Friday, January 1, 2010

blogger, you've been good to me...

To the scores of readers I have no doubt I've accumulated since posting on this site (ha...), I'd like to announce I'm making a switch over to Wordpress, which offers me a bit more flexibility and freedom in the design of my site. From now on, you can check out any new posts at the following address:

See ya there!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

a christmas of logistics.

Christmas in New Zealand is less about snow and sleigh bells and more about sun, sand and barbecues in the backyard.” –

It was to be my first summer Christmas. That was about all I knew of how the day would look not even a week before “the show” or “the big dance,” as they call it in Elf. Christmas may be the biggest commercial holiday, even the biggest economic stimulus for many countries as Wikipedia says, but for me and this year in New Zealand, I wanted to let the day take on a shape of its own, instead of racing to fill it with my own plans. My cynical brother would most likely say this was due only to having no plans to begin with, but all I knew was I wanted to be wearing flip-flops (or jandals, in Kiwi-speak) when I sat down to Christmas dinner.

I’d made the decision to stay in New Zealand over the holidays sometime back in July, a decision which makes it pretty awkward to hear songs like “I’ll be home for Christmas” and even more difficult to “break the news” to your family. But after talking with several of my friends, it came down to the fact that at least once in your life, you need a summer Christmas – and in what better form than a Kiwi Christmas? Most of all, I was simply just curious – what does Christmas look like without the possibility of snow and the roaring log fires and the hot chocolate?

I didn’t know where I’d spend it, though – while in Christchurch, I thought I’d return there; in Queenstown, I told everyone I’d come back for a few weeks over the holidays. If you can’t notice a pattern, I was only slightly influenced by where I was at the current moment. But ultimately, I chose neither – some might say I chose the option that made the least amount of sense: starting over in a new city only four weeks before Christmas. It was such an area of concern for people, as well – “But what are you going to do for Christmas?” became the resounding question. In a way, though, it was a challenge. How fast could I build a life in Wellington and find myself a home for Christmas day?

It certainly hadn’t felt like Christmas in the weeks leading up to it. I didn’t have to take part in the mad rush of getting all my shopping done, having bought and wrapped all my presents back in October to avoid exorbitant express shipping rates. And because I was staying out of the shops, I was inadvertently dodging most of the barrage of commercialism that so often accompanies Christmas. I wasn’t forced to endure Christmas music, tacky decorations, and seasonal specials. My world stayed fairly balanced in its Technicolor spectrum, the frequency of reds and greens remaining at relatively normal levels.

Indeed, the chief reminder in my life that it was the Christmas season was the number of offices that chose to have their work Christmas parties at my restaurant. There, they’d swap Secret Santa gifts and break open their crackers, wearing the paper crowns for about ten minutes until the novelty wore off and they’d fall crumpled to the floor where they’d lay with all the other rubbish from the crackers until the group left and we could swoop in to deal with the aftermath.

Another sign Christmas was on its way was the row of pohutukawa trees in full bloom outside the restaurant. In all my ignorance, I hadn’t realized the full extent of the red bloom’s significance. All I knew was the flower could be seen on anything from shopping bags from the gift shop of Te Papa Museum of New Zealand to the posters that hung in the front windows of banks wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. It wasn’t until talking with a customer one day about if and when summer would arrive in Wellington that she said while pointing to the trees outside, “Well, the Maori say if the pohutukawa flower early, it’ll be a good summer.” Now I had a name for them, a name that led me to a story on a New Zealand history website that gave me the final piece of the puzzle – the pohutukawa is actually considered New Zealand’s Christmas tree. No wonder their importance!

It’s a connection that extends back to the 1800s, when early writers spoke of the crimson flowers as “antipodean holly” – antipodean meaning “to refer to the land on the opposite side of the world compared to the speaker” – which, when you think about it, couldn’t be more fitting of a word for the perspective I myself am writing from.

From the Pohutukawa trees, I went on to read of the history of Christmas in New Zealand itself, the first recorded Christmas dinner being that which Abel Tasman and his crew held on board their ships in 1642. In 1769, James Cook again celebrated from the decks of his ship, the Endeavor, with a “goose pye” prepared from gannets. But it wasn’t until 1814 that the first proper Christmas service was led (and by proper, I mean only one actually held on New Zealand soil) by Samuel Marsden at Oihi Bay in the Bay of Islands. Kiwi Christmas traditions have come a long way since then, but I found the more I read and researched, the more disconnected I felt from the day itself and how I’d hoped it would look.

                                                           *     *     *


That was how much I’d estimated Christmas of 2009 to cost me. Shortly after I arrived in Wellington, the church I began attending with my flatmates offered those without a place to go for Christmas to spend it with one of their families. This seemed like a perfect option and I left that first Sunday happy to have finally gotten Christmas sorted. After beginning work at Vercelli’s and getting to know my English friend Aimee, we’d also talked about getting together later on in the day, perhaps heading to the beach – weather permitting, of course.

But a couple weeks before Christmas, I met an American at the restaurant, a man named Tim who, while originally from Chicago, had lived in New Zealand with his family for the past seven years. Tim said he and his wife Teri were having people over for a barbecue on Christmas Day – some English friends, some Kiwi friends – and he invited me to join his family. I liked the idea of it, the concept of an international mix, everyone coming together. I liked it so much, in fact, that I decided to take him up on his offer and forego other plans.

A few days later, I was serving yet another large group at Vercelli’s, this one in celebration of a young woman’s graduation from university. I’d gotten a good sort of banter going with the graduate’s father, a Sri Lankan man named Patrick, when he asked if he could get my number. He said he had a “lovely American couple” he wanted me to meet, so I didn’t see why not.

And so it seemed the day was set. As Tim and Teri were hosting a late lunch in the afternoon, I decided I’d spend Christmas morning Skyping home with family before a quick trip to the beach at Oriental Bay, a twenty-minute walk from my flat. That night, I hoped to meet up with Aimee or even Javier from work, homeless travelers sticking together. But two nights before Christmas, I had a voicemail waiting for me when I finished work. It was from Patrick and although it took me a few seconds to remember exactly who he was, it clicked just as I listened to an invitation to his house for Christmas brunch so I could meet this ever-acclaimed “lovely American couple.”

Turns out, it was going to be quite the Christmas of logistics. I spent Christmas Eve on the Metlink website, sorting out which bus and train lines I needed – and more importantly, just when exactly they would be running. To get to Patrick’s flat in Berhampore, I’d need two different buses, one costing me $3, the other $1.50. I’d then need another $3 to go from Patrick’s to the train station, from where I’d catch a train out to the Hutt Valley to Tim’s house. The train was $4.50 each way, so I estimated in total needing the aforementioned $16.50. I counted it out in small change from my restaurant tips, bought two bottles of champagne to give to each family, and fell asleep with visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.

I awoke Christmas morning to a blue sky and couldn’t have been happier. I was dead and determined to have as close to a summer Christmas as possible. In my jandals and sundress (okay, and sweater…), I waited at the bus stop…and waited…and waited, until finally a bus arrived. “Here, have a pen,” the driver says, handing me a red pen with a Santa bobble head attached to the end and “GOWELLINGTON” written on the side. I was glad to see someone in the Christmas spirit at least.

But because my first bus had arrived so late, I got to the second bus stop only to see I’d missed the one I needed and would have to wait a good twenty minutes, making me over half an hour late when I only had an hour to spend at Patrick’s in the first place. Although I debated whether or not it was worth the trip, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. A taxi drove by and I made a rash decision. “398 Sydney Street,” I said quickly before I could regret veering from my public-transport schedule.

