A Change of Philosophies

When I was young, I had two fairly insipid philosophies that I lived by.

Home is where your clothes are,” and “Being afraid of something is not a reason not to do it.”

Now they sound idiotic to me at this age but I understand my point of view at the time. I traveled around a good bit so after living out of a suitcase for awhile, I’d inevitably bask in the pleasure of having all my clothes around me. (If I was somewhere long enough to have them sent to me.) Clothes are really so much more personal than furniture for defining who you are, for comforting you and for providing familiarity.

Especially when you’re young, your clothes announce to the world how you hope to be seen: sexy or too-casual-to-care or Marian-the-librarian or what have you. Your wardrobe contains your special party clothes (the ultimate costumes for projecting how you wish to appear to others) as well as seasonal clothes. Like Christmas ornaments, when you pull a sweater out of storage after not seeing it for a year, you not only feel like it’s somewhat new again, but it has a few memories attached to it, too.

I think it interesting that I saw my clothes—something so innately portable—as the thing that attached me to a place or  made me feel at home. Because I’m not nor have I ever been much of a clotheshorse or fashionista. I certainly never invested any real money in clothing and when I finally got to a certain age (and financial level) one of the first things I told myself was that I’d never buy clothes out of season again. (So smart and frugal, but such an exercise in delayed gratification.)

The second philosophy—and the one I hope my own son never thinks of let alone follows—was no doubt created because I’d made up my mind to do something and didn’t want a little thing like better judgment or second-thoughts to derail me. (Come to think of it, this also goes along with the idea of being my own worst enemy but that is another post.)

I did things in my youth that took me waaaaaay outside my comfort zone and I did them because I knew I’d be glad somewhere down the line that I did (and I was right BTW). I likely also did them because I knew someone else had done them first (so I wasn’t totally crazy), but I knew that without that little push from myself, (the philosophy chanted like a mantra at particularly scary moments) I wouldn’t open the doors that I needed to open.

My Dad used to say when you’re on your deathbed, it won’t be the things you did in your life that you’ll regret but the ones you didn’t do. I have to say I took that way of thinking to its limits most of my life. I tend to be a tad shy (and lazy) and I’m definitely more comfortable wrapped up in an afghan in front of a gas fire with a cup of tea than I am reaching out to people or accepting invitations or pulling on my boots and going out into the chilly night.

I think a lot of the promises we make to ourselves when we’re young have to do with the idea of freedom or staying true to ourselves, even if we don’t consciously put it into exact words like that. I also think, at the end of the day, that it’s fear, generally, that keeps us from fulfilling those promises. I was always determined that I wouldn’t let being afraid—even justifiably so—get the best of me.

That whole concept pretty much came to a screeching halt the day I found out I was pregnant.

I swear I don’t think I was ever really very anxious about anything until I had a child. And then, a whole new world of things to worry about opened up to me. Forget traveling on a whim to Bahrain as a single woman with a backpack and no permanent address—try watching your sixteen year-old drive off alone in the family car for the first time.

It comes down to what you value most. I’m not saying I didn’t value my safety when I walked through Little India (in heels) alone and at dusk in Singapore in the late eighties. But the reassurance of “what are the chances?” doesn’t really give any comfort at all when it’s your own precious child whose taillights you’re watching go around the curve as he heads toward I-285.

These days, when I wave him off to wherever his road takes him (currently that’s back to his dorm room an hour and half away), I realize that my old mantras or “philosophies” were really just tools to help me go forward—to get my bite out of life without letting it pass me by (all too easily done).

Nowadays, I don’t worry about taking chances or staying open to surprises and opportunities. My current codes-to-live-by are all different variations, pretty much, of the same “please keep him safe” prayer. I know “safe” isn’t a great way to live if it’s your life. But from a mother’s point of view, it’s exactly spot-on.

Again, it comes down to what you value most. I know I’ve still got a lot to do in this life—but mostly, I don’t think it’s stuff that will require much bravery anymore. I figure I’ll deal with whatever’s coming with the tools I’ve already gathered and honed from a lifetime of living experiences.

As far as suggesting philosophies-to-live-by for my son and the world he lives in, I have to say that while I’m impressed that my own parent was brave enough to tell me I’d regret not doing things worse than doing them, I’m just not quite that unselfish –or brave—to pass the same philosophy along to my own child.

Not yet anyway.

 

What are YOU watching these days?

What does it say about us as a people that most of us can name ten brands of perfume or handbags or yogurt, but can’t name ten US presidents?

19066849 When I was younger and living overseas, I would frequently get good-naturedly ragged (I assume it was good-natured) about the average American’s reputation for being uninterested in anything that happens outside of America.  Living in a foreign country, I was amazed at how interested everyone in my host country was in foreign news. New Zealanders will pour over news from South Africa or Japan with nearly the same interest as their own island. I knew what they said about my country was true—most people I knew “back home” didn’t know or care to know about things happening outside the country.

