Friday, 23 February 2018

A taste of childhood

On a hot Canterbury NZ day, after a meeting with my future home builder I took a detour from my route home and drove down streets from my childhood. I expected change after so many decades, I expected changes after the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.

Much of the suburb was unrecognisable visually, except for the street names which had an odd haunting quality to them. Haunting because they had been such a big part of my growing up as I biked down them when young, yet had been changed so much, There was a disconnection with everything that should have felt nostalgic. The disconnection was enormous. The suburb had radically changed in its street layout, the vegetation was very different, the houses seemed old and often ill-kempt.

Gone of course were the days when school children like me walked a very long circuitous route to get to school; past open ditches where each house had a wooden bridge to access their driveways. Entire blocks of poplars had disappeared.

I remembered watching the steam trains puffing smoke along the line of poplar trees while I stood on the dining room chairs to catch a view. I was probably 5 years old.

I remembered cycling to school on my bike, balancing my violin and trying to rub warm my fingers, chillblained and cracked by Christchurch frosts. Zephyr and Humber cars parked in the driveway.

My parents bought some land in what would become Casebrook but at that stage was still considered Northcote, Christchurch. They capitalised the family benefit and took advantage of 3% State Advance loans. The new subdivision had been a dairy farm and the land was very clayish. My parents got trailer loads of manure each year trying to improve the soil texture. I can remember a visit to the house under construction where I was afraid to walk on the floor beams in case I fell through between them. My mother cautioned me. She cautioned me about everything and the world seemed a dangerous place.

My bedroom was to the right of the angle at the front door between the two wings.

Back in the 50s, 60s and early 70s women often stayed home and amused themselves while the kids were at school. Kids got themselves there and back. They weren't ferried in cars.

After the subdivision was finished some merchants opened a little string of shops nearby, consisting of a grocery store (supermarkets didn't exist), a chemist and a fish and chippie shop. Chinese food and hamburgers had not yet reached New Zealand. I hated fish so sometimes I was allowed to order a meat pattie and chips.

 Every Friday night we ate a mince pie with tomato sauce while watching Clutch Cargo cartoons on TV. On Saturdays we ate fish and chips while watching Yoyage to the Bottom of the Sea or Bonanza or even Laramie, the Virginian, the High Chapperal. Westerns were big then and so was Doctor Who with those pesky, scary Darleks.

I was coming up to that little group of shops where a pie had been 50c and so was a big tablet of chocolate back then. Now there was a doctor's surgery where the dairy used to be, the dairy was in the middle and at the other end was a takeaway run by chinese folks. I parked and went in. On the board I found 'meat pattie' was an option so I ordered it. I popped next door and bought a bottle of BBQ sauce.

Two minutes later I was parked across the road from my childhood home, eating my pattie and chips from the paper, sauce splottered over the food. It was wonderful. The taste of the meat and onion and herbs was exactly as I'd experienced 55 years ago even though those cooking it were newish immigrants. How could that be? No matter. Those moments were sublime as I munched and regarded my old home. Rather changed it was. The garage Dad built had been altered, the front of the house had two new rooms added, the fireplace had gone, the garden was completely different and rather unkempt. The house needed some serious mainenance but I could see the driveway I used to weed, the path I used when I came home from school. The last time I was in that house was 1976, the day of my first wedding. I hadn't seen it since.

 Many of the lives that came and went there had extinguished. What had happened to John Smith, my first boyfriend? The two of us are photographed in front of the garage when we were both 15. I heard Graham Johns who lived down the road and attended Papanui High with me had made it big in music overseas, orchestras etc. I would have liked to catch up with him. Names are fading from my memory.

The Barnes lived across the road on the corner in the partly bricked house (see last photo). I didn't have much to do with them but my mother, who had plenty of time on her hands, used to fraternise.
I still have my old violin and inside the case is this address biroed in my hand, 12 Brockham St, Papanui. The suburb is now known as Casebrook.

