I’ve been back in the States for nearly two months now, so I thought it was about time to reflect on what I miss about New Zealand (perhaps not surprisingly, it is not Kiwi car mechanics).
I’m not sure what it means that many of the things on this “miss-list” are food. When I was living Way Down South, the things I missed the most about living in the States were stores – Target and Trader Joe’s. So I guess I’m just a hopeless consumer.
And no, my beloved Subaru Bill is not on this list, as he and I had a proper parting, with “closure” and everything. Plus I don’t want Kali, my ailing Ford Focus, to get jealous thinking that I’m pining for an old flame. Kali has been having some “issues” since my return and I worry that, at ten years old, any emotional pain added to the mix might just kill her.
So here it is, capped at 15, which seemed like a good number.
15. Kiwi slang. While the accent was sometimes a mystery to me (they do sort of chew on their vowels), I found Kiwi slang, somewhere between Aussie bushman and California surfer dude, to be most amusing. It’s not every day you hear a fiftysomething, otherwise dowdy woman say “choice!” or “bonus!” to express pleasure or approval, for example. Other favorites: “Sweet as, bro,” (“cool” or “no worries”) … “Good on ya!” (“well done”) … “How ya goin’?” (“How are you?”)
14. Interacting with weird wildlife. Whether it was the misplaced wallaby I ran into (nearly literally) in the Rotorua region while hiking, or the territorial sea lion that chased me down a beach, the surreal Hector’s dolphins who swam past me off the Caitlins coast or the kiwi stomping through Northlands forest, I was incredibly lucky getting up close and personal with New Zealand’s peculiar indigenous and imported fauna. Though most of all I miss the kea, those highly intelligent and incredibly badass alpine parrots of the South Island.
13. Fergburger. I only “allowed” myself to go there after a big multi-day trek, because, seriously, dude. The fresh-baked buns alone are the size of your head. The sublime Little Lamby, which I had once, was worth the ethical and digestive price I paid for eating meat, but my usual orders, The Codfather or Osama Bun Laden (their falafel burger… gotta love the punny people at Fergburger) were almost as scrumptious.
12. Starry Skies. I’m not talking about in the cities, of course, but out in the hinterland of Middle Earth where I was living, and in many of the places I hiked, the night skies were phenomenal. I was far enough south that I had no idea what I was looking at (my ability to name heavenly bodies is limited to the Orion Constellation, the Big and Little Dippers and Karl Urban), but the sheer number and clarity of stars overhead was something I never tired of seeing.
11. Auckland. I know it’s not fashionable to like Auckland, even if you live there, but it is one of a handful of world cities where I felt at home from the moment I arrived (the others being London, Manchester, Reykjavik, Oslo, and, oddly enough, Alamaty, which was still Alma-Ata when I visited). I love Auckland’s diversity, its vibrant yet laidback pace, many of its adorable neighborhoods, the shopping and the friendliness of the people (I know… non-Auckland Kiwis will tell you Aucklanders are the world’s biggest snobs and jerks, but I found them far more agreeable than certain narrow-minded, backwards, likely inbred racist hillbillies quartered in the hinterlands).
10. Hell Pizza. Their whole marketing scheme lured me in but I stayed for the Limbo (blue cheese, kalamata olives, mushrooms and caramelized onions), the Sloth (mushrooms, tomatoes, onions and tuna with garlic mayo and lemon pepper), the Purgatory (spinach, feta, kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes), the Mayhem (satay and sweet chilli sauce) and of course the Mordor, sans pepperoni, bacon and chicken (capsicum and BBQ sauce).
9. Purple kumara. I ate New Zealand’s version of the humble sweet potato at least once a week, usually in a curry or just baked. As much as I love sweet potatoes here in the States, now that I’ve tasted the full flavor of the purple kumara, meh.
