Sixth Letter from New Zealand

February 26-March 4, 2007

I hiked up to school in the morning all togged out in my suit and tie. It’s a pretty steep climb up through the park; I’m glad it was morning before the heat of the day set in or I’d have been a right sweaty mess! The building was easy to find and they’d set me up in a temporary office, arranged for my ID card, computer system password and all the other admin stuff. The staff is very capable and quick about getting stuff done. They couldn’t be more helpful.

It’s the first day of classes and the campus is teeming with students. The university enrollment is 26,000, about the same size as UNC-Chapel Hill, but the difference here is that instead of 15,000 or so being over in the med school complex or up at the B-School or someplace else, they’re all right here milling around the huge student commons area. It feels like Times Square!

I got a quick campus tour from the school librarian, of all people! Among the interesting things I she showed me were the “hole in the wall” – literally, a hole in the old wall that used to surround the area when it was a garrison for British troops subduing the natives! The wall now runs through the center of the campus and is kind of an interesting architectural feature, though it also presents a bit of a bottleneck for students and teachers trying to pass from one part of the campus to the other. There’s also a faculty club in the old Government House, the building where the Governor General used to reside when New Zealand was a colony. It has a real old boys’ club atmosphere, though women are allowed in there now. (They weren’t always and they’re still not allowed to join the proper University Club. Imagine that on one of our campuses!) One more surprise: they serve beer in the student cafeteria! How refreshing (no pun intended!). Of course the drinking age here is 18, so that does make a difference. My classes are at 2PM, though, so I hope none of my students have a couple at lunch.

My first class did mirror the ethnic makeup I’d observed elsewhere on campus: 27 of my 37 students are Asian. I can also tell from a personal data form I had them fill out that while some are simply New Zealanders of Asian descent, for others, English was not their first language. That may turn out to be something of a challenge for them and for me. We’ll see. I may have to rethink how much I can get done in a given class period or even over the whole semester.

Monday evening we met up with a Qantas steward named Andrew Harrison, a friend from Australia based in Brisbane. He was staying here for a couple of days in the middle of a Brisbane-Los Angeles-Auckland-Los Angeles-Brisbane trip. We’d met his wife Maria on the flight over to the Gold Coast several years ago when I was teaching at Bond University. They were extremely helpful while we were living there and became good friends. They helped us figure out where to live there and amazingly did it again this time! They’re from Auckland originally (though Andrew was born in Scotland) and so know the city well. Maria actually picked this building and set us up with the real estate agent who found us the apartment. Since we last saw them, they’ve had two children and moved (into an 8000-square-foot house), so there was a lot of catching up to do. We took him to dinner at a restaurant down on the wharf, a trendy eating area. The food was overpriced and disappointing, as has been our experience both times we’ve dined out in Auckland. We often say that we eat better at home and so far that’s certainly been true here.

Coming back through the park after class on Thursday I heard Sylv calling my name from up on the balcony and saw two people waving. Jean, Sylv’s sister, had come in a day earlier than we’d expected on a tour from England. After showing her the apartment and the university and a bit of the city (that free bus is handy!), we had dinner with her and the tour group at her hotel, an Art Deco building converted from a department store just a few blocks away near the Space Tower. (The meal was overpriced and overcooked – see above!)

Friday we met her at the Space Tower and took another free bus out along the coast to Orakei to see Kelly Tarlton’s marine and Antarctic exhibit. Tarlton was a diver who had a genius idea – he built this entertaining and educational attraction in the old abandoned Auckland sewer system! Tragically, he died young of a heart attack just before it opened, but he left quite a legacy. The glass tube shark tanks and so on were well done, but we’ve seen stuff like that before from Myrtle Beach to Monterrey. The unique feature of this place, though, was the Antarctic part which included a reproduction of the base station Scott et al used and a live penguin habitat you tour in a sealed Sno-Cat! There were dozens of the critters; they’ve even got a successful breeding program. That was fascinating.
Back in the city, it was a spectacularly gorgeous day so we decided to have lunch at the revolving restaurant in the Space Tower. Was that ever worth it. We could see for miles. You get a very different perspective on the city from up there and we began to piece things together: “Oh, that’s where that is!” Typical Sylv, she spotted two markets from up there, one quite near us that we’d never even heard about and another we’d heard about but hadn’t located. The food was also excellent, which surprised us.

After lunch, we took a different bus line (cheap at $1.60 NZ per person) to tour a broader range of the city and got off at the Auckland Museum, an imposing columned structure in the Auckland Domain, the big park where the open-air concert had been. It’s a major city landmark high on a hill; we can clearly see it from the apartment. It’s again a cultural and historical museum, not an art museum. We were a little underwhelmed, though, possibly because we were tired and possibly because Sylv and I at least had been spoiled by the Te Papa museum in Wellington. (The Aucklanders are a little sensitive about that; it seems the Te Papa museum got and gets a lot more government money.)

To finish off the day, we had dinner at a little Spanish tapas restaurant on a side street near the apartment and it too was very good – two for two in the food department today! Most of these little places (and there are dozens of them) put tables out in the street. It lends a delightful ambience to the area.
We got into conversation with an elderly British couple at the next table, a retired Royal Navy officer and his wife. They made some half-kidding snide comments about Wales, which didn’t set well with Sylv and Jean! Ironically, the wife had been born in Wales, but she’d carefully cultivated away any vestige of the accent. It’s an English thing, I guess.

And so farewell to Jean, who was off at dawn the next morning with the tour group to do the rest of New Zealand. We’ll be interested in her observations about both the places we have seen and those that are still on our agenda – especially Rotorua, a volcanic hot springs town halfway between here and Wellington.

Saturday night we had our first dinner guests – Tom and Margaret Agee, who’ve been so good to us. It went very well; I think they may have been impressed both by how Sylv had so quickly made this apartment our home and by what she was able to produce out of our small kitchen. (Heck, it’s more space than she had to work with in our first apartment at 9 Union Street in the Schenectady stockade 40-some years ago, and besides, she used to produce meals out of airplane galleys in her Pan Am days back when the airlines served real food!)

Sunday night we went across the street to Albert Park for the end of the Chinese Lantern Festival that had been going on for a few days to celebrate the Chinese New Year. (This is the Year of the Pig.) We’d heard the music and smelled the tantalizing food all the way up on the 25th floor! The park was teeming with people. (Auckland’s population is 25% Asian, we learned later.) The featured displays – the “lantern” part – were large internally lit silk sculptures of animals (real and imagined) and other traditional Chinese motifs. The entertainment included some awful Karaoki singing (whoever invented that should be doomed to listen to it forever in Hell!) and some remarkable performances on huge Chinese drums. I was particularly impressed by a colorfully costumed, very athletic team of young women drummers – wow! The streets were also lined with food tents, serving not just Chinese but every sort of Asian food – Cambodian, Malaysian, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian and more. There were also games (I won a free dumpling dessert by using chopsticks to move ten marbles from one dish to another in 21 seconds!) and lots of souvenir stands (we couldn’t resist picking up a few tchotchkies). The whole thing reminded me a little of the annual Festival of San Gennaro in the Italian section of Greenwich Village in New York – a big street fair. It ended with a major fireworks display we again watched from our balcony.

We’re enjoying living in the middle of a city. There’s always something interesting going on and you can run out anytime and find anything you need or want right around the corner or just down the street.

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