Monday, October 10, 2011

A Beautiful City for Rejuvenation

There were a lot of reasons I chose to come to New Zealand to do my research on children’s lawyers. First, and most important for the research, is that New Zealand is currently the only country that routinely appoints lawyers to represent children in custody (not the word here) cases. Second, I knew some people here in the legal profession who could help me get acquainted with it. Third, it is beautiful. 

I got to see a lot of the NZ beauty back in January when I first arrived, and I took a wee trip up to Napier in June to grab some sun, but much of my time here has been spent in front of a computer. Sure, the scenery is gorgeous, but my back is also to the window. And don’t get me started about the wind . . . it’s killing me. So, with my rough draft sent to my advisor, and Yom Kippur approaching, I knew it was a perfect time to take a few days and get away to somewhere beautiful.

I chose Queenstown. Had I done more research, I might have chosen not to go, but luckily, I’m not very good at planning. Queenstown exists as a city for one reason – tourists. The population of 15,000 all work in some form of tourism. Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world, claiming fame as the city where bungy jumping was invented. But that is just the beginning of the possibilities. You can skydive, parasail, paraglide, jetboat, swing through canyons, etc. Of course, I knew about that, but I tend to not like incredibly touristy places, and had I known that Queenstown is New Zealand’s number 1 tourist destination, I may have stayed away. But I did not know that, so I went.

There are no words to describe the awesomeness that is Queenstown especially in the spring. The city sits on Queenstown Bay, a small inlet off the massive Wakatipu Lake. Overshadowing the lake is the Remarkables, a mountain range also known as the Southern Alps. It is an alpine land of epic proportions, and each step reveals new beauty. But the beauty is deeper than the eyes. The Earth itself is full of vibrant energy, and I have no doubt the Maori were right to call what is now Queenstown Hill, “Te Tapu-Nui,” which “signifies intense sacredness” according to the plaque on the hill. It was on that hill where I found my breath again, where I felt my shoulders drop away from my ears on their own accord, and the beauty of the world filled my soul again. And it was while taking the time to stop and notice that I saw how spring emerges.

Sometimes you just have to get away.

I also took a day away from news on Saturday, which was Yom Kippur. Fasting from food is difficult for me because I get sick, but I decided to fast from my internet addiction, and it was a great decision. Several times throughout the day, I found myself reaching for my phone to instinctively check my email only to remember that there were beautiful mountains, trees, and a lake beckoning me instead. I was happy to give them my undivided attention.

And Queenstown offered one more thing I have had trouble finding in New Zealand - healthy food in restaurants. Do not misunderstand, I love Indian food as much as anyone, but it is not the healthiest, and the one thing I miss more than anything from the United States are healthy salads/sandwiches. Ok, Trader Joe's is still up there, but the sentiment is the same. Healthy food is not easy to find here, especially outside of Wellington and Auckland. But Queenstown had two great restaurants . . . and a Mexican one, where I did not eat, but you have to see this sign.

Some things should not be allowed.

Going to Queenstown was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and it also helped me face another fear – heights! I jumped off a mountain, but not with a rope attached to my ankle. Instead, I was attached to another person and a glider. I went paragliding. It was absolutely incredible. Not only was the view fantastic, but the feeling of being in the air and gliding back down to the Earth was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. If you have the opportunity, take it. I was scared to go, but I made sure to announce my plans on facebook. I did not want to face the public ridicule of backing out from fear. It was awesome.

The Remarkables at sunrise.

The next morning at sunrise (yes, I get up early)!

No words, simply incredible. :)

A view from the sacred mountain.

Emerging pinecones. I finally took the time to pay attention. Nature is amazing!

So the cheesy Lord of the Rings Tour, paragliding, hiking, and sitting and meditating on a beach helped me place the thesis behind for a few moments and remember there is more to New Zealand, and life, than sitting with my back to a window staring at a computer screen.

Thanks, Queenstown!

© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

When the Irish Come to Town

Dunedin, the city where I am living, has a reputation for two things to non New Zealanders: albatross and penguins. Ok, maybe its Scottish history as well. But this is not a post about those wonderful, and beautiful, parts of this city.

To New Zealanders, Dunedin has a reputation for two things as well: it’s bloody cold, and it has quite the student life. I sort of laughed at the latter; I was, after all, born in Michigan and went to the University of Michigan as an undergraduate. But the Kiwis are right; Dunedin is cold. It is bone-chillingly cold, and the lack of insulation and central heating in the homes and public buildings just makes it worse. But this is not a post about the cold either. After all, it is spring here . . . and beautiful.

The Church on the Octagon on a beautiful spring morning in Dunedin. 

When I would tell Kiwis I would be studying at the University of Otago, they would always tell me about the cold, and then immediately about the student life. And no, I do not mean intramural sports. I mean alcohol. I mean couch burning. I mean students 18-year-olds from all over New Zealand (and on study abroad from all over the world) coming here just to party. It’s a great university, but the drinking culture is insane.

But this is not even a post about the students here, though it lays a nice foundation. As I mentioned in the last post, New Zealand is hosting the Rugby World Cup, and Dunedin had hosted four games: England vs. Argentina; England vs. Georgia (I went to that one); England vs. Romania; and Italy vs. Ireland. I though the Argentineans were boisterous. The Georgians and Romanians simply did not show up in vast enough numbers to comment on their presence.

Yesterday, however, Dunedin became a sea of green. I have never been to Ireland. I came close to going once, but decided I did not want to go up only for two days. If I am going to visit, I am going to spend at least a week. When living in France, I think the Irish were playing the French in soccer, and I saw the Irish fans under the Eiffel Tower. That was hours of amusement. But Paris is big, and they had plenty of places to go.

Dunedin, by contrast, is the size of Ann Arbor, about 100,000 (slightly more) people. I heard a rumour yesterday afternoon that when the Irish played the United States (and beat us 22-10, not a bad showing by the US) in New Plymouth, they drank the town dry. New Plymouth is smaller than Dunedin, and it is not a college town. I laughed and said, “Dunedin will be fine.”

Never underestimate the power of the Irish. Apparently, and this is still rumour, several bars in town ran out of beer, and ran out of it early. That is not totally surprising considering I saw them drinking on my way to yoga . . . at 9am. By 6pm, when I went back to town, it was packed! And I mean packed! Of course there were people at the Irish bar. But the Octagon, the centre of town, was fuller than I had ever seen it. The top photo shows you what kind of day it was, so it is not surprising that people wanted to be outside.

The Irish bar in town full of green!

Aww, new art and old. And green!

The day stayed gorgeous (unusual in the town that can easily have four seasons in a day three times over) as the masses headed to the game

Around 7pm, people started walking to the stadium, but they ran into a bit of trouble. New Zealand has another little quirk: EFTPOS. Kiwis carry almost no cash. There is no need. Everyone pays with EFTPOS (the “O” is pronounced like possum, not post; I get corrected frequently on that one). What is this craziness? I had to learn from Lonely Planet, and thank goodness I did. It means, “Electronic Funds Transfer Point of Sale.” In the United States, we simply say debit. But I’m not judging.

Unfortunately, the Rugby stadium only takes cash. And for some reason, New Zealand is not good on taking credit cards for which you have to sign (aka any credit card that is not also a debit/EFTPOS), so it meant these traveling Irish, drinking the town dry, were also taking all the cash. It is a sad sight to see long lines at the ATM only to get there and see this sign.

And yes, the ANZ bank was out of money too.

It is even sadder to see them all the way down the street.

Well, I ran into a friend and headed up to a “quiet” bar, and when I emerged at 8:30 to meet another friend, the game had begun, and the Octagon was empty. Completely empty. I then met my friend at the Irish bar, which was crowded, but not nearly as bad as before, and we went upstairs and managed to find a seat. I met some new people, got hassled by a very, very drunk Kiwi, and actually watched some of the game.