I have a not-so-funny anecdote about my best friend in the States who, when I said I was moving from New Zealand to the UK, asked me if that was closer to Atlanta. (She has a graduate degree and is an accomplished clinician. She just never bothered to look at a map beyond the borders of the U S of A.)

You know what I think? If anything, we’ve gotten worse.

Why is it that the xenophobic Americans have gotten even more stand-offish?  I don’t think it has anything to do with fear of terrorists or a baseline distrust of other countries. If anything,  you’d think a heightened concern for our safety  abroad would prompt an obsession in the average American regarding the motives and goings-on in other countries.

No, I think it’s more insidious than that.  I think it’s us.

I think the cable and ready-availability of nearly 24-7 celebrity news and lowest common denominator action films has helped us lose our ability to focus on things that really matter in lieu of who got married to whom or who is having whose baby out of wedlock.

And don't even get me started on the weight problem we have in this country!

And don’t even get me started on the weight problem we have in this country!

I grant you it’s easier to listen to silly gossip or watch semi-famous people dodge photographers than it is to sit through a Ken Burns documentary or listen to a pundit explain our sorry political situation at the moment, but apathy does not explain this phenomenon—not at all. You have to ask yourself: why are we more willing to watch something that has  nothing to do with us instead of something that fundamentally impacts the way we live?

What does that say about who we are?

Now just get rid of all the boring "text," and you'll have tomorrow's best seller!

Now just get rid of all the boring “text,” and you’ll have tomorrow’s best seller!

At the very least, I’d say we are a nation of drastically shortened attention spans. If you look at the popular movies and books of today and slap them up against what was “in” just twenty years ago, you’ll see more exposition and description in novels back in the eighties; more leisurely approaches in movie settings and characterizations. Today, we’re so impatient to ingest the story, our books read like scripts—mostly white space and dialogue because everyone knows readers won’t trudge through  descriptions to set the scene.

By catering to the fast and easy, the get-on-and-get-off mentality of the typical American consumer (and if you’re selling to them, baby, you’re catering to them), we have permanently altered the pace and methodology of how we deliver information, entertainment and even education.

I found this amazing quote that supports my theory from a popular politician who made a stunning prediction that, I think, brings us to the cusp of where we stand today. He said:

 “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step in and crush us…? Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa…could not by force take a drink from the Ohio (River) or make a track on the Blue Ridge…in a thousand years. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

That comment by Abe Lincoln is more relevant today than it was when he delivered it in 1838. The way we live today—dedicated to a culture of gossip and consumerism and fast, painlessly delivered data (and that mostly nonsense)—is a personification of us as a country, a noose coiled around our collective necks, kicking the stool we’re standing on.

And the hell of it?  We can’t avoid where we’re going because—even though we’re determined to wear blindfolds for the trip—we are still the ones in the driver’s seat.

The Merits of Losing

There’s this building on Peachtree Road in the neighborhood of Buckhead in Atlanta. It’s a very old apartment building called the Al Hambra. I lived there in the mid-eighties. The Al Hambra was all hardwood floors and Mediterranean-styled rounded doorways. My apartment had a stone balcony that faced Peachtree Road and I could sit out there with my friends, drink beer and watch the Peachtree Road Race every year, or just sit out and drink beer.

My apartment is the bottom one, far left (nearly out of the picture.) I've set two mysteries here in my Maggie Newberry mystery series.

My apartment is the bottom one, far left (nearly out of the picture.) I’ve set two mysteries here in my Maggie Newberry mystery series.

Sometimes, if I couldn’t sleep, I’d wrap up in a comforter and sit out there and watch the night life happen right in front of me and I always felt perfectly safe. The sounds of sirens and horns honking were background noise to my life  for the three years I lived there.

Because the Al Hambra is located in Buckhead near Garden Hills, I could walk to the neighborhood restaurants, mom ‘n pop grocers, pubs and outdoor cafes. The city’s first Fellini’s Pizza opened up next door to the Al Hambra and although in the beginning it was tattered and dark and bare bones, it was also exotic and earthy and quickly became popular. I liked meeting friends there to sit outside, eat pizza (and drink beer) because you could feel the hum of the busiest street in the city as it flew by. Living at the Al Hambra made me feel alive. It  made me feel like something exciting was about to happen.

I loved the Al Hambra. And I loved living there. But more interesting, I think, is the story of how I lost it. And how losing it became a major turning point in my life. In fact it became the final event in a series of four events that happened over a six-week period that changed my  life for good.