Wouldn’t you know it, though, I was the first guest to arrive. I sat with two of Patrick’s sisters in their lounge as his brother, sister-in-law, and daughter walked into the room. Each time, Patrick would say, “You remember Candace, don’t you? She was our waitress at Vercelli’s for Laura’s graduation.” I loved watching their bemused faces as they racked their brains, trying to place me. I, on the other hand, felt almost like a Victorian servant allowed a chance to mingle with the family.

Finally, though, the American couple walked through the door, and I don’t think anyone could have missed their arrival. In true tacky-American style, Kathy had on wide-legged red pants, a green cardigan sweater, and – the pièce de résistance – a white turtleneck with a colorful pattern of Christmas trees, jingle bells and presents repeated all over it. Mein gott! was all I could think. “And check these out,” she says, pulling up her pants to show off the Santa design on her socks. “I’ve had this shirt for about twenty years, but it only comes out once a year.” Her clarifying comment at the end only mildly restored my faith in her fashion sense. Her husband Mike wasn’t dressed quite as loudly, but had a voice to make up for it. “I’m wearing these shorts in the vain hope it will get warm enough, but the merino sweater is more practical.”

Old friends of the family, Mike and Cathy were busy catching up with everyone in the room until Patrick came over and said to them, “Candace is the lonely American I invited over today. She’s the waitress I was telling you both about.” “Well why didn’t you say something earlier!” Cathy exclaims all of a sudden. “I hadn’t even made the connection. Well Patrick certainly fell in love with you,” she says and I let out a little nervous laughter. We were able to chat for a few minutes, as I learned they’ve lived in New Zealand for over fifteen years now, until it was time for lunch.

Growing up, Christmas lunch always looked a lot like Thanksgiving in my house – a turkey, potatoes, veggies, carrot cake, etc. And even though last year was spent in the French Alps on my snow trip with the Kiwis, the barbecue we had wasn’t anything too outside the unexpected. This year, however, certainly took a hard left turn at normal. The Sri Lankan meal featured spicy lamb curry and rice that had been baked in coconut milk. As if having a summer Christmas wasn’t different enough!

From Patrick’s, I caught a bus back to the train station where I was pleased to learn all trains running on Christmas were free, more than making up for the eight dollars I’d spent on the taxi that morning. I settled into a seat on the train, pleased with my little Christmas adventure and happy to finally have the chance to see some of the suburbs surrounding Wellington. Lower and Upper Hutt are two well-known areas I’d heard of, but yet to visit. Tim was waiting for me as I walked out of the train station, sporting a teal-colored Hawaiian print shirt. Looks like Mike wasn’t the only one holding out for warm weather.

The afternoon was a quiet one. While Tim had made it sound like a large get-together, I myself made the total group count come to only nine people: Tim, his wife and two sons; Tim’s mother, visiting for the first time from Illinois; and two of Teri’s colleagues, Jill, from England, and Nikki, a Kiwi, and Nikki’s mother, Mary. Nikki, as one of the only Kiwis present, was officially put in charge of the barbecue, firing up chicken kebabs, sausages, and asparagus. Mary had equally done her Kiwi-part by preparing a delicious pavlova cake adorned with fresh strawberries. Finally, I was starting to see some of the advantages of Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere. But as amazing as the pavlova was, nothing got me more excited to see Tim’s mother bring out a Tupperware filled with chocolate chip cookies baked like only Americans know how to bake.

When we weren’t eating, we filled the afternoon with round after round of ping pong and darts, a little friendly competition in the air. As I went to say goodbye to everyone in order to catch a train back into central Wellington, I thanked Tim and Teri again, probably for the fifth time that day, for having me over. “Of course,” Tim says, “No one should have to be alone on Christmas.” It wasn’t the first time he’d said that, and all I wanted to say was, I wasn’t going to be alone! But I figured you’ve got to pick your battles, and defending my honor (and social life) wasn’t one worth fighting over on such a holiday.

After I got home from the full day of running around, I got on Skype again with my brother. As I told him about my day and how I was feeling slightly off, just a little out of sorts, he asked what was on the agenda for the rest of the night. I mentioned potential plans with friends from the restaurant or if those didn’t pan out, a movie perhaps, and as we said goodbye, he said almost flippantly, “Finish strong, sis.” You gotta love him.

                                                                 *     *     *


That’s what I spent in the end on Christmas transport, a dollar less than I’d expected. I smiled as I thought about it, how well it represented my Christmas as a whole. I hadn’t gone into the day expecting a Christmas like home. It was, after all, not my first one away from my family. I’d survived last year, and I fully expected to make it through this day without too strong a dose of nostalgia. But then again, it wasn’t the summer Christmas I’d been hoping for either. Friends in warmer areas of the country talked of going to the beach, and I think that’s what I’d envisioned. Things didn’t quite add up like I’d expected. I was hoping for more synergy, whereby the whole would be greater than sum of its the parts, whereby I could piece together a Christmas that was as good as home, just different. As grateful as I was for the kindness of strangers to welcome me into their homes on such a personal day, I look forward to spending next year’s with my family…and maybe seeing who we can open our doors to. 

But in the end, I'm used to Christmas being quite the sedentary holiday, with extended family always coming to our house. Maybe the very effort of coordinating bus routes and train lines, travelling to new sections of the city and the suburbs, made this Christmas of logistics one to remember...

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

playing with fire.

It was the end of a bad day at work. It doesn’t matter what got me to that point – a boss, a customer, the sales, or lack thereof. What matters is that I was upset and only slightly at the end of my patience and sanity.

The night, though, finally drew to a close and I began the walk home, following the waterfront and listening to the darkened waves as they lapped against the shore. To my left was Lambton Harbour, to my right was Frank Kitts Park, where during December the Telecom Tree stood seven stories high, lit by 37,000 lights with the possibility of 16 million different color combinations.

As I tried to let the layers of frustration fall away, something caught my eye – what seemed to be two orbs of fire spinning in the distance. With the tree disassembled, the park was yet again a dark, blank canvas against which the fire danced alone. My first thought was a juggler – the unicycling world championships are currently taking place in Wellington, so I had no idea what other circus-themed pursuits would cross my path – but as I ascended a set of stairs from water-level to street-level, I realized it was a fire twirler.

A woman stood in the middle of an empty expanse of grass, spinning a metal staff that was lit at both ends. She was talking to a man as she spun the staff in circles and figure eights, effortlessly exchanging hands. I quietly took a seat on a bench not far from them, not the first to do so. On a bench next to mine sat a boy of about four years old with whom I assumed to be his mother and grandmother. Although they were seated, the boy was perched on his mother’s shoulders, his arms around her neck.

The man the fire twirler was talking to then picked up a staff and asked if he could light his from hers. I had figured he was a beginner, there for a lesson, but soon he took up another staff. He walked a little ways off and stood with the two staffs crossed behind his back to form an X, the flames backlighting him like some adventure hero from a comic book.

“That looks really cool,” the woman says. He brings the staffs in front of him and I watch, mesmerized, as he twists them in impossible ways, impossibly fast. Never once do I hear a clink of metal from the staffs hitting each other. Occasionally, though, he does drop one, setting a small patch of grass on fire, but he quickly stamps it out with his foot. Once, he even sets fire to part of his sleeve, but that doesn’t seem to alarm him either as it’s quickly blown out. After a few seconds of the double-spinning, he then pauses, bringing the staffs above his head, forming yet another X. He places one foot in front of the other, arching his back and extending his arms into the night sky, the ends of the cross blazing. He’s no longer a cartoon superman but Vulcan, or perhaps Homer’s Hephaestus – minus the lameness, of course – an ancient god of fire, bending metal to his will.

