The wordsmith knew it was the right decision to come home, but it was not an easy one. She had left New Zealand in 2002 for a backpacking holiday in Vietnam and, once there, landed a job working at a newspaper.
A little later, she applied for the Fulbright Scholarship to attend journalism school in the United States and was accepted. The plan was to stay a couple of years, and, well, we all know how plans go.
Seventeen years later Rachel went on to become co-founder of Highline, the Huffington Post’s award-winning long-form digital magazine: the go-to place for in-depth articles.
Then, towards the end of 2020, Rachel started to take more notice of something that had been percolating for some time: a desire to return to New Zealand.
“It wasn’t a sudden decision. It’s something that grows inside you.”
The catalyst for relocating came when Rachel was asked to take on the role of editor for North and South. The magazine had been a casualty of the first lockdown in 2020 but had been rescued, bought by independent publishers later in the year. The editor role was exciting. The pandemic and the tense American political situation increased her resolve. It was time to head home.
But moving from Washington DC, where her career had been forged, a home created and friendships fostered, was much more daunting than anticipated.
“It’s quite a big thing to leave a place you’ve called home for a long time, a place where you’ve built friendships and spent most of your working life.” Rachel says it’s a quandary. “You end up with one foot in each country.”
“The fact is,” she continues, “a country changes you. It changes the essence of who you are. And when you leave, in a sense, you leave a part of yourself behind. You push your boat out on the water and although you’re heading home, you can never be quite sure what to expect, how much you leave behind or the person you are going to become.
“I thought: I’ve probably only got one big move left in my life. I asked myself, ‘Where do I want to live out the next stretch of my life? Where do I see myself permanently grounded?’”
New Zealand beckoned.
Rachel packed a container with her furniture, closed the door on Washington DC and flew towards a new life back on old home ground, to rediscover her home country, alongside a new journey of self-discovery.
“Things were quite unstable in America. It seemed hard to get people to agree on anything, whether on topics of science and the pandemic or politics.”
She arrived in New Zealand in September 2020, and, after the mandatory period of isolation, took the helm at North and South. “When I started work, I felt immediately at home. Comfortable. Like I’d been doing it for years.”
In the few short months since arriving, life has sped by in a blur: getting a new issue of North and South out – “It was really important to make sure our loyal readers got another copy on the shelf” – and finding a place to stay. Then her furniture announced its arrival at the wharf. It would need a home.
Rachel spent time walking the streets, asking herself where she wanted to live, narrowing down neighbourhoods.
“There’s a lot more overt wealth in Auckland since I was here last,” she notes.
What are her immediate plans?
“I’m really looking forward to buying a car and heading out on some road trips. I want to head to the East Cape and down to the South Island. Get the feel of the country.”
Rachel has taken on the job of steering North and South into the future. It is a job that comes packed with challenges. The main difference between America and New Zealand, she notes, is size.
In the USA she thrived on the narrative style of journalism and is keen to use that story-telling style for North and South, with an underpinning of well researched, thought-provoking data. And every now and then she wants readers to “stumble across something different. Something out of the box.”
Coming back to New Zealand has turned out to be cathartic and she feels she has come back to a safe place.
“It’s been really reassuring to be in a place where there is a certain amount of stability, where people are prepared to sacrifice their individual needs for the common good. In that sense, it was a relief coming back to New Zealand."
Reported by Chris van Ryn for our AA Directions Autumn 2021 issue