Wed, Dec 27, 2023 7:00 AM

Living big in small spaces


Tessa Jaine

Twenty years, twenty houses, and several countries later, two Kiwis who were born in Europe have finally found their way home to Marlborough.

Words: Adrienne Matthews | Photos: Supplied

Mike Andre and his wife Margaret never felt at home in Poland. "We were born on the wrong continent,” he laughs. “Many aspects of the culture didn’t align with our own.”

After finishing medical school, Margaret had the opportunity to undertake an internship elsewhere in Europe and, thanks to Britain belonging to the European Union at that stage, it was an option for her. “We both spoke English quite fluently so took off for a week’s holiday to see if it was somewhere we could settle,” says Mike. “We were amazed at how different it was from Poland. People were more friendly and open than we were used to, and we knew it was the right decision to move there.”

As a new doctor doing her internship, Margaret was obliged to work in a range of different hospitals in Wales and finally moved near Edinburgh for her specialty training. “We were able to live in a rural environment which absolutely suited our love for peace and quiet,” says Mike, who was at that stage working remotely in his role as an internet-user experience designer.

“Everything was good except for the weather,” he says. “Scotland is beautiful, but with its horizontal rain and overcast skies which felt almost constant, it was a challenge to find the sun on our days off. We were chasing it all over the countryside which wasn’t really how we wanted to live. It was like we were on a journey to find our way to where we wanted to live but weren’t there quite yet.”

The lack of sunshine was enough to propel them to look elsewhere. Mike was fortunate to be able to work remotely from anywhere in the world so it was all down to where Margaret could find a position she would be happy with.

The scenery from ‘Lord of the Rings’ was so beautiful that the couple fell in love from afar and decided to try out life in New Zealand, particularly as Margaret’s hard-earned NHS qualifications would be accepted here.

“With a contract assured for her, we flew into Christchurch in the middle of winter in 2011, excited by the views of snow on the mountains and even more thrilled that when we got out of the plane it was twenty degrees,” he laughs. “It was only six months after the second earthquake so the central city was cordoned off which made for very strange times. Not to mention our first experience of the aftershocks.”

For the next two years the couple travelled throughout the country at every opportunity, checking that the ‘Lord of the Rings’ cinematography had been correct. “It was even better,” says Mike laughing. “Everywhere we went was amazing with its huge spaces and people who were warm and welcoming, with no Orcs in sight.”

Following a stint in New Plymouth while Margaret completed the training in her specialty, she was employed as a consultant in Lower Hutt. “The next issue was where we were going to live because, as a consultant, Margaret couldn’t live any further away than fifteen minutes from the hospital and for the first time since coming to New Zealand we were surrounded by noise, concrete and crowds. The only place with the tranquility we needed and without breaking the bank was the local marina.”

From their houseboat, Mike and Margaret enjoy their downtime travelling around the Marlborough Sounds.

The end-of-the-pier berth with a great view was secured and a boat was found that could be turned into a proper houseboat. “I have never built anything on that scale before but I was determined to complete the job myself as much as possible,” says Mike. “Although Margaret had never experienced life on a boat, she said she was happy to try it as long as there was space for her expansive wardrobe,” he laughs.

“I had only four months to make it livable so we could move in, which we did despite the project being far from finished. It took another two and a half years to get it into the final shape, so we lived on a semi-construction site” says Mike. “I absolutely loved the process because I really enjoy learning new skills,” he says.

“We were sheltered from the waves by the breakwater at the Seaview Marina with an unobstructed view of the Wellington harbour stretched out before us. We had a kayak next to our houseboat and a couple of cats and no mortgage. What could be better?”

“Only the work!” Eventually Margaret realised that she really wanted to work somewhere more rural. “It took a while for a suitable position to come up for her, but as soon as we visited the Marlborough region we became excited about living there,” says Mike. There was one major problem though. The only place for the boat would be Picton or Havelock and both were much farther than Margaret’s required short commute to Wairau Hospital.

“I had to really put my thinking cap on to solve that one,” says Mike. “Neither of us wanted to get rid of the boat as we loved the time spent on it, but we did need somewhere for the days Margaret was on call. Miraculously, a tiny house on wheels came up for sale on a vineyard that was within the required distance to the hospital, and on seeing a video of it, we knew it was the solution. Meanwhile, we had the houseboat brought over from Wellington on the Picton ferry and berthed it at the Havelock marina.”

When a tiny house on wheels came up for sale, Margaret and Mike knew it would be perfect as their second residence, closer to Margaret’s work.

“We doubled the tiny house’s footprint by adding a sheltered deck and now have the best of both worlds living between the two locations,” says Mike. “Downsizing has been so liberating. We don’t need to buy stuff that we don’t need. Life is simple but in a very rich, meaningful way.”

Meanwhile, his days of computer work were becoming numbered as lack of the dedicated home office space didn’t allow for remote work with different time zones anymore. “I was looking for something else to do and thought back to the pieces of jewellery I have made for Margaret since I first met her,” he says. “I love working with my hands to create things and it had become a hobby while we were living in the UK which I had kept up in a small way.”

Mike now works creating striking jewellery from atop the waters of the Pelorus Sound or surrounded by vines in Marlborough.

His pieces show that he has an extraordinary natural talent for design. Working with silver combined with mixed materials, he has a uniquely bold and innovative style. His designs are striking in their simple, yet refined, elegance. Recently a finalist in the Cleveland National Art Awards with a ‘Binary Star’ set that included a necklace, earrings and ring incorporating sixty-six red and clear semi-precious stones, he sells his work in galleries throughout the country and on his website.

“That was something else I had to learn to do,” he laughs. “I had to teach myself product photography, marketing and how to build a website. It’s just as well I enjoy challenges of all kinds.”

Mike's talent for jewellery design has developed into a successful business, with his work in galleries around the country.

His distinctive silver chains that accompany many pieces are exquisite with every link cut, soldered, bent and polished by hand. Materials as diverse as ammonites, glass, copper, brass, wood, precious and local stones are juxtaposed with the silver to create dramatic one-off pieces.

“Ideas just keep on coming,” says Mike. “There isn’t nearly enough time to make everything that arrives in my head.”

“The Covid lockdowns were an opportunity to rethink how we live our lives. Living like we now do in harmony with our surroundings has freed up my creativity and given me the time to develop what I love to do while also honouring Margaret’s career. It took a long time to get to where we really feel at home and Marlborough is absolutely that.”

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