Third time lucky in my hometown, Hamilton

Anna Connell finds the city she grew up in has now grown on her

Just over a year ago, I chucked in my corporate banking job in Auckland and took a job at an ad agency in another city. That move was accompanied by a choice: move, perhaps not immediately but eventually, or live in one city and work, for at least a few days a week, in another. 

I opted for the latter and now spend five days a week in Auckland where I live and two in Hamilton where the agency is based. I drive down early, stay with my wonderful parents for a night, and drive home the next day. As a round trip on good days, it’s about four and half hours in the car. It’s pleasant enough as long as you don’t think about how everyone driving on that motorway is one mistake away from death.  

Hamilton might be the city of THE future but for a very long time, it was definitely not the city of MY future. It was the city of my past. I grew up in Hamilton. I had a pretty great childhood there, but it always felt like I needed to escape. I was too good for Hamilton, too ambitious, too likely to be successful for this cow-town.  As a kid I thought my obvious way out was to be discovered and whisked away to star in musicals on Broadway. This wasn’t a well-thought plan as most of my performances were to a very small audience - my parents - and, when they weren’t being forced to hold the bedroom lamp to spotlight me during my one-woman performance of Cats, my brothers. 

With New York looking less likely, I took a more traditional escape path: university. Like a lot of kids, leaving home ranked high on my list of needs. You could argue that wanting to move to Dunedin to be a student put it higher than food, warmth and shelter. I was born in Dunedin, like my parents, and I had romantic notions of wrapping up in scarves and beanies, returning ‘home’ and following in my father’s footsteps to law school.  

Things did not go to plan. I returned to Hamilton after crashing and burning at Otago University. And once again, despite it being a very good, safe, and kind place to be for six years after a real blow to my confidence, I still felt like I needed to escape it. So, I did. I packed up a car which may or may not have been eventually ‘taken’ to pay for parking fines, stuck in a minidisc of PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (which jammed in the car forever) and drove to Auckland in 2006.  

When I made the decision to take the job in Hamilton last year, I braced myself for the kind of looks I would have given people if they’d told me the same thing two years ago. ‘Hamilton? Really?’ I stressed that I’d still be working in Auckland. That I had clients in Auckland. I made damn sure people knew this was a ‘lifestyle change’ and not a shift down in terms of career. I armed myself with a bunch of things to not like about the place, so I could still proudly wear my ‘escaped Hamiltonian’ badge and not have it removed at the top of the Bombays. Sure, I’d read the articles suggesting there were some good cafes and restaurants there now, but how could it possibly compare to Auckland?  

It doesn’t. That is Hamilton’s greatest attribute. For the first time in my long relationship with Hamilton, I have come to appreciate it for what it is, instead of what it’s not.  

Hamilton moves at a different pace to Auckland. It’s not slower, it’s just more measured and forgiving. In Auckland every move has to be calculated. Literally. I spend a lot of time doing mental arithmetic in Auckland, working back from the time I need to be somewhere to figure out what time I have to leave. It’s often two hours in between. In Hamilton I can leave work, go for a half hour swim and still be at Mum and Dad’s by 6pm.  

I am still working in Auckland and have clients in Auckland but there is no shortage of businesses large and small in the Waikato. There’s a lot going on in that city.  There’s not a month that goes by where a new opportunity doesn’t present itself and yet another new business comes out of the woodwork. One of the most refreshing things is the decision maker is often in the room with you. In Auckland, meeting rooms are often full of people who can’t actually make the decisions. In that regard, business in Hamilton often moves at a faster pace than it does in the big smoke. 

It does have great restaurants and cafes, and there aren’t 57 of them opening in a week. It’s not hard to get a recommendation on where to go. It’s not a simpler place, it’s just easier.  

My father and I walk together most mornings I’m there. People say hello. They always say hello. In Auckland, it’s never a guarantee. Even in the friendly little village of Devonport where I live, you’ll only get a ‘Good morning’ 60 percent of the time. In Hamilton, it’s every damn time and it’s lovely. 

Maybe I am older and more able to appreciate it, maybe it’s found a way to be at peace with its insecurities about being the smaller cousin to Auckland, maybe I’ve found a way to be at peace with mine. Either way, third time around, Hamilton feels different. Less like a place I want to escape from and more like a place I’ve chosen to escape to. 

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