The Mums

golden bay.jpgI remember the seemingly endless drives to Florida in our white 1974 Chevy Impala. Seat belts were really more of a suggestion back then as I recall spending lots of time curled up on the floor behind the driver’s seat or in the back window ledge with the kleenex box that lived there my entire childhood. A kid today will never know such boredom as being an only child on a roadtrip in the pre-internet age. Occasionally mom my would take pity on me and promise me a round of mini-golf for my troubles. I’m guessing mini-golf was my first experience in beating my parents at something and it was glorious.  So most people have had some version of this experience: being a kid on a family vacation and bobbing to and fro, powerless as flotsam and jetsam on the oceanic predetermined plans of your parents.  Now, decades later Julie and I felt lucky to be able to return the favour.  They came to visit us and we delighted in playing cruise directors.

Our two moms are already travel buddies and amazingly, the two of them had already done a lap around NZ together a decade ago and had been to the Nelson area in a bit of whirlwind tour. They were eager to buy their plane tickets and they bought them months before we did.  We also were excited to host them.  This time we were in charge of the family vacation. We wanted to show them where and how we live, at a slower pace and from an insider’s perspective, but also to share with them our unique life here, and to prove that despite very little planning our year away was actually working out reasonably well.

Arriving at the Nelson “Airport”. (Really just an airstrip and a room with chairs)

They were great guests and didn’t complain as we whisked them from festival to festival and up and down the spectacularly tropical summer coastline of the Top of the South. I was able to take some time off work and we shared a special 3 weeks together without the distraction of jobs for the adults or school for the kids, a bitterly cold winter or the infamous traffic jams on the Allen “Express”way.

riversideOn their first full day, we took them to an all day music festival that was fortuitously only a few minutes down the road.  It was unique from festivals back home in that it was alcohol-free and didn’t have any sponsors or advertising. Food was seemingly at cost ($1 for a salad, $2 for a sausage). Kids free-ranged all day (their entrance was free) and played on the giant hillside slip & slide, slack-line, silks hanging from trees and various other juggling/circus equipment available for parent-free fun. Not a single waiver was signed. It was all very ‘cruisy’ as kiwis like to say.


Next up: Golf. And not the mini variety. There is a course 10 minutes away on top of cliffs over looking the ocean. I hadn’t played a round yet and figured it was super expensive. I was wrong. Except for another foursome we were the only ones on the links that we could see. Very different from home.

green fees

Not only did my mom brave the 30 degree heat and soundly beat me but she insisted on searching for and finding any of the balls that I had accidentally sliced deep into the woods.


The first week was all about showing them around our hood before we headed off on our big tramp.

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Another festival. This one, 10 minutes in the other direction.
Beach days. (Note that this solid concrete table was lifted and moved by the raging sea into a nearby parking lot when a cyclone hit the area the following week…more on that later)
Day hikes

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River swimming on the Motueka
Even salmon fishing. BTW, this sign is so idiosyncratically NZ.


New Zealand has 9 “great walks” and the Abel Tasman is the most famous of them due to it’s golden sand beaches on one side of the coastal track and lush tropical jungle on the other. There are also huts along the way which you can book a bed in (think hostel in the bush) if you don’t want to carry a tent (or force your septuagenarian mums to sleep on the ground). We booked our spaces in the huts and permits months out but just as we were heading out, New Zealand was preparing for Cyclone Fehi.  We mulled over cancelling but in the end decided that we would never get another chance to hike in a cyclone so decided to give it a go. map

Our plan was to begin in Marahau and spend the day hiking to Anchorage where we booked a spot on a floating hut called the Aquapackers. Then we would set out early the next morning and hike all day again to spend the night in the Bark Bay hut. Finally, on the third day we would hike up to Awaroa where we had pre-arranged a water taxi to take us back to Marahau.

IMG_20180131_113104.jpgEverything started out fantastic. True, instead of glorious blue skies as advertised in all the promotional materials we had the foreboding clouds of an incoming cyclone but hey – at least it wasn’t raining.

Eventually the weather started to clear and we figured all this cyclone talk was overblown.


We made it to the boat in Anchorage Bay, jumped off the roof and had a delightful meal with other guests while we all shared plans of the following day.


In the morning, despite being in a completely protected anchorage, the 40 ton houseboat heaved up and down with the relentless waves. The crew seemed to nervously run around checking ropes and re-anchoring and running the engine while telling us everything was ok. The sea was too rough to navigate the dinghy to the shore to let us off, in fact there was no shore! Cyclone Fehi wreaked unprecedented havoc on New Zealand because a bunch of factors aligned that raised the sea to levels nobody had seen before. 1) The extremely hot summer had created unseasonable temperatures that created the swirling storm in the first place creating huge waves. 2) It hit the shore, not only at high tide but during a king tide. King tides are rare and occur when the earth is closest to the moon and both are closest to the sun. They really only last a few hours a year. Bad timing. 3) The winds had pushed the sea to shore in a giant surge raising the water level even higher. 4) Surprisingly, the air pressure has an effect on sea level and the lower pressure system relaxing it’s downward push on the water. All over NZ homes and streets were flooded, slips closed highways and any infrastructure around the shorelines were pummeled. We watched as a deck and staircase on the shore was swallowed up by the sea and smashed to bits.

