The Good Life

This page written circa 7 January, 2007.

We have now lived in NZ for just over half a year, and here at Bywater Grange for nearly 5 months. We still get bouts of "what the f--k have we done?", especially when we miss people in Santa Rosa or compare the price of something, but we are, on average, getting happier about living here. Our times are certainly interesting---it is a consistent weakness in my character that I hurl myself headlong at that Chinese curse. In the mean time, we are often asked to characterise New Zealand. I am keen to capture the essence of New Zealand, the enduring kernel that defines how it differs from America, Europe and Australia... not so much a catalogue of the symptoms, but what gives rise to the differences. This is my current approximation.

For decades I have thought of today's England as shaped by the privations of WW2 and unrealised colonial expectation: Witness cuisine that is dull and stodgy, laws fashioned in feudal times and suited to the poobahs, a very poor wage to cost-of-living ratio, attitudes reflecting a feeling that the world owes each Briton a better deal as a birthright; in short an empire in descendancy---in spite of the real estate. In contrast, Wikipedia summarises De Tocqueville's `enduring assessment of America' as "a society where money-making was a dominant ethic, where the common man enjoyed a level of dignity which was unprecedented, where commoners never deferred to elites, where hard work and getting ahead dominated the minds of all, and where crass individualism and market capitalism had taken root to an extraordinary degree". In summary, an empire in ascendancy---shame about the crassness. Where does NZ fit on this scale?

NZ is very English in its 'look and feel', from food to plumbing. I believe this is a consequence not of its history but its size. New Zealand is small. New Zealand should be an ascendant nation, but its progress is painfully slow. New Zealand is picturesque and unspoilt, its people are educated and aware of the world, but they are few, and like a fellow who buys a farm and tries to run it with only a wife and small children, there is not enough manpower for things to get done quickly.

Apart from size, the other core concern is that New Zealand is a bit left wing, and rather undisciplined in matters of business. Not so left that there is a risk of implosion like the USSR, but the average citizen is more keen on hiking, fishing, bicycling, films, working on his property, and drinking coffee than making money. I see this as a mixture of two attitudes borrowed and melded, namely a dash of the British belief that the world owes one a living, and a helping of the Australian blind faith that the government will somehow support every citizen if they cannot support themselves. The average Kiwi citizen feels a bit too secure. NZ has few natural resources (rich, arable land but little oil, coal, ore, etc.) and few workers. There is a finite risk that the country will lose out to hungrier nations such as the US, or China.

What is the upshot of all this analysis? My desire to get set up quickly has probably exposed me to the worst aspects of New Zealand. Once settled I may be able to invest more energy in simple enjoyment.

Grown-ups always talk about the weather, so why shouldn't I? The weather here has had more impact on me than did that of Northern California when we moved there, and this is saying something. I utterly adored the Californian Summers when there was absolutely no rain from May to October, and I loved the huge visible change brought by the seasons. As I type it is bucketing rain, and it is delightful. The paddock needed rain, the weather remains warm, the sound on the skylights is dreamy, and I know it probably won't last. Last week I left for work on a dazzling sunny day, saw rain fall at morning tea time, took the scooter to town in still, dry, sunny conditions at lunch time, and noted from the steamy wet roads as I lowered the car's roof to go home that it must have rained again in the afternoon. Before Christmas I slathered myself in sunscreen and rode the scooter out of my office and within 15 minutes I was driven under cover by hail. The weather is a master of the quick change here. I like it, never a dull moment. Kay modifies an old Queensland Tourist Board slogan from "Queensland: Beautiful one day, perfect the next" to be "New Zealand: Perfect one minute, raining the next".

New Zealand reminds me of an old and famous British sitcom called "The Good Life". It was a story of a couple trying to grow all their own food, and to live a responsible, green existence, making do and managing with what they had. Their next-door neighbours were the opposite, well-paid and wasteful, with new cars and indulgent habits. The comedy portrayed our heroes as living a not-so-good life, but being able to hold their heads up high and claim a pristine moral existence. This is New Zealand! If civilisation were to suffer a serious meltdown, NZ would be the place to be.

There is an old joke that appears in numerous forms, but it goes roughly like this: ``In heaven, the mechanics are German, the policemen English, the chefs French, the wives Japanese, the lovers Italian, the salaries American, the houses Australian and the bankers Swiss. In hell, the mechanics are French, the chefs English, the lovers German, the policemen Italian, the wives American, the houses Japanese, the salaries Australian and the bankers Swiss''. If I had to insert New Zealand into this cycle I would think about teachers or lifestyle farmers for heaven and traders or tradesmen in hell.

Dan has said to me that "this place sounds great". Judy told Kay "you are living our dream". Kay is loving Bywater Grange. Even our Kiwi guests admire this spot. I am warming to it, but you may notice it is out of character for me... my jury is still out.

To be continued....

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