The first event that happened was when I lost my job as Creative Director at the ad agency that had the Hardee’s Hamburger account. It was the only account we had and when we lost it, we closed the doors. Like most out-of-work writers, I just turned my hand to freelancing with no real financial hardship.

A week later, the second event happened when I saw the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Seeing that movie was significant because it lit a fire under me that helped push me over the line right when things needed to happen. That movie illustrated to me that I was young and free and there were adventures in the world to be had if I would just tap into the courage needed to find them.

The third thing that happened was that a good friend of mine introduced me to a man who was visiting him from Auckland, New Zealand. We hit it off and as I didn’t have a job to worry about, I made plans to come “down there” and visit him. I bought a round-trip ticket to Auckland for a month’s visit. I began to view my coming visit to the South Pacific as the Big Adventure I was looking for.

My parents weren’t thrilled.

Auckland is a long way away, even for a visit. It was in fact the furthest point on the globe, except for Adelaide, Australia, from where they lived in Jacksonville, Florida. In those days—before computers, before cellphones, before LOTR—most people I talked to didn’t even know where NZ was on the map.

As it happened, my folks were right to be worried. And that’s because two weeks before I was to board the jet to LAX that would take me to Auckland, I got a letter from the management company of the Al Hambra telling me to vacate the premises. They were turning the building into condos. If I—and everyone else—would clear out within thirty days, we’d get our deposits back no questions asked.

This was the fourth and most crucial event. With no job and now no apartment to come back to in ATL, there was no reason not to stretch my visit as long as I wanted to stay. With my stuff safely in storage, my plants donated to friends, a hunky new love-interest with a really cool English accent waiting for me, I was able to turn away from all the security, comfort, and familiarity of my life in Atlanta—in the States for that matter—and prepare to embrace the unknown and experience the thrill of discovering the larger world that was out there.

My parents nearly went nuts.

But it was one of the very best things I’ve ever done.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour. This was the view from my living room window in Parnell.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour. This was the view from my balcony in Parnell.

If I hadn’t lost my apartment at the Al Hambra, I wouldn’t have taken that last step—to find a job down there, which I did, or to spend the next two years living abroad and traveling the world solo—Bahrain, Australia, Singapore, Tahiti, Fiji, London, St-Tropez. The experience changed me fundamentally—as travel always does. The things I saw, the people I met, helped make me the person I am today.

My grand adventure came together in a series of coincidences combined with lucky kismet over a six-week period. But I was ready for it. I was looking for it.

I didn’t make it happen. But I knew to let it happen when it came.

I’ve recently moved away from Atlanta—my home for more than thirty years—but when I used to drive down Peachtree Road—to take my son to some piano competition or football practice, or to meet my husband for lunch (not the same fellow I should add)—and pass by the Al Hambra, I always felt a rush of gratitude when I saw it.

I felt gratitude for the joy I had living there, once upon a time when I was a single girl in Buckhead, unfettered and alive.

But also for the thrill I once had leaving there, too.

The View from Auckland to Shanghai

As I am beginning the critical week before taking my son to his dorm at the University of Florida and all that that entrails—mega laundry, packing, last minute wellness checkups, and of course freelance assignments that I was told wouldn’t be needed until the last week in August—I am once more punting to family friend and all-round Uber Traveler Adam Jones-Kelly to bring a smile to your lips (especially since it’s not you that has to endure the 17-hour flight or the hairy crabs) until I return next week. Enjoy!

You’ve heard the old adage “going around your ass to reach your elbow?” Apparently I view this as the most direct route.
When my colleague Sia heard I was going to be in New Zealand he asked if I’d pop over to Shanghai for a couple of days of meetings.
“Sure,” I said, “that sounds perfectly reasonable!”
I don’t recall being drunk during this conversation, or having suffered a concussion recently, so I’m left struggling to explain this decision.
I like to think I’m fairly well-versed in world geography, and moderately informed when it comes to travel times between countries. For some reason I still can’t quite fathom I really did manage to convince myself that China and New Zealand are right next door.
The trip from Auckland to Shanghai took 17 hours.
Soo has stopped speaking to me.
Before making the day-long trek north to China’s largest city Soo and I enjoyed one last day with our friends in New Zealand’s largest city.
We left Rotorua bright and early, getting us into Auckland just after lunch. Soo checked us into our hotel, the fantastic Westin in the Viaduct Basin, while I returned our rental car. After freshening up and grabbing a bag of dirty laundry (Jo had graciously offered to let us do some much-needed washing at her place that night) Soo and I headed to Mt. Eden, an extinct volcano in the middle of town.
Mt. Eden offers some rather stunning panoramic views of Auckland, as does One Tree Hill, which is where Jo mystifyingly went to pick us up for dinner.
One Tree Hill is another extinct volcano, on the other side of town. Jo clearly believed we’d gone there because we only said “We’re at Mt. Eden” about 27 times. Our fault entirely.

