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.