Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Weather Gods Must Be Crazy

Old Man Winter is the same bastard wherever you go. He has this knack for finding your comfort zone and then, with the fingertips of one hand lightly touching those on the other and a maniacal gleam in his eye, nudging the temperature and wind speed just beyond it. I normally consider myself tough when it comes to weather; anyone from Montana has to to avoid the mockery. But I feel that, because I grew up in Montana, I'm also tough enough to take the humiliation standing tall.

I, a country girl, am hiding from 45 degree weather.

It was bound to happen at some time. Like all Montanans who leave their native habitat, I knew that my body would go into shock from the warmth and humidity, unable to cope with hospitable conditions. I knew that eventually my blood would thin, I would gradually switch from wearing long sleeved T-shirts to wool sweaters, and that I would take to using an umbrella instead of just nestling into an ever-dampening jacket collar.

Perhaps it's because I had this image of New Zealand as a tropical paradise. I came here looking for lush, warm, sun drenched valleys safely hidden from the snowy mountains by a wall of silver ferns. Research told me that it can get quite cold in most of the country during the winter, but because I just left a Montana winter behind, my desires overshadowed common sense. I feel a lot like the Montanan in spring who pulls out the shorts just a few weeks too early; I'm stubbornly (and unsuccessfully) trying to force the weather to accommodate my pasty-fleshed desires. I think I'm going to put away the tank tops and go shopping for a few of those comfy looking New Zealand wool cardigans.

That being said, we've been getting a healthy amount sunshine. When those days roll around we hop on the bus and head out for a walk in a new-to-us part of town. We've mostly been exploring the suburbs, as we've been apartment hunting, but on occasion we venture into the more natural parts of the city.

Not too long ago we heard that a seal colony comes to shore every winter near Island Bay, a southern suburb of Wellington. Deciding that while it was breezy and grey, it wasn't all that cold. So off we went to find some seals. Island Bay is named after it's main island feature, Tapu Te Ranga, which served as a refuge for the Ngati Ira Maori tribe when they were under attack. It protects the bay from the harsh Cook Straight weather, and is rather nice to look at, too. The shoreline in this area is fairly rocky, and the tide pools collect surprisingly little plant life. Here's one of the more occupied pools we found.

While we didn't see any seals or blue penguins (who also come to shore here), we did get to watch a number of birds playing in the updrafts generated near the cliffs. With the weather getting colder by the minute, we headed back to our flat for the day. These sunny periods just don't last long enough for me.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Lucky us!

Just another quick note to let everyone know that we got our passports back from London complete with immigration stamps and everything! We would have let you know sooner but we were distracted by "Lucky John" a street performer with a heart of gold. (Yes, that's a six-inch nail in his nose.)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Mr. Rodgers, Eat Your Heart Out

This morning turned out to be exactly the opposite of what we planned.

We had set the alarm for 'early', 6 a.m., so we could get out for an early breakfast and get some work done at cafe with broadband access. So what do we do when our alarm diligently reminds us of our ambition? Like red-blooded Americans, we turned off the alarm and slept for another two hours. So much for self-guided ambition.

But, determination has a handy way of turning into simmering coals of guilt, and we decided not to write the day off. It was sunny, a first in at least three days, and looked like a great day to explore the city. On our way out we stopped at our newest coffee hangout here in Hataitai, Salvation Coffee, for a bite. We started chatting with the owner, and he was able to offer us some insight on the rental situation in this neighbourhood. A couple at the next table had some more information on the rental market, and before we knew it we had been chatting for nearly two hours.

These types of incidents aren't uncommon here. We're finding that people are ready to lend a hand if they feel it will be helpful, and typically introduce themselves to strangers more than is normal in America. As in the case of this morning, we've been able to get some good info on how things work here. The people we met today were able to give us some great insight on the rental market, tips as to where to find good cycles, and they offered us a different perspective on the war in Iraq. I was even able to make a professional contact by the end of the conversation (one of the chaps we talked to has a friend who teaches high school English and offered to pass my contact info along to her).

