1. New Zealand has 80 million sheep
I think I saw most of them while driving from city to city. Every few minutes I'd pass yet another hillside absolutely lousy with them. As for all those remarks about the stupidity of sheep, I now believe 'em; all the beasts seem to do is munch on grass. Hundreds upon hundreds cluster together, heads bent low, chewing. No wonder "sheep" has become a byword for the mindless un-self-awareness.
2. New Zealand has four million people
Most of them live in Auckland. The rest live in cities like Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. The rest of the rest are scattered across dozens of tiny hamlets, many of which road-trippers must drive through because the country largely lacks "freeways" as Americans know them. While scooping us a couple cones of ice cream — mine, naturally, being kiwifruit-flavored, although I was tempted by the apparently NZ-only flavor "hokey pokey" — one of these tiny-towners spoke of her desire to visit Los Angeles. I didn't tell her that Los Angeles, while my own favorite American city by a near-comical margin, almost always drives foreigners into a complicated vortex of hatred and confusion. And that's just the Londoners; I can only speculate on the reaction of someone born, raised and settled in Clinton, New Zealand.
3. New Zealand has cool cities
Though very much a bounty-of-nature sort of place, New Zealand has raised urban areas that impress even a tireless watcher of cities like me. Auckland, the largest one (444k metro, 1.4m region), feels so much like Vancouver that I had to constantly remind myself that I was 7000 miles from southwestern Canada. In both cities, East Asian and Anglo influences are everywhere. As a fan of Vancouver, I thus automatically became a fan of Auckland, even though some patches seem pretty anonymous and things beyond the core appear to shutter surprisingly early. New Zealanders outside Auckland seem to harbor a certain low-level antipathy toward the place, but I imagine that, drunk, they'd admit to enjoying themselves there. If a project required me to live in Auckland for a year, I could easily do it.
Wellington is New Zealand's capital, and, while not quite as large as its big northerly brother (389,000 metro, more like 170,000 at the center), feels livelier. Several times, residents of neither Auckland nor Wellington informed me that Wellington is "better" than Auckland. In the sense that Wellington offers more galleries, late night cafés and record shops, it is indeed better than Auckland. (It's often called the "cultural capital," in addition to being the capital capital.) It's also significantly dirtier than Auckland, but then, do clean streets get you anything more interesting than a high spot on those eye-glazing "livability" rankings? If a project required me to live in Wellington for a year, I'd jump at the chance.
Christchurch I didn't have time for, but it looks neat.
Dundedin, "the Edinburgh of the south," was so cold that I felt as if I was treading on one large, windy witch's teat. I'm told, however, that the town's chilliest October on record recently finished, so the "summer" temperature might still have sat at an abnormal low. I was thus forced into the Dunedin Public Art Gallery for extended periods, which, with its collection of Japanese woodblock prints and current field recording-heavy exhibit and despite large chunks of it being closed, is coolsville. The building also hosts a miniature branch of the New Zealand Film Archive, which offers all sorts of local features, documentaries, commercials and shorts free to watch in either MPEG or VHS formats. I gorged myself on its despairing social realist and experimental film collections, where I happened upon William Keddell's The Maintenance of Silence, one of the finest shorts I've ever watched. (And I've watched, as it were, a pantload of shorts.) Alas, I can't find a copy of it anywhere else and Keddell himself abandoned filmmaking for stereography in the 80s.
4. New Zealand is the cradle of bungie jumping
And as such, it offers plenty of opportunities to attach oneself to a cord and leap from high edges. My impression is that you can get on a bungie and jump almost anywhere in the country, from intensely picturesque cliffs to cranes over urban supermarkets. We paid not one but two visits to Queenstown, the south island's extreme sports mecca, and while there I couldn't help but consider the enticements to go bungie off something.
Up until very recently I considered bungie jumping the exclusive ken of the overstimulated moron, but I've come around to see its appeal. It's all to do with confronting fears, and thus defeating them. Having arrived at the conclusion that I'll need to live a tad nore Nietzscheanly in order to accomplish what I'd like to accomplish, I should deliberately immerse myself in that which I fear just as I should deliberately eat superhuman amounts of that which I fear. Manually overrriding countless blaring mental and physical impulses by plunging an insane distance on purpose would seem to fit the bill.
But I didn't end up jumping, because it's too expensive. $175 NZD for ten seconds of freefall? Not in this lifetime. Then again, that too might be part of the appeal: who would go to a discount bungie jumping venue? Or maybe that's more of a thrill. I know little of these matters.
5. New Zealand has implausibly majestic scenery
I still don't quite believe it. I remain convinced that Doubtful Sound, in which we kayaked, is actually CGI projected onto a dome wall. They were going to use it as background in a movie but found it too over the top.
6. New Zealand is a tea-drinker's paradise
I first learned this on the (culinarily impeccable) Air New Zealand flight from LAX to Auckland, on which flight attendants walked the aisles with a pitcher of black tea in one hand, a pitcher of milk in the other. I learned it again when I saw the Auckland airport's "free tea" stand (which was closed because it was so early in the morning, but still). I learned it again when every hotel room I entered came stocked with plenty of tea bags and single-use packets of milk — not, I should stress, "non-dairy whitener." (Damn you, large and powerful lactose-intolerant lobby.) I continued to learn it when every single place at which I ate or stopped offered a decently wide selection of teas, always served with milk, a saucer and extra hot water. I once suspected that tea-delivered caffeine causes the headaches I sometimes get, but after this trip's tea megadosing and only one headache the whole time, I've scrapped that hypothesis. I'm first and foremost a scientist, people.
7. New Zealand is a secret German colony
The country is overrun by Germans, and they're not just tourists. One of them even served me a pizza. Another tried to find, but could not ultimately find, the Tabasco sauce. I learned some time ago that Germany had overtaken both Japan and the States as the chief global exporter of irritating, ostentatious travelers, but New Zealand's Teutonic visitors weren't awful, just shockingly numerous. I encountered more Germans than Aussies, and the behemoth to the west is suppose to be New Zealand's numero uno tourist supplier by far.
Perhaps other countries host an equally strong German presence, or perhaps the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's destruction got them in a traverler's-freedom mood. They may have come to New Zealand for its country-wide German film festival, a celebration of the primarily East German cinematic arts. While in Wellington, we managed to catch a screening of and Q&A about Andreas Dresen's excellent Grill Point, a completely improvised realistic yet absurdist film set in grim Frankfurt-Oder. As Dresen discussed his improvisational method and enthusiastically experimental approach to filmmaking, I realized I was in the presence of a pretty sharp dude. Eager to catch up on his allegedly volumnious oeuvre, I was crestfallen to find none of his work available on my rental service of choice. Thanks, Netflix!
8. New Zealand assigns one police car to each island
Speaking of cars, you can really drive them in New Zealand. Blasting past the aforementioned rolling hills, sheep, etc. at 145 km/h is not just an option, but the apparent norm. This may sound delusional to the Americans reading: "What, you mean there aren't speed traps every twenty miles?" I do mean that. I only spotted a handful of cop cars in the entire trip across the country, and I'm pretty sure I just saw the same two cars a few times. They've got distinctive blue-orange checkerboard pattern, so you can't really miss 'em.
This hands-off approach to the law appears to extend to other realms of human affair as well. Unlike many young people who go abroad, I do not now hate America, nor have I ever hated it. In fact, of all the grievances so frequently filed against the States, I share only one: its pervasive culture of litigation. Because I was not constantly being told where not to go or what not do to by New Zealand's officials and official signage, I assume its people do not bust out with huge lawsuits at the slightest provocation of their tender feelings. I have a feeling that when a Kiwi slips on some ice or spills hot coffee on his groin, his first instinct is not to demand financial restitution. It may be his third or fourth instinct, but felt on cloud nine about the fact that it didn't appear to be the default option.
See, for the foreigners reading, I know you've been told we Americans are supposed to be rugged, individualist settlers, but we're actually weeping babies. New Zealanders routinely back over children in their driveways — I learned from hotel TV that they've got the highest rate of that in the world — and take it like men.
9. New Zealand has one (1) black person
I saw him in Dunedin.
10. New Zealanders have a jones for lighthearted communist agitprop
In Auckland, we smoked cigars and drank beers at an all-red bar simply called "Lenin". We smoked cigars again at a Wellington coffee shop called "Fidel's", which has a bunch of Castro heads etched into its windows. I visited a similarly-themed bar called "Havana", which I understand is owned and operated by the same people. Wellington also has a communist cafe called "Pravda", which I lacked the time to check out. (Bizarrely, cigars themselves are terribly difficult to find in the city.) That these places all provided solid goods and services — Lenin's bartender was a tad on the surly side, though he appeared to be in the midst of breaking up with his girlfriend, who was standing right there — suggests that the commie fetish is purely an aesthetic tic from a place never really threatened by the reality of dialectical materialism. It's kinda like how Bryan Ferry thinks the Nazis had great suits. Still, something about this struck me as being in vaguely poor taste — you might as well open up a curry joint called "The Killing Fields".
