My fingers are finally defrosted enough for me to update my blog. Winter is cold and wet and miserable. Thankfully I get a break when I go to Germany to visit my family and watch some soccer. Back here, people are happy and watch the rugby. It’s still cold and wet and miserable.
So, where was I? Quite a few people have written, telling me they have been missing my updates and asking if I’m going to continue with this journal. Thanks all, and yes, absolutely. It’s very cool to get this kind of feedback and I’ll do my darndest to get back to more frequent posting. There have been several reasons for the delay—for one, general ongoing, but somewhat eventless busyness, travel (more about that later), but also a bit of frustration with the platform on which this blog is hosted, which makes it quite cumbersome to maintain, not to mention that it gets inundated with trackback spam. But while that’s definitely something to get sorted, it’s no excuse for holding off updates any longer.
She’ll be right
So let’s start with a story that I think perfectly illustrates New Zealanders’ approach to and outlook on life, and why we are sometimes still simply amazed at being here.
Our house doesn’t come with parking. Usually that’s not a problem, as there is always street parking nearby. But when I came back from a trip in June, I found two of our tyres slashed. Apparently we weren’t the only ones affected; neighbours told us that several other cars were vandalised as well. Now this stuff happens when you live in a city (even in Wellington) but it’s nevertheless frustrating to be affected by such senseless destruction. Moreover, we didn’t have time to deal with the problem until the following weekend, so we had to make do without a car during one of the coldest and wettest weeks of winter. Not exactly fun.
The following Saturday, we arranged for a tow truck to come and take the car to a shop in town to have the tyres replaced. While we were waiting for the car to be pulled onto the truck, I chatted with one of the towing guys. He clearly was the embodiment of a true Kiwi if there ever was one: He was so genuinely happy and positive, it was impossible not to be affected by it. I told him how the tyres had been randomly destroyed, and he commiserated for a moment about our bad fortune. But then, he reminded me, at least they didn’t get all four tyres, but only two! Two isn’t so bad, at least not as bad as all four of them, and anyway, this stuff happens, but it’s also a really nice day (it was finally sunny again, albeit still cold), not bad at all for a little walk to the tyre shop. And so on. Afterwards, Brian called him “almost impossibly cheerful”.
When I had gotten up that morning, I was rather frustrated at having to spend my Saturday getting the car fixed and spending money that I hadn’t planned for on a repair that shouldn’t have been necessary. But by the time my tow truck man said goodbye and drove off, not only did a I have a smile on my face, but I also felt like the luckiest person in the world for getting two all-new, shiny tyres, on such a beautiful day.
That, my friends, is New Zealand in a nutshell.
Around the world in 16 days
Since I’ve left Germany almost ten years ago, I’ve been trying to go back for a visit every two years. I hadn’t been back since we moved to New Zealand, so this year in June, I did the really big trip to the other end of the globe for the first time. Wellington – Auckland – Hong Kong – Frankfurt meant three flights each way, 25 hours in the air, and around 40 hours from door to door. Sounds daunting, but to my surprise, it wasn’t half as bad as I had expected.
Sure, the journey does drag on, but because it’s so very long, you completely lose all sense of time and place, and that’s a good thing. After trips between California and Germany, my body always used to feel that it should be a certain time of the day, and therefore the first several days after each flight were spent trying to get over jetlag. Not this time—I simply started over when I arrived in Frankfurt.
Of course it wasn’t very hard to adjust to where I was going to. The trip had been carefully timed: It would be summer, I would have a chance to visit my hometown’s annual local festival for the first time in a decade, and of course, the Football World Cup would be taking place in Germany during that time. Once I got off the plane, it took me about the time it takes to drink a bottle of Coke (caffeine!) to get drawn into the big summer party that was Germany in June 2006.
