Monthly Archives: August 2009

more than the seeing of sights.

“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

“Voyage, travel and change of place impart vigor.” – Seneca

Since coming to New Zealand, and to Queenstown especially, it’s funny to be able to catch myself changing. To make a decision and say, “Whoa, I wouldn’t have made that same one this time last year.” Because – as the above quotes relate to – one would hope that as you travel, the scenery is not the only thing to change; that as the horizons of your world broaden, the same would occur to the horizons of your mind. New perspectives, new paradigms, new ways of living and thinking and seeing the world around you.

To be terribly honest, whilst living in London, I wasn’t all that interested in meeting other Americans. Not that I didn’t enjoy the ones I did meet, but I wasn’t exactly rushing out to attend American Expat social events either. Most of my new friends were from New Zealand or Australia, with a handful of English thrown in there – I loved the international aspect of our friendship, of comparing accents and pronunciations and being told to “Stay out of it, America.” Whenever I was introduced to another American, I think the person introducing us was usually the most excited about our common country of origin. It was just that I felt that if I had wanted to meet other fellow countrymen, I could’ve stayed in New York or Boston – wasn’t the whole point of moving to London, the melting pots of melting pots, to meet people I couldn’t have met back home?

I didn’t encounter too many Americans in Christchurch, besides the typical slew of tourists I served, mainly a girl my age from Texas at my restaurant and a woman from Illinois at my office. So it’s been interesting to be in Queenstown and find myself excited – to actually look forward to – meeting people hailing from the same Motherland as myself. Which is a fortunate development to occur, considering they are all over – whether on holiday (“vacation,” in Americanese), here for the season, or having bit the bullet and made a permanent move to this part of the world. And no one was I more excited to meet than a guy named Jared at the bar. He was one of the first people I met on the night of my trial and we both quickly picked up on each other’s accents. “So where are you from?” he asks. “Virginia?” I answer in that questioning way as you wait to hear what state another American is from, so as to determine how much you actually have in common. I’ve met other Americans in the bar from states like Montana or Nevada, but just about all we share is a president, a national anthem, and, if not a love for baseball, at least a complete lack of understanding of cricket.

Jared’s jaw dropped as he told me he, too, was from Virginia, state of all states. We both couldn’t believe our common status as Virginians, the state of Sic Semper Tyrannis  and “Virginia is for Lovers.” Even though we happened to be from completely different regions, there was an instant sort of comfortability with him – there was a sense of being known, no need for explanations or extensive background information. I soon met his flatmate Brad, another Virginian who went to high school with Jared and is now traveling with him. Both of them have brothers who went to my university and are familiar with the traditions, customs, the Greek System and even Foxfields, an annual horse race that’s basically an excuse to get dressed up in bowties, seersucker, and sundresses and drink all day while achieving a less-than-ideal sunburn. While it was weird talking about my university in such a specific way again, it was also such a good feeling to have a past again, not just some nebulous existence in the present with people from all over where neither of you have a true understanding of where the other has come from. And as interesting as the conversation in my international friendships can be, filled with the new slang and phrases of another country’s jargon, hanging out with Jared and Brad has been a small taste of home, of being able to ask where their “trash can” is rather than the “rubbish bin” and passing the “ketchup” rather than “to-mah-toe” sauce.

And furthermore, our status as Americans abroad lets us relate to each other in a pretty unique way. For so many of the British, European, Aussie and Kiwi friends I’ve made, what we’re doing – an OE, or “Overseas Experience” – is the norm – not entirely out of the ordinary. Not to discount their move in any way, for it still requires the same level of preparation and courage, but with statistical myths stating 25% of New Zealanders live abroad, it gives you an idea of the popularity of the OE. That doesn’t seem to be quite the case for many Americans, though. I’ve run into Brad several times while out, and maybe it’s just the time of night, but we seem to always end up having those epic late-night conversations about “life” and our plans and a common desire to break out of the high school-college-job-marriage-mortgage pattern. We understand what the other has left behind – it’s not that we think we want something better, it’s just that we want something different.  Last night at the bar, I served two women from the States – one is the defense attaché to the US Embassy in Wellington, the other is earning her PhD in psychology to work with war veterans from Vietnam and Iraq, both having served in the Navy for over twenty years and traveled to over forty countries. I couldn’t have left my conversation with them more inspired. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” they said to me. To see two women living the kind of life I hope to lead was incredible, and further reinforced my new love for fellow American expats.

But it’s not just my circle of friends that I find expanding – I’ve surprised myself at how at home I feel in Queenstown, despite it being such a small town. I’ve always considered myself a city girl, comfortable in the anonymity of millions, content on a subway of people I don’t know. And it’s what I never liked about Charlottesville, the town of about 40,000 that I went to university in – the fact that it always seemed too small. One friend who worked at a local bar complained about seeing the same crowd, the same people, out every night. I hated never being able to go somewhere without seeing someone I knew, be it Harris Teeter, Starbucks, or the mall. Sometimes you just want to escape it all, you know? Thus my love for Boston and London and the blessed seclusion of the big city.

So it’s strange to reside in an even smaller town and find myself happy here, happy getting to know the group of locals living here for the season. Working at essentially the only supermarket in town as well as one of the most popular bars means I meet a lot of people, and sometimes a lot of the same people who frequent both establishments. My absolute favorite moment is when I’ll go to serve someone at the bar whom I’ve rung up earlier that day in Premier Taste – the look on their face, the moment when they realize they’ve seen me before – “Do you happen to work…?” Anticipating their question, I smile proudly and assure them, “The supermarket? Why yes, I do, as a matter of fact.” While walking through the bar last night collecting all the empty glasses, a guy stopped me and asked, “Do you have a sister who works at the supermarket?” I almost died laughing as I informed him, “That’s me, actually!” It’s the best feeling when someone comes up to my section of the bar and shouts, “Premier Taste!” or “Supermarket girl!” And that’s just the tourists…Getting to know the network of other hospo workers and bouncers also has its perks, whether it be getting discounts on drinks, not having to show my ID to get in somewhere, or – best of all – jumping the queue on a Saturday night.

Maybe I’ve gotten over my need to lose myself in a city since my time in Charlottesville, or maybe it’s much to do with the same change in my perspective towards other Americans – it’s that feeling of being known, of having come alone to a foreign country and finding myself connected, feeling like I belong somewhere. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that the more I travel, the more and more I discover the importance of people as well as places. Before I departed for Europe last year, I was consumed with wanting to visit places – any country, every country – and arrived in London with every intention of taking a trip every weekend around the UK and Europe – Bath, Stonehenge, Cambridge, the Lake District, France, you name it. Within a few weeks though, I’d met my new group of Kiwi friends and found myself giving up the trips in lieu of just being with them in London on the weekends. Rather than a series of small trips like I’d originally planned, I ended up going on two bigger trips with the Kiwis – something I would never have imagined happening. But, in a way, it ruined me – it opened up this new world of the magic of traveling with close friends. When I later went to Paris with a group of fifteen random girls through a student travel club, I was angry at myself – “You’re in Paris, Candace, why aren’t you happier?” It just wasn’t the same, though, after Egypt and the French Alps. The inside jokes, the teasing, being able to be grumpy if I felt like it – it was all missing. Instead, it was back to the basics, back to introductions and questions like “Where are you from” and “So what to do you do in London?” As exciting as new friends can be, the trip just wasn’t the same.

So as I travel alone through New Zealand, I’ve started picking up on the “tricks of the [backpacking] trade” – the ways to meet people and put myself in situations with others “of my kind.” In Boston, I rented a single room in a rooming house, hoping to avoid the risk of a bad roommate experience. I started off my flat search in Christchurch with much the same intention of finding a studio apartment or single bedroom flat rather than just a room in a shared house. But when nothing came to fruition, I ended up going with the latter, much out of desperation. It’s cool, though, to now look back on it and see that if I hadn’t chosen that flat, I would never have met my flatmate Kenny, who in turn got me the job at the restaurant, which in turn opened up a whole new group of friends and was in turn owned by someone who hooked me up with my job at Wattie’s – a chain reaction that almost never happened. So when my landlord in Christchurch said his house in Queenstown would come with nine flatmates, he was spot on by saying, “Think of it like having nine instant friends.” A year ago, I would’ve run in the other direction at the prospect of moving into a house with nine strangers – but now I’ve got an amazing group of friends, a quasi-family of sorts, from all over the world. Living alone comes with few risks – after all, the only dishes left in the sink are the ones you couldn’t be bothered washing the night before. After a while, though, all that talking to yourself can get to you. But if you’re willing to risk getting a few kooks and crazies as flatmates, you’ll be in a position to gain that much more when flatties turn into friends and things go better than expected.

The same goes for my hostel-booking habits. When scoping out hostels online for our Scandinavian trip last August – my first Euro-experience – my first instinct was to go for the triples so we could have our own room. Only if the larger dorms were drastically less in price would we book a bed in something like an 8 or 12-bed dorm. But after times like in Prague – where Emily and I brushed up on our Spanish to hang out with our dormmates from Barcelona – or Greymouth – where my new French dormmates provided some unexpected company for the weekend – I try now to opt for a dorm bed. Each experience grows my confidence and courage, as I venture further and further outside my comfort zone and put myself in new situations that are almost always worth the risk of the unknown.

So whether it’s opening myself up to any friendship, any town, or any situation, I am grateful not just for New Zealand, but for a new me – a me who I wouldn’t have recognized this time last year, a me who I hope continues to cherish every challenge as a chance for change.

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another day in neverland.

Six weeks in, and I’m in love with this place. Maybe it’s the crisp alpine air, maybe it’s walking out my front door every day greeted by snow-capped mountains, maybe it’s just the energy that flows through the streets. It’s impossible to deny the buzz of Queenstown – it’s exhilarating, it’s addicting, and it’s not just because of its standing as the adventure capital of the world or the smorgasbord of extreme activities to be found here – it’s the simple fact that everyone here is on the move. In Christchurch, I often got the impression that people born there stayed there – that the lifestyle was more on the settled, stable side. But Queenstown, thriving on tourism, is inherently transient. A hotspot for backpackers and 5-star travelers alike, there is an incredible diversity all around you, and it’s exciting to be a part of.

Even at Premier Taste, the majority of my checkout colleagues are Brazilian or from Asian countries like India, Thailand, and Singapore. I’m one of just a few people from an actual English-speaking country. So as Portuguese fills the air, you have to stop and ask yourself, I am in New Zealand, right? The number of accents that come through my checkout lane every day is intense. Just this past week I’ve served people from Australia (not so unusual, I know), Ireland, the Czech Republic, Germany, Argentina, Russia and Saudi Arabia. How cool is that? It lends this little town with a permanent population of only 10,000 quite the cosmopolitan feel to it. Queenstown never feels like a small town. But I suppose with over one and a half million tourists flooding in every year, it comes with the territory.