Ireland won. 36-6. I was in a taxi just after it finished (actually left the bar about 10 minutes before the end of the game to beat the crowd). But fear not, I saw some revelers . . . at 6:45am! Yes, the only restaurant open 24 hours in Dunedin is McDonald’s. Yes, they did some great business.

McDonald's -- the morning after.

And yes, the ducks are glad the Irish came to town as well.

The ducks -- the morning after

Overall, I can say, the Irish know how to have a good time. They were wonderfully polite and did their best to help the sad state of the Dunedin economy. I wish them all the best.

I’m also a bit sad it was the last game in Dunedin. Dunedin is rarely full of people, and it has been wonderful to see so many people around, music in the streets (including a friend playing bass in a band), and streets closed to the crazy drivers, so pedestrians can roam about. Rugby may be a brutal sport, but it draws people out and into celebration mode. Good times!

© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved

Friday, September 9, 2011

Still an Outsider

A few months ago, I posted about being an outsider in New Zealand as President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden was dead. I ended the post with the hope that with the release of ten years of pent up tension, perhaps we could come to a point in time where understanding of each other trumps the notion of outsider. I still have that sentiment, but this week that label, whatever it means, is front and center (or should I say, centre?).

Before coming to New Zealand, I was aware of a few things about the country other than their legal system. I knew that Dunedin (where my university is located and I live) has penguins and a farmer’s market. I knew that Wellington is one of the windiest cities in the world and reminds people of San Francisco (for the record, it is San Francisco!). I also knew that New Zealand would be hosting the Rugby World Cup starting in September. I knew a few other things, but those were the important ones for me at the time.

I know next-to-nothing about rubgy. When I tell rugby fans this, they always tell me about the one rule I do know – you can only throw the ball backwards. I have come to realize that the rules are just as confusing to people who watch the game regularly as they are to me as an American who has attended only one rugby match and who first had the rules explained in French. But I was (and am) excited about the World Cup. 

I love the atmosphere that international sporting events bring, even when people drink far too much, and we can add that to the list of things I knew about Kiwis – they like to drink . . . a lot! But this did not stop me from heading to the centre of Dunedin last night to watch the opening match at a bar in town. The game between Tonga and the All Blacks (New Zealand) began with both teams doing a haka, and ended with the All Blacks clobbering Tonga. I left a little after halftime; it was well past my bedtime by then.

The All Blacks preparing for their haka before the game. 

I have tickets for one game – between England and Georgia. I am excited to be here for the largest party New Zealand has ever, and perhaps will ever, throw. But I am also a wee bit confused and overwhelmed. I know the USA Eagles are not going to win, and other than not wanting to be in New Zealand if the All Blacks lose, I do not care at all about the outcome. But it is amazing to watch how communities can come together, cheer their teams, and support an atmosphere of sport. It is amazing to see how we can all create one large community.

It stands in stark contrast to the other event this week – the 10-year anniversary of September 11. Tomorrow is September 11th, sort of. It is September 11th in New Zealand, but not yet in the USA. Ironically, the Eagles are playing their first Rugby World Cup match tomorrow, wearing black armbands and taking a moment of silence before the game.

But once again I am not sure how to act as an American. I am not usually very interested in “special” days. I firmly believe that everyday is special, and that anniversaries, birthdays, etc. are odd salutes to events we should honor all the time. But they are also moments of reflection, moments that almost force us, in our hurried lives, to stop and think. While I would like to believe that we can do that without these odd sentimentalizations (is it ok if I make up words?), I know that most of us, me included, do not do so.

But something I have not shared on this blog is the amount of anti-American sentiment I have felt since arriving in New Zealand. Strangely, I have felt more here than I ever did living in France, even while living there when we invaded Iraq and again when we reelected President Bush. Perhaps I notice it here because I am more aware. Perhaps I notice it because I did not expect it. Perhaps I notice it because there really is a lot. I do not know the reason, but I have noticed it. And it makes me wonder how I am going to feel being a day ahead, and a world removed, from the memorials of 9/11.

