Tramps (a.k.a. hikes in New Zealand) are great for getting past small talk, which usually runs out in the first few minutes. Over the next couple hours, the mind takes an amble of its own, and as a family we tend to cover quite a bit of ground. We tell stories of our youth, make up games, soapbox about screens, practice secret handshakes, justify our political leanings and brainstorm marketing ideas for Apple’s next line of smartphones. (We particularly liked the idea of naming models after apple varieties like Braeburn, Eve, Empire, Jazz, Honeycrisp, etc.)
Although our kids seem to hate tramps before we actually head out, they always come around in the end. It’s a mystery to me why they still haven’t learned that they actually like hiking. Still, we persist. On our last tramp above the Marlborough Sounds, we listened to Julie talk about Shakespeare. Specifically, she talked about the nature of a Shakespearean tragedy; it is not inly about death, but about the acute feeling that accompanies the loss of great potential: what could have been. We all know that sick feeling, how no amount of wishing for a different path can change the past. And yet we persist.
Outside our window is a Shire-esque, lamb-strewn paddock with a backdrop of the Kahurangi mountains. Just beyond the paddock is a gigantic, regal gum tree that stands watch.
The only problem is that it has been horribly disfigured by an over-zealous arborist. The canopy has completely disappeared and only the trunk remains. Their chainsaws couldn’t get around it so they left it there to rot, which won’t happen any time soon.
The city arborists were called to remove branches that were obstructing the highway below. They promised they would only trim it. Our landlord cried for 4 days when she saw their handiwork. A less majestic tree would simply have disappeared into the chipper but the mighty sentinel refused to be felled, and still stands guard.
But in its mutilated new form there is a strange beauty. It now harbours a nest for newly hatched birds. It is a defiant landmark on the Moutere Highway. It is a reminder of what could have been. It watches over our family and reminds us to make the best of the good times. This real-life Giving Tree has seen better days, and yet even in death it persists.
Excuse the straight-up brag-post. We picked up the kids after school and drove to the beach for a swim, dinner picnic, and a kayak. I’m trying to appreciate this because I know one day I will wake up from this dream.
One of the great pleasures of my life is eating fresh eggs. This sounds like hyperbole but I love food and an egg is usually the first thing I eat everyday. When I first tried eggs outside Canada I realized that the cheap supermarket eggs are the equivalent of a Domino’s pizza or a Labbatt Blue. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pig in shit if you offer me a slice of pizza and a Blue after a hockey game but I also realize there are other, more refined, places to go on the pizza and beer front. I perfectly poached country egg is more like a King Slice arrabiatta and Dragon’s Tears Stout. It’s a beautiful thing really. Buttered fresh bread, salt and pepper and a self saucing protein glob of rich goo and I’m a happy man.
(Fun fact: in NZ “egg” is a mild insult. It is a lighter, more playful way of calling someone an idiot.)
The owner of our house has a chicken coop and 6 hens. She generously shares the eggs and lets us participate in the care of the chickens. By the way, the term ‘animal husbandry’ is either an exalted term for managing the affairs of livestock or more probably a window into the concept of managerial marriages of old – just another beast to tame, domesticate and maximize yields of progeny.
The girls named the hens and I really took to caring for them. Maybe it filled a hole that leaving Flashman at home created or maybe it just brings me in touch with the idea of managing resources which directly aid to the sustenance of life (rather than being paid in a universal currency to alter and manage computer files). Anyhow it wasn’t long until I asked around and found a farmer who sold me a couple pullets to call my own and add to the flock. Luckiest hens in the world. They free range all day in the NZ sun and chill in the shade of the gum trees uncovering squirming or crawling goodies at the roots. Then for supper we feed them grains, corn and layers pellets in the evening. We even cut up our kitchen scraps into hens sized morsels for dessert. Spoiled!
We tried to name them but there were just too many options. Since I’m a proponent of ranked ballots I figured this was a teachable moment. We all suggested names and wrote them down. Then we all had 4 votes. 2 votes were worth one point and 2 votes were worth two points. It was gratifying to scrap ‘first past the post’ in some small way. After all the votes were counted we ended up with Gandalf and Taco! (We are making our way through The Hobbit before bed.)