Soo at One Tree Hill sans the one tree.

One Tree Hill, so named because of the distinctive solitary tree that once stood at its peak, doesn’t have the same deep crater as Mt. Eden, which is an entirely cool thing to see if you’ve never been inside a volcano. (Maori activists attacked the Hill’s namesake in 2000, damaging it beyond repair and causing its removal. It certainly seems like locals should now call the place No Tree Hill, but they don’t.)
During most of the dozen calls made back and forth while she was trying to find us Jo tried to convince us we really were at One Tree Hill. I can only assume she deemed us terminally incapable of identifying our own location.
She initially told us to meet her at Stardome Observatory, which she said was at the bottom of the hill.
We spent some time looking for it with no success, which made sense since Stardome is at One Tree Hill.
She then asked if we could find Cornwell Park.
We couldn’t, of course, because Cornwell Park is at One Tree Hill.
Soo and I walked around Mt. Eden for an hour, sweating in the hot sun while lugging around a big bag of dirty laundry and the two bottles of wine we’d bought for dinner before Jo finally found us.
When we got in the car Jo announced that she had pavlova, and I immediately forgot my frustrations. (My affections are easily bought.)
Jo cooked us one helluva Kiwi feast, including lamb, chicken skewers, steak and sausages. Soo pronounced it the best meal we’d had all week in New Zealand, and that was before Jo produced the pavlova. It was an absolutely perfect night with wonderful friends, and made us all that much more saddened to leave New Zealand.

Irvine, Adam and Jo enjoying the pavlova!

That dismay was only heightened when I told Soo that we’d have to be up at 2:45am to catch our flight. Seventeen-hour trips are bad enough. Seventeen- hour trips that begin well before dawn are downright miserable.
Upon arriving in Shanghai we had barely enough energy to slurp down some room-service soup before passing out.
On our last trip to China Soo was made sick by having to eat things like snapping turtle, king cobra, and crabs with hair. In an effort not to suffer the world’s fastest divorce I promised not to put her through that again.

The long-suffering Soo in Shanghai pre-pedicure.

Sadly, I kept that promise, which means I don’t have anything particularly extraordinary or gross to blog about. I worked all day, and the most exciting moment occurred when Soo sat down for what she thought was going to be a pedicure and instead had the otherwise-sane appearing man take a knife to her toes, chopping the nails right off. No pedicure for Soo.
She reported that she was so shocked by the sight of him coming at her with a sharp object that she lost her voice, and was incapable of even uttering the word “no!”
The toenail butcher did give her an exceptional foot massage, so this sort of made up for it, but Soo will probably stick to pedicures in English-speaking countries from now on.
We ended our brief stay in Shanghai shopping on Nanjing Road. Soo needed a few items for friends, and shoes for herself. (Open-toed shoes just won’t do when you have naked toes, you see.)

At least that’s what I’m told.

Incredible Beauty and Sheep Farts

I’m finding myself in a weird wedge of time at the moment where I’m fairly obsessed with the book I’m currently writing, a time-travel romance/suspense set in Heidelberg, Germany in the late 1600s. I find I am driven to wallpaper my world: house, website, blog, Facebook with images of Heidelberg. You know how it is when you’re obsessed with something, you crave seeing it  everywhere? Well, that’s how I feel when I see the silhouette of the ruins of Heidelberg Castle above the Altstadt or the Church of the Holy Spirit Domplatz or hell, even  cobblestone streets. While I am full into this other world (and loving it) I find I have little to no energy for creating a fresh blog post. (And frankly the new puppy hasn’t become any less demanding either!) Ergo, I am turning once again to Adam Jones-Kelly and his ever informative and vastly entertaining blog series OnSite: Eating, Sleeping & Coping Around the World.  Today’s post from Adam helps satiate another obsession of mine, all-things-NZ, and I’m confident you’ll love it as I did.

New Zealand is often referred to as God’s own Country or The Paradise of the Pacific. Make the three hour drive from Auckland north to the Bay of Islands and it’s easy to understand why.

New Zealand is a nature park that accidentally became a country. Her appx. 10,000 mile long coastline sports some of the most pristine beaches in the world. One fifth of the North Island and two thirds of the South island boast mountains so spectacular they jockeyed for attention with the special effects in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. New Zealand has an incredibly diverse landscape, home to a tropical paradise in the north, with glaciers and some of the world’s best skiing in the south.

Only 4.3 million people live in New Zealand, with a population density of about 13 people per square mile. (The number is 30 per square mile in the United States, 244 per square mile in Britain and a whopping 6,500 per square mile in Hong Kong.)