This was just one little experience of 'coming back'. Many of the places I worked, had dates, lived ceased to exist after the earthquakes. It's very hard for me to drive around Christchurch and see so, so much loss of heritage, identity, facilities. There's resilience out there because there is no choice but I can see a lot of political incompetence and uncaring too.

It was just an hour, a drop in time but that taste of childhood gave me momentary grounding. I started the car and drove away from Christchurch. Perhaps there will be other personal revisitings.

Photos show: the house under construction in the mid 50s and what it was like in the 60s and 70s, and now; me staring at the Barnes' house on the corner of Cherry Place, my brother and I doing 'carpentry - the only time I was allowed to play with a hammer, just for the photo - because I was only a girl; dressed as Miss Muffit outside the front door 1959 (in those days fancy dress competitions were popular with competitive mothers); standing on the driveway in my Sunday best for church 1969, cooking sausages swimming in dripping, as we did in those days while wearing my obligatory 'pinnie'. Stick on decoration on walls was popular then too. It wasn't wallpaper and we used the same stuff to cover our school books. Here it was bright red lobsters. My mother had a thing about red and green and lilac.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Unsustainable 'sustainability' gives it a bad name

I feel quite passionately about sustainable living. When I worked as Public Affairs Advisor, Environment for Waitakere City Council I learned a lot about water management, waste management and green energy. It has stayed with me ever since and I intend to do more in my private life around those principles. These principles are not difficult to understand and in many sectors are now mainstream. On my way down the North Island I chose an Airbnb that marketed itself as a sustainable business, a farm. The accommodation was in a yurt (a glorified tent) but I felt a little adventure and new experiences would be interesting.

I arrived in Turangi to discover there was no one waiting to check me in. A call to the host had her explaining she had gone to Wellington and left her woofer in charge of the farm and guests. Rather a responsbility for a temporary woofer. I wasted a lot of time driving up and down tryng to find this person so I could unload my stuff. Things did not feel very organised so I got out of the car to find someone to explain to me where to go.
 I met some other guests in an outdoor communal kitchen. It was beyond rustic and cold. It was a jumble of stuff' and I couldn't tell what was clean and what was not. How could it be clean exposed to the open air and dust? I couldn't find a plug for the sink and the tap came off in my hand though the woofer, I was later told, had some plumbing credentials. Another guest , also a blogger, had wanted to boil some water but the dial for a gas element came off  and most of the other gas elements had no dials at all. When the woofer showed up he managed to get one element to work but it all looked rather dangerous. I felt irritated by the lack of amenities and discovered another guest my age was equally irritated and disappointed. We commiserated. Having succeeded in making a cup of tea and sharing our disappointments so far, I headed off to settle in and explore my environs. 

 What an eye-opener. The place looked like a dump. There was rusting equipment everywhere amongst weeds, Broken down stuff piled or spread everywhere. Nothing looked successful, efficient or sustainable. How can piles of metal and plastic tarpaulins lying in grass be sustainable? How can leaking taps and old baths full of stagnant rainwater harbouring mosquito larvae be an example of sustainablilty but I hadn't reckoned on the ablutions. 

In keeping with the'sustainability' idea the management had erected instructions on how to use the composting toilet. I have nothing against composting toilets but this one was too scarey to even lift the lid. The toilet roll was rolling in the dirt and the best equipment consisted of a trowel and spade so you could shovel dirt on your 'business'. As a woman I find it nigh on impossible to control how I pee and poo but the instructions dictated that we must NOT pee while pooing. Ladies, how are your perineum muscles? Sphincters in form?
So where does one do the peeing? On the ground elsewhere as indicated by the sign and damp spot. There I was at night in the dark with my torch trying to spread my knees, jeans around my ankles trying not to splash my legs and shoes in a shared area amongst some trees. Nice. I knew to bring  a torch but didn't know I needed plastic bags or gladwrap for my legs. The vanity was nailed to a tree. Bet the tree didn't find that sustainable either. Though each hut or tent has its own toilet there really isn't privacy as the whole place is pretty communal.

