Sunday morning arrived promising a hot day and, after spending the previous evening at the Lantern Festival with thousands of Chinese, Europeans, Maori and tourists, I was ready for a quieter day with a few less folks for company. Having called ahead the previous day, I had arranged to spend the day in the company of Steve and Rita, parents of a friend and colleague with whom I work in London.
After Steve collected me from the motel, we took a drive out through the east of the city to the lovely new home they had only just moved into a few days prior. There, whilst taking in the view from their dining room window, we chatted about work and employment prospects before moving onto the more important matters of rugby and beer. Looking out across the trees and rooftops of the neighbourhood and the blue waters of Okahu Bay, we could see the North Shore and the tip of the Sky Tower above the CBD. Having discussed the relative merits of the Northern and Southern hemisphere style of play and painfully agreed that England were far from showing anything like their world championship form, we commenced a tour of Auckland’s suburbs, circling the city in a slow clockwise fashion. When you’re new in town and needing to get up to speed quickly, it is hard to beat local knowledge and Steve, as a local resident and businessman, knew his stuff. From the respective merits and earthquake resistance of the varying building methods to local schools and shopping areas, all were covered in detail, giving me a solid grounding in what each area has to offer. However, the afternoon wasn’t all hard facts and data, with Steve pointing out some of the more swanky multi-million dollar homes around the city, throwing in nuggets of local history and folklore for good measure. During our drive, I notched up a notable ‘first’ when I was introduced to that pinnacle of Kiwi cuisine, the pie. Long held as a surefire hangover cure and staple of the hardworking Kiwi, the steak pie I chose proved to be as tasty and satisfying as any I’ve had – and perhaps, just maybe, a bit more besides. Towards the end of our circular tour, we took a run north, out to the fruit and vegetable farms beyond Greenhithe and North Harbour. Steve, with a fervour bordering on the evangelical, was keen for me to experience the taste of the freshly picked local produce and pulling into a roadside farm shops, he questioned farmers closely about the provenance of the produce on sale. At one stop, hearing what I first thought to be a South African twang in the farmer’s voice, I asked where he was from. “I’m a Kiwi, mate” he said, adding after a well timed pause “but I came here from Croatia 30 years ago.” He went on to explain that, by skipping school to go out to work instead, he never had his original accent schooled out of him and had managed to retain a fair degree of the old country in his voice. After discussing the intricacies of an eggplant recipe passed to him by a Turkish migrant worker and the marlin poaching exploits of a Croatian friend of mine, we departed with fresh eggplant, tomatoes and corn on the cob with which to make a Sunday supper.
Back at the house, I met Steve’s wife, Rita, who had just returned home from work. After a couple of cold beers to take the edge off our thirst and unable to convince Rita to join us, we ambled down the hill passed a packed bowls tournament and an equally well-attended touch rugby competition to Okahu Bay for my first swim in the Pacific. Warning Steve that exposing my pale European flesh had been known to cause children and women to scream in horror, we piled our shirts and towels on our shoes and waded out through the gloriously warm shallows until we were able to dive in and swim amongst the moored yachts and families kayaking back and forth. Most of the bays here cater well for those seeking respite and relaxation in the evenings and weekends, with tree-shaded grass, clean showers and toilets and picnic tables for those choosing to dine al fresco. Watching families having their evening meals and few ‘cold ones’ whilst watching local biathletes compete nearby, it is hard not to be seduced by it all and imagine that life here is always like this. That said, the Kiwis seem far more geared up for such things and although New Zealand has very low unemployment at this time and an increasingly energetic economy, one senses that here, the ‘work to live, don’t live to work’ ethos is well and truly engrained in the national psyche.
After a slow uphill tramp during which we both puffed and panted in an effort to convince ourselves that we had exercised extensively and deserved more beer, we rejoined Rita to settle on the deck in the warm afternoon sun. The talk ranged from work to families to why we’re considering emigration and back again, taking in a small modicum of politics and religion for good measure along the way. Showing off pictures of the family I have left back home made me feel a little sad that I wasn’t able to share this with them but also served as a reminder that this trip wasn’t about sightseeing and I should cherish the weekends because weekdays were all about finding employment opportunities to pursue. We ate a lovely roast chicken supper in the dining room with the view I had admired earlier. As we talked and laughed, the sun slowly set, gradually turning the scudding white clouds numberless shades of red and pink before disappearing to leave the lights across the bay twinkling and the tip of the Sky Tower peeking between the trees on the crest of the next ridge. After supper, we settled down in the living room to watch Billy Connolly’s World Tour Of New Zealand on television. I have to admit there is something slightly off-balance about watching a humourous travelogue about a country you are currently travelling in, having seen it previously whilst planning the very same trip. It was good to find that Connolly’s risque observations of the Kiwis and their islands seemed equally funny to the ‘natives’ as to us Poms and was a fine way to round off a great day and relaxing evening.
On the way back to my modest motel, we drove along Paritai Drive which seems to be the Auckland equivalent of Bel Air with some truly opulent houses, complete with security gates, illuminated steps and walkways though, it has to be said, mostly dark uninhabited windows gazing unblinkingly over the bay. Having taken in every conceivable type of house and home on our round-city tour, I settled down for the night wondering whether there was a nice, affordable, well-located home somewhere that had our name on it. If there was, it would mean relocating a family of six and all their worldly goods halfway round the world and, in order for that to happen, the hunt for a job and a visa needed to resume first thing in the morning.