Australian Comedian Heath Franklin, assuming his famous ‘Chopper’ stage persona, summed up the Kiwi personality in one joke. He said, “Kiwi’s are so laid back, I once saw one fall asleep during his own car accident.” Thank you, Chopper. I was trying desperately to put my finger on this charming trait that takes so many forms. I had collected multiple mental anecdotes but couldn’t string them together into an intelligible summary until I saw Chopper perform in that smoky Theatre Royale auditorium in Nelson.
It was Tony’s 40th and we had driven an hour-and-a-half over the winding Whangamoa hills (during every crossing of which I feel compelled to say at least once, “I hate the Whangamoas” in the same voice that Uncle Jamie’s nephew hates Uncle Jamie in Love Actually) to see Chopper’s famous show. To me, Nelson was always a beachy, arty, ritzy town. But that night, all the dubious characters crept in from the hills and rural pubs. Chopper spent the good portion of the night fending off hecklers and drunkards who wanted to entertain the crowd themselves. Did anyone get upset? Nope. Was there tension? Nope. Was there yelling and cursing and berating? Absolutely. Was anyone upset about that? Not a chance in hell. I don’t even know if being upset is possible here. Every potentially stressful situation can be effortlessly averted with one simple utterance, ‘she’ll be right, mate’, which essentially means everything will work itself out.
Avoiding stressful situations is much easier when no stressful conditions are created. This is where the formula takes root. Wherever I look, I cannot find any rules. I cannot find any politically correct expectations. I cannot find anybody caring all that much about how another person is behaving. I only find people going about their business in a casual but pragmatic way.
For example, a month into our stay, we all walked over to the nearby rugby stadium to catch a match between two provincial teams, ours being the Tasman Makos. I thought it would be a great way to introduce Mason to the manly, widely loved, world-famous national sport. He fell asleep early in the first half. Parenting win achieved, I then had some free time to take in the local culture.
I cruised over to the concession stand which was actually a caravan selling fried. As it was a chilly July night, I was in the mood for fried. I ordered a hot dog and chips which is not at all an Oscar Meyer wiener and Lays potato chips. Instead, it is a corn dog (with beer batter instead of corn) and french fries. Nobody make hot chips like New Zealand. They are always good – chunky, hot, crispy – with plentiful salt, sometimes chicken salt. The seller asked me if I wanted sauce (which is ketchup), I said yes, and she dunked my hot dog into a giant communal bowl of sauce sitting open on the counter. Being a recent transplant from a hyper-sterile society, it gave me pause until I remarked how practical and affordable and logical a giant bowl of sauce is. First dunk only – obviously – we’re not animals!
Heading back to my seat with fried and a beer, I saw a couple of guys at my two o’clock enjoying a 12-pack of beer. Wait. Did they sneak that in here. How? No, it was explained to me that one can purchase a box of beer at the beer tent and bring it back to one’s seat. In bottles. Glass bottles. How convenient, and responsible even. Imagine a person being in charge of their own consumption and behavior. I admit, this is a small town phenomenon. I have been to rugby games in big cities where the masses are not to be trusted. We do get dumber in numbers.
By accepting responsibility for ones own actions, shortcomings, successes, and failures it becomes increasingly harder to offend someone. Political correctitude and pretentiousness have no jurisdiction here in Blenheim as demonstrated by many local businesses who forego the contrived, smoke and mirrors world of advertising and offer the facts instead. A radiator repair shop claims to be the best place in town to take a leak. Catchy slogan, but they went a step further and had their storefront logo made up to illustrate their promise – just in case we missed the reference. Down the road, Al and Geoff (likely drinking buddies) teamed up to form a home improvement business promising we can ‘get plastered with Al’ or ‘get laid with Geoff’. Imagine the damage (repairs?) one could do while spending an evening with the two of them. One septic tank service takes advantage of mobile advertising. Their beastly tanker drives around with the license plate FARTED and their phone number, 0800 FARTED, sprawled along the side. Their services are ‘two turds’ the price of the next competitor. Time for me to snatch up a rural property with a septic tank solely so I can call these guys and hear their spiel.