Life was good. The eggs were divine. Occasionally Gandalf’s magical eggs were double yolked. And then one day the was a knock on the door of the house. The glass sliding door, and not at regular knocking height. It was more of a peck actually. It seemed Taco and Gandalf were much more adventurous than the other hens.
Our new hens also seemed friendlier than the others and often ran over to us for love (probably food but it felt like a more noble bond). This all seemed cute until Taco shit on the carpet. Enough of that. So we brought them back over the fence and plugged what we thought was the hole. When I bought them I asked the farmer to clip their wings so they wouldn’t be able to fly, so we figured they were getting under somehow. Then began a frustrating yet challenging war of wits. Everyday I would plug a potential hole in the fence (they have quite a big area to range) and by afternoon they would show up with their stupid little faces wanting to hang with the grown-ups. Shit on the deck was my main concern, but there is also a road nearby which doesn’t see much traffic, but it does see cars going at chicken-killing speeds. After about a week, we thought we had licked the escaping problem and were focusing on new issues like the chickens laying in the reeds by the river instead of their nests. We outsmarted them on that front by putting a golf ball on each of their nests to cue them to add to their clutch. all was peaceful and productive in the land of free range chickens.
Then, two days ago we got a text from one of our friends that there was a dead chicken down the road, wondering if it was ours. Dread ensued as Julie and I walked 100 metres down Harley Road to a brown pile of chicken to confirm what we already knew. Taco was no more. She had met her inglorious end at the business end of a speeding car. Although not learned in forensics, I can say with absolutely certainty that she didn’t suffer. I felt gutted and didn’t really feel like writing this post but I guess it is all she has in this world as a testament to her short life. That and her last egg that sits on my counter waiting to be poached.
Driving on “the wrong side” of the road is still a bit of a novelty for me. It’s definitely more enjoyable in rural Scotland than say, the chaos of downtown London. I think we had already left Toronto when we realized that we didn’t even know which side of the road Kiwis drive on. It turns out it’s the left.
Leaving the Auckland car rental lot Julie coached me through all the turns and roundabouts. I wondered how long it would take before the act of driving on the other side would just ‘flip’ in my brain. I’m 2 months in and it still hasn’t happened. I don’t turn on the windshield washers most days when turning, but I find it curious that I mentally can’t just hit a switch in my brain that takes the existing driving subroutine and just reverses it. I still take a moment before pulling out of the driveway to check in with myself and not pull into oncoming traffic. Every time I come to an intersection I slowly check both ways twice, just to be sure. You know that feeling when you’ve been driving for half an hour and suddenly realize you’ve been in a trance? Not much of that. Only one small rule has changed in the driving algorithm but I feel like I have to learn a lot of it over again before I can hit autopilot. I must unlearn what I have learned.
Habits are hard to change. Even when your life depends on it. That’s why London sidewalks look like this:
I’m getting there, but I occasionally lapse by approaching the passenger-side, keys in hand and then have to surreptitiously cross over to the driver’s side, hoping nobody noticed. Regardless, I still feel confident enough taking up the role of parent volunteer driver, taking a car-fulls of kids from the girl’s classes on field trips.
Lyla showed me this cool (8 minute) video from an awesome YouTube channel we watch together called Smarter Every Day.
The basic idea is that the host has a bicycle that turns left when the handlebars turn right and vice-versa. It is impossible to ride. He has never seen an attempt last longer than 2 seconds. Even though his brain could ride a bike with ease, flipping a single variable tipped the whole process into disarray. There is a metaphor in there somewhere…
Driving is different in more ways than one here. Here are some of my favourite flips:
In summary he notes that flags are important symbols to humans that take a shortcut to the limbic system and have the ability to inspire pride, in-group loyalty but also ferocious hate.