“How does he do that?” The boys asks, as the man loops the staffs under his legs like an NBA pro with a basketball. I wonder the same.

At the same time, the woman has laid down her staff and picked up poi, a pair of chains with handles on one end and a wick on the other. She lights them and begins to create wide, fiery circles. I wish for my camera, to be able to leave the shutter open and watch how the long exposure allows designs to dance across the image. She swings the poi around her, over her head, so fast you can no longer distinguish between the two separate chains.

I think of the phrase “poetry in motion” and decide that this moment will forever come to mind when I hear those words again. A cop walks through the park and I send up a silent prayer that there isn’t some ordinance to prohibit this moment.

“Can we go have drinks now?” The little boy says. I remind myself I am theoretically eavesdropping and should thus refrain from laughing aloud with the two women.

“What kind of drink?” The grandmother says with a laugh.

“What would you like? A nice glass of sauvignon?” The mother asks.

“Yeah, for you! I’ll buy you a little bottle of wine.”

And then, like that, both fire dancers blow out their fire and walk towards their pile of bags and equipment. I sit for a few more moments, waiting to see if they’ll re-light their staffs and poi and resume their spinning, but they make no move to do so. I realize the magic has been extinguished with the fire, the moment barely lasting five minutes, and I am suddenly nothing more than an intruder, someone suspended in the middle of two conversations. I stand up and continue the walk home.

As I walked, I thought of an essay by Simon Winchester, titled “Ascension in the Moonlight.” Having just come from Antarctica, Winchester writes of an unexpected stay on Ascension Island, a volcanic island in the South Atlantic. Finding himself suddenly anxious to get home, he arranges to be dropped off on Ascension in order to catch an RAF flight back to London. For the short time he’s on the island, he’s hosted by the Anglican vicar, Paul Wilson, and his wife, Angela. That night, only a couple hours before Winchester is due to catch his flight, the Wilson’s take him to the beach to watch a host of Brazilian sea turtles lay their eggs – coincidentally witnessing a total lunar eclipse and a comet at the same time. Of this moment Winchester writes:

And it was in that instant I realized something: that in this astonishing grand conjunction – of new friendship, of tropical warmth, of strawberries and cream and cool white wine, of white sand and sea swimming, and of Brazilian turtles, an eclipse of the moon and the rising of a comet – was perhaps the greatest wealth of experience that any one individual could ever know in one moment. I was at that instant blessed beyond belief, beyond all understanding.”

And so on the shore of Lambton Harbour, I myself grew immensely grateful for my own conjunction of sorts, perhaps not as grand as Winchester’s but one poignant on a personal level nonetheless. For in this year of getting to know New Zealand, so much is planned – from the cities I live in to the places I visit, from the activities I take part in to the festivals I attend. I plot writing schedules in my planner, keeping track of which blog needs to be posted by when and setting monthly quotas for myself if only to feel like I’m writing with some sort of consistency. I see myself worrying about finding work, only to grow tired with my jobs a few weeks after starting, as if I’ve lost perspective, as if I’ve forgotten to fix my gaze on the bigger picture.

So to unexpectedly stumble across two fire twirlers in the darkness of a still summer night – in a city where wind and warmth rarely go hand in hand – took on its own depth of meaning for me. The walk home wasn’t too long after all.

Monday, December 28, 2009


“It is enough to have to eat,” Marcello was saying late on Tuesday night. It was the end of a long day in a string of long days in the heart of the Christmas season. Being a higher-end Italian restaurant in the CBD (Central Business District) of Wellington with many of the tallest office buildings in walking distance, Vercelli’s often played host to group after group of work Christmas parties, even putting up with the chorus of pops that resound after everyone breaks their Christmas crackers, as if a dozen guns went off at once.

But on that particular Tuesday evening, Marcello and I were waiting on one final table to decide they were done for the evening. There always seems to be that one table, doesn’t there, who fail to note the entire restaurant emptied out half an hour ago and they are the only remaining souls standing between us and our beds. Having long ago finished our closing tasks, tables wiped and reset, cutlery replenished, floors swept, we stood around the till up front and talked – rather, I listened as Marcello talked, of what’s really important in life. Food.

It’d been a disheartening first couple of days in Wellington, at least when it came to the job search. I loved my new flat, I loved the city itself, I just wanted employment. When I arrived, I’d brought with me a couple of contacts (what I thought were hopeful) – my friend Adam in Christchurch had worked for radio stations in Wellington a few years back and told me he had the name of a woman who could give me some promo work. The temp agency I worked for in Christchurch has an office in the capital and I hoped I could get a name of someone to contact from the manager I knew. Even Braden in Queenstown told me the owner of Wattie’s knew of a bar in Wellington where I could most likely find work.

Then, the night before Elise and I boarded the ferry in Picton, I visited a well-known New Zealand backpacker’s website and while there wasn’t much listed under Wellington besides a call for dancers with a  “vibrant personality” at the Mermaid Gentlemen’s Club (no thank you!), I did see an advert for a housekeeper/general reception-help at a seemingly-charming guesthouse not far from my flat. I sent off an email, only to get a call from them a few hours later, asking me to come in and interview the next day. Talk about efficient.

Thus I arrived in Wellington on the hopeful side, arrived with my arsenal of contacts and my housekeeping interview. While the thought of essentially being a maid cracked me up, I also found it perfect in theory – I wanted to do something different for my last few months in New Zealand and I’d certainly found it. It all sounded too much like Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed not to get me excited about it.

But the interview was nowhere near a success in my mind. In person, the guesthouse itself seemed outdated, not charming. I would use the word ‘vintage’ only not to imply fashionably out of fashion, but just seriously in need of an update – the perfect candidate for a makeover show on TV. After the tour, I sat down with John, the owner, and instead of an interview, what I got was a two-part lecture. The first half focused on how he fills his days – buying Chinese porcelain on online auction websites. The second covered his opinions on American tourists, how they come to New Zealand thinking they’re better than everyone else, and how he proceeds to take advantage of their arrogant ignorance. Well, it may be needless to say, but I didn’t leave the guesthouse particularly excited by the possibility of working there. John said he’d call; I felt like saying, don’t bother.

So I made phone calls, sent out texts and emails, to “my people” on the South Island…and heard nothing. It was incredibly frustrating, because I knew I was just another CV in the pile for all the temp agencies I applied to – I knew I needed the edge of having a name. But, just as I learned with the weather and the lack of seasonal work in Nelson, you can’t change what’s out of your control. I would just have to move on and find something else.

So, like I said, I decided to go the temp agency route. Many of the office-oriented roles were advertised as paying $18-20 an hour – a near fortune compared to Queenstown standards. But I was quickly told I didn’t have enough experience, two years as a PA being the requirement. Apparently having a university degree and six months experience isn’t enough for them; apparently experience is just a number on paper. I suppose, though, that’s just the way they have to do things. And even when I wasn’t immediately rejected from more hospitality-oriented agencies, I was told I wouldn’t hear from them for a week or two. Yikes.

Finally, I looked through the list of restaurants and numbers I’d written down and saw one I hadn’t contacted yet – Vercelli’s. I’d found them on TradeMe, a popular New Zealand classifieds-website, but couldn’t remember why I’d decided not to call. So I did – and kicked myself for not doing it earlier. The process couldn’t have been easier – I called, I was asked to drop by with my CV, I showed up for my trial the next day, and by the second night, was working my first official shift. Just like that, I had a job…and without a single connection to help me out. I was pretty chuffed – it was the first job I’d gotten in New Zealand on my own.

