Our very own Jurassic Park

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We’ve been talking about the Catlins now for many years.  It’s become that mythical place down south, that others have visited. They have regaled us with their journeys, marvelled, and mentioned the rogue waves at Cathedral Caves. How the water rose suddenly, possibly waist height or perhaps they or I have exaggerated this. But still, the Catlins sounded wild, other, and we kept promising ourselves to go there.

Back in 2005, we got close. We flew to Invercargill and grouped at Tuatapere to set off on the Humpridge Track. A luxury walk, with a helicopter carrying our luggage aloft, dangling from the craft in a large net-like basket. A celebrity accompanied each group and our celebrity was so low level that none of us had heard of him before, and I still can’t recall his name.

But, this Easter after our usual mulled wine and home-made hot cross bun festivities on Good Friday…

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… we finally flew south to Dunedin enroute to the Catlins.

I caught up with an old school friend whom I hadn’t seen since Form II (the sixties and now we are both in our sixties). John indulged this re-connection made possible through Facebook initially.  My friend has become a talented artist and somewhat of a recluse.

Dunedin was cold and chilly but the railway station was a revelation. Such splendour and beauty and we’ve promised ourselves to return and take the Taieri Gorge train trip someday.

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We set off in our sweetly named Tivoli hire car. John who’s had a love affair with cars over many years, conceded that this compact, toy-like vehicle was actually a great machine with all the digital accoutrements that our cliched Subaru Outback lacks. We listened to podcasts as we headed to the Coast.

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At first, approaching Nugget Point, I was underwhelmed, comparing it to Kaikoura and Cape Foulwind, claiming they were more spectacular… but then we climbed up to the Lighthouse and looked out at the expanse of sea and coastline in all its glory.  I scanned the water prayerfully, hoping to see a whale, held my breath, wishing it into existence. No whales, but the water mesmerised. I have this weird issue that I suffer silently whenever I’m on high cliffs or looking into any kind of chasm or abyss… my brain tells me to jump and it’s not a death wish, it’s a weird and strange thing I’ve endured all my life. I know that I won’t jump but still this little battle ensues in my head and sometimes I have to just step back, close my eyes and gather my breath, alter my thought patterns.

John oblivious with his camera is always teetering at the edge, taking risks to capture the best photo, so I’ve learned to stop watching him.

We stayed at Owaka the first night and what hospitality. Our motel was mainstream budget with a room next to the laundry so we could hear the hum and throb of the other occupants washing. We had a goat tethered outside our front sliding glass door, eating the shrubs and sheep grazing out another window. We walked that night to the Lumberjack café. There was a warm fire to greet us, friendly staff and one of the nicest meals ever – John had steak and I had a lamb rump – maybe it was the proximity to the grown food, or just the expertise of the chef, but the food was mouth-wateringly good.

We walked home to the smell of coal fires and a clear sky, reminding me of my 50’s childhood. Under the canopy of the Milky Way we watched for falling stars and texted a friend in Niue to find to our surprise that it was the day before over there.

I took a quick snap of the teapot museum as we were leaving Owaka and we hit the trail for Cathedral Caves. Ever the dramatist I had concerns about us being trapped by the tide. Instead we had the most beautiful sunlit morning and easy access both in and out of the caves. A small posse of tourists got caught just after we left, as a rogue wave stranded them on rocks, but they loved that. The great beauty of these caves is their natural un-enhanced beauty, unlike the neon-lit caves we visited at Halong Bay a few years ago in Vietnam.

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Then it was onwards to Curio Bay. I have memories from a marching trip in the sixties, being on the train, heading to Invercargill and we looked out the window at what we were told was the ‘Petrified Forest’, so I had images of upright trees, etched into my brain, ghostly, devoid of foliage, but standing.  Everyone I tell this story to shakes their head in disbelief and tells me I got it wrong. And they are right. The Petrified Forest at Curio Bay is our very own Jurassic Park but very different from this memory etched image in my brain and indeed, the train did not run anywhere near this piece of Coast (or so they tell me). The forest was washed by the tide over 180 million years ago. It’s impossible to take in or truly imagine. John was once again lost in his photo lens stooping to capture the petrified markings on the trees.