My bed was comfortable but there were four beds in the yurt and I didn't know if other guests would be arriving so I went to bed fully clothed. It rained extremely heavily so I had little sleep worrying about the rain possibly soaking through the canvas roof or flooding in the fields bogging down my car. I could charge my phone but there were no plugs for normal appliances such as laptops or shavers. There wasn't enough light to read by for my eyes It was all too hard. 

The shower was solar but the entry was full of old bikes. The door was makeshift and of limited size and inside? No shower today a couple of us decided. It was not a safe, tidy or clean environment for a female. I understand gardening, permaculture and recycling but all I was seeing was decay, junk, pollution and what seemed to be a misguided hippy idea of what sustainability is all about.  While recycling is good, using old tyres that leach into the gound is not ideal.

It's smoke-free and I'd agree with that but the attitude to smokers (and grammar) seemed a bit brutal.

A phone call to the host had me expressing my disappontment with the facilities but she explained that she'd had a bad season for woofers and couldn't get things done. Where does the farm income come from? A small shadehouse growing veges which the woofers eat and sell and the bnb accommodation. I pointed out that as a business model that is not sustainable and  she needs a better standard with more marketing. I admit, young people with limited experience of life and sustainabiity might think it was just a basic adventure roughing it but we two older ladies saw the glaring problems and darker side of so-called sustainabiliy. To be sustainable a business must be successful and it must demonstrate true sustainability principles. It should be accountable and it should be of a manageable size. This one is out of control. 

Air bnb accommodation is not regulated. You stay at your own risk so at 6.30 am the next day, after only 2 hours sleep with only a short string of fairy lights to illuminate my tent I decided to beat a retreat. I will not be back.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Hobbiton Movie Set Tours

On my way down the country from Auckland to Rolleston I stopped off at Hobbiton. As a tried and true Tolkien fan as well as of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies (The Hobbit ones less so) it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Located at 501 Buckland Road, Hinuera, Matamata at just 2+ hours from Auckland it is easily accessible. You arrive having sensibly bought your $79 ticket online so as to be sure not to miss out on your guided tour.
It's all very organised with buses arriving and departing from the central point regularly with specific times for each group. You must stay with your appointed group. A bus arrives to take you to the Hobbiton Movie set and as you go the driver gives instructions and shows video  introductions and welcomes from the farm owner and Peter Jackson. It sets the scene nicely and we are shown clips from the movies; a preview of what we will personally experience.
It's a 12 acre set on the 1250 acre Alexander sheep farm, one of the largest in the area. Your group has a guide and you must stay on the path and not get separated. There's a working vege garden where the gardeners get to take produce home, complemented by 39 hobbit holes, all with their own individual construction and external decor.
A lot of attention is required to keep everything looking realistic and livable but NO you can't go inside a hobbit hole; they are just fronts. There's nothing to see inside. You will get some exercise going up and down the hills but it's not difficult. Photo opportunities abound IF you are with a friend, otherwise you'll need to ask your tour guide to take a snap of you.

Down by the Party Tree it's worth reflecting that the enormous tree that features so prominently in the Fellowship of the Ring is artificial for the most part and needs weekly maintenance as the leaves tend to blow off. Clearly a labour of love and attention. There wasn't a lot much else on the party field. The weather was unpleasantly windy so we didn't linger much. Of course the most popular hole to visit is Bag End on Bagshot Row but the set dressing of the other holes is charming, especially Sam Gamgee's one with the yellow door as seen in the  last frames of the Return of the King where he returns home to Rosie and their daughter after seeing off Frodo and Bilbo et al at the Grey Havens.
After that it's on past the mill and then we arrive at the Green Dragon Inn. Here at least we can really go inside and partake of munchies and in my case a cider. You get one free drink. It's dressed nicely and a bit atmospheric. On the way back to the drop-off point we watched concluding videos and could reflect that it's a well organised enterprise. Expensive to run but obviously very successful. New Zealand needs more of these themed activities. For further information go to: www.hobbitontours,com    There's an evening banquet tour if you're up to that. I was seduced by th Shire Shop alongside the Shire's rest cafe. With so many of my LOTR statuettes broken to various degrees by all my moves I just needed a little something that wasn't broken. The statuettes are still very pricey but you can find smaller items to fit your budget. I got a small statuette of Arwen reading, a keyring, a small tray and a Hobbit T-shirt with Smaug on it. Cool!  for more information go to

