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

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A Taste to Call Your Home

In recent weeks there has been much discussion about what Mid Canterbury is like for newcomers. Auckland is no Asia or Africa, but the being new part is something that resonates, wherever you have moved from. It can be hard to start a life in a new location, as distance sees differences in attitudes, habits and cultures loom out of proportion. From shopping hours to the foods available in said shops, there is much to adjust to.

Sometimes you have to go far away from the familiar in order to be able to see of what those adjustments might consist. I first found out what it is like to be different when visiting family in Denmark. My (then) blonde hair and blue eyes went down well, right up until I opened my mouth. It’s often said that when people speak Danish it sounds like they have a hot potato in their mouth, but apparently my potato was a Dargaville kumara because all I got back were puzzled brows and the polite suggestion that perhaps I should try again, in English. Soon after that it became apparent that I had a real taste for Marmite, and my citizenship was revoked with immediate effect. (The spread is not approved for human consumption under local laws, while the immigration minister at the time pointed to any weakness for the salty black stuff as proof of questionable national allegiance: no Dane could ever stand the stuff).

Getting fired from Denmark was hard, as a tangible link to my heritage was amputated with a single official letter. It took away a sense of belonging, but at the same time it made me take note of the many small and forgotten ways I belong to New Zealand. There’s the taste for yeast spreads, the pride in prize-winning A&P show produce, and the unmistakable ‘Nuzild’ twang. And yet, down here I still don’t qualify as a local.

When I arrived in Ashburton I was told very matter of factly that people either stayed for 3 years or more than 30. While this statistic is unlikely to have passed through a rigorous peer reviewed process, it’s an interesting anecdote about how long it can take to find your place as get to know the one you’re living in. Three years may not sound like much, but it’s the same amount of time many devote to studying at universities up and down the country. After 3 years, surely newcomers deserve a certificate too: Degree in Midcantabrian Studies, signed by two locals who have roads named after their families or recognize Hakatere as their tūrangawaewae.

That graduation could also be a way to facilitate conversation between new and old. It is often easier to meet foreigners or people who are new to a place than those who have been in the area for many years and live deep in the maze of their day to day lives and habits. Being new to a place has many advantages, as outsiders’ eyes often see everyday things from a new perspective. Certificates or not, a little openness, a friendly smile and a thin spread of Marmite can go a long way towards carving a place called home in the midst of a landscape of firsts, that’s for sure.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Boarding Call (2009)

My Wörterbuch, my kiwi flag,
Socks and sandals, just like Dad,
My summer dress, my lightweight cardi,
Photos from my leaving party,
Names and addresses of distant rellies,
Marmite to treat homesick bellies,
My bulging backpack, my hiking socks,
Pineapple lumps, combination locks,
Camera, notebook, sunscreen, togs,
Glenn Colquhoun’s book ‘Playing God’,
My tiki T-shirt, student ID,
Presents for all my friends-to-be,
Toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss,
Metro Mag for all the goss,
My passport and my boarding passes,
My crayola felt tip washable markers,
St Christopher necklace from my mates,
Instructions to the boarding gates,
My optimism, my trepidation,
My welling pride in my home nation.

An Antarctic Address Book

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The Southern continent has been making its mark on New Zealand of
late, with snow falling low into the Canterbury foothills on the end
of an Antarctic breeze.

In the past few weeks I have had a taste of what it is like to live
even further south, thanks to our guided tours of several Antarctic
research stations: China’s year round Great Wall Station, Argentina’s
Almirante Brown summer base, and the British museum of Port Lockroy.
Despite the geographical distance, there are more similarities between
such stations and my house in Methven than you might think.

Otherwise known as ‘The Penguin Post Office’, Port Lockroy is one of
the most known tourist sites on the Antarctic Peninsula. Built in 1944
as part of a secret wartime military operation, it was then used by
British scientists up until the 1960s.

These days it acts as a museum, illustrating what life was like in
Antarctica half a century ago. On my first visit I was surprised to
see that the Esse coal stove in the kitchen was identical to the one
in our kitchen at home. While everyone else was oohing and aahhing
over the antique appliance and muttering about the chilly draft, I was
quietly impressed by the place. Compared to a weatherboard house from
1925, the hut was rather cosy.

Great Wall Station was much better insulated, with buildings built on
stilts to resist the buildup of winter ice. The large blue building in
the middle of the complex was reminiscent of the Blue Pub, although
the station’s population would not have filled our local bar. The
summer maximum of 40 inhabitants suddenly made all the rural
settlements in our area seem like bustling metropolises.

There are now over 60 research bases in Antarctica, with the peninsula
being the most populated area. It takes a special kind of person to
spend a whole year in Antarctica, let alone two or more. At our visit
to Brown Station we saw evidence of what happens when you put the
wrong sort of person in such an environment: the charred remains of
the original 1984 base are courtesy of the station doctor. When told
he would be required for a second winter season, he promptly burnt the
place down to ensure a ride out of there. Luckily we have State
Highway One heading through Ashburton, so if the going gets really
tough, there is always the option of taking an excursion to the Big
Smoke.

Down here in Antarctica we’ve enjoyed tea with the Chinese, strong
black coffee with the Argentinians, and admired the English Esse, but
I really am looking forward to a steaming mug of milo on my return.
There are many different places to visit, but there really is no place
like home.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Being Blown Away

I thought I’d moved to Canterbury, not Kansas, but last Tuesday’s windstorm did its best to convince me otherwise. With winds gusting up to 250km/hr, I met the famous Nor’Wester, alright. In fact, it came barging thorough our front door without even knocking, contributing considerably to my Southern education in the process.

The first lesson was that down here it is necessary to take weather warnings much more seriously than I’m used to. The phrase ‘four seasons in one day’ is the standing forecast for Auckland, where on even the finest of blue sky days it pays to carry a raincoat ‘just in case.’ In such conditions, one just hangs out the washing once the load is done and crosses one’s fingers that the sun will come to the party. That’s what I did on Tuesday morning, which led to my sheets embarking on a very intimate relationship with the rosebush some hours later.

The second lesson was that a bicycle is not an appropriate mode of transport in 100km/hr wind gusts. As serene as Drew Barrymore looked as she sailed past the moon on her bike, the E.T. look is sure to end badly when practiced outside a Hollywood studio. Having cycled to my friend’s house shortly before the storm hit I found myself stranded there, helping to lash down outdoor furniture whilst battling constant Marilyn-Monroe moments with my skirt. The construction site fences cartwheeling down the street outside confirmed our suspicions that things were serious. The bike was stored in the shed and a car was dispatched to come to my rescue.

Later that evening, having prised apart pillowcase and plants, we were just contemplating what movie to watch – classic, action or perhaps The Wizard of Oz – when the wind joined in the debate, plunging us into darkness and forcing the romantic angle with a dinner by candlelight. It also forced us to turn back time by posing a most pressing question: how do you make microwave chocolate brownie in the absence of electricity? Use the fire, of course. Coals to the back, tray in the front, cake tin wrapped in foil on top and smoke detectors on full alert, we were ready. In fact, our makeshift oven was far less disastrous than it should have been, given that it was operated by a bunch of twenty-somethings who have always enjoyed the benefit of ‘fan bake’ and are accustomed to sourcing the majority of our recipes direct from the internet. (Lesson three for one member of our posse was that modems actually require power to work).

So, last week I learnt a thing or two about the power of the wind. Come Wednesday, twisted irrigators, upended truck and trailer units and shelterbelts lying like dominoes attested to its physical strength, but the storm also forced us to come up with the kinds of creative solutions that would make Spielberg proud.

 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!

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.