Sunday, 30 December 2012

Culture clash

Summer clothes? What was I thinking?!
The last time I was in New Zealand, I realised how much I had gotten un-used to Kiwiland. We had arrived in mid-December, the start of a Kiwi summer. I recall feeling very cold in the first few days as I had forgotten what a Kiwi summer was like, and had bought Greek summer clothes with me (what on earth was I thinking!). Thankfully, it was sunny the moment we arrived in Wellington, and I recall that the first thing I wanted to do as soon as I stepped foot in the city of my birth was to take a walk in the town centre.

A deja vu moment: Cuba Mall bucket fountain
I left my aunt's house and walked along the neighbourhood where I had grown up. Not much had changed in my absence, and most of it was familiar to me. After a trot starting from Courtenay Place through Manners Mall, and then down Willis St moving onto Lambton Quay (and back again), I felt a bit jaded, like an experience of deja vu,as if I were awake in my dreams. For some reason, the walk was over too quickly. But I distinctly remembered it as a longer route when I was living here. What's more, it did not give me that feeling of 'Wow, man, I'm home again!!!!!!!!' I felt more like a guest than a local.

As we were in New Zealand during the New Year period (2003, moving on to 2004), it was a chance for my husband (first time in NZ) to experience this period away from Greece. His first reaction was 'Don't they sing the carols here?' As far as I could remember, they don't, but we did, the Greek comunit members, among themselves. And in the evening, we'd all meet up again at the New Years Ball. We never mingled with non-Greeks. My husband thought he was going to be introduced to some Kiwi New Year customs. I found myself in a difficult position; I explained to him that I never did any really Kiwi things on New Year's Eve when I used to live in New Zealand. Every year, we would attend the annual Greek New Year's Eve ball, and celebrate the coming of the New Year among other Greeks.

During my visit to NZ, I noticed how Lord of the Rings dominated NZ culture - it was everywhere: at the airport...
At the time, we had been married for less than five years, and we were still at the discovery stage of our relationship, where a trivial incident, something as innocent as a stroll along the road, could be a precursor to uncover an important personality trait about each other, not such a trite detail given that we came from vastly different continents. Despite our overwhelmingly similar origins (we were both descendants of Cretans), there were still many things that we did not know about each other.

... at the cinema where LOTR premiered...
But what happens on the street, in the town, outdoors, when the clocks strike midnight? he wondered. In all honestly, I didn't know. What I did know was that I did not fancy turning up to a Greek New Year's Eve ball in New Zealand, because I felt unprepared for it. It had been a long time since I had worn formal evening clothes, pairing shoes with bags, and sitting by a table full of buffet-style food listening to bouzouki music all evening, while watching people dancing the Kalamatiano. Another deja vu moment. Had I really come such a long way just to do what I had been doing all those years ago? I wasn't ready to get back into that routine, and besides, I was on holiday. I decided to discover, together with my husband, what Kiwis (as opposed to Greek Kiwis) did on New Year's Eve.

New Year's Eve 2003, Pigeon Park, Wellington
I heard on a ZB radio station that somewhere near Pigeon Park, an event - something like a parade - would be staged to welcome the New Year. So we put the kids to bed early, then left them in the care of my aunt (she didn't want to go to the ball either) where we were staying, and walked down to Pigeon Park. Already, many people had gathered, cordoned off on the footpaths by the police, who maintained a strong but not so intense presence. I looked around at the sea of faces, trying to ignore the sight of the beer bottles that many people were carrying in their hands as they drank on the street, straight from the bottle. All my time in NZ, I had avoided this particular element of Kiwi society. But there was a difference between me and my husband in the way we viewed those people carrying the bottles: my husband had never seen this kind of behaviour (it's extremely rare for people to swig alcohol while walking along the street in Crete), so he treated it as a novelty, whereas I was familiar with it, and I knew the consequences.

... in public spaces... 
Even before the parade started, people were throwing bottles onto the road. Every time a bottle was smashed, no more than two minutes would pass before a rubbish truck drove by and swept away the smithereens. An ambulance would drive past every now and then in case of injuries. And of course, the police presence was raised at the point where the bottles were being smashed. I remember the policemen holding their walkie-talkies close to their ears, communicating with other officials every step of the way.

Is this what Kiwis call entertainment? my husband mocked. I didn't really feel comfortable where we were standing. Of course, it all looked safe on the surface, but you never really knew where trouble would break out. While my husband was trying to make sense of what was going on, I was having a panic attack. I didn't want to be where I was. We moved away from the main crowd, towards the quay by the harbour instead. We didn't stay for the parade.

Sign outside bookshop: "8 1/2 hobbits buy their books here!"
The roads got quieter. We caught glimpses of people in drinking holes (pubs? bars? I don't know what they're called in NZ these days), standing up at the counter where the drinks were being served. As we walked, we discusssed what we had just witnessed. It was his first time seeing people consuming alcohol in the street, and more importantly, without any food to accompany the drink. I explained that what he had experienced had nothing to do with my own experiences of life in NZ during the 25 years I spent in the country. It wasn't something Greeks did. It was a kind of behaviour associated with the pakeha majority, and not the minority groups that made up the NZ population. It was also one of the reasons why my parents never integrated into the Kiwi way of life. They could not fit into such a culture.

Sign outside chiropractor's: "Hobbit feet? How about Reflexology?"
It was a beautiful evening, something one cannot take for granted in NZ, even in the summertime. We continued walking along the sea, near Oriental Bay, one of my old haunts, where I used to go jogging. It was a lot quieter here, as it wasn't on the parade itinerary. Suddenly a man appeared out of nowhere. He had jumped onto the road, coming from behind a tree, and he was doing up his trousers. I'm really very sorry, please excuse me, he said to us as he scurried away.

Eventually, we saw fireworks going off, a sign that the clock had struck midnight, and the New Year had arrived. After a kiss as we wished each other a Happy New Year, my husband took out his cellphone and called his mother in Greece to wish her Happy New Year, even though there were still 11 hours to go before she would welcome the New Year in Greece. We walked back home in baffled silence, trying to comprehend what we had just experienced. Our route took us past the Greek community centre, where the annual ball was taking place. Although I was glad I hadn't gone to it, I couldn't help wondering if that was where I was supposed to have been that night.

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