New Zealand’s citizens share space with an estimated 40 million sheep, and the country’s biggest pollution problem is the methane produced by sheep farts. In 2008 the government even proposed a tax on farmers whose sheep passed too much gas. (I don’t think they ever figured out how to measure this, but I’d sure love to have seen the debates in parliament!)

What this all demonstrates (besides the fact that politicians are all completely nutty) is that New Zealand is a remarkably untainted natural oasis. “God’s own country” is perhaps an insufficient description of this stunning land.

I won’t make it to the South Island this trip, but I have been lucky enough to see much of the North Island, beginning with my drive up the coast from Auckland to Paihia in the Bay of Islands.

Encompassing some 150 islands, many of which still remain relatively unexplored, The Bay of Islands is a marine paradise home to whales, stunning beaches and lots and lots of playful dolphins. It was the latter Soo and I couldn’t wait to see. “Swim with the dolphins” tours are as intricately linked to the Bay of Islands as porn stars are to Tiger Woods.

The drive North from Auckland takes you past Ruakaka Beach, through towns like Waipu, Warkworth and Whangarei, and I think we stopped at every one.

In Warkworth we enjoyed an absolutely wonderful meal at a small café called Ginger. I had a traditional New Zealand mince ‘n cheese pie, while Soo devoured a steak sandwich she described as “to die for.” (I tried it, and agreed – I was almost willing to kill for another bite.) We also had a perfectly scrumptious “ginger crisp” for dessert, which was nearly good enough to make me forsake pavlova as my favorite kiwi treat.

The incomparable pavlova

From Warkworth we continued north to Whangarei.

Whangarei (pronounced “fongaray”) is a delightful little coastal town, but the Whangarei Falls steal the show. Passing through town without visiting the falls is like reading Playboy “just for the articles;” No one really does it. It’s described as the most photogenic waterfall in New Zealand, and amazingly there’s never anyone else there. I’ve visited three times, and almost always have the area all to myself.

But, beautiful as The Falls were, dolphins were our goal, so on to Paihia we went.

Paihia is a bustling, somewhat touristy seaside town known as “The Jewel of the Bay of Islands,” though this entire region is so gorgeous that this is much akin to pointing to one M&M in a bowl of M&M’s and confidently proclaiming “That, my friends, is THE M&M of M&M’s!”

We dropped our bags in our room at the Paihia Beach Resort (Soo and I both strongly recommend this wonderful boutique hotel) and headed for the wharf.

We choose the Explore New Zealand tour group for our dolphin adventure. They took us, and about 30 other eager tourists, out on the stunning azure waters of the Bay in search of the graceful mammals, and it didn’t take long to find them. It was almost as if the dolphins were looking for us. They couldn’t wait to swim up alongside out boat, and were literally jumping out of the water in anticipation of the happy tourists entering their world.

Soo and I were delighted, and snapped about 300 pictures. We took turns jumping in the water and swimming with the immensely playful pod.

The dolphins were thrilled when you’d dive down with them or try to keep pace as they raced along beside you. They’d dart, jump and splash along with all the energy of a 6-year-old kid. Their joyful innocence was contagious.

Soo and I spent about 30 minutes each in the water with them. The dolphins are playful and FAST – trying to keep up is exhausting. But it was the most fun exhaustion we’ve ever experienced.

There was nothing we could do to compete with the day we’d just had. We sufficed with going out for seafood (not dolphin) and talking endlessly about our wondrous day. We were on such a high from the swim that just about any food would do.

Regrettably we found 35 Degrees South, a place where depressed sea life goes to die. Our waitress, who spoke no English – not even Kiwi English – may or may not have brought us what we ordered. Whatever it was tasted like the inside of my colon. Soo’s pan-seared scallops could have doubled as rat poison, and they even managed to make my fish ‘n chips taste like sweaty foot. I’m convinced they fed us whatever had died in their filthy aquarium the week before.

We couldn’t eat it.

We tried instead Kava, across the street, and were rewarded with food almost as delectable as the view from this ocean-front eatery. Perfect end to a perfect day.

I’ve yet to be assaulted by one of the famed sheep farts, but I’m pretty sure one of those dolphins let one go while I was diving. Didn’t matter – this was one of the coolest days of my life. I’ll never forget it, or stop appreciating how lucky I was to experience it.

Being Kiwi

The combination of a new puppy in the family (relentless!) and the fact that my guest blogger today, Adam Jones-Kelly, is a wonderful writer, blogger and world traveler (since he was seven years old) has me handing over the helm of my blog yet again this week. For my readers who are drawn to all the travel-love I often indulge in here—plus any Kiwis in the group!—today’s post will be a total delight. I encourage you to follow Adam’s blog at OnSite: Eating, Sleeping & Coping Around the World. He really has a razor sharp take on the places he visits—always spot-on, VERY funny and insightful—and his photos are stellar. I’m partial to his Kiwi post, presented here, because of my love affair with that country. His photos in this post, fairly recently taken, had me fumbling for my Amex card until my husband reminded me of the likely effects of taking a puppy that hasn’t been housetrained yet on a 16-hour Air New Zealand flight. Enjoy!

