Monthly Archives: May 2009

the city that always sleeps.

As the train pulled into the station at Greymouth, to my left was a Wal-Mart-sized Warehouse and Fresh Choice, two giants in the New Zealand circle of chain stores, and to my right a main street lined with buildings sporting Wild West-style facades. The sun was shining and that was all that mattered. I couldn’t care less that I was about to spend a Saturday night in a town just shy of 10,000 people. The last thing I’d arrived with were great expectations. Throughout the week, as I shared my weekend travel plans with friends and colleagues, I was met with a range of responses, from disgust to pity to plain curiosity as to why I’d ever go to Greymouth of my own volition. They either laughed or said with an all-too-knowing look in their eyes, “Hm, yeah, have fun?” But I went, nonetheless. You don’t know if you don’t go.

I had a mild panic Friday night as it occurred to me that maybe the train station wasn’t within walking distance of the town or my hostel. Those thoughts proved useless as I walked the 500 meters down Mackay Street and easily spotted my accommodation for the night, the Duke Backpackers, blending in in subtle shades of purple and neon green and orange trim. There was no one at reception, so I obediently rang the bell. A girl my age came downstairs and made a phone call, to the owners I presumed – Dory and Shoshy, Israeli transplants.

“Hi…Someone’s here…No, just one, a lady…uh, Candace?” she asked, looking up at me. Nothing like being on first-name basis with the owners to make you feel at home. Just how small was this town? Dory arrived shortly and with him an American guy, easily identified by the way he said, “The train ride was awesome.” His name was Dan and he was wearing khaki cargo pants, a polar fleece, hiking boots, an oversized backpack, and an unkempt bush of a beard…all signs of a true backpacker.

Soon after two more people walked through the door, two French students named Eva and Benoit (think ‘Renoit’ for pronunciation.) Dan was showed to his single room, then Dory took me and the others to the four-bed dorm we’d be sharing. We did the usual introductions, piddled around putting our few belongings on our respective beds, and then they asked if I’d like to join them as they took a walk around town. Going solo on the trip, I’d planned a few things based on what Greymouth seemed to offer in the form of entertainment: a visit to Shantytown, a site dedicated to the West Coast Gold Rush of the 1860s; a tour of Monteith’s Brewery; you know, all those history-based activities a town is forced to invent when it has nothing else to offer. But I welcome any chance to throw aside pre-made plans in the name of spontaneity. Dory had suggested a few hikes around town, so after inviting Dan along, the four of us set off for the King Domain Walk, an hour and a half hike that starts right near the rail station. But it’s not long before you forget the freeway behind you and find your heart racing from the unexpected incline of the trail and the vines and roots you’re forced to fight. I teach Eva the word “slippery” as we trek along the muddy paths.

The hike up, I walk mostly with Eva, learning that she and Benoit are from different parts of France – Nice and Brittany, respectively – but attend the same university and are in Christchurch to study food science for five months. Neither of them speak perfect English, but Eva and I share a love for London and click instantly. She asks me which I like better, “Europe or New Zealand?” and we lament  how quiet and small New Zealand often seems. The walk down, I get to know Dan, a rising college senior from Illinois on summer break. For five weeks, he’ll be the hut warden at Westland National Park, a 12km hike from any form of basic civilization, getting his drinking water from a river. Thrilling stuff.

As we leave the trail, Dory and Shoshy and their three kids drive up, the middle child holding a roll of toilet paper. They know how to come prepared. Dory offered to take a group shot. Considering we’d only just met each other, I can assure you it’s an awkward shot, all of us standing pitifully to ourselves. But we’re bonding slowly, over how out of shape we all are and how small the town is. We walk to the beach, taking all of thirty seconds to pass through the center of town, and arrive at the shore of the Tasman Sea. The beach is all smooth grey rocks, no sand, and makes for tricky walking. Eva and I skip rocks with Benoit, who can get up to four skips, while Dan texts a picture of the ocean home to his mother. The sun begins to set and I am taken over by the familiar emotion of disbelief and thoughts like “Am I really here?” while in foreign places of intense beauty.

As we pick up our bags to leave the beach, there were two guys gathering driftwood into plastic shopping bags. One remarked to us that it would be a cool group shot to take a picture of us silhouetted against the sky and the recently-set sun. These people must love their group shots. He handed me back my camera after taking the picture and of course we got to talking about where we were from, what we were doing (in New Zealand and in Greymouth – two importantly distinct questions) – the usual conversation. One invites us to a reggae band’s show in Hokitika, about half an hour away. The other says, “It’s just about the only thing happening in this area tonight.” Now, I know what you’re thinking – how could I turn that down? But I’d like to think that things are never so bad that reggae is my best option.

We returned to our hostel for the free hot soup promised to be served at seven that night. I don’t know why I expected anything along the lines of hearty – the closest it got to Campbell’s Chunky were the bits of vegetables floating in broth most likely made from cubes of chicken stock. But it did give us a chance to get to know the four other people staying in the hostel. Conversation centered around employment, or the lack thereof. A Malaysian girl complained of sore muscles as a result of fruit picking, later revealing she’d only stuck with it for one day. An Italian guy moaned about the lack of job opportunities in Greymouth. I didn’t think it my place to suggest trying something more…populated. Maybe it’s just me, but I wouldn’t expect a small town on the West Coast to have much to offer in the way of jobs. On our way out, we ask for suggestions for dinner. The same Italian tells us everything is closed – “We could drink upstairs, but we’d have to get some booze first.” Man, are the possibilities endless in this place or what?

