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Aotearoa February 8, 2006

Posted 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.



1. Geoff - February 8, 2006

That’s a wonderful post, which makes me really want to visit the place. However, the point it doesn’t address is the one most frequently mentioned by all the Kiwis I know (and a lovely lot they are too, I’m not suure I’ve ever met one I didn’t like) – it’s possibly the dullest country in the world to live in. Did you pick up on that at all on your visit? I’m not sure all the quality of life and so on could quite make up for dullness. That’s why I’d always prefer to live in London or Berlin, for all their flaws.

2. Wyndham the Triffid - February 8, 2006

I was married to a NZer – if only I’d managed to make the marriage last long enough to get citizenship. Oh well, no regrets, aye?


3. BiB - February 8, 2006

Hello Geoff. Well, I thought I’d better keep it polite and not get onto the boring factor so soon! Well, to be diplomatic and honest, I didn’t get time to get bored in such a short hol, but I have also heard the odd Kiwi moan that cultural life is a tad thin on the ground. Mind you, I dunno about boring. Perhaps when you’re young, yes. And then that classlessness I mention might make things seem a bit overly stable. Not much passion to go round. (And to milk my Scandinava point dry, Denmark is routinely voted the world’s most boring country by The Economist, the world’s most boring magazine.)

I think one goes to New Zealand, or, if you live there, what one loves about New Zealand, is not what is man-made but rather what nature has endowed the place with. Auckland is never going to win any architecture prizes – although, actually, both the big cities I was in, Auckland and Wellington, have marvellous locations – but nature’s gifts are within easy striking distance. I suppose this is a question of priorities. If you want high culture and passion and rickety old streets and shouting folk, be in Europe. If you want a very comfortable life without the passion, be in NZ.

By the way, Geoff, I think your blogging career must be the shortest on record, consisting of one one-word entry many moons ago. Might more be coaxed out of you with some words of encouragement? I’ll read. I’ll read…

Wynders, are these the changes you have referred to of late? Is Veronica now ex? In which case, I’m awfully sorry. I hope you’re not too gutted. Keep your pecker up, keep blogging, and believe me, you’d hate NZ. Nowhere there would you find Tube-travellers eating whole packs of Lurpak.

4. Geoff - February 8, 2006

ah – my blogging career. You noticed. I’ve been thinking of finally taking the plunge for a while now, but have so far held back for three reasons – firstly, I’m not sure for how long I’d managed to keep it updated for, I’m a bit rubbish when it comes to things like that. Secondly, I can’t decide what it would be about. Most of the blogs I read and enjoy regularly tend to mostly focus around one subject, and I would rather be at least slightly focussed rather than just ramble. And finally, I’m not sure I’m quite eloquant enough to make it an enjoyable read.

Doesn’t mean I’ve given up on the idea though, I’m just excellent at procrastinating.

Oh – and I do always enjoy your blog. The three years i lived in Berlin were wonderful and lately I’ve found it nice to keep in touch with the city via blogs

5. Wyndham the Triffid - February 8, 2006

Bib, i am still with the lovely Veronica, but used to be married – something about which I am faintly embarassed. I only have one behind me but it makes me feel like Elizabeth Taylor, somewhat. Strangely enough my former wife lives nearby, in Archway – I’ve reached the stage in my life where if I had a choice between Archway and Auckland I’d be on the first cruise ship out.

No, the changes I was referring to are that, after working at the same institution for an awfully long time, I have decided to launch myself on the job market once again. It is a prospect both terrifying and exciting.

6. BiB - February 9, 2006

Oh gosh, Wynders. Job-hunting. Tell me about it. (Or don’t.) I’m thinking I need to go down the same route, for the sake of my sanity as much as anything else. Still, I’m glad you’re not in the middle of a split. That would have given you BSE. At least.

Auckland is clearly preferable to Archway. Not for nothing is Archway a suicide blackspot. Ghastly hellhole. I think I’ve even had a depressing beer in that depressing pub on the depressing roundabout.

Geoff, take it from me, you don’t need anything to blog about in a focused way. Whatever comes into your head should do just fine, and you don’t even have to be consistent or entertaining. Blogs are an utterly forgiving medium. Take that plunge!

Regards from Berlin…

7. BerlinBear - February 13, 2006

Hi BiB, welcome back! Sorry, I’ve been busy as a bee and didn’t even notice you’d returned. Thanks for the link and for a very interesting post about my homeland. Always interesting to hear outsiders’ takes on things. A few points:

You’ve misspelled Aotearoa. Don’t change it because it’ll break your permalink, but just for the record.

To bang on about Scandinavia = NZ a bit more, did you know that the welfare state was pioneered in NZ? As you say, we’ve moved away from that a bit now, but we done it first mate. Google Michael Joseph Savage, if you’re interested.

