Fifth Letter from New Zealand

February 23-25, 2007

Friday was moving-in day to our new home in Auckland. We found to our relief and delight that the apartment was slightly larger, had even better views and was even more convenient to everything than we’d remembered. Also, the university had arranged to pay the $1600 security deposit directly and would receive the refund at the end, which meant both that the amount wouldn’t count against my stipend and that I wouldn’t get handed $1600 in NZ dollars the day we left. That would have required a heckuva shopping binge at the duty free store!

Service hook-ups were accomplished surprisingly easily – phone, hot water, et cetera – with one glaring (or rather non-glaring) exception: electricity. The power company guy who took our information over the phone in the morning failed to save the computer file properly or something, which we didn’t know ‘til late in the evening when we called back to see why the lights wouldn’t go on. Everyone was very pleasant and laid back about it, as they seem to be about everything here (sort of like the “Nao worries, mate!” Australian attitude) and around 11PM a big Maori guy from the power company and a big Maori woman from security appeared at our door to announce as happily as if they were going to a party that we were at last connected! Fortunately, we’d run out of time that afternoon before we’d gotten to do the major shopping, so we didn’t have stuff spoiling in the refrigerator.

After settling the apartment, we went on to the university, which is literally just up the hill through the park (though it is a pretty good hill!). The business school where my office will be is located in a “temporary” building (put up in 1965 or so!) until their spectacular new state-of-the-art building is finished, sometime in mid-year. However, because I’ve got 40 students (people seem to be excited that I’m here), I’ll be teaching in a lecture hall in a sort of a rococo building across the street. Curiously, both accounting and art are in that building, which I would have thought only went together if you’re talking about expense accounts.

The dean is a great guy and an expert on New Zealand wines, which I would imagine bodes well for faculty parties. In fact, we had one at the end of the afternoon, ostensibly for the honors students. (“Honors students” has a different meaning here from what it does in the US. This is an invited group of outstanding students who’ve just received their bachelor’s degrees who do a year in what’s called an honors program before they are accepted as master’s degree candidates.) Most of this group seemed to be Asian, as are most of the students I’ve seen wandering around the campus. I wonder if that will be true of my particular class too?

The head of the program I’m teaching in is also a great guy, a Canadian from British Columbia who emigrated out here 11 years ago – extremely friendly, enthusiastic, smart, quick-thinking, action-oriented and reasonable about the few teaching issues we had. We’re going to get along just fine. In fact, everyone seems almost aggressively supportive, both fellow faculty members and staff, both for school-related stuff and for personal stuff. Everyone is full of suggestions for Sylv and me about where we should go and what we should do and see. The department secretary printed out a list of upcoming concerts and other events in the parks for us (there seem to be four or more every weekend), and the dean said that I shouldn’t feel that I needed to spend a lot of time at the school beyond showing up to do my lectures. “After all, you’ve got 200 beaches in Auckland alone to visit,” he said!

Saturday was a glorious day to look at our new world from our balcony. It’s nice to be high up in one of the taller buildings in the middle of the city and yet look out at so much greenery. Several of the extinct (we hope!) volcanic cones are visible – there’s hardly a flat spot in all of Auckland except along the docks. As to the man-made structures, the Sky Tower we look up at a couple of blocks to our right is the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere at 1,073 feet. (I think the Space Needle in Seattle is about half that, if I remember correctly, and we thought that was tall!)

We walked down to Queen Street, the main Auckland business street, had brunch in one of the hundreds of cafes, bistros, bakeries and other small eating places that are all around us, and found a camera store to get the Nikon repaired. Gulp. It’s going to cost me $300 they think, but a new one just like it sells for $650 here and the cheapest digital alternative they sell is $299, so I swallowed hard and left it with them. I also discovered that those little disposable cameras I’ve been using cost nearly $25 to have developed and transferred to a CD, which is five or ten bucks more than I paid for the cameras themselves. That’s a more expensive way to take pictures than I’d thought – a buck and a half per image. Oh, well. I just hope the pictures come out good.

Next we hopped on the free bus that circulates around the CBD (Central Business District), rode it around its cycle to see where it went (a bus ride is always a neat way to get the lay of the land in a new town), and got off next time around down by the quay near the nearest supermarket. $400 later (there’s a lot to buy when you’re starting from scratch!) we got a cab back up with our dozen plastic bags full of stuff. (No “Paper or plastic?” choice here.)

We had our first meal in our new home Saturday night – spaghetti and meatballs! (We just needed a change.) The wine we had was a New Zealand pinot noir. The first grape they developed here (I think I heard that the wine industry is only maybe forty years old) was the sauvignon blanc and we’ve never had a bad one. Our “house white” home is a sauvignon blanc from Nobilo, a respected producer people say, although we don’t see their wines on the shelves here in their home country. There’s a freshness to all the New Zealand sauvignon blancs and a light lemon-y aftertaste that makes them perfect with any kind of seafood. The next grape the local vintners thought they might be able to have some success with, given the climate and soil conditions, was the pinot noir. The NZ pinots are a little thin to our taste, though – sort of like an Italian valpolicella. They also do a lot of blends like cab-merlot and malbec-merlot which are OK – in fact, better than the pinot noir as “spaghetti wines” – but New Zealand reds are still not a patch on Australian reds in our opinion. We’ll keep trying them, though!

Saturday night I walked over to the Auckland Domain, the big park behind the university, for a free open-air concert. (A pretty good hike over some significant hills, but I needed the exercise.) It was a huge event, kind of a civic celebration – the Auckland Philharmonic, massed city choirs, and lots of home-grown classical music stars, some working all over the world. Someone said there were a half million people on blankets and lawn chairs in this natural amphitheater. I seriously doubt that, but there were surely a hundred thousand. The event was very well staged, lit and amplified, thanks to lots of local corporate sponsors. Some people were set up so far away that they couldn’t even see the big screens to the sides of the band shell, but they could still hear the music very clearly. I left at the interval (it went from 7:30-10:30) but we got to watch the spectacular fireworks show at the end from our balcony!

Sunday morning we lost to the security and maintenance people – our electronic keys suddenly stopped working. At first they thought it was just that the battery in the door unit (I didn’t even know those units had batteries), but it turned out the whole system had to be replaced. They’re friendly enough, but not exactly expeditious workmen! Then we went off to the local equivalent of Wal-Mart, a store called The Warehouse down by the docks. I got one of those folding chairs in a bag for the balcony for less than $10 NZ (about $7 US) and some All Black gear, socks and a cap. NZ international sports teams (cricket, rugby, everything) are called the All Blacks and New Zealanders are passionate in their support. The logo is a white fern leaf on a black background. Great store, for all the incidental household stuff we might find we need.

On the way back, we picked up the pictures we’d had developed from the disposable cameras and to our delight the images weren’t bad at all. We had them put on a CD, loaded them into iPhoto on the Powerbook, fixed them up a little and were very pleased with the results. Whew! It would have been terribly disappointing to have lost some of those photos, particularly the ones taken from the plane tour among the snow-capped mountains in the Southern Alps. In fact, my new screensaver is a spectacular shot of the mountains taken from the boat in Milford Sound.

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