Going naked: barefoot in New Zealand

I stopped at a zebra crossing to let three young children cross the road to their primary school in Drury. The oldest was perhaps 11; the youngest was maybe 7. They were, I assume, brother and sisters; they had, after all, just got out of the same car. They looked clean, and well-fed, all three of them, their uniforms were clean, they had smiles on their faces. They were also barefoot. All three of them.

Not much surprises me about New Zealand, at least not any longer. I’m used to the remarkably relaxed attitude to just about all aspects of life; I rejoice in, but am no longer surprised by, the quality of the coffee here. But, as I approach my fifth anniversay, I continue to find the number of people who walk around in public barefoot, well, frankly shocking.

Maybe it’s because in my soul I’m almost Japanese — if you’re supposed to take off your outer footwear when you enter a house, to keep the home clean, what do you remove when you’re already wearing no shoes? Maybe it’s my first-world middle-class prejudice, but a child with no shoes tells me that the parents either can’t afford to, or don’t care to, shoe their child.

But I am, in the end, aware that this is just my own prejudice. Barefoot is entirely normal, perfectly acceptable, even ubitquitous. It seems odd — highly, thoroughly — odd to me to see people going about their business in town with nothing on their feet. There seems to be no barriers here, either — for all ages, all races, all manner of people, casual dress doesn’t require shoes.

I’ve tried it — at least as far as walking up and down the path outside my back door. I don’t like it. It hurts. The stones cut into the thin soles of my delicate feet, and I don’t like it. But, more to the point, I don’t understand it. I know that it’s normal here, and I know that, in so many ways, it’s natural — it’s just an extension of wearing shorts, or short-sleeved shirts — but I can’t get used to it.

As I’ve said, to me it screams poverty — bare feet is the last step before having no clothes to wear at all, to my English sensibilities. When I lived in the United States, I would often see signs in restaurants telling customers “No shirt, no shoes — no service.” You’d lose a lot of business in New Zealand with a sign like that. But, once again, that’s just my interpretation. Clearly it simply signifies no such thing here.

The day I arrived in New Zealand, the principal of the school where I was about to start working took me into town to open a bank account. His teenaged son came with us. When the car stopped, Son hopped out and walked off up the high street with nothing on his feet. In the bank, next to the farmer with dirty boots stood a young mother with nothing on her feet.

There are, in the end, no value judgements here. I would no sooner send go shopping with no shoes on than I would with no clothes on, but that’s me. This isn’t a good thing, nor is it a bad thing. But it’s a thing, and one that I’m simply not, after five years, used to yet.

Buying from overseas — how to import purchases to New Zealand

Since the cost of living in New Zealand is, as has been discussed extensively elsepost, rather high, I’ve taken to buying things to import from overseas in an attempt to stretch my rather slight teacher’s salary that little bit further. Most of what I buy — or, if we’re being accurate here, what Debbie buys — comes to us through the post, smallish items like clothing or books that can easily be fitted into a smallish box, smallish items that don’t overly interest Customs.

But I’ve just had my first experience as an importer. The cooker that caught our eye at Harvey Norman was quite eye-wateringly expensive, but on offer in the UK for the altogether more reasonable price of $950. Sold. I had the cooker delivered to my parents’ home in Salford, and then set about looking for a way of getting it to New Zealand.

And this is where the fun started. I knew that I was dealing with a large, heavy object; I was perfectly aware that it would cost a bob or two to ship. I googled around a little, and found myself looking at a quote from a company in London. I’ll not name them, I don’t think, because I’m really not minded, at this point, to give them any publicity. Their quote was for £180, including pickup in Salford and delivery in Pukekohe. Excellent, I thought, and clicked “buy.”

Auckland beach


Not so excellent, as it turned out. I had told the shipping company what I wanted sent, how big it was and how much it weighed — put all this information into their website’s quoting form. So they knew what they were quoting me on. Odd, then, that they sent one man in a van to pick it up. Eventually they collected it, but then told me it was too big for the £180 quote, and that they had no intention of honouring the quote. I’ve had bad experiences of shipping companies before, and so I wasn’t entirely surprised, and ended up paying them almost £500 for shipment.

My cooker eventually made its way into a shipping container. Containers, it turns out, all have serial numbers, so you can track the progress of your container. Mine sat on the waterfront in Felixstowe for about a week, as one ship after another left without it. It eventually left on the Maersk Surabaya, and made its way through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal (I tracked it rather obsessively) and on to Singapore, where it was transferred to the Josephine Maersk, bound for, eventually, Auckland, where it arrived about a week and a half ago.

We had been assured by our shipping company that all customs paperwork would be handled by them or their agents here in New Zealand. And, fool that I am, I believed them. Forms for me to fill in arrived in the post from New Zealand Van Lines a fortnight or so ago; fair enough, I suppose — since I’m the actual importer, NZ Van Lines need my signature on the import forms. But they sent me an unaccompanied personal baggage declaration — a document for new immigrants who are bringing their household effects into the country. I called NZ Van Lines to explain that this was the wrong form, and that I was importing as a resident. Turns out that NZ Van Lines are not authorised to act as customs brokers for imports like this, and I’d need to contact a broker who could handle the formalities for me. It would cost, apparently, about $100.

I phoned New Zealand Customs, and spoke to a very helpful agent. I explained my situation, and he told me what I needed to do. I needed, he explained, to apply for a client code, because I was importing goods worth over $1,000. This took one form, an email and a day’s processing. Once I had my client code, I went to the Air Cargo Inspection Facility (even though my container had sailed to New Zealand, they were willing to help me) at Auckland airport, where I could process my clearance.

By now, I had received a waybill from NZ Van Lines, so I took this, my receipt from B&Q, the British shop who sold me my cooker (since I’d bought it over the Internet, I had an email to print off as proof of purchase) and a receipt for shipping, to the customs office. To my eternal gratitude, they were open for business, no appointment required, on a Saturday morning. The young lady behind the counter took my papers, looked through them briefly, took my passport, and told me to take a seat. “This might take a little while.”

Ten minutes later, she came back to ask “Is this a free-standing cooker?” Yes. Five minutes later, “How much does it weigh?” About 90kg. Next, “What’s the supplier code of the place you bought it?” No idea. OK, fill in this form. Then more minutes, then “Do you have proof of payment?” This one caught me out. Wasn’t the email receipt from B&Q proof of payment? “No, that’s proof of purchase, not payment.” So I whipped out my iPhone, and pulled up my online-banking credit card statement for February. I showed her the transaction, and she was happy.