11. New Zealand is probably not objectively better than the United States
"In New Zealand, I didn't have to remove my shoes, ditch my water bottle or sometimes even go through any kind of scanner at all before boarding a flight." "In New Zealand, you can pump your gas before giving your cash to the cashier, who actually speaks English." "In New Zealand, you can use the airport's luggage carts without putting money into a machine." "In New Zealand, no bums hassle you for change or even appear anywhere in your field of vision."
All these are true statements that an American traveler — and, more to the point, an Angeleno — might well utter, sill awestruck, upon returning from New Zealand. These qualities lead young backpackers and/or exchange students to act as if they're just about to renounce American citizenship and begin again in the antipodes' loving embrace. Caught up in foreign-land rapture, they forget the downside to living in one of Earth's most geographically isolated countries.
12. They're a friendly lot in New Zealand
Like many Americans abroad, I found the people of my target country to be almost uniformly friendly. (The colder types tended to turn out to be Australian.) Unlike many Americans abroad, I don't think of this as a stark contrast to the people of my source country. Pondering Kiwi friendliness leads me not to condemn the alleged untrusting, antisocial behavior of my countrymen but to think that, hey, the people with whom I interact in the states are pretty friendly too. We both got some nice folk in this here developed world, we do.
Now, I live in Southern California, which somewhere along the line got branded with the symbol for "teeming hotbed of self-absorbed A-holes." I routinely find myself on the fringes of debates about whether the hot bed of Southern California indeed teems with the self-absorbed, the A-holeish. While I usually vote for the motion that it doesn't, that's not exactly my stance on the situation. I would submit more that what self-absorbed A-holeishness exists in Southern California — and it's not the choking morass that's often claimed — rises as a by-product of its climate of ambition.
Whether they excel or are totally incompetent, a greater percentage of Southern Californians actively seek to to make something of themselves than of any other population in North America, except maybe NYC's. I would trade much away to be around ambitious people; the occasional ambitious jerkwad constitutes a small price indeed. Too often, I find that "friendly" (or its cousins "down to earth," "salt of the earth" and the dreaded "earthy") translates to "waiting to die." Outside the States' nexuses of ambition, where People Have Values And Treat Each Other Right, too many strike me as less concerned with recording sprawling concept albums than with putting on show chains. True, one's own answer to Tusk can't get one through a blizzard, but it's like the old proverb goes: better to die in a snow bank having recorded your sprawling concept album than to live without a sprawling concept album to your name.
So I'm not sure I could make anywhere outside a major media capital my Forever Home. (Let's leave aside for the moment my deep discomfort with the mere idea of a Forever Home.) New Zealanders seem happy, but (a) "happiness" is not so much my goal and (b) I can't shake the feeling that the truly ambitious mostly get out of the country as soon as they can. Leaving aside your Neil Finns and your Cliff Curtises, the evidence would seem to suggest that, like San Francisco, New Zealand, for all its perks, requires its natives to emigrate in order to come up in the world.
(But could I see myself becoming my generation's Alistair Cooke, broadcasting Letter from New Zealand on a regular basis for decades and decades and decades? Maybe.)
13. New Zealand's girls dress relatively well
This is a specific area in which New Zealand is indeed objectively better than the United States. As friends know, one of my most well-worn hobby horses is the squick-inducing development that, at least in this country, chicks dress kinda like dudes, or at least a lot of them do. (Not for nothing is the expression "to get into her pants" widely used and understood here.) Where others might rue the clouds of smog or endless highways that blight the landscape, I experience similar ill effects from, say, studded belts and hoodies. It's a pleasure-of-the-environment thing, like clean air but, I think, more important. While many of the junky fashion trends I see on a daily basis exist in New Zealand, the ambient aesthetic level of Kiwi girls in the 18ish-25ish age bracket is way higher.
What I first found notable, and what even more normal people would at least find noticeable, is that these New Zealand girls wear black tights with almost everything, regardless of outfitual context. This sounds like a recipe for sartorial disaster, but it actually works quite well. As for the men, I didn't pay their clothes much attention BECAUSE I'M NOT FREAKIN' GAY JEEZ.
(Actually, I normally pay much more attention to what the fellas wear than what the lasses do, because I can use what I learn from it. But New Zealand men dress, for the most part, unremarkably. I get the impression that a distinct suit culture has yet to take hold.)
14. New Zealand is ridiculously fun
In conclusion: A+, would visit again, and I haven't yet mentioned the food, which even on airplanes was delectable. Never again will I laugh at tired 1980s stand-up routines about airline meals.