I have been teaching a weekly yoga class here on Mondays. For those keeping score, that is 9/12 here, but 9/11 back in the States. I am going to dedicate the class to those affected by that horrific day ten years ago, not just those who died that day, but all the pain, death, and horror that have filled the last ten years. But I know there are people in who will be there who think US Foreign Policy is the bane of humanity. How do I convey the fear and confusion we all felt ten years ago? How do I honor that fear and honor the horror that the US has entailed since? How do I honor the confusion this has created? 

So, the weekend began with a coming-together of the world, and that celebration will continue, and I will remain just as confused as everyone about rugby. But in the midst of it all, there is a moment to reflect and feel oddly “American” in a world that is quickly, and obviously, shrinking. I guess this is part of Senator Fulbright’s vision. We learn about each other, but we also have to learn how to share our cultures and ideas in ways that make sense to others. That is a lesson I am learning more and more each day.

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Good old-fashioned “Kiwi” hospitality

I started this post a long time ago, and I am only now getting around to finishing it, but I was so inspired by the talk I attended that I really wanted to share, so even though it was a few weeks ago now, I think it is really pertinent. Plus, it helps me reflect on something positive in a week in which I have felt less than productive, and a bit disheartened with respect to my thesis and work here.

A few weeks ago, New Zealand celebrated Maori language week, during which Kiwis all across the country celebrate Te Reo Maori (Maori language). Unfortunately, I missed most of the events, but I managed to make it to two events at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery one Saturday. The first was a tour of the gallery completely in Maori, and the second was a talk, in English, on the topic of the week – Manaakitanga, a word generally translated into English as hospitality, but as I learned, means so much more.

Taking a tour in a foreign language is interesting. I could see the pieces of art to which the tour guide was referring as well as the tour guide’s gestures and expressions. I could see how those who understood reacted, and I could read the signs next to many of the pieces. But I understood about one word in the entire 45-minute tour. And I am not alone in not understanding. According to the statistics at the talk I attended, in 1910, 92% of Maori spoke te reo Maori, but by 1978 that number was down to 20%. In 2006, only 4% of New Zealanders were conversational in te reo Maori. 4%! It is a national language!

I am not going to use this post as a place to discuss the arguments for and against saving a language. To me, it is a no-brainer; language is culture, and it binds people together and keeps our cultures alive. The talk on Manaakitanga I attended is a perfect example.

Like so many words central to a culture, there is not one translation of Manaakitanga. The presenter offered the following: hospitality, hosting, tolerance, caring, respect, and *discipline. It reminded me of the YMCA Four Core Values, which are Respect, Caring, Honesty, and Responsibility. She explained what these words mean and how they permeate Maori, and now Kiwi, culture.

Hospitality and hosting mean you never turn anyone away. They also mean never showing up empty-handed. Respect, caring, and tolerance have the same meaning as everywhere, but the speaker mentioned a few particular to Maori culture, including taking your shoes off when you enter the home, never sitting on a table, and of particular concern to her – learning to say peoples’ names correctly.

I have talked before about the incredible hospitality of the Kiwis. I have never before felt so accepted in a place by people, even if there are some disagreements about world events. What I have not mentioned, and that the speaker noted, is that one way to effect Manaakitanga in the workplace is to welcome visitors and offer refreshments. I have not gone to any office here where they did not offer me a tea or coffee, or as they say, a “hot drink.” The other day I went to Volunteer Otago’s office, and when I declined the hot drink, the person said, “are you sure? Do you mind if I have mine?” What do you say in response? Of course I do not mind!

I also really liked the explanation of Manaakitanga being about *discipline. After further explanation, it became clear that this translation is broader than the word discipline and is really more about the “negative” (in the sense of not us being the person being respectful) side of respect, where we ensure that boundaries are respected and either we, or others, are also being treated well. The examples the speaker gave included Correcting undesirable/unacceptable behaviour in visitors to our home and “Having the courage to tell others (in a diplomatic way) if their behaviour is inappropriate,” in the context of the workplace.