Eventually by 2pm, after many hours of nausea, things calmed down enough to make an attempt at heading for the shore and begin our long hike to the Bark Bay hut.

All along the coast was evidence of where the sea had been. Either by debris left or infrastructure ripped away.
We crossed this “bridge” the previous day. It was 15 feet over a river. Now it was completely filled up with sand.
Even sections of the track had been washed away.

Since we left later in the day we were able to take the “low tide” shortcut.


But even as we walked we could see the track slowly get swallowed up.


tide 2

Eventually we made it to our hut where we found out how lucky we were to have a bed. The entire campground was destroyed and ended up underwater and all around the higher ground of the hut were campers drying out. The water was still too rough for water taxis so everyone who had arranged to leave was stuck for another day.


We spent a dry night in the toasty hut swapping stories with other hikers of everyone’s experiences of the storm amid damp clothes drying from every rafter.


The next day was a slow start. I tried to get the crew going but mountains may have been easier to budge.  I mock-threatened Jenny that she would be up to her neck in water if we didn’t make our tidal crossing at Onetahuti. We didn’t make it.  The water was up to our waists when we arrived. I quickly changed into my bathing suit and started ferrying bags over my head. Soon the water was at my chest. It was a mad panic, there just wasn’t time for photos. The girls and Jenny swam across and by the time I brought the final bag the water was at my neck. We had just barely made it! We all took a deep breath, got dressed and posed for a group shot as the day because magnifique!


We caught our water-taxi home from Awaroa and spent the rest of our visit hike-free until we said good-bye for another 6 months.

Julie and I can only hope that when we’re our Mums’ age we’re equally as keen and able to be dragged on an adventure halfway around the world. At least we have some pretty good role models as a guide.

Love these guys! See you soon Mums.

New Zealand Day

The NZ Prime Minister performs the hongi.

Today we celebrated New Zealand Day. It was a wholly different experience for us than Canada Day. Firstly it isn’t even called New Zealand Day, September 6th is Waitangi Day and it celebrates, or perhaps more accurately commemorates, the signing of the Waitangi Treaty in 1840. This document is generally regarded as the founding document of the nation, the moment when the Maori and the Pakeha (non-maori kiwi, aka the White Man) joined together as partners. The Maori became full British subjects and received the rights and protections that afforded as well as the right to maintain ownership of their land. In return they would cede their sovereignty and only sell land to the English Crown. Of course it hasn’t been exactly smooth sailing since. There were problems with the translation. How do you translate ‘sovereignty’ into Maori anyway. This all resulted in the ‘New Zealand Wars’ which I think is quaint since only about 3,000 people died. Regardless, relations have come a long way. It is a national holiday but not one of fireworks and parades but rather reflection of the past. Some politicians tried changing the name to New Zealand Day in the 1970s but it only lasted a couple years and it was changed back.

Today we experienced a very different sort of national holiday. Maori meeting places known as Marae celebrate by inviting anyone and everyone for a ceremony and some food. We didn’t know much more than what the ad in the local paper told us but we decided to go as a family. Lots of ‘as a family’ this year.

Incidentally the Maori must have some awesome designers on staff as evidenced by some pretty amazing tattoo work but I guess their A-team wasn’t enlisted for the newspaper listing below.

We listened to 3 speeches in Maori (oddly, to my eyes anyway, one of the speakers and many of the listeners nodding in agreement were Pakeha). Then, finally, the keynote, and thankfully it was in English. He gave us a history lesson and I was rapt as he spoke about Maori ideals, concerns and his feelings about how to pave the way forward. He was an inspiring speaker and a true leader complete with strong opinions defended with context and a strong sense of morality. He was bold but not confrontational. As he spoke he guided the attendees along a journey of his way of thinking instead of taking the aggressive ‘with us or against us’ approach. He was learned, gentle, open and spoke without notes. I haven’t seen a Western leader like that, maybe ever. He talked of hospitality as being an important Maori value. He also criticized our governing system which only looks 3 or 4 years into the future when we need to look generations (both forward and back). I reflected on our big city life and our lack of respect for the land that we live on. How our busy lives have truly fragmented our attention in dangerous ways. And with the decline of religion in the West there are very few formalized traditions around respecting the elderly, mentoring youth, building community and encouraging spiritual wellness. These are things which don’t naturally fit into our fairly recent culture and if we are going to survive I’m pretty sure we are going to have to make some adjustments.

