Over the course of the past year we have travelled around the world and now we are settled in New Zealand for one year. One of the great joys of traveling the way we’ve been traveling has been getting to know people who live in the cities and towns where we’ve done long stays.
In Timisoara, Romania, we became fast and forever friends with Emil and all the good people at Viniloteca. Also in Timisoara, we forged a rich and what will be a lasting friendship with Rob and Dana and their son, Sebastian. They came to visit us in Paris before we left Europe in June and when we get back to the States we’ll visit them in Illinois. My students at the University of the West—The Roxis, Diana, Deni, Isabelle and many others—still send us emails and social media messages, wishing us well and asking about the children. I hope to see some of them, some day, back in America or wherever we, and they, might find ourselves in the same place. In a craft brew pub in Lisbon, we struck up a conversation with a lovely British couple, Jon and Betty, and ended up spending a day with them in London when we visited their great city. Victor, a sweet and thoughtful young man we met on a bike ride in Siem Reap, Cambodia met up with us in his hometown of Seville, Spain over the holidays and we spent a wonderful Saturday together sipping vino naranja and exploring modern and medieval Seville.
We are three weeks into our one-year Kiwi tenure and over the course of that short time, I’ve made more friends, talked to more strangers, and felt more welcomed than I could have ever imagined.
Part of this is my own frame of mind. Since I’m not working or officially associated with anything here, I didn’t want to become an isolated expat wandering the streets and beaches alone and pushing my nose in a book to keep out the world. So I contacted the local newspaper, The Beacon, and arranged to write a few travel pieces as well as short profiles of Whakatane and Ohope Beach community members. Here is a travel piece they published about a baseball game we saw in Japan. I’ve done two interviews with community members—a founder of the Whakatane community garden and a famous rugby player who coaches here in Whakatane—and those pieces should be published shortly.
I also make a point of talking with anyone who is willing to chat, and it has been my good fortune so far that Kiwis love to talk. I chat with the librarians at the public library about their public exhibition and I ask them for good books on New Zealand history. I met a Belfast woman in a coffee shop and we chatted about Ireland and what it’s like to live here in Whakatane (the weather is 100% better, for one). I met a couple who run the Whakatane Historical Society and they invited me to their house to look over past publications of the Historical Society and examine archival material they keep at their home. I walked into the local music store and ended up staying there for an hour, playing guitar and chatting with the owner about surfing and stand up paddle boards. I am friendly with the manager of the aquatic center, where I swim, and she’s told me stories about the recent flood in the neighboring community of Edgecum where she is a firefighter. I talk with bank tellers, baristas, grocery store clerks and even passersby.
It’s not really my natural inclination to be this friendly, and as I get older and the more calcified and distrustful the culture of America becomes, the more inward, cautious and suspicious I have become. New Zealand, because it is a more open, trusting and civil society than America has helped me to open up a bit to my surroundings. I’ve met other Americans over here who feel the same way.
Here are a few short vignettes on some of the interactions I’ve had with some of the good people in Whakatane and Ohope:
The first week we were here in Whakatane, I popped into one of the local bike stores, Bike Barn, to look at some mountain bikes. I started talking with Johnny, the owner of the shop. As I was getting ready to leave he said, “Come by sometime and we’ll go have a coffee,” so a couple of days later, I took him up on his offer and stopped by the shop. We talked a bit more and he asked, “What are you doing tomorrow? How about we go for a bike ride?” The next morning I showed up at the shop. Johnny had his truck loaded with two mountain bikes as well as snacks, energy drinks and lunch for both of us. We hopped in the truck and drove an hour down the road to Rotorua, chatting the entire way about family, the landscape, flower and fauna of New Zealand and life in general. Rotorua is the mountain biking capital of New Zealand and we rode in a Redwood forest that boasts 200 km of single track trails and that include a combination of gnarly, root-infested trails that nearly gave me a heart attack as well as long, sloping, loamy trails that snaked through dense forests and made me smile.
Yesterday I had a fun adventure looking for Cream of Wheat in Whakatane. Before we left America in July, we stopped to see my in-laws in the Bay Area. My mother-in-law knows that I love an Indian dish called Upma so she very kindly made it for me everyday we were there (thank you, Aji) and even spent a morning in the kitchen teaching me how to make her Upma recipe. Sujata has told me that every time she has spoken to her mom since we’ve arrived in New Zealand, Aji asks, “Has Eric made Upma yet?” I haven’t as of yet because I haven’t been able to find Upma’s primary ingredient, Cream of Wheat, in the grocery store. Yesterday, though, I promised myself that I would find Cream of Wheat in Whakatane so after I got the kids off to school, I got in the car, and started my search.
I stopped in at the Pack-N-Save in the Kope district. No Cream of Wheat. Ditto at the Countdown in the city center. Anxiously walking through the streets at mid-morning, I decided to duck into a store called Bin-In. “Man,” I thought, “if they don’t have Cream of Wheat, nobody does.” I walked in with my head held high and my shoulders back and approached the clerk, whose name was Julie, “Hello, Do you have Cream of Wheat?” Julie looked up from her register and quizzed me back, “Cream of Wheat?” and then cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted across the store, “Darla, Cream of Wheat?” Darla looked up from what she was doing and trotted over, “Cream of Wheat? Cream. Of. Wheat.” Never heard of it. Hang on. “Joshua,” Darla queried to a young man walking by. “Cream of Wheat?” to which Joshua replied, “Cream of Wheat? Huh.” Customers with handfuls of bags gathered around and everyone was muttering “cream of wheat.” I thought for a second that I could probably get everyone in the store to say it in some form or another so I just hung fire in the middle of the huddle, affirming the question, “Yes, Cream of Wheat.” “Is it moist, or is it dry?” an elderly woman asked me, “Because the ‘cream’ part suggests it’s moist.” I told her it was dry and she looked at me, sceptically. Joshua, in the meantime, had waltzed to the back room and approached the huddle with a satisfied smile, “Semolina!” he cried, and everyone in the huddle threw up their hands with relief and then promptly left the store.
Me, too, after I purchased a big bag of semolina. Upma for brunch on Sunday!
Earlier this week, I stopped by the liquor store in Ohope to grab a six-pack and when I pulled the package of Mac’s Rockhopper off the shelf, two of the bottles slid out and crashed to the floor. One of the clerks, Jim, who I’ve become friendly with because he, like me, is a craft brew fan, walked over, as I apologized profusely. Jim looked at the glass and beer all over the floor and then looked at the case and said, “Not your fault, Eric. The case was ripped. No drama.” I got another six pack, paid for it and on my way out, Jim, feeling bad, I suspect, because I felt bad that I broke the beer bottles, waved me back. His arm was extended toward me and he was holding a pen. “Here, Eric, take this.” “Thanks, Jim,” I said, and then added as I was walking out the door, “What a country, you smash some beer bottles on the floor and they give you free pen.” Jim laughed. I’ll see him again in a few days.