What Lies Beneath

Whispers of whale oil
And promises of 28 minute self serve dry cleaning
Adorn brick walls
Proudly proclaiming the wares of history
And urging the audience to
‘Protect your investment’
With a lick of paint.

This paint’s long dry,
Buried behind designer developments
And the promise of a brighter future
The signs decay
Until one day
They are awoken from their slumber
As walls tumble
With an almighty crash…

Come September,
They find a different world
With cents, not pence
Where nothing makes sense

Filling The Gaps

Christchurch, aka ‘Shaky Town’, has not been getting the best press lately. Often all that makes it into the news is doom and gloom to do with EQC and earthquake damage, but there are all sorts of creative seeds being sown all over the city, often where you’d least expect to find them. Gapfiller is a community project that aims to ‘temporarily activate vacant sites within Christchurch with creative projects, to make for a more interesting, dynamic and vibrant city’ and has seen artists and innovators take to the streets in an effort to turn empty sites into sights and experiences for the local community.

The first I knew of this project was when a whole lot of milk bottle flowers started decorating the mesh fences around vacant sites. Then there was the cycle powered cinema, which took the site of a demolished bike shop and put the power back in the legs of the people, quite literally. The public was invited to bring a bicycle and pedal on a specially built stand to power a dyno and project cycle related movies onto the wall of an adjacent building. With a very limited season, people were queuing up to have a spin, and the picnic blankets invited those who just wanted to watch to do so, enjoying the spectacle with people from their local community.

Participation has been a big thing with many of the Gapfiller projects, and the way they are set up encourages interaction with others. The Dance-O-Mat is a case in point – insert $2 into an old converted washing machine, plug in your music device and voila, 30 minutes of DJ-ing on the purpose built dance floor ensues. While most people may be inclined to decline the offer of joining in at 2pm on a weekday, the installation was open 24/7, and there are always people who can’t resist a good boogey on their way past. For those who simply don’t dance, the mini golf hole next door provided a welcome alternative.

At the centre of the Gapfiller project is the Pallet Pavilion, a venue built entirely out of blue packing pallets. Over the past summer it’s played host to performances for the busking festival, music jams, vintage markets, scrabble nights and much more. This weekend I was very excited to hear that the pavilion has secured funding for another season, thanks to the generosity of the very people who use it and appreciate what it stands for. That’s right, $82,000 in crowd funding is not bad, and it also shows how much impact a grass roots project can have on a community. I’m proud to be able to say that my name’s on one of those pallets, and that 879 other people felt the same way as me about the importance of this creative hub in the midst of a transitional city.

Gapfiller makes that transition into a positive, celebratory experience. As well as the interactive activities, there are the poems, the interactive chalkboard projects and the transient murals that pop up to make an empty lot into an attraction and help to replace the lost landmarks of the city. These just-round-the-corner surprises are like little gifts to each day, and little by little they are creating a new layer of myths and cultural heritage for places that now only exist in memory. For someone who moved to Canterbury after the earthquakes and doesn’t share those memories or the ghost map of the city, this is a very exciting way to orientate myself, focusing in on the flowers amongst the rubble. The seeds have been planted, and the projects that have bloomed over the past two summers are sure to make the ground more fertile for even bigger dreams to take root come next spring.

For a map of the current Gapfiller projects and to find out more, visit http://www.gapfiller.org.nz/

A Cardigan Yarn

An Irishwoman, a Scotswoman and a Kiwi lass are sitting together in a bar… it sounds like the outline of a satirical cartoon, but this was the scene last weekend when my orange cardigan had a lesson in southern socialisation. It was a new cardigan, bought a few weeks earlier during an Auckland shopping spree. Nestled between my thermals and coat, it was a bright, snuggly winter garment with thermal properties to boot, and with not a soy chai latte in sight, it was breaking into new territory.

The first lesson occurred en route to my rendezvous, when the functionality of the garment was tested by a brisk sou’wester. Having existed in a city window display up until this moment, it took a few blocks for the loose knit cardie to come into its own and actually perform its inherent thermal duties. My brisk pace and the threat of swapping it for a swanndri may have helped, as it is now aware that any high street fashion credentials fail to hold water once the temperature tumbles towards zero.

Once inside the cardigan proved itself to be a magnet for conversation, especially once the visiting rugby side turned up. Kitted out in blazers and ties like overgrown school boys, they looked set to get in some practice for the upcoming rural bachelor of the year competition. Unfortunately, the pick up lines they trotted out matched their attire. While admirably direct, they are simply not fit for publication without an R18 label, and the more benign ‘nice cardigan, did your grandmother knit it?’ just doesn’t quite cut it when delivered amidst a sea of insinuations about what may or may not be underneath. They soon went to try their luck elsewhere.

Several games of pool and an argument about the definitions of ‘jersey,’ ‘pullover’ and ‘ganzie’ later, the cardigan came up in conversation again, this time because of its hue rather than its weave. By this point we’d been joined by several kiwi friends, and the national factions that my northern hemisphere friends were happy to overlook had come to the fore. Blue and orange may be opposite colours, but they lead people to draw the same conclusions, particularly when one is honest about one’s geographic heritage. Thus, I was subjected to the first ‘jafa’ remark I’ve heard all year and my cardigan learnt that a few degrees of latitude can make an innocent choice of dye into the catalyst for inter island hostilities.

Temperature, temperament and topography all made their mark, inducting my city garment into southern life. Next time we head to the local I think I’ll settle for donning red and black in the hope of keeping both the winter cold and confectionery themed comments at bay, but the hardy cardie will live to see another day yet.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Three Blind Mice

Following Methven’s scarecrow trail, the last thing I expected was for nursery rhyme stars to move in with me, but while the straw figures are now long gone, it seems some of the critters are here to stay. Three, to be exact, although they appeared to have had cataract surgery as they were definitely not blind.

Cooler weather and weatherboard houses seem to be a recipe for mice around here, which has been a new experience. While we had plenty of mice in my flat in Auckland, they were all of the computer-gaming variety, so my experience of the rodents was limited to nursery rhymes about blind ones and the film Stuart Little.

The real life version is nothing like in a story book or a nursery rhyme. Instead, our first encounter was more like a scene from a horror movie. It went something like this: Dark and stormy night. Protagonist home alone, minding her own business. Mysterious zombie scratching sounds heard. No sign of source. Protagonist left wondering if she has gone mad until suddenly a hoard of rodents batter down the door and devour her whole.

OK, so the last scene may be a slight embellishment, but the discovery of droppings after a spooky sleepless night sealed the deal – it was time to buy a mouse trap.

I don’t have the best track record with traps. Last time I dealt with one it was to dispose of the rat in my parents’ attic. Dispose of it I did, but I was subsequently discharged from pest duty after throwing away Dad’s best trap, rat entwined. I resolved that this time, I would get it right.

The mouse traps available at the local hardware store looked more like giant clothes pegs than a pest control device, with their moulded grey plastic, spring loaded action and no-touch release. At first I was rather suspicious as they didn’t look very sensitive. Then I made the mistake of putting my finger in the vicinity of the jaws whilst taking one off the shelf, and all my fears were eclipsed by a shooting pain. While testing a trap with your fingers may not be the preferred method of ascertaining function, any doubts as to its effectiveness were allayed.

Three mice later, the traps are still going strong and the night time noises have ceased. While mice are an autumn fact of life down here, I’m still hoping that the only mouse in our place from now on stays firmly attached to the computer. Still, it might pay to keep a carving knife handy, just in case…

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

The Facts of Life

Living in a rural community, it’s hard to avoid the facts of life. Lambing season comes and goes, calves are reared, the stock truck heads to the meatworks and the cycle comes full circle. Over the past few weeks I have observed the circle in action, where it has had less to do with the birds and the bees and more to do with a couple of mammals with impeccable timing.

