I’m convinced that the few people of the world’s population who actually live in New Zealand feel their own isolation. They’re like extended family, outlaws twice removed, always out of touch. They know exactly just how far away they are and so when they have the opportunity to connect, with each other or with tourists traveling through, they take full advantage.
The other morning I went down to the beach for a quick, brisk walk in a wild wind and stopped at the dairy (a dairy is what they call a corner shop in England and what we’d call a convenience store in the States) When I asked for stamps for the States, I found myself in the middle of my own can of worms. The really lovely Indian woman behind the counter began to rapid-fire her burning questions at me. “Are you American?” Yes, I am. “From where?” Texas. “Is this your first time in New Zealand?” Yes. “Do you like it?” Yes. “Do you want to stay here forever?” Umm— “Where does your family live?” (Here’s where it would get complicated if I had the chance to answer, with my sisters in London and my parents in Dallas.) “Do they want to come here too?” Oh, I’m sure they’d like to visit. “Are they going to come here?” Maybe. “You like it here, you stay here, you just need job.” Right. “That’s easy. Just start taking your resume around. Leave it here if you want.”
I walked in wanting stamps and less than twenty seconds later I’m getting free, unsolicited career advice from an unexpected stranger. There was a lull in conversation as she slowly tore off my stamps, precisely counting them up for me while a big black Labrador retriever came running into the shop, soaking wet. He sniffed around a sec then went tearing right back out the door again, rejoining his barefoot owner. I figured this must be a daily occurrence as the lovely Indian shopkeeper never once bat an eye. When I left, I laughed to myself, wondering how many customers that woman actually saw every day in that tiny shop in that even tinier town. It was only normal she’d be curious and talkative to someone buying stamps for such a faraway place.
In general, I’m someone who absolutely loathes small talk. Please don’t talk to me about the weather just for the sake of talking and being friendly. I much prefer peaceful silence to an awkward, forced conversation. Here, in NZ I’m outta luck when avoiding the small talk. But I’ve realized—people don’t just ask how you are here because it’s part of their job and they are being paid minimum wage to be friendly but because they really and truly are genuinelycurious. They ask how you are and they really do want to know the answer to that. The thing with New Zealanders is that they are an extremely talkative and curious population. I’ve yet to meet anyone in a shop who doesn’t ask questions. If you buy coffee or ice cream or a cup of tea, expect to be roped into a conversation. Expect to tell your life’s story and be ready to get it down to a three minute summary.
I ran into the chemist (what they call the pharmacy) to buy myself some contact solution last week and it was pouring outside, cats and dogs. There was an array of different items in the shop to sort through and after a quick scan I realized I had no idea what to even look for. Who knew if they even carried my trusty Opti-free brand. So when the young woman behind the counter asked, “You alright there?” I took her up on her offer to help. (Saying that in America would sound sarcastic, but here it’s really how they talk to you—it’s not meant to be demeaning or condescending.) As I was paying for my Opti-free (they had all the regular brands I like) she asked if I’d been here long. I said no, just arrived and she apologized profusely. “Pity about the weather! Usually it’s much nicer, let’s hope it clears up for you.”
That’s another thing that’s funny. Not just how they talk about the weather, but how they talk about the weather, as in how they describe it. In the States we have certain standard adjectives we use: sunny, rainy, cloudy, foggy, windy, hot, cold, cool and that’s usually about it unless there’s extreme weather like a storm. But in New Zealand, where weather is far more various, even in the course of one day, they say things like “Same” or “Fine.” Same means no change from yesterday or the day before or the day before that (and usually it’s drizzly and nasty) and “Fine” translates to what we would call “fair.” Today it is fine. No rain, just spots of hot sunshine between the big clouds. Fine.
Since I’ve mentioned the dairy, I’d like to mention other stores and what the “shopping” is like here in New Zealand. However, before I do so, I’d like to write a little disclaimer: I am spoiled beyond spoiled when it comes to being used to the best shopping in the world. I am so spoiled I didn’t even know I was spoiled. I can thank my big-city Texas upbringing for that. I’d always heard that Dallas had some of the best shopping in the world and until I went and actually saw what the rest of the world had to offer, I never quite knew what that meant.
Now I know.
This will give you a good idea of what I mean. Last week, the big news on the front page of the local paper was that the nearby town of Hastings has an escalator. Actually, they have two escalators! One that goes up and one that goes down. The brand spanking new escalators were installed in the recently renovated “Farmers” store, which I would say is like a department store but that’s a bit of a stretch. It’s probably comparable to what Sears Roebucks might have been like in its early days. Farmers is THE place to shop around here for cosmetics, clothes, furniture, housewares, televisions, beds, slippers, blenders and shoes that aren’t made of anything remotely similar to leather in China. Now let me explain why it’s THE place to shop: because it is the onlyplace to shop. Other stores do exist, but pricing isn’t as competitive. When I say “competitive” I don’t mean that you can find anything particularly inexpensive either. The problem with New Zealand is that it’s far away. Brands sold at Target, like Mossimo, are top brands here and men’s shorts go for sixty dollars a pop, US$.
As for women’s clothes I can say this: God, I wish I knew how to sew. I’d stitch myself a cute dress or something because around here—and I am NOT kidding—the best clothes I’ve seen, by far and wide, are from (can I get a drum-roll please?) K-mart! Yep! They really still have K-mart here. It didn’t go under with the Martha Stewart scandal probably because a) they don’t know who Martha Stewart is (unfortunately for them) b) because they already ARE “down under” or c) because perhaps its Australian owned. All jokes aside, though, I’m not joking. I would not joke about K-mart. Although, I really was joking when my sisters and I were laughing about what kind of clothes I’d find here in New Zealand. We figured I’d find a plethora of shops catering to the outdoorsy types–Columbia and North Face and all that Land’s End-y sort of stuff you’d imagine which is not my usual taste in daily attire. But well, I shouldn’t have joked. And really, honestly, I’ll tell you the truth, I hate to shop, I’ve never been a shopper, but I never in a million years would have wished myself out of the option of shopping. I’ve seen many a town here and even the big-smoke city of Wellington did not have a Zara or an H&M in sight. Not even a GAP! I’m in desperate need for a new pair of jeans. Unfortunately the best pair I found was at Farmers for $40 and I still couldn’t bring myself to spring for them. Told you I was spoiled.
No where really to shop, tons of small talk, lots of hoopla about the weather and yet still, I like it here. There are so many good things about this weird little stain on the world’s map in the Southern Hemisphere.
For example: Since I’ve arrived, I’ve never once stood in a line. Supermarkets are modern and beautiful—even in the smallest, podunkiest downs and they have everything. Everything and anything you can imagine or wish for. And with only four million peeps in the whole country, there is never a line! (I even saw a packet of Louisiana Cajun gumbo mix. I don’t know if I can even find those in Texas, much less outside Mississippi or Louisiana.) Also, the beer aisle is as long and as beautiful as the dairy aisle—you could spend your days tasting beer and be drunk for a year and still not have savored everything there is to offer. And don’t get me started on the wine. I haven’t even allowed myself a good, long look yet. All local, you would never get bored.
Pros and cons, positives and negatives to living in a new place that’s a bit cut off from the norm. No, New Zealanders don’t really have much to offer in the fashion department. But by God they still have great K-mart’s, good barbecues, no lines to stand in and the art of weather talk down to a tee. As for the rain, well, for that they’ve got the best cure there is: good old-fashioned friendly kiwi conversation and when all else fails, a hell of a selection of wine and cheese.