Friday, July 15, 2011

Missing things

As my time in New Zealand draws toward its inevitable close, I find myself becoming nostalgic over every little thing that make life here different from life in northwest Ohio. As soon as I had the idea for this blog, I started making a list on a post-it, but it got so incredibly long I ran out of room. (And I didn't really want to write a blog that long.) Of course I’m going to miss all the lovely friends I’ve made—I miss them already. I’ll also miss knitting in the local yarn store, but I already wrote about that last month. I smooshed some things together and crossed some off...and here are the remaining few that stuck out.

1. Shifting with my left hand.
This is actually a proxy for all the things I will miss about driving in New Zealand. First, my current Ohio car is my first automatic transmission; arriving in NZ and going back to standard was great. Second, shifting gears with the left hand is a consequence of driving on the left-hand side of the road, which makes driving a lot more interesting because (in addition to shifting), I’ve got things to think about. Third, the gear shift belongs to my hired Daihatsu Sirion, which from American eyes looks small enough to fold up and put your pocket. In New Zealand, it’s smallish but not freakishly so, and by no means the smallest thing on the road. Vans, SUVs, trucks, and other large vehicles are a MINORITY. Even the shipping trucks are mostly small. It makes it so much easier to see the road! Last, the roads are curvy enough to need lots of shifting!

2. Topography
Anyone living in northwest Ohio will recognize the dearth of elevation changes that region affords. (Unless they possibly have never been anywhere else, in which case a 30-foot hill probably is a mountain.) I never got lost in Christchurch, because the Port Hills are clearly visible from wherever you are. It's possible to actually see across town. On my drive south to the office, I could see west as far as the Southern Alps. From in the Port Hills, you get a huge panoramic view. Ocean to 12,000 feet, all within seeing distance. Bonus: right now the mountains have a pretty dusting of snow on them.

3. Fall weather
The southern hemisphere is actually in the depths of its winter, and the days are incredibly short. However, New Zealand’s island nature tempers the cold weather close to sea level, so I’ve been enjoying 40- and 50-degree days. In addition, the weather is so mercurial, that there’s very rarely something so dismal as a bad-weather day. Fronts don’t take days to pass over a region—they can pass over the entire country in less than 24 hours. If it was raining in the morning, odds were good the sun would be out before the afternoon finished. Since the one thing I managed to lose this trip was my raincoat, this is a Good Thing.

4. Hagley Park
The park is one of the largest inner city parks in the world (as any tour guide will tell you). The perimeter walk is about 6-7 km, and smack in the middle of the park is the Botanic Garden. (The Botanic Garden contains the Rose Garden, which I've mentioned before.) There are always people in the park—many runners and walkers, rugby and netball players, sometimes cricketers, too. Helicopters landed on the south park lawn (especially after the earthquake) and the north grounds transformed from flower show to memorial celebration site to kidfest to rugby fan zone just while I was here. I walked around this park enough times to consider some of the trees as personal friends (especially on the rainy mornings). I even pilfered a rock from the park when I needed something to open walnuts. Of all the places in Christchurch outside my little rented room, I visited this one the most.

5. The local market
Veggie growers are set up on the grounds of Riccarton House every week, year round, selling local in-season produce. A trip to the market meant a lovely walk to (and through) a historic site with fresh food as a bonus. The grounds have a pest-proof fenced off area of native bush where there are always birds--some of which I managed to see if I sat still long enough. If I got up early enough in the morning, the specialty bread people still had scones by the time I arrived. My personal favourite: the wine purveyors who also sold ripe grapefruits they’d just picked off their tree (never tried their wine).

6. Indian takeaway
Technically I suppose I could get Indian takeaway if I drove the 30-odd minutes it takes to get from Tiffin to Findlay. But it’s so much better if you can phone in the order and it’s ready by the time you walk to the restaurant, where the owner knows your name and how you like your sauce…

7. The CQ Digital Printing window
Ads show up in NZ just like they do in the US: posters, billboards, tv, magazines, the lot. There's even a lot of similar humour in them. This printing business put a local spin on their window: a big cartoon head (called Collette) with a huge cartoon bubble coming from her mouth. Every week she had something different to say, often related to the trials and tribulations of living in the earthquake zone Christchurch had become. CQ took suggestions from the public; who knows how many they used. If my regular walking routine didn't take me by that window during the week, I would detour, just for a quick chuckle.
I managed to fit about 25 other things on the post-it I was using—many of them food-related. There are some things I’ve been doing to try to mitigate the pain of leaving. I’m coming home with a cookbook and a set of metric measuring implements. I’ve also taken thousands of photos, some of which I have actually labeled. I have addresses of people and websites to stay in touch with the region. What is sad is much of the day-to-day stuff will gradually fade from memory with passing time… The only way I’m managing to say goodbye to all of this is to reassure myself that it isn’t forever; I’ll be coming back.

