Bevar Christiania

A dragon, a fairy and a mythical tree guard the entrance to this land of pause. Bordered by water, a lone mallard keeps watch, paddling up and down the waterway with an upturned beak. The city may not pass. Beyond these walls of green the city drones, dives, flashes, moves, but here the hyperventilating of the metropolis seems a long way off. It is as if the earth is holding its breath while striking a yoga pose. Nestled against the canals of Copenhagen, this is the border of Christiania.

Lone poets litter the lakeside logs, some contemplating the ripples, others smoking under the thick canopy. Some sleep, bags clutched to their chests, beards matted, curled into the knot of a fallen trunk or a nest of long grass. They dream in saturated hues of the markets and vegetarian fare that characterise the commune just over the hill, dream of dragons and fairies and bicycles and snails. A giant floating frog-like sculpture observes all from his mid-moat mooring, taking everything in with his spotted hexagonal eyes. Following the meandering moat-side path, time slows down. It is not hard to find a spot and make a nest of your own. The frog takes note, then drifts and turns away.

Breathe. Let evening come. View the world from a snail’s perspective. This place smells of earth, of soil that has not been packed and shifted but left to ripen. It smells of growth and summer. A gentle anarchy prevails. It smells like home.

Planks of wood that have assembled themselves into small lakeside dwellings sprout technicolor vegetable gardens and bike sheds. Windows jostle for attention with mosaic entranceways and hanging gardens. Some call these illegal structures, some call them art. Others call them Home. They rise like phoenixes from the rushes, casting purple shadows. Gilded orange by the evening sun they look as if they may sprout wings and erupt at any second. This is prime real estate and eviction is always a possibility.

Build on military ramparts, each of these five triangular bays is a reminder of a hostile past. The topography is designed for conflict and sculpted for protection. Land torn from land, preserved as an excellent example of 17th century defence. Small fish agitate the surface as they dart after their evening feed. A slight breeze murmers to the rushes before replying to the trees. This green belt creates an insulation more effective than barbed wire or police blockades. The water acts as a coat check and worries must wait at the gate. There have been no raids, no shootings this month: the dragon and the mallard have been doing their jobs.

Folk music drifts through the trees and out over the lake, an invitation to return to the frazzled rainbow maze beyond. A bicycle workshop, markets, electric lighting and dinner at the old commune kitchen all beckon. The reeds let out a sigh. Dusk breathes shadows into the water, erasing the mallard’s silhouette. Waking snails. Leaving poets to dream.

And The Rain

And the rain, it keeps on falling
And I listen to the beat
As I shelter in a doorway
Drawing circles with my feet

Drawing circles, like the madman
By the corner store who cries
That all life is just a circle
With imagined things inside

I imagine I can see you
Glasses pattered by the rain
As you stumble to the underground
And run to catch your train

And this train, it takes you blindly
To a place out by the sea
Where you’ll dive into the ocean
Make the city leave you be

All the city-papers sitting
Orphaned on your desk at home
As you float about the water
Drawing mermaids in the foam

And the sun, it drinks the ocean
Turning water into cloud
And though the wind does batter,
The sun will not cry aloud

It will not give the ocean back
The salt as stories come
Adrifting down the river
From the land of ever-glum

One by one it gathers them
In its basket in the sky
Until it just can’t hold them
And then it starts to cry…

Water rains onto the city
Refilling empty eyes
And it soaks through all umbrellas
And I see you in disguise

And an old man with a walker
Squeaks by, battling the stream
And the smile in his eyes tells me
It’s never too late to dream

She’ll Be Right, Mate

New Zealanders like to characterise themselves as boasting both kiwi ingenuity and a healthy dose of the ‘she’ll be right, mate’ attitude. It seems the further south you get, the larger the ratio of DIY store floor area to town population and the stronger the ‘number eight wire’ mentality. Not only do I now know first hand what number eight wire actually is, I have also had ample opportunity to observe this mindset in action.

One summer Sunday is a case in point. Like every self respecting vehicle owner, we carry an angle grinder in the back seat, ‘just in case’. (The fact that it is still lurking in the footwell beneath layers of towels, newspapers, warm jumpers and overdue library books does seem to suggest we forgot it was there, but for the purposes of this story, it is totally intentional). On this particular Sunday, an old gallon drum and a desire for charred sausages conspired to make the tool’s presence a saviour, and the boys discovered that with the help of an angle grinder and a little imagination, a half gallon drum a couple of steel deckchairs can easily become a roaring barbecue. Job done!

Other solutions have been slightly less high tech, like using a vehicle tie down strop to reach the highest branches and shake down plums. Sure, ignoring the fact that climbing a ladder, crossing a shed roof and scaling a very juvenile branch in order to reach the launching point of said tie down might be considered slightly dangerous, but in this instance the mythical ‘she’ was fine and we had a solution to the problem of our vertically challenged stature.