He points out that a good flag should be designed in a 1 inch x 1.5 inch rectangle which is roughly the proportion of how we see a flag on a pole in the real world. The corporate world has figured this out and most modern logos need to be successful memes or die. And yet when committees assemble to create a flag that tries to please everyone we get monstrosities like this:
Here are the rules of good flag design:
Keep it simple
Use meaningful symbolism
Use two to three basic colors
No lettering or seals of any kind.
I have a suggestion for an additional rule:
6. Don’t make it look similar to the flag of the country next door.
Firstly, it has the Union Jack in the corner so already it is a flag within a flag. Remember rule 1. Flags should be simple not meta. It screams colonial. It says nothing of the Maori or the landscape or the distinctiveness of the kiwi character.
At least it is better than the 1868 version.
Speaking of 1868 this was Canada’s:
And this is Ontario’s flag in 2017!
So boring. In fact I doubt most Ontarians could identify it let alone draw it, so how is it supposed to instill pride? (Answer: it doesn’t) Counter these with what Roman Mars considers the gold standard in flag design:
So in 2014 the National Party of New Zealand proposed changing the flag if elected. They were, and over the next year 10,300 submissions were made and then whittled down to a long-list of 40 by a government appointed panel. Later in the year there was a national referendum that asked the question: “If the New Zealand flag changes, which flag would you prefer?” and it included these 5 shortlisted designs:
Option A (which screams compromise) won and in 2016 another referendum was put to the people to choose between the new “Silver Fern” and the old flag. Boring pants won 57% to 43%. It’s time just hadn’t come.
I get it. I live in a country where some Queen of something is on all our money even though I haven’t met a single person under 60 that feels any allegiance to her (even my brother-in-law who had to swear allegiance in front of a judge to become a citizen).
And so I feel that although New Zealand is this exciting new country that is constantly evolving and rich in identity, it is still filled with a generation of people tied to it’s colonial history and not quite ready to make a break with the Blue Ensign.
When they do, and I’m sure they eventually will, I hope it will involve a ‘koru’ which is a Maori symbol representing a new unfurling silver fern frond and symbolizing new life, growth, strength and peace. Or two peoples coming together. Or a cloud. Or a wave. Or the tip of a jester’s shoe. Or a hypnotist’s spinning wheel. Or… you get the idea. Sorry, rant done.
Here are a couple of actual submissions that didn’t make the long-list. Don’t laugh too quickly though. Remember: Boaty McBoatFace.
From Jesse Gibbs submission:
‘This design represents all of NZ because we have lots of sheep and love hokey pokey ice cream. I even included the blue and red to keep all of you naysayers happy.
Well now that we’ve slipped into a version of routine I can now take stock of the changes in our life over here. Firstly, they fall into two broad categories. 1) How the place we are in is different from home and 2) how we have changed due to our new circumstance. For example, in the first category I’m constantly amazed at the difference in prices. Some things like food are 2 to 3 times the price here. Doing the grocery shop can be painful for me but ceding control to Julie who doesn’t share my affliction with spending, means that food purchases are based on a meal plan and not on what is on sale.
On the flipside we can go indoor rock climbing until our arms fall off for under $5.
In the second category of change it is us that is different. We have modified our lives to adapt to our new reality.
Some observations of differences in the first category:
People aren’t on their phones as much. In fact we were at a country festival last weekend and I got separated from Julie. I picked up my phone to call her and suddenly felt self-conscious. I looked around. Despite hundreds of people, young and old, walking around there wasn’t a single person on a device. It creeped me out that that creeped me out.
Phone and data plans are cheaper and simpler in NZ. I’m sure the reasons are complicated but we are paying half as much for our plans here than at home.
Tax and tip are included. Sure the prices are higher but what you see is what you pay. This is good.
No homework on the weekend. Yet.
High and rising minimum wage. $20 by 2021.
Your employer must contribute to your retirement savings and you aren’t allowed to take it out until you retire.
The relationship with the Maori seems based on respect rather than tokenism. This is obviously complicated and will take a long time to absorb properly so I won’t comment further.
Roundabouts. Sure, they eat up a bit more real estate than intersections but they are fun and greatly improve traffic flow. Cheaper than bridges.
