eine gute nacht in raglan: day three on the north island.

sunset in raglan.

It had been a day of Germans. There were six and myself on my caving trip in Waitomo that morning and tonight, the back kitchen of the hostel in Raglan is full and I am again the only one not fluent in Deutsch. As I quietly scrape the remains of spaghetti bolognese off my dishes, blending into the background of the scene, an older man named Tim jokes, “What? You don’t speak German?” He dices an onion, adds it to a saucepan of steaming mussels and I laugh, saying I regrettably don’t. His English is perfect though the accent remains, even after living here for nearly thirty years. I’m curious about the attraction of New Zealand to his fellow countrymen.

“It’s a clean, quiet country,” he tells me, squeezing a lemon over the open shells. “It is very fashionable for young people to come here right now. Germany is densely populated, you know, you even have to pay to go to the beach.”

Fashionable, without a doubt. I’d discovered that much in Queenstown from the number of Germans who worked at the supermarket. There was Dirk in the butchery, Connie in stock, Georg and Birthe in the deli, and Ines two lanes down from me on checkout. Between them and the overwhelming Brazilian contingent, hardly a word of English was ever spoken. Earlier in the day before the crowds would come flooding in off the mountain for nourishment, Ines would sometimes steal index cards from the community noticeboard and write down German lessons to pass me like a note in high school chemistry. We counted to ten, practiced saying thank you three different ways, and asked every German colleague how they were – “Wie geht es dir?” I’d say with pride.

Back in Raglan I’m beginning to think New Zealand should have been settled by the Germans; it would have at least made it that much more practical for all of them, I imagine. I say this in the most pleasant way possible, my observation entirely well-meaning, but they are everywhere, dominating the hostel scene from the southernmost settlement of Oban, Stewart Island, to the far northern reaches of Paihia and Keri Keri. It makes sense, though, given that between 1843 and 1914, over 10,000 Germans immigrated to New Zealand and an estimated 200,000 Kiwis today could be of German descent. There seems to have always been a pull from the motherland, if a letter sent home by an early German immigrant in 1846 is anything to go by:

‘At first we had to fight a bitter struggle … but now we are all able to live quite comfortably and we’ve all saved some money too …Things are good here in this colony. Each and everyone is completely free and has full civil rights. … So, dear mother-in-law, don’t worry about us at all, as we are probably the luckiest of your children, as we eat nothing but white bread made from wheat here, and have lots of it.’

Ah, the days when white bread was a luxury. Their luxury today, it seems, are the complimentary public beaches and a little breathing room.

Caricature of a German tradesman in Dunedin by William Barraud, 1848. Photo courtesy of the Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Tim serves up his mussels to a table of friends visiting from home and I settle in on a couch to catch up with writing, just as a brilliant sun is setting. My thoughts turn to how a successful hostel experience often requires a certain degree of vulnerability. Many of the travel writers I’ve spent time reading – be it Bryson, Theroux, or Duncan Fallowell – often remark on the stale isolation of motel rooms. Hostels are anything but. They offer communal spaces, lounges, kitchens, and – yes – bedrooms in which to pass through invisibly is impossible. For my introverted soul at least, it takes a bit of effort to break past the initial wall of strangers. The most obvious question can do the trick, a simple “Where are the bowls?” and the air is cleared, making way for introductions, questions of origin and travels and more thought-provoking conversations. But the effort this requires is often a shock to my system when transitioning from a long day alone on the road into a hostel’s community of travellers.

Doing this trip on my own was very much a conscious decision. I’d seen an ad on Backpacker Board from a guy – a German, no less – looking for a travelmate for the North Island. The unusual nature of this, as most backpackers focus on the South, combined with him owning his own station wagon and wanting to travel within the same date range as myself, had at first struck the tone of serendipity. Yet the more thought I gave to the idea – however tempting the savings would be – the more the need to go it alone became apparent. I wanted to be selfish on this trip – to stop at a given moment’s notice, to explore, to travel as far as need be in a day and not feel bad about it. The only person I could envision accompanying me on a trip like this would be a sibling or a friend close enough to put up with my neurotic documenting.

Tim and his friends have finished their dinner and sit conversing at the table over a bottle of red wine, French music playing softly. They’re speaking in German but I pick up the words “sweet as” and smile to myself as I can tell Tim’s explaining the bizarre Kiwi phrase to them. “Sweet as sugar,” he says, “Sweet as coke.” For their next cheers, they all say “sweet as” as they raise their glasses.

Eine gute nacht. A good night, indeed, but I really should learn German.

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