Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Looking Back at New Zealand

I arrived back home four days ago after a week in New Zealand. Some random recollections and observations:

Then and Now Ruminations

I was 26 when I first arrived in New Zealand in 1976. I was a freshly-minted husband. My wife was a Kiwi. We had met in California the year before and lived together in Vancouver, BC. Now here I was on a far shore, my whole life ahead of me. I discovered that law was an undergraduate degree in New Zealand and that they paid a modest stipend to students who attended university.

What’s the catch? I wondered. Both my wife and I enrolled at the University of Otago in Dunedin, on the lower part of the South Island. We got our degrees and a baby daughter, but not in that order. Then we headed up to Wellington on the North Island to begin our new careers.

Now, all these years later, my daughter Emily and I were driving on the streets of Wellington. Her son - my 10-month-old grandson - was safely strapped in a child seat in back. She and her husband are doing very well.

“I was just thinking,” I began. Always a dangerous sign. I looked over to the passenger side of the vehicle (which all come equipped with a steering wheel, instrument panel, and pedals) for signs of rolling eyes from my daughter, but they were preoccupied scanning for competing traffic, which I interpreted as a sign to proceed.

If I were age 26 right now, I speculated to her, arriving here in New Zealand for the first time, experiencing a new country as it is now, making a fresh start, what choices would I have made? New Zealand’s film industry got going in earnest in the 1980s. These days, its films and production houses are world-renowned.

Instead of asking in disbelief, “you mean I can go to law school here?” would I have gasped in amazement, “you mean this is where they made Lord of the Rings?” And instead of poking my nose in the nearest available law school, might I have turned up at Peter Jackson’s studio (or, for that matter, Joe Bloggs, the quintessential New Zealand Everyman) and offer to sweep the floors for nothing?

Just wondering ...

Speaking of the Film Industry

When I first arrived in New Zealand back what seems in another lifetime, I had expected to run into a lot of anti-American sentiment. This was immediate post-Vietnam, and resentment ran high in various parts of the world. I had encountered some of this in Canada. But New Zealand was entirely different. “A Yank,” they would exclaim once I’d opened my mouth, as if this were an enviable heritable trait.

Inevitably, it turned out they knew more about my country (and the rest of the world) than most of my countrymen. Nevertheless, some things - our healthcare system, for one - perplexed them. The whole time I lived there, Kiwis were very gracious in opening up their homes - and doors - to me.

But it would be naive to say the American brand has universal appeal. My daughter related how she encounters some people who say they can’t stand anything American, including the movies.

I pondered this for awhile, then replied: “Next time someone says they don’t like American movies, ask them what's wrong with Lord of the Rings?”

How to win arguments and confuse your enemies: Hit ‘em with a non sequitur.

Time to Say Goodbye

It only seemed I had just arrived. It was time to board the plane. Back when I lived in New Zealand, Wellington Airport was a disgrace to aviation. The terminal was basically a drafty over-sized shearing shed - corrugated iron in search of walls and ceiling to hide behind. Electric heaters jerry-rigged to exposed supporting beams burned to a crisp anyone unfortunate enough to be stuck standing in line below. Ten feet on either side, though, and one could easily identify with Scott of the Antarctic penning his final missive to his wife.

We step into a glass-encased building and I feel that I am in a mall in the trendiest part of town. A jazz combo is belting out a tune in the main lobby area. No, I’m not making this up. Outside is a magnificent panorama of planes taking off over the water. There are no boarding calls or other intrusions. We walk past upscale shops and a wine bar and cafe, and next thing I’m enjoying a micro-brew in a snug upstairs pub.

I swear, I could bring a date to Wellington Airport for a romantic evening.

We finish our brews, take some final photos, then head back downstairs. It is time to hand back my grandson. I badly want to pack him in my carry-on and bolt for the boarding gate. My daughter and son-in-law graciously accept the return of their baby. I can’t keep down the lump in my throat as I give them a farewell hug. Time to head back to my world.

I will be back ...

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