After about an hour, everything was in order, and it was time to pay the fees I knew were coming. Here’s a breakdown of what we were charged:

Import duty $86.10 5% of purchase price
GST $409.81 15% of purchase and shipping prices
Import transaction fee $22.00
GST on Import transaction fee $3.30
Biosecurity levy $11.10
GST on biosecurity levy $1.67
Total $533.98

I was a little unhappy having to pay taxes on fees, but what else could I do? I paid — by EFTPOS; they didn’t take credit cards — and brought my Import Delivery Order, the clearance document from Customs. I sent the original document to NZ Van Lines, who then told me that I needed a MAF clearance. MAF, the Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries, no longer exists, so I contacted the Ministry for Primary Industries, MAF’s successor, and spoke to a very helpful (government officers in NZ do tend to be quite reliably and consistently helpful and cheeful) lady in their biosecurity office. She insisted that MPI had no interest in a brand-new cooker, but I explained that my shipping company were insisting that I get some form of clearance. She told me to email her a copy of the Import Delivery Order, which, fortunately, I had on my computer, and half an hour later it came back to me with an annotation to the effect that MPI had no problems at all with the import. I forwarded this to NZ Van Lines, and now I’m just patiently awaiting the delivery of my shiny new seven-burner range.

The takeaway from all of this, then, is quite simple. Import clearances, while requiring a degree of paperwork, is very far from insurmountable. Customs will charge you in a number of different ways. And shipping companies really aren’t very nice. Which reminds me. Yes, I think I will name them, after all. Anglo Pacific. I won’t be using them again.

Money: the cost of living in New Zealand

Life in New Zealand is undeniably most pleasant, but the cost of living in New Zealand is high — often quite inexplicably so. I’ve been reminded of this fact once again this week, as I prepare to have a cooker shipped here from the UK. We’re having our kitchen remodeled — it’s part of an extension that was added to our 1920 bungalow in, we believe, the 1960s, and it’s showing its age — and as part of the project, we decided to look at a new cooker. The model we decided we wanted — oh, we really wanted it, when we saw it at Harvey Norman — was a fantastic piece of kitchen technology, but one that, at six and a half thousand dollars, was, well, just a little out of our reach.

When we got home, though, I decided to have a little bit of a shop around on the Internet. I found the very cooker we had been pining for, on offer in various British retail outlets. The price in Britain — about $1,800, or considerably less than one third of the NZ price. Read More

Seeing things anew: a fresh look at our life in New Zealand

Three years is a long time — long enough, indeed, to start to become familiar, to become quite used to a place. I’ve lived in New Zealand now for, in fact, a little over three years, and, I’ve started to realise, I’m becoming not only familiar but, I’m starting to fear, possibly even blasé about my new home. And that’s not good. When first I arrived here, I delighted daily in the fact that I had finally pulled the dream together, moved my family to a new and exciting country. It lasted a while, that feeling of being somewhere new, somewhere at least slightly foreign.

I wrote, not terribly long after I arrived, that New Zealand was, in many ways, England, relocated to the South Seas. Over the last couple of years, though, I’ve started to shift my perspective. The novelty, the romance, the excitement of living in a new country has, largely, subsided — it was inevitable, I suppose, that the honeymoon would end sooner or later, and New Zealand would, eventually, just feel like home. But in the process, I came to notice, came to be aware of, the nuances of New Zealand and of life here that make it a place apart. But this has been a subtle process, a slow and gentle developing of an awareness, one that I hardly even realised was happening.

But over the last month a couple of things happened that have made me open my eyes once again to the details of life in New Zealand. Last month, I took The Girls for a week to Australia, there to meet up with Daughter’s best friend and her family, who were to arrive in Sydney from Florida; Best Friend and her mother would then accompany us back to NZ.

So we arrived in Melbourne. I felt a little overwhelmed, as we took a taxi from the airport to our hotel in Prahran. This was, clearly, a big city, and I was no longer, I realised, entirely at home in big cities — and this coming from one who lived for the best part of six years in the connurbinative splodge that is Tokyo, the most unfeasibly huge city in the world. The city itself, the city centre and the suburbs south of the Yarra and the communities that stretch out to St Kilda and the sea, is quite lovely, but the urban sprawl that, well, sprawls from the city up to Tullamarine and the airport just feels ugly.

And so to Sydney. We spent a week, nearly, in Sydney, and enjoyed our time immensely. But our time was spent almost entirely within sight of Circular Quay and the Opera House; we scarcely left the touristy heart of the city. And while what was saw was quite excellent, I have no real sense of what lies beyond the city centre. And there must be more. This is a city with a population that comfortably exceeds that of New Zealand — all of it.

Australia duly done, we flew back to Auckland. We had, as I have mentioned, company, visiting New Zealand for the first time; while we’re still relative newcomers, to our guests we were the local experts. So what to show them? Where do you start when you have a week to show a pair of Americans around New Zealand?

Matiatia Harbour, Waiheke Island

Matiatia Harbour, Waiheke Island

We knew that we would be staying in the North Island; indeed, we’d likely not be going much beyond the Auckland area, if only for time reasons. So we started in the city. Auckland, as I’ve written elsepost, is a city of which I am rather fond — while it might lack the gloss of, say, a Sydney, it has a charm all its own. Our guests ticked off the obvious touristy bits — up the SkyTower they went, and then off to Viaduct Harbour, and down Tamaki Drive to the beaches of Mission Bay and St Helliers. We went out into the countryside, looking at lots of rolling hobbity hills, and took a ferry out to Waiheke Island and marvelled at the beauty of the place.

But then we also spent a morning walking around Pukekohe, finishing with lunch at a favourite cafe. We walked to the cinema — to see The Hobbit, natch — and, another evening, walked to our favourite Indian restaurant for a rather wonderful dinner. We visited Neil, and Donna, and Antoinette, and Trevor. We sat outside in the sunshine — the sweet, warm, summer sunshine that is, somehow, more miraculously brilliant here — under skies whose blue was of an intensity I’ve never seen anywhere else, enjoying breakfasts and dinners cooked with local food of unfeasibly high quality.

