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.

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The Aquapackers

To end our first stretch of the tramp in the Abel Tasman with the grandmas, we booked a boat called the Aquapackers. Normally, you would stay in a hut or a tent but we decided it would be cool to stay in a “boat hostel”.aquapackers When we arrived on the beach where the boat would pick us up, you would think one of my parents would pull out a phone, but no.IMG_20180131_163310

To my and Lyla’s pleasure we were told to call the old fashioned way: with our bodies and and our mouths, rather than just our fingers on phones. So Lyla and I waved and shouted, and eventually a little dinghy came to pick us up. When we arrived on the boat we met the crew of three people. We quickly got changed into our togs, (kiwi slang for swim suit) and rushed to the front of the boat so we could jump off and have a swim. IMG_20180131_171355

 

When we got back on the boat, we sat at the table to meet all of our boat mates. Then surprisingly, our conversation was interrupted by many, many, many plates of food made by the one and only Jane!

We all took this to our advantage and gobbled up the feast real quick. Lyla and I eventually got tired and retired to our skinny, chain-held bunks.

When I woke up the next morning I saw mum looking out the window. I was curious, as usual, and I peered out too. I was surprised to see a crazy storm outside. We saw it coming on the forecast, but none of us were expecting this.

Looked scarier in real life!

Our spirits were brought up a little bit when we saw a breakfast feast on the table. But when we went out onto the front deck what we saw shocked us again. At the bach (kiwi slang for cottage) just on shore, the waves were crashing on the dock and everything they could reach. We soon found out that our dinghy ride would be delayed because it was too dangerous to dock on shore. We stayed on that boat for hours and hours looking out the window at the crazy storm. The boat that the night before acted as a giant cradle was now a recipe for sickness. The storm was the tail end of a cyclone so it was crazy and the crew said they hadn’t seen anything like it in over 16 years. As the passengers seemed to start getting annoyed, (one couple even had to catch a flight) the crew felt pressured to find a gap in the storm and bring us all to shore. So after over five hours delay we finally hopped on the little dinghy again and said goodbye to the crew and the other passengers. We sped off through the waves back to the beach. Then we set off to the next part of our adventure.

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The Tasman General Store

The Tasman General Store is a store that is in Tasman, and Camy and I go to it every Friday, after school. I love it. It has awesome ice cream, yummy popsicles, good cakes, and lollies.

In the back there is a sandpit and really nice tables to eat at. The walk from our school to the Tasman store is very short, so that’s good and the drive is basically 4 seconds. Good. There is also very yummy chocolate treats. Also good. Most things are very cheap. That’s good. Why are there so many things that are good about the Tasman store or should I say cool or awesome or amazing?

We showed the Bisby’s the Tasman store and we showed the Grandma’s the Tasman store. They all like it too, so that’s good!!! Ok, I’m going to stop using the same word GOOD.

Why am I always the one who does the fun blog posts?

FreN.Z.

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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.

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And our local mountains.

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The ‘Littles’ reveled in the adventure.

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As did the “Bigs”.

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

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Suddenly meals were fun!

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Tandem family caving.

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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.

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Thankfully Santa went easy on the presents this year.
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Turkey dinner? You can’t have the oven heating up the house when it is hot. Steaks on the BBQ!
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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.
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Our nativity scene complete with Baby Jewish Jesus.
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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.

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“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.

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Swimming in said glacier’s waters.

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

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

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My first ever cricket game.

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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.

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Beheading goblins is hard work.

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

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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.

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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”.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Marlborough is the adult version of a playground.

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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.

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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!

Almosts

When I travel, the almosts of life are easier to see. More movement means more decisions, more decisions mean more ‘what could have been’ moments.  Intricate plans are woven then unraveled, like the braids in my daughter’s hair after a good day’s play. There is an ease and flexibility, but also mini-regrets and what-ifs poking their way into my heart at every turn. These things haunt me sometimes: the sign we didn’t heed for the Tiny Historic Bungalow, the summit hike we were too tired to take on, the rope swing left dangling for another day. It is a feeling that is deeper and more complicated, somehow, than the FOMO of the modern world. I am in love with what happened, but also fascinated by what didn’t come to pass.

