Archive for May, 2009

Acclimatization: Weathering Windy Wellington

Wellington, New Zealand

Because even teapots need help staying warm

Because even teapots need help staying warm

When I awoke on Friday morning, the house was rocking.  And yes, I had slept alone the night before.  As it was only 6am and my eyes refused to open more than halfway, my first instinct was to incorrectly blame myself for the swaying.  But when I steadied myself against the bathroom counter and the mirror continued to bounce merrily like a child on a pony ride, I quickly surmised that the shaking was structural.

Far beneath New Zealand, the Pacific and Indo-Australian Plates are engaged in an ongoing, geological Sumo wrestling match.  The result of all of this tectonic butting, crashing, and slipping is New Zealand’s diverse and shapely landscape.  Geothermal wonders, such as geysers, mud pools, and hot springs, rank among the North Island’s most popular tourist attractions.  The Southern Alps were born of plate subduction, and volcanoes are to blame for the Waimangu Valley, the Central Plateau, and Lake Taupo. Given that an earthquake registering 7.9 on the Richter scale leveled the town of Napier in 1931, I couldn’t help but wonder if I wasn’t experiencing my first taste of seismic activity.

But alas, it was merely another windy day in Wellington.  The weather in New Zealand’s capital is real shit.  Temperatures may be moderate (annual averages range between 6-20°C), but it’s the wind that’ll kill you.  The gap between the North and South Island is a natural wind corridor, and as air passes through the Cook Strait it becomes faster and stronger.  Consequently, Wellington averages 173 days per year with powerful gusts (winds faster than 60km/hr), and those winds often travel with a posse of purple rain clouds that pass overhead like a stampede of buffalos.  At least on those days I don’t have to worry about watering the plants.

Of course, I knew this before choosing Wellington.  But I was promised that the city compensated for its climate.  People assured me that with so many great things to do, places to go, and people to see, Wellington’s meteorological shortcomings would be reduced to small talk.  They were wrong.  No mixed drink, hip club, or Kiwi bloke has yet to convince me to shed my leg warmers and hooded sweatshirt, leave the space heater at home, and go out in a torrential downpour.

However, I can’t help but think that maybe my friends were onto something. Every time I walk home after work on a Friday night, I pass hordes of co-eds in short, strapless cocktail dresses, an entire can of Aqua Net sprayed in their hair, walking like Quasimodo in their four-inch heels.  One would assume that they are all dressed up because they have somewhere to go (like Shooters on Courtenay Place).  I guess my invitation was lost in the mail.

Recently, it has occurred to me that Wellington, like all cities, is an exclusive, members-only club. If you want access to the best bars, flashest stores, top neighborhoods, finest classes, and coolest cultural events, you have to be an insider, or at least be friends with one. But I am still the uninitiated new girl.

However, it seems as though I am slowly gaining entry.  The woman who co-owns the hostel where I used to stay recommended the Wellington Community Education Centre, where I am now taking an acrylic painting class on Thursday nights. (Either I’m the next Picasso or I should have signed up for a drawing class).  Last week, a flier delivered to the bookstore informed me of an event at the Te Papa museum featuring six international authors nominated for the prestigious Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. And just tonight, a friend told me about an outlet mall located a short train ride outside the city.  Now that Wellington and I are getting to know each other, and I’ve earned its trust and respect, it’s starting to open up to me.

I’ve taken to viewing the weather as Wellington’s version of hazing. Rather than tie two 40oz bottles of beers to your hands or knifing you in an alley, the city sends the wind to weather-beat you. If you hope to make it here, or anywhere really, you have to prove just how badly you want it.  (To give you an idea: you know when a little kid tries to fight a bigger kid and the big kid defends himself by simply placing his outstretched hand on the little kid’s head, leaving the poor, misguided attacker to flail his arms in desperation while running in place?  That’s what jogging in Wellington on a windy day feels like.  I joined a gym.)

Truthfully, if I do end up in Wellington long-term, I doubt I’ll ever cease to comment on the weather. I lived in Buenos Aires for over three years and never stopped moaning about the humidity, overcrowded subtes, and missing monedas.  In my experience, a city’s faults become part of the shared experience, and rising above them brings residents closer together and distinguishes them from other communities. Complaining is an integral part of the collective narrative.  It is also a source of pride, because staying with a city despite its flaws indicates that you have a profound connection to and a rewarding relationship with that place.

I don’t know if Wellington and I will go the distance.   But I’m not ready to give up on it yet.  I have a good feeling about this city and we’ve had some good times together.   And as time passes, I am more comfortable and at home here.  Besides, after careful calculation and scientific analysis, my fellow expats and I have concluded that eight months is the magic number – you simply can’t determine if a city is right for you any sooner.  Who knows, maybe I just need to buy some warmer clothes.


Good While It Lasted: Managing Transience

Wellington, New Zealand

I may be a fan of The Power of Now and a proponent of living in the moment, but if I’m being honest, I don’t and can’t always practice what I preach.  We live in a fearful, future-focused society that encourages us to help our children plan for retirement rather than talk to them about safe sex.  Delayed gratification is a virtue, while instant gratification is seen as hedonistic, frivolous, self-indulgent, and worse, irresponsible. But I believe in the short-term.  I believe that we should allow ourselves to do the things that make us happy now, even if they won’t do anything for us later.  Call me a utilitarian (actually, please don’t), but I believe in the intrinsic value of pleasure.   Yet lately, I’ve been plagued by the question what’s the point?

Considering that I’ve only been in Wellington permanently (and given the nature of the current discussion, I use that term reluctantly) for a few weeks, things are going well.  I live alone and rent-free in a beautiful house, and I have a fun part-time job, friends whose company I enjoy, and a good-looking English guy to give me something to think about.  In other words, there are a lot of things to be happy about.

But happy is not exactly how I’ve been feeling lately.  And trust me, there is nothing more frustrating, obnoxious, or unattractive than being able to count your blessings but not being able to appreciate them.  It’s a little like finding out that your boss, who has a wife and twin girls, is having an affair with the young man who works in the mailroom, and not being able to tell anyone about it.  At first, hormones were my only explanation for this unwarranted and irrational display of indifference.  Until I realized that rationality was actually to blame for my bad mood.

Yesterday, after dance class, I met a friend for coffee.  She had spent the weekend in the mountains, interviewing for seasonal work at a ski lodge.  A lot had happened since we had last spoke, just a week before.  We sat for hours talking psychology, dating, and the hardships of being an expat.  It was one of those great conversations that graduate the relationship to the next level of friendship.  However, when we said goodbye, I didn’t feel satisfied.  I felt empty.  During the evening, my friend had revealed that whether she gets the job or not, she will likely leave Wellington within the next month. And it hit me just how temporary my life is at the moment.

The pleasure we derive from doing certain things, like buying treasury bonds, lifting weights, or shaving our legs is based on the promise that our actions in the present will pay off in the future.  Sure, the more masochistic among us may find such activities amusing (I, for one, do genuinely like going to the gym), but for the most part, we suffer these tasks in silence because we understand that they are part of the creative process.  All of these actions, and the subsequent sore muscles and nicked knees, are necessary in order to reach our objectives.  And it is the knowledge that we are building a foundation or nearing our goal that makes these steps not just bearable, but rewarding.

So, it’s a little disheartening and disappointing knowing with certainty that I will soon have to say good-bye to many of the wonderful things in my life, like the house, my job at the bookstore, and my friend.  And it’s discouraging sensing that the energy I am currently expending will not be compensated.  I just can’t help but feel burdened by the expiration date.  Which brings us back to the age-old question: is it better to have loved and lost or to have never loved at all? When I think about my time in Argentina, this blog, or the recent coffee date with my friend and how comforting it was to share stories, worries, and plans with another person, I would definitely place my vote on the former.

Besides, as my friend pointed out, as much as I need a certain amount of stability and control, I also need to explore, experiment, and evolve.  If everything were sorted and settled, eventually I would get bored and crave change.  Rather than resist or resent the transient nature of my existence, perhaps I should try to accept and embrace it, as it gives me the opportunity to constantly refresh and do-over.  The problem is when something ends before you’re ready to give it up.

It’s exhausting to think about starting anew, again. Especially for a girl who may or may not be writing this at 1pm from her bed because she can’t be bothered to get dressed.  I had been hoping to put on cruise control and just coast for a while.  However, in the immortal words of Bryan Adams, “Ain’t no use in complaining when you got a job to do.”  And there’s also no use in staying at home on a Saturday night, even if it is raining, just because your partner in crime won’t be around the following weekend.  So, I guess I’m going to get up, brush my teeth, and make dinner plans with a friend who is leaving for Asia next week.  I might as well enjoy what I’ve got before it’s gone.

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