The funny thing about Vercelli’s, though, is that they make you work split shifts. My Mexican restaurant in Christchurch was only open in the evening so it wasn’t something I had to deal with, but as a restaurant open for both lunch and dinner, Vercelli’s requires most servers to work both shifts. That means you start at either 10am or noon, work the lunch shift, have a break in the afternoon, start back at five or six, work the dinner shift, and finish up somewhere in the vicinity of ten or eleven at night. While not so weird of a concept, what it meant for me was that it eliminated the possibility of having a second job. After my time in Queenstown, having two jobs – and their paychecks – was something I had gotten used to. Would I be able to save enough from just one job?

But after talking to several temp agencies, it became clear I had secured the right job for the season in which I was working. One hospitality temp agent told me he could give me steady work for a couple weeks, but that after Christmas, it would slow down dramatically as work holiday functions were over. A temp agent I spoke with about reception work told me the same thing – that most offices would be shutting down until the end of January. While I had envisioned my primary job in Wellington being in an office – it is the capital, after all – it looked like that wasn’t going to be the case. But with both agents saying, “Don’t give up your job at Vercelli’s,” it gave me a little more peace about the work I had found. It paid well, it could give me fifty to sixty hours a week, and being in hospitality, it would keep me busy over the holiday season.

There wasn’t much I didn’t love about Vercelli’s at first. The location alone is worth showing up for every day – situated on Customhouse Quay, it is prime waterfront real estate, with the ceiling-to-floor, wall-to-wall glass windows looking out onto Lambton Harbor, right where the interislander ferries pull in from their journey across Cook Strait. On sunny days, we open up the three glass doors, so it’s as if we’re practically working outside. If I’m serving an outdoors table and the sun is particularly strong, I always joke with the customers, telling them to take especially long with their orders so I can maximize my time in the sun.

And the food – oh, the food. At Wattie’s, we could eat any of the pizzas that were leftover at the end of the night. But that was just it – they were leftover, often having sat under the pizza warmer for a good two hours. Not exactly, shall we say, fine dining. At my restaurant in Christchurch, there was a staff menu, but even a burrito still cost around six bucks – nowhere near cheap enough for me to make a habit of eating there every day. Which is a shame, really, because I never got to really know the menu. When customers would ask what my favorite dish was, they were largely given a made-up answer – I’d tell them, based off seeing and running the food out 24/7, my favorite dish would most likely be the fajitas or the chicken enchiladas. I have no doubt they could read right through my lack of genuine enthusiasm.

Never have I worked at a restaurant where the staff are fed…for free…and the food is nothing short of amazing. And it’s prepared by the same chefs who spend all day cooking for every customer. Chicken risotto, spaghetti carbonera, penne alla arrabiata, rigatoni portofino – and those are just the pasta dishes, the veritable tip of the iceberg, not including the pizzas. And we essentially have free rein of the menu. Initially, I’d sort of kept my choices simple, assuming that they’d want staff to pick easy, inexpensive dishes, and while we certainly aren’t given steaks, we are encouraged to experiment and explore. After my third time of asking for linguini lupara – an especially delicious dish featuring spicy Italian sausage – Marcello asked, “Why, Candy? Why you always choose lupara? I make you rigatoni amatrciana, it’s my favorite.” If you insist, Marcello…

And after our meal is finished, we can usually ask for a freshly made coffee from the bar – I’ve gotten pretty used to having a steaming moccachino every afternoon. Nothing like sitting down in the sun after a manic lunch shift with a gourmet Italian dish and coffee. It almost makes the crazy split-shift schedule worth it…almost. Because there’s definitely no way I’d be able to make anything remotely as appetizing to bring with me on my break. What I love most, though, about being fed on the job is that the chefs actually seem to want to cook for us. You’d think after cooking for an entire restaurant for about four hours straight, they’d have had enough, but without fail, right before we’re due to go on break, they come out of the kitchen and ask what we’d like. They take pride in what they make, as you can tell from the way their eyes go straight to your plate once you’ve finished and are carrying it back to the kitchen. They want to see an empty plate. It is, of course, not that hard to do my part – I make sure they always see what they’re looking for.

And what I’ve found is that by slowly sampling my way through our menu, I’ve actually gotten to know what we have to offer. When customers ask for recommendations, I’m able to give them – honestly, which is a welcome change. And on the other side of the coin, if someone orders the spaghetti bolognese, for instance, I know first-hand I’ve had better spag-bol and I usually try to lead them elsewhere. If someone asks if the pizzas are of a shareable size, I say, “If you’re hungry, you can definitely take on one by yourself – and I speak from personal experience.” It’s a nice change.

But, as fantastic as the free food has been, what intrigued me most at first was the management of Vercelli’s. The menu describes it as a “family-owned restaurant,” and they aren’t lying. The two main chefs are brothers, Marcello and Bruno. Their sister, Leila, helps out in the kitchen, and their wives, Teresa and Bianca, do a bit of everything on the floor – taking orders, running food, making coffees. Leila’s daughter, Adriana, works in the bar, and Marcello and Bruno’s cousin, Geovanni, is the pizza and dessert chef. But it doesn’t end there – Vercelli’s is actually a chain with about ten different restaurants all over the country. There are four in Auckland alone, and the first one was started there in 1980 by Marcello’s uncle. They all began working in the Auckland ones until coming to Wellington five months ago to open a new branch. It took me a while to realize just how connected they all were to each other – just when I thought I had it all figured out, I’d find myself exclaiming, “Wait – she’s your mother?!”

The whole family is originally from Macedonia, a country of about two million people directly north of Greece. I didn’t know much about this relatively new republic until starting at Vercelli’s, but Marcello filled me in on how the country came into existence as one of the successor states from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. While most of Marcello’s immediate family has permanently moved to New Zealand, I talked to Bruno’s wife, Bianca, one day about Macedonia. “Do you miss it?” I asked her. “Of course,” she said without a second’s hesitation, “It’s home.” And just like the entire Brazilian community at Premier Taste in Queenstown spoke in Portuguese, the Macedonian contingency at Vercelli’s speak only in Macedonian to each other, often leaving us wondering what’s being said. I haven’t picked up much, but I did learn “fallah” is thanks, and I love hearing them laugh every time I choose to use it.

But, even with the sea views and the Italian dishes and learning about yet another country, the honeymoon was soon over. One week in and we were right in the thick of the holiday season – when it wasn’t unusual to have several large groups in at once, parties of ten, fifteen, twenty, all at the same time, all the time. It also wasn’t unusual to spend a solid twelve hours without leaving the restaurant once. And while the idea of working with a family was one I enjoyed at first, I soon realized there was a difference between working with a family and working with your family. In Queenstown, I had a family. Every night I walked into Wattie’s, Braden greeted me with a “Hey gorgeous” and a kiss on the cheek. I went to work feeling like I was a part of something. I was thanked every night for my hard work and made to feel like I was valued. Things weren’t that easy at Vercelli’s – working with a flesh-and-blood family opened up everything that comes with such – the frustrations, the emotions, the stress.

When Marcello and Teresa announced to everyone they were expecting a child, we were all thrilled for them, as you would be. When I congratulated Teresa myself, she smiled. “Marcello and me, we be married for three and a half year, and no baby yet.” This was obviously a big deal for them. None of the Macedonians could stop smiling, least of all sixteen-year old Adriana, who was quite literally beaming from the bar, an irrepressible smile on her face. But then, not even a month later, after a particularly hectic lunch service, Marcello left abruptly. I assumed it was normal sibling bickering between him and Bruno, until their sister Leila rushed by towards the toilets in tears, Adriana behind her, saying quietly, “No baby, no baby.” We never quite got the full story, but one can only assume a miscarriage. Being in such close contact with a family means me and the other servers often find ourselves with one foot through doors into private worlds; we’re privy to their personal lives in a way that often makes us feel uncomfortable and I think in such a situation, it becomes difficult to discern between what is personal and what is business.