Our friends from home came to visit us over Christmas and we spent two weeks in a two family convoy, road tripping around the South Island.

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Many plans were made! Some were forsaken (much to Joel’s dismay. He is the chief-numero-uno-plan maker), but many beautiful things went down.

Tramps,

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beach days,

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sunsets,

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kayaking,

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so much swimming,

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dance parties

danceparty.jpgAnd all the other stuff, of course: the tantrums and tiredness, the car games, the hanging around, the joy of discovering things together.

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And there were some near-misses, some just-abouts, some almosts.

There was the day that Joel and Angela witnessed three tourists quietly drowning in this  glacier-fed river at Hokitika Gorge.

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Joel and two other guys jumped in and dragged them to safety, but the eerie moment hung over the tourist-filled riverbank for the whole time we were there, even after funny family shots in the freezing cold water, and chatting with a young American painter (here’s his painting of that same spot).

On another day on the trip, Lyla almost fell headfirst down the side of a steep, stump-strewn ravine. We were at the halfway point of a hike and high from Joel and Adam’s feats on a particularly epic rope swing.

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We were milling about, getting ready to head back, when there was a loud cracking sound, and as I turned to see its source, time slowed down, as it does, in those moments. At the top of the cliff, I saw only the bottoms of Lyla’s little boots, and one hand clinging to a tiny vine that barely had its scraggly roots in the earth. Then, as I moved towards the edge, her little, scratchy voice: “Help!”

Adam was closest and quickest, and grabbed her foot, pulling her up with only a few nasty scrapes*. After a bit of a cry, and lots of hugs, she was skipping along the trail, holding Grace’s hand.

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We all continued on, trying to shake the various awful possibilities out of our heads. As Adam and I chopped veggies for dinner later that night, he remarked on how each of the adults needed to go look at the ravine afterwards, to assess what almost happened. It was true. In the slightly shocked aftermath, we all trod carefully to the edge and peered over, one by one. How steep was it? How much danger? What might have been?

I am not saying that these are things to dwell upon for long. We take risks, we learn, we hopefully use the knowledge as we move forward. Lyla now knows that a branch’s strength should be tested before jumping on it with all her moxie and might (especially on the edge of a cliff).  But there is a chaos, an unknowable multitude of forces that we can’t control, no matter how smart or experienced we are.

So now, back ‘home’ in Upper Moutere, I am left holding of the fragility and chanciness of our lives.  Everywhere we go, we make choices, and continually, agonies (and ecstasies) are narrowly missed. And those almosts flit around us, like tiny, sparkly bugs**, lighting the way forward.

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*Thanks, Adam.

**Thanks, Ang.

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.

Chickens

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.

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(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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

Are the holidays coming?

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Christmas and Hanukkah are coming and I’m wearing a T-shirt! It’s so hard for me to believe that Christmas is in just 16 days and Hanukkah just three. Usually at about this time back home it’s snowing and here it’s only getting hotter. The summer holidays are in just ten days! The other day the hill we drive along turned brown because it was so hot. Every day at school I long for the 20 minutes we get in the tiny pool. And every day after school I wish we were going to the beach or to a pool. There are just no signs I’m used to that show it’s even December, let alone Christmas and Hanukkah! So many great things are coming at Christmas and you’d think I’d be crazy excited for it but I barely even believe that it is coming. We do have a Christmas tree, so that’s a sign, but it’s only about three feet. Everything’s so different here even the holidays, that have been the exact same all my life, show very little similarity.

 

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.

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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:

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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.

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Room 3 class trip to the Centre of New Zealand
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Room 4 class trip to the Centre of New Zealand
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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:

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

 

 

Seriously.