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I think of Ancient Messini in Kalamata and how we marvelled at the uncoverings, but these petrified trees are unimaginably older. I still can’t believe that tourists have free access to wander at will, and too, there are the nesting yellow-eyed penguins (we didn’t see any wildlife, and we’ve been told that late April is too late in the season). So, we may need to return.

After Curio Bay, we at lunch at Niagara Falls Café, housed in an old school building in a charming bucolic setting. The café is run by a family whose daughter is a medal winning Para Olympian and her medals are there on show, casually amid the food cabinets and bric-a-brac – no high security required for such precious memorabilia.

We spend the night in an overly spacious (expensive, but all that was available), four bedroomed house right on the peaceful harbour at a place called Waikava Harbour View, and yet the settlement is called Wakawa, the discrepancy we couldn’t quite fathom.

The promised Wi-Fi didn’t eventuate and here are two brilliant comments from guests which caught my fancy!  You gotta love the Visitors’ book.

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In the morning, after a very comfortable stay, we packed up, put our suitcases in the car and then returned to sit and enjoy the view and sunshine, only to be disturbed by a local coming, we think, to clean the house… she stood at the door, tapping her watch saying, ‘What’s the story – you’re supposed to be gone by 10.’

Like naughty school children we scuttled to the car and fell about laughing in the car at having been scolded so old-school style.

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Common girls and empanadas

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Common girls and empanadas (or flash pies).

It’s my day off.  I slept late and followed the RoguePOTUS twitter account from my surface pro in bed. I need weaning from this addiction. Lies, lies and more lies from the realDonaldTrump. How very unreal. So, what nicer than to meet a friend for coffee late morning.  I could offload about vertigo to a sympathetic ear, sip my soy latte, and chill in the company of real friendship.

On the way home, I realise, after all that talking, I need food, so I slip into a local café and queue.  Behind me in the queue is a woman of a similar age to myself.  I hear her asking me in a loud voice.

‘Were you a ballet dancer?  I’m only asking because of the way you are standing with your toes pointing.’

I’m flattered of course.  I’d always wanted to be a ballet dancer. I turn towards her and say ‘No, I was a marching girl.’

And, predictably (to me anyway), she responds, ‘Oh, I always wanted to be a marching girl, but my mother wouldn’t let me.’   She goes on ‘My mother told me only common girls marched.’

I’ve heard this many times before. It’s a middle-class cliche.  It’s said with total recognition of the snobbery it implies and yet gives an authority to the very same thing.

‘Yes, that’s me, I was a common girl,’ I say loudly but laughing too at her and myself.  Then shamelessly, I go on…‘There’s a book called About turns written on this very topic. It’s about marching girls and book clubs… are you a reader?’

‘Yes, I read…. Can I get it from the local library?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘You can.  I wrote this novel.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Maggie Rainey-Smith’.

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There’s a chuckle from her friend, who says they will remember it, after all, Maggie Smith is hard to forget.

And then we view the food cabinet together like old friends.  The woman whose mother said only common girls were marchers invites me into their conversation about the food in the cabinet. We’re all looking now at a filled roll really but they want to know how one should say ‘Brie and Cranberry Pide’ – was it Peed or was it Pied?  We all agree, it looks very much like a Panini and wonder why it is called a Pide.  I never do get to hear how to say it because out from the kitchen, steaming and fresh from the oven, comes a plate of Empanadas… looking exactly like a pie or Cornish pastie.

 

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‘Yum,’ I say, loudly, possibly too loudly, possibly overly self consciously and mischievously. ‘I’ll have the pie. We common girls love pies.’

Unperturbed, my new friend asks if I am still marching and I laugh and explain that no, I’m not. And here I have to check myself for my own snobbery, as goodness me, of course I’m not!  Hoist on my own petard so to speak.

My new friend confides…She recently saw a group of older women who were still marching and goodness she tells me confident I will laugh… they were so fat… she jokes that she thought they ought to be marching faster. Followed by a hearty chuckle (both of us – for what else should I do with a new-found friend from the queue by the food cabinet).

I do hope my new friend manages to find the novel About turns in the local library… and that the Librarian realises Maggie Smith didn’t write About turns…. but I do fear, that all those clichés that I tried to gently nudge when writing the novel, might very well float right over my new-found friend’s head.

Naked in Tokyo

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It was our first trip to Japan this September. We had planned a trip back on 2011 but the tsunami hit and we felt it was wrong to be a tourist in a country so stricken. On that occasion we made a detour to Cuba, a rather lengthy detour, but unforgettable.