But (there’s always a but, right?) with so many people shifting in and out, you can’t help but feel it’s all just a little too ephemeral at times. A friend once described a similar feeling of fleeting beauty like watching your breath in the cold winter air – enchanting to see but equally as heartbreaking, as you know it won’t last. There’s not a better image for Queenstown – yes, there’s someone new to meet every night, which can be refreshing and help you avoid feeling stagnant, but that same person will most likely be gone by the next night or week or – if you’re lucky – the end of the season. With so many connections slipping through your fingers, what do you hold onto? One guy I’ve gotten to know put it bluntly – “This isn’t real, you know? These aren’t real connections.” Even one of my bar managers jokes about falling in love with a  different girl every night – “This is killing me. They’re here for a week and then they’re gone forever.” It’s a fantasy world like no other – equaled only by Las Vegas or maybe Florida during MTV’s Spring Break. A fantasy world where no one grows old – as I’ve heard it put, this is Neverland.

When friends from home ask how Queenstown is, I answer with one word: mental. The pace of this place is utterly manic – I marvel as people go from the mountain to the bars and back up the next day. Nowhere else would you go out on a Tuesday or Wednesday night and find the bars and clubs so packed with people. Nowhere else would you go out so many times a week, absolutely irregardless of what day of the week it even is. It’s a city of one-night stands and week-long affairs that are over before they’ve ever begun. Commitment isn’t something that sits well with Queenstown. Everything this place offers – from the bungy jumps to the slopes to the nightlife – is there to give you a thrill, there for the rush.

But somehow, in the middle of all the cosmopolitan craziness and never-ending quest for stimulation, I got a small taste of as real a relationship that might be possible here. There was an Irish guy named Connor who worked at the bar with me who – I won’t lie – I had a crush on almost immediately after starting there. The Irish accent’s never done much for me, but I actually didn’t mind his, especially the way words like “the” and “thirty” would sound more like “de” and “thirdee.” I got to know him a bit during my first week and one night after work, he asked me if I would want to get dinner the following evening. Would I? It was all I could do to not jump up and down shouting, “Connor asked me out! Connor asked me out!” We went to a place along the wharf called Luceano’s and I can honestly say it was the best first date as of yet – not a lull to be found in the conversation, everything paid for, including a dessert we shared. It was one of those dates where you look at your phone at the end and can’t believe it’s already 11pm. Since I had yet to properly go out in Queenstown, he took me around to a few bars and pubs and at one point, we even played pool with another couple. As he walked me home at the end of the night, I couldn’t help but think of the words to Dashboard Confessional’s “Hands Down” – “My hopes were so high that your kiss might kill me / So won’t you kill me / So I die happy.” And true to form, the goodnight kiss on my front porch was the perfect ending to a perfect date.

The week that followed was one straight from the first part of a chick flick rom-com before everything goes awry and threatens the entire relationship. Whether flirting at work or out together on our nights off with friends, it was bliss – he said I’d made Queenstown infinitely better for him, that he couldn’t stop smiling when he looked at me – which of course left an irrepressible smile on my face. I’m sure my supermarket customers thought I was a complete nutter as I’d go into work each day utterly giddy, remembering the night out before. And above all, I loved that I had managed to beat the Queenstown system – I had found someone I genuinely liked, someone I wanted to be with who wanted to be with me too. It was unreal, especially considering the circumstances.

But as those things go, Connor ended up “pulling a Queenstown” about ten days later, saying that if his timeframe were different, it would be different between us, but as he was leaving in a few weeks he just wanted to have fun for the rest of his time. Many would say, “fair enough,” but I couldn’t believe it, given all the things he had said and the way he had acted initially. During the time we were together, I’d been singing Empire of the Sun – “Walking on a dream / How can I explain / …I’m living in a rhythm where the minute’s working overtime.” And a dream it turned out to be, as I went from the perfect happiness of the first few days to the gut-wrenching disappointment after he called it off. And not to mention the terrible awkwardness of having to go back and work with him the next day. But such is life. I have a good friend I met in London who’s originally from Christchurch and well-acquainted with Queenstown. As I told him about Connor and how upset I was, he said, “Babe, you’re in Queenstown. You can’t care.” Which is easer said than done, but still, it put things into perspective. And as my cousin said, “I know it sucks, but Candace, you had your heart broken by an Irish guy while bartending in New Zealand. That’s pretty freaking cool.”

And so I find myself grateful for my job at Premier Taste, even as much as I love working at Wattie’s. The nightlife scene can be exhilarating, all glamour and flash. Everyone’s dressed to impress, the drinks are flowing, the low lighting designed to flatter (much like the surreptitious way retail stores install special lights and mirrors in the fitting rooms to optimize how the customer looks in their product). So there’s nothing like going to work at the supermarket for a good healthy dose of reality. Under the ghastly glow of fluorescent lighting, people come as they are, often straight from the slopes, exhausted in their ski gear, or from work, in uniform, with tired kids tugging at their hip. No one puts on a show in a supermarket. They come for one of the most basic necessities in life. Even in Neverland, people need to eat.

So as much as my manager at Wattie’s wants me to quit my day job and go full-time at the bar, I can’t. I need Premier Taste to get me out of bed before four in the afternoon, I need it to keep me grounded to the real world and for some remnant of normality in the crazy microcosm that is Queenstown.

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waxing nocturnal.

When the owner of my restaurant in Christchurch heard about the supermarket job I’d lined up in Queenstown, he asked me why I didn’t want a “hospo” job instead (short for hospitality in this corner of the world). It’s not that I didn’t want one, I explained, but more that hospo jobs in Queenstown weren’t exactly yours for the taking this time of year. But then that phrase you always love to hear when you’re keen for a connection or two – “Let me make a few calls,” he says. A few calls later, I had the number of a guy to contact once I got down to Queenstown. Turned out my connection was more of a real estate mogul than restaurateur, but he offered the same mysterious promise of phone calls on my behalf. I actually couldn’t believe the effort he made for me, just a random girl he’d never met and knowing about my hospo experience only through hear-say. Not only did he pass my details on, but kept calling and emailing the next couple of days to make sure I’d been contacted by someone, had somewhere to live, needed any more help, and so on. It was such a reassurance during the slow start of my time in Queenstown.