Dinnertime in New Zealand

Dinnertime in New Zealand

This, then, was New Zealand. it’s not a place of doing; it’s a place of being. New Zealand might not have an Opera House on any of its famously scenic waterfronts — no, Auckland has, oh joy of joys, the Cloud — but New Zealand isn’t a place I love to live in because of the sights. After all, while Sydney has, without doubt, a much more magnificent Harbour Bridge than Auckland, one can only spend so long staring at a bridge before one has to return to ones life, and that is where New Zealand shines. Life here is slow, and it is built around people. When we visited friends, everyone — Kiwis, Americans, Welshmen — had time for us. When it was time to go into town, we walked, almost exclusively — this is, clearly, a country built on a human scale, for human life.

And that’s why we’re here.

On racism and New Zealand

Before I came to New Zealand I lived in the United States, and before that in Japan, and so there is one constant that has followed me through all three countries — a steady inescapable and very real sense that the country I live in is rather racist.

Japan‘s famous, and quite unapologetic, for it. America’s track record for racial harmony is pitiful. But I didn’t quite realise, before I came to New Zealand, that NZ would also have a strong, and pervasive, undercurrent of racial tension. It does, though, and it’s something that needs to be admitted, owned up to, and then discussed honestly.

Like many British colonies, New Zealand has had a troubled racial history. The islands were settled, in waves, by Maori, probably around 600 to 1,000 years ago. By the time British settlers started seriously building footholds here, Maori had, quite unequivocally, established themselves as tangata whenua, the people of the land. The early pakeha, the first white settlers here, did a less cack-handed job of interacting with the locals than was managed, in, say, Australia, where Aborigines were quite woefully mistreated. While relations between Maori and British weren’t perfect, at least there was an attempt made on both sides to try to cooperate; the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in early 1840, formalised this cooperation, albeit in a flawed and imperfect way. At the very least, there is, today, an understanding in New Zealand that we live in a bi-cultural country. And that’s official — New Zealand is not multi-cultural, at least not officially. The Treaty, despite what prime ministers might occasionally bluster, recognises Maori and the Crown.

So, in theory, modern-day New Zealand should, you might think, be a model society, with both cultures integrated fully into the cultural, political, economic life of the country. You’d be wrong. Maori make up a little less than a sixth of the population of the country, second behind NZ Europeans, who comprise a little over two thirds of New Zealanders. And it’s among white Kiwis that I’ve noticed a rather casual, a rather easy and off-hand racism that I don’t especially care for. Among acquaintances, among friends and colleagues, I hear tossed-off comments and passing remarks about lazy Maoris, casual remarks that play into stereotypes of Maori as workshy, unemployable, feckless and criminal.

I don’t care for it. I have, as I’ve written elseblog, had first-hand experience of racism, and really don’t like it. And so it makes me a little uncomfortable when people assume that I share their prejudices, their petty little bigotries. I don’t much like to hear the cheap and nasty and tacky described as “hori.”

Just a short blog post today. Just something I had to get off my chest.

Slow: trying to get round Auckland

New Zealand is not a huge country. It’s comparable in size to Great Britain — a manageable, comfortable, country-sized country. Australia, next door, is far bigger than a country needs to be; America, my previous home, is unnecessarily huge. Europe is home to countries smaller than a typical Australian cattle station — Luxembourg is so small it barely shows up on most maps, and the Vatican is smaller than Pukekohe.

Traffic in PukekoheTraffic in Pukekohe!

New Zealand is a pleasingly-sized place. But, given the emptiness of the place, getting around isn’t always the easiest task in the world. Driving in New Zealand can frequently prove to be a frustrating experience. Pukekohe, delightful town that it is, is exceptionally easy to navigate — not a traffic light in the place, with cars kept flowing thanks to roundabouts, wonderful invention that they are, at almost every junction of any note. But try heading north into Auckland, and things change quickly. The imaginatively and creatively named Southern Motorway heads up from Drury to the centre of the city, and for the most part it’s an easy run — easy, but shockingly dull and dreary. Almost as soon as you pass Papakura, you find yourself in the urban sprawl that represents the worst of Aukland. And one you pass the TipTop ice-cream factory and Sylvia Park’s shopping mall, you wonder if maybe heading south to Hamilton might not have been such a bad idea after all. From Greenlane north, traffic routinely slows, often to a full stop. From here you’ll inch along, crawling past Auckland Grammar School and marveling at the site of the new prison that’s being built to overlook the motorway. Despite the monstrous upheavals resulting from massive overhauls to the Newmarket viaduct, and the cut-and-cover of the Victoria Park tunnel, traffic still struggles to flow smoothly as it approaches, along the waterfront motorway (an astonishingly strange use for prime harbourside real estate), the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

The motorway goes south to Hamilton, and Wellington-bound Aucklanders find themselves, south of Hamilton, in the middle of some of the world’s loveliest scenery, and the drive from the country’s main city to its capital winds, twists and wriggles around the natural contours of the land. No motorway — oh, no, the motorway disappears before you even reach Huntly. The roads meander through the countryside, sometimes wide and straight, sometimes narrow, serpentine and circuitous. Hills are steep, curves are sharp. It’s an adventure of a drive, sometimes, and not for all passengers. It might be possible, I’m sure, to build a motorway between the two cities, but I’m very glad nobody has. There isn’t, I don’t believe, enough traffic to warrant a highway, and the landscape would surely be the poorer for a two-lane-each-way scar slashed through it. The Northern Gateway from Albany to Puhoi is an efficient means of bypassing Orewa, but it is a gash in the surface of the land that makes one question whether it is out of propotion with the benefit it offers. Certainly, I question the merits of the “Holiday Highway” that is often suggested, an extension of the Northern Gateway motorway from its current end, at the Johnsons Hill Tunnels south of Puhoi, which would continue the road past Warkworth and, depending on who’s talking, all the way up to Wellsford. But, as with the route south, is there really enough traffic to warrant it?

