Odysseys: New Zealander adopts Pittsburgh with song in heart

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People ask Neil Newton about two things when they learn that he is from New Zealand: “The Lord of the Rings” and HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords,” two things that he has nothing to do with, he points out.

It might be true, but who doesn’t remember the stunning landscapes from Peter Jackson’s trilogy filmed in Mr. Newton’s homeland? New Zealand, at least as far as J.R.R. Tolkien’s fans are concerned, is the home of Middle-earth.

From Neil’s perspective, New Zealand is in the middle, but in a different sense. As a culture, it is located somewhere between England and America, quite similar to both and maybe similar to Canada in a lot of ways, he says.

Neil, 33, met his future wife, Laurie Bolewitz, a Pittsburgh native, in Manchester, England. He landed a job at the University of Manchester teaching music analysis after receiving his doctorate in music theory at the University of Auckland, and she had just finished her master’s program in art history at the University of Manchester.

Neil came to Pittsburgh in January 2013 after living in the UK for three years. He teaches music theory at the University of Pittsburgh. Laurie works in Four Winds Gallery, a shop in Shadyside that specializes in Native American art and jewelry.

“Most music theorists like me are interested in music composition first, and you start doing composition, and once you get an idea of what composition is about, you start analyzing what other people did, and then in the end you start being more interested in what other people did, and you don’t care about composing any more. It just takes over.”

Aside from his job at Pitt, where he also gets to research music, he plays guitar and still composes music. He played in a band in Auckland and Glasgow, Scotland, and is a member of two bands in Pittsburgh.

Neil is laid-back, tall, with reddish hair, beard, big glasses and a friendly laugh. When asked about stereotypes Americans hold about New Zealanders, he says Americans have not met enough New Zealanders to generate a stereotype.

“In England, though, people tend to think New Zealanders are boring, and I think it’s predominantly because we do not like going to the pub as much as they do,” he laughs.

After the move to Pittsburgh, a few things stood out to Neil. One was the health care situation. It has been chaos, Neil says, even though he and his wife have a good health care plan through his employer.

“Every time I go to a doctor, they somehow get it wrong,” he says. “They send you a bill like you don’t have insurance, or you pay for the doctor and then they send you a bill for the money you already paid. It’s like, ‘You are getting a lot of money; get it right.’ That's how I feel about it. I am used to health care being essentially free, but here, when you pay for it, they still mess it up.”

Neil is also accustomed to using public transportation. He has never felt the need to drive, doesn’t have a driver’s license and has no plans to obtain one, but he sees why Americans cannot get around without their cars: Public transit here is unreliable. Neil believes that a rapid public transport system would be good for Pittsburgh.

A vibrant Downtown would transform Pittsburgh, too, he said.

“To me, a city without a vibrant Downtown is missing something,” he says. “Downtown Pittsburgh has a potential as a place where people would want to go, but now, with the highways, it seems to be cut off from the rest of Pittsburgh, and the communities between Downtown and Oakland just seem to be strangled by poor city planning.”

Neil likes Pittsburgh. He likes the food, enjoys the neighborhoods and loves his job. For him, discovering new places is part of an attraction. His family temporarily moved from New Zealand to England when he was 3, and they lived there for three years. Neil does not have any regrets immigrating to America.

With an open mind and an open heart, Neil has found his path in life but at times feels lost at the crosswalk.

“I sometimes have trouble crossing the roads because we drive on the other side of the road in New Zealand,” he says, “I look the wrong way at the wrong time.”

Mila Sanina: msanina@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @pgmila.

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