Once outside, I can’t begin to express the absolute emptiness of the town. I start to cross the street when Benoit throws both his arms out, holding us all back. “Watch out! Look both ways first!” And that was the key – making our own fun. We could have been miserable, but with a sense of humor and an open mind we didn’t have such a bad time. It was like being let loose on a movie set after they’ve finished filming for the day. Everything’s there – buildings, street signs, parked cars – but the people. We were delighted to find the Bonzai Pizzeria open and bustling with a surprising amount of business. A large group sat at a table with “Reserved” signs on it – just a precaution? We dine on Monteith’s brews and pizza, an unimaginably perfect meal after the day’s travels and hike. Eva and Benoit remarked that they hardly ever eat dinner before 9pm in France and as it was just hitting that time as we left the restaurant, we decided we had to go somewhere else.

But where? We passed closed sign after closed sign, asking, “But this is Saturday night, right?” Benoit is determined, holding his pinkie finger in the air like some homing device, in a desperate attempt to find a bar/pub/any other open establishment. We see a neon sign a few blocks down, usually a good indicator, but are greeted with “Ellerly’s Home Appliance Centre” upon closer inspection. Just then Benoit goes out onto the street, looks up, and kisses his finger. Right above the refrigerators and ovens was Franks Café and Bar – oh thank heaven. A chalkboard sign on the sidewalk says, “We are open til late.” We’d believe it when we saw it. Upstairs, again, more business than you’d expect. These people must arrive at a restaurant and literally stay put for hours, leaving the streets deserted. Again, another large birthday party takes up much of the place. It beings to make sense – even in a town as tiny as Greymouth, if you get a big enough group of people together as friends, you’re bound to have at least one birthday every couple of weeks, giving some excuse to get out on the weekends.

Dan and Benoit order more drinks, but Eva and I opt for desserts and I choose a slice of feijoa cake and vanilla ice cream. It’s warm and delicious, but I’m distracted by two guys standing next to our table. One of them keeps looking at me in such a pathetically obvious way. Finally he turns around and asks where we’re from – I’d been wondering what line he would come up with. He sat down next to me and his friend – hopelessly drunk – took the other open chair at our table. Blake begins to tell me about his upcoming 11-week trip to America and Europe and that he’s in a local acoustic rock band, “Although we do all our shows down in Fox Glacier.” Clearly he’s making it big time.  A couple of free drinks later, he invites us to come with them to the Working Man’s Club. Again, I took the risk of turning him down. Principles are principles, and I’d like to think I have standards.

Our Sunday morning in Greymouth passed uneventfully – an unsuccessful trip to the History House Museum where we discovered it’s only open on weekdays, a walk through the affluence that is Cobden, and a final hike to another all-too-picturesque lookout. The highlight was, hands down, my mocha and steak-and-cheese pie for lunch at the Wild Branch Café. We said goodbye to Dan who wouldn’t be heading back to Christchurch with us, and boarded the train.

As I settled into my seat, I was completely content. I had managed to visit a town with an incredibly sad reputation and still enjoy myself immensely. Unexpected friendships, great food, even better weather and a beautiful natural environment – anymore people around and it probably would have spoiled it.

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an alpine adventure, nz-style.

There’s nothing like having to get up on a Saturday morning earlier than you would during the week to propel you out of bed. Especially when it’s still dark outside, raining for the sixth day straight, and you have a ten-minute walk in front of you to the nearest bus stop. But thankfully it was all in the spirit of travel, the mission of the weekend being a five-hour journey across the country on the TranzAlpine Express to the West Coast. After two months of sticking close to Christchurch, I was going on a trip and I couldn’t have been more excited about it.

With two carry-on bags and a broken umbrella in tow, I boarded the MetroStar, a popular bus route, which connected me to the Orbiter, another line that took me to the Christchurch Railway Station in the suburb of Addington. A note about the Christchurch bus system: it is perhaps the least informative system with the least identifiable routes in the world. Having spent six months in London, I had adjusted to an almost overload of information – each step was clearly demarcated with a white plastic post and appropriate street name. On the buses themselves, these locations are displayed on a miniature marquee of sorts, scrolling brightly and unavoidably by. And for the visually impaired or dumbly unobservant, a cheerful voice announces every approaching stop and once pulling away, reiterates the bus number: “22…to…Piccadilly Circus.” If you miss your stop, shame on you.

Christchurch is another story. None of the stops have signs or posts with the street names or locations on them, and neither does a helpful announcer do the job. I’ve never clutched a map so tightly as when riding a bus in Christchurch, my head jerking up and down to follow each passing street on my map. It’s exhausting, especially when I’m bound to pass the stop anyways. But such was not the case as I stepped off my bus in Addington and arrived at the train station the suggested twenty minutes prior to departure. I was eighteen minutes too soon. It was the easiest check-in known to man, only a matter of seconds passing as I received my ticket and found my seat on coach M, conveniently adjacent to the viewing carriage.

The train pulled away and it became clear I’d be getting more for my money than I’d originally expected: natural scenery and a chatty tour conductor to boot. People like Charlie should never be given a mic. Think overexcited announcers at high school basketball games or over-involved DJs at wedding receptions. In addition to facts, “interesting” tidbits, and lines he obviously uses every journey (at Arthur’s Pass, for instance, he tells us to have a five-minute break for “fresh air or nicotine, whichever your poison”), he embellished the ride with stories and anecdotes completely unrelated to the task at hand, tales of his wife Carolyn losing her wedding ring in a pigpen or a man rescuing his three-old son after he fell into a hole in a frozen lake. On one hand, I didn’t want to seem rude to the Indian couple sitting across from me by popping in my iPod (what can I say, it’s my poison of choice), but there was no way I could take five hours of Charlie’s constant blabbering. Like any good talk show, he made pitches for the various products and souvenirs available on the train, including a DVD made about the journey with “first-rate commentary,” no doubt provided by yours truly, Chatterbox Charlie.