But, the time had come. We were visiting our son in Seoul and Japan is a near neighbour, so it was long overdue. We had ten days which is not long, but long enough to plan an exciting and eventful time. Hubby plotted our course, booked the bullet trains and we managed to cram in Tokyo, Nikko (home of the three wise monkeys), Hiroshima and Kyoto (a highlight).

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In Tokyo we tried to do everything that we’d read about. Hubby got up at 4 am to ‘do’ the famous fish market. He left me sleeping and grabbed a cab. Shortly after I had snibbed the lock on the hotel door and fallen into a deep sleep, he returned with a crash and a bang, trying to break down the door. Alas, only the first 100 people who turn up on time are admitted to the market. In spite of his early (as he thought) departure for this event, it wasn’t early enough – it was a Saturday and everyone was there waiting – no bribes taken – just the first 100 in the queue.

We conquered the metro. How easy it is with both the Japanese scripts plural (goodness, and I tell my ESOL students English is difficult) and the English equivalent, easily read and understood. Not only is the metro fast and efficient, it is startlingly clean. We found the Shibuya Crossing made famous by the movie ‘Lost in Translation’. It was fun to cross with all the crazy tourists now perpetuating the myth or reality of this crossing being the busiest on the planet. I have to say, a week or so later, I was in Hongdae and Insadong over Chuseok, in Korea and I’m certain both places were even more crowded that the Shibuya Crossing.

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We then, naturally, had to watch a rerun of ‘Lost in Translation’ and to our dismay, saw just how racist and jaded the movie appears, in retrospect. The Japanese characters have stereotypical bit-parts and Tokyo, the city itself doesn’t get to really flaunt its stuff enough.

I was dead keen to see the crazy fashion on Harajuku Street but alas, although we trawled the side streets and followed our map, the extreme street fashion I was hoping to photograph didn’t eventuate. Too we visited the National Museum and I was most eager to view the netsuke collection (having read the memoir of Edmund de Waal ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’).

All this is leading to telling you about my being naked in Tokyo. I’ve always wanted to go to a public bathhouse and naturally Japan seemed like the best place to do this. We read up about the various bath houses and found one on our on-line Lonely Planet guide. It was in a rather ugly shopping mall but we were told to overlook this, because it was a really good bathhouse, the perfect place to experience Onsen.

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And it was. Hubby went one way and I went the other. Into the public bathhouse. It was the first time I’ve been naked in public among so many strangers and yet it was simply the loveliest most normal and beautiful thing. What a pity I had to wait until I was in my sixties to experience this.

I might well have been the only non-local, but I can’t confirm this, as once you are there, and naked there is an extraordinary kind of privacy that pervades. I was surrounded by absolute beauty. I will confess to initial shyness and discomfort. This led to me entering the main bathhouse and heading straight towards a small shallow pool in the shape of a semi-circle above which was a TV screen. I headed there because it was empty of people and sat down. It was very shallow and it wasn’t long before I realised I was sitting in a foot bathing pool. Alone, self-conscious, I began to giggle. I looked over at the big pools where the grown-ups were and I lifted myself with dignity from the paddling pool crossed the wet stone floor and descended a ladder into a deep bath with water jets and serious bathers, some chatting, some just luxuriating and one person seriously washing with great care.

I saw what looked like perhaps a grandmother with her granddaughter, young women in their teens, older woman like myself, the whole cross spectrum of naked female beauty in all its dignified glory. But the thing that struck me most was the absolute lack of self-consciousness and complete naturalness in nudity. I compared it to my preconceived ideas of say a nudist camp with mixed genders, which to me seems a bit comedic. Instead, this felt like a celebration of womanhood. I hesitate to add this, but bush was in abundance, beautiful undressed womanhood. No tattoos or piercings are allowed. I wonder if that will change with time, but without being judgmental, I kind of liked the idea. Both my sons have tattoos, so they would be turned away.

Now I’m back home in New Zealand and I’ve thought about what it would be like to go to a local bathhouse here in my own community. I feel all the old barriers rising to tell me it would be awful, embarrassing, and uncomfortable. I wonder was it because I was anonymously naked in Japan that I felt so comfortable, and that no one knew me, or was there some ancient ritual that the bathhouse routines have rendered into the atmosphere, changing what would normally be a socially uncomfortable experience for me, into something very beautiful.

