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A moment that changed me: joyriders destroyed my van in New Zealand – which led to a lovely life in London

One evening in 2008, a group of joyriders stole our van, named The Colombian, from a street outside Wellington, . My sister-in-law was the first to notice and she alerted her husband, Ant, who immediately drove off in search of it. When he spotted the van parked on the beach, he called the police, who then gave chase as it drove off. After running a few red lights, the joyriders lost control and smashed into a building. The front of the van was crushed in on both sides and the driver’s door was ripped clean off.

We woke to an email from Ant titled “RIP The Colombian”, detailing the ordeal he’d been through the night before while my husband, Dave, and I slept peacefully in our flat in Bogotá, Colombia. The police caught the six joyriders – three girls in the front and three boys rattling around in the back. “No criminals were hurt in the making of this drama” were, thankfully, the last words of the email.

This van meant so much to us. Two years earlier, Dave, then my boyfriend, had bought it before I went to visit him in New Zealand and converted the back into a mini home: a bed that folded into a sofa, a cooler box that ran off the cigarette lighter, and a portable gas cooker. We spent the summers of 2006 and 2007 on a road trip around the South and North islands.

The Colombian was at the centre of everything. At night, parked on beaches watching striking sunsets, we would make plans for our future. We had been in a long-distance relationship for a year; soon we’d say goodbye again and I’d go back to my home country, Colombia (hence the van’s nickname). I had never thought to live in any country other than mine, but after travelling around New Zealand, I was head over heels for these two small islands on the edge of the world.

We decided Dave would join me in Colombia within the year, and once I finished my undergraduate degree, we’d move together back to Wellington. The van had such significance to us that we decided to keep it – after all, we would be back in New Zealand in a couple of years. The van stayed parked at the house of Dave’s sister Rachel, and Ant, her husband, kept it registered and ticking over.

Silvia Rothlisberger standing beside a river with trees in the background in New Zealand

The theft of the van ended up changing the course of my life. We were in Bogotá and soon we’d be moving to Wellington. “Now that we don’t have the van, we don’t have any urgent commitment to return to New Zealand,” Dave told me one day. “What if we move to for a year or two to have our European experience?” At that time, I didn’t realise what a huge impact that move would have on our future, and I replied as if he was asking: “Do you want milk in your coffee?” I said: “Sure!”

My first years in London weren’t easy. Every door I tried to open was shut in my face. It took me two years to find my way, and three to feel as if I belonged. After that, I felt that the city which had turned against me was finally on my side – so I wasn’t going to leave it. “Now that I know how hard it is to start a life in a different country, I’m not going to move to New Zealand and start all over again,” I told Dave. “London is home now.”

He almost fell off his chair. London was meant to be a stop on the way, not the destination. A month later – after he’d thought about it and analysed our prospects in Wellington compared with London (a spreadsheet was probably involved) – he came back to me and said: “Sure!”

It’s hard to imagine what my life would have been like in New Zealand had the van not been stolen. I moved to London by accident, or rather, because of an accident. I arrived as a Colombian; in the UK, my borders expanded to being Latin American, as I connected and found friendships in the city’s large Latin American community.

In this time, I have become a journalist and a mother to two wonderful boys. I have found community in my area through neighbours and a network of parents via schools, nurseries and my local library. Though my first years in London were filled with uncertainty, 15 years later I find myself thriving.

We never returned to New Zealand, and if losing the van taught me anything, it’s that unexpected circumstances lead to exciting new paths.