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.

And Then He Asked Me If I Had A “Plan”

Today I’m guesting a new friend and blogger, Julian Easterly, who is a travel writer who lives and works abroad and whose blog Between the Breaths you’ll want to check out after you’ve heard from him here. Like me, Julian is interested in why we travel as well as how travel affects us. Because he’s also a writer, he addresses the more complex aspects of travel that most people don’t typically think of, like: how does my travel affect others around me? I love the way he thinks and I’m pretty sure you’re going to appreciate it too. Here’s a snatch of “flash fiction” that combines the authenticity of true-life dialogue with that emotional powder keg that can be found only in a father and son going head-to-head. Enjoy!

And Then He Asked Me If I Had A “Plan”
The play by play for how I told my Dad I wanted to live abroad.

“You’ll fall behind in the job market!” Boom!
“How’d you plan to make live?” Smack!
“You graduated at the top of the class. Get grad school paid for!” Bam!
And finally the coup de grace: “Do you even have a plan?” Wham!
Even with a phone hot against my ear, I feel like Sugar Ray Robinson trying to parry and counter these punches.
I would like to hang up on the guy, but it’s my dad. It’s been about a month or two since we’ve last talked. I calm down.
I tell him again about my decision to wait for graduate school and proceed to recount reasons: youth; languages; the immediate shortage of cushy positions and lucrative tenured tracks.
Rushing of into a 6+ year Doctorate program could potentially waste a vital portion of my life that I will never get back.
Two years, I tell him. Two years to see if it’s what I want to do.
“Ok. But it sounds like you don’t have a plan.”
I take a breath, and admit “Okay dad. You’ve got me. I don’t have a full proof plan.” I explain to him that I have a little job teaching English, and a job as a cook in a restaurant I frequent, and that of course continuing coaching football helps.
“Sounds like minimum wage, son.”
Yea dad, I say, the pay won’t be the best.
“Where are you going to live?”
The conversation continues in this fashion: He asks a logical question, I answer with what information I’ve gathered. He sighs and tells me that I could do better financially back home. As this conversation continues, the validity of his words becomes clearer.
Listen to the words of people who love and care about you.
He’s right. Aside from rudimentary notes in an old notebook and pages I’ve filled with connections and promises from people I’ve met, I don’t have a concrete plan. Admitting that I did not deny the argument was my first step.
It’s necessary to admit the reality, yet despite it all, go through with it all. Work. School. Live. Discover how to avoid the goldfish bowl.
Demonstrate that you’ve put an effort to research.
I talked to Dr. Carino, Brennan, and Bates, I say.
“Your professors?”
Yea.
At the hour mark fatigue starts to set. I decide tell him that I sought advice from people with seats at those lucrative tenured jobs. Of course, they wished that I would go to graduate school, a year or so break for self-discovery wasn’t a bad idea. Dr. Brennan had even been taken a year off between the transition himself to travel and experience.
It’s hard to convince a man of experience with one sole voice, after all sometimes the harmony of a symphony mores more than the solo.
Find a common ground.
We discuss my dreams and my goals for some time. I can tell he can hear the excitement in my voice as I talk about the possibilities: graduate school abroad, teaching in Korea, farming in Thailand. All those connections with new cultures. I remind him of that trip to Cancun he and my mom had almost paid off and never left for. I tell him I’ve paid in work, and that I want to enjoy the opportunity.
Silence.
In concession, or rather a momentary retreat, he tells me softly, “No matter what you do, I will always support you son. I love you boy. Goodbye.”
Love you too, I reply. Peace.
We hang up the phone, and I sit on the bed, emotionally drained. I lie on my bed and wonder why my dad didn’t take that first trip abroad. What made him stop his payment? If he hadn’t, maybe he would understand why I was so passio—
I call him back immediately with so much I want to say, but I settle for a simple, Thank You that he accepts with explanation.
I promised myself I would get him to make that trip to Cancun one day soon. I had to. Because a simple Thank You doesn’t quite suffice for parents who exchange cruise payments for cribs and diapers.

Why Point of View Matters So Much

 When my son was a baby and being fussy, my husband would sometimes hang him upside down by his feet and John Patrick would almost instantly become quiet, widen his eyes and stare about as if fascinated with his new upside down world. My husband usually said something like “alternative perspective” to explain our baby’s reaction but the take-away was: sometimes you just need to look at the world differently.

I’ve discovered that that idea translates to grownups, too. I really believe that you can’t really see your world by sitting still (or upright). To see a thing (or a problem) properly, you have to get up, walk around it, squat down, close one eye and then move to the other side. The way an artist stalks around his model, squinting at her from every angle before attacking the canvas is, I firmly believe, how you need to tackle your life. I used to think that summing up what you’ve done and where you thought you were going—almost as if you had sixty seconds on the Oprah Winfrey program to tell the world about who you were—was an effective way to get a snapshot of your life. Kind of like the famous thirty-second elevator speech we’re all supposed to have. But like a lot of things that sound too easy, I don’t think a simple statement can cut it. I’ve come to believe that the effort of standing up and moving about your life to get a better view of it is essential. I bring this up for two reasons. One, I just read an awesome piece by Claudia Welch in this month’s Romance Writers Report called “Playing with a Full Deck” where she talks about identifying theme in your novels. She says, basically, that beyond the specific, obvious, theme which is evident in any one particular book, if you look at your work as a whole—all your series, your short stories, your stand-alones—you’ll find a theme that comes from the very heart of who you are and one that shows up in all your books in some form or another. I loved this exercise and was astounded to realize that all my books have me putting my protagonist on foreign soil or in an alien environment of some kind. I clearly have a “fish out of water” focus that finds its way into all my books. Now, the reason for that isn’t too earth-shattering (I’m an ex-military dependent and moved about the world relentlessly as a kid), but the fact of it, was. Knowing yourself and what drives you is always helpful when it comes to your work.

Looking down on the town of Freiberg, Germany

The other reason has to do with the fact that I just got back from an overseas trip with my husband and that now seventeen year old baby, and the experience impressed upon me yet again the amazing benefits of travel for perspective in your life. I asked my husband when we got back if he thought he might do things differently in his daily round now that we were back and he replied: “Of course.” See, it really is that obvious. It’s like stepping out of your body, out of your present lifestyle and being able to see, almost clinically, how you live “back home.” And that’s important because until you take the emotion out of it, until you step away and view it from an alternative perspective, you can’t see how many short cuts you’ve started to take, or how many habits you’ve created that don’t work.  I hope my new point of view of how I live stays with me. But if it doesn’t, I know where I can buy a plane ticket to get it back again.

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.