While the roads between towns in New Zealand are, as a rule, empty, in the cities, traffic can be unbearable; certainly, trying to negotiate the tangle that is Auckland’s motorway junctions is routinely an ordeal capable of adding close to an hour to a journey. So what’s the alternative? Auckland, at least, has a rail service, but this is only a benefit to those of us who live on one of the two lines, one heading south to Pukekohe, the other west to Henderson. But even trains are a half-answer to the problem. Between Britomart and Papakura, the stop before Pukekohe, the service is good. Trains run frequently, and the service is tolerably, if not brilliantly, reliable. But south of Papakura, things are different. Here in Pukekohe, we might see one train, possibly two, an hour, during commuting times. During the day, however, miss a train and you’ll be waiting up to two hours for the next. And don’t even bother looking for a train at the weekend — on Saturdays and Sundays, you’re either driving to the city or leaving your car at Papakura station, where all the services end.

When I go into the city on Thursday for my new technology bit for Radio New Zealand’s Nine To Noon show, I’ll need to be at the studio by 11. The drive should take forty minutes; I’ll allow twice that, just to be sure. I won’t be taking the train; if I catch the half-past-eight train, I’ll be in town an hour and a half early, but if I miss it, I’ll miss my show. New Zealand, as I’ve said repeatedly and I’ll say again now, is a beautiful, lovely country, one I’m delighted to live in. I just really, really wish it were easier to get round.

It Bites: An encounter with a Kiwi spider

Many were the reasons we settled on New Zealand. Canada, while tempting, was possibly not quite not-American enough — my apologies to any Canadians reading this, but there’s a reason why you lot all live within sight of the American border. I did consider moving the family back to England, but when even my own father was saying “Don’t come home, son,” then I decided that there had to be a reason why the UK was one to scratch off my list. I briefly — briefly — offered Dubai as a possibility (there’s certainly no shortage of well-paid work), but Deb roundly dispatched that idea; she’s right, of course — the Middle East simply isn’t the stablest place on the planet right now.

We considered Australia, too. It’s OK — I can admit it. But while there were some positive things to be said about the West Island, one comprehensive deal-breaker, for Deb at least, was the wildlife. Australia has, to be blunt, more things that can kill you than, probably, any other country in the world.

(We’re talking about natural things here, of course. If we opened the discussion up to anything that can kill, then it simply wouldn’t even resemble a fair fight, with the US winning by a distressingly large margin. No, we’re keeping this focussed on living things.)

A quick read of Bill Bryon’s Down Under (Americans might know it as In a Sunburned Country) will leave you with a clear image of a country filled with spiders, snakes, even octopodes, that will kill you as soon as look at you. Believe Bryson, and even Sydney or Melbourne is heaving with creepy-crawlies that ooze venom from every inch, and anyone careless enough not to shake their shoes out before putting them on is plunging his toes into a mess of lethal, angry spiders whose glance can be deadly.

While this is, clearly, just a slight exaggeration, it was enormously comforting, when we finally arrived in New Zealand, that our choice of country was pleasingly snake-free. It was also, as far as we were aware, quite satisfyingly free of the spiders that terrorise Australia, the funnel-webs and black widows and countless other death-on-eight-legs nasties.

There is, though, one spider that calls New Zealand home but that you’d rather it didn’t call your house home. The white-tailed spider, so called because the arse-end of its tapering black abdomen looks like someone’s dipped it white paint, is capable of inflicting a rather ugly, although not deadly, bite. I had the great good fortune of discovering how ugly last month.

One Wednesday morning, I noticed a tiny bump on my right index finger, just below the outermost knuckle; I wrote it off as a minor insect bite. It itched, slightly; I rubbed and scratched it, slightly. As the day went by, it itched a little more, until, that evening, I was aware that it was looking, and feeling, rather inflamed. The next morning, I rolled over in bed and happened to bump it against Deb’s elbow. It hurt. I turned on the light, and took a close look. What had been a small bump the night before was now a swollen black-and-purple eruption on my finger. I called the doctor’s surgery, and spoke to the out-of-hours nurse, who said that it sounded like a white-tailed spider bite, and that it was clearly showing signs of infection. Wait until the surgery opens, she said, then call and make an appointment. There was, definitely, a note of urgency in her voice.

So when eight o’clock arrived, I called in and made an appointment for eleven. By the time the doctor saw me, the red streaks of infection were visible past my wrist, and my hand was aching quite unpleasantly. The blister, or boil, or whatever it was, was most painful. The doctor put me on a hefty dose of oral antibiotics (he toyed, he said, with the possibility of intravenous drugs, but in the end I was glad that he’d not sent me to hospital to get dosed up), and then lanced the boil and gently squoze out the oozing nastiness.

My infected finger, after three daysMy infected finger, after three days

That evening, as I ate dinner, Deb saw something on my arm and asked me to show her. I rolled up my sleeve past my elbow, and we were both a little concerned to see that the infection had visibly tracked up my forearm past the elbow; while I didn’t have a fever, the skin under the infection tracks was quite warm. I called my friend Dean — he’s an ophthalmologist by trade, so while this wasn’t entirely his speciality, he knows a thing or two about how bodies work — to ask for a little reassurance and peace of mind. He told me that it was likely just a matter of time before the antibiotics kicked in, and so I relaxed. I went to bed quite early, having spent much of the afternoon lying on the sofa, feeling quite exhausted.

In the morning, the infection tracks had disappeared, but I still felt quite weary, and called in sick to work for a second day, not something I make a habit of doing. I went back to the doctor’s, as I had been instructed, and was told that the infection was clearly fading, but that it would take a while to go away completely. I religiously finished off the medicine, and changed the dressing on what was now a nasty, wide, blistery wound on my finger that continued to weep yellow pus. Deb helped me clean it – her idea of colloidal silver definitely gets some credit for finally making the oozing go away.

I went back to school on Monday, but was still tired, very tired. A week later, I went to the school nurse to get the dressing changed, and was quite surprised by what she told me. White-tails, she said, aren’t terribly common, but when they bite, they deliver quite a hit. She wasn’t at all surprised to hear that I was still, a week and a half on, feeling exhausted — the venom, she told me, can take weeks to work its way out of the body. She said I had done the right thing in taking myself to the doctor — “You could have lost your hand,” she said, and while this sounds a little excessive, clearly the little buggers can do a decent bit of damage.

About two weeks after the bite

In Defence of Auckland

I didn’t choose Auckland. It chose me.

Three years ago, Debbie and I were in Florida, making plans for the move to New Zealand that we’d decided we wanted to make but weren’t quite sure yet would actually be happening. One Saturday morning, Daughter at her grandparents’ for the night, Deb and I sat outside Panera Bread having our breakfast of bagels, cream cheese and tolerable coffee. As we sat there, on the edge of a strip-mall car park with a view of Countryside Mall across the six lanes of County Route 580, we decided that Christchurch was a sweet-sounding place. The name echoed Oxford and the England I was missing; the photographs I’d found on the Web gave a clear image of a happening town.