I eventually get a call from a guy named Brett, manager of Wattie’s Gourmet Pizza Bar, a restaurant and bar I knew nothing about except from a place with the same name in Christchurch. He had me come in the next day for a chat, where he told me he’d already filled all the restaurant positions but that they still needed some part-time help behind the bar. Bar work was something I’d been interested in for a while, ever since my flatmate/bar supervisor in Christchurch had mentioned trying to switch me from floor to bar staff at our restaurant. But the head manager would have nothing of it, so I hadn’t had the chance. Even with my lack of bar experience, though, Brett lined me up for a trial the following night.

The following night just happened to be a Friday night, and as if that – a Friday night in Queenstown – wasn’t daunting enough, it also happened to be their Michael Jackson tribute party, given his death a couple weeks before. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. My one and only attempt to pour a beer for fun one night after work in Christchurch was nothing short of disastrous – the amount of head was embarrassing in front of just a few friends…and now I’d have to attempt it a second time with a  packed crowd all singing “I’m starting with the man in the mirror” as an audience? You could safely say I was nervous.

But, wearing a black shirt with THRILLER in bold white across the front, I was amazed at how okay it actually was, at how much better it was than I was expecting. Although the amount of people lined up to serve was daunting at first, I took a deep breath and took them one by one. The beer thankfully gave me no trouble at all and you can’t get much more basic than pouring a glass of wine. And when it came to mixed drinks, all the bottles of house spirits have special stops on them that cut off automatically after you’ve poured the standard amount. At the end of the night, the bar manager offered me the job – even said he was really impressed! – and put me on the schedule for the coming week. Bartending, here I come.

A few days ago, I pulled out that article I’ve mentioned before about the lack of employment opportunities in Queenstown. I couldn’t believe it. The second paragraph began:

“Many businesses have stopped accepting CVs and backpackers are full of new arrivals who are desperate for employment. Wattie’s Gourmet Pizza Bar general manager Brett Ames said the number of job-seekers coming in each day was ‘just mayhem.’ About 15 to 20 people, but sometimes as many as 50, visited the restaurant each day asking for work. ‘On some days, when everyone arrives in town, they just pile in.’ The business employed about 35 people normally but up to 60 in the busiest periods.”

How I managed to beat the “mayhem” and get offered a job there is astounding. More and more I see the power of connections and of knowing someone who knows someone. It’s all about having people “who have people.” The more I talked to other bartenders at Wattie’s, the more I realized my story wasn’t the only one of its kind. It’s like there’s some sort of twisted mafia governing the hospo world of Queenstown, an underground network controlling who’s in and who’s out.

The restaurant part of Wattie’s stays open every night until ten or eleven, meaning the earlier hours of your bar shift are spent filling drink orders for the tables and doing prep work for the night to come, whether it be slicing up thirty-odd lemons in the kitchen or scrubbing down the back bar. Once the restaurant starts to empty out, tables are rolled away, chairs are folded down, couches are pushed to the side. The music grows in volume and changes tone, going gradually from the likes of “Brown-Eyed Girl” and the Friends theme song (which, coincidentally, is disconcerting to hear without watching Jennifer Anniston and Matthew Perry dance around in a fountain) to the beat-driven songs of Rihanna, Black Eyed Peas, and MGMT. It takes an hour or two to switch mentalities from family-oriented restaurant to night club, but come midnight, it’s go-time.

But being that the bar doesn’t close til 2.30, cleanup takes at least until 4am. Getting the place back into some state of respectability is split between cleaning the bar and the floor. I typically get assigned to the bar portion, meaning I have the joy of putting hundreds of glasses through the dishwasher and sorting them out into their appropriate trays for the night. Those on the floor sweep, scour and scrub every surface imaginable, putting tables and chairs back in place for the transformation back to a restaurant. Come four o’ clock, it’s time to sit around a booth, have a staff drink, count and divide our tips and – fingers crossed – have a freshly baked pizza that didn’t get sold from the fridge earlier that night. Not that eating pizza at four in the morning is the healthiest thing in the world – or anywhere close to it – but it’s definitely one of the biggest perks of the job.

What’s not a perk is my newfound nocturnal lifestyle. By the time we finish up our drinks and pizza, it can be anywhere between 4 and 5, and we often head down to another bar called Bardeaux that stays open ‘til 5. It’s one of the standard port of calls on a night out in Queenstown – from Wattie’s ‘til 2.30 to World Bar ‘til 4 to Bardeaux, a rather chilled-out place with an amazingly huge wood-burning fireplace and oversized leather couches. It’s the perfect place to wind down after a long shift. After the lights come on at Bardeaux, it’s usually to the 2-4, a – go figure – twenty-four hour convenience store for chips (fries, of course) or a chicken cordon bleu, and then – finally – to home. The bizarreness of my new schedule didn’t hit me until walking home the other night, when the newspaper man drove past me. The newspaper guy? Really? And then one of my flatmates who works up on the mountain told me how she saw my light on when she got up for work one morning. This can’t be natural…

But while sleeping the day away only to get up to work through the night has made for a weird adjustment here in Queenstown, it’s also made for some great friends so far. Everyone I work with is in the same situation as myself – young and traveling, far from home – England, Ireland, Canada, Georgia, and even another Virginian, we hail from every corner of the Northern Hemisphere. Even my first weekend at Wattie’s, management paid for all the bar staff to go paintballing. It was my first such experience so I won’t lie and say I didn’t offer to “guard our base” in hopes of just hiding out behind a tree the whole time and avoiding the much-feared welts. And while the game taught me how truly horrible my aim is, it was still a chance to out of my little world in Queenstown and have a shot and – more likely – be shot by new friends.