Solving problems by scaling tall things or placing power tools in the hands of those who are not trained professionals is something we take for granted in New Zealand. Not so in other places, where the threat of lawsuits and the spectre of insurance fine print are always present. Our foreign friends are constantly marvelling at the risks people here are willing to take, while we are busy admiring the solutions that emerge from doing things outside the square – The RDR system is a prime local example. Left to our own devices, we know we’ll find a way, and fencing wire simply speeds up the process.

Going bare foot in the summer is something else that is taken for granted, and epitomises our attitude to risk. Put simply, if you do happen to step on a rogue piece of glass, it’s unlikely to cause any damage that an ACC form, a few stitches and a good dose of concrete pills can’t cure. At the end of the day, ‘she’ll be right, mate’.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

Multicultural Bite

Before moving South, I was warned that mid Canterbury was meat and three veg sort of a place. Having been schooled in the ways of food by my dad, whose chilli use in any given meal is directly proportional to the volume and intensity of the rock music playing in the background, I made sure to stock up on spices before coming down. As it turns out, not only are tumeric and garam masala on the supermarket shelves, there are also a huge range of cuisines going on in this town that don’t include steak as the staple.

Waitangi Day’s ‘Multi Cultural Bite!’ event provided the perfect opportunity to check them out, so we headed down to East Street with rumbling bellies and much curiosity – we’d seen Thai and Indian restaurants in town, but were about to find out that there’s more to Ashburton than what lies on the main street. After buying a bundle of tickets at the gate, it was off to savour fresh banana spring rolls, homemade satay sauce and a mouthwatering range of beverages concocted from all manner of fruit. I was impressed.

Much as people like to write off all of its inhabitants as small red balls of confectionary, Auckland has the greatest cultural diversity of all New Zealand cities, and when it comes to cultural festivals there is never a dull moment. I’m accustomed to big festivals like Pasifika and the Lantern Festival for Chinese New Year, but I’ve never changed continents so many times over the course of one meal. Nigerian rice, Malaysian satay, English high tea scones… If air points were on offer with each food purchase, I’d be on my way to Hawaii by now.

Another thing that was remarkable about the Multi Cultural Bite event was the number of languages being spoken. In a town where 93% of the population speak only one language, it was quite extraordinary to go from stall to stall and hear so many different dialects and tongues. When everyone around you speaks English all the time, it can be hard to see why learning a language is worth the effort, but the insights to be gained by learning to see the world in a different way are immeasurable. Perhaps not every kiwi kid aspires to work at the UN one day, but there’s a good reason they have a 3 language policy for all employees. Tongues do the tasting and tongues do the speaking, so perhaps it’s not such a big step from trying Argentinian cuisine for the first time to giving Spanish a go – it’s one way to plant an important seed.

All in all it was great to see the community out celebrating such a range of cultures, and I can safely say that the meat and three veg myth has been well and truly busted. The music and dance performances topped everything off, and I’d love to hear the music that was playing in the background when some of the dishes on offer were prepared. Adding a few more CDs into the kitchen mix can do wonders for stagnant menus…

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

Cape Evans

Light slanting through the window
Colours the room
Like a sepia photograph

Highlighting the jars of pills
And powdered eggs
From the days when the world
Was black and white

Now it’s black and white and blue
Blue like the china in a faraway parlour
Blue like eyes as they blink farewell
Blue, fading sepia with every click of the lens

Leaving history a stain
On a blank canvas

The Kiwi Goodbye

Talking to visitors over the past couple of weeks, my attention has been brought to an interesting phenomenon: The Kiwi Goodbye. This distinctive style of farewell has three stages. First comes the rumble, a couple of remarks thrown into conversation about how ‘we really should get going soon’ and ‘it’s getting rather late.’ This stage should be initiated at least 45 minutes before you actually wish to walk out the door. Of course, this timeframe is socially accepted by all here in Kiwiland, so the initial signals of intent are inevitably followed by more conversation about gravy recipes, that hike we went on last weekend and dear old Uncle Graham, who has just suffered a stroke/ run a marathon/ wrestled a crocodile. Remarks may be made about the weather.

Next, actions creep in. Picking up a jersey, collecting a plate from the kitchen or even simply standing up to stretch one’s legs are all symptoms of stage two. Conversation continues, with each side waiting for the other to bring things round to an acceptable topic with which to close the evening. Remarks may be made about the weather. After the mutual pause that recognizes that the crucial moment has been reached, the thank yous begin. If you have not already discussed the heat/ cold / wind, this is the opportune time to do so, whilst adjusting footwear and moving into the hallway. Finally, we actually walk out the door, sending farewells back and forth like mountain echoes until we reach the end of the driveway. Then it is home time.

This social convention of stretching out goodbyes like the end of a Tolkein film does not strike most of us as strange – it’s just the way we operate. Visitors, I discovered, sometimes see things differently. A farewell that lasts less than the length of an episode of Shortland Street? For some, this is actually the norm.