I applied for jobs pretty much indiscriminately; one way or another, we were going to get into New Zealand. The offer I finally received came from Warkworth, north of Auckland. So that was it — we were moving to Warkworth. And so, in April of 2009, I came here, followed a couple of months later by The Girls. That was the extent to which we had formed a preference for Auckland; that was the degree to which Auckland was our first choice.

Otago University, Dunedin | New Life: New Zealand — the Moving to New Zealand Blog

Otago University, Dunedin

Indeed, before we moved, I had come to NZ on a recce about six months earlier, and visited Auckland, Dunedin and Wellington. Dunedin was an intriguing possibility, a university town — never a bad thing — but, ultimately, not an enormous amount going on if you’re not a student. And having grown up in Salford, I am done with drizzle, which ultimately ruled out Dunedin. Auckland struck me, on that trip, as being a touch anonymous, a little on the big-and-generic side, but I still saw its charms — in the day I spend exploring the city, I had breakfast in Parnell, lunch in Devonport, a beer up the Sky Tower, coffees in numerous bits in between, and sensed that there was something underneath the surface that could be worth exploring further. Wellington pleased me on that first visit, but, as I’ve written recently, I don’t know that it would have been right for us.

So we fetched up in Warkworth — not, then, part of the City of Auckland, but, even though it was a good three-quarters of an hour north of the city, part of the Auckland Region. It’s a thoroughly lovely town, very scenic and touristy, and while being technically in Auckland, it was clearly not of Auckland. Indeed, once you pass Albany on the Northern Motorway, the city ends quite abruptly, and the only drivers who see any signs of civilization in the half-hour between there and Warkworth are the ones who nip down through Silverdale and Orewa and Waiwera to avoid the $2 toll through the Johnsons Hill tunnels south of Puhoi.

This is the Auckland that I hadn’t known about before I arrived, the Auckland that isn’t the harbour and Queen St and the suburbs. This is the Auckland we now enjoy in Pukekohe, like Warkworth once part of the Auckland region but now, since the restructuring of Auckland, Manukau, North Shore and all the districts around those three cities into the new SuperCity of Auckland, actually part of Auckland. Pukekohe is a town, a self-contained country town of around 23,000 souls, distinct from the sprawl of South Auckland, that vaguely and never officially defined expanse of Auckland south of the city centre and its surrounding upmarket suburbs. This is Auckland, too. This is a town with character and substance, a town we’re proud to call home now. It’s not The City — there’s a good dozen kilometers between Pukekohe and Drury, south of Papakura, where South Auckland ends.

Waitemata Harbour from the SkyTower

Waitemata Harbour and Rangitoto Island from the SkyTower

But even Auckland proper, the city, isn’t a city as, say, an American would know one. It’s the biggest city in the country, but that isn’t really the most stellar of achievements. This is a small country — there’s barely four and a half million of us here. To be fair, nearly one in three of those Kiwis is in Auckland, but that still only makes a population of less than one and a half million. By way of perspective, this is about a third of the population of Sydney, and smaller than cities such as Tampa or Pittsburgh, Melbourne or Manchester — cities all, but none quite in the “Big City” league.

I bring the “Big City” reference up for the same reason that I felt prompted to write this post (and hence its title): I’ve been reading a lot lately from Americans who don’t want to move to Auckland — or indeed anywhere in the North Island — when they emigrate to New Zealand, because they don’t want to live in “The Big City.” If you think Auckland is “The Big City,” then you’ve never been to Auckland, but too many NZ-facing Americans dismiss the place out of hand, imagining, presumably, the kind of urban splodge that they’ve seen in, say, south-west California or the north-east from Boston to Baltimore. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The SkyTower

The SkyTower, Auckland

Auckland’s downtown, its city centre, the CBD, is focussed on Queen Street and the Waitemata Harbour waterfront. It’s as Big City as you’ll find in New Zealand, which is to say, it’s not a terribly big city at all. The CBD, a tightly-contained shopping and dining area, sits in a basin surrounded on three sides by, working clockwise from the east, Parnell, Karangahape Road (known, to the gratitude of typists and spell-checkers across the land, as K Road), and Ponsonby, with the harbour to the north. And it’s a working harbour (at least when the harbourmen aren’t on strike); it’s the largest, busiest shipping port in New Zealand, and while it’s a beating economic heart for the city, a part of me wishes that the seafront real estate of Bledisloe and Captain Cook Wharves could be repurposed into something less unlovely than towers of shipping containers.

Unlike American cities, in particular modern American cities like, say, Orlando, built as they are almost entirely around cars, Auckland is very much a city for people. It is, I suppose, a walkable city, but what the guidebooks don’t point out  — I learned this the hard way on my very first visit to the city, following the Lonely Planet walking tour of Auckland — is that, south of the Civic Centre, all the way to K Road, Queen Street is vertiginously steep; legend has it that, before tackling Everest, Sir Ed practised here. Parnell Rise is similarly precipitous. Walkable, then, but not for the faint of heart. But all this serves to remind that Auckland started out life not as a big city, as American cities appear to have done, but as a collection of smaller villages — Newmarket, Grey Lynn, St Heliers, Point Chevalier — that eventually blended into one but which each maintained a distinct character and centre. Contrast this with, say, Tampa, a business district surrounded by sprawling suburbs, and no identifiable soul or heart.

Devonport, Auckland

Devonport, Auckland

Many of these suburbs are lovely — Devonport, on the North Shore and facing the CBD waterfront across the harbour is one of my favourite areas of Auckland, and the neighbourhoods of Mission Bay and Kohimarama, out east down Tamaki Drive, are quite charming. For a little bit of Bohemian wilderness, a little further out of town is Titirangi, in the Waitakeres.

Outside the urban extent, you’re into soft, green countryside that my Irish cousin Eamonn, on visiting for the Rugby world cup last year, told me reminded him of Ireland; other parts, depending where I find myself, put me in mind of central England or even, occasionally, the Japanese countryside (geographically, if not culturally, Japan and New Zealand could almost be twins). It’s very easy to leave the concrete and find yourself in farmland, sheep and cattle pastures, fields and hills — and still be able to see the Sky Tower.