Siem Reap – where I left a part of my heart

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Recently, I spent three months as a volunteer ESOL teacher in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’ve left a part of my heart behind. Some people said, before I left, what a grubby little tourist town Siem Reap was and that I wouldn’t like it. How wrong could they be? I loved it. I love the red dusty roads that erupt whenever the rain falls; the smell of the Monsoon and dust, the sound of motos, the choreography of traffic, tuk-tuks, motos, cyclists, pedestrians and the occasional big black Lexus.

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I love the resilient spirit of the people of Siem Reap, their optimism, in the face of endless rejection – from the girls on massage lane to the tuk-tuk drivers – always hopeful, up for a chat, and the cries of ‘teacher-teacher’. Where else could I possibly find so much (possibly undeserved) affirmation and respect? I can’t imagine being embraced so affectionately at my local coffee bar back home, nor having my eyes wiped by an attentive waitress (who just happens also to be my student), when I choke on a chilli over dinner. Or to go out alone, and find each time I enter a café, that one of my students is waiting tables there and I’m suddenly the most important customer.

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I loved the one dollar out-door foot massage where I watched endless reruns of the story of Angkor Wat on a large open-air screen… the foot scrub for two dollars, the pedicure that ended up a brighter pink than I chose, and the nail polish that was very poor quality, so the finish was less than smooth, but the effort and focus gone into painting my toes far outweighed the less than perfect outcome.

The people of Siem Reap put their hearts on the line for the tourists. They offer up a piece of themselves for a small price. They work long hours for little return and the tuk-tuk drivers spend more time waiting for customers than they do actually driving anywhere. In the heat of the mid afternoon they sling their hammocks and rest. They are waiting for the balmy evening when the tourists will begin swarming down to Pub Street and maybe they can nab a newcomer and sell them a trip to the temples tomorrow… always tomorrow … the locals here believe in tomorrow in a way that is heart-warming and admirable.

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Madame, you want tuk-tuk, maybe not today, maybe tomorrow, maybe the temples, not today Madame, but tomorrow maybe, you call me, you have my card, tomorrow, tomorrow, I take you to the temples, Madame, Madame…

It’s one sentence, because they anticipate your rejection and already they’re moving with a smile to the next potential customer.

I loved the Old Market, the Night Market (there are several Night Markets) and the food – the food loved me too. I ate the juiciest mangoes I’ve ever tasted, sweet pineapple, longans, dragon fruit, and I never tired of the Khmer vegetable curries and the chilled 50 cent Angkor beers, not to mention the one dollar Margaritas on Soksan Road.

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I found French pastries at the Blue Pumpkin, a designer cupcake café and the New Leaf Book Café where they make the most delicious banana blossom salad while selling second-hand books. And too, minus the food, D’s bookshop (both second-hand and new).

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I admired the ‘flower girl’ as I christened her. The same girl every night, plying her flowers along Pub Street, her witty patter, her sassy street-smarts and who knows, she looked fifteen, but perhaps she was older. I admired too, the young man (whom I decided ran away from the circus), who ran his own one-man-band sort of circus, swallowing fire, and juggling outside the cafés in the balmy evenings, his shiny naked skinny torso and the young boy who made the chocolate banana pancakes with such flair, one hand wiping, the other hand swiping, cooking and cleaning at the same time.

And yes, I stood with all the hundreds of other tourists at dawn, waiting for the sun rise at Angkor Wat.

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But it wasn’t so much about the temples for me, as the local people. I enjoyed a cycling alone to the temples on the school bicycle. The first time I’ve ever cycled close to an elephant or a monkey for that matter. I tried to imagine a quieter time, when the temples were abandoned and overgrown but not with tourists, the eerie mix of nature and man-made stone grandeur, uninhabited.

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One of the highlights for me wasn’t the temples, but the evening I rode pillion on a student’s moto into the balmy late afternoon-straight-into-evening – along the canal to Road 60 for a Khmer-style picnic with one of my classes (barbecued chicken with yummy seasonings from the local roadside stalls) and being one of only a handful of barangs.

As for the circus. If you never do anything else in Siem Reap, go to the Phare Cambodian Circus which describes itself as uniquely Cambodian, daringly modern. Be startled and astonished by the amazing acrobatics, the sheer energy, talent and something else… delight at its best, in its best form – delight from the performers and delight from the audience. This is what I found in Cambodia – you think you’re giving when mostly you are receiving.