The trip began average enough, as the train passed through the Canterbury Plains, which, as you might imagine, did not have much to offer in the Visual Stimulation Department. Much of the immediate scenery was brush, dead in winter, with scrubby little bushes and piles of gravel and stones scattered about. These gave way to hills and mountains that sloped down towards the tracks, covered thickly with monochromatic trees a color that Crayola would aptly market as Polished Pine or Wintergreen Dream. The clouds were low and heavy, settling on the tops of the mountains, and occasional waterfalls emptied their load in the river below. The river beds were immensely wide and rocky, mostly small grey stones, with the water weaving in and out in no apparent pattern. Charlie confirmed this observation as we followed the Waimakariri River. Stretching 150 kilometers long, he explains it is a braided river composed of numerous channels. It doesn’t flow from bank to bank like a normal river might, but during a flood, it can be quite the force to be reckoned with. Through the gorges and valleys, though, the snow-capped peaks are always just a little too far off. I never got the feeling I was truly traversing the great Southern Alps.

But apparently this thought never crossed anyone else’s mind. The viewing carriage was swarming with passengers and low-end DSLRs swinging from their necks. Buzzing with the excitement of a press junket, it might as well have been the paparazzi and each vista a celebrity. The views go in and out as trees give way to the river and tunnels to the valleys. A forlorn woman looks up at me, camera in hand, and says, “I missed the money shot.” This was five minutes into the journey. I did my best to assure her there would be many, many more. Clearly no one believed me as they continued to fight for prime viewing spots at the open sides of the carriage. You should’ve been there for the rainbow, set against the snowcaps – it was the Brangelina of all views. As avid of a photographer as I am, I found myself agreeing more with the man next to me who set his camera down and said, “Nothing beats the human eye.”

I mentioned earlier the ridiculous amount of rain Christchurch had experienced during the week leading up to my trip. This continued throughout the first part of the ride, which was especially unfortunate on the viewing carriage where each drop sliced against your skin. I’d looked up the forecast for Greymouth and was pleased to see a row of tiny dancing suns for the week. But…it is the weather and I knew better than to let the weathermen of Greymouth play with my heart. Halfway through, we entered a tunnel, the Otira Rail Tunnel to be exact, that at the time of its completion in 1923, was the longest tunnel in the British Empire and the Southern Hemisphere. Measuring 8.5 kilometers long, even today it’s the seventh longest in the world. The gradient is 1 in 33, meaning roughly that for every 33 meters covered, the track increases in slope by one meter. Because of this and the length, gases like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide can be easily trapped in the tunnel, proving dangerous for both the train and its occupants. They’ve developed quite the system to counteract this, with a door closing behind the train as soon as it enters the tunnel so a large extracting fan can clear out the fumes. Just as the second door shut as we left the tunnel and emerged in Otira, the sky burst into a vivid blue, void of any raincloud. I was ecstatic.

And as the sky cleared, so did the viewing carriage. While the start of the journey found not a spare place to stand outside, the cameras were soon laid aside and heads began to nod off. The majority of my car was asleep, slumped in their seats – myself included. It was as if their feast on earlier views and vistas had been one climactic sugar high, and now they’d crashed, unable to take it anymore.

– – –

For the return trip the following day, the train couldn’t pull into the station in Greymouth fast enough, but my stay in Greymouth is another story for another day. As I found my seat, I noticed several familiar faces around me. While some had made the trip from Christchurch to Greymouth and back in one day and others had moved on to other parts of the West Coast rather than make the return journey, it was clear I wasn’t the only one who’d chosen to stay the night. Our eyes met each others’ with mutual recognition, giving knowing looks of sympathy as if to say, “I, as well, just spent the night in one of the most pathetic, depressing towns in existence.” Misery loves company, or something like that.

I was glad to find myself in a more attentive state of mind on the return. Maybe it was because Charlie had been replaced by a welcomingly toned-down version of himself, or that I’d had a full night’s sleep. I remembered Otira from the day before, in absolute shock to find a hotel next to the tracks. The conductor shared that the entire township of Otira is actually owned by a couple, Bill and Chris Hennah. Although they’d originally intended to buy only the historic hotel in 1998, it wasn’t until after they signed the contract and handed over $75,000 that they realized they’d bought the town – the land, hotel, community hall, fire station and engine, swimming baths, and seventeen houses to round it all off. That’ll teach them to read the fine print. Houses are available to rent for $110 a week, as long as you stay for at least six months and help paint your house. But, as the conductor mused, how do they get you to stay? Offer free beer or perhaps tie one leg to the veranda post?

From Otira it was through the Rail Tunnel yet again and another five-minute break at Arthur’s Pass. (We are told again to choose our poison between fresh air and nicotine, proving my earlier point about the use of stock lines). Here at New Zealand’s third highest point of 737 meters, fifty people make their home and livelihood. I hastily sent up a prayer of thanksgiving that I hadn’t accepted a job position in the town, saving both myself and my family a good deal of heartbreak as I would have most likely chosen to end my life there. But things got worse…we drew near the village of Cass, population one – a man named Barry, nicknamed Rambo for God knows what reason, who works on rail maintenance in the area. Little wonder he’s single. We stopped in Cass to “pick up passengers,” but all I could think was what in the world were they doing there?

Finally we passed through Bealey Village, where we could see the Bealey Hotel set in the distant hills. All things considered, such as its utterly isolated location, the hotel has an unexpectedly well-designed website, on which it states invitingly, “Enjoy the solitude of the secluded mountain environment.” Yeah, no kidding. Apparently after the owner opened the hotel, he claimed to see a moa – a long extinct native bird of New Zealand – and produced the requisite fuzzy photos to support his story. Like any good hoax, it caused quite a fuss at first and unsurprisingly brought a steady flow of business to the hotel. It was then disproved and the owner was accused of inventing it all for the sake of marketing… But can you blame him? Wouldn’t you do the same having discovered you’d foolishly opened a hotel in a rarely-frequented remote village?