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Repat musings - some initial challenges

Here I am in 2018 packing up again. The difference this time compared to 2017 is that I feel I'm going somewhere rather than losing a world where I was given no opportunities to put down roots.

I never imagined I'd ever live somewhere like Rolleston, Canterbury. People ask me, perplexed WHY? Well, there's affordable land and that's a huge reason if you have experienced life in Auckland. If I am to have any stability in my life (something I really need and want these days) I need to have my own home; not living in someone else's home or renting. Financially and emotionally I need a new house one day that is entirely mine requiring no maintenance and where I can create my own French-inspired environment. I'll write more on that in months to come, as my situation evolves. In the meantime I'll be renting a new duplex in the heart of the Selwyn District.

I've spent around a total of 35 years living in Christchurch and there's no way I'll ever live back there but Rolleston is close and growing at a fast pace and maybe that will open up opportunities for me. Yes, it's an urban environment but I can create a little refuge for myself and I'd be very interested in being an active part of a smaller community.

With only days to go until I hop in my car to drive away from my Auckland life of 21 years total and my aging house that has become a noose around my neck I know it's going to be a challenging year. The destination is easily envisaged but the bends in the road are not. A bit like the little road trip I've organised on my drive down the North and South Islands to Rolleston. I'm hoping doing this alone will increase my self-confidence and my kiwi driving skills. I'm still not at ease with my 4-door car after driving a little 2-door Peugeot that seemed to just wrap around me, especially when backing.

There have been the inevitable disappointments coming back, of course. Some of these I had already been warned about:

1. The lack of richness of culture and sophistication/civilisation. I make no excuses to kiwis who have never lived in Europe when I say New Zealand is not well endowed in history, monuments, refined cultural activities and open-mindedness. There are worthwhile things to do of course here but it's NOT Europe. It's a couple of newly-settled islands at the end of the planet, surrounded by some isolating ocean. Some would say the isolation is a plus. I don't.

2. You call those supermarkets? The choice is abysmal and the prices are in the stratosphere. I've discovered I have budgeted only 50% of my weekly grocery spend and it's not just food etc it's virtually everything. It really is extremely difficult for anyone without a very well-paying job to live here and I currently don't have any income. For me, so far NZ is frightening. Yes, very scarey.

3. I am enjoying catching up with people I know but realistically very, very few contacts have shown any interest in seeing me again. A "like" on Facebook is about all they can manage, sometimes. A like doesn't make a relationship. People are busy, so am I, but without spending some physical time together where's the satisfaction and deepening of the relationship? I've had enough of superficiality. I'm back here to create meaningful and emotionally intimate connections. I didn't have a social life in France and back here there's no language barrier excuse. Those folks who really are my true friends know who they are and it will be up to me to make new friends in Rolleston and Christchurch. I'm already working on that with ideas for several projects incubating in my head.

 I must say though that I have had some pleasant superficial conversations with kiwis I don't know, whether it be a security guard and Star Wars fanatic at the cinema who had already seen the movie 4 times, a supermarket meat department manager explaining that kiwis don't like veal so I'm unlikely to find any (what???) or a checkout operator despairing over the cost of living.

Another plus has been having the opportunity to get to know my daughter all over again and also my new son-in-law. It's quite possible the fates might toss us all into the same location. We'll have to see what develops.

I didn't want to leave France but there really was no option. I didn't choose NZ, rather it was the only other place I could go. That doesn't mean I'm unhappy to be here.I feel hopeful and that's what keeps me going through the dark moments. These are typical repat sentiments.