But most of all I loved waking at 5.00 am to chase the frogs from the kitchen after the Monsoon and once too, a cheeky rat ran out from behind the portable gas hob. I would make porridge and drink black tea in the make-shift outside dining room. I’d feed the school cat in the hopes she would keep the rat at bay. And then, after gathering my lesson plans, at around 5.50 am each morning, I would pull the shiny yellow curtains in my bedroom open and see my always-early student Phanna, on his moto heading towards the school gates. He never failed me. And soon after, the rest of the class. At 6.00 am the Elementary One class would begin, with the fans going and the doors wide open. I would watch the dawn break as I taught. That moment between dawn and morning, the shifts in colour. Magic. But more than that, the amazing energy and affection that my students rewarded me with. There was no ‘class management’ required, I had rapt attention from hard-working, motivated, interesting and hugely admirable young adults. What more could a teacher ask for?

What I most admired is the extraordinary spirit of my students and all their golden hopes for tomorrow. I felt humbled by their resilience, their hard work, their generosity and their humour. It is hard to imagine a country with such a recent tragic history, where there is such a spirit of optimism.

I’m not forgetting though, there is much more to Cambodia than Siem Reap and my students. I saw the poverty between Siem Reap and Phnom Phen when I took the Giant Ibis bus journey between the two cities the weekend of the water festival. The way people live with their rice crops drying at the side of the road, no fresh running water or electricity, relying on oxen and water buffalo instead of modern-day farming methods. I was reminded of Cuba. I know the Government is corrupt, the recent elections weren’t fair and that people live in abject poverty. I read Joel Brinkley’s ‘Cambodia’s Curse’ before I left for Siem Reap and while I was there. It is without doubt a very sobering account of Cambodia’s history. I know it’s time for Hun Sen to go and democracy to have a fair chance. But somewhere in my heart, I have great hope, if the young people I taught, are an example of what lies ahead.

The ghosts of Christmas past

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It was the little bit of bitumen stuck to my shoe that started this post. A sultry windless day this week and the temperature had risen to the mid twenties. In Wellington, this is a heat-wave. I lifted the irksome piece of road from my shoe and saw the tar. Lovely black tar, the warm ooze from the road that summer sometimes brings. I grew up in Nelson where in summer the tar oozed all season long. This piece of road stuck to my shoe reminded me of streets shimmering with watery mirages, the impulse to lie down, lay your cheek against the bitumen. Of course we could back then. There weren’t so many cars.

A week earlier I made my Christmas cake. I know, it’s late, and I should have made it weeks ago. It’s a ritual that I love. I use my mother’s recipe which is something now of a mini legend. I’ve lent it to friends over the years and the title is ‘Maggie’s Mum’s Christmas Cake’. She put a teaspoon of curry powder into her cake and so do I. This lends my cake something of the exotic, although of course you cannot taste the curry in it. Once a year, I honour my Mum when I make this cake. And I mix the cake in my late Uncle’s Gripstand Mixing Bowl which I suspect may well have once been my grandmothers.

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When I stand in my kitchen running my fingers through the dried fruit to make sure the flour and spices and fully incorporated, I have time to indulge the ghosts of Christmas past. It’s aided of course by the whiff of brandy in which the fruit has been soaking. I recall my mother decorating our Christmas tree with a concoction of egg whites that she flicked at the tree randomly using I think the back of a spoon to create our very own fake snow. I remember too vividly, the night my brother had woken and disturbed Santa. He’d seen Rudolph disappearing up the chimney, and the only evidence was the fallen fire-screen.

And then too, there is the boiling day when we were going to Grandma’s for Christmas lunch. My mother’s youngest bachelor brother was in town. My maiden aunt who lived with Grandma had loaned her Morris Minor to her brother. He’d gone to the pub and hadn’t come back. We didn’t have a car and we were relying on my aunt and her Morris Minor to transport us and all the food that my mother had prepared up to Grandma’s house. And so as memories are made, we traipsed instead on foot, with plates of trifle and pavlova in the hot sun. Mum’s trifles were legendary (sponges made without the aid of Fielders cornflour, whipped with a hand beater, baked in the coal range). Her pavlova was the crunchiest, deepest, softest in town. She smothered it with cream, and cherries, and pineapple and ginger and walnuts. It wasn’t all that far to walk really, perhaps a couple of miles but much of it was up-hill. I’m not sure how the whipped cream fared, or what trouble my uncle got into, but it’s a Christmas memory.