The NZer who scoffed when you said that NZ would be just like England only a bit more civilized was probably scoffing at the “a bit” bit. ;-)

The chavs are there. They’re different, but they’re there. They live in West Auckland, where I suspect you didn’t go, or possibly drove through on the way to the ironsand beaches or the Waitakeres, no? They’re not out and out chavs British-style, but they are all called Sharon and Darryl.

The non-white ghettos are there too. They’re in South Auckland, which again you’ll only have driven past on the motorway I imagine. Not exclusively non-white, but predominantly, and not exclusively ghetto, but a bit.

In general, though, you’re bang on about there being less class division than in Blighty. I was very struck by it when I moved to the UK, though obviously the other way around. In fact, overall I had a very similar (or rather reverse) experience to you, in that I expected the UK to be much like NZ only a bit fuller and was stunned by how different it was. It took me a good year or so to adjust.

And finally, in response to the comments about how boring NZ is, I’d say yes and no. Certainly it’s no cultural bastion, so if opera, ballet and fine art are all that floats
your boat, sure, you’ll be bored. But if you like a bit of opera, ballet and fine art *on the side* but also have other interests, you’ll be laughing. In Auckland and Wellington at least.

Where NZ is fundamentally boring, though beautiful, is in the country towns and small cities. It would, in my city slicker opinion, utterly suck to be a teenager out there. I’m sure that’s the reason we have such a high rate of teen suicide.

Anyway, this turned into a whole blogpost of its own. Yikes! Sorry.

8. BiB - February 13, 2006

My god, no, you’re more than welcome, write as much as you like, or more, and I’m glad to think I didn’t get New Zealand completely wrong (although I’ll never forgive myself for misspelling that word which I won’t dare type ever again, although maybe I’ll change the blogpost title to Land of the Long White Cloud, then, which sounds pretty romantic too, actually) (…and that must be why I didn’t get the millions of clicks from NZ that I was expecting. Bugger) (PS. Will my whole site get BSE if I adjust the spelling now? What will happen? Will my comp explode?).

Well, my bro, who’s now a bit of a professional Kiwi, told me about the western suburbs and the suburbs where more Polynesians live but also, as you say, said they wouldn’t stand out as much as a ‘ghetto’ suburb might elsewhere.

But my overriding thought, as I reminisce about my days in NZ, is just how lucky I think NZers are to have such a wonderful country. I know if you’ve lived there all your life and it’s just home you’re not going to think that, obviously, and if you’re a regular working dude in Auckland or Wellington, I don’t suppose you’re going to have that much free time to traipse up and down the gorgeous bits of the country. But god I loved it. And, I repeat, apparently I didn’t even see the best bits…

9. BerlinBear - February 13, 2006

Yeah, it is nice isn’t it? We are lucky, that’s for sure.

Anyway,if you change the title, it will change the permanent link to that post. That is only a problem if you know that other people have already linked to it. ‘If you suspect noone has, go ahead and change it. If you know someone has and know who it is, just drop them a line to let them know the new link (once the edit regenerates the link). But no, nothing is going to explode. :-)

10. BerlinBear - February 13, 2006

Your bro’s name is not Miles by any chance, is it?

Just a stab in the dark.

11. BiB - February 13, 2006

No, not Miles, unfortunately. I wish it was. Having a brother called Miles, meaning I would be, ergo, called Sebastian, evokes images of us frolicking around village greens, being excellent at cricket and all sorts of other sports AND being fantastically handsome in a Merchant Ivory sort of way. No, his name is much more prosaic… and Welsh.

I might dare change the spelling after all. I think I can be almost totally sure that no-one has linked to that post! Thanks for the correction…

12. BerlinBear - February 14, 2006

Good on ya. Oh, and it was just a guess, since I happen to know a Brit of about the right I age (I’m guessing) who has “become something of a NZ expert”. I was testing the theory that everyone in NZ knows everyone else somehow. I may still know your brother, of course, but I guess we’ll never know. :-)

13. BiB - February 16, 2006

I’m sure we will. I’m confident a Berlin Blogger Convention will be organised eventually where we’ll all go and drink too much and embarrass ourselves before sheepishly returning to our comps the next morning…

14. Blonde at Heart - October 8, 2006

Berlin Bear, what you said about “the theory that everyone in NZ knows everyone else somehow” reminds me of the kippagoras rule: every two religious people in Israel have a mutual friend somewhere. It also work for Israelis abroad, regardless of religiosity.

15. BiB - October 8, 2006

I can’t decide whether it sounds lovely or hellish that you’re never likely to be more than one link removed from someone in the great social chain. Perhaps growing up in huge, anonymous London has made me an anti-social old so-and-so.

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