People deal with chilly homes when it is cold. Because our winters require central heating the concept of temperature controlled homes is omnipresent and was something I took for granted.
Bare feet. Kids go barefoot. Outside, in the streets, in stores. The first day I saw Camille go to school barefoot I asked “Where are your shoes!?” She shrugged “whatever”.
Coffee. There aren’t as many places to get coffee and certainly not cheap coffee but when you do get coffee it is good coffee.
Metal roofs. Everyone has one and they make so much more sense. Why are they so expensive at home! More investigation is needed – stay tuned.
Meth. Also called ‘P’ here. I haven’t see it but many talk about it as if it is a national crisis. All the houses we viewed made sure to get their meth inspection certification. They say it’s easier to obtain than marijuana. Epidemic or puritan over-reaction?
Clear-cutting. You often see patches of hillside that have been stripped bare and the ominous trucks of fresh timber barreling down the narrow roads. Here nature and man live so close together and I can’t help but wonder how sustainable the collision is of this ancient land and the rather new machinations of international economics.
Trees and birds. The trees are prehistorically massive and produce comical shapes to my eye.
The birds are beyond plentiful. They are always singing in the background and often songs that sound more like 8-bit video games than living creatures. A few times they have slammed into our windows. The lucky ones leave an imprint of their squish on the window, the unlucky ones fall to the ground and promptly die.
Halloween is different too. They just aren’t as hard core. The costumes are a slapdash affair and there are no pumpkins (this makes finding the houses that give out candy difficult). Also, it is warm and light out. Weird but more relaxing. I wonder what Christmas on the beach is going to be like.
All of these things seem novel at the moment and it is easy to be rosy when looking at the very surface of a new place. It is much harder to get a deeper look at it’s subtleties. Also, I know I will be leaving and some problems, if I even see them, will only be temporary for me. But this is a problem with all travel and I hope that at least our extended stay will give us a finer-stroked and honest picture of this place.
But equally interesting to these differences is the change that we’ve created for ourselves by taking ourselves out of our Ritchie Avenue rhythm.
In this second category of change it is us that has modified ourselves to adapt to our new reality. To me nothing represents this more than the thinness of my wallet. Not so much that I’m poor but rather it’s contents has been greatly reduced due to our simplified finances. My wallet contains: 1 bank card, 1 loyalty card for the supermarket, 1 health insurance phone number that I hope I never have to use, a $10 bill (it’s largely a cashless economy here), a kid’s tooth and a band-aid. My thin wallet makes me happy. Like a newly cleaned room, it’s simplicity breathes calm into me.
Like canoeing across lakes and making jigsaw puzzles, baking bread is one of my favourite activities because I have a Pavlovian response to the fact that I’m doing something that requires a lot more time.
We also bought a cookbook by NZ chef Al Brown and are working our way through various recipes like cottage pie, self-saucing pudding, and butter-date crumpets.
We have less stuff. Like being in a hotel room, I absolutely know where everything is. This has its bad side though. Trying to source a screwdriver becomes a mission rather than a drawer pull. I’m constantly trying to figure out whether I need to buy something or not for the time we are here. For example: our place doesn’t have a blender. Do we just go without a blender for 7 months or do we buy one? (Spoiler alert: we bought a used magic bullet for $1.50) What about bikes? Kayak? Roof rack? Desks for the kids? Egg poacher? Sweatband? Hammock? A whiteboard? Paintbrushes? Waste baskets? Shelves?Oh oh, you can see where this heading…
All in all we are trying to use our time to both try out new things but also create better habits that hopefully we can bring home with us and rely on when the demands of more work and actually having family and friends to share our lives with are added back into the mix.
Many months ago instead of dutifully watching my girls enter their school I turned to Jeremy (fellow drop-off dad and kiwi insider) and said “Hey, where in New Zealand should I live?”. He knew nothing of the plan but responded “Nelson, it’s the sunniest place in the country, it’s surrounded by 3 national parks and vineyards. Also, there is a burgeoning craft beer industry”. Well that was easy. From then on we decided that the town of Nelson, NZ was going to be our destination.