We always got a book for Christmas – maybe the latest School Friend or Andy Pandy annual for me, and one year Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy of “Little Women”came into my life.

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I recall buying a bicycle bell for my Dad from McKenzie’s Department Store one year for Christmas. We always shopped at Woolworths or McKenzies and I guess they are the equivalent of the two dollar shop nowadays. One of my favourite Christmas present as a child was a brand new swimsuit from a maiden aunt who came from Wellington. She was a waitress at the St George Hotel and worked there for 40 years during its hey-day. Up until then, I’d worn a hand-me down (from my mother or some other adult) pair of togs that filled with water and gave me a bosom, and at five years of age, that was too embarrassing. The swimsuit is a Christmas legend – it was covered in pink and green Christmas bon-bons, had a wee flared skirt and a pink bow at the back. I’ve never forgotten it.

My Christmas past is filled with maiden aunts and uncles who arrived and left, trips to the beach or the river in my aunt’s Morris Minor, car sickness, ice-creams, the long slide, midnight mass, Mum’s mince pies made with flakey pastry instead of the short pastry, minted peas, new potatoes, and the back door open with the afternoon sun shining on the new green lino. It’s pea-picking with my friends as a teenager, weeding strawberries, picking boysenberries, saving up for Christmas …it’s the Mardis Gras the beachcomber ball sunshine and sunburn, swimming holes and bike rides, fishing off Rocks Road, the endless hot summers of Nelson.

And too, it’s the whiff of brandy, the butter, sugar and egg yolks, the egg whites beaten to soft peaks and folded into the cake mixture, the dusting of baking powder at the bottom of the thickly paper-lined cake tin. It’s the wrapping of layers of newspaper around the cake tin and tied with string, so the cake won’t burn at the edges. It’s spreading the mixture and packing it firmly into the four corners with a small hollow in the middle to ensure when it cooks, the cake will rise to a perfectly flat shape for icing. It’s rolling out the almond icing and nibbling the left-over’s, and nowadays, it’s waiting for my granddaughter to arrive, to decorate the Xmas tree.

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We have our own new rituals that we are creating together.   She buys me a Christmas decoration every year and I buy her one.   We decorate the tree together and we bring out the papier-mâché reindeer that I bought for my boys (one of them her Papa), and she adds pretty coloured ribbons to the reindeer’s antlers each year, to update his imageThe ghosts of Christmas past, the deceased; my Mum, my Dad, my brother and all my maiden aunts and uncles are with us.

Cona coffee and a club sandwich, please

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We were talking last night about food fashions.    I recalled how back in the late seventies, the height of cool for us, in our wee Brooklyn apartment (Wellington, not New York), was cracked pepper pâté on Vogel toast – yum – Friday night, after a week at work, and then home to an easy dinner.   Dead cool, delicious and yes, high fibre toast and something as exotic as pâté.    Well, you might smile.   But you may not have grown up in the 50’s when the closest thing to high-fibre bread was a ‘brown loaf’ or Nu-soy bread and pâté well…

It reminded me of an essay I wrote back in the nineties about the changing face of New Zealand cuisine, and how the tables had turned (so to speak) from the early 70’s when we lived in Norway, to the 1990’s, when our Norwegian friends came to visit us in New Zealand.

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We came back from our OE in the mid seventies armed with our Moulineaux – a smart, European sounding and superior coffee-making machine.  It worked by filtering freshly ground coffee beans through a sort of blotting paper and we added mustard and salt to add flavour and flair.   We were sophisticated travellers who now knew how to make real coffee.  We’d learned in London about milky instant coffee and in Norway about brewing coffee on a stove, but our Moulineaux was an advance on all of these options. We even purchased a Spong coffee grinder (think of your mother’s meat mincer) so we could startle our friends with freshly ground coffee beans.

Growing up in small-town New Zealand, our first taste of coffee had been Gregg’s chicory essence followed by Gregg’s instant.  And then there was the subversive Dutchman who opened a dimly lit coffee bar in Richmond, replete with candles burning in Chianti bottles and coffee was over-brewed into the wee small hours (probably as late as ten in the evening) in a Cona Coffee pot with a mysterious glass stopper.

