This week I learnt how small New Zealand is when I went to a party with New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key and several members of his cabinet. An occurrence which meant I’d achieved a better level of access in three weeks in New Zealand than in over 10 years as a campaigner in the UK. I’d been invited to the launch of a friend’s new public affairs consultancy – Hannifin de Joux. Kiri (our friend) was a political advisor to Helen Clark’s Labour government, whilst her business partner, Jo de Joux managed four election campaigns for the governing centre-right National Party. Despite the consultancy representing both sides of the political spectrum, the bias amongst dignitaries at its launch was definitely to the right.
When I told my mum what I’d been up to, she asked what was I doing hob-nobbing with a bunch of Tories. This was a fair question. Probably because I still feel like a tourist here. I wouldn’t have gone to a similar event in the UK, not in a social capacity anyway but these were someone else’s Tories, so it was OK. I don’t have any axes to grind with the New Zealand government (yet!). And what better way for a politics-phile like me to get acquainted with my new surroundings than hear what members of the government were saying over a glass of sauv blanc (!)
This slightly surreal experience (am: story-time at the library, pm: Blockhouse Bay playground followed by drinks with the Prime Minister) was so very New Zealand. This is a country where it’s joked about there being not six degrees of separation but one or two and where people seem to have more time on their hands than back home. (I can find no better example of this than the other day being on a bus where the driver waited so that a passenger could go across the road to a mini-mart to get change and wasn’t even grumpy about it.) Suddenly finding I’m connected to someone who, through her antenatal class forged a friendship, which turned into a business partnership with someone working for the other side, for whom five government ministers and the PM found time in their schedules to attend a drinks party 400 miles away from parliament and the seat of government – somehow I don’t think that would have happened in the UK. Not that I’d underestimate the collective kudos of Kiri and her partner in bringing the big-guns to their launch but there was still something quintessentially Kiwi about the event and the fact that I was there.
We had a bit of a drama this week when I thought that B had consumed some poisonous berries. Last week Olly came home from work with a warning to watch out for ‘date-like’ fruits falling from trees, which were reported by a couple of his colleagues to be extremely toxic. On a par with a death cap mushroom in terms of deadliness, Olly was lead (or lead himself) to believe. I was to take great care, as Belle is still at the stage of indiscriminately shoving things into her mouth. I’m forever removing wood-chip, pebbles, sand etc, so sticky, date-like fruits could obviously be a problem.
So the other day at a playground, where I’d put Belle down on the floor in order to push Elsie on the swings, I turned around expecting to have to deal with some munched-on wood chip (which is ubiquitous in New Zealand parks) only to find Belle squishing two yellow, sort of date-shaped fruits in her hand. I couldn’t be sure if any had gone in her mouth but there did seem to be a bit of something yellow on her chin. At first I thought, oh that’s OK, picturing the shriveled-up brown things which you eat with a strange plastic prong at Christmas – dates are brown. And then got a flash of the outside of a turkish grocers and realised that fresh dates are yellow.
Quickly I got Belle back in the buggy and coaxed Elsie down from the crow’s nest she’d climbed atop of. I sent a text to Olly, trying to sound all casual -Y’know those poisonous dates , what colour are they? – and started to head back up the hill home. A few minutes later a reply came in from Olly – dark, red – sometimes yellow. At this point, I started to feel a wee bit anxious. Soon followed a photo from Ol, as it just so happened that he was passing by one of the trees in question.
Oh christ, this was indeed what Belle had been sucking. I had to get home and drive to a hospital – quick. I got Elsie on the buggy board and somehow mustered the strength to push them both up the hill from the beach back to our flat. I imagined myself as the wolf-mother who’s able to rip the door off a burning car to rescue her child as I huffed and puffed up the steep incline. I was hot and I was sweaty but I didn’t care – my baby’s life was in danger!
A minute from home, another message came in from Olly, they are called Karaka seeds, it’s the inner part of the fruit that’s deadly, the rest isn’t so bad. At this I felt my panic lessen. The inner part of the fruit that Belle had been handling was a hard, large stone. There was no way she’d eaten that. She’d have choked to death before she was poisoned. But still, she may have eaten the fruit which I still believed to have toxic qualities.
Once home I thought I had enough time to give the girls some lunch whilst I googled this nasty. Belle seemed fine, munching on a cream cheese sandwich, oblivious to the fact I was still imagining her on permanent dialysis. But within seconds of accessing the world wide web I discovered that, in fact, the fruit of the karaka is, edible. A little bitter perhaps but nonetheless not in the least bit harmful.The kernel is poisonous, although not necessarily deadly and certainly not equivalent to one of the UK’s most poisonous fungi. Actually the karaka has more in common with an apricot, which also has edible flesh and a poisonous kernel and rather than being avoided, is sold in most green-grocers and often fed to small children.
