Tauranga Schoolhouse Restored
Billie kay reckons she was born curious, which explains the jet-setting grandmother’s propensity for adventure. And somehow it also seems natural that such an inquisitive woman should wind up living in an old kauri school building.
Relocated and converted, it now sits in a treed hollow in suburban Tauranga – home base when Billie isn’t off gallivanting in sunnier climes. She hasn’t seen a New Zealand winter since 1996, preferring to spend about half the year living in Europe and the US. To pay her way, the 74-year-old minds houses, pets and occasionally people in the northern hemisphere. This winter, she handed her house keys to a tenant and flew to Belize to visit her son, who is spending three years cycling around the world, spent time in San Francisco caring for an elderly man and his disabled son and visited two grandsons in California.
“Everyone thinks it’s glamorous,” she says of her transient lifestyle. “But I love my cottage in the bush – the privacy and the serenity and the birds. I just feel like I live in a tree house. The glamour aspect – the social part – of my life is right here in New Zealand. My friends are here.”
When NZ House & Garden nabs her between activities, Billie is newly returned from a three-day Brazilian drumming course in Auckland and is heading off to a physiotherapy appointment. Like many other septuagenarians, she is nursing an aching shoulder. Not for her an arthritic limb though. Billie’s multiple shoulder and wrist injuries come courtesy of electrocution. She was checking bulbs in a bedside lamp when the lamp broke and mains voltage threw her back against the bed, feet jammed against the wall. A visiting cleaner found her and unplugged the lamp then Billie drove herself to hospital.
While other grandmother’s might favour studio images of smiling toddlers, Billie’s favourite nana photo is rather more original. The shot captures her grimacing in pain as an infant grandson sucks her chin and digs tiny fingernails into her face.
Her life story is similarly distinctive, starting with the Marilyn Monroe movie Niagara. At age 19, Billie left her Lower Hutt home itching to see the world and determined to visit the watery landmark.
In the Canadian city of Niagara Falls, she met an American professional golfer on a blind date; the pair wed, had two sons and lived in Connecticut. That is, until Billie “drove a truck across the States with two little kids and a dog to start a new life in California”.
The green grass of home lured her back to New Zealand 20 years ago. “There seems like no better place to live. California, it’s a big, arid place. I longed for green… to live somewhere that spoke English and was near the sea.”
In Tauranga, she found her own patch of green. The section, bounded by two strips of reserve land, was the first and only place she viewed. She bought it immediately after returning home from a Taupo auction with an unexpected purchase.
“I went to buy a dining table but I bought a school. The bidding stopped at $3000 and my hand went up and a voice came out and said, ‘$3500’. And they said ‘sold’. I swear I wasn’t in control,” she says.
The century-old schoolhouse arrived on the section in six pieces and Billie found two handymen, one aged in his 80s, to help rebuild and renovate her future home. They converted the cloakroom to a bedroom and the teacher’s tiny lunchroom became a bathroom.
“The men thought I was a bit eccentric,” she recalls. “But they loved working on the house.”
The 98sqm abode is furnished with pieces gathered from garage sales and second-hand stores, as well as her travels throughout Europe, the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific Islands. She is an expert at wearing several layers of clothing onto planes and loading her pockets with heavy items to avoid overweight luggage charges. Her collection of ancient keys began in a tiny shop in Belgium. An antique dealer friend introduced her to French Provincial furniture and her dining chairs came from California, four for $25.
She has also gathered amusing tales from around the world – some from her time living above a chocolate shop in Brussels, or working as director of a maritime museum on Lake Ontario. Once, on a drive from California to Mexico, she successfully cooked a foil-wrapped chicken on the manifold of her car.
“It tasted fine,” she says. “We pulled into the petrol station and said, ‘Check my oil, water and chicken please’.”
In London, she pet-sat for an Englishwoman who kept a silver tray in her hallway as a dog’s toilet and insisted the paws of her bad-tempered Jack Russell should never touch the pavement or grass, so Billie had to carry the animal everywhere.
“The woman was as mad as a hatter; very, very paranoid. She slept in a wardrobe, all hidden away.”
Billie is not sure what drives her to travel and continually seek out new places and experiences. But she knows returning home is always a thrill.
“It’s unbelievably wonderful. When I get off the plane… the smell of New Zealand. It’s an earthy, damp, green smell. It knocks me out every time. Walking into my cottage, I sigh and smile and it feels as if it smiles back at me.”
My favourite part of house is: The verandah. It’s the first place I go when I get home. I lean on the balustrade and soak up nature; I watch the fantails and listen to the tui.
At the moment I am enjoying eating: Lindt chocolate, Häagen-Dazs ice cream and frozen Snickers bars; New Zealand roast lamb and kumara.
And drinking: Cold water – I rarely drink anything else but once in a while I indulge in a frozen Midori colada cocktail.
My best moments in the kitchen are: Baking on a rainy day and cooking for friends – it’s a way I show affection.
And my best moments in the garden: Harvesting veges from my organic built-up plots.
A quote that I often use is: Staggering numbers of opportunities exist in every aspect of life.
I love this part of New Zealand because: It’s near the sea and this is where my enchanted cottage is.
In the next five or 10 years I’d like to: Travel to Panama and live in Vermont (US) for a couple of months.
The most important thing is: My sons, grandsons, family.
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Story: Sue Hoffart
Photographs: Jane Ussher