In the eighties as world travellers, we would cross the Tasman for our cappuccino and marvel at the hot froth, delighted by the dusting of cinnamon or chocolate.  Choosing between cinnamon or chocolate on your cappuccino, being one of the defining moments of trans Tasman travel, back then.

And gradually (or was it all of a sudden?)…  the coffee industry began to infiltrate (excuse the pun) New Zealand.   People abandoned their cups of tea for coffees and the options began to grow.    You could still buy Cona coffee, and you could enjoy filter coffee of various varieties, but now the cappuccino was gaining favour.   And another competitor entered the scene – the plunger!    People argued in favour of and against the plunger.   People argued about the size of the grounds required for plunger versus filter coffee.

Cafes came and went – as good as their last lukewarm latte.   We marvelled at the flat white and debated the difference.

A cappuccino was now passé.  The latte bowl was in.   People sat in cafes all over New Zealand worshiping a white bowl of not too frothy froth.  It took two hands to hold and it required concentration and a teaspoon if you wanted to make sure you got your money’s worth.   People, who normally had good manners, could be seen spooning coffee from enormous white bowls, their noses no longer powdered with cinnamon or chocolate, but possibly dipped in spume.

Then somehow, when we weren’t looking, chocolate crept into the equation.  Peopled nonchalantly ordered moccachino’s and worse than that…decaffeinated flat whites…   Even barristers cringed at this new fad.  What was the point of coffee without the caffeine?

And then, from out of the blue, we had word from our friends in Norway that finally, after thirty odd years, they were coming to visit us.  When we first left home in the seventies and lived in Norway, we were gob-smacked by the variety of food and the taste of coffee in Europe.   And so, we couldn’t wait to show them our beautiful mountains and we hoped, some authentic kiwi fodder.

We set out on our journey to the South Island on the fast ferry (normally crossing Cook Strait on a ferry guarantees you a look at authentically awful Kiwi food) – but fashion had overtaken us and the food was passable even quite good.   It reminded us of the food we had eaten on the hydrofoils in Norway thirty years ago – salad sandwiches and pastries.   But we still had high hopes of finding the real thing.

In Blenheim we visited the vineyards and our Norwegian friends were astonished at the variety and quality of our wines.   We recalled working in the mountains in Norway serving European wines, most of which we had never heard of before.  Many of the guests were wealthy oil and shipping magnates from Haugesund and Stavanger.  The most popular dinner wine was Egri Bikaver (which means bulls blood and has something to do with the Turks, the Ottomans, and Hungary) and for the wealthier (oil and shipping) guests the prestigious (we’d never heard of it back then) Châteauneuf de Pape…

Thirty years later, we watched, as our Norwegian friends sat, eyes closed, breathing in a Mudhouse Sauvignon as if it were the equal or more exotic than Egri Bikaver.

We ate in Nelson and almost drowned in haute cuisine.    But still we hopes.   We would seek out the club sandwich, the mini mince pie and the chocolate éclair.   We were determined to enlighten our Norwegian friends.

Instead, on the West Coast, we ate whitebait patties the size of dinner plates at a salmon farm and even our take-away pizza at Fox Glacier was edible.  The glacier rated, even with our Norwegian friends who were awed by the rapid movement forward of the glacier, the accessibility and the pretty, but dirty blue of the snow.

Then, driving through the Haast, hubby and I marvelled at the uncanny prehistoric canvas that enveloped us, while our Norwegian friends slept in the back of the car, sated, resting, and ready for the next gourmet experience.   Which, as it happened was not that far away, when we found Saffron in Arrowtown and although the mains (minus vegetables) were thirty-five dollars each and upwards, our Norwegian friends (converting the kroner to NZ dollar) didn’t even blink or notice that we did.  Leaving Otago, we popped into the Gibbston Valley vineyard…

The Gibbston Valley Pinot was the Eiffel Tower and the Prado rolled into one as far as we could tell from the glazed and glorious expressions on our guests’ faces.    They slept through the Lindis Pass and missed a moving feast of Graham Sydney landscapes.  I think, but cannot be absolutely certain, they did glimpse Mt Cook, but possibly they slept through this, digesting and resting.  We headed for Christchurch and out to Banks Peninsula.   At Little River, the old store had burned down and a new and modern tin shed had risen from the ashes and instead of just oversized pumpkins and Swandris, we found doormats made of river stones that even Aucklanders would drool over.

We set off for Akaroa, imagining their awe at Onawe, and instead they discovered Barry’s Cheese Factory.  Please, please, no more – our stomachs groaned, but our Norwegian friends were amazed.   We couldn’t convince them that when they first met us, our most exotic cheese experience was smoked cheddar quarters in foil wrap.   We had been impressed with the goat’s cheeses in Norway back then – the peanut butter colour of them – the textures and flavours, the sheer range of cheeses… not to mention the awful smelling gammel ost (literally “old cheese) housed in a glass cover to keep the pungent smell at bay.

And then Akaroa in all its French quaintness invited us in.   We stayed with an old sailing friend who had restored a French Colonial historic home to former glory and planted hundreds of roses.  Each bathroom basin adorned with a freshly picked rose, themed bedrooms and, dare I say it, European, exotic… our Norwegian friends were delighted and so were we, but we had hoped for a small colonial cottage with no frills, or at the very least, a Spartan L-shaped motel with candlewick bedspreads.

Dinner was yet another taste-bud extravaganza on the waterfront with a roaring fire and endless good wine and food.  It wasn’t that we really minded, it was just we wanted them to know how bad it had been – and we had hoped to find some remnant…some shreds of evidence of a former civilization when the pubs closed at six pm, and people ate our for the first time on their twenty-first birthday at the local hotel…where the menu might have said roast lamb, or roast something…when dessert might have been Pavlova and when the best wine might well have been a very sweet German Riesling (even a green Nun would have done).

Breakfast at our B & B (no over-fried bacon and rubbery eggs) was fresh salmon or poached eggs with hollandaise…and yet another rose.

And so, we hoped and prayed that our favourite South Island town Kaikoura would not let us down.   It was November and it snowed, and the sun shone and we rocketed from almost sub-zero temperatures to almost mid summer.    We booked the White Morph, determined to give our Norwegian friends a truly memorable and authentically New Zealand experience but instead of authentic Kaikoura old-style crayfish in newspaper from Nin’s roadside bin …we were in for another gourmet treat, courtesy of the White Morph’s new chef.      We were thwarted once again and our friends were now convinced that we had been keeping New Zealands’s fine cuisine and amazing wines a secret for thirty-odd years.  The roadside cray bins weren’t selling crays that day…it seemed their catch had all gone to the restaurants.

We tried to explain about the New Zealand roast, the Cona coffee, the lamingtons and the pies…but they didn’t believe us…  They left New Zealand promising to return…but not for the scenery…  they had vineyards in their sights, and they hadn’t tasted our oysters or scallops yet…

It was weird to think how sophisticated Norway had seemed back then and to see now, how sophisticated and “European” New Zealand had become. How exciting it had been to pour European wines and eat from the smörgåsbord for breakfast and lunch.  Pickled herrings, smoked and hung and dried meats, and at lunch-time after skiing in the morning, a Pilsner.   And, now New Zealand was afloat with boutique breweries and we couldn’t even extol the virtues of Pilsner, or their extra strong (with a health warning) Christmas beer Jule øl .

We laughed about the fried egg joke – which was the meal that any good hotelier in Norway would place on the bar while you drank your beer (the law said you had to eat when you drank)…and then put away again, uneaten, for the next guest.   Of course with our six o’clock swill still a recent memory, we hadn’t thought too much about this.   But, now our friends from Norway were astonished, and delighted that we could take wine with a picnic to the Botanical Gardens in Wellington and enjoy the summer evening concerts without getting arrested.

Norway doesn’t even make wine (not unless you count the rosé, that we used to drink made from old jams at Easter time by Bestemor (Grandma) at the hotel we worked at – it kicked a fair punch indeed, was a gorgeous colour and texture, but hardly Ata Rangi), and in thirty years, we’ve gone from Villa Maria Rejoa by the flagon, to prize-winning Pinot Noir from Otago; from Velutto Rosso in a cardboard box (not bad in mulled wine), to endless choices in a bottle… from corks to screw tops.

It was odd, but I still hoped we’d find a little café with over-brewed coffee, sausage rolls, and prize of all prizes, a carefully cut, lovingly filled, slightly soggy, cheese and pineapple club sandwich.