I Scream, You Scream

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One of the best things about living in Auckland was the dessert. In a bustling metropolis of over 1 million people, there is plenty of choice when it comes to soothing the 7pm sweet tooth – or the 11pm sweet tooth, for that matter. In a city that hardly ever sleeps, the ice cream parlours do a roaring trade both night and day – and at mealtimes. Heading down to the waterfront and enjoying a sundae before dinner marked the threshold into adulthood for many of us, because you definitely know you’re a grown up when you can eat your dessert before the main.

Once we moved south, getting used to earlier supermarket closings and the need to pre-empt evening sugar cravings before they happened took some time. These days keeping a stash of goodies in the freezer is second nature, so when an ice cream parlour opened in Methven recently, I had to do a double take. Like black and white photos of a 1950s milk bar, it flooded me with nostalgia and brought memories of the city rushing back: one bite and I could almost smell the Queen Street traffic fumes and hear the proclamations of the street corner preachers…

This part of New Zealand is known for a different type of ice entirely – or two, to be exact. First, there’s the skiing variety, of which little currently remains, save that which adorns the snaps on the local postcards. Not quite as delicious as its creamy cousin, the snow and ice of the frozen mountain slopes have nevertheless provided hours of entertainment over the past three winters as we have rather awkwardly learnt to wield ski poles and snowboard boots in a battle against gravity.

The second type of ice is the one with which I have become more and more obsessed since living these 7 degrees further south of my hometown: Antarctica. Our local ‘big smoke’ is a gateway to the southern continent and serves as a stopover for many contractors each year. It’s being celebrated up in Christchurch these school holidays at IceFest, with Antarctic displays, talks and activities abounding. Two years ago our North Island visitors checked it out and had a great time trying on jackets and mukluks; their only criticism was that there was no snow cone machine on site. That was a valid point, but this time we’ve got a local solution to follow up a hard day’s science in the city.

As the last of the snow melts off the mountains, I’m sure the queues for the sweetened, creamy variety will grow. Yes, two scoops in a cone will do me nicely.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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A Winter’s Tale

Winter but where is the snow

The weather forecast may not have received the memo, but according to the calendar, winter is now upon us. Usually such a season would be heralded by bone chilling temperatures and soul warming Mid Winter dinners to celebrate the solstice. In Methven there is another way to tell the season, without resorting to a thermometer or the date. The amount of gaudy Gore-Tex on display is a prime indicator of the highly scientific ‘ski index’ – the more saturated the town is in Burton snow clothing, the surer you can be that it must be winter.

Methven is a seasonal town, and that’s one of the things that makes it stand out for me as something different. Auckland is a clock city, where the days tick by and collect into months and years without any major milestones to mark the seasons. Sure, it rains more in winter, but as for snow… well, the one occasion when a flurry of flakes almost landed on the CBD is now related in the hushed tones of myth.

Here, snow is the lifeblood. When people talk about ‘the mountain’ no one needs to clarify which peak is in question. The first time we visited Methven, we arrived in the midst of the winter bustle. There were people on the streets, the takeaway joints were open until 8:30 at night, and the locals were grumpy. They had to queue for their groceries and were not guaranteed a park right outside the shop. Coming from Auckland, we didn’t know what the fuss was about. Having to wait behind 2 people at Supervalue was nothing compared to rush hour at any inner city supermarket.

This year, I think I finally understand. Having over-summered in Methven, I am more attuned to the seasonal changes in the town. As the days grow shorter, the queues do grow longer, and the cosmopolitan mix of the region becomes more audible. Visitors bring their skis and enthusiasm, but also their own cultural expectations, and it can take a while to adjust. For the first time I was alert to the moment when dress codes shift, and wearing gumboots to the pub (even if they are fancy, styled, neoprene gumboots) puts you in the minority. People in fluffy huts and ski jackets start trickling in one by one, until one Thursday the balance is tipped in favour of neon parkas. From there, if you’ll forgive the pun, things just snowball.

Don’t get me wrong, as soon as those Antarctic blasts start playing ball and deliver some fresh powder to the hills I’ll be up there with the best of the beanie wearers. Still, it’s been interesting to watch a seasonal town wake up as it ramps up towards the snow. Now all we need is for the white stuff to take heed of the ‘ski index’, and then there will be no question that winter is indeed upon us, once and for all.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Defenders of the Urban Jungle

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One drizzly Thursday night we were at home, curled in front of the fire watching prime time TV, when I had an epiphany: not everything you see on TV is true. While this may seem obvious to the point of obsoleteness, seeing the way my home town is portrayed to the rest of the country really hammered the point home.