And then we were back to rolling through the Canterbury Plains, as flat and uninteresting as a veritable Midwest cornfield. Not to mention it was pitch-black by this point. So that was that – from Christchurch to Greymouth and back again, 223.8 kilometers each way, covering 16 tunnels, 5 viaducts, and the sorriest bunch of towns you ever did see. 

Christchurch…oh blessed civilization.

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spelling bees and hot sauce.

I broke my first glass at work last week, a margarita glass with a few drops of strawberry or mango pooled at the bottom of the stem. No big deal, right? As they say, there’s more where that came from. And like every other human being since Adam, I could blame someone else – the bar staff, for instance, who, in the utter insanity that is a Friday night, had let the ledge fill to precarious capacity with empty glasses, making it undoubtedly impossible to ensure the glasses I set down would be safe. But sure – in the end, my fault. My flatmate Kenny, also the bar supervisor, immediately says, “Hot sauce.” I shrug my shoulders without a clue as to what he’s talking about, and get back to work.

Later that night, I was in search of the containers we use to store extra cutlery in. I ask my manager Jenna if she’s seen any, only for her to cryptically reply, “No, but I do know where the hot sauce is.” What is it with these people and their hot sauce? She had her dinner in front of her, so I try to think logically and guess that she needs it for her meal. Then, in a line spoken with the same gravity as “Is this Clarice?” or “I see dead people,” Jenna says,

“Candace, I know you broke a glass.”

I was soon filled in about the staff tradition that for every glass or dish you break, you have to taste the hot sauce. Even the kitchen staff hold to it, yelling excitedly after each breakage, “Hot sauce!” At first, I was tempted to track down the dirty sod of a customer who ratted on me, but there were soon graver issues at hand…

Allow me to digress. We’ve got units of measurement for pretty much everything, from light years to temperature, from kinetic energy (joules) to weight (pounds or kilograms, take your pick.) Heck, a couple of professors from Cornell in the 1940s even invented a system for measuring pain, each unit called a “dol” and equal to “just noticeable differences.” Sounds objective to me. So I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn last Friday of the Scoville, the unit used to measure the hotness – or “piquancy,” if you feel like being technical – of a chili pepper. Based on the amount of capsaicin present, it ranks peppers and hot sauces on a scale from 0 to 16,000,000, the latter being pure capsaicin.

To give you a point of reference, consider the following statistics:
• 100-500: Pimento, bell pepper
• 2,500: Jalapeno pepper
• 5,000: Tabasco sauce
• 100,000: Habanero chili
• 2,000,000: Law enforcement grade pepper spray
• 5,300,000: The ammunition used in the FN 303, a semi-automatic less-lethal launcher (whatever that means, it doesn’t sound good.)

So we’re talking pretty damn hot here, ay? Now to the illusory hot sauce – the sauce I would soon be tasting as penitence for my broken glass is called The Source and is 7,100,000 Scoville units.

Oh. My. God.

Thankfully I wasn’t informed of this wee fact until later. All I knew was that the other servers wouldn’t even carry the box that contains the sauce – let alone the bottle itself – without a cloth around it, for fear of a stray drop finding its way within a thousand miles of their eyes or mouth. So we’re not talking about your average tabletop Tabasco sauce…and here I was about to try it. The Source – the third hottest hot sauce in the known world (apparently the first is rumored around 16,000,000 Scovilles – and yes, that is the hottest you can go) – but the source of what? As I soon found out –

Pain, misery, and absolutely indescribable agony. Hell in your mouth.

The first few moments were fine. Even anticlimactic, as the group of servers gathered around me as if waiting to watch a ten car pile-up they already knew was going to happen. But this was no atomic bomb; this was a noxious gas drifting slowly, silently, in until the entire village doesn’t wake up in the morning. The nerve endings in my tongue went into anaphylactic shock, or some other horrible sounding medical condition that can only mean certain death. It spread down my throat and into my ears, which felt like molten lava was being funneled in. Breathing only amplified the pain. Kenny handed me a glass of milk and a few limes, as if they could do anything. Tears streamed down my cheeks, bloody useless if you ask me, whereas my mouth would have much appreciated the extra moisture.

Tired of being a spectacle, I moved up to the kitchen, in no less pain, but hidden in a corner with more limes and a glass of water, feeling immensely sorry for myself. Was this what it had come to? I was alone in a country far from home – far from anywhere, for that matter – with a substance three and a half times the equivalent of pepper spray in my mouth. This was as low as it could go.

But it had been a long week, and quite frankly, I was over it. Over the early mornings and the late nights, over the complaining customers, the never-ending phone calls, over my freezing bedroom and the time difference that seemed to mock the near impossibility of having a decent conversation with my family. I was over feeling alone.

Last Thursday in the office, a colleague asked no one in particular how to spell supersede.

“Supersede?” I ask in that way you might repeat the word given to you at a spelling bee. I’m an English major; this is what I do.

“Oh no, no, Candace, I don’t mean the American way,” she says. In situations like these, I can actually feel the anger flare up inside me, pangs of sudden outrage shooting through my chest.

“Do Americans really spell things that much differently?” someone else asks.

The original colleague to ask peeks her head up over her computer monitor from across the office. “Spell program.”

“P-r-o-g-r-a-m-M-E, if you want the UK way,” I say.

Another person asks me to spell color. “Add a ‘u’ before the r,” I say a little too smugly.

I turned my back on them, determined not to feel belittled, when another colleague – the aforementioned culprit of mispronouncing my name – says under her breath, “How do you spell ‘idiots’?”

Ah…vindication from the English! 