Cut to the day before our arrival in Nelson. Despite months of looking and weeks of intense scrolling and emailing we still had not found a place to stay – nor had any leads. Staying in a motel was our only option and even those were packed because apparently the “World of Wearable Art Festival” is a thing and lots of people travel to attend. Then, finally, during dinner at a Thai Restaurant with atrocious wallpaper (see below and spot their logo for bonus points) our first lead panned out.
A small but furnished temporary flat was made available to us for a couple weeks while we searched in earnest for our ‘permanent’ home.
And so we pulled into Nelson the following day with an actual destination to feed Google Maps. We’ve been learning to be wary of Googs since arriving but we found the place just fine. It was miserable out. Raining, chilly, and Lyla was pale from car-sickness. Surprisingly it was the same temperature inside as it was outside, 8C or 46F. I scanned the wall in vain for a thermostat. Jeremy hadn’t mentioned the part about kiwis being in denial regarding winter. The funny thing is we Canadians think of ourselves as hardy folk, and for the most part we are, but it really only applies to being outside. Single digits indoors means power outage to us. Sure we can brave -40 with toques and parkas but we need to return to a temperature controlled house – as any civilized human would expect. That night the girls slept with 4 layers on, 2 comforters and 2 blankets.
Even though we had arrived we still hadn’t settled. We now poured all our energy into finding the perfect place. As the days passed the perfect place became a place, and then anything with a roof. Apparently Jeremys the world over were recommending Nelson to their friends. Nelson is a popular place to live. Because it is built in amongst hills, bordered by mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, cheap sprawling suburbs aren’t an option, and the town council has restrictions on new housing. The result is a property shortage. This was compounded by the fact that we didn’t need a place for a full year and it had to be near a school that accepts international students. I could go on but it would be equal parts boring and bourgeois. We were at the point where we were considering moving on from Nelson, not just to the outlying towns but anywhere in New Zealand. Then, I’ll admit it, for the first time we were wondering if maybe we had made a mistake. But the night is always darkest before the dawn.
We got the magical email from a house owner one evening and the next morning we jumped in the car and drove north to check out a small rural property 45 minutes away. The previous day we had acquired a 2-disc CD from the Salvation Army titled: On the Road Again – Songs for Roadtripping. We popped it in and let Willie Nelson and Roger Miller serenade us as Nelson faded out behind us and we headed into sheep country proper. We were afraid to be too confident but Spring was in their air and you know how that goes…
So goodbye Nelson. We weren’t fond of your single glazed windows but loved your quaint strip, gardens, your insanely beautiful beach and the several little hikes originating from downtown (including one to the ‘Centre of New Zealand’.
And here is us leaving our temporary flat in Nelson where every night Lyla prepared fancy deserts and we watched movies about either New Zealanders or Marvel superheroes. (Spiderman Homecoming, The Fastest Indian and Boy were stand-outs).
So now, finally, we have arrived and are settling in.
We have a perfect little house amongst towering gum trees, fields of hops, grapes and frolicking lambs. We are halfway between a tiny village called Upper Moutere (quixotically pronounced Moo-tree) and another tinier hamlet called Lower Moutere. We even have doubled glazed windows and a thermostat!
The girls have bright bedrooms on the main floor and can watch the sheep from their beds.
My office: (where I am currently typing this)
There is one more ‘room’ in the house that Lyla wants to share with you but you will have to wait for that.
For the first time in my life I am living in a place that isn’t walking distance to anywhere but at least it isn’t too far a drive. The girls’ school is a 5 minute drive away but we’ll save more about that place for another post. The Riverside cafe where we get our fresh raw milk and proper coffees is 8 minutes away. Most importantly ping pong at the Upper Moutere Community Centre is 5 minutes away and squash (both the sport with courts and the produce at the grocery store) in Motueka is just 13 minutes away.