Brendan Gill once wrote “Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious.”
The Kiwis were apparently paying attention.
New Zealanders are an irreverent bunch, playful, adventurous, and happy, quite possibly the happiest people I’ve ever known. Kiwis don’t just live life, they attack it, with a wink and a grin.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour

The approach to the world’s highest cliff jump has a couple of somber warnings for wary visitors, carefully placed along the gravely walkway.
This is not surprising, since one side of the walkway is a sheer cliff, off which you’d enjoy a 300-foot plummet before face-planting into the canyon below at 100 miles per hour.
What is surprising is that the signs neglect to mention the certain and painful death lurking mere inches away, instead alerting passersby to be on careful lookout for gnomes.
Life here is not real serious.
My favorite all-time Kiwi billboard was selling itself, and proudly proclaimed that it “Stands out like dog’s balls.”
I love Kiwis.
Before leaving Queenstown we all agreed that a ride on the Skyline Gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak was in order, and a visit to Fergberger a must.
So, still peeling so extravagantly from my Bora Bora sunburn that I looked like a leper begging for coins, we queued up for the five minute ride up the mountain. Though shedding skin in such profusion does garner you a great deal of personal space, the line was long, so Soo and I amused ourselves by peeling large flakes off my arm and depositing them at the feet of horrified tourists.
Once to the top we quickly forgot all thoughts of tormenting fellow travelers, so magnificent were the vistas on display as Queenstown spread out before us, enveloped by the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps and kissing the shore of Lake Wakatipu.
It’s catch-your-breath beautiful, and we happily settled in at the bar at the Skyline restaurant to enjoy a drink while staring out the window. (The restaurant itself is a buffet, allegedly a really poor one, and costs a fortune. We failed to come up with any reason to eat there since lounging in the bar area afforded you the same views.)
That out of the way, our last Queenstown must-do was lunch at Fergberger. The hole-in-the-wall joint making the biggest, juciest burgers you’ve ever seen, started a decade ago because the owner, Ferg, believed that locals deserved a spot to eat when they were “drunk to hell.” Their website pleasantly notes that in the early days the restaurant was guilty of swapping “chips for tits.” Ah, Kiwis.
There’s always a line out the door, and once having ordered it takes 20 minutes to get your burger, but it’s mouth-watering oh-so-worth-it deliciousness. Among my favorite menu items are the Sweet Bambi, the Cockadoodle Oink, the Holier Than Thou, the Bun Laden (falafel, of course) and the Cock Cajun burger, which apparently has nothing to do with sex, though after eating one you’ll need a cigarette. I sure did.
We unhappily departed Queenstown on Air New Zealand. (Unhappily because we were leaving, not because we were on Air New Zealand. It is, in fact, one of the world’s top-rated airlines, winning the 2011 Air Transport World’s Airline of the Year award for the second time in three years, but one that, being Kiwi, doesn’t take itself too seriously. And it’s perhaps the only airline on earth capable of convincing me to pay attention to the here’s how you fasten your seat belt, put on your life vest and find the emergency exit in the unlikely event of a water landing routine. Air New Zealand accomplished this by presenting the airline safety features in a video that incorporates Richard Simmons, 70s dance music, flight crew in nothing but body paint and the members of the national rugby team.)
It’s hysterical, completely endearing and utterly Kiwi.
The first few minutes of our flight, however, were less endearing.
My wonderful friend Jo is one of those people practiced at supervising everything around her, even those things that don’t really require supervision. The pilots on our flight unhelpfully declined to allow Jo to manage things from the cockpit, so she was left to fret about how they were doing in the back with the rest of us.

The author with a few of the 40 million sheep that make NZ home!