All of this is to say how easy it is to feel isolated here. While New Zealand may have seemed familiar and Westernized at first, it can also be anything but that – which may be all the more disconcerting. I mentioned the time difference, currently placing sixteen hours between me and my family and friends, most of whom are on Eastern Standard Time. I am always a day ahead – when I’m getting ready for bed, they’re just hitting the snooze button in the early hours of the day. It can be fun, as my dad sometimes jokingly asks whether to buy or sell and which stocks did well that day. But it is equally disconnecting. Not to mention the swap in seasons. While my friends are on Beach Week and working on their tan, I’m wondering how I’m going to make it through this winter with the coat I’ve brought with me.

And so I fight the self-pity. I chose to come here, after all, and no one’s making me stay. It took an adorable old man I served at the restaurant last week to remind me why I’m here. Our conversation started off normal enough, with my accent cueing him to ask where home is for me. As I’m often asked, he wanted to know what I think of Obama and if I’ve gone to university yet. “You’ve got the whole world in front of you,” he said, “The whole world.” We talked about my plans to write and hopefully return to London next year, but then he left me with a line I won’t quickly forget: “You are going to have a very interesting life.”

My first instinct was to almost ask, “Really? I am?” because it honestly doesn’t feel like that all of the time. When I’ve answered the fiftieth phone call at the office or run the hundredth dish out from the kitchen, all I feel is the lack of sleep weighing me down and pushing on my eyelids. Sometimes it takes a stranger to remind me why I’m here.

One of the main employment websites in New Zealand is Seek.co.nz, very similar to Monster or CareerBuilder. They’ve got a commercial on TV right now with a kicker of a tagline: “If we didn’t seek, we wouldn’t find.” But I think the inverse stands true as well – if we couldn’t find, we wouldn’t seek. Sure, sometimes life is about the journey, but who doesn’t love the destination, especially if the journey’s been long? I think all of us need to have some kind of reassurance that all this endless striving and running will lead to something in the end.

But right now I’m doing a bit of both – seeking constantly, leaving no stone unturned, and finding out a lot or a little along the way. Maybe the key lies in bearing all things with patience and an open mind – seeking even when we don’t always find; finding what we don’t always seek; and occasionally, luckily, getting it right.

And remember – when life gets hot, even into the millions of Scovilles, just stick your tongue in a bowl of cream. It’ll do the trick.

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jug’s boiled.

“New Zealanders are solid tea drinkers when compared to other countries around the world! Tea consumption per capita in New Zealand is around 1kg – we consume more tea per head of population than Australia or USA.” – Bell Tea Company

During my first few days at my office, I noted with increasing confusion a certain phrase that was said in the office around tea time. It wasn’t necessarily the same person who came down the hall from the direction of the break room – sometimes the accounts person, sometimes the loans officer, or even my receptionist/admin counterpart I was hired to assist. I could never make out what they were saying. The phrase “word vomit” comes to mind to describe it – whatever the jumbled mess was, it resembled “mlug spoilt” or “blug joint,” said in a heavy Scottish accent, of course. Like Pavlov’s dogs, it wasn’t that I understood the meaning of the phrase, only that it came to signify to me that I could leave my desk and run to the break room for a cuppa. But being of greater intellectual capacity than that of a dog, I eventually asked around and was soon using the phrase, “Jug’s boiled,” myself to alert the office that the jug of hot water in the break room was ready for tea time.

Jug? Kettle? To me, a kettle whistles and generally conjures up images of the holly-themed Christmas kettle my mother leaves sitting out on our stovetop year-round. I was first acquainted with an electric kettle while interning at a publishing company in Boston. Before this fateful introduction, I had known only the archaic method of heating water on the stove or the cheap convenience of the microwave when I went to make tea. Why doesn’t more of America realize an almost-equally convenient alternative exists? Boiling water in less than three minutes. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, what I say is true.

In New Zealand households, electric kettles are arguably a more important amenity than dishwashers or dryers. And, so I’ve found, in the workplace as well. I’ve already written about my time at Statistics New Zealand and the unexpected delight of an enforced morning tea break. My current office takes this one step further. At about 3.32pm my first day, a colleague hurries past my desk saying excitedly, “We’re late for tea!” Morning and afternoon tea? Does it get any better than this? In the span of seconds, the office is reduced to a ghost town, crumpled balls of paper rolling like tumbleweed, ringing phones ignored, unprocessed applications and unbooked appointments pushed aside like yesterday’s fashion trends. The chairs in the break room are filled to capacity as we giddily talk about something other than the fact that we’re a “charitable trust with limited resources, so sorry we can’t install your heat pump until July – yes ma’am, I am aware that’s the bloody middle of winter.”

At Statistics NZ, I’d heard a rumor that companies were legally obligated to provide tea and coffee – but I had to know for sure if something that amazing could be true. Alas, as Rick Hargreaves writes in the “Your Rights” column of the New Zealand Herald, that’s not far from the case:

There is no legal requirement for an employer to provide tea and coffee but it would be unusual for them not to. In New Zealand there has been a long-standing custom and practice for employers to supply tea and coffee…Often older individual employment agreements and union boilerplate collective agreements require the employer to provide tea and coffee.”

Cha-ching! One such union is Finsec, NZ’s Union for Finance Workers. Its website lists the following requirements:

All Finsec members at Westpac have basic rights to the proper pay, fair working hours and payment for overtime, having our tea breaks and adequate sick leave and annual leave…If we work more than 2 hours we are entitled to one paid 10 minute tea break. If we work more than 4 hours we are entitled to two paid 10 minute breaks.”