A friend of mine was visiting from Norway and was completely unaware of the local three stage process. Instead, at the first mention of home time, she responded with a most polite ‘thank you very much for having me’, and left. Everyone assumed she had gone to the bathroom or had finally given into the temptation to have one more slice of pavlova, but she was already counting sheep. Any local who attempts a Norwegian goodbye in these parts is likely to have a search party sent out looking for them to ensure that they are OK and haven’t just wandered off a bluff at the bottom of the garden and broken a leg.

Next time you are out socializing, try looking out for the three stages. Unless you want to spark a Search and Rescue call out, it is time to embrace the lingering farewell as a cultural icon.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian



In a place where RED flags mean ‘go’
Symbolism has been turned up



Here the colourblind never run lights
Even day and night are confused
Like a three year old on a sugar high

They are not quite on speaking terms with one another
Avoiding each other at the changeover
Like awkward flatmates living parallel lives

Giving each other a wide berth,
The sunsets of February a note on the fridge
Reading ‘Need more loo paper. J.’

When RED means ‘go’
It’s best not to read too much into that statement

Stunning in White

“Antarctica looks stunning in white and she knows it”

Antarctica has been depicted as a seductress many times, playing on the trope of the pole as a sleeping beauty. Amundsen knew the continent as a ‘she’, writing ‘Beauty is still sleeping, but the kiss is coming, the kiss that will wake her’ (The South Pole, 1912). Bill Manhire expanded on it, talking of a ‘seductress’ and making sweet love. This idea seems to reinforce the notion that Antarctica is a masculine space, a space for men to act out their fantasies of conquering, of winning, of having the power to awaken with a kiss and, implicitly, from then on control. What is conquered is tamed, is obedient, is no longer a threat.

We have asked questions such as ‘what does it mean to be a tourist going to the ice? What does it mean to be a scientist? What does it mean to be a student, an ambassador? What about ‘what does it mean to be a woman’? For a female to head to the most barren, inhospitable continent on earth is contrary to the image of the apple, the age old tale of fertility and original sin. You can’t freeze apples, they oxidize. They don’t thaw out the same.

And how will we thaw out? Sore thumbs in a microbial landscape, digging holes in the snow under Dali’s sky. Magnifying, reflecting, analyzing.
What will we find?

Striations mark the progress of her sister lands and if we were less careful we might say she mourns the loss. Instead this land stays dry, a frozen, sliding mask that betrays little of the stony faces far below.

Antarctica holds many secrets within her belly that are yet to be discovered. Lake Vostock, a womb, laid out on the operating table awaiting the caesarean that will tear open the moist dark warmth, expose the microbes not yet ready to see the light. The kiss has been administered and she stirs, her sighs a surge of katabatic winds. She stretches, cracks her fingers to release tabular bergs into the sea. Her glacial fingers snatch at her abdomen, silent in their screams. And still they drill.

They conquer.

In Service

Today the flags flew at half mast
under a tempestuous blue sky.

We did not know for whom
they were lowered
as our car crawled over
the arch of the bridge
and they were mentioned
but in passing
as we indicated our lane change
and carried on our way.

For two families tonight,
a faraway convoy
means a flagpole
will never look the same again.

South Wind Doth Blow

Little Miss Muffet and Incy Wincy Spider may appear to be uneasy bedfellows, but in Methven a closer look will reveal they’re both made of the same stuffing. A nursery rhyme convention has taken over the town in recent weeks, and any birds that were considering nesting in the region will now have reconsidered, thanks to the 33 themed scarecrows that have popped up as part of the school holiday trail.

We joined in by doing the trail, but we could easily have joined the party with a themed yard ourselves. All we needed was a mulberry bush, and the cold and frosty morning would have taken care of itself, transforming our yard into a scene straight out of a playground chant.

It happens every year – first the frost, then the snow, augmented by a southerly wind and an ever declining ration of sunlight. Commonly known as winter, this state seems to take people by surprise every time, with the long summer months inducing mercury amnesia. Then suddenly you can see your breath, and the weatherboard house with single glass windows and cotton curtains starts to resemble the chiller section at the supermarket, minus the frozen peas. Add in a couple of extra jumpers, house slippers and a hot water bottle clutched to your abdomen and you’re on your way to having the quintessential New Zealand experience, complete with chillblains and the odd dose of bronchitis.

Despite the fact that winter is a fairly regular occurrence, many of our houses have failed to adapt to the fact. Insulation is optional and double glass and underfloor heating are virtually unheard of. It’s a case of man vs nature, and judging from the layer of ice on the inside of our windows the other morning, I’d say that nature is used to delivering a knockout blow pretty early on.

I know people who’ve come to New Zealand from northern Europe, where winter means no sunlight at all and a permanent cover of snow. When looking at the forecast charts they scoffed at our furrowed brows, oblivious to the fact that the predicted temperature was not for their borough but for their bedroom. They later resorted to pitching a tent on the living room floor to try to conserve heat.

While many ceilings such as theirs remain woefully bare of any insulation, in the absence of any batts the personified thatching material around town is starting to look like an attractive option… The South Wind Doth Blow, alright, and the Methven scarecrows had better watch their stuffing!

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian