Sunday, 15 August 2010

"My wife's people call it Polyfilla"

The title to this is a quote from Notes from a Big Country (aka I'm a Strange Here Myself, Bill Bryson's collection of articles about his return to the USA after 20 years living in Britain. He's relating how he lacks the vocabulary for a whole range of adult concepts, in this case DIY, having left the US at the age of 19. For my US readers, he wanted spackle.

I've just returned from an unexpected trip back to New Zealand, my Grandmother died three weeks ago, after a very brief acute illness and a longer battle with Alzheimers. She was almost 80, lived in her own home (with significant support) until late March and was still walking the dog at the start of the year.

My Grandma:


Like Bryson, I've spent my entire adult life outside NZ and what reminded me of his quote was trying to explain that I needed "bin tags" for the . The funny thing is, this is not a term I use in the UK - we have free rubbish collection here, but one I have picked up from Irish friends. Last time I lived in NZ, you had to buy stickers to put on your rubbish bags, so they would be collected - I couldn't remember what they were though. Now, you pay for a wheelie bin collection or you pay for pre-paid bags - it costs NZ$1.50 (approx UK£0.75, US$1) for a 60 litre bin bag, which it turns out was what I wanted. 35 years old and I can't figure out how to deal with the rubbish. I used 13 bags. And filled about 6 non-prepaid bags of clothes which will go to a charity shop.

It's strange being a stranger in your own country - especially since I am still a foreigner here, by and large. My accent gives me away and no matter how accustomed I am to negotiating life, every now and then something happens which reminds me I am, in many ways, not of this place. Most recently, realising that, on a hot sunny day at a park, we were the only ones wearing hats (and probably also the only ones with sunscreen on!). That's the kiwi coming out.

In NZ, it's even stranger. As I drive around Auckland (or even further field, I mostly do it as a local. I do not need a map. I know the streets, mostly (although every now and then I was surprised by a change - especially to the motorway network). I can slip back into understanding television peppered with Maori words - even in the first week of our stay, when it was Maori language week and I had to explain some of the kids TV shows to L. But to NZers, I am a tourist. My accent no longer sounds local to them and I struggle with the money - the coinage has been reissued recently and the coins, although they look the same, are much smaller. I go to the top of the Sky Tower - a building which still seems a strange addition to the skyline to me and can rattle off the names of the various volcanic cones and islands to L, but there are whole suburbs, just a few kilometres north of my childhood home, which are nameless to me. And in Glenfield Mall - one of my teenage haunts, at least before I had access to a car, I get completely disorientated. It's now 4 times it's old size and I can never get a point of reference relating to the old layout. Having the kids play area next to Dunkin' Donuts is a good plan though :D

A pic, looking north towards where I used to live, from the Sky Tower: