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Random Notes from Wellington, New Zillund

November 30, 2010

Photo by Kate Hedin. For more of her New Zealand photos, go here.

New Zealand doesn’t have any natural predators, and I think this says a lot about country as a whole. “After all, our country’s symbol is a flightless nocturnal bird.” said Andrew, one of our hosts.

The city of Wellington, for instance, has more cafes per block than New York. While walking around the town for four days, I only remember seeing three people who smoked. There is very little stone in the city, so Gothic cathedrals from the Victorian period are made of wood.

Apparently the only predatory part of New Zealand culture is the country’s rugby team. Called the All Black, it stars in the Air New Zealand safety videos, which includes an old woman running down the isle of the plane naked.

***

Speaking of airplanes, Air New Zealand is one of the best airlines we’ve flown with. Aside from naked elderly people in their safety videos, they also have great food, seat USB chargers in many of their aircraft, plenty of leg room, and the international seats go back so far you can actually sort of kind of sleep kind of, which is saying a lot for an economy international seat. They also have personal viewing screens for many of their flights, which you can watch from the second you sit in your seat to till the moment you get up for your bags: they play through take-offs and landings.

It helps make up for the fact that New Zealand customs is as involved as a root canal. Leave plenty of time at the airport if you fly there.

***
In a recent essay on the English countryside, I mentioned how it was almost impossible to shake the feeling of being in Middle Earth. Well, that feeling is magnified in New Zealand, for obvious reasons. The winding forests, the rolling hills, the distance mountains, the greenness of everything.

At one point, I thought “Woah! That hill looked like a place in the Lord of the Rings movie where the hobbits hide from the rider, but I’m not going to say anything cause I don’t want to be that guy who thinks everything in New Zealand looks like something in Lord of the Rings.” At the moment i was done thinking that, our main host Lauren mentioned said that we had just passed the hill the hobbits hid on in Lord of the Rings. I kid you not.

The people of New Zealand don’t look at the Lord of the Rings the way, for instance, the French look at the Eiffel Tower.* They seem to all have accepted the fact that the Lord of The Rings has sort of reminded the world that New Zealand exists, and that, because of it, people often connect the two. The money the travel industry has recieved because of it, though, must be staggering. After all, New Zealand is paying to have the Hobbit movies filmed there.

The New Zealand film and graphics industry has grown dramatically because of the films. We took a trip to the Weta Cave, a little visitors center for the production company that created the designs and computer graphics for Lord of the Rings.

This little family-style wearhouse company made everything. Armor, puppets, graphics, models, and invented a lot of the technology to do each of those so well. Their visitors center isn’t a bad use of a half-hour. It has a lot of props from the films, gifts and replicas you can buy, and shows a documentary about the behind-the-scenes workings of what goes on there.

The company hasn’t just kept itself to films. They seem to let their designers go crazy, and one of the results was a fictional line of ray guns invented by a Victorian adventurer named Dr. Grordbort. So, that was the initial idea: a line of collectible Victorian-style ray guns. Since then, it naturally expanded into lots of poster art, comic books, and short films.

***

Wellington itself is the San Francisco of Middle Earth. It’s chilly all summer, windy all the time, and has lots of hills and international restaurants.

I thought I was clever in making the connection, but apparently every travel writer in the world has made the same statement.

What it doesn’t have, however, is an international airport. This is because the runway is tiny, between two bodies of water, and the winds are so strong they make it hard to land.

***

Maori are the Aboriginal people of New Zealand. The country has tried desperately to preserve at least the cultural history of the Maori. Most of the buildings say things in both English and Maori.

They were originally treated the way most native peoples were treated by the sneezing Europeans who showed up on their shores hungry and desiring a good masacre. However, in 1840, the Europeans and Maori signed the Treaty of Waitangi, which, if you read the Maori-language treaty, gave them the property and rights of British Citizens, but if you read the European version of the treaty, gave them the property and rights of British Citizen’s cattle.

Not quite, but there was a tragic translation problem. The English and Maori versions differed slightly, and, even thought they were technically translated into Maori, the native cheifs didn’t really understand the concept of “Govenor,” “property rights,” or what a European power was capable of when “savages” were involved.

There is a great story about the signing, but it is possibly only a made-up one handed down by generations. The story goes that, originally, the Maori translator for the treaty was supposed to be an incredibly skilled one, yet he came down with a sickness near the date of the signing. The treaty was given to the next-in-line, a translator who wasn’t near as good.

What is true is that the treaty was made on the fly by a British military Captain who had orders to start a country, but no lawyers on hand who could tell him the proper way to make a treaty and advise him on fine print. (It shows in the treaty’s beautiful brevity: it is three short paragraphs long.)

