Blenheim is a small town in New Zealand. Thirty thousand folk. I grew up in a small town in Wyoming. Fifty thousand folk. I was young and my memory is bad, and I probably didn’t appreciate the mannerisms of a small town back then. I probably thought they were downright despicable.
Rediscovering how a small town works has been entertaining, frustrating, curious, relaxing, and refreshing. I often struggle to understand if I am experiencing New Zealand culture or small town culture or both.
To discover a town, one must first drive. Or walk. Or bus. Or bike. I bought a cheap bike and I love it. The bus is practically non-existent (a one-looper a couple times a day). Walking is delightful. From my in-laws house, we can walk half a block, cut through Pollard Park (a gem replete with winding streams towered over by weeping willows and elaborate flower gardens) and be in the town center in twenty minutes. But sometimes I just don’t have twenty minutes. Sometimes I have an appointment in seven minutes and I frantically rush around the house grabbing purse, keys, this, that – hop into the car, speed into town, find a parking spot, oh crap I’m so late. Rush inside. Brilliant, I’m four minutes early.
A wonderfully welcome difference is that cars have the right-of-way here, not pedestrians. I no longer feel the need to be polite and screech to a stop so someone can idly cross the road when and where they feel convenient. That never made sense to me. I’m in a fast car, just let me go by, then you can cross on foot when there is a break in traffic. Now there are never any awkward driving moments like, “Should I go? Should I let him cross? …Go ahead…No you go…Dear God…someone go!” Every single person here knows that if they are on foot, they wait and cross only when clear. A fabulous system.
Roundabouts might be the greatest driving invention yet. For three seconds I feel like a race car driver as I zoom in, around, and out. Sometimes I completely nail the timing and luck and come out the other side feeling really good about myself and life. But for the life of me I cannot figure out when I’m supposed to catch up on my business or indulge in personal reflection. Not a single stoplight graces Blenheim’s streets. If there were one, I think all four directions would always be stopped, no matter green or red light, as every driver tries to fire off that one quick text. What about phone calls? My commute in Denver was fifty minutes each way. I had a whole other life during those drives. I deepened my well with audio books, laughed with stand-up comedians, cried to touching podcasts, caught up on family gossip with phone calls (hands-free of course), and made all my family’s doctor appointments. I am pretty sure I even bought a rental property on my commute.
In the very beginning I kept thinking, “Oh what a coincidence, I saw the lifeguard from the pool at the supermarket.” After several such encounters I realized I had been in town for three months and knew everyone. There were no unknowns left to litter about the shops and streets. We were it. I am still completely equivocal on this. It’s fun, like being the popular girl in school and waving to people who know me everywhere I go. On the other hand, if I am grumpy to Mason in public I immediately do the head swivel, duck and cover, we-gotta-go maneuver. And a casual nose pick in public or while driving? Forget about it. I am no longer anonymous inside my vehicle.
At Mason’s sports games I couldn’t figure out why some kids would show up with a different set of parents each time. Then one kid would show up with that other kid’s parent the next time. The next week it would be the one mom, with the other dad. What is going on here? I finally clued in everyone is related and aunties and uncles are sharing the duties. I started to see kids and parents every where I went. It was like knowing all the answers to a test. “I know him. I know her. There’s so-and-so.”
A few times Tony and I went to the movies on a weeknight to find we were the only people in the entire theater. This was an unexpected bonus that later became a curse as we began to expect it and would muffle curses when people showed up to invade our date night. It is imperative to not go into town on a Sunday evening unless I am specifically hoping to call up that empty, depressing, zombie apocalypse sensation.
Trips to the park and playground always turn out to be play dates as Mason will inevitably find a school pal on the monkey bars or a neighbor on the swings. One time, when no such luck was found, I told Mason I would just run to the restroom then come back and play with him. He called my bluff and said, “you mean just stand there?” He is on to me.
Blenheim is an honest town filled with hard-working people who can see value in small wonders and who appreciate how closely we humans are connected to Earth and all its bounty, however small the harvest. It is not uncommon to see flower or fruit stalls in someone’s driveway near the road. They might be selling Christmas lilies, daffodils, plums, or lemons. Just drop your money in the honor box and make your selection. Horse poo is often on offer ($5 a bag) as well as pine cones (same price).
We recently found Pine Valley, an outdoor adventure center about 40 minutes from town. We drove out on a fine Saturday morning not knowing what to expect. As with many things I have experienced here, there is never much information about a place on the internet so we usually just wing it and are either gravely disappointed or pleasantly surprised. We drove along the Wairau River bank among local farms and wooded hills until we arrived at a shady grove of birch trees peppered with ropes courses, forts, and obstacles. This must be it.
We parked beside the only other car that was there (which predictably turned out to be a school pal), paid a few gold coins into the donation box as suggested and discovered an adventureland. There was one of those wooden hamster wheel contraptions to run inside, spinning round and round, desperately trying to keep up and/or jump out of all at the same time. There were multiple climbing, balancing, and leaping obstacles. There was a long, covered slide that twisted underground at one point and a water slide powered on demand by push button. We dragged the flying fox (zip line) rope all the way to its pinnacle to hop on. Looking down the cable, we initially chickened out it was so high and long! Finally summoning some courage, we whizzed down it through the trees with the wind sweeping away our tears of laughter and excitement. I constantly marvel at the simplicity of places like this in New Zealand. It’s close, it’s practically free, no one else is there, and there are no rules, no authority figure there reminding me not to break my neck. No lawyers have composed elaborate warnings and disclaimers for each ride. Simply show up and have fun! What a concept.
I think I am going to love this small town life.
Kiwi Glossary: Mates rates – reduced prices for friends. What? Only a gold coin to get in this place? Must be mates rates.