So now with all the bureaucracy of moving to a new place done we can finally start living in it. We are reveling in this gorgeous bizzarro Game of Thrones world. Summer is coming…
I visited Moab at 18 and again in my 20s, specifically Arches National Park, yet I knew I would return one day for more. It was always going to be a stop on the itinerary. In fact, it was probably the biggest draw for me when deciding to drag the family across the continent in our van. When we finally rolled into town it was pouring rain, with uncharacteristic gray clouds filling the sky. Although I was considering trying to make a go of tenting, the womenfolk wisely over-ruled me and Julie found a great little (extremely dry) cabin.
Moab had certainly grown since I was last there. There were now tons of motels and hotels and even a packed microbrewery in town. We needed to beat the rush the following morning. I had my heart set on waking up the family before sunrise and taking the famous Delicate Arch hike at dawn. (The Delicate Arch is on the Utah license plate).
Amazingly, we were able to rouse (in the loosest sense of the word) the kids early, feed them, coffee us up, and sherpa all our stuff back to the van on schedule. We pulled up to the entrance of the park before the ranger/fee-collector, but saw a very disappointing sign on the entrance booth window: “Road to Delicate Arch hike CLOSED due to flooding”. Tough break. On the upside, it probably would have been packed with tourists (the wretched masses, nothing at all like us!) We ended up taking a hike we hadn’t even considered, and it didn’t even have the reward of an arch sighting, which are all the rage at Arches.
It was only when we were alone amongst the towering, red-hued sandstone monoliths in the dramatic light of daybreak that I realized that the solitude in this beautiful place was the real reward. Cool timelapse! I would take this quiet grandeur over a bustling photo op. The Delicate Arch is certainly a cool sight but it comes with a catch – you must endure the hordes of the great unwashed snapping pics on their iPads – a Faustian bargain not worth making. Sometimes sharing a moment with so many others kills the moment entirely. Or at least that was the story we were telling ourselves. We did a few more absolutely incredible walks around the park before piling into the van to ‘put our hours in’ for the day.
Before exiting the park we noticed the Delicate Arch hike was now open. We hesitated briefly but drove on, having had already had an amazing visit. We didn’t need to see the Mona Lisa.
Two funny Utah beer pics. The first is a prudish supermarket sign and the second is a microbrew named Polygamy Porter (tongue firmly lodged in cheek). Normally prudishness isn’t a natural bedfellow to polygamy but hey, this is Utah!
Oh Utah! You make me feel so philosophical. Your canyons, arches and other-worldly landscapes remind me of the human brain and how it rarely constructs itself in the most efficient manner. Thoughts, memories and ideas meander through complex neural pathways until a neurochemical reaction signals that the journey from A to B has been completed. The next time the same trip needs to be made it usually takes the same path. Whatever works.
The first sled ride down a pristine snow-covered hill is special in that you know you will end up at the bottom but the exact path, which way the toboggan will drift, is unknown. As the trip is repeated ruts from previous runs grow deeper and icier. The route becomes more solidified, less spontaneous but faster. Our brains are like this too and thatís why we find it so hard to unlearn things and what keeps us making the same mistakes over and over.
Eons ago, after a Rocky Mountain snow melt, a stream travelling over a relatively flat plain took a sinuous route through what is modern day Utah. Over the millennia it cut through the highly erodible earth but maintained its curious path as the flow increased. Grains of riverbank sand in the form of silt made their way downstream to the Colorado River and onto the Gulf of California. The San Juan river travelled from A to B but continued to use this curious, almost comical, circuitous route. Geologists call this an ‘entrenched meander’ and the Goosenecks State Park has one of the best examples of it in the world.
Addiction and compulsion is the negative manifestation of human entrenched meanders but there is also a beauty in the early-formed, and later maintained, habits of the individuals of our species. I’ve continued to feel an inner peace when I start paddling a canoe ever since my first outing. But I see these quirks in all of you. The fascination of boat profiles, the need to care for a pet, the solace found in spinning records, the strange pronunciation of the word milk, the inability to shake a Depeche Mode obsession or that unbreakable bond we all feel from the cultural building blocks of our youth.
Our hope with this trip is to entrench just the right amount of meandering in Camille and Lyla.