The job also hasn’t opened up the social circle I was somewhat hoping for. A social life was just another perk of the job at Wattie’s – not only were all my colleagues young backpackers like myself, eager for a new friend, but everyone was always making plans for their nights off. There was no escaping their texts, as well, when plans were made – which, granted, could be frustrating when all you want is a night in, but at least there was always something going on. Vercelli’s has been a bit different – while I’ve gotten to know one English girl well, there isn’t an infinite possibility of social pursuits. And, as a friend from home pointed out, because we’re perceived to offer quite a fine dining experience, we usually miss the backpacker crowd. If anyone young does come, they’re usually with their parents or on a date – not the ideal situation to get to know someone. And definitely no cute boys – even the fact that every server is female aside, it’s not like a fancy Italian restaurant is really the venue of choice for a guys’ night out.

But while my horizon of romantic interests has diminished considerably since leaving Queenstown, a new, slightly more intriguing circle has opened up – the world of networking. If the fact that Vercelli’s is fine dining has lessened my chances of meeting my next date, who it has brought me into contact with are incredibly accomplished people. What’s more, as much as I enjoy talking with them, they seem to get a kick out of their young American waitress as well. My little black book of travel – typically used to store the numbers of potential landlords and employers – is growing fatter by the second from the number of business cards I’m given every day. CEOs, university professors, television announcers, rugby players, government officials, artists – I’m forever amazed at the caliber of people I’m fortunate enough to rub shoulders with every day. I love connecting with them, getting a little banter going, telling them how I’ll be getting my master’s next year and hearing about their lives and travels.

Moreover, I’m amazed by their kindness, by their willingness to hand over their card and telling me to stay in touch. So far, I’ve been invited to stay at homes in Australia, offered a caravan to borrow in northern Scotland, and asked to come work for a travel agency in Wellington. I told the last group they had no idea how much they were tempting me. With each new person I meet, with each new card I tuck away in my apron pocket, its like watching a web grow – watching the way in which I grow across the world and my connections grow with me. Vercelli’s is certainly a job of connections, and that’s something I didn’t expect.

As cool as meeting the owner of a fruit farm in Hawke’s Bay is, though, what I’ve been most grateful for at Vercelli’s is feeling like the job has given me my life back. No more 4am finishes, no more walking home as the morning paper is being delivered. I feel like myself again and what I love even more has been having time to read and write again. I never joined the library in Queenstown because they charged a $40 bond fee for anyone who had lived in town for less than six months (obviously a product of the number of tourists who pass through). But I was able to sign up in Wellington no questions asked and was soon back to reading a book or two a week, checking out well-known and respected travel writers whose work I aspire to emulate. And the writing schedule itself has regained some sense of normalcy, not just once a week on my one full day off. I’m able to get some done every day in Wellington; writing’s back to being a part of my routine, not a luxury, and I know that can only mean good things for this project.

So it’s those kinds of things I have to keep in mind on days when I’m growing restless with the job, feeling low, like I just can’t take it anymore. My English friend, Aimee, is a big help. So is Javier, the Argentinean dish boy who’s patient enough to let me practice my Spanish with him. He makes me laugh and laughter goes a long way when you’re stressed. I went back in the kitchen one night, my arms filled with dishes, and he just looks at me from his post at the sink. “This is one of the major moments of my life. In my dreams of Argentina, I dreamt of this,” he says to me in Spanish, spreading his arms out over the miniature skyline that’s been built from stack after stack of dirty dishes. His sarcasm – el sarcasmo – keeps me going. That, and a small piece of wisdom I got from a customer one day. When I brought a gentleman his steak, he hadn’t realized it came with a creamy brandy-pepper sauce. I apologized profusely – as I always do – and offered to bring him a new one. “No, no, no, don’t worry about it. N.A.F.P.” Slightly confused, I asked him to explain. “Not a flipping problem.”

Great attitude, eh? So from now on, when things are out of hand or out of my control, I find myself repeating it, often enunciating each letter slowly, like the anger management technique of taking a deep breath and counting to ten.

N.A.F.P. N.A.F.P.

N.   A.   F.   P.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

squanto, stuffing, and smuggler's rum.

As with many holidays abroad, I was tempted to let this year’s Thanksgiving pass unnoticed, just another day of the week. I also thought about buying some sort of pre-roasted chicken from the supermarket, a box of stuffing mix, and cooking a faux-Thanksgiving dinner for my new flatmates in Wellington. I was, after all, new to the city come the last week in November, so it could have potentially been a good way to get to know the flat. But that was it precisely – I was new and I wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving, if I celebrated it at all, with people who at least knew who Squanto was.

So I went where I usually go when in search of, well, anything – Google. Every aspect of the summer I spent in Boston was determined by the world’s largest search engine (incidentally, did you know their annual revenue exceeds $22 billion?) – my internship, my apartment, my church, even daytrips outside the city. “How did you hear about/find us?” I was asked by a number of people. “Google,” I would promptly reply. This year, though, I remembered how the Thanksgiving service I attended in London had been put on by the American Expat Society. I figured there must be something similar here, some New Zealand equivalent to the organization that I could connect with.

Well…there was, amazingly enough, the American Women’s Network in New Zealand. They were hosting a Thanksgiving dinner with a menu that I just couldn’t pass up:

Turkey and gravy

Mashed potatoes and stuffing

Creamed spinach with fried onions

Green bean casserole

Sweet potato casserole

White cheddar macaroni and cheese

Cranberry sauce

Tossed salad and bread rolls

Potluck dessert

Even my frugal self didn’t mind paying the non-member’s price of $35 for such a line-up of Thanksgiving dinner all-stars. It was exactly what I wanted – a taste of familiarity served in an adventure, spending my favorite holiday with strangers. Just what would the evening hold?

I didn’t want to be too on-time, certainly not early – nothing like a new girl showing up early to scream desperate. I left my flat at what I considered to be a little late – and as the stop I needed was at the end of the line, I figured I’d definitely be running behind schedule by the time I arrived. But wouldn’t you know it, the bus dropped me off at 5:29pm, the dinner scheduled for 5:30pm. So I took my time walking the three minutes from the bus stop to the Pines, a function hall set at the edge of a cliff with an incredible view of Houghton Bay. The sun was just beginning to dip a little, the dark blue waves dancing in the buttery, dusky light. It may have been different but it was definitely the most beautiful setting in which I’ve ever spent Thanksgiving.

I walked into the Pines center only to find myself one of about five people there, including the president of the group who was checking everyone in and, more importantly, taking their payment. I was directed to table #1, which I assumed would prove to be a prime spot come time to line up and go through the buffet. I wasn’t alone for long before a slightly overweight man with a Kiwi accent sat down. He was, of course, not who I was exactly expecting to meet first at an American Women’s Network function (being neither American nor female). I wasn’t sure if I was being rude or nosy or just stating the obvious when I asked him, “So, uh, what brings you here, Ross?” Apparently he knew Zelicia, the president, and she invited him along.

When the next two guys sat down, one of whom was saying, “This doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving at all. I’m wearing short sleeves and there’s no football on TV,” I was pleased to see this time they were mildly attractive and younger-looking Americans. I began to think that maybe the night wouldn’t be too bad after all. I hadn’t known what to expect, but I don’t think “fun” had really been on the list. The general sort of questions were asked, state of origin, length of time in New Zealand, job, etc. When I asked the two new guys what they did, they answered, “We work for Weta.” I, in all my inglorious ignorance, wasn’t sure if this was short for something, some kind of code, or just a mysterious government organization, but from the way another woman looked at me, I should’ve known instantly. “Lord of the Rings?” she says with an implied ‘duh.’ As it turns out, Weta is Weta Digital, the visual effects production company who can claim none other than Peter Jackson as one of its founders.