And when you get down to it, you really can’t beat a job where going to work means dancing around to songs you love with good friends, getting to meet and talk to interesting people, in a place where everyone’s happy to be here.

…It’s just that whole trying-to-see-the-sun thing that gets to you after a while!

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life as a checkout chick.

One could say there are three scenarios that dominate the role-playing world of little girls. The first is undoubtedly house – I can distinctly remember shouting, “Let’s play house!” to my sister/cousins/friends/playmate-of-the-day, divvying out role assignments – mother (usually myself, of course), daughter, baby, annoying aunt who never visits, and father if we managed to rope my brother in. Secondly, no girl grows up without playing school. Whoever was lucky enough to be the teacher would drag out the bulky blue Fisher-Price chalkboard with the blackboard that didn’t even really let you write on it with chalk. The rest of us would sit on the floor (okay, who am I kidding? I always made myself teacher as well…) while the teacher read aloud or handed out made-up tests or quizzed us from math flash cards. Then, of course, is store, where you’d pull out the calculator and note pad and Monopoly money (or a proper plastic cash register, if you had good enough parents) and scrounge together items for sale. [A variation on store is town, whereby each individual involved sets up shop and you take turns giving patronage to each ‘establishment.’]

So as you can see, with all my experience behind that plastic cash register, I grew up with a sort of fascination with the role of a checkout operator at the grocery store, and nothing would make me happier than when the bagger had disappeared and I could help bag our groceries. That might explain the weird level of excitement I felt on the first day of starting work at Premier Taste, a chain of locally owned and operated supermarkets on the South Island of New Zealand. I went in early on my first day (which wasn’t an issue given that it’s located a miraculous one-minute walk from my flat) to pick up my uniform. The total hideousness of my uniform only mildly tempered my excitement – black pleated, waist-high pants reminiscent of private school uniforms, a royal blue collared shirt that’s royally designed like a box, and a massive – and I repeat, massive – black polar fleece guaranteed to make me appear 3x my size. The whole get-up eliminates any curve or veritable sense of style whatsoever. But my name badge? Possibly the only cool thing about getting dressed for work.

Unisex uniform or not, I was officially beginning my life as a checkout chick, as the cashiers are so lovingly referred to in New Zealand (tells you something about the gender-specific tendencies of the role, eh?), and I was so looking forward to it. The first hour of my inaugural shift was spent on a tour of the store, which besides a look at the facilities available to staff, included your typical “All canned items can be found on aisle 4” sort of jargon. I learned some important details for the job, such as the fact that broccoli and avocados are charged by quantity, onions and kumara by weight, and red peppers (or capsicum, in Kiwispeak) could be either, depending on the week and stock level. The next hour was spent on the actual tills (another word for cash register) with a trainer there to help me through my first transactions.

After a while, though, I turned around and realized I was on my own. Well, here we go…this is it! A supervisor comes up and says that the other new girl and I are doing very well for our first day, keeping up with the ridiculous influx of skiers and boarders just off the slopes. And you know the absolutely hysterical thing? I cared. It mattered to me to hear him say that. I wanted to do well and was embarrassed when I needed his help to fix a mistake. There’s got to be something seriously wrong with me. As the days went on, the novelty of the job had yet to wan. As much as I wanted to wear that bored, disaffected look, smacking on my gum and staring at the TV instead of talking to customers, I just couldn’t fake it. I was loving it too much.

At Premier Taste, I’m essentially paid to talk to people. Of course there’s remembering all the produce codes and ensuring all frozen items are bagged together, but at the heart of the job, I just get to have conversations with each customer that comes through my lane. The majority of the shoppers are tourists, so there’s no end to the potential questions – where are they from, how long are they here for, what have they done in Queenstown so far, how were the slopes today, etc… In the off-chance you get a born-and-bred local, there’s a whole other side to the questions and you hear about the time long before Premier Taste ever opened and there was only the 24-hour convenience store in town. And then there are the in-betweeners, much like myself, only here for the season – not quite tourists, but not quite locals either. When customers hear my accent, that opens up the conversation as well, especially when they ask my favorite question – “Well, now you’re a long way from home, aren’t you?” We share stories, travel tips, advice about where to go in Queenstown and where to go in our respective home countries. It’s quite the bonding experience, really. One of the other girls was helping me bag one day and said, “You don’t have to be so nice to everyone, you know, they don’t deserve it.” And yes, I know that, but it’s all part of chain reactions and paying it forward. If they leave the store with a  smile on their face or if I’ve helped make their day that much smoother, I can go home happy.

If there is  a “stressful” aspect of the job – and I say it like that only because this “stress” pales in comparison to other jobs I’ve held previously – it’d have to be checking ID for alcohol purchases. Premier Taste has a couple of funny policies – one is that we have to ID any customer who looks under 25. The other – and this is the real kicker – is that acceptable forms of ID only include New Zealand driver’s licenses or a passport (well, also a NZ 18+ Hospitality card, but I think I’ve had a total of about three customers have one so far). That means we can’t accept driver’s licenses from any other country – much to the chagrin of our customers. It makes sense to a degree, given that if we sell alcohol to a minor – knowingly or unknowingly – the checkout operator is fined $2,000, the supervisor $10,000, and the store can lose their liquor license. Ouch. BUT, it also has the unfortunate consequence of me pissing off at least one embittered customer a day. And they’re usually Aussies, who glare at me saying, “What do you mean you won’t accept my license? I can drive with it here.” I then of course flush the color of the tomatoes they’ve also just bought and try to pleasantly explain, “I do understand, but I  as well can drive with my license but can’t use it to buy alcohol either. You’ll have to come back with your passport.” Which is exactly what they want to hear after you’ve removed their twenty-four pack of Speight’s or two bottles of Shiraz from the conveyor belt. I’ve also resigned myself to being a terrible judge of age. I’ve so far IDed people well into their thirties and just barely decided to ID someone only to find out they’ve just turned 18. Well done, Candace, well done.