Friday, June 24, 2011


The Joy of Knit World
I think I may be addicted to yarn. In keeping with the local vernacular, I should say I’m addicted to wool. Many Kiwis don’t seem to know what I mean when I say “yarn”—made it difficult to locate the proper shops when I first arrived. Wool is synonymous with yarn, just like Kleenex is synonymous with tissue. I suspect this terminology differs because New Zealand fibre stores—and I’ve probably been in enough of them to have a significant sample size—stock yarns that do actually contain significant percentages of wool. Regardless of how they want to spin it, I can’t leave the stuff alone.

I am currently in possession of no less than eleven different project’s-worth of wool, only three of which have the complete projects to show for it. For any truly avid fan of Ravelry this may not seem cause for alarm, but given everything I purchase has to be schlepped back to Ohio, eleven might border on excessive. My first New Zealand wool adventures started innocently enough. I decided rather than pack a scarf and hat I could work through the mammoth plane ride and January summer and whip something together well before I actually needed them. Hat and scarf finished, I was left with empty needles, which I quickly rectified by splurging on a nice pile of 100% NZ wool in a lovely cream colour, and proceeded to cast on a set of cardigan sweaters that I thought would keep me occupied until the trip home in July—at least.

Two sweaters would likely have sufficed, too, had I not attended a Fibre Arts meeting on the uses of alpaca. What harm could a couple of balls of alpaca wool do? Wool is squishy—I was sure I could find space for the soft blue-black skeins (named “Tui” after the indigenous bird). It didn’t really matter that I didn’t know what I was going to make with this wool (that’s what the pattern search on Ravelry is for, after all). I looked forward to several months of thinking of possibilities while I periodically felt the lovely skeins. Wool, after all, is an extremely tactile medium.

In March, my parents arrived for a visit, which meant lots of driving across lots of open spaces, punctuated by many small towns...with wool shops. I found a nice natural tweedy brown New Zealand wool. The price kept my acquisition to three skeins, but I thought I might be able to stretch them into a vest. The nice thing was they fit into the same bag as the alpaca, which was still lurking quietly under my desk in Christchurch. . The tweed’s a little scratchy, but I like the natural dark wools and brown goes with everything I own. Practically.

Southland on a sunny day

Highway acquires
unexpected celebrity
It occurred to me I might have a problem when, on the return drive from one of my tramping adventures, I decided to detour three hours out of the way because I had heard there was a factory outlet just south of Dunedin. I wasn’t overly troubled at the time; the route meant I wouldn’t be travelling past views I’d already seen before, PLUS I stumbled a road that acquired the name “Presidential Highway”—because it connects the towns of Gore (pop. 12,108) and Clinton (pop. 294). And I really have to say as far as bargains go, this shop had ‘em in spades. I waffled forever over various colours of Possum-and-Merino before deciding on an attractive forest green (at $5 per skein instead of $16 in Christchurch!), found myself a nice thick undyed 100% merino (with endless dye possibilities), and then settled on some gifts for a friend who helped me through the February earthquake.

I should note, as an aside, that Possum-and-Merino is a neat example of Kiwi ingenuity. The Australian possum was unwisely imported to New Zealand over a century ago to establish a fur trade. The only mammal indigenous to New Zealand is a small bat; birds and reptiles evolved in pretty mammal-free environments. So the arrival of a possum (and, for that matter, all other alien mammals including humans) had a devastating effect on local ecology. Possum can strip foliage faster than plant communities can recover, and they also eat eggs of the ground-laying bird species. The Department of Conservation is waging a long-standing (and sometimes controversial) battle against the possum, primarily by use of poisoned baits. Possum fur is valuable because the hair shaft is both hollow, making it an excellent insulator, and soft, which is nice for garments. Rather than letting them all rot in the bush, hunters and trappers discovered there was a market for possum fur when blended with merino wool. In the space of a couple decades, possum populations dropped by about half (although at a current estimated population of 30 million they are hardly disappearing) AND souvenir shops have a great stock of ready wares.

Pavement cave-ins as a result of
ground liquefaction

With the new merino and possum wools, I now had enough to warrant shipping home in a separate box. And once you’ve made that decision, there’s really no going back. My favourite Christchurch wool shop just reopened. It flooded pretty badly during the February earthquake and its location was in the restricted zone for a while. The June earthquakes brought back more piles of silt to be shoveled. Backbreaking work, especially for those people who were doing it for the third time around. But they’re open now and quite keen to sell off slightly damaged packages of wool. Hence the five new skeins of thick wool blend perfect for slippers, plus a package of hand-dyed merino that I picked up and then couldn’t put down. I might have also accidently run into another shop on the north side of town where a skein of sock wool (superwash merino) leaped into my basket when I wasn’t looking… and then after I discovered knitting socks is much easier than it looks, well, I just had to find some more wool for practicing.
Clearing the silt

There have been upsides to my addiction. I’ve become part of two different knitting groups who form the core of the friendships I’ve forged here in New Zealand. In addition to the hat and scarf, I’ve finished three pair of socks, a pretty good-sized felted bag, and a pair of convertible mittens. The cardigans are even well-along, although without sleeves one can’t quite call them cardigans yet. There’s also something about knitting that is incredibly soothing when the earth can’t quite make up its mind about when to stop shaking.

The two aftershocks on June 13 (M5.6 and M6.3) set everyone on edge again; there’s been more flooding, loss of power and water, and disruption of regular services. The funny thing is, although these quakes probably appear as discrete events (like the news articles that describe them) to the outside world, they’re so much more of a continuum when you’re stuck in the middle. We spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not what we just felt was a shake or a big truck going by, so it seems like an externally driven city-wide outbreak of ADD. When the big ones go by, I wonder if it’s worth getting up to stand in the doorway...again. There have been 6 aftershocks in the last 24 hours, almost 2 weeks out from those main quakes. I can't imagine what it's like in Japan.

Ultimately, having the wool has been more than just a conduit into a new community. It’s been a small positive amid the uncertainty. Letting wool slide along needles and through my hands...from a ball of possibilities on one side to something concrete and useful on the other...has been a grounding influence for me, all the way back to the first jolt on January 20 (M5.1). As far as addictions go, it’s probably cheaper, and it doesn’t impair my other faculties (much), although I won’t be trying the driving-
while-knitting thing. I just hope I don’t ever have to go through withdrawal.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

I'll see you on the dark side of the moon...

When you’re traveling, there’s a certain level of expectation that you will confront new experiences—those “you just had to be there” moments that you can’t explain to the people back home because they are so, well, different. People who break up the normal routine for 6 months, and transplant themselves (study abroad people—back me up here) will generally assume that most things will be a surprise, which means that generally because everything’s new, nothing actually is a surprise. You spend time thinking about how you’re going to word it all in the emails back home. This isn’t to say that if you’re expecting something to totally wow you it doesn’t actually wow you, because it still does. But every now and then you come smack up against something that is so mind-boggling unexpected and whimsical that it makes you laugh at the sheer inexplicability of the experience.
I was engaged to have dinner Friday with a University friend whose recent move from Tasmania makes her somewhat more sympathetic to feelings of being in a new place. She offered to cook, I offered to bring dessert. On Friday I learned that her family had, however, discovered a café that not only was vegetarian, but also had live music on Friday nights—and did I want to go? Of course! I wanted to go. Who doesn’t like live music in a café? We set out after work on Friday; said café was actually on the far eastern side of town (where, incidentally, port-a-loos are still a necessity), within shouting distance of the ocean.

The café itself was appropriately quirky, with no matching chairs and grab-your-own silverware. The food was fantastic. I’ve never had sweet potato in lasagna before, but I can tell you I’ll be having it again. My friend’s daughter wore a delightfully eclectic ensemble of sequins, chiffon, and fur that only looks good on haute couture models and 6-year-olds, but even that wasn’t all that startling. The live music that started up promptly at 7:00…by a man wearing a fluff-adorned pirate hat (and yes, he did have long white hair)…was actually a community group of ukulele players, who evidently come regularly to, uh, …jam… together. This, too, one might take in stride. But this was no ordinary confluence of mass ukulele-playing. No! There’s an overhead projector in this café! Words and chords are provided! We are having a sing-a-long!

Sing-a-longs are great—it doesn’t matter if you’re any good because everyone just has a go. Most participants usually have their go as loud as possible, perhaps because we think that if we can hear ourselves sing, we might actually have a clue if we sound any good. Not that it matters. However, folk music is sufficiently repetitive that after about the 2nd verse even the uninitiated and tone-deaf are doing fine. Never done a ukulele sing-a-long before (particularly after sweet potato lasagna), but it sounded like a good time to me.

There were a few lovely New Zealand folk songs, including a Māori song that I actually remembered learning way back in my junior high days at a grammar school in Auckland. Sing-a-long standby “I’ll Fly Away” made an appearance, as did “Greenback Dollar”. But what had me truly overwhelmed was that the majority of the songs we sang were things like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (Stones), “Ghostriders In The Sky” (Stan Jones--cleverly segued in with theme song from “Rawhide”), “Jambalaya” (Hank Williams), and “These Boots Were Made For Walkin’” (Nancy Sinatra). The point at which my brain gave up and refused to assimilate anything more was when we all started belting lyrics to “Brain Damage” (Pink Floyd)…to the strumming of ukuleles…in a vegetarian café…in New Brighton, New Zealand. I can’t explain it. You just had to be there.