Thus, Manaakitanga is about how you personally act, but also how you engage with the community as a whole. More importantly, even if the word is not well known to the average New Zealander, the concepts are. I still believe that language preservation is important, and there are some movements trying to encourage that in New Zealand, including Maori language week. But it is encouraging to see the influences and preservation of culture even when language might not be up to par.

The talk was a slightly closer look at one way that Maori culture has influenced the Pakeha, those of European descents who live in New Zealand.  I finally feel ready to write about other ways in which I have seen a Maori influence on modern New Zealand culture, but that is a post for another day. Until then, I am grateful for having attended the tour and the presentation as a way to more fully understand how language is a part of that.  

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Living up to a dream

Halfway through? Seriously? This week was our Mid-Year meeting for Fulbright, which means I have been here about ½ the total time I am going to be here. We had to provide reports about what we have been doing since arrival, both work related and not. Mine was a bit rambling. Why? Because my life has been a bit rambling. The good news is that I have sent in one chapter, I am getting responses to my survey, and I have begun another chapter. I think everything might just be coming together . . . finally. So, that meant another vacation, this time to Napier on the East Coast of the North Island. But more about that later.

There were several highlights of the Fulbright event. First, as always, was seeing my fellow American Fulbrighters and the staff at Fulbright New Zealand. I cannot express in words the gratitude I feel for everyone in that office. They are all wonderful and supportive. And my fellow Fulbrighters are a ton of fun and some of the most interesting people I have ever met. I feel amazingly honoured to among their company.

This trip was also an opportunity to meet the Kiwi Fulbrighters, most of whom head to the States in August and September. It was so great to hear about their future projects and share some tidbits about the United States (the important things, such as Trader Joe’s and craigslist). And I am super excited that one of them will be in Tucson and three are going to be in Los Angeles. I am looking forward to being able to share Tucson and the west with some Kiwi mates!

Before we share the States with them, however, a few of us went to check out Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King, the Extended Version at Peter Jackson’s theatre, a very American in New Zealand sort of experience. I prepared by watching the first two films during the last week, and I have to say, there is a vast difference between the big screen and a Macbook screen. Other than the movie being four hours long, and going 2 hours beyond my bedtime, it was quite amazing. All three movies premiered in that theatre, and what was extra special was seeing places I recognize now. This country is truly magnificent.

And I cannot forget the Fulbright Awards Ceremony / Alumni Banquet. We received lovely certificates, and we were able to see the people who have won the amazing diversity of awards administered by Fulbright New Zealand. I think there is something for everyone, so if you want to come down under, check out the website. I bet you find something for which you are eligible. 

While these events were all incredible highlights, I think the biggest surprise highlight for me was learning more about Senator Fulbright. I knew a wee bit about him prior to coming (thanks, Wikipedia), but I knew very little about him other than his influence in setting up the Fulbright program. In short, he was a man from Arkansas who went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship that changed his life. Upon returning to the United States, someone told him he should run for office, and he served from 1943 until 1974 (some in the House and then in the Senate). He saw the end of WWII and the bomb and realized that the best way to avoid WWIII was to send people to be citizen diplomats and ambassadors.

I have mentioned this before, but learning more about him has me thinking about his ideals again. He was a Southern Democrat who was forever distraught by his failure to take on his party with respect to civil rights but who stuck to his principles against his friend President Johnson and helped bring about the truth of the Vietnam War. Bill Clinton spoke of him as a mentor.

The film on Senator Fulbright led me to evaluate whether I am fulfilling his mission. Is it a problem that I have not learned to live comfortably with someone else? Is it a problem that I chose to travel to Napier alone instead of with my fellow Fulbrighters for the weekend? Is going to a Hare Krishna yoga studio something he expected? Is teaching yoga something more akin to his vision? Is sitting in a New Zealand hostel for an hour talking to a German woman and a Swiss woman about international affairs what he wanted us to do in his name? What about another hostel talking to a woman who worked in the family court system as a counsellor and is now retired?