A friend from home, after finding out about my new employment, sent me the link to an article on NPR titled “‘Checkout Girl’ Anna Sam Cashes in with Bestselling Memoir.” A French literature student who ended up working in a supermarket for five years after graduation due to a lack of job opportunities, she went from tenured cashier to bestselling international author with the publication of one book – talk about a catapulted lifestyle change. I haven’t read the memoir yet, Checkout: A Life on the Tills, but a quote from Sam in the article couldn’t describe my new life any better:

It’s a job where you see every people; it’s a job where no one sees you. You see families very happy, families very sad; people are very nice; people are very bad. And at the end of your day, you say, ‘Oh my god, I’m happy because I have a normal life; I’m better than I thought.’”

The best example of that final thought would have to be when last week, a girl my age ate a muffin, walked out without paying for it, was promptly arrested and issued a $400 fine. Besides questioning her decision to save a buck or two, I was immensely grateful for a job that not only gives me a 5% discount on food (including our famous Texas muffins), but will hopefully never let me reach that point of desperation.

 

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a change of scenery…literally.

Before arriving in London last August, the two girls I was traveling with and I did a quick tour of part of Scandinavia – Sweden, Estonia (okay, not technically Scandinavia), and four days in a lake house in Finland. And as wonderful as the views were and as much as the three of us didn’t want to leave, I also could not wait to board that plane to London. I remember likening the night before we left to Christmas Eve, of the impossibility of sleep and the crushing anticipation of the morning to come. What would be waiting for you beneath the tree? That was exactly how London seemed to me – a flat, a job, a new group of friends, a new city to explore and to get to know – all presents I was dying to rip the wrapping off of and discover.

And so I found myself in Invercargill on the last morning of my Deep South NZ roadtrip, wanting to see the city yet anxious to get back on the road and get down to business…Queenstown. I’d heard so many things about the town, I’d seen pictures, even watched The Bachelor’s season finale filmed there – but my life in Queenstown? Even though I had a flat and job sorted before ever leaving Christchurch, there was still so much marked TBD – To Be Determined, that is. Just another set of gifts, another set of unknowns dying to make themselves known.

In his book Goodnight, Mister Lenin: A Journey through the End of the Soviet Empire, Italian author Tiziano Terzani perfectly captures what I’m trying to describe:

“In any case the expedition gave me a good reason to travel again, to feel again that unique thrill understood only by those addicted to the drug of departures, the sense of freedom on arriving in places where you know no one, places you have only read about in other people’s books – that incomparable pleasure of seeking to know at first hand, and to understand.”

That is why I left Christchurch, that is why I sat in my restaurant one night after we’d closed, polishing fork after fork, knife after knife, saying to myself, “You have to go. You can’t stay.” If such a drug of departures exists, it’s clear I’m addicted – or rather, to a drug of arrivals. I can do without departures, without tear-filled farewells, without goodbyes and the pain of leaving the ones you love behind. But the arrivals are always worth the pain to me, the thrill of the unknown always outweighs the comfort of the known. I left Christchurch for a change of scenery – in both a literal and figurative sense – and I got everything I bargained for.

If you can, imagine the route I took from Christchurch to Queenstown like the letter J. From Christchurch, it was straight down to Dunedin before curving around to Invercargill. Stewart island fell at the bottom of the J before I looped up again towards Queenstown. It was on that final loop that the reality of the move I was making really hit me – from the flat coastline of Invercargill the snow-capped Southern Alps suddenly appeared in the distance along State Highway Six. The change came before you could note it happening, a bend in the road and there was a lake, with its still waters filling the nooks and crannies of the hills that rose from its shores, and hazy sunlight gleaming on the surface of the lake, diffused by low-hanging clouds. It was pristine, it was rugged, it was awesome in the truest sense of the word.

Someone had obviously anticipated the effect the fjord-lake setting might have on the likes of us accustomed to the Canterbury Plains and ingeniously created turn-off after turn-off along the road, even if it was just a few spare meters of gravel to pull into instead of risking the lives of others, myself, and my camera to record that visual feast. Just when I thought I had pulled over for the last time, the lake would widen or the mountains would grow whiter or the sky would open, spilling out sunlight, and I couldn’t resist the invitation.

But even as inspired as I was feeling by the newness of the scenery in front of me, I felt slightly less so about the prospect of starting over in Queenstown. Words that come to mind might include overwhelmed, panicked, or confused. As I drove through the rather average-looking suburb of Frankton and made my way into the heart of Queenstown, I began to doubt my decision to come here at all. Maybe I would’ve been  better off just visiting the town, like so many people in Christchurch advised me – why do I always have to up and move somewhere?

But doubts and depression had to wait – practical matters, like always, took priority. I had my rental car booked until 5pm that evening, meaning I needed to find my new flat, drop off my stuff (of which there was more than usual, being that I drove rather than flew, I didn’t need to purge as much before the move), and return the car all within a couple of hours. The flat wasn’t hard to find; it was a typical sort of house with a picnic table outside and an outline of the United States crafted from bottle caps pressed into the ground. Thankfully a guy was home and I went in to introduce myself.

