Whoosh, and almost a year had passed since I landed in New Zealand and tucked into my gluten free cookies. But maybe that had to be expected. After all, I had a lot to catch up on my return to Europe, and anyway I was too busy walking around dramatically re-telling my adventures to a captivated, if a little bored, friends and family members (‘And I said: let’s drive behind this flock of sheep for fifty kilometers in the rain, as there layeth the place where Frodo had been chased by the Nazgûl’ – ‘wow, no way, and what happened next?’). Now, I do not want to imply English suburbia is boring, not after what we experienced in Kashiwa (now an official ‘radiation hotspot’), but it can be mildly hypnotizing. To wake up from slumber and kick-start this blog to life I propose an unbelievably catchy Māori song:
So, Wellington. It is a happy place. In 2011 the Lonely Planet named it the 4th best city to visit and it has the reputation of being ‘the coolest little capital in the world’. The traffic on the main street can be stopped for a skateboarding race. The dress code for witnessing a Parliament session is ‘to wear shoes’. Second-hand (or rather ‘pre-loved’) clothes and Salvation Army handouts are a fashionable must-haves. (I was particularly enchanted by a thrift shop near Weta Cave Studios called ‘Sequel’). Poetry reading and guitars on public squares are welcomed. Going to the supermarket or travelling on a bus barefoot is encouraged. B52, The Rembrandts, Tom Petty, Metallica and Cranberries are still played in bars, pubs and on the radio. After two weeks there your hair spontaneously turn into dreadlocks and you are gnawed by the compulsion to dye it purple. After a month you go to the supermarket in pyjama trousers and feel overdressed. After three months you learn the haka and toy with the idea of tattooing your face Māori-style. If you do not leave then, you will probably stay forever, informing your worried family in your newly adopted New Zealand accent that you are buying a sheep farm and becoming a grazier.
With its less than 400,000 citizens, Wellington seems to be perfectly sized: big enough to retain anonymity, but conveniently small to allow for coincidences and accidental encounters. True, I used to see the same faces all the time, and I would be wary of recommending it to anyone who feels like having an affair (the news about your misbehaviour would probably reach home before you did) but in any other respect it was wonderful. While cozy and homely, the cuteness of colourful little wooden houses was never suffocating. It could not be: snug as it felt, it was not possible to forget the vastness and remoteness of its surroundings. The far away and end-of-the-world feeling was, at least for me, impossible to shake. You could lie wrapped in a pink duvet in a sweet doll-like bedroom, and you were still in the midst of the Exciting and Dangerous. And when a heavy tropical rain violently rattled the roof, and the famous Wellington winds (with their record 248 km per hour) made you fly so fast you lose your jandals, you knew first hand what is often forgotten in the cocoon of a big city: the nature is big, and you are small.
Europe seems far away, world affairs irrelevant, breath-taking spaces inviting. ‘Laid-back’ and ‘outdoorsy’ are the words often used to describe this. A 2011 United Nations survey consisting of 8000 interviews with young people in 20 countries showed that young Kiwis are happier than their foreign peers, and their ‘major fear’ was ‘to live in a city apartment’. (This was hailed ‘distinct from any other country’ by a surprised Bronwyn Hayward from the Canterbury University). And although I have heard all sorts of complaints about the ‘New Zealand propaganda’, egalitarianism is high, and tolerance for unequal power distribution low. Compared to past-oriented Europe and future fixated US, New Zealand is a today kind of place. And although Wellingtonians are strange people who wear ‘gumboots’ instead of ‘wellingtons’, they really know how to enjoy life.
As far as I am concerned, Wellington has just one fault: it goes straight through the city, and looks just like this:
The fault had its moments in history, and is well overdue for another ground-shaking performance. This leaves Wellingtonians in the grip of anticipation. But let’s leave this as a cliff-hanger for the second part of the article: and let’s hope it will be the only place where it plays a major role.