There's something strange about New Zealand houses. Not that they tend to house New Zealanders, but that they typically have neither insulation nor central heating. You might think this doesn't matter, as the country is so far south, and south is hot, and in this would agree with the mistaken English settlers. However, the North Island's climate is sub-tropical, which for the purposes of our discussion means (a) there is little seasonal variation in temperature; and (b) you're likely to wake up in the middle of the summer night freezing your arse off.
We knew about the houses going in to our search for an apartment. Indeed, every one of our Kiwi friends informed us of the cold, hard facts. And if I have been at all American in my comportment during my time here, surely it has been in my scoffing of the situation of the temperature. You can hardly blame me. Last May we arrived in the middle of the worst Wellington winter in 25 years: a bit of rain, some wind, lows in the low 40s. Our first trip nearly three years ago was taken during the equivalent of autumn in the northern hemisphere, and the weather was resplendent.
The apartment, or "flat," we found is the second floor of a Victorian house built in the 1890s. High ceilings, two (inoperable) fireplaces with exquisite tile work, lots of storage, a bigger kitchen than we had before, and a great sense of flow. The other serious contender was a place in Thorndon, a quiet suburb that's home to mostly government workers and apparently a great family area. But it felt too out of the way, disconnected from the culture of the cultural capital of the country, and bit too far a walk from our business.
The flat we took, by contrast, is only a 10-minute walk to work and not much further to the waterfront. It is situated in an urban green belt above a small park, where university students hold occasional chautauquas and the cicadas sound like crackling power lines. We can see the top of Mount Victoria from our living room, as well as the sleek Majestic Centre, the tallest building in the city and seemingly transplanted from the Cloud City skyline.
The street is actually a pedestrian footpath named not out of any nod to literary tradition, but rather to reflect a heretofore unknown labor of the Grail Knight; namely, the carrying over hill and under hill of eight suitcases, three carry-ons, and a car seat up the vertiginous steps to the keep. It suits us well.
Other aspects of Kiwi life take more getting used to. It is well established that New Zealanders, following their English forebears, drive on the wrong side of the road, and that their water goes down the drain in a manner contrary to northern custom. Less well known, and understood, are the rules governing sidewalk etiquette and water usage. Like cars, pedestrians are to take the left side of any thoroughfare. "But," I'm told," that's changing." There's really no telling how you are to navigate through foot traffic. Similarly, the standard for faucets is hot on the right and cold on the left, but that seems to vary from building to building or even sink to sink.
I don't mean to imply that Kiwis are backwards. New Zealanders are proud of their history as a land of backyard inventors, plucky souls who maintain that nothing can't be fixed with a bit of No. 8 wire and some elbow grease. It's nothing short of amazing what has been accomplished here in so little time (since only 1840), and that from years of making do has come a tremendous spirit of can do. This gumption is largely the result of the country's geographic isolation, low population (4.2 million), and youth (making the States seem downright elderly). Perhaps the Englishness has something to do with it, too.
Still, there are those odd moments when, shopping for groceries in the New World Metro, you find in the span of one short aisle--eggs, pet food, condiments, and DVD players, and you, perhaps more American than you'd thought, wonder how anything works at all.