Vulcan Lane, in Auckland's CBD

Vulcan Lane, in Auckland's CBD

There is, of course, sprawl, as there would be in any city of size; eastern suburbs of Auckland, around Botany, are rapidly becoming indistinguishable from the Pinellas County exurbs we fled when we left Florida, with endless subdivisions branching off a four- or six-lane highway with a shopping mall at the end, for example. West Auckland has a reputation for being the Essex or the New Jersey of Auckland, while South Auckland is one of the most economically depressed parts of the country.

May will see the end of our second year in Pukekohe, and we have no plans to move. We’ve spent time in Hamilton and Taupo, Rotorua and Tauranga, we’ve visited Wellington and Napier. They’re all fine, fine cities. But Auckland gives us what we want — we have a wonderful, quiet, happy small-town life in Pukekohe, but we know that, if we need it, a city that’s big, but not Big, is less than half an hour up the remarkably uncreatively-named Southern Motorway.

The dock at Devonport at sunset

The dock at Devonport at sunset

In hindsight, I am very, very pleased that we found ourselves close to Auckland. Christchurch remains a city I’d like to visit, but the sympathy I feel for those whose lives have been torn apart by the endless waves of earthquakes that won’t let Cantabrians even catch their breaths is matched only by the relief that we didn’t move there two years before those earthquakes began their destruction. Auckland is my home. Don’t dismiss it out of hand.

Coffee, among other things

There was a time when I thought I could get a pretty good coffee at Starbucks. There was a time, also, when I had never been to New Zealand. By no coincidence whatsoever, those two things ceased to be true of me at about the same time.

I should have realized, almost as soon as I arrived in New Zealand for the first time, that coffee would figure reasonably prominently in the trip. Air NZ’s overnight flight from Los Angeles arrives in Auckland at an hour I generally speaking prefer to pretend doesn’t even exist — certainly, in my younger days, I would typically see 5am as the end of the evening, not the beginning of the morning. But when you step off a Boeing into a country you’re planning to explore with a view to emigrating, then the day is most definitely beginning, not ending.

And so, ink dry on entry permit in passport, you make your way down from the immigration gate to the baggage claim area. And you wait. New Zealand’s border guards are no more efficient than any other country’s that I can think of (they’re certainly less officious than the American gatekeepers at Niagara Falls, who make their disdain for anyone who’s actually left the country to go to that frozen socialist wasteland to the north quite apparent); rather, fetching five hundred people’s suitcases off a 747 takes a while. The wait, of course, is tiresome. You stand, along with all the people you’ve spent the last thirteen hours breathing recycled air with, waiting for a sign that your luggage is about to emerge. And you wait. And wait a little longer. The conveyor belt starts to move, and people stand up just a little straighter. The knot of impatient travelers clumped round the chute onto which the baggage handlers will dump bags gets a little thicker. Then out comes the small, tartan holdall.

This is an unfailing truth of airports. I’ve traveled through airports on four different continents, in a dozen countries, and it’s always, always the same — a small, tartan holdall, first down the chute, loops round and round the luggage carousel, round and round, never claimed, never picked up. It’s always there. I don’t know if it’s the same small, tartan holdall following me, or if the airports of Hong Kong, and Manila, and Pittsburgh, and Moscow, all of them, have their own small, tartan holdalls, but it’s there regardless, always there, always the first out, never claimed.

Then the wait continues, another five minutes of noises, of grunts and bangs and shouting, and occasionally a flashing yellow light. And finally actual luggage starts to appear. Mine is never first. I’ve never been entirely sure why not, but it never, ever is. There is no good reason why it shouldn’t be, is there? Everyone’s luggage gets loaded onto the plane — everyone’s luggage has to be unloaded, and somebody’s has to be first. I’ve flown first class, third class, every damned class in between, but my bags are never first.

Because my bags are never first, I invariably have a long wait to collect my bags. And, given that I rarely sleep well on planes — something, I suspect, to do with being 6’3″ tall in a seat better suited to someone 3’6″ for half a day — I’m not always in the most attractive, or even recognizably human, of moods. The immigration experience at Auckland airport, to be entirely fair, doesn’t always offer the most uplifting experience a weary passenger could hope for after a trans-Pacific; the border guards, despite being, as we’ve established, less obnoxious than many of their American counterparts, are often every last bit as grumpy as they are entirely and reasonably entitled to be for having to be at work at such an unfeasible hour.

And so, in a nutshell, albeit a rather long and unfocussed nutshell, is the frame of mind in which I downed the stairs and into the baggage hall. The room itself is a bit dark, a bit dull, more than a bit utilitarian, but, on the left just as you enter, is a small kiosk that makes things, well, all right. It gives out coffee.

It doesn’t sell coffee. It doesn’t give out great coffee. I believe it offers tea, but this is unimportant. What matters is that it gives out coffee. This, a shagged-out traveller’s enduring first impression of New Zealand, is one of life’s most joyfully unexpected, small but appreciated, wonders. It shows that New Zealand is a country that understands the most basic, the most fundamental, of human needs, and is willing to meet them when they are most crucial.

And, more importantly, it lets a new arrival know that, alongside the great food and astonishing wines, New Zealand offers some of the finest coffee a coffee-drinker could hope for.

On that first visit, my eyes were opened. I grew up in, largely, a tea-drinking household. Coffee was always available, but in the form of granules — not beans, not ground, but little bits that (I made the mistake of tasting one, once) were little more than concentrated little balls of brown and bitter. I eventually graduated to freeze-dried, kidding myself that this was a little bit more like it. And it was — a little bit. But not much — it still, in hindsight, wasn’t real coffee. It was still reconstituted, still imitation. At the age of 19, I went to Rome, where I tried real coffee for the very first time, but I wasn’t ready for it. My palate was simply immature. Two years later, when I found myself in Jerusalem, drinking coffee so thick it was treacly, so strong it could jump-start a Sherman tank, I started to realise that this was more properly what I should be seeking out.

And so I moved to Japan — a great career move, no doubt, and a wonderful adventure that was to last ten years, but in terms of coffee, not the best move possible. As with anything else, the Japanese value form over content, and so while coffee becomes a lavish ritual of hand-grinding the beans, and slowly pouring boiling water over the ground coffee in a filter atop the cup, what I was drinking, I realised, was the appearance of coffee.