Regrettably, they gave us plenty to fret about for the first few minutes.
It was terribly turbulent upon takeoff, apparently not uncommon for this little corner of the world. (Airfare Watchdog’s list of The World’s Most Thrilling Airports puts Queenstown #2, noting that “Queenstown… lies below The Remarkables, a jagged mountain range seen in The Lord of the Rings. On descent, passengers may feel a sudden drop in altitude caused by strong downdrafts. Bird activity by the runway, as well as frequent bad weather and poor visibility, also make Queenstown Airport a real knee-knocker.”)
On takeoff, we got the sudden drop.
The pilot, to his credit, was racing for higher altitudes, trying to get us out of the chop. But before he could get there we hit one of those downdrafts, and the plane plummeted. Screams could be heard from passengers all around us, and poor Jo, who’d brought two of her daughters on the trip, but left her eldest, Amy, behind in Auckland due to work constraints, was utterly convinced we were all going to die. Jo touchingly and tragically later shared that her one thought in the panic of the drop was that she was heartbroken to leave Amy alone in the world.
As you will have deduced by the existence of this blog, the pilots recovered, and we made it to Auckland just fine. I do think they distributed a wee bit more alcohol on that flight than is usual, however.
Auckland, where I lived as a child, is probably my favorite city on earth. Not because it’s beautiful in the way Paris or Venice are beautiful, and not because it’s exciting in the way Queensland was. (It is beautiful, this city of sails, and of course has its own brand of excitement. But that’s not what you take away from Auckland. It’s the feel of the city, the very Kiwiness, that makes it my favorite.)
When we first lived here 30 years ago my father used to rail at the impossibility of finding decent Chinese food anywhere in Auckland. Now, half the restaurants in town are Asian, and they’re scrumptiously authentic.
The city has changed, but it’s still Auckland. There’s still a family-owned fish & chippery on every corner, still a quaint dairy for every neighborhood. (A dairy in NZ is part convenience store and part old rural country store from our parents‘ early years. And they always have fresh, delicious ice-cream.)
On a typical Sunday afternoon in Auckland, the shopping malls are empty, the harbor full of sails. The landscape is dotted with extinct volcanoes, everywhere you look people are smiling and laughing, and it just feels like… home.
It occurs to me that so much of who I am today was shaped by New Zealand. For the past three decades, most of which I spent living in America, I’ve been busily being Kiwi, though I’m not sure I ever realized it.
And that’s made my life ever so much more fun. I’m so grateful for that part of me that never stopped being Kiwi.

Time Travel Made Easy

When you think about some of the reasons we read, I believe that being transported to another world must rank pretty highly. For me, anyway. I don’t dislike my life but I do love to escape to  places very different from it. This visit to a different world  coincides with my interest in time travel—something I  can’t easily do with a Delta Airline ticket but I can do with, say, any of Diana Gabaldon’s titles!

On the other hand, there have been a few counties in my life that were awesomely exotic to visit and also, in a small way, offered a taste of the experience of a different time, too. No offense to France or New Zealand—two of my most favorite countries in the world and two through which I’ve traveled extensively, but, at least in the sixties and the eighties, travel to either country could  easily make you feel as if you’d traveled back in time about twenty years. Depending on where you travel in France or NZ, you still can. (I have Kiwi friends who tell me today (with some annoyance) that times have changed and they have all the same GAP stores that I do in Atlanta.)

But my point is that there was a time, when I lived in New Zealand in the mid-eighties where I felt like I’d been dropped into an episode of Masterpiece Theatre. And we’re talking one of their Victorian period piece set dramas, not Inspector Lewis. While it’s true I’d spent the last five years living in a shopping mecca with easy access to Nordstroms, Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and the like, when I moved to Auckland there was only one department store (called Farmers) in the whole of the largest city of the country, and that looked like it’d been plucked from Macon, Georgia. In the mid 1950’s.

For me, it was charming. It was delightful. (Besides, you could always mail off “back home” for stuff you really needed.) And it was an opportunity to live in a time that my parents had lived in, to experience life in a slower pace.

The view from my rental house in Murray's Bay, 1986. The rise on the horizon is Rangitoto, an active volcano that served as a visual focal point no matter where in Auckland you lived.

Once, when I was having lunch with some colleagues in Wellington (I worked at Ted Bates advertising agency in Auckland) one of the men told a story about a rustic inn he’d stayed at on his honeymoon somewhere in Greece. He talked about how the little bar-restaurant he and his bride frequented kept serving them cold dinners. When I asked why the proprietors didn’t just pop the meals in a microwave, he looked at his pals at the lunch table and said: “God, I love Americans.” (Said in a way to mean NOT.) Then he  said: “I make $82,000NZ a year and I don’t have a microwave oven. Does anyone at this table have a microwave?” He then looked at me. “Do you have a microwave?” (Naturally a microwave was one of the first things I’d acquired after moving to NZ but I did think he was making a super BFD of the whole microwave thing and so took the opportunity to switch the subject as soon as was feasible.)

I admit it. I am a slave to my silly American conveniences!

My deduction was that possibly it was easier for Americans to experience time travel than those from some other countries. (Which, now that I think about it, might logically mean that people from other countries who visit the States would be able to experience travel to the future! Which would also be quite nice, I’m sure. ) (Okay, please hold all hate mail, I’m KIDDING.)

Has anyone else had the feeling that they were going back into time (or into the future) when they visited a foreign country? Was that something that added to the experience for you? If so, I’d love to hear any stories you’ve got!