Not exactly how we planned to spend our morning, but it wasn't exactly bad way to spend the morning, either.

I guess the moral of the story would be this: don't be afraid to offer what you can to those who look like they could use it. While we've all grown up with the advice "don't talk to strangers" ringing in our ears, perhaps closing off those lines of communication is what keeps us from becoming anything other than strangers. I've come to the conclusion that this shrinking global community of ours needs bigger neighbourhoods.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Trying on a New Routine For Size. Mmmm...Roomy.

Truth in Life #1: Adventure is the spice of life.
Roni's Truth in Life #2: Living out of a suitcase stinks.

So how to reconcile the two? Funky dresser shopping! We'll need an apartment to keep said dresser in, though, and that means choosing a neighbourhood, which will in turn depend on where we find work.

Sigh...I suppose this logic dictates we finally let go of the vacation portion of our trip and get down to business. So we've been filling out applications, getting details squared away, and going to job interviews this week. While no one really wants to let go of that sweet goddess called holiday, work and a routine puts vacation time in perspective.

Having a routine has helped us immensely in our reluctant retreat back to normal life. We've taken inspiration from our moms and set a bed time and rising time for ourselves. We're also cooking meals in our flat quite a bit, although popping down the street for a little taste of Hell is always a temptation. (For those of you unfamiliar with NZ's culinary scene, Hell is a pizza chain that has all kinds of sinfully delicious pies. In this picture we're enjoying a taste of Wrath.) Funny, it isn't as hot there as I've been led to believe...must be the humidity down here.

During the day we get down to business, and we reserve the evenings for relaxation. We're even developing a social circle through the Aikido class we're taking three days a week. This has been the best lifestyle choice we've made here so far. This dojo practices the same style of Aikido that I trained in in the Missoula, with the expected stylistic differences of the sensei, of course. My body's felt right at home on the mat so far, and the people we train with are such a friendly and energetic lot that we feel very welcome. I'm quickly understanding the comforts of physical exercise (read: getting thrown around).

Here's a picture of Hataitai, the neighbourhood we're staying in. We're able to see Evans Bay, a bay in Wellington Harbor, and the waters of the Pacific from just up the street. It's a quiet little area with a great community feel to it. And it's only a 10 minute bus ride into the CBD, which has been very handy since we don't have a car yet.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Our first trip back to the US

Being in a foreign country has its difficult moments. For example, just the other day I said to Roni, "Hey, we should stop by the American embassy to see if it's 'bad' to be out of the country and for our passports to be in London without us." Why do our passports get to travel to sunny London without us, you ask? Well, it has to do with our residency visas. Apparently, if you come from the US, as skilled migrants to NZ, you get your residency visa processed in London. Perfectly comprehensible. Why should I be able to get a residency visa in the capital of one country when I can just as easily pay an expensive courier to expedite our passports to another?

So, we decided to take a trip back to US soil to find some answers about passport partedness. One 10 minute bus ride and a few blocks of walking later, we found ourselves separated by only a tall, grey, iron security fence and a concrete guard station from Old Glory (bless it) waving in the gentle breeze.

We talked to the security guard standing behind thick glass via an intercom, "Hi, um, we're American... citizens. We have a question about our passports." The security guard smiled and responded in a friendly kiwi accent, "Sorry, all passport services are administered by the consulate in Auckland." Hmm... It looked like we might not be taking a trip to American soil after all. "Okay, well, we really just have a question. We don't really need passports or anything, we just want to know if it's okay for us to send our passports to London for NZ visa processing..." He smiled again and explained that this US embassy was only for diplomatic relations and that there really weren't any citizen services at this location. "Hey, but if you want to pop inside for a second I can give you the contact information for the consulate in Auckland."

