Paddy’s Day in Kiwiland
St. Patrickâ€™s Day, celebration of all things Irish, a day for wearing green, singing songs, perhaps even imbibing an alcoholic beverage or twoâ€¦ In short, a day when it is good to be Irish. Unless, that is, you are living in New Zealand at the time.
My working holiday year in the Land of the Long White Cloud (Aotearoa, as the Maori call it) involved many more highs than lows as I worked, lived and traveled around.
That first visit to Milford Sound, for example, was a special moment. The drive through a winter wonderland of snow-covered trees, mountains and roads left us totally unprepared for the sight of warm sunlight reflecting off deep waters and throwing the mighty fang of Mitre Peak into shadow. Almost as unprepared, in fact, as we had been for the whole concept of snowchains! How are we supposed to get them UNDER the wheel?
So I am not here to dispute New Zealandâ€™s claim to be the most beautiful country in the world. But as time wore on and the scenery wore off, some minor irritations began to itch, like an infected sore becoming more inflamed. For instance, the ongoing conflict in Iraq. Whatever their views on its legitimacy, most people would consider it to be a matter of some international importance. Opinion is divided on this issue. The rest of the world says itâ€™s important. Kiwis say it isnâ€™t, at least not important enough to get into the coveted headline spot on the national news ahead of such jaw-droppers as (and Iâ€™m not making this up) video footage of policemen chasing a rooster around a farmyard. The mind boggles at what might have happened had it been a kiwi instead of a rooster. Hold that Pulitzer!
Then again this is New Zealand. As far as most of its residents are concerned, there are only two countries in the world – Kiwiland and overseas (No one ever goes to England or visits Asia. They always go overseas). And they are in no doubt as to which is the more important place. Trying to engage a Kiwi in some light banter about world events or other cultures is like trying to get Dick Cheney to say sorry. They put the â€œOh kill!â€ in â€œparochial.â€
Those familiar from their globetrotting with that rugged, world-weary model of Kiwi that has apparently done it all – run up Everest in a pair of shorts, then bungied down using their nosehair as cord, (you know the kind I mean) – may be puzzled by the portrait I paint. But remember, they GOT OUT. Thereâ€™s a reason they are happy to live 20 to a room in London.
Those who stay home, and particularly those who come voluntarily to the South Island to escape the rigors of “the big city” (i.e. Auckland, population 1 million) or worse, â€œthe manâ€ (sixties counter-culture lives and wheezes in the South Island), are a different breed. I mean breed. For example, they routinely walk around barefoot through the streets of their cities, oblivious to the presence of glass and dirt, and even snow. I once observed a bookish looking guy out on a brisk winterâ€™s afternoon, sporting a coat, scarf and hat, and no shoes. Good job you have your hat on, I wanted to say. You might have caught your death of cold without it.
This weird relationship with the cold means their boxy little houses don’t have central heating because they reckon theyâ€™re too tough to need it. So they huddle in their living rooms wrapped in blankets instead. Yeah, that looks hard as nails.
Back to Saint Patrickâ€™s Day. On the day I was invited to attend a communal barbeque at the block of flats where I was living in Christchurch, I was hungover from carousing the night before. It was a real pity because being able to drink would have helped deaden the pain. The event was organised by Jimmy, the caretaker. In fairness, some of the people were really nice and genuine. Jimmy and his wife went to a lot of trouble and provided tons of food. But my god, within seconds, I was looking around for the men in white coats to come and tell them their day release was over! Either that or take me away before I had an embolism.
Jimmy himself is probably the most normal, which is a scary thought, given that heâ€™s a self-proclaimed Viking (â€œOiâ€™m a Voiking, mate!â€) complete with long hair and beard. He’s been locked up quite a few times for driving drunk, and has clearly smoked so much dope in his life that he is left with a short-term memory a goldfish would be ashamed of (â€œWhatâ€™s that again?â€ â€œA fork?â€ â€œThatâ€™s it!â€). His Maori wife, Mari, is also nice, but the tangled knot of her and Jimmyâ€™s relations are far from straightforward. Maria has three kids by another guy, two of whom live in the North Island, as does Jimmyâ€™s son from his previous marriage.
Then there is Ginny, just returned from Australia – abandoning her second husband and bringing with her a newborn baby girl to her homeland, where she already has three sons who live with her first husband. Are you following this? Try it while forcing down partially cooked chicken-meat sausages as your head spins.
When asked how she was finding it back in New Zealand, Ginny selflessly gave all credit for her wonderful life to God, stopping off to praise the Lord (no kidding) before showing off tattoos of the Virgin Mary and Ezekiel on her biceps. This sparked Kaz (a woman) to reveal the tattoo she got in rehab, in turn spurring Jimmy to reveal that he had also once found God (though he didnâ€™t specify what heâ€™d done with him) and, not to be outdone, that he was also a â€œrecovering alcoholic.â€ This was said as he downed his 8th JDâ€™nâ€™Coke of the evening. And so it went…
What makes New Zealanders even more surreal is that they have absolutely no concept of how weird they are. They believe they possess a unique level-headedness and common sense that is the envy of the rest of the world. They routinely refer to the Kiwi accent as neutral, in spite of the crystal-clear fact that they mangle every vowel they put their hands on (fish and chips is fush and chups, hair is heea, pen is pin, as, of course, is pin and so on).
And whatâ€™s worst are that they actually look down on the Irish as their intellectual inferiors. I take it then that the words â€œFastest-growing economy in Europeâ€ and â€œMore Nobel Literature Prize winners per capita than any other countryâ€ mean nothing. Meanwhile, what is the crowning achievement of Kiwi culture? The pavlova.
Oh, and lest we be allowed to forget, Peter Jackson.
If they do something totally stupid (which is not as rare as they think) they say â€œOh, you know Iâ€™m Irish,â€ or â€œI must have some Irish in me.â€ This happened at least three times at the barbeque. â€œHello! I’m Irish and Iâ€™m sitting at THE SAME TABLE AS YOU!â€
St. Patrickâ€™s Day – far from providing some kind of grace period – brought out all the Irish jokes, much to my continued amusement. â€œHev you heerd the one about a the Oirish goynacologist?â€ Iâ€™ll stop you there, thanks.
If any of you run into any New Zealanders on your travels, please, I beg you, start telling Kiwi jokes (anything involving sheep, essentially). Or just push them down some steps. Either one. Do it for me.