When Starbucks finally appeared in Shinjuku in, I believe, about 1997, I thought that I might finally start drinking coffee, real coffee. I had no idea what to order when I first visited the branch on the concourse opposite the south exit of Shinjuku Station, over the tracks from Takashimaya and Kinokuniya and Tokyu Hands, and so I asked the young lady what might be good. I found myself drinking a mocha, and, still an immature coffee drinker, rather enjoying it.

This, then, became my Starbucks order of choice, and I drank it until Debbie convinced me to try a latte — all the coffee flavour, none of the chocolatey syrupiness. After a couple of attempts, I was convinced. As Starbucks branches spread across Tokyo, and then up to Omiya, the commuter-belt suburb I then called home, I became a regular latte drinker. Starbucks, I realised, was the McDonald’s of coffee — while it was never brilliant, it was also never dreadful. And it was always, always the same, consistently and reliably safe — I tried lattes on trips to Oregon, to Beijing, to Manchester, and not only was the coffee identical, but even the layout and the decor of the stores were carbon copies. Consistency became predictability.

A move to Florida in 2001 did little to improve matters. While Deb and I were given a French press and a burr grinder as a wedding present, and so my home-made coffee was unimpeachable, coffee bought out was still likely to be from Starbucks, there being precious little in the way of alternatives in Pinellas County. The Tech Café, in Safety Harbor, did make a very pleasant latte, and this would be my escape of choice when Daughter was doing her ballet practice at the dance school a couple of blocks up the road. But when Starbucks opened up in the bizarrely named Shoppes [sic] at Harbour [sic] Pointe [sic] development at the end of Main Street, the Tech Café changed hands, then closed up shop, and the espresso juggernaut crushed another that had been foolish enough to stand in its path.

But the Tech Café, and Dan, its highly eccentric but utterly charming, owner, had taught me that there was so much more to coffee than Starbucks. While the free coffee at Auckland airport really wasn’t, in pure coffee terms, that spectacular, it did point up to me the importance of coffee in New Zealand.

And so, on my very first visit to the country, I found myself, at breakfast time, walking along Parnell Road in Auckland and looking for a cup of coffee. I had heard that New Zealand was capable of good coffee, and I was keen to carry out a little field research. Lonely Planet wasn’t a massive amount of help as I tried to pick out a coffee shop to sit and relax — certainly the Lonely Planet map of Auckland gave no idea how understated the word “Rise” was in the street name “Parnell Rise;” “Parnell Sheer Bloody Cliff” might well have been a touch more appropriate — with a cup. The clincher, in the end, was a “Free Wifi” sticker on the window of Esquire’s Coffee.

My first flat white in New Zealand

My first flat white in New Zealand

I sat, outside, in the warm early-summer sun, looking at the silver fern drawn into the fawn-and-white-coloured foam on top of my flat white. Please, please don’t ask me the difference between a flat white and a latte — other than the fact that “flat white” sounds so much more down-to-earth than “latte,” they’re essentially the same drink. Starbucks in New Zealand and Australia (yes, I’ve been in both — their city mugs do make decent souvenirs) sell both flat whites and lattes, but I have a strong suspicion that they’re exactly the same thing.

I took a sip, and immediately knew that I liked New Zealand very, very much. I also knew that I would never really enjoy Starbucks’ coffee ever again. This flat white was a revaluation — smooth where Starbucks’ was harsh, rich where the latte was bitter. It was the first of several flat whites I had that day. I used jet lag as an excuse; I told myself that I’d need the caffeine to help me get up Queen Street (that one’s not as unreasonable as it might sound — the top end, as you approach Karangahape Road, is damn near vertical). But all I was doing was justifying my fix. I wanted flat whites. Lots of them.

I was back in the US for nearly six months, and I didn’t get a good latte once. I tried Starbucks, but it wasn’t the same any more. The milk wasn’t velvety and soft, but viciously scalding. The espresso wasn’t rich and creamy, but burnt and bitter and harsh. It was coffee, but barely.

And so , in 2009, I moved to New Zealand to live, and, shortly after arriving, I found myself in the Duck’s Crossing café in Warkworth, drinking an impossibly perfect flat white — smooth, rich, right. The sign outside the café said “Gravity Coffee;” when I saw bags of the beans — whole beans, no less — on sale. 200g would cost me about seven dollars — I was sold.

The coffee I plunged in my press pot was every bit as rich and delicious as the espresso I’d tasted at the café. I was happy.

But could it last? The Duck’s Crossing, for all its wonders, was but one café, one source. On the one hand, it was entirely possible that this was the standard, the benchmark, for coffee across New Zealand. On the other, it could just as easily be the only place in the country that knew what it was doing behind a Gaggia.

Research was in order, and, one by one, I tried each and every café in town. They were all, each one of them, good. They were very good. I tried further afield, in Matakana, in Orewa. Coffee was consistently, reliably, wonderful.

It seems to make no difference here whether you try a smart-looking restaurant like the Cornwall Park Restaurant, at the foot of One Tree Hill, where I enjoyed a creamily excellent flat white a week or so ago, or a coffee shop attached to a tourist trap — in fact, ask Debbie or Daughter where the very best coffee of all is to be found, and they’ll both tell you that the café of the Bird Gardens in Katikati, between Waihi and Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, made the finest flat white any of us has ever tasted. And who am I to argue? The coffee I have found in every café I have visited, North Island and South, has been outstanding, consistently and reliably. This, it would appear, is a country that just gets coffee.

There has been speculation about why this might be. New Zealand — and, giving credit where it is due, Australia — has been producing excellent coffee for much longer than the “Third Wave of Coffee” has been spreading south and east from Seattle; an oft-cited reason is that waves of post-war Italian immigrants brought their espresso mojo with them. Whatever the reason, coffee is one of New Zealand’s few sensibly-priced pleasures. I’ve whined about the high cost of living in New Zealand elsepost, so I won’t rewarm those coals; instead, I’ll point out that while, compared to, American prices, beer, or beef, tends to be surprisingly expensive, a good — an excellent, an outstanding — flat white will cost you as much in Kiwi dollars as a Starbucks over-roast in scalded milk will in American dollars. And I know where the better bargain is to be found.

