Feeling at home away from home
By Laura Williamson
Laura Williamson remembers her first visit to New Zealand, where she found that away from home, was home.
The newspaper clipping stayed on our fridge for years, a photo and a caption, dated December 18, 1979: Miss Cheryl Johnson welcomes Canadian visitors Paul Williamson and his daughter Laura. It was from a local paper, The Auckland Star maybe, and the picture shows a bearded man, a young woman with a radiant smile and a girl in a sunhat.
I don’t know why we were photographed, but I guess that in 1979 New Zealand was still small enough, and the world still big enough, for it to be newsworthy that a nine-year-old Canadian had arrived on an international flight. I didn’t find it strange at all. The flight had been momentous, a 24-hour journey through space and time during which we somehow lost an entire day. On the plane, someone gave me a certificate for crossing the International Date Line. I saw the edge of the Pacific. After touchdown, the crew walked up and down the aisle with aerosol cans, purging the air of our foreign microbes. I thought I must be important, because why else would they disinfect me? That a news reporter greeted us upon arrival was natural.
We were here to visit my dad’s girlfriend, Cheryl. She was a physiotherapist from Tawa who had been working in Vancouver. She laughed a lot and had a quality I now know to be common in women from this part of the world – a comforting practicality, like she would know exactly what to do if the car broke down in the middle of nowhere or if there was wood to be chopped. I adored her.
Right away I felt like we were visiting not only a different place, but a different time. Everything moved a little slower. Out late in the summer heat, we found it hard to get a meal after 7pm and you couldn’t buy anything on a Sunday. Men and women drank at opposite ends of the bar. The Springbok Tour was still more than a year away – Canada had come through the upheavals of the sixties, but New Zealand was yet to experience them.
It was my first trip overseas, and each thing we did was new, a series of firsts upon firsts. After leaving Auckland, we headed south and stopped at a dairy farm in Matamata, where I milked my first cow. I got sprayed with the frothy warm liquid that came out of the animal (surely we weren’t going to drink it!) and afterwards the cow started nibbling my hair, making me cry. Rex and Zach, my first Kiwi blokes, rescued me, and later I had my first go at off-colour humour, thrilled at the reaction I got when I told them that Canada once had a Prime Minister called Charles Tupper. I saw my first real-life sheep, my first one-lane bridge and for the first time met people who had never seen snow.
The strangest first was a product of the Think Big years: carless days. All motorists had a sticker on their windshields naming one day per week when they couldn’t use the car. I found out about this when we were heading to Gisborne for Christmas. We were low on petrol, and Cheryl realised (or admitted – she was prone to flouting authority) that we were driving on our carless day. The only way to get fuel would be to get an exemption sticker, so we stopped in a little town and found the home of the lone local constable. Opting for the ‘confused tourist’ line, my dad explained that we were on our way to a family Christmas, how we didn’t realise how far it was to Gisborne, how important family was during the holidays. I looked up at the officer with big baby-deer eyes and Cheryl kept her mouth shut. He issued the exemption, and as we turned to go, I said loudly to Cheryl, “it’s a good thing you didn’t say anything, otherwise he’d have known you’re not a tourist!” We made our getaway, and I had my first Christmas on the beach: barbecue, body surfing with Cheryl and her siblings, the grownups drinking Double Brown beer from big bottles, some guy in a Santa hat wheezing in the heat.
We were a curiosity, a solo dad and a young girl, accented and wide-eyed. Everywhere people embraced us, questioned us and fed us. From our Christchurch friends Susan and Laurie who packed us and their newborn baby (unstrapped in her bassinet) into their Mitsubishi Galant and took us to the West Coast glaciers, then through Wanaka to Cromwell to see the contrasting confluence of the Clutha and Kawarau rivers, to the farmer at Geraldine who took me out to a paddock and picked out a sheep for us. “That’s dinner,” he said as I gawked.
People shared their sadness, too. New Zealand was in mourning that December. I pieced together the story. The plane was a DC-10, just like the one we’d been on. I don’t know if I saw any photographs at the time, or if I’m recalling ones I’ve seen since, but I remember the image of the tail piece, the white koru intact on a blue background. It stood out against the ice as if to say, I’m here. I survived. I thought about how we’d flown above the clouds, how they looked so solid, like mountain peaks.
We went home at the end of January. Not long after, Cheryl died of cancer. She was 33. I know this cannot be right, but my persistent last memory of her is standing alone on the pier at Wellington, all in white, receding as the Interislander Ferry pulled away, bearing us south.
I brought my International Date Line certificate to school, told stories about how my dad almost fell into a boiling mud pit at Rotorua, how I saw a marae, how no one in New Zealand drank coffee. And I looked skywards, wondering when I would board my next southbound plane. Twenty years later I did.
New Zealand is different now. Matamata has a Lord of the Rings theme park; the bridge at the Clutha/Kawarau junction is at the bottom of Lake Dunstan; shopping is seven days a week. No one photographs Canadians arriving in Auckland. But how I feel about New Zealand is the same.
This is what I explain to my son, born in Dunedin, now almost seven, six Kiwi summers behind him already. We live in Wanaka now. They say the past is a foreign country, I tell him, but sometimes the future is too. And sometimes so is home.
This essay appeared in the Summer section of The Dominion Post, December 29 2011.