This waggish business model doesn’t stop at the advertising desk, but rather permeates the whole company culture. While attending an expensive, catered Christmas party at a secluded vineyard mansion, I asked the catering staff where to put my finished plate. The professional, well-dressed server told me to scrape my food into the pig scraps bucket out back then put my plate in the stack. Pig scraps, huh? I hear this all the time and I suspect it is a real thing more often than it is just an expression.
It was at the same Christmas party where I first noticed there is never a line for the female restrooms like in the States. I don’t know whether to chalk this up to the small population or the mental image of a tipsy Kiwi looking at her reflection and slurring “she’ll be right” in lieu of fussing over panty lines, make-up, hair, and did you hear what that bitch said to me?! transgressions for twenty minutes while the rest of us anxiously await our turn to do exactly the same to the cross-legged girl behind us.
Without generalizing an entire country’s population, as we are often wont to do after one experience with a small chunk of that population, I have seen over and over again their tough, self-reliant, accountable demeanor spiced with a healthy dash of Kiwi ingenuity. A local guy cruises around town on a little driving machine he made out of a Coleman cooler, some tires, and a motor. I was even fortunate enough to witness the gradual upgrade of this machine to a new, racier cooler. It went from purple to red. Uh-oh, red. More noticeable to cops now. Doing 7 mph, Sir, slow ‘er down now. I salivate just imagining the road trip snack possibilities of this vehicle.
Being an island, New Zealand has taken the ‘hang loose’ mentality to the max and has made shoes entirely optional. When I imagine island life, I envision the highly appealing repose of an unstructured society that universally lolls about in flip-flops day and night. New Zealand laughs in the face of that uppity society and skips footwear altogether: wherever (supermarket, movies, mall) and whenever (midwinter) they damn well please. And what a great place to be barefoot. My feet, though normally shod, have rediscovered mud, thick grass, rivers, deep puddles, dirt paths, and cow pats in the middle of the parking area at the school fair. Blenheim has not yet concreted every possible inch of earth where a human must tread.
A side effect, or maybe an inevitability, of this matter-of-fact way of life is to become brazenly unapologetic. This probably results from the acceptance that this is the way things are, that every so often something goes pear-shaped, and we all just move on. No need for PC apologies to ensure nobody will be sued or fired or have their feelings hurt. Sometimes feelings just get hurt and that’s a fact of life. The average apology plays out in a sympathetic lip-tightening ‘mmmmm’ or, if truly regretful, the offender might murmur ‘yeah, I cocked that one up’.
I managed to identify one specific case when she will most certainly not be right and that is when a fly enters the kitchen at our house. The first responder will emit an ear-piercing, “FLY!” to signal all other family members to come quickly and join the cacophony. Then Nana (my mother-in-law) will get out her electric fly swat and soon everyone rejoices at her victory. Flies are the devil incarnate to this family. I think each person has a video loop in their minds of a fly laying 1,000 eggs on the rim of their mug just before they take a sip. Tony maintains it is because flies land in poo first and then come into the house to find that perfect place to begin the advancement of their demonic society.
In the end, I had my own Chopper-like moment of clarity. At long last I could define my summation of the Kiwi way in one tidy episode. In a scene on Police Ten 7 (New Zealand’s answer to Cops), a policeman was having a drawn-out confrontation with a drunk man who would not comply. Eventually the boozer grew weary of resisting and passed out on the curb. The policeman casually went about his routine but had to somehow get the man into his squad car. Did he call for back up? Did he yell or threaten the man? Did he brusquely grab the man and bend him in painful positions? Nope. He simply leaned down and gave the man a titty-twister. Just like that, as if it’s in the training manual (probably is) and an infinitesimal grin formed in one corner of his mouth. Simple. Effective. Unapologetic.
I am fairly certain that while the cop calmly cruised to the clink, the carouser in the backseat woke up to observe, “Shouldn’t I be cuffed or something?” to which the cop casually replied, “Yeah, nah, she’ll be right, mate.”
Kiwi Glossary: Jandals. Flip flops. “What do you need shoes for? We’re just going to watch the opera and eat some lobster. If you insist on shoes, then chuck on some jandals and let’s go.”