Sunday, April 13, 2008


Suppose you had to start over. Maybe the mob is looking for you and the witness protection program just isn't your style. You not only need to relocate, you also need a new identity fast. Europe is too close, the Caribbean is too obvious. What about New Zealand? Did it even make your list? I guess I can never go into hiding because now you all know that I'd be trying my luck as a kiwi.

Unusually warm weather and an exceptionally gracious hostess were perhaps the rose-tinted glasses through which I viewed and then of course fell in love with New Zealand. With only an extra long Easter weekend to explore kiwiland, we opted to focus only on Wellington, NZ's capital and visit the south island on a separate future trip.

I'd been imagining what Wellington would be like for a year now. Not because I'm obsessed with Lord of the Rings (LOTR) or anything, but because part of almost all my days in Switzerland were spent with my fellow au pair buddy, the sweet and stylish Hannah. Welly is her hometown and thus the backdrop of all her stories. She and I often dreamed and planned what would happen and where she would take me when I one day visited her. I'm thrilled that that one day turned out to be Good Friday and that we made those hypothetical plans a reality so soon. Most kiwis at the arrival hall were waiting for KISS (they dominated first class on our plane), but Hannah was there for us and we felt like rock stars in her care.

What struck me about Welly is that residents don't have to sacrifice big city comforts for scenic, country living. You can have the nice house, beautiful garden and quiet neighborhood yet drive/ferry/train into town for gourmet coffee. Not that I would know good coffee if it burned the taste buds off my tongue, but I'm told that Welly's roasters offer some of the best cups around.

In a country of four million people spread over two islands a little larger than the UK, space is plentiful, but not endless and the kiwis treat it accordingly. By the look of it, someone decided that they didn't want a chain restaurant or retail outlet on every corner. The result is a cityscape marked by hip restaurants, funky boutiques and of course, dozens of cafes. Thus, shopping in Welly can be an expensive, yet refreshing experience; kiwi designer shops are intermixed with the brands we know and may not love. Eating out, on the other hand, was reasonably priced by Australian standards. I didn't satisfy my hunger for NZ lamb (all the more reason to return), but we did sample some artisanally made chocolate from Schoc. Who knew sea salt and cardamom went well with milk chocolate? These guys apparently.

My guidebook featured a quote from Elijah Wood who spent years in NZ filming LOTR. At first I thought it was really stupid to quote an American actor of all people on NZ's beauty, but his words stuck with me throughout the trip. "NZ has all the landscapes you could imagine on Earth, and even some you can't."

On our first day out Hannah took us to Martinborough to sample some local wines. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to see that the grapes thrived on rolling golden hills, just as they do in California and Tuscany. But as we ascended the mountain heading back toward town, we were transported to a lush tropical forest and I was reminded of Hawaii. I've read that there are geysers in the north and lakes and rugged glaciers to the south so maybe Frodo was right.

What impressed me even more than the landscapes, however, was the kiwi attitude toward land and the people who claimed it before the pakeha (Euopean New Zealanders), the Maori. Te Papa (meaning 'our place' in Maori) is NZ's national museum and the best national museum I've ever visited. Every sign and plaque is written both in English and in Maori. This was the first among many indications that native culture is fully embraced by the kiwi people. In my own country and Australia as well, the history of the relationship between European settlers and native peoples is one of violence, ignorance and pain. Te Papa presents what seemed to be a balanced picture of the struggle for control of the land. There was an acknowledgement that NZ's government discriminated against not only the Maori, but later waves of non-white immigrants as well. There was also evidence that they had learned from their mistakes. One of the most striking tributes to NZ's diversity are two rotating exhibits. One allows specific Maori tribes to tell their own story while another is dedicated to a particular immigrant group and both are changed every two years.

New Zealand was the first country that gave its women the right to vote in 1893 and a woman currently serves as its prime minister. Progressive values, great wine, friendly, English-speaking people and it looks like Middle Earth... why aren't we all there right now? Sadly, that's because the jobs in NZ aren't as plentiful or well paid as they are in Australia and elsewhere. That's why you'll find young kiwis seeking better economic opportunities all over the world. It must be sad to say goodbye to this island paradise, but maybe some find it too isolated. I'm sure the vacancies are quickly filled though by LOTR pilgrims, wealthy travelers and maybe even a few ex-gangsters on the run.

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