saw one girl wandering along in jeans and a wee jacket, with her midriff showing. Midriff! In the snow! Crikey.

The second thing people in Sheffield always ask me, once they’ve established I’m a Kiwi, is “Got lots of sheep, then, ’ave ye?”. Why yes, yes I have.  In response to the standard sheep/rugby/Lord of the Rings queries about Aotearoa (New Zealand), I have developed a list of ‘facts’ I’m working on getting English people to swallow.  Here is it so far:

1) On your 16th birthday, the New Zealand government gives you 20 sheep.  We spit-roasted four of mine for my 21st.
2) We got electricity in the 1960s, two decades after we got telephones.
3) All teenagers, in lieu of military service, have to do compulsory rugby service.  I got out of mine because I was studying Latin.
4) Since Peter Jackson’s great successes, the government is implementing a national holiday called Lord of the Rings Day, which involves free back-to-back public screenings of all three extended-edition movies.  This will take 14 hours.
5) All New Zealand high schools offer qualifications in sheep-shearing and beer-brewing.
6) Possum-fighting remains popular in pubs throughout the country. There’s even a TV show about it, called “Gerroffouttavit, Ya Bastard!”
7) There are statues of the All Blacks in towns throughout the country.  These have removable heads, as of course they have to be changed each time a new team is announced.
(You’d be surprised how well I’m doing with this project.  But it all depends on everyone sticking to the same story, so don’t dob me in, ok?  Cheers.)

But the first thing people in Sheffield always ask me, without fail, is “Y’alrigh’, luv?”  (In terms of accent, think The Full Monty.)  It’s their all-purpose phrase, akin to the Antipodean “no worries”, “mate”, “she’ll be right”, or “no worries mate, she’ll be right”.  I’ve heard it used to mean a startlingly wide variety of things, from “Hello! I have no idea who you are!” to “Is something wrong?”; and from “I hope you will buy something from my fine emporium” to “Ah, I see you are back from lunch”.  Handy.  And absolutely everyone calls everyone ‘luv’.  Bus drivers, colleagues and shop assistants all call me ‘luv’.  Gave me quite a shock the first time, but I’m getting used to it now, and am even starting to do it myself.  Other favourites include chick, chuck, flower, duck, and, for some reason, the plural, ‘ducks’. 

Talking to people in Sheffield is thus fraught with difficulty and potential misunderstanding, which naturally makes it a lot of fun.  For example, ‘scotch pancakes’ are pikelets with, inexplicably, raisins in; whereas ‘pikelets’ are square crumpets.  ‘Yorkshire pudding’ also contains raisins, despite being a savoury dish eaten with the Sunday roast.  This is not to be confused with ‘rice pudding’, i.e. rice baked in milk, which is somehow a dessert.  (Gross.)  Also, buns are called ‘bread cakes’, and fruit buns are called ‘tea cakes’.  Go figure.  Understanding directions can also be a bit of a trick.  My favourite was the old fellah, who, when I asked him the way to the bus station, looked at me thoughtfully and said “If Ah were you, luv, Ah wouldna start from ’ere.” 

I have to say, though, that in general, Anglo-Kiwi relations here in Sheffield are pretty good.  They’ve certainly come a long way since English naturalist Gerald Durrell was visiting New Zealand, and, having said that he didn’t want sugar in his tea, was handed a cuppa and told “Don’t stir it, then.”  Not exactly the Northern ideal of hospitality, ay luv?

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