Afterwards the guests all lined up in post hockey game formation but instead of shaking hands and grunting ‘good game’ with the local iwi (tribe) we performed the hongi where we pressed noses and foreheads and shared breath with each person. It was a very intimate experience and a powerful symbol of welcoming. Afterwards one is no longer considered Manuhiri, a visitor, but rather Tangata whenua, one of the people of the land. I loved watching my children press noses with widows (who press twice, a second time for the dead) as well as the aforementioned speakers and leaders and even massive football player sized men. I wish I had pictures but I also really like that you aren’t allowed to photograph in the Morae.

Later, our ever generous landlord Sue treated us to four hangi which are a traditional meal that is buried underground with hot rocks. It consisted of pork with a huge cap of fat, chicken, squash, silverbeet, potato, sweet potato, some sort of mystery stuffing and garlic.

It was a fantastic afternoon, for me anyway. I think the kids were a bit shell-shocked by having to sit still for so long but I’m hoping they got some intangible benefit out of it. A dogma-free, traditional ceremony with unique cultural customs, an educational and moral lecture outside of a school environment topped off with good food…it was right up our alley. And yet, I can’t help feel conflicted about the fact that I haven’t experienced Canada’s own aboriginal culture so intimately.


Trigger warning…I’m about to engage in some pretty privileged ruminating about our embarrassment of riches.

I’m not really sure what to call this year. Often people ask us if we are on vacation and I always hesitate. Up until now I’ve always known if I was ‘on vacation’, it’s a simple question really. I think I would lose patience or interest in someone that hesitated about their present state of vacation/non-vacation. Many of the holiday indicators are present: tropical weather, novel experiences and buying beach towels. But there are other decidedly ‘real world’ experiences too: going to the mechanic, enrolling the kid’s in after-school programs and vacuuming. Although I am working, I’m not working as much as usual so it feels different. Another clue that it isn’t business as usual is seeing Julie writing her book and making pavlova and pate instead of coming home desperately ferreting around for a post-work glass of wine. So yes it is a vacation of sorts. But then something funny happened. The summer came upon us in earnest, the kids left school for their summer holidays and our friends from Canada arrived in N.Z. to join us for a couple weeks touring around the South Island in an epic road trip dubbed the NZ Frenzy and then further truncated to “FreN.Z.” You know what that means…we went on vacation from a vacation. Yes, I’m fully aware of how that sounds. It a hodge-podge of emotions from embarrassment to excitement to convincing myself somehow that we had ‘earned it’. Well, there is nothing to do about it now but go with the flow and try to appreciate it as best I can. Poor me.

Although the kids have met new friends at their school they still longed for the easy comfort of their Toronto pals and the idea of having their friends visit us here was probably the most exciting part of our trip so far for them. Lyla couldn’t contain herself and announced that she was preparing a new hug for when Gracie arrives. So filled with emotion and physicality it was dubbed the “fight-hug” as it would probably be aggressive and end up with them on the ground with any promises that it would end injury-free.

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The infamous Fight-hug. Who can understand the affection rituals of 8-year-olds?

It was strange after being alone together for so long in such a remote part of the world to have a little piece of Roncesvalles show up at our door. Let the FreN.Z. begin!

For the first week we were able to show them around our neck of the woods, “The Top of the South” and prove that our blog wasn’t just a photoshop festival from an internet cafe in Bracebridge.

We showed them our local cafes.

cafe IMG_20171221_122638.jpg

And our local mountains.


The ‘Littles’ reveled in the adventure.


As did the “Bigs”.


And of course with the kids so entertained our lives became easier. No complaints from Lyla on the hike into Abel-Tasman!


Suddenly meals were fun!


Tandem family caving.


My favourite thing about the Christmas break is getting to spend quality time with family and friends. Although we missed the rellies back home, we had our surrogate family to share the holidays with in a surreal Kiwi Khristmas.

Thankfully Santa went easy on the presents this year.
Turkey dinner? You can’t have the oven heating up the house when it is hot. Steaks on the BBQ!
Just because we are in New Zealand doesn’t mean we have to endure Christmas dinner without a decorative headgear made from the finest, most durable tissue paper known to man.
Our nativity scene complete with Baby Jewish Jesus.
Gandalf pulls a Taco and rocks up wondering where her present is.

And then despite our car’s satnav telling us we were in a Yokahama suburb we headed out on our roadtrip down south.

sat nav IMG_20171228_145341.jpg

“The Littles” put on a dab clinic showing us how to spice up the essential Roadtrip road shot.

The first week at our place was about us sharing our world with our friends but the next couple weeks on the road were about making discoveries together. There were lots of firsts: Hiking out to a glacier.