And then my work. Does it match? Does it matter that I have met lawyers and judges in Wellington? Have I failed him by not reaching out in Dunedin? What happens if the New Zealand Minister of Justice says that lawyers for children should not exist in custody cases anymore because they are too expensive? What if I go back to the States and no one cares about this work? Senator Fulbright was a lawyer, but I do not get the impression that he practiced very long, or at all. My work may never make a difference to anyone.  Should I be working harder on my thesis? Should I be working harder on my new blog for family law professionals?

At its simplest, a Fulbright scholarship is some money to help someone fulfill a degree (at least the kind I received). At its most complex, however, it means fulfilling Senator Fulbright’s vision. It means living up to an ideal of saving the world through diplomacy instead of war. The first time I lived in France, the United States invaded Iraq. The second time, we reelected President Bush. Since I have been here, we have assassinated Osama Bin Laden. War still happens. Can going to see movies at Peter Jackson’s theatre and going to free yoga classes that focus on community building change that?

I want to say yes. I want to believe, as Senator Fulbright did, that we can make this difference, that as more people leave their safety nets, the world becomes a safer place, even if it means we find that we have some limits that we just cannot overcome . . . at least not yet. I want to believe that it matters to his vision as much that I am in New Zealand as that my friend is in Kenya on her award. I want to believe that by learning to represent children, I can help ensure that they live in a world full of opportunities and without the fear of bombs.

In short, I want to be a Fulbright scholar in all senses of the world. I have five more months here. Only time will tell what happens. In the meantime, Napier is beautiful! 

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Wee Lay-up

I have lived abroad before, in France actually. I should, therefore, know what to expect about cultural differences, right? What I am finding instead is more often than not I am caught off guard by something someone says, or I say something that is completely inappropriate for the circumstances. But why?

English is my native language. French is not. Simple enough, I realize, but it makes all the difference and not in the way you might think. It is easier to be caught off guard in an English-speaking country than a French-speaking one.

While in France, I have to think about the correct word or phrase in every situation. The only way to continue to grow my French language skills is to be constantly “on,” constantly learning, and the only people from whom I learned were those with whom I would come into contact. I remember a particular day in France when I was talking to a friend, and I said, “รงa peur.” It has no direct translation, but idiomatically it means, “that’s scary.” I was proud of myself. My friend laughed. To her, I was supposed to talk like a book, not a French person. Together we realized that I was integrating. It was a big step.

I do not have that problem in English. I do not have to be “on.” I just talk, right? I reckon, though, it is just a matter of time before I am keen to hang out and go for a wee drink, eh? Oh wait . . .

I feel as though I am living in the twilight zone. I am not sure what my patterns are and what I consider normal anymore until I am confronted by something that seems strange. For example, many flights in New Zealand are on 60-seat planes. After flying a lot, the first time I had to get on a 737 (you know, what Southwest flies), I was struck by how big it is. I was just on one again yesterday, after not flying for awhile, and it felt “normal.” I guess time away from the extraordinary makes old friends ordinary.

But this week has struck me on two fronts, woken me up to the fact that I really am in a foreign country that speaks a different language, sometimes a non-verbal one. (I have to share that, in college, I lived with 3-4 linguists, and these sorts of conversations dominate(d) our conversations.)

One of my friends here is from Australia, and she received two basketball tickets. She did what any normal, non-basketball going person would do – she called an American. Yes, my friends, I went to a basketball game in a small town in New Zealand. I would say it might be able to contend with Division B in college. Might is the operative word in that sentence.


Basketball, to me, is America. I played growing up, and as an almost 30-year-old woman, that is unusual in the rest of the world. Girls here play netball (I have no idea what it is, either), and in France, when I asked what girls do in school, my host sister said, “dance.” So, I am proud of the fact that basketball is a major sport in the United States, for boys and girls, and it is the only truly American sport, created in the 1880s at a YMCA. The point is that basketball makes me think about home.

