(First published in The Dominion Post, February 17.)
We played host to our son’s Californian in-laws for a few days last week. They’re well-travelled, but it was their first time in New Zealand.
We did the predictable things. We took them to the top of Mt Victoria and drove them around the Miramar Peninsula. Oriental Bay reminded them of fashionable Sausalito, on the northern side of San Francisco Bay.
We rode on the cable car and meandered down through the Botanic Gardens before catching a bus back to Lambton Quay.
We had dinner at the Backbencher Pub and explained what the politicians’ effigies on the walls were all about. The next night we enjoyed a drink in the evening sun on Queens Wharf before eating at a restaurant called Apache, which describes itself as a combination of Vietnamese and French but seemed more Pho Bo than boeuf bourguignon.
Our guests saw Wellington at its best. The sun was out – most of the time, anyway – and the city was buzzing.
Everywhere we went, cafes and bars were bulging. The Americans must have wondered when Wellingtonians get any work done.
Once we’d done Wellington, we headed across the Remutaka Pass to the Wairarapa. We drove past Wharekauhau Country Estate, incongruous in its wild, remote location overlooking Cook Strait, and wondered what its wealthy guests actually do when they get there.
We took them to the Lake Ferry pub for lunch and had fish and chips outside in the sunshine. Normally we would have carried on to the rugged little fishing settlement of Ngawi, where bulldozers haul trawlers up on to the steep, stony beach, and on to the lonely Cape Palliser lighthouse, but we sensed our visitors were at risk of scenery fatigue.
They marvelled at the number of sheep in the Wairarapa countryside. I had to tell them there were far fewer now than in the days of incentivised sheep breeding when the Muldoon government paid farmers a subsidy for every woolly head.
Up to this point, New Zealand had been on its best behaviour. I’d warned our guests about the unpredictability of our climate – something Californians have difficulty getting their heads around – but the mild weather seemed determined to make a liar of me.
That all changed on Sunday, when Wellington unleashed a ferocious northwesterly gale. We took our visitors to the Island Bay Festival, where they seemed totally unfazed as hats blew off and unsecured outdoor furniture skidded along the street.
Needless to say, the hardy Island Bay locals took it in their stride. Many were dressed as if for high summer.
Here our guests were introduced to another facet of New Zealand culture – the Two Degrees of Separation thing.
Unbeknown to us, the festival coincided with the official opening of the new Island Bay seawall – the last one having been destroyed by a storm – and the annual blessing of the local fishing fleet.
The master of ceremonies was Paul Elenio, a stalwart of Island Bay’s Italian community, and the blessing of both the wall and the fishing boats was conducted by Cardinal John Dew.
I had long-standing links with them both: Elenio from our years working together at the old Evening Post and Dew from convent school days in Waipukurau.
I explained to the Americans that ours is an intimate society. Anywhere you go in New Zealand, you’re likely to bump into someone you know. It must be the world’s most hazardous country in which to conduct an illicit affair.
We saw the Americans off on Monday morning. They seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed themselves, as well as learning a few things about the country that gave them a son-in-law.
They asked lots of questions: about what brought Europeans to New Zealand, about Maori and their relationship with Pakeha (no simple answers there), about the things we have in common with Australia (not as many as they might think, I said).
I felt satisfied that we had given them a compressed introduction to our country. They saw its sophisticated, cosmopolitan side but also got a glimpse of an older, rural New Zealand.
We have evolved into a society that feels comfortable and familiar to a visitor from a place like California. But vitally, we’ve also retained some distinctive qualities that mark us as different.
Yes, we have our problems. But as our American friends head back to a troubled and divided country led by an incoherent egomaniac, I know where I’d rather be.