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.