I’m thinking of submitting that to the New Zealand Slogan Bureau for consideration as the national motto. Then Murray Hewitt could proudly display it on a poster beside his desk. It would be a statement of pride and toughness, as comfort is not an essential ingredient when carving out a life for oneself in New Zealand.
Initially pledging my allegiance to America, I had fostered a certain standard of comfort. I always suspected this standard was unnecessarily higher than it needed to be (free soda refills are usually no more than seven paces away), but I enjoyed it nonetheless and would gladly renew my vows to love and cherish it till death do us part. Arriving in New Zealand in the dead of winter, I had to quickly adjust my definition of basic comforts as they are a bit more basic here. Being alive, that is a basic comfort. What else does one need? Central heating? Nah. Our house here in New Zealand has an electric pump heater on the wall which keeps the living room nice and cozy. But when bedtime rolls around I do a Reggie Bush 100-yard dash into my bed where I have had the electric blanket fired up since 5pm. I might even forego brushing my teeth at night till the flowers bloom again in spring. Electric blankets are actually electric mattress pads and, wow, are they lifesavers on winter nights.
Not every Kiwi house has these luxuries. On previous trips to New Zealand when we were younger and kid-free, my husband Tony and I spent many a night in guest rooms at university houses or flats belonging to the friend of a friend. These were always sans luxury. Comfort was not in the budget of these boozy proprietors. Not that we cared much at the time. On one of these nights we slept together on a couch. Our friend was no better off; he woke up on the other couch with his dry-cleaned shirt, still in the plastic bag, stuck to his back. These older houses were drafty, barren and generally uncomfortable. (Luckily, we had alcohol.) The sole source of heat in these old homes would be an electric radiator or space heater which we had to huddle around in order to reap any benefits. Like a campfire. Oh no, my face is on fire, better take a step back. Now my ass is frozen.
Tony told me that surviving winters while growing up in New Zealand required several showers per day. I assumed he was just using winter as a scapegoat and that all the showers were actually a by-product of the requisite vanities of being twenty. As a young Kiwi bloke one is expected to wake up, exercise, shower, put in a hard day at work, play rugby, shower, go to the clubs and dance for hours then, just before sleep, shower off the club funk and layers of Axe body spray applied throughout the day. But now that I’m an insider, I’m more accepting that all this showering probably did act as a thawing mechanism. Perhaps he had to raise his core temperature back to normal every six hours in a fight for survival. He also told me kids wear shorts year round as part of their school uniform. It’s no Donner Pass here in winter, but I wouldn’t call it shorts weather either. During his primary years at Renwick School, swimming was part of the curriculum and the school pool was outdoors. Tony claims to remember breaking sheets of ice off the surface before each swim. I had to call “33% rule” on this one which is our marriage’s version of calling bullshit. Depending on Tony’s angle, I know I can safely divide or multiply his claim by 33%. Perhaps an impartial reader can confirm or deny this particular assertion. While on the topic, please confirm if the pool sloped upwards on both ends causing one to swim uphill both ways?
A few weeks after our winter arrival in New Zealand, a new friend told me she prefers winters to summers as it doesn’t require any outfit planning. She likes the convenience of putting on clothes, coat, and scarf in the morning and not having to remove it until bedtime, no matter if she spends the day inside or out. It’s all the same. Easy! I thought she was crazy when she first told me this, but now I understand her logic. Actually, I understand most things New Zealand thanks to her, my cultural ambassador.
Winter. Everything seems to happen in winter here. Rugby season is in winter. What better time to don an extremely short pair of shorts and run around for two hours at night in the driving rain? Netball season is in winter here. Netball is pretty much basketball (without all that needless jumping) and is played by women. Outdoors. In winter. In a leotard/skirt hybrid onesie. Only cricketers get to play their sport in summer. Fair enough, if they did all the standing around they do for twelve hours in winter, they would freeze solid. Cue disgust from cricket supporters.
At least these sportspeople are running around and creating warmth. Being a spectator at a sporting match requires even more grit and almost always requires a lot of standing around. Mason’s New Zealand sport career started with Tee Ball in the spring. During one of his first games we brought our folding chairs and received a lot of jeers to the tune of “first class” and “wow, fancy”. That was embarrassing so I left those in the garage next time to grow cobwebs like a good Kiwi would.