The announcer was about the most honest announcer I have ever heard. He told us how the team had been on and off all season, and this being the last game of the season, they had to really pull it together. If the other team scored an undefended point, we were sure to hear that a defender should have been there. It sounded like the commentary from Harry Potter Quidditch, not a basketball game.

But the proof that I was not in America were the references to the wee layups and the wee free throws. Basketball Kiwified! And that was not all. In America, we root for our favorite teams, right? Well, rooting has quite a different connotation, and it is not something you discuss in public at family friendly events. Here, you support a team. I was careful . . . until I was not. Luckily, my friend understood, and no one else could hear me. It is hard to be on when at a place that feels so comfortable.

So, the wee plays and careful word choice on my part made the evening interesting. I also had to explain the game to my friend; she had never before attended a basketball game. Luckily, it being New Zealand, the announcer also added in a bit of rule explanation. Apparently, this is not a popular sport here. Overall, I had a great time living in language/culture purgatory. An American movie helped me realize that I cannot escape it.

I am back up in Wellington for a few days; we have a Fulbright event to attend. I planned to stay with a friend Monday night, but thanks to the ash cloud, she is stuck away from Aotearoa, the land of the Long White Cloud (the Maori name for NZ), and instead of bugging someone last minute, I decided to stay in a hostel. Facebook was alive with great references to Bridesmaids, so I went to see what all the fuss was about. For the record, we must look insane to the rest of the world.

First American movie in months, what is my first thought? They were driving on the wrong side of the road. Oy! I guess all my “look right” reminding worked. While watching movies in France, I knew they were seeing a translation, which is really an adaptation (another thesis of mine in my old life). The funniest experience I ever had was seeing Matrix 2 in France during the scene where the “bad guy” repeats about every French swear word there is in a matter of about 10 seconds. The place erupted in laughter. But here in NZ, they do not translate the films. There are no subtitles running in Kiwi. They get to see the American version even if it makes no sense. And I get to see where I fit into the mix.

Before the movie, the woman sitting next to me was explaining living in Christchurch to a friend. I guess she moved up here or is visiting from the earthquake-weary city. I heard her explain the 22 February earthquake. I suppressed the urge to tell her I had also been there, to find a bond, but I sat there realizing I was in the Twilight Zone of my mind – somewhere between the United States and Aotearoa.

I may not struggle to find my words on a daily basis here, and I may technically understand everything that goes on around me, but each day, I am struck by the fact that I am not in the United States anymore. It is fun to see where I have transformed and what my new “normal” is. If nothing else, it keeps me on my toes, eh?

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Taking a Break

I have been in New Zealand for over four months now. In some ways it feels like just yesterday that I arrived, but so much has happened since I have been here that it sometimes feels like I have been here forever. The initial high of travel, orientation, the Future Partner Forum, and a return to Dunedin, has worn off. Now I am back to life as life is – sitting at a desk all day “working.”

Yup, my life has taken on a similar routine to being in the States, the only difference being the lack of Trader Joe’s. One person in the States said to me, “I thought you were just traveling around.” Nope, I am no longer a tourist, at least not now. And just like at home, the routine sets in. Things have been difficult to say the least. Writing a thesis is hard, the weather has been cold, there is no insulation, and yes, I miss Trader Joe’s.

So, just like I do at home in the States, I spend all day sitting at a desk staring at a computer screen, though if we are friends on facebook, you may have noticed that I have recently learned about legal resources in paper, but that is a story for another day. I should also mention that my desk is within a room with about 40-50 other postgraduate thesis students, and although there is a window, my desk faces away from it. Do I need to mention the florescent lights, or is that already part of your mental picture of the place?  