Alex and Frank both work for Weta and I was immediately intrigued. Their specialty is lighting and they’d just finished up work on Avatar. When I asked what else they’d been involved in, the lists they both rattled off were the coolest resumes I’d ever heard. While mine lists nothing but your usual retail and hospitality posts, their work experiences come from the movies they’ve worked on. My CV says restaurant, supermarket, bar…Theirs says Madagascar, Harry Potter, and The Day After Tomorrow. You as jealous as I was?

As the conversation went on, though, we realized several tables had already started filing through the buffet line. So much for table #1 going first. “What if they don’t replenish the buffet?” Alex worries aloud, growing concerned. “We’re not in America, you know.” A woman at our table tells us Zelicia had to give the staff at the Pines most of the recipes as they’d never heard of many of the dishes. It became clear the quality of the food might be another area of concern. We obviously wouldn’t be having our momma’s cooking this year. And just when our stomachs were on the verge of collapse, our time in the line arrived – as if ordered according to some Biblical “first-shall-be-last” principle, table #1 was the last to go up. This wouldn’t have been an issue, save that there was no stuffing left by the time I went through. I tried not to let it ruin my day and stocked up instead on dark turkey meat and more cold macaroni and cheese.

Frank finished first and as we marveled at how fast his plate had disappeared, Alex says, “He’s loud, jolly, and he eats a lot – he’s the perfect American.” Zelicia finally sat down with us as well, everyone finally checked in and in place. She didn’t look too happy, though. “They’ve run out of turkey,” she says. She may be from Virginia, but she had the look and demeanor of a native New Yorker. “I told them 80 adults and there’s only 72 of us. I don’t get it.”

“Well…did you tell them we’re American?” Alex asks, my hero of the day, because it’s lines like his that make the night for me. It’s lines like his – making fun of the very things we love most about our collective homeland – that I think I knew subconsciously why I wanted to be around other Americans on Thanksgiving, not my Kiwi flatmates or any other randoms. It’s one thing to spend Christmas with friends from other places, but Thanksgiving – being such a culture-specific holiday – should be spent with Americans. That being said, my mother spent Thanksgiving this year in Bangkok with an American family we’re old friends with, who in turn invited twenty or so friends to dinner from all over the world. I suppose I myself was just in need of a good ‘ole dose of Americana – of playing up the stereotypes and putting away a serious amount of turkey.

After the dinner had finished, Alex and Frank invited me over to their place for a few drinks from where we picked up their South African housemate Brian, also a Weta nerd, and headed into town. We ended up in a place called Motel, one of those bars you have to know exists in order to go there. It’s tucked away on an alley that shoots off a side street off Courteney Place, the main street where bars are located. Only a small square sign reading “Motel” hangs above the doorway – not out of your league, just out of the way. We sat around a circular leather booth, sipping vodka martinis and smuggler’s rum concoctions, and munching on popcorn – yes, popcorn, which the bar serves free by the bowl-full – and I thought o myself, this is the last place I expected to end up on Thanksgiving, a reason enough alone to celebrate the day and give thanks for all the crazy new places this year has taken me.

Every Thanksgiving, I’m used to the typical post-gluttony location being passed out on the couch in front of the television, not some swanky downtown cocktail bar. But, I suppose, there’s a first time for everything….

Thursday, December 24, 2009

a tale of two cities.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…and it was raining as we woke up in Nelson early Sunday morning – our first day of rain since we left Christchurch. We darted across the street from our hostel to Elise’s car, loading up quickly and hitting the road. I’d told Joe, my kayak partner, about the incredible luck Elise and I had been having with the weather thus far – nothing but sunshine all along the way. He’d called us the Sun Queens. “Sun Queens no more,” I tell Elise as the first raindrops hit the windshield. “No, it’s just the South Island crying that we’re leaving,” she says. Of course.

An hour and a half down the road, we arrive in Blenheim. The town is immediately underwhelming, and not just because of the overcast sky. It seems flat and one-dimensional, a simple place of 30,000 people with your usual smattering of shops and supermarkets. Although the I-Site is housed in the former railway station, itself a building bordering on “charming” with an exterior paint job of pastel yellows and greens, there’s not much else about the town to catch your eye. The focus is undoubtedly the wine and vineyards lying outside the city limits. In that way, Blenheim seems to function not as a destination itself, but a launch pad, a place from where to explore the surrounding Marlborough vineyards.

Indeed, Marlborough is often hailed as the top winemaking  region in the country, however its history as such is not nearly as extensive as one would expect. For much of the twentieth century, wine was produced only on the North Island, with hardly any vineyards established south of Hawke’s Bay. In fact, even the 1966 Encyclopedia of New Zealand reads, “As recently as the 1960s, government viticulturalists advised that the South Island was unsuitable for growing wine grapes.” Well, this was obviously not the case, to which the number of internationally award-winning wines flowing out of the region today attest. Vineyards cover more than 3,000 hectares (almost 7,500 acres!) of the area, all because one brave Auckland wine company decided to “give it a go” down south in the 1970s. The widely-acclaimed Marlborough Wine Festival held annually in February is just one example of the culture that has grown up around the ever-increasing wine industry.

But in Blenheim, there’s not even a museum to explore, unless you count the Aviation Heritage Museum located two kilometers outside town. Weeks after visiting the town, I learn of the Marlborough Museum, but there was no mention of it in the information center itself. So what does that tell you about the area? If I were the region’s tourism coordinator, I begin to rant to Elise, I wouldn’t waste one second on plans to establish a wine museum in the heart of Blenheim central. Elise and I were interested in learning about the winemaking process itself, but couldn’t afford the wine tours that ranged from $75-$200. They should “bring the wine to the people,” I say – it seemed like an untapped opportunity for the town, in my opinion. Charge five or ten bucks for entry, maybe offer a free glass of wine – which itself could surely be subsidized by the surrounding vineyards.

Blasé Blenheim, I began to call it. It is the town of alliteration, after all, with its Seymour Squares and Pollard Parks. I wouldn’t normally be quite so judgmental of a place, but I was chastised by a good friend after my much-too-positive spin on Invercargill in July. I’d likened my visit to the southern town to a speed-dating session, and decided “Invers” was definitely worth a second date. A few days after posting my entry, however, I received the following email:

“I’m only writing to you to say that Invercargill, if it was a speed date, would be a balding, overweight, accountant. Not a young, successful inner city accountant, but a middle aged accountant who works on his own and struggles his way through life. He’s never had a date in 20 years. He saw the advert in the paper and has come alone, so the only thing he has in his favour is blind hope. Which is sad, as he doesn’t even realise how out of place he is amongst all these younger singles. He has slow, unintelligent and dull, cow’s eyes that would look at you briefly before returning their slow, dull gaze back at the table. His brow line would probably wrinkle to indicate a slow thought processing behind those cow like eyes. He would sweat a lot. Oh, and he would be wearing a plaid suit jacket – which HE thought was fashionable, and still hasn’t realised that it’s not. He would not know what to say, and when you tried to engage him in anything, he would start a sentence, decide it was too boring or not the right thing to say, and stop mid-sentence before returning his awkward gaze to the table. He MIGHT even spill his drink across the table and onto your lap. But he wouldn’t even react quickly to that; his slow cow-like eyes would track the drink across to you, and he might venture to say that he was sorry, before returning his gaze to the table. He wouldn’t have the urgency that can be endearing in many socially awkward people – in this man, there is already that sense of defeat and futility.