His name was Laurent, a Frenchman, and in broken English attempted to tell me that there weren’t any open rooms in the house. Remember that feeling of panic I was talking about? I raced to explain myself, “No…you don’t understand…Rick is my landlord in Christchurch…there has to be a room…this is 253 Thomson Street, right?” It was like the panicked mumblings you spit out to airline representatives at the check-in desk when you’re on standby, or the train you’re trying to catch is due in any minute and you’re twenty platforms away – “But sir, do you understand me? I have to be there by 12:30.” It was every bit as hopeless as it sounds.

And there’s no use even commenting on the utter impossibility of contacting my landlord – lost cause doesn’t even come close to describing it. I phoned and texted him non-stop for an hour, much like a crazed ex-girlfriend in denial after a break-up, but to no avail. It was one of those moments in life where I quite literally had absolutely no idea what to do. All I wanted was someone to swoop in and say, “Do this. Go there” – anything to help me break through the fog of disbelief that I had no place to stay for the night. I love traveling and being in New Zealand and it isn’t often that I wish I wasn’t doing it alone, but just every now and then, I just want someone else to help me through all the decisions. The first was flat-hunting in Christchurch – there’s only so much advice friends and family can give you halfway across the world. That night in Queenstown, I could’ve used someone by my side.

I off-loaded all my bags into the front entryway, for lack of a better plan, because flat or not flat, the rental car needed returning. I caught a bus back from the airport (for an exorbitant fare as well, I might add, so that didn’t help my day any), on which the driver had a bit of a senior moment. All the passengers had gotten off on the way through Frankton, leaving just me to ride it out into central Queenstown. The driver looks in his rear-view mirror at me, curled into a feeling-sorry-for-myself ball in a seat towards the far back and asks what I was still on the bus for. Mildly confused, I reply, “I’m wanting to get into town?” in that statement-as-question tone where the inflection of your voice goes up as you doubt the validity of your response. He stares at me for a moment then admits he thought he’d already finished the route for the day. We sort of both shook our heads, had a laugh about it and carried on.

When I did reach town, the first thing to catch my eye were the Golden Arches, and right then I thought nothing could be better than a little greasy comfort food. I snagged a booth to myself (selfishly inconsiderate, I know), pulled out my book and took a look around, starting to get to know my new home for the next few months. If the snow caps and Lake Wakatipu weren’t signs I was somewhere completely different, then the crowds of people milling about in their ski gear definitely were. In Christchurch, Kathmandu had a hold on the market for winter gear, with probably close to 97% of the residents wearing identical black puffer jackets. But in Queenstown, the names you see are Burton, Rossignol, Ride, Roxy – all ski jackets in every shade and style imaginable.

The whole alpine-orientation of the town was going to take some getting used to. I’m a beach girl – always have been, always will be. I grew up visiting my grandparents in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and hitting up Virginia Beach with friends during summer breaks from high school. As a family, all our vacations and holiday trips took place in the summer to other equally hot places. During the winter, we stayed put, except for one Thanksgiving when I was seven and we went away…to the beach. So one look at the snow-gear-clad crowds of Queenstown and I just didn’t feel like myself.

Back at the flat, I begin getting to know to the motley crew that was my nine new flatmates – an American guy, an Australian couple, two guys from Belgium, a Kiwi girl, a Scottish girl and a Scottish guy who has since been replaced by another American girl. They all immediately sympathized with my plight, either having had similar experiences with our landlord or just familiar with his slipshod nature, and offered to let me crash in their lounge for the night until everything could be sorted out. The thought of having to move all my stuff – down an insanely steep hill at that – and trying to find a hostel that late into the evening was too discouraging to even entertain, so I was all too keen to sleep on a couch if I had to.

The conversations from that evening were incredibly enlightening into beginning to understand Queenstown as a place. There’s no doubt whatsoever that people are here for two things – the snow and the nightlife. My flatmates couldn’t believe I had no plans of buying a season lift pass. One of the Belgians asked, “So what are you going to do then?” I answered, “Uh…work?” rather hesitantly, starting to doubt the decision myself. I looked at the collection of snowboards and skis propped along the front wall, at all the ski gear draped across drying racks, and felt so out of place. Back in Christchurch, two of my flatmates also held two jobs, so I didn’t feel bad for it – work was what we did. But several of my new flatmates in Queenstown didn’t even have one – not that they weren’t looking for employment, of course – it just meant that there seems to be more people around the house now when I come home in between jobs who make me ask myself, “Am I working too much?”

And if days are for the snow, then nights are for the parties – it’s a two-item agenda in this town. My second night, my flatmates were asking each other if they were going out that night – “On a Monday?!” I wanted to ask. But weekends are clearly irrelevant in Queenstown, as your two scheduled days off may not be over the traditional Saturday/Sunday weekend at all. Thus, if you have Wednesday and Thursday off each week, Friday becomes your new Monday and Tuesday your new Friday. It’s just about as bizarre and disconcerting as it gets.

By Monday night, though, the lack-of-an-open-room situation had resolved itself. A handyman employed by our landlord finished up a new addition, letting the Scottish girl move out of the room promised to me. I started work at the supermarket that day as well, so between settling into my new room and showing up for my new job every day, I had plenty to keep my mind off the fact that while this change of scenery was oh-so-welcome, like any big change it was going to take some getting used to.

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speed dating the south.

I arrived in Invercargill on a Friday night around dinnertime, a few hours behind schedule. According to my original sketched-out plan for the roadtrip, ETA was a bit earlier in the day, so as to give me most of the afternoon to explore the city. But I had sorely miscalculated how long it would take to drive from Dunedin via the Southern Scenic Route. Apparently, when you stop twice an hour for this vista here and that beach there, it stretches out what would’ve only taken about two and a half hours to a full day’s drive. So night had fallen by the time I finally pulled into New Zealand’s southernmost city.