Despite the treaty tragedy, the modern British Crown has since paid hundreds of millions of pounds to the Maori people in damages for the breaches of the treaty, as well as official apologies, which is a place to start, and more than many countries (cough) have done for the natives treaties they have breached.

The treaty is recognized as the founding document of New Zealand.

***

Of all the original bars we could go to, we chose “Alice,” a bar hidden way back in a dark alley that, at one point, had a sign that simply had a rabbit going down a whole, and that was it.

You can only be so subtle before you start to lose money, and the club has since added a neon “Alice” under it. However, inside is a tiny bar with small doors, giant tables, and incredibly expensive cocktails based on the book.

It was here that Kate, myself, and three Kiwis discussed what we often do when we get around people of new nationalities who have a few drinks in them: what their people are like.

Anonymous Kiwi #1 (but his real name is Andrew) mentioned how the New Zealanders think there’s this big Australia/New Zealand rivalry, but really New Zealand is just the little brother of Australia, who is in high school and much more interested in girls than anything New Zealand is doing. We spent a good portion of the rest of the night saying “Get out of my room!” whenever Kiwi/Aussie relations were discussed.

I mentioned to Andrew that I thought his tie was “tight,” cause it was, and he checked the knot. I apologized and told him that “tight” is an American slang for “cool” (itself an American slang word which is universally understood, it seems.) He said New Zealanders might say “choice” or “sweet,”
with various degrees of awesome. They will also, apparently, say “sweet as…” and not finish the sentence. In classes that weekend, we’d say something like “So, everyone cool with that?” and get an occasional “sweet as” in response. For instance, there’s a viral video that you’d only get if you knew this about Kiwis.

Also, if you’re going to New Zealand, it may be helpful to know “Partner” is a New Zealand term for the person you are in a romantic relationship with, regardless of sexual-orientation. It can be confusing if you assume it means a same-sex relationship like in the states.

New Zealand also has a wide variety of customs it’s taken from the Maori people. For instance, it is considered impolite to lean against an eating table, or sit on a pillow, because it means your backside disrespectfully touches something that involves food or your face. Before Rugby games, the All Black team does a Maori war dance.

Also, there’s a substance in New Zealand called Hokey Pokey. I kid you not. It’s actually a Malted, crunchy, bubbly sponge toffee that they put in candy bars and ice cream and sell to innocent children on street corners.

When we left Alice, Kate accidentally left her favorite hat: a beret with a big bow on it. Of all the places to leave it, it had to be in a bar dedicated to Alice in Wonderland, where their normal clientelle would see a Victorian-y child-like hat and think “Oh, darling as! Just like Alice in Wonderland!”

The Kiwis helped us look all over the city for the hat, and in Alice no less than two more times throughout the weekend. And in doing so, they proved they were a match for the Aussies in congeniality, which is no mean feat. (Kate finally found the hat online and ordered two more of them.)

***

Alright, vintage lovers, if you’re ever in Wellington, all you need to know is Cuba Street. Start at the top and walk your way down.

Plenty of vintage-y stores for women, but a particularly great one for men (which are almost impossible to find). Called Particles of Time, I found two three-piece suits and a jacket to take home with me. They are both in a 1930s-cut-1970s suits, which are the best this 6’2″ lank is likely to find find, but the fabrics are very vintage, so they’ll work.

Speaking of which, last week I mentioned Retrospc’d, Australia’s great store. This week, I’d like to make a plug for local New Zealander Shona van Beers’ store Heyday Vintage Style.

Like Retrospec’d, she has a collection of 1930s-40s inspired skirts, tops, and dresses for women, as well as jackets and pants for men. Though a native of New Zealand, she lives and runs her store in London.

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*–There’s a joke the French have: “You know where the best view of Paris is? The Eiffel Tower. You know why? Cause then you don’t see that damn tower.”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Lauren permalink
    November 30, 2010 2:28 pm

    :) Your deployment of Kiwi slang is getting ever more creative – don’t think I’ve ever heard “darling as” before!!

  2. Andrew permalink
    December 1, 2010 6:17 pm

    What may be more frightening than the All Blacks in full haka is that the mentioned ‘small as’ airport is actually an international airport, one you’ll never forget landing in when the conditions are just right!

  3. Amanda Bell permalink
    December 2, 2010 12:47 am

    I’m always so happy when people go to New Zealand. I lived there for 6 months and I am determined to live there again. I love the people, I love the sites, and I especially love Art Deco weekend (in Napier)! I’m absolutely giddy you were able to experience my favorite country :) And just to add one thing, my favorite phrase, “Good on ya!” with or without mate at the end. I couldn’t really pull off mate.

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