We went around the side door and he buzzed us in. Inside was a metal detector and a sign saying that any mobile phones, cameras, or other electronics were not allowed through. Otherwise, it was just a plain, grey, bare concrete building. He gave us a slip of paper with the U.S. Consulate General's telephone, fax, e-mail, web site (http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~amcongen No, really.), and street address. As he turned away I asked, "Are we, um, technically, you know, on U.S. soil?" He gave a big grin and said once again in his best kiwi accent, "Yes. You're safe in here." I laughed. I said that I hadn't felt particularly threatened so far in NZ. He laughed louder.

We left, walked past the protesters camping in front of the embassy, our mission accomplished... mostly.

It's now Monday morning, and we gave the consulate in Auckland a call. "Well, if you need to take an emergency trip back to the States, you won't be able to do so without your passports. Other than that, there isn't really a problem. Just be sure to make copies of your passports."

For those of you feeling cheated for having just read this dull account of our passport details, I have a special treat for you. Just as I was talking to the consulate, what I'm pretty sure was a pirate ship sailed past, just barely visible from our flat. I hastily took a picture and cropped it for your enjoyment. (Sorry that it's pixelated. It was really far away.) Roni would like to point out that, while pirates can be salty, they may, in fact, be less salty than Marmite. You be the judge.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Adventures in Grocery Shopping

We walked into a neighbourhood grocery store, on a quest for a taste of home. Since we're staying in a place with a kitchen, we decided to make ourselves at home in kiwi culture by making one of our favourite dishes from the states: chicken soup with tofu and leeks. We were sure that we'd be able to find all of the necessary ingredients, and we were really craving a taste of home.

The first steps into any grocery inevitably lead you through the produce department. In a foreign country this is roughly like falling through the rabbit hole: things are familiar, but rearranged and slightly off kilter compared to our sense of normal. The colours look a little different, prices are based on kilograms instead of pounds, and foods that would cozily rest side by side in the States now lie a respectable distance from each other. We picked up the obligatory kiwis, much larger than we're used to seeing, along with some fiejoas (these are related to the guava family, but are green, tomato-like in texture, and taste unlike anything I've encountered to date). Far from disgusting, we picked up enough to snack on for the next few days.

Limes, check. Leeks, check. Cilantro...hmmm, it should be with the rest of the herbs. No dice on a cursory glance. We head for the nearest employee.

"Excuse me, but do you sell cilantro?"

The gentleman gives us a confused look. "What? What is that again?"

"Cilantro. An herb, has small flat leaves like parsley, very fresh taste?"

"I've never heard of that. Let's see, maybe this is what you're looking for," as he leads us to the beet greens. Not quite.

As we try again to explain what cilantro looks and tastes like, two different shoppers make their way over to us. Evidently foreigners fumbling through grocery stores is a spectator sport here. They both start offering possible names for this mystery herb, showing us a variety of plants, smelling and peering into our faces to gauge our reactions. One woman sniffs her herbs, mulling over our newest rendition of a description. "Oh, you must mean coriander?" She offers me a sniff of her greenery.

Yes, the scent matches. It looks about right too. I'm tempted to pull off a leaf to chew, but somehow that seems too personal (as though putting my nose into another woman's groceries isn't).

The stock person breathes a sigh of relief. The mystery solved, he can now assuredly lead us to the herb section, deftly recommend the best buy, and go about his business. We grab a package of coriander and head for the next isle. Mystery solved.

Tofu, chicken, broth, a bottle of wine. Kiwi's are crazy about their wine, so we figured we'd start the monumental task of sampling the regional products. Ring it all up...uh oh, carded for the wine. (What do you mean you don't accept a Montana driver's licence as proof of age?) Evidently buying wine is a much more important task than renting a car, or driving legally for that matter. We need our passports to prove that we're old enough. We decide to forgo the wine for the moment and complete the purchase. Groceries in hand, we catch the next bus back to our neighbourhood.

Mum's words about a job well done ringing in my ears, I collect my passport later that evening and head back for that bottle of wine. Ultimately it wasn't very good, but we now know to bring our passports with us when we go to the grocery store. We also know to start thinking of coriander not as simply the spice, but as the plant that produces it. And we try to go to the stores often now: it's nice to cook for ourselves, save some cash, develop a routine and, most of all, taste home.