Being an OCD-prone over-planner, especially when it comes to travels, I usually have the where’s and when’s nailed down ages before I ever pack my bags. But for some reason, for the first time I didn’t pre-book a hostel for my stay in Invercargill. Maybe because it was winter and maybe because it was, well, Invercargill, I didn’t expect to run into too much difficulty, plus, I wanted to know the feeling of arriving in a new town not entirely sure where you’d be resting your head for the night. You know, throw a little spontaneity into the mix. Rather than some hostels that were converted houses in more residential areas, I opted for the Tuatara Backpacker’s, a large, square building with a massive mural of its namesake that immediately caught my attention as I drove down one of the main streets in the city.

After a few issues with parking (which may or may not have involved me driving around the same loop three times), I checked into the Tuatara without a hitch and thought, Right. I’m in Invercargill on a Friday night by myself…what’s next? But a list of movie times in the hostel reception area and a conveniently-located cinema across the street answered that question for me. I even bought popcorn, so you know it was a good night.

Of course, all of this really has nothing to do with Invercargill as a city whatsoever. I could’ve spontaneously found a hostel and seen The Proposal in Christchurch for all you know. But even I didn’t get to properly acquaint myself with the city until after next day’s foray to Stewart Island. Because I hadn’t had the chance to see it my first night, I had to make the time on Sunday for a few hours before starting on the final leg of the trip to Queenstown. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it back again, so in a “go big or go home” kind of mood, returned to Invercargill Sunday morning with about two hours to spare.

In the world of travel, two hours to see a city is the equivalent of a two-minute speed dating session. I’d done it before in Belgium while on a weekend trip to Amsterdam, when the group I was with pulled off in Brugges for an extended lunch break and we had about an hour and a half to see the medieval city. The downside is, obviously, you miss a lot, but the benefit is that you usually see only the best of what the city has to offer. You get all the interesting architecture, well-planned parks and maybe a museum, without time to get lost, time for frustration over the transport system, and definitely not any time to get bored. It’s genius.

I had picked up a brochure outlining the Invercargill Heritage Trail, which was helpful in that I was able to scan it for must-sees and misses on my blitz of the city. Like many of the other cities I’ve seen on the South Island thus far, most of the historic buildings were constructed in mainly Edwardian and Victorian styles, so I appreciated the Art Deco-themed architecture that set the city apart. Invercargill slowly grew to life in the 1850s as people from Dunedin looked further south for land for sheep runs. In 1856, the Governor of New Zealand, Sir Thomas Gore Browne, gave his approval for both a new port at Bluff to address the stock needs of the farmers and for a new township nearby: Invercargill. He looked to John Turnbull Thomson, the chief surveyor of the Otago region, to map out of the city, to be named after William Cargill, Superintendent of Otago. Thomson’s plans for Invercargill included a grid-iron street layout, plenty of gardens and public reserves, and the spacious 40 meter wide streets that the city is now famous for. An aluminum smelter 20 kilometers to the south helps to give Invercargill the industrial feel many notice upon visiting.

Despite the significance of places like the Town Hall, Public Trust building, the Water Tower and even the YMCA, with its interesting fusion of turn-of-the-century architecture and modern murals, it’s not the buildings I will remember most about the city but its sculptures. If there’s one thing Invercargill has perfected, it would have to be the art of a well-placed and well-thought-out sculpture. In front of the city council building stands ‘Blade of Grass is Strength,’ the winning entry in a sculpture competition to commemorate Invercargill’s centennial celebration in 1971. The steel sculpture has one blade that arcs upward and another that loops once and then curves to meet the point of the first blade. As a plaque describes, it not only “symbolizes the importance of pasture to the economy of Invercargill,” but more specifically:

Points Upward à Aspiration, growth and progress

Entwined à Strength linked for cooperation

Revolving à For an all around view

Thirty years later, in conjunction with the new millennium, the city revealed yet another symbolic statue – an umbrella. Now before you begin thinking, much like I first did, of the randomness of such an object, several plaques clear up any questions: there is nothing random about this massive steel umbrella. Every facet of it represents something, from the spiral handle reflecting how our solar system is on one of the spiral arms of our galaxy to the alignment of the umbrella reflecting John Turnbull Thomson’s initial surveys of the city’s main streets. Overall, though, the sculpture draws its meaning from the fact that the umbrella is “one of the oldest inventions” (who knew?) and “symbolizes the protector from rain and Sun for the 5,013 Invercargill family names below.” Indeed, the ground surrounding the umbrella is paved with bricks that have all been inscribed with the names of the families living in Invercargill in the year 2000. Talk about cultivating community spirit. Titled “Our People – Time and Place,” the whole affair is very much based on the astronomical and cosmological significance of the region. Suffice it to say, both sculptures were a welcome chance to stop and think while running from building to building.

My architectural tour of the city complete, I paid a final visit to Queens Park and the Southland Museum and Art Gallery, bizarrely shaped like a pyramid. The gardens were part of Thomson’s first plans for the city, in which he set aside 80 hectares (about 200 acres) for public reserves. Hailed as “Southland’s premier park,” it certainly doesn’t disappoint. With its rose gardens, bandstand and pond, it was very much reminiscent of the parks in London, especially with the Peter Pan and Tinkerbell statue much like the one in the Kensington Gardens, but the kunekune pigs and wallabies in the Animal Reserve swiftly reminded that I am indeed in New Zealand.

I left the park feeling content and very happy about my brief encounter with Invercargill. It was a pleasant city and, as an immigration website describes it, one that “has all the benefits of city life with few of the drawbacks.”

I’ll need to spend more time there to disagree, but as for now, I wouldn’t be opposed to a second date…

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