Aotearoa February 8, 2006Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
OK, that may be being a bit wank, but just calling a blog post New Zealand might have been just a tad too prosaic. So Aotearoa it is.
I’ve been resisting the (non-)urge to do a post-NZ Lonely-Planet-style write-up because, well, Lonely Planet could do it so much better. And I have no intention of giving you tips on where you can stay for $50 a night in Wanganui, for example. (Mind you, if you’re smelly and sweaty and have a night-bus to Auckland from Wellington ahead of you, you can pop into the backpackers’ place across from the main station there and have a shower for $2, or for free, presumably, if you want to be dishonest and just walk in.) (I’ll leave that sort of behaviour to the 20-somethings.) But then Berlin Bear’s mentions of Waitangi Day and all my fond recent memories of what a wonderful discovery NZ was mean I just have to give the country – or pretty small island, as the Australian woman next to me on the plane from Dubai to Brisbane called it – a bit of a mention.
Now we all have, presumably, a mental image of a place we’re going to visit before we go, unless you win a trip to, say, the Zagros Mountains departing tomorrow from the vouchers you’ve saved up for two-and-a-half years from your PG Tips packets. And, obviously, as a Brit, going to NZ, I’d wondered about how familiar it might all seem, and would it be, as I stated somewhere earlier, just like England but with wooden houses and decent weather? Or, as I’d thought out loud somewhere or other once, at a New Zealander, would it be like England only a bit more civilised, vaguely Scandinavianised? (The NZer scoffed at the thought, but, I think, took it as a semi-compliment.)
Which is why it was such a pleasant surprise that NZ wasn’t like England at all. Not at all. I mean, the people were, in ways, but not the place. This is largely, I suppose, down to location, location, location. Auckland was so lush. So lusciously green. Not in a Hyde Park way, or even a leafy suburb way. No, in a Caribbean way, or South American way. (I have been to neither the Caribbean nor South America.) But when you get a good view of bits of Auckland rising in the distance, white houses dotted among lush hills, I had flashbacks to pictures accompanying news reports from Port Moresby, PNG or Georgetown, Guyana. Which was such a pleasant surprise. I knew I was abroad after all.
Another very pleasant surprise was the absolute zero chav factor. I repeat that NZers, at least in as far as you get to know folk on a two-week holiday, seemed pretty much like Englanders to me in outlook, philosophy, humour. But it’s a more classless place. (I think this is actually to England’s advantage. You can’t beat a bit of a class system for social interest.) NZ isn’t, of course, a socialist paradise, but I didn’t see any great difference between rich and poor, between nice area and shit area, between chav and non-chav. In fact, but maybe this was because it was summer and everyone looked fantastic and sporty and healthy, I didn’t see a single obvious chav as hard as I sought in all Auckland. Where were they hiding? Where were the vulgarians? Or has the result of the colonial project been to utterly civilise all those folk who’ve made the adventurous move to the other side of the world?
Which is not to mention the Maoris, of course, and the immigrants to New Zealand from much closer to home, folk from the Polynesian Islands, and the fairly recent influx of immigrants from China, Korea and South East Asia. Statistics have a clouding effect all of their own. I remember hearing before I went that Maoris are about 15% of the population. Which sounds like nothing, doesn’t it? Well, not nothing, but not much. So I was pretty surprised at just how multikulti New Zealand is. As Berlin Bear says in his Waitangi Day post, Maori-Pakeha relations are still a pretty fraught subject, not least the Waitangi Treaty itself, but in the day-to-day, relations seem pretty normal, intermingling seems the norm and there certainly seems to be no such thing as ghettoes where the non-Whites live. Then there’s been so much intermarriage and, as I believe it’s technically called, intershagging, that every Maori is likely to have a drop of Pakeha blood in him anyway. (This gives rise to a massive range of different looks, by the way, amongst New Zealanders. An awfully good-looking bunch.) And then one of my first Maori moments was when, having first arrived and desperately trying to stay awake till evening time in an empty house, I flicked on the TV and watched the news and a Maori with a cockney accent was telling a story about how he’d just saved his children from a shark. Maybe this was a jet-lag-induced hallucination.
Which is also not to say that whitey NZers set out to create a non-England, or, probably better to say, non-Scotland when they put down roots on the other side of the world. Of course they didn’t. How could you? You can’t create something other than that which you have known. But, obviously, with time, this adapts to local needs. Why build a big, fuck-off, monstrous brick house when a simpler wooden one will do and protect you from the elements just as well? Or why go in for built-up cities when space is there aplenty? I suppose this is all part of what makes me feel that the people were familiar, i.e. the descendants of Europeans don’t seem to have changed much, culturally, in the last 200 or so years, but the place isn’t. So the people have changed the place, definitely, but, in a way, the place hasn’t that much changed the people.
But then what had make me think of Scandinavia in pre-NZ thoughts of NZ? Was I barking up the wrong tree? Or had my brief interaction with NZers made me think, unknowingly, “Hmm, that seems like a country where the people are pretty much like us but where there’s no major grimmery and no obvious underclass.” Well, dunno where it came from, but I still think it. It can’t be put down to the system of government, as NZ is a pretty non-statist place, as far as I could understand. It’s no Sweden. The system of state welfare has been whittled away as far as possible. It must be that classlessness. A wealthy place, a small population and a peaceful environment all seem to have made a nation of middle class folk. There’s even the culture of the “bach” – pronounced batch (in NZese, dunno about in the original) – the summer cottage on the beach. (Bach is Welsh, by the way, not German.) And a quiet appreciation, I thought, for the good life. Yes, working and securing yourself a good, comfortable life. But also as much sun, sea, good food and good wine as is decently possible. This was summer in Denmark.
Which is all nice. Nice to be surprised by a place. (And I haven’t even talked about the place yet. How beautiful it is. How lucky NZers are. How varied it is. How friendly in an unwank way the people are. How fucking good the wine is.) When you’ve met the people, you think you can guess what their country’s going to be like. But I was pretty wrong on most counts. (Actually, I had a fairly similar experience with Ireland, of all places, a country which I should know both because of proximity but also because I have a gaggle of relatives there. But when I went to Dublin as an 18(or 19)-year-old, I was completely struck by how unlike the people it was.)
OK, enough bollocks. More on some of the beauty of NZ later.