I miss Jean-Claude and he misses me but that doesn't change the practicalities dictated by him, France and NZ. We work with what we are given. This is a new phase of my life and I think the best is yet to come with determination and persistence and a flexibility of spirit. I can do this!

Friday, 29 December 2017

Repat musings - the return

As 2017 winds to a close and the door shuts on my former life in France I've considered these 4 short weeks in NZ since my return. I have become a repat, a kiwi expat who returns to New Zealand. It's not a choice I wanted to make but no other choice was on offer so I've been thinking about what has there been to look forward to, being back in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

1. Everything is in English (well most of it, I haven't forgotten being assaulted by Chinese and Korean language-only signs everywhere in Auckland seven years ago; I couldn't understand a thing in front of me). I breathe English and can express myself with ease. This was never the case with French. No matter how much I improved (a lot) it was never enough for me to be able to express myself with ease in any situation - what I would define as truly bilingual. I'm good but not good enough for an easy time in French. One needs to be very young with bilingual parents to achieve ease of communication in another language.

2. Having more opportunities to see my daughter and especially being able to participate in her  wedding this week. I hope we'll get to share the best parts of our future lives and redefine our relationship because it's not possible to go back to the way we were. I'm looking forward to this but much of that ball will now be in her court without the tyranny of distance.

3. Meeting up again with old friends and colleagues and making new ones. I'm realistic enough to know most 'friends' won't bother much with me now I'm back, making little effort to spend time with me. That happens. I'll appreciate the ones who genuinely want me in their lives - we'll make reciprocal efforts.

3. Pineapple Lumps and Coconut Rough chocolate. I do hope they are still available. I know there's been a scare recently with the Cadbury factory closing its doors. Please...please... I've waited so long...

4. Packets of sausagement. Again, I hope these are still available but I haven't yet located any in the supermarkets. It's quite different to the products available in France and so I was prevented from making certain of my favourite meals over in France.

5. Perhaps the start of an environment cleanup and maybe a kinder NZ with more inclusive values now that there's a change in government. I feel a smidgeon of hope against the horror I've felt about how NZ has deteriorated since I left. I'm not happy about the continuing oil exploration and irrigation though.

6. The unknown forcibly allows space for hope. Maybe there's a place in New Zealand now where I can succeed and create a more stable life for myself; maybe even have some comfort as I get older. The book is so open to whatever might happen but I sincerely hope the adventure's going to be easier and kinder than many of the experiences I've suffered in France over more than 7 years and before that in NZ.

7. Again on a food note I'm looking forward to introducing friends to some of my new recipes from France once I have a more stable living situation and I'll be maintaining my healthier Mediterranean diet. I seem to have lost a bit of weight recently and am feeling better for it.

8. Somewhat gentler weather. Though I don't know if Rolleston, Canterbury will be my final destination though, for lack of alternatives, I'm assuming so and planning for it. It probably won't have miserable grey, cold weather for 8 months of the year though the winters may be cold. Droughts do seem increasingly problematic here though.

9. Having my own 'things around me'. Though I've lost so much with two trans-hemisphere moves across the planet, what remains I can see and touch every day instead it being relegated to someone's attic, living only in their environment without my little reminders of who and what I am. Much of my stuff is still in boxes awaiting another move but I'm still enjoying the sensation of identifying with my belongings again.

10. Once I get settled I'm keen to have the opportunity to take up some hobbies. Most were lost in the impossibility of where I was living in France and the conditions of my work. Hello- private life and time to myself? Christchurch isn't too far a drive from Rolleston. Thank goodness as Rolleston seems a bit culturally deprived right now.

11. Faster broadband than what I've had in France. This has been partly due to 'technically impoverished' employers with different priorites, and habitat location.

12. Having a stand-up shower where I don't have to hold the showerhead  while I'm trying to wash - ah, progress. Enjoying that.

13. Being allowed to eat before 8pm  instead of being dictated to. Maybe weight control will be easier? Having more freedom over what I do and when.