I went back to Esquire’s in Parnell a couple of months after I arrived; I wanted to use their free Wifi to Skype-call Debbie, who was still back in Florida packing up our old life. It might have been better than Starbucks; I know realise that this is not an achievement. But, compared to, well, pretty much any high-street café, and certainly compared to La Red Berry, my favourite coffee in Pukokohe, well, it is sorely lacking.

Well and truly Wellington

I find Wellington to be the most confounding city in New Zealand. Last month I made my fourth visit to the capital, and almost wished, by the end of the day, that I hadn’t.

My very first visit to New Zealand, in 2008, ended with a trip to Wellington, to an interview for a job I didn’t get in Naenae, in Lower Hutt, north of the city. I flew in the day before the interview, and spent a highly enjoyable afternoon exploring Wellington. On this trip I first stayed at the Carillon Motor Inn, the eccentric joys of which I wrote about elsepost, and I found myself most enamoured of the city, if not of the Carillon.

Wellington in the sunshine from the top of the cable car line

Wellington on a good day

This had much to do with the city. On my first visit, the sunshine bathed Wellington. From the Botanical Gardens, at the top of the climb of the cable car, the view of the city, and of the port it hugs, was splendid. Walking Lambton Quay was a joy. The wonderful old buildings of the parliamentary quarter were magnificent. It was a good day.

But then I went back with The Girls, a year or so later, in early spring, and had to wonder if I were in the same city. Where once I had seen beauty framed by blue skies, instead I saw drear and dullness weighed down by the granite and slate of grey, heavy clouds that blanketed the sky and watered us steadily. The view from the hill, well, wasn’t — there might, for all we knew, have been a city in front of us, but we had now way of knowing. Nowhere, I’ll grant you, no city will look its best under such circumstances, but Wellington wears its winters heavy.

A third trip, again alone, again, by coincidence, for a job interview in Naenae (didn’t get that job either), that December again reminded me of the charms of the city. And so, when I heard that drinks were being laid on for the Nine To Noon team at Radio New Zealand’s headquarters on The Terrace, I booked my flight. And, as the day grew nearer, the clouds grew heavier.

I had, between my broadcast bit in the morning and the drink-up in the evening, about five hours to kill, and the weather was truly grim — drizzle if I was lucky, full-on rain if I wasn’t. After wrapping up my on-air bit, I walked back down The Terrace as far as Parliament; I was just in time for the next guided tour. I had taken the tour on my first visit, so I knew it was worth an hour of my time, and, after all, it was under cover — one major plus-point before the guide even said “hello.”

The Beehive, Wellington, in the sunshine

The Beehive, Wellington, in the sunshine

The tour was, of course, excellent. It started in the Beehive (of which more anon), and led through the Parliamentary library and into the House itself; Parliament not being session (this was just a few days after a rather dispiriting general election, and no new government had been officially formed), we were allowed to visit the floor of the House, which surprised, but also rather pleased, me. Photographs weren’t allowed; I did point out that even the Australians allow photos in the the two chambers of their Parliament during tours — telling a Kiwi that the Aussies do it better is almost guaranteed, usually, to get a result — but we had all had to surrender cameras and cellphones before the tour began.

An hour killed, I found myself outside Parliament in the steadily-building rain. I crossed the road to a cafe, and bought a cup of coffee, thinking that if I drank it slowly I could make another hour go away. As I sat at a table waiting for my flat white, I noticed a familiar-looking man walk through the door. After a couple of seconds, I recognized him as Winston Peters, leader of New Zealand First, one of the largest of the minority parties in New Zealand’s parliament. Not being overly impressed with the man, I didn’t bother to go and say hello. But I was surprised at how relaxed senior politicians are about going out in public in New Zealand. This has to be a good thing. Unlike New Zealand First.

But the coffee only lasted so long, and so, the rain having eased off considerably, I started to walk down toward Cuba Street, the funky, edgy end of town. I don’t think I’ve seen any town, any city — this includes, by the way, New York, London, Melbourne, San Francisco, Tokyo, even Auckland — anywhere that has the cafe density of Cuba Street. Every third business, it seems, has an espresso machine hissing away, and if it’s not a cafe, it’s a restaurant, or a grocer’s. Food heaven, indeed. So I stopped for lunch at a Turkish cafe that made the best doner kebab I’ve tasted in as long as I can remember — hot, spicy, oily, lamby, delicious — and then carried on toward Te Papa.

Te Papa Tongarewa calls itself “The Museum of New Zealand,” but that doesn’t quite do the place justice. It’s a huge, expansive collection of everything it means to be Kiwi — whether that means Maori, or Pakeha, or Pasifika, or any other flavor of New Zealander. Everything is represented here, from kaupapa Maori to contemporary Pakeha pop culture. The geology of New Zealand is depicted in charts, diagrammes and a model house that replicates the massive earthquake that shook Edgecombe in 1987. I spent maybe three hours wandering around the place, fascinated. I could easily have spent longer.

Possibly the most amazing thing about Te Papa is the fact that it’s free. It’s a publicly-owned museum, and so the public have free access. This is how it should be. A museum of this calibre could, should it choose, charge a large sum for admission and still hope to see plenty of visitors, but Te Papa, belonging to the people, does not charge the people admission. This is a wonderful place.

The Beehive, Wellington, in the rain

The Beehive, Wellington, in the rain

Less wonderful is the Beehive. Designed in the 1960s, and built in the 1970s, before the world realized precisely how ugly concrete really can be, the Beehive squats like a stumpy dalek, all harsh angles and freaky fins and vast sharp edges of ugly, next to the classical buildings of New Zealand’s Parliament. While it is, undeniably, an iconic symbol of Wellington, it is also testimony to the fact that construction, by and large, really should have been put on hold for much of the period between about 1960 and 1980. It’s not simply that the Beehive is ugly. It almost, but not quite, transcends ugliness, but, sadly, instead of crossing over from “ugly” to “so ugly it’s actually interesting,” it simply remains firmly in “ugly” territory. Not only is it ugly; it’s also horribly out of place. Next to the 1922 Parliament House, a lovely neoclassical construction, and the gothic-revival Library, the grey and dull brown Beehive is simply wrong.

And so the score in Wellington remains a tie — 2-2 between me and the weather. I still have a fondness for the place, and I still want to spend a little more time exploring the city, and the area around it, but more and more I find myself thinking it’s definitely a great place to visit, and a wonderful place to come home from.