WYTHE COUNTY, Va. March 5, 2012 — My fascination with New Zealand started long before Peter Jackson brought New Zealand to the masses with his “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy.
Even before this weekly column was more than a passing thought, I recognized commonalities between New Zealand and Appalachia.
Isolated from everyone, depending on wit and creativity to survive, New Zealand reveals similarities that one can’t help but recognize. Three visits later my experiences there reinforced my assessment of this unique land filled with unique people.
What stands out most in my mind is the social equality. I was there during the days of Helen Clark, then Prime Minister (1999-2008), and unabashed liberalism. That assessment, however, may be a bit out-dated, however their basic nature surely remains unchanged by the global tilt to the right.
There’s a myriad of examples that personify this equality, but the one that sticks out most in my mind is a photo hanging on the wall of a bar in Auckland. There bold as day is a photo of Helen Clark and the premier drag queen of Auckland, hugging and familiar, without out a trace of contrived affectation.
My fascination amused my mates there whose main agenda that night was to find out from me how George Bush got re-elected. I took a lot of heat over “W,” which was doubly irritating because I never voted for him.
Kiwis, the name New Zealanders go by, give no more thought to their innate tolerance than they do the shoes they pick out to wear every day. Speaking of wardrobes: it’s illegal to require a woman to wear a dress to work there. They figure if a woman has to wear one so does a man. It gives a whole new meaning to casual Fridays.
Unlike our southern flatland neighbors, Appalachian Americans owned few slaves. The sometimes blatant but always present racism common in the South doesn’t carry through here in the hills of Appalachia; we all agree our priorities are more attuned to surviving than hating.
Much like New Zealand, all people are welcome to join in the struggle in our little utopia. Remember this though, they don’t let just anyone in for more than a visit.
Dining in New Zealand reminds me of a restaurant in Wytheville, Virginia called The Log House and its approach to preparing a good meal for the customer. On The Log House menu you will find the policy which basically states, if you want fast food this is the wrong place, a lot of thought and effort goes into every meal served and this takes time.
This wonderful piece of history has been in business long enough to call Thomas Jefferson a customer, so the place must be getting it right. I would recommend it to anyone whether they’re in a hurry or not.
“Kiwis” approach to food borders on reverence, but the laid back approach to serving it saves them from being too formal.
There’s no tipping in New Zealand so the waiting staff is less inclined to be ingratiating or resentful and more inclined to just chat.
Much like Appalachian Americans, Kiwis love to tell and hear a good story. It takes more concentration because of the accents and colloquialisms, but it’s certainly worth the effort. Being isolated literally at the end of the world has made them uniquely clever and capable as well, all combining to make them wonderful story tellers. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
Auckland is just another typical city in dire need of an infrastructure overhaul, but anywhere outside the main city I was greeted as a friend from the start. I wandered into Arapuni on the way to Rotarua, the geological marvel of the north island, and stopped at The Arapuni Workingman’s Bar for “directions” and ended up spending two days with these wonderful people.
The reception in Rotarua was no less welcoming and friendly. I soaked in the natural hot baths, had one of the best meals of my life, and did what any “Hillbilly” would do on a weekend. I went to the local flea market.
Virtually every booth I went to had a friendly and talkative attendant who again reminded me of home.
The most memorable sight was a lake at the foot of a volcanic mountain on the southern end of the north island. Active and looming, the evidence was plain to see in the form of a pumice stone beach surrounding it. The raw power of this image stays with me still.
For anyone planning a trip to New Zealand I strongly suggest you make it about meeting the people. Yes, the land is like no other on earth, but the people will ring familiar, especially if you happen to hail from Appalachia.
To quote Ian Mclellan or “Gandalf” if you prefer, “I’ve never seen any place like New Zealand.” That says it all.
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