Belonging Starts by Leaving Home

I have lived at 35 different addresses in my life. 13 of those addresses were before I turned 18. The 22 apartments and houses since then are the legacy of an ex-military dependent who spent the bulk of her childhood moving, saying goodbye, saying hello. My husband, who spent his entire childhood and adolescence in one neighborhood and in one house, is resigned to my relentless restlessness (eight of the 35 moves were with him.)

It’s my belief that the feeling of belonging and travel are not mutually exclusive. I think, to a certain degree, we travel in order to feel like we belong. Not only does travel give you a glimpse of the rest of the world, and therefore a snapshot of your place in it, it also helps you to see that we are all a part of one large human family.

In fact, the expatriate experience—one that you’d typically think of as apart or separate from the collective group—is really a definitive exercise in belonging. Nowhere is the feeling of belonging more strongly felt than when you live abroad and happen upon a fellow American. This could be someone you might not bother to cross the street for back home, yet in this context—say one where they are the only American besides yourself in a room of foreign nationals—they are met with real pleasure and enthusiasm.

Think of all the expatriate clubs and organizations in Paris, for example. First, there are an astounding 165,000 Americans living in France today (50,000 in Paris, alone) so they have no problem getting a taco party together to watch American gridiron or feeling like “they belong.”

Then, of course, there’s the technological revolution and how it’s affected the expatriate. When my husband and I lived overseas—he in the late seventies and me in the mid-eighties—contact with family and friends was expensive and slow. A letter to New Zealand from the States could easily take two weeks to get to me. The phone calls—expensive and infrequent—had serious quality issues, (like a humpback was squatting on the cable that threaded along the ocean floor from Jacksonville, Florida to Auckland, New Zealand.) My husband and I often remark how much easier it would be to live in a foreign country today, with skyping, and the instant gratification of cell phone contact. During the decades that he and I lived overseas, we felt truly and completely separated from our support group of friends and family back home.

The plus side, of course, was that it added to the immersion effect, for us, a large part of the reason we were overseas in the first place. He was living in Germany at the time and the lack of home contact probably aided in his mastering the language that much faster.

Like all travel, living abroad tends to give you perspective. It gives you a different point of view either of how you live back in the States—or how you want to live. Have you ever come back from a trip overseas and then made a drastic change in your life? I would love to hear how a trip or travel in general has changed you.

Downton Abbey Meets Invercargill

I just finished reading a great slice-of-life memoir a from a friend of mine in New Zealand. I lived in New Zealand from 1984 to 1986 and will always have a special place in my heart for that magical country “down under.” But what I’m loving about my friend’s memoir, The Boltons of the Little Boltons, is that it is a remembrance of the period of time in my friend’s life when he and his wife decided to move to the UK to become domestic servants to a wealthy, titled, English couple. They were successful writers in NZ who decided to have a Downton Abbey adventure (about twenty years before Julian Fellowes got his brainstorm.)

Like in the States, there is no class system in New Zealand so my friends, who are educated, well-travelled and professional people, had many significant adjustments and singular experiences (which, also, as it turned out, was brilliant material for a book!) I am loving the book and find myself so envious of their experience. Their children were grown and out of the nest when they had their adventure but, even so, England is a long, long way from New Zealand and their entire world.

As I read, I marvel at, not only their bravery (after all they are both intrepid and had lived in other parts of the world for extended periods of time so it wasn’t too much of a jolt for them in that way) but at their flexibility. It’s hard, after a certain age, to accept a wide range of inconveniences, which, I think, travel largely is. You have to be okay with strange beds, strange foods, lack of security in routine or routes, and a general fare of continual, relentless, surprise. When I was younger, that was the very thing I loved about travel—the not knowing, the surprises. Now, not so much. I hate how I’m so damn happy to crawl back into my own bed after a trip. Or how ecstatic I am to see the pets and the garden.

As it happens, I was a newlywed living in the Cotswolds while my Kiwi friends were being cooks and housemaids in London in 1991. They came down to our little cottage in Compton Abdale to see us—since a visit to either Atlanta or Auckland was harder to come by—and they told some of their “Upstairs-Downstairs” tales then. Actually, I might’ve been at a good age to do something similar, but just then I wasn’t “where they were.” They were empty nesters and I had yet to put the first egg in mine. Plus, I had just married and was keen to set up house and see the sights from that particular voyage first.

I think that’s the marvelous thing about memoirs—the re-living of a special time—a time that can never come again—can actually transport you in ways that no DC10 or Euro-rail system can. And if you write—or are lucky enough to share a memorable time with someone who does—you can recreate that time and go back there in vivid detail and living color over and over again. And when you do, inevitably you’ll meet and get to know all over again the most amazing people: not just loved ones who are no longer with us, but someone else who is no longer with us—your younger self.