Law or no law, it’s close enough for me. To be fair, my Boston internship did have a staff kitchen stocked with tea, coffee, milk, and the occasional free box of crackers, but a cup of tea was consumed at your desk while that day’s assignment was completed – certainly no mass exodus of employees. The computers and fax machines could have revolted in our absence, for all we knew! Now I can’t imagine a workday without two tea breaks. By 10:15, I’m itching for a cuppa like a smoker for his fag break, and the stretch between lunch and afternoon tea often seems intolerably long.

But why tea? Yes, there are those stirring up their instant coffees, but the majority of the population seems drawn to anything from Twinings to PG Tips to the in-house brand of Pak’n’Save. I, however, come from America, the country that invented Starbucks and coined the term “latte factor;” the country that depends on coffee almost as much as it does on oil. Of course when I was leaving for London, people cracked jokes about afternoon tea and “tea with the Queen,” but I actually feel New Zealand has impressed me even more than England with the central place of tea in its culture.

This is exactly what Susette Goldsmith sets out in her book Tea: A Potted History of Tea in New Zealand:

“For many New Zealanders of the early Nineteenth century, tea rituals were links with ‘home,’ and the process of tea making was a familiar marker in a very foreign world…In the harshest of times in New Zealand’s earliest history, tea – though sometimes in short supply – always offered comfort and warmth.”

So while early Americans were busy throwing our tea into various harbors and pitching a fit against Mother England, New Zealanders quietly kept pouring the drink synonymous with their native land and shaping into a country where 77% of its households drink tea. And the twice-daily breaks, taken as religiously as multi-vitamin supplements? They’ve stuck around, much to my pleasure. If stories in the realm of tea folklore are anything to go by, afternoon tea began as a way to keep the seventh wife of Bedford from going hungry between meals. Now it’s a way of life this side of the world.

And a way of life I can’t imagine many arguing with. It only speaks to me further about the balance New Zealanders seemed to have struck between work and play. Sure, I love the tea breaks, but I love my four weeks of paid annual leave even more. Back home, one week of vacation is standard – two weeks and your friends get jealous. Here it seems like people know how to take a step away from their work, how to kick back, cut the stress and actually get around to enjoying life. Somewhere along the lines, maybe we drank a little too much coffee.

And people keep asking when I’m going to get a job back in the States…

 

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let me spell it out for you.

In the ever-going clash of the accents, the latest rounds have featured such face-offs as:

·      Frustrating or frustrating?

·      Aluminum or aluminum?

·      Tomato or tom-ah-to?

·      Address or address?

·      Mocha or mah-cha?

It’s funny from the perspective of cultural analysis, how the same language spoken by two groups of people can sound so different. But I’ve stopped laughing at work, where the primary responsibility of my role as receptionist is to answer the phone, which happens to ring on average 100 times per hour. Dealing with customers face to face isn’t so bad, many of them asking where my accent is from, what I’m doing so far from home, and then usually embarking on endearing ten-minute accounts of every trip they’ve taken to the States: “Now, Virginia, I drove through there in 1978 – or was it ’81 – on my way to New Jersey to see my mother’s step-sister’s son…” And I nod along and feign interest, all for the sake of customer service.

But over the phone, I find myself having to concentrate just as much to understand them as I do while speaking Spanish. I may understand the conjugation in this case, but for some reason the accent – which I’m normally fine with – reacts with phone line distortion in that don’t-mix-Mentos-and-Diet-Coke kind of way.  They say “Shore,” I hear “Shaw.” They say “Settlers,” I hear “Sieglitz.” And because a mistake on my part could send an installation team to the wrong house on the wrong side of town, I check and re-check. “Do you mind spelling that out for me?” Sometimes I ask twice or even three times, and can hear their frustration growing with each letter. They exhale sharply each time, placing a staccato-like emphasis on each letter like they might on the digits of a phone number they don’t want to dial. My most common mistake? Confusing “s” with “f.”

It’s a two-way street, though. I’ve said before the many names the customers mistakenly hear as I answer their call with “This is Candace speaking.” The more conscientious customers ask how to spell my name. I’m hesitant to tell them, of course, because it will undoubtedly come back to bite me. “But I talked to someone – her name was Candace – who told me I was eligible for the subsidy?” See what I mean? A Samoan woman who told me I sounded Chinese asked to talk to someone who could speak “proper” English. Another woman demanded, “What nationality are you? I can barely understand you!” In moments like those, it’s all I can do not to jump out the window. If only our office wasn’t on the ground floor.

But I can’t get how the English woman I actually work with pronounces my name “Cand-ESE,” as in, it rhymes with fleece or Sharese. Where in the world does she get that from? It was a bit more understandable in London, where my colleagues called me “Cand-ACE” – at least it aligned with the spelling of the name. But I can’t seem to excuse my new colleague for the latest development in the saga of how to say my name. For one, her desk is directly behind mine, so there’s no way she hasn’t heard me say, “This is Candace speaking,” 1,200 times a day on the phone. What’s more, I’ve had conversations with my other colleagues right in front of her on the correct pronunciation of my name. The way this all seems somewhat intentional makes it an entirely unforgivable offense. 

On another note, I never thought I’d know so much about plastic window insulation. In fact, it’s probably the last thing I thought I would add to my trove of irrelevant knowledge while in New Zealand. But we sell the D.I.Y. kits in our office and part of my job is ringing up all the customers who come in on their lunch break to buy them. The process is fairly simple – clean your window with the alcohol wipes provided, line the frame with double-sided tape, attach the plastic shrink film you’ve cut to size, and finish it off with a hair dryer to pull the plastic taut. Voilà! Poor man’s double-glazing. I had an older gentleman call up, though, who proved the point that whenever possible, humans will make a simple thing complicated. (Love, for instance, comes to mind.) But this particular customer was inquiring as to why his windows still seemed dirty and streaky after putting up the plastic. I asked him what he used to clean the windows before installation and, after consulting with his wife, he tells me, “Washing machine powder and hot water.” Now, I’m new to the country so my first thought is maybe it’s a New Zealand thing – but even still, it didn’t sound right to me. I ask a colleague, who immediately erupts into laughter. “So that’s not normal here?” I ask. “Of course not!” Once my often-questionable common sense is affirmed, I am no longer able to hold a dignified conversation with Mr. Streaky Windows and I mumble out a logical solution of window glass cleaner between bouts of suppressed laughter. This is what I went to college for, after all.