8. Mountains with personality. When I lived on the Divide in Colorado, most of the mountains around me were just that… a wall of Big Things that usually had snow on them and messed with my mobile phone and National Public Radio reception. Yes, they were beautiful and impressive, but they were also anonymous. Except for Byers Peak, which stood on its own, just shy of 13,000 feet tall, commanding attention. Byers Peak was the first mountain I really noticed had its own distinct presence. I discovered New Zealand is full of such peaks. You can see them on the horizon the way you notice a particularly good-looking guy a few blocks away (well, I do, anyway). The closer you get, the more powerful their charisma becomes (not always true of cute guys, especially when you realize they’re chewing tobacco or wearing a Phish t-shirt). I’m talking about Taranaki, Nguaruhoe, Earnslaw, Aspiring and of course Aoraki (Mt. Cook).
7. Carrots and apples. I am not a big fan of carrots in general, but there was something about Kiwi carrots, which I ending up eating quite a bit because they lasted so long without refrigeration and were cheap. They remain crunchy and sweet and delicious even after several days in a backpack, which is saying something. There is also a much more intense carrot flavor that I find only rarely in American carrots, even the organic ones. And while I love American apples, or apples from anywhere, quite frankly, I particularly miss a few New Zealand varieties, such as Rose.
6. Cheap and delicious Sauvignon Blanc. Before I went to New Zealand, I dismissed Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir for that matter, because I’d hated every one I’d tried (all from California, by the way). On my flight to Auckland, I was served my first proper Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc (on the fabulous Air New Zealand, which has replaced Iceland Air as my favorite airline). I hate using this phrase, because it’s overdone and also sounds unavoidably pretentious, but in this case it’s apt: it was a revelation. Oh. So, this is what all the fuss is about. Once on the ground in New Zealand, I tried other Sauvignon Blancs, all of the, ahem, budget variety, and was rarely disappointed. Ditto the Kiwi Pinot Noir. Now that I’m back in the States, I’m deprived again… what do you mean I have to pay more than $3 for a bottle of excellent Sauvignon Blanc???
5. Driving on the left. I still, on occasion, try to get in on the passenger side of my car. Or make an ill-advised lane selection when turning at an intersection (only when there’s no one else around, fortunately). I think it’s because I just prefer driving on the left. Maybe it’s because I’m left-handed. Maybe it’s because we all know that deep down I’m a hopeless Anglophile. Whatever the reason, this whole Amur’kin drivin’ way just ain’t right.
4. Lake Wakatipu. Even though putting on my wetsuit was never a fun (or fast) process, once it and my neoprene booties were on, floating in the chilly, ancient, milky blue and scarily deep waters of Wakatipu was worth every grunt, grimace and squeeze it took to get there. Times ten.
3. Eggs. Much like carrots and apples, eggs just taste better in New Zealand. Granted, I always bought free-range eggs, but I also buy free-range in the States, and there is still a pronounced difference. The yolks were bright orange and the taste was so… eggy. In the best possible way. American eggs, even the fancy ones I buy at farmer’s markets, are bland.
2. Lord of the Rings location sites. Two reasons this makes the list (at number two, how fitting!) Most of you know how important the books, and even moreso the movies, were to me. So yes, it was a giddy thrill to wake up in the morning and in ten minutes be hiking through Ithilien or Isengard, or to bump over rough roads for miles just to stand on the spot where Eomer lost his temper (what else is new). But the other reason is the incredible job the location scouts did… they found truly magical places that take the breath away even if you know nothing of halflings and orcs and the troubles of Middle Earth. So good on ya, Jackson’s crew.
1. Emptiness. I’m not saying there is no emptiness in the States… driving back across the country from San Francisco to Wisconsin I passed through plenty of Big Empty, especially in northern Nevada and Wyoming. But, in the South Island especially, it is so easy to get out into the wilderness and feel like you’re the first person to tread there since… Gandalf. And to still make it back to town in time for a nice big Fergburger.
Those who know me well may be surprised that cheese did not make the list. While yes, I miss Kapiti Awa Blue and most of Whitestone‘s line as well as many others, well, dude… I’m in Wisconsin. America’s dairyland, currently undergoing a renaissance in artisanal cheese production. I am not hurting for cheese.