By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
Generations ago, indigenous Maori built a settlement in a clearing in a forest on the North Island of New Zealand. By the mid 1800s, Europeans discovered it. It was known as Papaioea, believed to mean "How beautiful it is."
Since July, two Pittsburg, Kan., children have been discovering for themselves how beautiful it is during a seven-month stay while their mother, a native of the country and an English professor at Pittsburg State University, is on sabbatical.
In part, their world has been turned upside down -- they left Pittsburg in early July during one of the worst droughts on record and temperatures hovering at 100, to arrive in winter in the Southern Hemisphere.
"It was chilly and rainy and very blustery," Casie Hermansson said of her arrival with son, Griffin, 11, and daughter, Corin, 8.
Gil Cooper, her husband and the children's' father, accompanied them for the first month, but returned home to take care of the house, the pets and continue his position as an instructor in the PSU Communication Department this fall.
Griffin would have been a fifth-grader and Corin a third-grader at Lakeside Elementary this fall. In New Zealand, their school experience has taken some getting used to. The kids scooter to College Street Normal -- all students do, and park their scooters outside their classrooms -- a couple of blocks from where they live. Griffin is in Year 6, called "senior syndicate," and Corin is a Year 4, called "middle syndicate."
Each day they are required to wear school-issued red sun hats, clothing that covers their shoulders, and school-provided sunscreen because the chance for sunburn is much greater with lower pollution and lower latitudes.
Their school day begins at 8:50 a.m. so they don't have to get up as early, and they have half an hour each morning for tea and an hour for lunch, which includes recess and free time.
In Pittsburg, the family had always led fairly typical busy lives, with the kids in sports, music and scouts, and both parents working at PSU.
"Time is always tight," Hermansson said.
But in New Zealand, children take instrumental music lessons at school, which means one less appointment to keep in the afternoons or evenings, and the school offers sports teams for every season.
"That has left us better able to lead a more relaxed lifestyle," Hermansson said.
While her own Kiwi accent has returned, both kids admitted having some difficulty with the New Zealand accent at first.
"A warning to all of you: pants actually means underwear here. So don't say it in New Zealand. People will laugh," Corin said. Crayons, meanwhile, are called "jovies" -- a brand name -- flip-flops are "jandals" and swimsuits are "togs."
While the kids are at school, Hermansson is on a visiting fellowship at Massey University in Palmerston North, where she received her undergraduate degree. She's conducting research for an article that likely will become a book about adaptations of children's books to film, and has been writing contracted short fiction books for Heinemann Education, the publisher's high-school library series.
In their free time, they have visited Hermansson's extended family on picturesque farms and taken advantage of amenities in a bustling city of 100,000.
On a clear day, they can see north to Mount Ruapehu, a volcano and the area's nearest ski mountain. Because of the area's north-south orientation, the landscape changes noticeably every 30 miles or so -- from floodplain to gorges, to caves to volcanic deserts, all within a two-hour radius.
Perhaps the most memorable adventure for Griffin will be a trip this week to the set of the soon-to-be-released movie, "The Hobbit," a favorite book.
'Coming full circle'
Despite the excitement of living abroad, Hermansson said it's been a big adjustment for the children. They have never before changed schools, let alone halfway through the school year, along with changing houses, friends and landscapes.
They each have employed different strategies for dealing with that change. Corin has thrown herself into learning all things New Zealand, including singing the national anthem in Maori, and has avoided talking by Skype with friends from home as her way of coping with missing them. Griffin, on the other hand, has both found a great set of friends in school and has enjoyed some regular Skype sessions with a few friends from home who have been able to keep up that connection.
They created a blog, twoflyingdragons.blogspot.com, as a way to share their adventures abroad with those back home. And Skype has been a lifesaver in allowing them to stay connected with Cooper.
While the children have learned and experienced a great deal they never would have otherwise, Hermansson has pointed out to them that it is her home, her family, and they are there as much for her benefit as theirs.
"Professionally, it has felt like coming full circle to have an office in my alma mater's English department, and to work alongside several professors who taught me when I was an undergraduate," she said. "And visiting my mother was wonderful ... we have seen her just twice since Corin was born and it is extremely difficult for all of us to have to endure that separation."
It will be hard to say good bye, she said, when they return to Pittsburg in early January, right before PSU begins the Spring 2013 semester.
But she'd do it again in a heartbeat if the opportunity presented itself.
"The children have shown great resilience, and have learned a level of maturity I had not seen in them before," Hermansson said. "We want our children to develop strong roots in Pittsburg and as Americans, and also to experience the benefits of travel and then to bring those experiences back into America again.
"The kids are talking of wanting to be teachers when they grow up, and I think travel will be a great investment in their outlook and what they could take into future classrooms."