Then again, it’s not always fun. I admit to being just as confused as our customers are when it comes to the systems of funding and subsidies we have in place. The world of heating and energy efficiency in New Zealand is a sea of letters, with a thousand acronyms comprised of the same letters all swirling together in a deadly mix. A customer called today after being given the run-around by several service providers. “I called HSNZ like you told me to – but who the heck are they?” I wish I knew, ma’am, I wish I knew.

I have a bad habit of rolling my eyes while on the phone with customers. The frustration is just too much at times, though, and it’s a harmless means of rebellion. I think it partly stems from having come to expect certain lines from each person that rings up. The reality of it is that I’m only temporary and can only do so much. The customers call all day and they all have a story, stories of issues, illnesses, and situations. The problem is that I hear so many stories in a day that the “shock value” wears off. Not that I’m jaded, I’ve just come to expect the worst when I pick up the phone.

Through it all, I countdown to July, to the end of this placement, to Queenstown, and – most excitedly – to potentially regaining… 

s. a. n. i. t. y.

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the year of no holidays.

Since I’ve been traveling from last August on, my time abroad has kept me away from home for several major holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, which, coincidentally, is also my dad’s birthday. And as the year goes on, I’m prepared to tick more and more off the list of holidays I will miss – my stay in New Zealand will find me away for both my siblings’ birthday (no, not a typo; they’re twins) and my own, Easter, a couple of national holidays, and – most regrettably – my mom’s fiftieth birthday. Today marks yet another – Mother’s Day.

From what I’ve missed so far, I was expecting to feel a bit off all day, walking around with a void that’s hard to put into words. Let’s face it, holidays are points to mark the year by, to track the progression from day to day, an often much-needed break from the routine of our normal lives. But when you’re removed from the environment you normally celebrate holidays in, it takes away from much of the significance and leaves you with a day that you know should be different but feels weirdly just the same. If holidays are truly “holy days,” being away takes any sense of reverence right out of them.

For Thanksgiving in London, my flatmate Kim and I took the day off and did what we could to celebrate a holiday that our current country of residence didn’t observe and really knew nothing about. That meant an American Expat service in St. Paul’s (remembering Thanksgiving + seeing the cathedral for free = score! I love efficiency.) and cooking our version of the feast our moms would normally make, even trekking to Selfridges to pay four pounds for a single can of Libby’s pumpkin puree. But despite every attempt, it still didn’t feel right. We still got tears in our eyes while Skyping home, as we realized the most important ingredient for the day couldn’t be found in any designer department store anywhere the city – our families.

Christmas was another story altogether. After my experience with Thanksgiving, I knew I was asking to be tortured if I attempted to spend Christmas in my London flat as well. So with several of my New Zealand friends going on a ski trip to the French Alps over Christmas, I knew I had to go. It would be Christmas with the Kiwis for me. Christmas Eve found us in our room feeling out of it with nothing to do, so we put the self-timer function on my camera to good use and took a series of alarmingly disturbing group shots. The next day was worse – without a Christmas tree and not a properly-wrapped present in sight. After the strange combination of an outdoor BBQ in zero-degree Celsius weather, we bought drinks and snacks from the supermarket downstairs and spent the rest of the night playing “Kings and Assholes” and talking smack.

Now, all that is not to say that Mother’s Day really ranks at the top of the list like Christmas may, but more to establish a recent pattern of oddly-spent holidays, and that I’d come to expect the same from today. However, after a special service at church – which featured a competition for moms including cake-decorating and laundry-folding races – I was kindly invited over to Arron’s family’s house for a late lunch. There was a lot to love about the day – a savory meal that left me full and one that I didn’t need to tell myself to save the rest for tomorrow; a warm home instead of the icebox I call my room; and even a chance to play their piano, a luxury I paid twelve pounds an hour for in London.

But the thing I was most grateful for was actually feeling like a part of their family. After dessert was served, I took my bowl of deliciousness and sat on a ledge beneath their fireplace. It’s just something I do and am known for at home – if I have to choose between sitting on the floor in front of the fire or a spot on the couch across the room, the fire wins, hands down, every time. But just as I sat down today to a bite of blackboy peaches pie, Arron snapped at me, saying, “You can’t sit there, Candy!” Most of his family said, “Aww, Arron, be nice,” but his dad – known as Bloody Rob to many – said, “She’ll be alright, she’s family now.”

And that made the day for me. If, as I have come to believe, holidays are about family – beneath the layers of hype, commercialism, and traditions – maybe this one wouldn’t be so bad. There was a mom and dad, who rolled their eyes every time Arron gave me a hard time, i.e. all the time. There was Nana Carol and Papa, who’s turning ninety this October and is known for having a way with the ladies. I, on the other hand, know him for his adorable penchant of telling the same stories every time you see him, as I could probably tell you myself about the time he and his wife won a trip from Cadbury’s to the 2000 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. There are brothers and sisters and sibling-bickering and banter. There are photo albums and scrapbooks and retelling old stories and memories. There is sitting around the TV in the stupor of post-meal euphoria. There is familiarity, something I didn’t have in London. And as far as I may feel from home at times, I’m still near a home – something that is a welcome balance to the constant unknowns of this adventure.

 

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the pearl is here.