Our second winter, Mason was finally old enough to start playing rugby. For weeks I went to his freezing rugby games at 9am on Saturday mornings and stood in the wet grass for the entire game. Everyone did: nanas, grandads, even moms with three kids and a baby in a stroller. Perhaps this isn’t that odd given that for any professional rugby game, one can purchase cheaper “grass” tickets and stand behind the goal posts for two-and-a-half hours. I have done this. Once. The drunk girl in front of me cheered, drank beer, and texted the entire time, old school style with one thumb on her flip phone at lightning speed. I had a lot to learn.
One Saturday during Mason’s rugby season Tony was out of town so I was on my own for the game. I thought, “You know what? It’s just me. I’m going to bring my chair and be comfortable for one Saturday.” I even got braggy and texted my mom to tell her I had enough and today I was taking a stand against cold feet! I grew up in Wyoming and worked in Antarctica and I’m a grown-ass woman and I am done with cold feet! It turned out to be a frosty morning with mud everywhere. I pulled into the grounds, parked the car, and I just couldn’t get that chair out of the back. I told myself I would see how it played out and get it later if I felt brave. Holy crap. One of the dad’s looked like he had just had a very serious knee injury. There he was on the sideline, giant cast covering his entire leg, bending over his wooden crutches to clap for his son. Like a true Kiwi. Damn him! No chair for me that day.
The natural assumption might be that Kiwis are trying to portray a tough image. This is the end result of their actions, but I am no longer convinced it’s purposeful. I think, yet again, it boils down to practicality and the life they have grown accustomed to. I have seen this play out on the small stage while trying to navigate their socialized medical system. In this system accidents are completely covered, all things “kid” are completely covered, however comfort is not covered. As a lifetime beneficiary of privatized medicine, I am accustomed to people in the States going to the doctor every time they are not comfortable: colds, sprained ankles, scrapes. I personally know someone who was given a thumb pillow by her doctor after a hand injury. A thumb pillow! Imagine that.
There will be no thumb pillows in New Zealand’s socialized medical scheme. But there will be plenty of discomfort. Years of it. If someone needs a hip replacement, they go on the waiting list for months or years. The option to private pay for the hip exists but no one has that kind of money as they’ve been paying major taxes their whole lives to receive the free three-year wait for the damn hip! My son needed a verruca removed from the pad of his foot since it was uncomfortable to walk on. (That’s a nice way of saying wart, by the way). When I called the doctor, she said they would put him on the list and when there were enough people on it, they would schedule a wart removal clinic and contact me. “When-ish?” I asked. She said she had no way of knowing. I called several other doctors even though I knew it would be impossible to get treatment unless my son was already one of their patients. The only way he got in with his current doctor is because three generations of his family have been going to that doctor. No kidding! Feeling fed up, I called a place called The Skin Clinic, the only one of its kind in town and operated by private pay only. The cheery woman who answered the phone said, “Yes, we can get him in tomorrow. It’ll be $20.” Now we’re talking! If only a hip were that easy.
After absorbing all this behavior for a while, my assessment really solidified itself at the annual fireworks show on a spring night in November. For me, coming from the States, the words “fireworks show” are synonymous with waiting, standing, crowds, being hungry, staying up too late, and swearing I’ll never do it again. I was prepared this time. I packed chairs, blankets, coats, meals, snacks, and drinks. We carved out a cozy spot and set up our camp. As the start time grew closer, the spots filled in with excited families and kids running around. Most families just had one tatty blanket that seven people tried to cram their way onto. Many families had nothing. They just plopped down on the grass and looked up into the sky. Ready! Just like that. I was feeling quite smug about my setup until the show ended. At this juncture, those people just up and left. Just like that. Every single one of them was home snuggled in their beds by the time I gathered up all our belongings for the sherpa-like trek back to the car.
The point is, I think Kiwis tend to accept a fair amount of discomfort simply because they are accustomed to it. The same way one might get accustomed to walking with a slight limp due to the wart on the bottom of their foot shooting sharp pains for twenty years. I’m sure that clinic will be any day now.
Kiwi Glossary: Pack a sad. To pout or throw a tantrum. Couldn’t get in to see the doctor? No point packing a sad about it, I’m sure they’ll have an appointment available next year. She’ll be right.