Changes within and without.

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.

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On the flipside we can go indoor rock climbing until our arms fall off for under $5.

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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”.

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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.

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Tree-climbing heaven.

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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.

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My wallet hasn’t been this thin since I was 12.

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.

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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.

 

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Hello Nelson, Goodbye Nelson

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.

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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.

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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’.

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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).

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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!

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The girls have bright bedrooms on the main floor and can watch the sheep from their beds.

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Julie’s office:

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My office: (where I am currently typing this)

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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…

F.O.M.Oab

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.

The paradox of Mormonism

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!

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Toboggans, goosenecks and the beauty of bad habits.

IMG_20170915_174037Oh 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.

pano_20170915_161732.jpgEons 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.

IMG_20170915_162924Our hope with this trip is to entrench just the right amount of meandering in Camille and Lyla.

 

Slice

IMG_20170912_191552.jpgCrack! You know that feeling when everything comes together and you hit the proverbial golf ball perfectly. The delicious sound of hitting the sweet spot super hard and dead straight…and then you notice something impossible – the ball starts to curve every so gently. But that gentle curve grows, slowly at first but exponentially.  Perfection, as it often is, is fleeting and what was once a hard shot down the fairway becomes a hard and undeniable slice towards the large windowed houses lining the course.  Despite being a useless strategy we turn to hope as our first defense against the inevitable. We’ll lean our bodies away from the gutter but the bowling ball doesn’t change course. When we are at an acquaintance’s house and the post-flush toilet water is rises too high and ignores our protestations of an ever accelerating “no….no…no..NO, NO!”. And so it was last night.

After driving through a State of relentless cornfields we trusted our GPS and to our surprise and delight we came to the top of what seemed like Nebraska’s only hill and looked down upon a very improbable Lake McConaughy.  We put our $18 camping fee in an envelope and into an unmanned steel box and took residence for the night on one of it’s many deserted beaches. We could see a lightning storm in the distance as the sun went down but the weather forecast and radar confirmed they would pass by 100 miles north of us. And so we pitched our tent (nicknamed Wonksworth based on it’s less than perfect shape) on the beach and dined on sardines, yoghurt, ham slices and cherry tomatoes.

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Julie woke me up a couple hours later as the lightning seemed closer instead of further. We checked the radar again. Instead of maintaining it’s small shape and consistent course the storm seemed to be elongating and veering ever so gently in our direction. It would come close but it probably wouldn’t touch us. We looked out of our little tent (the only thing higher than a grain of sand for hundreds of yards) and watched the lightning get brighter and louder until the wind started doing that thing it does before all hell breaks lose. I meekly checked the radar again but only to confirm what we already knew.

tent locationWe ran the bleary eyes kids in the darkness towards the van parked up the beach where it was safe from being stuck in deep sand and dragged our tent filled with sleeping gear up the beach. Somewhere in the distance a train was rolling closer and blowing it’s horn in panicked repetition. We piled in just as it started pouring. And then the pouring tripled in volume as we realized it was ice that was pelting us from the sky.  Julie read Booky to the kids as I watched the weather forecast update from clear skies to thunderstorms. Beyond our steel pod the outside darkness was being repeatedly punctuated by brilliant flashes of migrating enraged electrons from above.

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It wasn’t what we expected but I guess that is why we are here in the first place. Eventually the storm passed, we dried out and we got back to sleep again. When we awoke the next time all was glorious again. We soaked up the morning sun a little more sandy and a little less cocksure.

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Leaving Home

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What seemed like an abstract concept for so long has finally materialized into reality. Like a pregnancy and other time-based deadlines stalling isn’t an option. Once the plane tickets have been purchased the roller coaster begins it’s slow climb and no amount of ostriching will keep D-day at bay.  As we drove down the QEW in our packed van last night there was a heavy silence as we all contemplated the feeling that we were leaving the comfort of our hometown for a year. First stop: London, Ontario!