First up was Police 10-7, featuring the story of a man found wandering on the motorway with a road cone on his head for ‘safety’. It is important to note that this is not the usual behaviour of the Aucklanders in their native habitat, but one specific to a sub breed of city dwellers known as ‘Westies.’ A David Attenborough-style comment to this effect would have made this segment much more educationally accurate.

Next up was motorway patrol, 30 minutes of the most spectacular incidents involving flying cars, motorists giving false details and the epic saga of the dog on the motorway. In Methven a wandering dog is an everyday sight, but not so in Auckland. Motorways typically boast 3 lanes of traffic in both directions, and in comparison to Canterbury roads they are remarkable for their lack of wandering livestock. Hence an entire segment was devoted to the Houdini hound, with several squad cars dispatched to herd it to safety. Just to clarify, this is not normal practice. We do have dog control up north, and our boys in blue are usually preoccupied reminding the populous they should ‘always blow on the pie’ to tend to AWOL animals.

Just in case such light hearted stories were starting to give the wrong impression of Auckland as a relatively safe place where people are concerned with animal welfare and the safety of bogans, these humourous snippets were interspersed with images of hardened criminals on the loose. Assaults, murders and various other criminal acts were outlined to remind the viewer of the dangers of everyday life in the Big Smoke. (It’s not that bad, honest!) The end result of these shows was that gridlock has never appeared so riveting – I can assure you that the excitement factor quickly dwindles after waiting 45 minutes to reach your off ramp less than 2km up the road.

Just as native city dwellers think of the Southern Isles as a giant diary paddock spotted with the odd Hobbit set, this TV line up would have viewers believe that Auckland is a dangerous metropolis, bustling with speedsters and potential criminals just waiting for their 15 minutes of fame on Police 10-7. There is definitely more to Auckland than fodder for cop shows like motorway patrol, but sometimes it is good to be reminded that pies can be hot.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Wallpaper music of the Great Outdoors

There are some things in life that slip by unnoticed for years until they are explicitly pointed out, at which point they glare you in the face at every turn. Background music in the supermarket is a prime example, but it is not alone in being chronically overlooked. Between hosting travellers down here and visiting rellies in Auckland I discovered that I had been missing more than the soundtrack to the freezer aisle.

Living in the city or in the country you become attuned to certain things and learn to block out others. Last year we took a hitch-hiker over to Tekapo, and he was so stunned by the mountains he had to stop talking in order to take in the view. ‘Is this normal for you?’ he asked. Initially it wasn’t, but there are only so many time you can pull over on the Ashburton to Methven route to admire the snowy ridges before you realise that they look the same as they did yesterday, and will probably still be there tomorrow. This is still a beautiful place to live, but if the breath taking nature didn’t become somewhat normalised then we would all have succumbed to asphyxiation long ago.

Returning to Auckland, I realised I had been doing exactly the same thing up there. Traffic noise, vibrant signage and throngs of people had all faded out to become the invisible background to everyday life. Heading back up, it was these things that jumped out. Suddenly the four lanes of traffic, road cones, motorway exits and right turning arrows were all jostling for my senses’ attention: It was only after becoming accustomed to their absence that I really noticed them for the first time. Such realisations are all well and good if you are a passenger in a car that is crawling through rush hour traffic, but pulling over on the side of the motorway in order to read the fine print of the billboards is not really the done thing…

Neither, apparently, is obeying the speed limit. Down this way a judiciously placed temporary 30 sign is a good indication that loose gravel, a slip, or a herd of stock are around the corner. In Auckland, it is just a suggestion. Perhaps there is a different conversion system up there that I have missed in my time in the South, because 30 seemed to mean 60 and 80 seemed to mean 100, if the volley of beeps from behind was anything to go by. Having become accustomed to narrow country roads with not a car in sight, I found the aural assault to be most pronounced and began to long for the low of a cow to break up the commuting chaos.

These past weeks have shown me that paying attention to the background sights and sounds that we take for granted can provide a totally new perspective on a place, and there are always new things to be discovered. Coming home again I made sure to give the mountains a second glance. As for the motorway billboards up North, the conditions of the sushi deal will just have to wait…

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Grass is Always Greener

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Local body elections are underway, and a visit to Auckland revealed that in the big smoke the top agenda issues are just as contentious as any new Ashburton build. Auckland has enough bridges and tunnels to mean that any NIMBY calls drown each other out and leave another issue to take the limelight. I touched down to the fiercest grassroots dispute the city has seen in decades: The Battle of the Berms.

The council recently stopped mowing the grassy fringes in the inner city, and the change is not going down well. It’s something I hadn’t really thought that much about before seeing the headlines on every corner of Queen Street. Forget roading, the RMA and international politics, these days the grass is all everyone is talking about.

A quick stroll through any suburban neighbourhood in my home town reveals that the division lines have been drawn: half a grass verge clipped down to a number two, the other half left to toss its pollen to the wind, an instant badge of the time to house proud ratio of any given residence.

This gives me new appreciation for both the care taken in Mid Canterbury and the average size of the yards in both north and south. Down south the dream of the quarter acre section has not disappeared and a mower, rake and spade remain essential implements for any household. The number of retired farm machines with ride on capabilities, such as the machine that lives next door to us, means that communal grass is buzz cut with military precision, no civic intervention required.

The prevalence of ride on mowers is not so high in the big smoke, particularly in suburbs with high-density housing where no one has any grass to mow. Those who do have a yard often face the logistical issues of living down a shared driveway. Our old flatmates have a flymo for their modest square of foliage, but lack the abundance of extension cords required to reach past the four other houses and out to the side of the road. Their berm currently remains wild and free, much to the chagrin of certain council candidates.

As Aucklanders have just found out, now’s the time to ask the difficult questions of those standing for election. Prospective councillors’ positions on infrastructure, amenities, consents and recommended height of grass verges all come into play.

As for me, I’ll come back down South with both a new appreciation for the work of our neighours’ regular ride on mower and a renewed interest in the issues facing my current electorate. The grass is always greener in retrospect, so I will make sure to read my own local voting papers very carefully.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

South Wind I (Autumn)

The wind grows fat, fed by the polar ice
Forecasters predict a cold snap as she flexes her muscles
Prompting ripples that collect into swells
And parade their taughtness against the cliffs of the west
Boy, can she pull a punch!

She twists her lithe body through treetops and powerlines
Doing pull ups and resistance training
Until the branches and wires can resist her grasp no more

She tries out her lungs, howling like a newborn
Screaming like a teenager
Sighing like a mother with furrowed brow
Grumbling, groaning, whining, puffing,
growing

Until she is ready to step into the ring
Rattling the windows
In search of a worthy opponent:
Wake up!

Her hibernation is over.
As summer slinks out the back door
She comes in the front
With a BANG!

Conversation on Tap

On a recent visit to Auckland, the conversation turned to where I was living now. When my reply of ‘Methven’ was met with blank stares, I decided to have a bit of fun, and with my serious face pasted firmly in place I told them yes, it’s a South Island town and everyone who lives there works in a tap factory. While this was met with some looks of scepticism, a visit to the bathroom added weight to my story. ‘What did the tap say?’ I asked ‘Methven…’ ‘Well, there you go then!’ Following the lead of Paeroa’s L&P bottle and Rakaia’s salmon, it makes sense that even New Zealand’s smallest towns must be famous for something. If Springfield can boast a Simpsons-style donut, then my claim to the tap was certainly not out of the question.

As it is, there are more ski instructors than plumbers living in this town at the moment. Things are starting to get busy thanks to the snow, but the place still retains a small town feel where most people know most other people and those other people definitely know where you live. At first glance, this may appear to be a very different environment to the one I grew up in, but it turns out it’s not so alien after all.

While Auckland is big by New Zealand standards, it hardly compares to places overseas. It’s more like a collection of small villages jammed tightly against each other than one homogenous splodge on the map. Imagine if Canterbury was picked up by the corners and all the wee towns tumbled together to rest side by side, Rolleston against Rakaia and Ashburton against Amberly. That’s sort of how Auckland works, and even though a Pak ‘n’ Save is well within driving distance no matter where you live, everyone still has their favourite Four Square.

That’s certainly how it feels when I go back to visit, as a visit to any of the cafes in Mt Eden means I’m just about guaranteed to run into one of my friends’ parents or my sister’s primary school teacher from ten years ago. Each area has a community as distinct as those in Canterbury’s different towns and when you’re on home turf everyone knows your parents. That’s really what going home is all about, because as the saying goes, it’s who you know, not what you know. (Although in some cases a little research on New Zealand’s plumbing production wouldn’t go amiss).

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

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.