Much has been written about Germany’s new-found lightness of being, its welcoming and laid back patriotism (also dubbed “party-otism”), short, nothing less but the country’s complete reinvention of itself in the course of four incredible weeks. If that sounds exaggerated—well, it’s not. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Hard to tell how much of this new attitude will survive the summer but I sure hope it does. As an expat, the relationship with the country you have left behind is never an easy one, even less so when that country is Germany. In this trip, I certainly have found new appreciation for my home country.
The cult of cold
While I was enjoying summer on the other side of the globe, New Zealand was experiencing its coldest June since 1972, with multiple storms (bringing much snow in the south and the mountains, and rain elsewhere), power outages, flooding, landslides, and simply miserable conditions. Sure, the national average temperature of 7.3° C (that’s 45° Fahrenheit) doesn’t sound so bad, but when it’s accompanied by southerly winds straight from Antarctica, it truly chills your bones.
And then there is that other issue: New Zealand housing construction. I’ve written before about the cold houses without heating or insulation before so there’s no need to repeat that, although this problem did make a bigger impact this year, compared to last year’s comparatively warm winter. There were articles in the paper about how the cold affects people’s health, especially the very young and the old. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends an indoor temperature of 18-20° C (64-68° F) for good health. New Zealand houses average only 16 (60)°, and in winter, many of them go below 10 (50)°! It’s normal to only heat one room at a time, and especially less mobile people simply stay in bed “with a hottie” (which is not what you think but refers to a hot water bottle). Worse, the rising cost of electricity forces poorer people to turn off their space heaters altogether, so that often the temperature inside isn’t much different from outside, making houses not only cold but also damp, and causing serious health problems. Studies show that the mortality goes up in winter too—an average of 1600 people more die during winter compared to summer.
“Why are New Zealand houses so cold and why do New Zealanders put up with it?” asked the local paper in early July under the headline “Cult of Cold”. Unlike in other countries, the article said, there is no relationship here between how much money people earn and how warm their houses are. Even people who can easily afford it often see warm houses as something extravagant—it’s not common to invest in your comfort like that. Some people believe that attitude goes back to colonial times, when toughness and some amount of suffering was considered good for you. According to Victorian morality, cold equates virtue, and while Britain has moved on since then, somehow this attitude has stayed well and alive in its former colony. And why spend money on expensive renovations to your house if you can simply put on another sweater?
We’ve been wondering what might change the situation. Probably nothing in the short term, but there are some influences that might make a difference. Efforts out of government come from both the health angle (the Ministry of Health is supporting studies in this area) and the energy consumption area (the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Agency is running programs to help insulate low income housing and also does a lot of public education on the subject). And maybe the influx of immigrants who are used to different standards and are trying to recreate them here will contribute to healthier and more efficient housing.
It’s not as if people are not willing to spend money, they just have different priorities. Like rugby. Here is an idea: Get the All Blacks to promote warm houses. Sell insulation with Tana Umaga‘s autograph on it. Show that real men are all about the footie, beer, and double-glazing. That should get the word out like nothing else.
Said Tana was involved in the now famous and much-spoofed “handbag incident” which distracted Kiwis from the early outbreak of winter. Back in May, Wellington’s local team, the Hurricanes, lost against the Crusaders in Christchurch. When the players went to drown their sorrows at a pub, Hurricane Chris Masoe tripped over some other patron’s feet in the early morning hours, and instead of apologising, decided to punch him instead. To stop a fight from breaking out, Tana Umaga, so the story goes, grabbed a woman’s handbag that was sitting on the bar and hit his team-mate over the head with it. A cell phone that had been inside the bag got broken, the so harshly admonished rugby star started crying, chaos ensued. The incident became the talk of the nation, and caricaturists and of course our neighbours and rivals across the ditch had a field day with it.
And who says violence doesn’t pay? The young woman who owned the handbag remained alert enough during the commotion at the bar to grab her belongings back. A couple of days later, the handbag appeared on an auction on Trade Me, complete with broken cell phone. It fetched $22,750.