Swimming in said glacier’s waters.


My first ever dive from a height. I was either ‘inspired’ by Adam or felt tired of being emasculated by his headlong feats.


Epic rope swing. There was actually handlebars from a kid’s bike at the end of the rope.


My first ever cricket game.

How’s that?!!

I ordered a Dungeons and Dragons adventure and dice from Amazon about a year ago after watching Stranger Things. I finally busted it out on the trip and to my amazement the kids found it just as compelling as any screen.

Beheading goblins is hard work.

Luckily the Bisby’s enjoy the Art of the Mug as much as the Furbellies.


Milford Sound was without a doubt the most touristy thing we did. Literally nobody lives there. It is just a tourist destination. I was skeptical. It won me over though as the beauty of the place overwhelmed. Some smart kiwi recognized that a hotel or village would detract from the natural setting and although a lot of tourists come visit it is immaculately managed. I’m sure the hotel chains are champing at the bit to get in there and I hope they continue to be rebuffed.

Milford Sound is actually a fiord and not a sound at all. The didn’t want to reprint all the brochures so they didn’t bother changing the name. Reminiscent of Columbus’ “Indians”.



milford 1
One of hundreds of rain-dependent waterfalls. The good side to ‘bad’ weather.

It rains 225 times a year here so we were expecting the gloom but we were surprised and delighted when it cleared up


The day (New Years Eve incidentally) continued with a tramp through the Gertrude Valley. Although only minutes from the tourist mecca of the Sound this equally majestic landscape was absolutely deserted.

gertrude valley.jpg

I know what you are thinking…nice mountains, but what about the jam? Well the ‘world famous in New Zealand’ Barkers of Geraldine jams and preserves has a tasting room in Geraldine which bombarded with gusto. I went in hungry and left stuffed. I ate a huge meal consisting only of jam. If my teenage self could only know what quaintness was in store for his future.

The life-affirming ecstasy of a good beetroot relish

The 401 is an efficient highway but I’ve never pulled over to the side of the road for an impromptu swim.

Originally Aoraki, Mount Cook, NZ’s highest peak in the background, provides the runoff water for Lake Pukaki. I saw not a single man-made structure on it’s shores.

Camille’s only request for the roadtrip was to visit the Margaret Mahy Playground in Christchurch which is the largest in the southern hemisphere.


Marlborough is the adult version of a playground.


The wineries were strangely kid-friendly. There were large open spaces, bean-bag chairs, tree swings and a bocce court. Strangely my daughters were still interested in the tastings, in particular comparing the Chardonnays with the Sauvingnon Blancs. It’s all about the flinty passionfruit on the nose.


Eventually like all good things (all things really, good or bad) our vacation from our vacation came to an end. We are back home now and oddly happy with a slower, quieter existence of play-dates, work, and alternating between filling up and depleting our pantry.

Many moons from now when we are back in Toronto and wonder if this all actually happened we can turn to the Bisbys and they can assure us that yes, it was all true – and we had heaps of fun!

The Sentinel

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.


eggs.jpgOne 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.)

Taco happily settling in to her new home.

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.

The wise surveying eyes of Gandalf.

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.

The Intrepid Taco the Chicken (Too soon for “why did the chicken cross the road” jokes in case you were wondering.



Yoda the driving instructor

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.

Room 3 field trip
Room 3 class trip to the Centre of New Zealand
nz trip.jpg
Room 4 class trip to the Centre of New Zealand
Both Room 3 and 4 going to the pool.

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:

Traffic in downtown Motueka
driving 1
Looking for the trailhead
driving 2
Parking at Tata beach
Spotted on the Highway




NZ has a flag problem

Vexillophile (word of the day meaning flag enthusiast) Roman Mars has a great TED talk about bad municipal flag designs. He takes a topic that on the surface most people wouldn’t find compelling and makes a case for why it is. YouTube video of his 18 minute ‘podcast’ on the TED stage here.

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:

Gross! For bonus points find the 8 flags within this flag.

Here are the rules of good flag design:

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Use meaningful symbolism
  3. Use two to three basic colors
  4. No lettering or seals of any kind.
  5. Be distinctive

I have a suggestion for an additional rule:

6. Don’t make it look similar to the flag of the country next door.

aussie vs. nz.jpg

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.

BTW it’s “En Zed” not “En Zee”.

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:


My favourites aren’t among the shortlisted but these are miles ahead of the current one.

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.

Failed flag design: “Modern Hundertwasser Koru” by Tomas Cottle

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.

” Gains” 
Designed by: Logan Wu
Sheep and Hokey Pokey 
Designed by: Jesse Gibbs from Canterbury

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.

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.


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.

Tree-climbing heaven.


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.

thin wallet
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.


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.


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.

sunny nz.jpg

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).

bye bye

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.


Julie’s office:


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…