As someone who teaches Stress Management workshops, I knew I had to get away. I had to get away from the routine, away from the energy of the room, and away from my cold house. So I decided to head to Victorian New Zealand, also known as Oamaru (or Oamuru as Google Maps calls it) for the weekend. Oamaru is only about 1.5 hours from Dunedin, and like nearly every other city in NZ, it is right on the coast. What makes Oamaru unique is two-fold. First, and less well known, it was one of the first cities to boom in New Zealand, and at one point was the same size as Los Angeles. The city boasts the first shipment of frozen meat. But then it crashed, and it crashed hard. Some thought it would never recover, and the buildings sat in disrepair for years.

That is where the second point comes in – the one for which Oamaru is best known. All the buildings here are built in Oamaru stone or Whitestone. Better known as limestone to those of us not from New Zealand, Oamaru stone is everywhere in the city. Interestingly, the history video (did I mention I love museums?) said that one of the reasons Oamaru grew so fast was because there were no trees here, so farming was easy, but that also made building from timber difficult – thus the stone! Well, with a booming economy, unlimited (or so they thought) limestone, and an architect who loves all things classic and beautiful, you get historic Oamaru.

The main street in Oamaru with all the limestone buildings.

A beautiful sunset over the sea!

And you cannot be on the Otago coast without another friend – PENGUINS!! I was so excited when I learned I would be living in Dunedin that they have penguins. But Oamaru has more, many, many more. One kind are called Yellow-eyed Penguins in English, but their Maori name – hoihui – literally means noise-maker. I tried to video the noise, but alas, when I ran the video the penguin stopped. Oh well.

A sign for the penguins. These signs are all over the city. 

Yellow-eyed penguin drying itself. 

Then I went to see the colony of little blue penguins. There are over 500 penguins who live in the colony, and in the winter (which is now – we are upside down, remember?) there are usually about 30-60 who come home on any given night. We saw 126! It was absolutely incredible! What is most incredible is how they come ashore. The waves are intense (especially the night I was there), and these little penguins ride those waves into the rocky shore, get thrashed against the rocks, then come out standing and running, yes running, up the rocks to their grassy haven with a wee stop to dry and oil themselves. Who knew that penguins could climb so well? They truly are beautiful and amazing, and apparently slightly mean, little birds. Half the size of the Yellow-eyed Penguins, they are the smallest penguins in the world, and they are social, and oh so cute. Unfortunately, the staff at the colony do not allow photos, and they are nocturnal, so when I went the next night just to the beach to see some, and I did, the only picture I got is, well black. Yes, I was the person on the beach informing other people not to use their flash. I’m that person. If you are interested, there is a link below my black photo to some online photos.

They are serious. They want to protect the penguins.

Sad. This is all I could get from the blue penguins. But click here to see them.  

So, this trip was just what I needed. It only rained on Sunday morning, but cleared up in the afternoon. I walked from one end of the city to the other, visited museums, saw Victorian garb, saw the Steampunk festival participants (folks who dress up in punkified Victorian garb – I don’t get it either, but the photo below is a woman in Victorian dress with Medieval additions because normally when she dresses in costume, it is Medieval costume). And I visited the Whitestone cheese gallery (everything here has whitestone in its name). I love Whitestone cheese. It is sold throughout the country, and apparently is distributed in the States as well, so I visited their factory. So cool and super yummy!

A view of the street with some dressed-up people.

And on my walk back to town yesterday evening, I was talking to myself. Don’t judge, I find this is when I have my best ideas. Crazy? Perhaps, but who writes a thesis that is not a bit crazy? And I had a great insight into my thesis while talking to myself. That insight will be shared in November when I turn it in. Ironically it was right in front of the whiskey tasting room where I had tasted some of the only whiskey ever made in New Zealand earlier in the day. But it made me feel like I could go back to Dunedin on track. I guess I just needed to get away! So, I cannot say that Oamaru is a typical tourist destination in New Zealand, except to see penguins, but it truly is a great place for a weekend, and a great place to rejuvenate.

My point of inspiration. It had nothing to do with the whiskey, I promise.

Oh, and happy Queen’s Birthday! Today is a holiday in New Zealand celebrating the Queen’s Birthday, which is not today, but at least it is a day off.


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved