We went to New Zealand last month for a two-week tour. It is a bit difficult to describe — the differences to the Pacific Northwest are in many cases ones of degrees or angles. There are the obvious differences, of course. It is now tomorrow there, less four hours, and it is the start of Fall in the Southern Hemisphere, mists and fruit, fresh new apples and pears, precisely opposed to our emergence from Winter. Their Winter is our Summer as their Easter is their Autumn. The topsy turvy is disorienting but finally, helpful: If you are crossing many streets on foot (they drive on the British side of the road, the left), it is no small matter to tell your brain to first look right.
A subtler difference: New Zealand is the old world. Not as in cobbled French alleyways but as in the 1950s and '60s and even '70s. They do not have malls, partly by choice and partly by time and population. As a result, their cities are the center and they have book shops and stationery shops and little drug stores and butchers and dress makers and citizens. You must wait in a queue to buy books. I wanted the new Stieg Larsson volume three, already in a handsome paperback though it was not yet out in America.
But it is coffee that makes clear the NZ variations, for the Kiwis, and they are proud to be called, love their coffee. They love it straight and strong, they understand its sociality and worth, they count on it. Many of the coffee shops roast their own beans, even the tiny stand-up bars, and the arguments are more about where the beans are from than how the drinks are made. Starbucks has only a few New Zealand shops, since it is a rough and tough league to break into.
And intensely loyal. Theirs is a different sense of the coffee shop, more bustle and brawn than Seattle's housewife or grunge or worker style, more like a morning beer bar, without the liquor. And without the frappuccino. They have flat black, short whites, long whites, some food, and no Wifi and considerably fewer drinks taken to go. It is business and it is social and it is bustling, people up and talking to another table and how ya doin', mate?
At L'Affare, the coffee shop in Wellington, it is like a pub with coffee only and not an inkling that perfect foam is prissy. Waiters swerved all through the joint, we set up a time to go fishing with two neighbors who stopped in, the roaster is right up there and the shipping department as well. L'Affare found a home espresso machine they liked in Italy and bought the company; now the machine, the Rocket, is made and distributed in NZ. It is a little tank, the Rocket, with a pull-up lever for the start and two spouts, one milk and one for boiled water.
Even out in the country, the coffee was wonderful and straightforward. The bakery in Hokitika, on the West Coast, looked like Iowa in the '50s and the staff looked like the same Iowans, but the coffee machine was Italy 2010. In the National Park, at the Resource Center, near the glacier, the coffee was perfect, swirled in a ceramic mug. It is, as with being friendly and helpful, what they do. In Italy, one of the best coffee shops is at the railway station, in any town. New Zealand is like that.
There are two islands to New Zealand, the North and South, so of course two West and two East Coasts. There is ferry service between the two main islands, a two-hour trip. We started in the North, at Auckland, the business center, and went downtown to catch a smaller ferry out to the vineyards, 30 minutes away. The wine business, as in the Northwest, gathered its forces 25 years ago. And, now, it is perhaps the hippest and most elegant commerce in all of New Zealand, having for its resource 10 full wine-growing regions spread over the length of the two islands, shallow clays up north to silty loams in the southern Otago Valley.
We went off for Sunday lunch to Mudbrick Vineyards, up the hill from the passenger ferry by van, a very fashionable island and fashionable vineyard. The end of summer, the gardens were fat with tomatoes and basil and rows of herbs and fruit. The restaurant is open every day, terraced and open-doored, central casting to a thousand weddings, looking back toward Auckland. There are six others vineyards on this island, tucked amid lovely, modern weekend homes, vans motoring every which way, gardens as border and hedge. Drinking of two Septembers, the very sweet spot of any Autumn, is in ways illicit.
Water and wine is a wonderful combination of good fortune to these New Zealanders. They have both in true profusion, bright and clear, and they know well to take care of them. They do not even sell purified waters or Coca Cola's phony Dasani or such. They distinguish the varied kinds by location, and taste. Even the water on the New Zealand Air flights is from a source, the famous springs at Waikoropupu, near Takaka. Pupu Springs, they call it. We hiked out after a lunch to take a look. Our guide said when they were kids, it was the perfect swimming hole. It was always sacred space, this spring in the center of the woods.
If you go to their best food store, Moore Wilson in Wellington, right at the store's entrance is an artesian water pump, both to drink and fill bottles from, along with a long description that this is the best and oldest water in the land and a gift to you. Inside the shop, there are waters from all over New Zealand, each in particular. At the Art Museum cafe, they had bottled a water they especially liked, called Antipodes.
Particular, the New Zealanders are; they are extraordinarily particular. Not peculiar, not that at all, but particular, and relentlessly so. They love their dogs and their cricket and their rugby and their driveways and their beech trees and their birds and their fences and their pinots (noir and gris), and their museums and their libraries — not only their public libraries but each person's library. They take you down into their gullies, behind the field and garden, where they are clearing spaces to sit by the stream. They are pulling out the pine trees that some fool imported 100 years ago, a foreign tree that does not share well and shows up all over the landscape, like an English cousin ruining the group photo. A trim lot, the Kiwis, and rather withering to the unmoved or the slacker.
There is a stern, metaphysical spine that runs the length of this land, its marrow drawn from the Maori tribe that crashed ashore as first settlers in New Zealand 800 years ago, landing on the southwest coast after a remarkable journey from Polynesia. The Maori, whose name means normal or natural, were the only settlers until the 1700s. Somehow they managed to stay at almost constant war with each other, creating vast tales of tribal collisions and decimation. Fierce, proud, stunning in appearance and spirit, the sense of the Maori affects everything in New Zealand. It is a willfulness and intent that marks every level of New Zealand, every level of the population.
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