14. Being able to have a major personal project to occupy my creativity and build some stabilty and security - building a house. I've discovered, as many before me have, that this is not that straightforward but it's what I want to do, now that my French dream has died.

So far I have achieved the following: bought a car, signed a conditional agreement for the sale of my Auckland house, found somewhere to rent in Rolleston, bought a TV and microwave and am learning about new technologies like Smart TV, keyless entry to cars, mobile routers and how complicated smartphones are these days. I've also organised yet another relocation to the South Island this time, Rolleston, not far from Christchurch because land is cheaper, and I've planned a road trip as I make my way down the North Island to the South Island; new experiences like visiting Hobbiton, taking the ferry with a car and living in a yurt, and reassuring older experiences like visiting friends and familiar places.

Tomorrow is New Year's Eve. Like many people I'm grateful to have what I have but desperately hoping for something more meaningful and financially viable to be available in the very near future. I'm glad to see the back of one of the hardest, saddest and most disappointing years (professionally and personally) of my life. Here's to 2018 being the start of the best.

Happy New Year everyone! My adventures continue at the other End of the Earth.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

French rambles

In the final months of my séjour in France I took to walking in the countryside near my lodgings. It was a way to connect to my soul-country and a way to say goodbye but it also had health benefits. It gave me a gentle tone-up physically and allowed me to just 'be' by myself, grieving the loss of my dream to stay and of having a permanent relationship with Jean-Claude.

On a good day I would clock up 4kms through villages and farmers' fields, along country highways, often past hunters and their dogs, but mostly it was pretty sleepy. Each walk I'd notice something different in the progress of crops or house renovations, architecture of houses, plants and abandoned places, plots of land for sale... houses for sale... and wish things had been otherwise and that I would have found my niche and opportunity to stay.

The only disturbing aspect was the quantity of dogs ready to savagely launch themselves against me if they ever got over the fences, Every second house seemed to have an aggressor (or several) who very audibly announced my approach. Still, it was enjoyable being somewhere pretty and always interesting where most Kiwis never go.

 I was saddened to see many properties with some land which was totally neglected, often literally crumbling into obscurity, uncared-for orchards where the trees were weighed down with developing apples, pears and quinces; fruit left to spoil, trees unfed, land a decaying wilderness.

It wasn't rustic. To my gardener's eye it was a tragically missed opportunity; one I'd gladly have had for myself. Oh, the gardens I could have created in these bucolic spots.

Wandering along gently rolling landscapes with wheat, oats and barley pushing their way sunward beside me, the men on big modern tractors or harvestors turning and sowing was calming. Here I was in the cereal belt of France. Pink-stained grains left by departing farmers which the pigeons profited from were scattered down the middle of the roads.

Butterflies stopped to take a sip on wild weed flowers, some weeds I recognisd from my childhood when we all studied wild grasses and weeds at school on our uncomplicated field trips beyond the playing fields. Not many kiwi kids would recognise even four of these weeds nowdays, nor would their parents. Times have certainly changed and perhaps because of this I found much solace in walking alone and appreciating the simple things in nature.

Nosiness often prompted me to stop and look at other people's gardens or the tradesmen who seemed to make little progress during those long summer days repairing roofs or recladding in the trendy new style of fake stonework.

It's not surprising it's growing in popularity as it really tidies up old buildings, protecting them and giving homeowners an opportunity to customise the patterns and colours yet still keep the traditional feel.

Some of the things I will miss the most from my walks are the strong sense of history, secret stories expressed by buildings, the obligatory 'bonjour' exchanged everytime I met a total stranger, a buzzard hovering over a seemingly empty field, a hare lolloping out of harm's way over a ploughed field as I approached. I'm intensely grateful to have these experiences shared on this blog so as memories fade I can come back here and remember. It's been fun sharing my life in France with you all.

This blog continues, after all, To the Ends of the Earth  and Francesbigadventure works in both directions. What's it like to be a repatriate? How do you build a new life back in your birth country at the other end of the planet? Stick with me and discover. The journey continues...