You would go on a second date with THAT?”

In my desire to always speak well of New Zealand and its towns of varying sizes and quality, my aforementioned friend brought to my attention the fact that my reporting was beginning to grow a little lacking in the accuracy department. Could I honestly look someone in the eyes, he asked me, and tell them Invercargill was worth a visit? As any true Kiwi would say, fair enough. He was right. So when sparks failed to fly between Blenheim and myself, I just couldn’t write otherwise.

But that doesn’t mean I still can’t look for some redeeming quality in a town, wherever it may be, and where I found it in Blenheim was in the gardens and public spaces. We stopped first at Seymour Square, named in 1857 for Henry Seymour, one half of the land-owning partnership on which the town was founded. At once my spirits lifted. A grey clocktower as a WWI memorial, a fountain as WWII memorial, even a distinct green bench in memory of Princess Diana, complete with beds of poppies of all colors – all in a tidy park layout. It shifted Blenheim from “forgettable” to “okay” in my mind.

We almost gave Pollard Park a pass, but after Ines won a round of rock-paper-scissors to beat our indecision, we went…and were ultimately glad for it. Small towns need unique features, and this park featured a scented cottage garden designed for the visually impaired by a gift from a certain Myrtle Currie. It was an interesting request on Mrs. Currie’s part, one which I could appreciate and remember.

In the park, the rain started up again and we knew it was time to move on to Picton.

We’d barely driven twenty minutes when we came to Picton, which, just as quickly as Blenheim had bored me, rescued the Marlborough region for me. Pulling into town, we parked down by the aquarium along what’s known as the Foreshore, essentially the waterfront district. Therein lay the town’s instant attraction, despite having a population of not even 4,500. Whereas Blenheim is situated amidst acre after acre of rolling vineyard, not a thing to remark upon in its landscape, Picton is a harbor town, tucked among the misty folds of the Marlborough Sounds. It likes to call itself the “gateway to the South Island,” usually known best as the other end of the route by which the ferries carry passengers across the Cook Strait from Wellington. 

Making our way to the I-Site in Picton (I’m assuming you’ve noted the pattern here; it’s Elise’s first stop in any new town), I see a miniature railway track and on the “engine” rides a white-haired woman in a bright orange vest, and behind her, parents with three small children tucked between them. It’s the kind of miniature train you often see in shopping malls during the Christmas season, circling around and around in a faux North Pole. As I bring my camera up, the volunteer waves with a big smile – wouldn’t you love that job, too? I walk over to the station, where a white sign reads Picton-by-Sea. Another says, “Train rides 20¢” and “Boat hire 20¢.” The track loops around vaguely in the shape of a kidney bean, encircling a small pond in which you can launch miniature wooden yachts.

The whole complex is run by the Picton Modellers Society, headed by Farquhar Wilson, a man I’m lucky enough to meet. He and two other women – all sporting the fashionable neon vest – are volunteers who open and run the park every Sunday afternoon, weather permitting. It’s been around for forty years, they tell me, although the track has changed significantly. “They tried to get rid of it about ten years back,” Farquhar says, looking up from the model engine he’s tinkering with, “But the town wouldn’t hear of it. I guess it’s here to stay.” There are two racks of yachts, all about a foot high, with minute cloth sails, in different colors and with different numbers painted on their sails. They only ask 20¢ per ride or rental but he says many give much more, enabling them to continue their operations and in turn, give back to the community themselves. “Last Christmas, we gave $3,000 to the Lions Club.”

I’ve only got $1.50 in my wallet, but I give it all to them to rent a yacht. I drop it in the water and Elise and I laugh as the wind catches its sails and sends it dipping far over to the right. This little park made the town for me – for all I could’ve cared, the rest of Picton could be worse than Blenheim and I would still leave starry-eyed and in love. I’m still such a kid at heart and places like this have such a magic about them to me. It’s that beautiful simplicity childhood is all about – finding joy in the little things, in little wooden yachts that sail around a shallow pond while a miniature locomotive makes it way through the park. “If you like them that much,” Farquhar says as I take a final photo of the yachts, “You can buy one for a hundred bucks.” Don’t tempt me, Farquhar, I just might.

I would’ve happily sailed my yacht all day – or at least until the complex closed – but I could see Elise was getting restless. On to affairs of a more grown-up nature – the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum, home to the world’s 9th oldest ship. It’s a fact the museum touts but one that I’m wary to blindly believe, although it is yet another distinctive feature of Picton, something to set it apart. Inside the museum, adjacent to the dry dock in which the preserved ship now sits, a woman volunteer behind the desk talks with another man about the difficulty of predicting visitors to the museum. “Friday and Saturday were dead, but today’s been a good day. A real good day.” Unfortunately I didn’t contribute to the good day and pay the ten dollars to board the boat – which you can simply view outside on your own anyways.

The Edwin Fox, the oldest merchant sailing ship still afloat, needs a full-on wardrobe for the number of hats she wore during service. From India to England, from Australia to New Zealand, the history of her service reads like a résumé any ship at the time would be jealous of:

1853 = Built in Calcutta for the East India Company.

1854 = Recruited for service as a troop ship in the Crimean War, with even Florence Nightingale as a reputed passenger.

1856 = Chartered by British government to transport convicts to Australia.

1858 – 1872 = Carried a range of cargoes, including enough pale ale to India to earn the nickname “Booze Barge.”

1873 = Chartered by Shaw Savill Company to carry immigrants to New Zealand, with a total of 751 passengers over four voyages.

1880s = Refitted as a floating freezer hulk to service the burgeoning New Zealand sheep industry, as steam engines began to be developed.

The more I read of her history, the more the Edwin Fox began to remind me of some aging celebrity, a Madonna of sorts, determined not to be made redundant or irrelevant. Ever caught in a series of makeovers, forever changing industries and continents, I marveled at the variety of roles the ship filled and at how long she managed to stay in service. Of course, you couldn’t tell it today, looking at the ship as she rests in peace under a fairly humble structure of mostly corrugated metal, but at one point she had quite the illustrious career.

Not far from the Edwin Fox was the Picton Museum, where a darling old woman (this town seems to be full of them) greets us from the front desk. What begins as a conversation about how they only accept cash – because I don’t have it – turns into talking about a range of things. “I haven’t been to Virginia,” she tells me, “But I have been to Ohio, New York, and Nova Scotia.” She eventually lets us slip by her for a “quick peek” at the museum for free – “But don’t tell anyone I let you,” she whispers. This wasn’t her biggest favor to us, though, as the museum itself betrayed nothing too earth-shattering about the region, but she did pass on a brochure describing the Picton Foreshore Heritage Walk. The walk took us along the waterfront through the park with its classic Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck statues, to bronze plaques commemorating Captain Cook and various others of lesser prominence, and to old façades, railway stations, and war memorials. What there was to see along the way wasn’t any more impressive than what Blenheim has to offer, I just found the presentation of it more appealing. Picton has learned to promote itself, it’s a place you feel confident in visiting. I liked it immensely.

The next day, we boarded the Interislander Ferry, which takes about three and a half hours to cross the Cook Strait. As Elise and I whiled away the time with card games and meat pies from the café, I was reminded of other ferry crossings to Helsinki and Callais, where the boats seem more like multi-level cruise ships than passenger ferries. Within hours, our first glimpse of the North Island appears on the horizon. Although I spent my first weekend in New Zealand in Auckland, seeing the North Shore, Devonport and Piha Beach, my arrival to Wellington still feels like my maiden voyage, the North Island still very much Terra Incognita to me.