The first life-or-death incident had us getting up close and personal with a sheep, and not in the ways that Australian jokes would have you believe. We were walking along the RDR, minding out own business, when we heard a ‘Splash’, closely followed by a ‘Maaaaaaa.’ Closer inspection revealed a bundle of bleat knee high in the mud and very stuck.

We were going to have to do something – but what? Our initial efforts made it clear that pulling alone simply wasn’t going to cut it. Sheep, it turns out, are quite heavy, and a wet sheep can rival the bench press selection at any flashy Auckland gym. We needed a new tactic. Cue kiwi ingenuity 101, aka two dog leads and some cleverly applied physics. One harness contraption and two very confused dogs later, the bedraggled sheep shambled off as far away from the water as possible to dry off. Judging by the number of sheep carcasses that showed up in the RDR as the water level dropped over the next week, our sheep was one woolly mammal with a cosmic wristwatch, alright.

The second mammal I encountered, although more commonly associated with watches, was not so lucky. Instead, the hare that crossed the path of my station wagon will now be eternally late. This proved to be a bonus for my friend and I, both in terms of kudos and cuisine. While the boys were at home trying on their new waterproof gear and studying a DVD about stalking deer, we were bringing home dinner. So far our accidental hunting has proved more fruitful than any of their rugged bush walks, which suggests that the preservation instinct of the deer still trumps the carefully edited cinematography of even the best ‘How To Hunt’ video guide.

In the end you win some and you lose some, but I’ve learnt to always make the most of the situation at hand. Rural life is one big Lion King chorus, and I’m slowly getting to know some of the words.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Last Friday Night

Last weekend I visited Auckland, city of sails and signs and sounds. Come Friday night, we headed for that holy grail of gaudiness and over-stimulation: The Arcade. No matter what your favourite colour there is a game to match, complete with looped theme tune and special effects lighting. From Dance Dance Revolution to Air Hockey and Photo Booth, this parody of city life provided the colour and bustle and crowds and sensory overload that I have missed.

Growing up, such busyness was always just background noise – something that I was not consciously aware of but was nonetheless slightly comforting. It was not until spending time away from the bright lights and street corner preachers of Queen Street that I realised how much I had been screening out. Impromptu street theatre? Ice cream parlour karaoke? How did I not notice these before?

Ashburton, with a smaller population, has less on the radar, but there are still entertainment options, many of which you would never get in the city. Take the cow milking competition in the Tinwald Tavern, for instance. The concept was simple: whoever could extract the greatest volume of milk from their’ cow’s udder by hand in one minute was the winner. Being a city girl, I had never really considered the possibility that bovine mammaries might form the basis for a competitive sport, let alone one that was spectator friendly. It certainly gave new meaning to the term ‘brown eyed beauty’.

A recent chat to a local revealed yet another unique entertainment form run in the vicinity: the Methven sheep racing. Not content with annual motorcycle races, the town went one step further, introducing theRacing Baa Blacks to the repertoire of street circuit events. Auckland tried to stage a similar event as part of the Rugby World Cup parade last year, but it was shouted down as a no-go. Sheep don’t know how to obey traffic lights, and their droppings would have posed a hazard to inner city cycle couriers. While the question of droppings remains, contending with red lights is not a problem in Methven.

Perhaps the rural nature of Mid Canterbury has been sending out subliminal messages, because my big city arcade visit concluded with an equine twist. I couldn’t resist trying out the plastic horse video game from the early 1990s, and although the realism of the ride was slightly lacking – I am yet to hear a real horse announce ‘stop crashing me!’ – my choice of entertainment option does say something about the way my large animal horizons have broadened over the last year. Who knows, next time I’m in Auckland it could be to pitch a new game to the arcade, based on competitive cow milking. ‘Udder Frenzy’ could be the next big thing…

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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

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 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.