Strange things happen when worlds collide, when the spheres of your life overlap, creating something like a Venn-diagram with its ever-intriguing shaded center. It can be something simple like seeing a friend from school visit you at work, or catching up with a friend you met London in Auckland. But when it happens, you can feel your brain in a mad dash to sort it out, to shuffle things around and maneuver among the set categories of your life. I almost think the same thing could be said for genres of art – literature, film, music, etc. Like I said, it could be simple, like seeing a movie based on your favorite book, or hearing a song you love in a TV show – and the scenes or lines you know in your mind are suddenly before your eyes, existing visually and not just in the space of your imagination. But it can get stranger – when two things connect in a completely unexpected way – and that, I would argue, is the magic of art.

When I first moved to Christchurch, I couldn’t wait to find a flat and have a proper address, for several very obvious reasons, that whole “getting settled” thing for one. A reason I’m more hesitant to admit, though, is that I couldn’t wait to sign up for a library card. I’m the kind of reader that isn’t satisfied without a queue of ten books on my dresser, like a coach who wants his third string in top condition…just in case. The two paperbacks I’d brought with me weren’t cutting it. The first week into my membership, I wandered down the aisles of the fiction section, looking for anything and everything to read. A book jumped out at me – On the Road by Jack Kerouac. It’s one I’d always heard about but never read – and what I’d heard had been epic. The decision was made and I headed downstairs.

For me, it was love at first sight. It was Kerouac’s brazen courage, his recklessness, all of the hitchhiking and driving and running after something that very well may not be waiting for you when you get there.  It was the road, and it was lines like:

“I felt like an arrow that could shoot all the way out.”

“I wanted to pursue my star further.”

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

“You always expect some kind of magic at the end of the road.”

“Neal kept…getting all ready for the purity of the road again…the purity of moving and getting somewhere, no matter where, and as fast as possible and with as much excitement and digging of all things as possible.”

“He and I suddenly saw the whole country like an oyster for us to open, and the pearl was there, the pearl was there.”

If I could, I would quote from every page of that 400-page masterpiece, but the above lines pulled at my soul more than the rest. In one continuous stream of prose – the original scroll of the manuscript features no chapters and no paragraphs; talk about an analogy for the road – Kerouac captured the absolute core of what I am living for right now. The simple need to move, the need to get out, not get somewhere. There were times he’d go from New York to California, only to turn around a week later and head back in the same direction he’d just come from. To Kerouac, San Francisco – California – the West Coast – was as far as you could go, Manifest Destiny, it was the end of the line, and he rode it there and back, there and back, occasionally questioning, but always going nonetheless.

At this point I was still staying at Amber and Andy’s, but they’d gone away for the weekend, leaving me at home alone, reading in bed at night. To fill the silence of the empty house, I’d opened iTunes and had a Genius playlist on, based off who knows what acoustic song I felt like that night. At one point, though, a song comes on with lyrics that manage to catch my attention despite my absorbed love affair with Kerouac. With one ear open, I can discern lines like, “I’ve still got miles to go,” “I want to know my fate,” and “You wonder if you’re missing your dream” – all lines I’m bound to love. I look at the song details and realize it’s one from Death Cab for Cutie’s latest album I hadn’t listened to yet, “Bixby Canyon Bridge.” I promptly hit the repeat button, listening to it maybe a hundred times before falling asleep.  Before I went back to reading, I made a mental note to look up the lyrics once I had internet access.

Three days go by and I finally make my way to songmeanings.net – a site that features both the lyrics and a place for users to post comments on, you guessed it, what they think the a song is about. It’s a favorite of mine, even if 95% of the commenters are preteens who can’t spell, just discovered what it means to be an emo kid, and subsequently think every song is about a breakup.  But every now and then you might actually find a post worth reading. I look up my new Death Cab discovery:

I descended a dusty gravel ridge

Beneath the Bixby Canyon Bridge

Until I eventually arrived

At the place where your soul had died

 

Barefoot in the shallow creek

I grabbed some stones from underneath

And waited for you to speak to me

 

And the silence, it became so very clear

That you had long ago disappeared

I cursed myself for being surprised

That this didn’t play like it did in my mind

 

All the way from San Francisco

As I chased the end of your road

Because I’ve still got miles to go

 

I want to know my fate if I keep up this way

It’s hard to want to stay awake

 

And everyone you meet they all seem to be asleep

You wonder if you’re missing your dream

You can’t see your dream

You can’t see your dream

You just can’t see your dream

 

Then it started getting dark

And I trudged back to where the car was parked

No closer to any kind of truth

As I must assume was the case with you

Of course the first thing I see is the reference to San Francisco, having just finished On the Road, but it isn’t until I read the comments below that I am sent reeling. This time, the grammatically-incorrect punks have a one-up on me and as it turns out, I learn that Ben Gibbard – lead singer and songwriter for Death Cab – actually spent a few weeks at Kerouac’s cabin at Big Sur, in an attempt to draw inspiration for his next album, Narrow Stairs, by chasing the writer’s ghost.

Talk about worlds colliding. Here is a book and a song, each of which I love independently from each other, but are in all reality connected in a way I could never imagine. I think back to that night in bed, reading Kerouac, listening to Death Cab, and I get chills. It’s not about it being a small world, but a crazy world – a world that makes you walk in reverence of the million tiny connections around us we may never see, blowing apart our own perceptions of what is possible.

Kerouac – on the road, on the move, knowing well the worth of the pursuit; Ben Gibbard – in the place of a former hero, struggling with the disillusionment of not finding what he came in search of; and then there’s me, stumbling across a connection of epic proportions completely by accident – but isn’t that how it always happens?

Like searching for a pair of glasses perched on our head, we look for our oyster when the pearl’s in our hand.

 

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