In the end, the last day of our trip “was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” It was Blenheim and it was Picton, two towns so close on the map, yet so different in personality. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

you can't change the weather.

The day began as usual, with nothing too taxing on the schedule. Having kayaked the Abel Tasman the day before, what remained for Elise and I to see of the national park was the coast itself. We couldn’t devote the whole day to the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, but we wanted to see at least some of it. There were several options before us, one of which included taking a water taxi up the coast and walking the entire way back, but we decided just to do a return loop up from the park’s entrance up to Apple Tree Bay and back.

Most of the track was level ground, thankfully, following the beach and weaving up the coast. As we walked, I found it as if we had stepped through a mirror and were now on the reverse side of an image, looking out on the bays and coastline we’d already kayaked along. While from the kayak, we’d looked from the water towards the tree-lined shore, from the track, we looked out from the forest onto the bays and water. I found the vegetation along the path familiar New Zealand territory, most especially the ferns, with their leaves arching iconically and the new fronds curling into the famous Maori symbol, koru. It didn’t feel like new ground, somewhere I hadn’t been before, which in turn lessened my curiosity to see what awaited us around the next bend. 

When we reached Apple Tree Bay, there was a large group of sixty-somethings and their young guides sitting around having lunch. Before moving on, Elise and I sat on a few logs away from their general area and watched as two more couples in their group pulled up in kayaks. “Ahoy, mate!” they all yell out, every one of them holding up their fist in what looks like a “c” in sign language. I don’t quite get it, but one can never tell with large tour groups and the weird bonds they develop over their trip [I speak from experience.]

As we retraced our steps back towards the entrance, I looked out across a bay at what looked much like Tonga Island, well-known home to the seal colony we’d explored the day before. When we got back to the main building of the park, I checked the map only to find we’d seen Adele Island, Tonga being much more northern. In a way, though, it made sense to confuse the two – we found much of the park looked remarkably similar. The same forest, the same beaches and bays, the same minute orchids growing along the path. It affirmed our decision not to hike further. Not that it wasn’t beautiful, by any means – just that the sequence of scenery seemed to repeat itself and we couldn’t imagine there being anything too new or different in the parts we didn’t see. On to Nelson it was, where we planned to spend the night.

On the advice of Joe, our kayak guide-in-training, we took the Old Moutere Highway, a more inland route from Motueka to Nelson. Joe had said there would be farms and vineyards all along our path at which we could stop and enquire about seasonal work – undoubtedly our chief goal of the day. As much as I had been enjoying the week – the new little towns and the new experiences – I was also getting a little antsy, a little anxious, the way I always get when traveling before my next work experience. I’m not good at indefinite travel – I like my plans and our plan for the next week had always been seasonal work in the Marlborough area, which would give my savings account a much-needed, much anticipated boost.

About ten minutes down the highway, we came across an apple and kiwifruit stand run by Morrell Farms. As Elise pulled off the road, a woman walks around the stand with bags of fruit, restocking the baskets. This is looking promising, I tell myself. I get out of the car and ask her about a job. She tells me regretfully they’ve just filled all their positions last week – why does it always seem to work that way? And to worsen matters, she goes on to say she knows of no other farms in the area that are hiring. “Head back into town and go up Riwaka way,” she says, essentially pointing us back to where we’d just come from – can anyone say déjà vu?

I’m not feeling it by this point. Elise, however, seems to be a bit more resilient than I when it comes to setbacks and promptly turns the car around. We stop at a packhouse and are greeted by a ghost town of a factory and an empty office to boot. I go poking around a cherry farm – nothing but a phone number posted on a sign. More vacated offices. Granted, it was Saturday, but I’d hoped to find more activity. At the very heart of the search, I felt like a useless door-to-door salesman, purveyor of plastic tupperware or knives or religion, cold-calling these farms and getting nowhere.

The day before, the owner of our hostel in Marahau had told us to contact PickNZ, a government-sponsored organization that coordinates seasonal work. I called both the Blenheim and Nelson offices, only to hear the same pre-recorded message, “There are no jobs available in this region…please leave your contact details if you’d like to be placed on the waiting list for work beginning in February.” February! More dead-ends.

Elise and I didn’t know what to do…largely because there was nothing we could do. There was no work. It’s the weather, they say, the grapes haven’t grown fast enough, and as we all know, you can’t fight the weather. Slowly we accepted the change of plans and decided to head to Picton the next day, and from there, to Wellington – a week early. As discouraged as I was – not just about the missed financial bonus, but simply the missed experience itself – I told myself this was yet again just another lesson in the flexibility that is so crucial whilst traveling. I can plan all I want, but in the end, it’s how I deal with changes in those plans that really matters.

We decided to stay in Nelson for the night, rather than driving straight through to Picton, and figured the place we’d stayed before, Shortbread Cottage, would be as good as any. We returned to it, however, only to find a whiteboard sign propped against the door reading, “Very sorry, no vacancies.” Two guys kicking a rugby ball around in the street ask, “What are you girls up to?” While I myself was fully prepared to ignore them, Elise replies, “Looking for a hostel.” You gotta love her honesty. “We have a bed we could rent you for a couple bucks.” I bet you do, buddy. From Shortbread to the Green Monkey – where do they get these names?” – where a sign informs us one dorm bed is available. At the Bug Backpackers, again – no vacancies.

We’re on a serious losing streak and like an army losing battle after battle but still in the war, morale is taking a nose-dive. A man at the Bug offers to call other hostels for us but asks us to tell him which ones. “I’ve called around for people before and end up finding a hostel they don’t even want to stay at. You tell me.” I couldn’t find a more direct way to say it to him – by the time we met him, my standards were out the window. I wanted a bed and I wanted it now.

He made a series of phone calls to other hostels in the area – bad luck after bad luck – until some place called the Paradiso says they’ve got two beds, but in different rooms. I was skeptical about the name – surely, with this many hostels all booked-up, a place truly like paradise wouldn’t have vacancies – but I was beyond caring. “Taken,” I say before I can hardly ask Elise. I felt as desperate as Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve.

We arrived at Paradiso, however, only to discover a party hostel. It suddenly all makes sense. I remember a friend from my bar in Queenstown telling me, “If you want to party in Nelson, stay at the Paradiso.” How had I forgotten? The hostel itself was nice enough – an old converted villa, a big, well-equipped kitchen, lounge area, and even a sand volleyball court, hammocks and a pool. But the people – oh, the people – were everywhere. What should’ve been a large kitchen felt tiny with groups of people clustered all over. And this mass of bodies just happened to hail from several tour bus companies – which explains the inexplicable influx of people in the town and utter lack of vacancies.

Swinging their bottles of beer and gin around, the party-busers were the antithesis of who I wanted to be around at that moment. Mentally tired from the day of no’s, I wanted quiet; what I got was pulsing music blaring from the speakers. The description of Paradiso in our New Zealand hostel brochure read that it offered free soup every night. As we checked in, the woman handed us each a pack of chicken-flavored instant noodles. I could only laugh and ask myself what I really expected. In the morning, Elise told me she walked into the TV lounge to read only to find people – all still fully dressed in their clothes from the night before – passed out on the couches and floor. I think it’s needless to say we didn’t stick around the next day.

Sometimes, like in Collingwood at the Innlet, you connect with a  hostel, actually feel at home, or at least yourself. But sometimes, a hostel is nothing more then a bed to sleep in for the night. And so you pack up in the morning and hold out hope for the next town.

It’s the backpacker’s way, really.