A taste of ‘kiwiana’
Vail CO, Colorado
Editor’s note: Betsy Welch, a former Spanish teacher at Vail Mountain School, is traveling to New Zealand and points beyond this winter. Each week we’ll run an article and photos about her travels.
NEW ZEALAND ” In a Pam Houston writing workshop I took at CMC last summer, one of the exercises she had us do was to make a list. It could be a list of anything ” mine happened to be a list of things I would tell the priest if I went to confession (“if” being the key word there). The purpose was to get the writer to think in the concrete, physical world ” real stuff, things that we knew and could visualize and touch and feel and describe properly without getting mired down in trying to write “about” them. My backpack ” and journal, for that matter ” is a battleground of lists right now. From the mundane ” “What I need at the grocery store for my upcoming hiking trip, to the memorable ” “This is what I learned today.” Lists can be a warehouse for memories, reminders of what we need to get done, and motivation to make dreams become reality.
Here’s my latest ongoing list ” a taste of “kiwiana,” as they say.
What I like about New Zealand:
Kiwisms: just as my Spanish will forever be tinged with chilenismos from spending eight months in Chile, my English is now pepppered with all sorts of kiwisms. Too many to name (and some that just amuse me ’cause I’m a language nerd), but here are a few highlights: sweet as (cool, right on ” actually, you can almost say anything, like if it’s really hot out, it’s hot as), knickers (underwear ” at the beach my little friend Ella yelled out, “Mum, I haven’t got any knickers on!”), guttered (bummed), knackered (beat, tired), and ” this is a new favorite I learned after a bit of a drinking spree ” second-hand (as in, “Are you feeling a bit second hand after a big night last night?”) There are also a handful of kiwisms that I’m not quite ready to import into my lexicon ” for example, nappies (diapers), jandals (flip flops ” this one really chafes me for some reason), and piss (alcohol).
An apt follow-up to number one, I have fallen in love with Maori place names. These long, lovely multi-syllabic words dot the map of the two islands like stars in the sky. Many Kiwis (who are not Maori) pronounce them inocorrectly, using a long, hard ‘a’ sound instead of a softer “ah.” I like to read them out loud when they appear on highway signs, drawing out the syllables and trying to guess what each part of the fusion of words means. A place called arohanui, for example, is a marriage the words aroha (love) and nui (big). Once you know that, you also know that any place which has ‘nui’ in its name is a big somethin’.
Public toilets: every town, big or small, has a designated, easy to locate, clean public toilet. Saves you the awkward duck-in at a restaurant or bar or using a scuzzy gas station bathroom.
Lollies: this has been a downfall for me in New Zealand. I am not a huge candy eater back home (although I do like my chocolate or ice cream after dinner every night), but for some reason I’ve been an avid supporter of the Kiwi lolly industry since I’ve been here. A big part of it is the novelty of calling them lollies instead of candy (again, language nerd), but people keep insisting that I try these Jet Planes and those Milk Bottles, and here, have a Mintie …
“Barefeet n’ boardies:” this is the title I have given to the New Zealand dress code. You are good to go just about anywhere in NZ donning this attire. Seriousl y” it’s no biggie to walk into almost any public establishment without shoes on. Kids do it, adults do it, and they do it from Auckland to Raglan to Wanaka. Boardies (board shorts) are equally accepted, and you don’t have to be near water to wear them.
Farmers: if you’re not one, you know one, and he’s probably wearing boardies and gumboots. And shifting sheep on a motorbike and mustering cows on a jet boat. He’ll invite you for a beer when the days work is done.
Kids being kids: this is a sad truth of America ” kids are protected from everything (be it mud and rocks or the boogeyman), kept indoors and sedated by the talking heads on TV. In New Zealand, they are barefoot, would rather play outside than sit in front of a screen, and a perfect summer holiday might mean camping out for a few weeks in the same exact place every summer. I will never forget seeing 1-year old baby Lucy crawl into the doghouse and sit, giggling and cooing, as seven 5-week old puppies wriggled all over her. No one raced to “rescue” her, we all just laughed and said what an awesome kid she was.
Exclamation point road signs: that’s all it is ” an orange sign with a big, fat exclamation point on it. You never know what kind of road work is going on ahead. Exciting!!!!!
You can’t escape the elements: the outdoors are omnipresent in New Zealand. Turn on the news any day, and at least 75 percent of the headlines have to do with the physical environment, be it the weather, an athletic pursuit, a tragedy or an achievement that took place outside. Every Kiwi ” outdoorsy or not ” knows what kind of weather southeasterlies bring, and they can tell you which beach has the strongest rips or which lake is the deepest. Perhaps New Zealand’s most celebrated countryman, Sir Edmund Hillary passed away a few weeks ago, and the national grief was almost palpable. Although Hillary was a mountaineer, he is a hero to all sorts of Kiwis, even those who have never climbed a peak.
The kindness of strangers: I have never felt so well looked after and genuinely cared about by strangers as I have in New Zealand. From the hut warden who served me countless cups of steaming hot Milo when I arrived after six hours of wet and windy hiking, to the supermarket owner who gave me two bottles of beer because I didn’t want to buy six, to the Kiwi couple from Riverton who took me to some of their secret spots along the South Coast and fetched paua and mussels out of the sea for me to take home to the NZ Post couriers who transported me, along with the mail, up the West Coast, Kiwis are constantly offering their knowledge of people and places ” and sometimes even their own homes ” to travelers who they meet while hiking, working in town, or hanging at a bar. It is because of the people whose phone numbers and email addresses line my journal that I am having a hard time leaving the land of the long white cloud.
Contact Betsy Welch with suggestions, comments and publishing contracts at email@example.com.