So why had I been given such a grave warning about this fruit? It’s not likely that my daughters would have eaten its hard stone. I thought, from the way the information had been conveyed, that this must be ‘a thing’ in NZ, a phenomena. I imagined that a few infants and children die every year from eating these soft, squiggly, date-like fruits. But no, it was nothing of the kind.
My explanation for this scare-mongering is that it relates to Kiwis huge national pride. Most people who know a Kiwi will recognise a bit of the Kiwi psyche which has enormous self-belief in their little country. They believe that their mountains are the most beautiful, their coffee tastes the best and that the flavour of New Zealand kiwi-fruit is far superior to those grown in Italy. This isn’t boastfulness, it’s a very gentle form of patriotism. But whilst the coffee is great here and the mountains are stunning, this tendency to want to claim difference or superiority sometimes strays onto territory upon which New Zealanders don’t have such a sure-footing. (Best not to mention to a New Zealander that kwi fruit are not actually native to NZ.) And rather than leave certain topics alone, they still need to make a claim. So instead of settling for the fact that New Zealand is a ridiculously safe country and leaving the shit-that-can-kill-you to their Ozzie neighbours, Olly’s colleagues apparently felt the need to create a sense of danger from the presence of these sort-of but not-so poisonous fruits.
Anyway, in this case, the danger was none-existent. Belle was fine and continues to shove things in her mouth indiscriminately. Thank god for Wikipedia, which saved me a first trip to New Zealand casualty.
It’s been a long weekend here in Auckland as the city has been celebrating its 175th anniversary. That meant me and the family had ample time to sample both rural and city pursuits. On Saturday we were invited by one of Olly’s colleague’s to stay at her house at one of the west coast beaches. It was lush – lovely big lawn overlooking native bush; pizza oven in the garden and close enough to the beach to throw ourselves into the ocean the next morning. The house itself was amazing – built by Olly’s colleague and her ex and looked like something out of grand-designs – all glass windows and recycled materials.
It was a fun night, chatting to locals – most of them escapees from the city. Elsie especially had a wild time trampolining until well-well past her bedtime with a gaggle of other barefoot kids.
Then today we headed down to Auckland’s harbour area where loads was happening as part of the anniversary celebrations. Food-stalls, buskers and fairground rides amidst tourist bars and luxury yachts. It felt a bit touristy but fun nonetheless. E thought a unicycling juggler called Justin was silly and it felt good to be part of hustle and bustle in what can be quite a sleepy city.
So how did our contrasting excursions influence our ‘where to live’ debate? Well, I’m sat here itching my legs off because of mosquito bites endured in the bush. And despite getting a good vibe from the mum’s I met on the west coast, we can’t quite place ourselves living that remotely for now. So we’re going to look for a home in the city – exorbitant rent and all. It feels good to have made a decision and now we can get on with stuff. Top of my to-do list this week – FInd. A. House.
On the suggestion of Tim Kerton, I’m starting a blog. It feels a bit naff but I figure it might be the best way to share snippets of news and random thoughts. It won’t be beautifully written or well-desinged and I imagine it will peter out over time. But still, it might be the best way to share a bit of what’s going on with our move to the other side of the world.
I’ve called it Barefoot Elsie because daughter number 1 has immediately adapted to Kiwi life and has shunned shoes. And clothes for a lot of the time too. Things are definitely more relaxed over here.
Probably one of the reasons we haven’t shared much news so far is that life at the moment seems very absorbed with getting ourselves set up. Boring stuff like car-buying and finding somewhere to live is taking up a lot of our time. Property is crazy expensive and we’re continuing to debate whether to live in the city or head out to the sticks. We change our mind on a daily basis.
An initial drive out to the country made us both feel quite panicky. Me especially. I’m not sure I can survive without key mums and kids’ facilities like playgrounds and libraries. And living in the city here would still be a far cry from our life in Tottenham. Inner city suburbs are are filled with quiet tree-lined streets with quaint colonial villas. No crack-houses, dog poo or men pissing in alleys.
But still, a part of me thinks I’m missing a trick in just attempting to transfer our London life to slightly more pleasant surroundings. Are we lacking imagination if we rent a house by a park, close to some vintage shops and kookie cafes? Should we be seeking out adventure in the hills or beaches north of Auckland City? We could live the good life, keeping chickens and making jam – but what if I became psychotic and murdered the family!? The debate continues…