Greetings from New Zealand!

February 10, 2007

“Green” was the first word that came to my mind; “lush” is the word our friend and host Tom Agee said he thought of when first saw the country. Tom sold his ad agency in Virginia and moved out here a quarter of a century ago. Now he and Margaret live in a glass house that feels like it’s in the middle of a rain forest, even though it’s in the middle of a busy close-in fashionable Auckland neighborhood called Parnell. I’m sitting here looking out into a garden full of big ferns, small palms, giant gum trees and all sorts of fragrant flowering shrubs and bushes.

Flying in (Qantas, very friendly service) we came up a rocky coast topped with lush, green rolling fields bordered by hedgerows and backed by a ridge of modest mountains. (No, we didn’t see any sheep, but there were some cows!)

Auckland is a hilly city jutting out between two big bays – a bit reminiscent of cities like San Francisco or Seattle. It orients toward the harbors, which seem to be center of life day and night. (Its nickname is “City of Sails.”) About a million people live here, about a quarter of who are from some other country. The variety of faces is fascinating – dark, heavy Maori natives (whose ancestors came here from elsewhere in the South Pacific, as far away as Hawaii, starting about a thousand years ago), milky white descendants of the English settlers who first arrived in the 1800s (you also pick them out by the fact that they’re wearing socks with sandals!), and every variety of Asian (the most recent peoples to arrive in bulk).

The architecture outside of downtown is a hodgepodge of gingerbread-y Victorian houses with corrugated iron roofs and modern glass boxes, cheek by jowl, with some awful post-WWII buildings sprinkled here and there among them. Tom says they didn’t do anything like urban planning much less zoning until it was too late. Real estate prices have shot out of sight, especially anywhere near the water (which is everywhere). Cute little traditional houses are being bought up for outlandish prices, then pulled down and replaced by McMansions. (Sound familiar, Mike?)

We got in early Saturday morning, grabbed a shower at Tom and Margaret’s and set off to look for an apartment. The first was maybe OK for a couple of students, but not for us. The second was very attractive, a two-story apartment with a curving staircase up to a loft, but it was a bit too far from the uni for me and from shopping or anything else Sylv would want to do. Third time lucky – we found a one-bedroom place on the 25th floor of a tower facing Albert Park. The apartment is smallish but adequate for us and the location is absolutely perfect. The university is a block up the hill on the other side of the park, a block behind us is the central business district of Auckland and five blocks to our left is the harbor. Just behind the university is another even bigger park where there are all sorts of events every weekend — concerts and fairs and outdoor theater and who knows what else. There are also dozens and dozens of little restaurants of various kinds within a couple-of-block radius of us. It’s hard to find places like this available for a short-term lease, but the owner wants to sell it in June, which worked out perfectly for him and for us. So we’re set. Sylv and I have never lived in the heart of a city, either, so that will be another new experience for us.

We spent the rest of Saturday and Sunday hanging out with Tom and Margaret, getting used to the time difference (18 hours – when it’s noon here, it’s 6PM yesterday at home) and sightseeing around Auckland. There are something like fifty ancient volcanic mounds in the city, several of which the Maoris once fortified or used as holy sites or both. There are also dozens of parks and playing fields (cricket still looks funny to me, all those guys in white shirts and slacks!) and several stadiums – the New Zealanders are sports-mad. We see lots of people, men and women, running or cycling or power-walking everywhere and all the time.

We treated our hosts to dinner Saturday at one of the trendier restaurants in town, down on the wharf. OK, but expensive and not nearly as good as the meal she cooked for us the next night. The New Zealand accent is causing us to say “I beg your pardon?” fairly often, like when the waitress asked us if we’d like “crecked paper” on our salads. The “a” sound becomes an “eh” and the “e” sound is either an “ay” as above or an “i” as in “Tiddy Bear.” Perhaps there’s a formula for when it’s which, but we don’t know it yet!
New Zealanders don’t tip, by the way. Not only is it not expected, it embarrasses people – “so don’t start doing it and screw things up for the rest of us,” we’re told!

We’ll probably eat fish nine meals out of ten here (they do fish kebabs, not shish kebabs, for example, and make Eggs Benedict with salmon instead of Canadian bacon) and wash it all down with those delicious New Zealand sauvignon blancs. It’s what they do best and it sure will suit us.

Comments are closed.