The rediscovered country
A modern New Zealand travelogue
by Thor Iverson
How do you go back to the place where everything changed…the place where the lens of your world reshaped itself and an unspoiled wilderness of perspectives was revealed in dramatic new light? And if you can point to the place, the day, the hour when all was renewed and reborn, can you ever really return?
The answer to the first question seems as easy as it is pragmatic: by plane, by boat, by car, and by foot.
Then again, perhaps that’s a foolishly glib response. Life – so the philosophers and the poets tell us – is about the journey rather than the destination, and any journey is a process through which one moves. Is the answer, then, in the process? Eleven tiring months of detailed and sometimes overwhelming planning are certainly one sort of process, but the notion that sparks and fuels the journey ignites long before that. In a very real sense, a new journey begins the moment an old one ends. Yet notions are no more than dreams, and it is we who fashion the ephemeral into our reality. So perhaps the key is what we do to enable the journey…and perhaps changes can only come from within. The place, the day, and the hour become mere spectators to our acts of will.
And yet…and yet…one place, at one time, in one life, can become the unquestionable arena for change, and that place, day, and hour branded on the conscious mind like a moment of rebirth. If it be mere will, why there? Why then? How to reconcile that truth? Maybe the answer is more complicated than any of these musings. Maybe it is the person and the place, in a blessed symbiosis elusive to the philosopher and the poet but understood in the blood of the voyager. If so, there’s only one path to this particular truth: bringing the person and the place together once more.
So it is that, two years, two months, and two days after returning to the familiar pathways of home with new lenses, perspectives, shapes and lights, we’re going back to where everything changed. Back through the lens, to a place and a time and a feeling that it might well be folly to try and recapture. Back to New Zealand.
Oh…and as for the answer to the second question? That is a matter for more deliberation and consideration. For while the answer is both known and undoubtedly contains a metaphor of revelatory metaphysical significance, I’m not sure I’m yet up to the decryptive task. In any case, here it is: no, you can’t, because it’s raining so hard that the road is closed to traffic.
Ah, but that’s a much longer story…
June 2003 – Washington, D.C.
It’s official: our friend Guillaume is not getting married this year. All our long-cherished plans – Barcelona, dinner at El Bulli, the Pyrénées, Banyuls-sur-Mer, Provence and the wedding – out the window, at least for now. But we’ve cashed in oneworld miles for this trip, simply can’t face the idea of losing them, and…hey, wait a minute, isn’t Qantas another member of the alliance? A return visit to New Zealand, once thought to be a half-dozen years away, suddenly becomes a more immediate reality.
“And you know,” notes Theresa as we sit at the airport, waiting to catch a flight back home, “in 2005 I can take a three-month sabbatical…”
January 2004 – Boston, Massachusetts
“Six weeks,” Theresa affirms. No sabbatical this time, with the potential for major expenses looming on the horizon, and more pressing concerns regarding an overlong absence from work. A sense of personal responsibility is, after all, the parasite that gnaws the bones of any great epic. “But now we have to decide where to go.”
“As a matter of fact,” I begin, opening up a few long-abandoned documents on the computer, “I have some ideas on that.”
March 2004 – Boston, Massachusetts
“So you’re sure you don’t want to go to Tasmania?”
“Well, it seems kinda silly. I mean, we’re going to be in New Zealand, and mostly on the South Island, for at least four weeks. Why go to Tasmania for more of the same?”
“Fine. But I want to spend more time in Sydney, then.”
“Are eight days enough?”
With a click, the last bones of the skeleton snap into place. The itinerary is set. Now all that remains is to give the details flesh. But there’s no hurry. We’ve got all the time in the world.
December 2004 – Boston, Massachusetts (2.5 months before departure)
“Theresa, could you bring your computer home tonight? And maybe, say, every night for the next few weeks?”
“Well, it seems that our motherboard is dead. They’re sending a new one, but they won’t be able to install it until mid-January.”
“Oh my God! What about all the New Zealand files?”
“They’re still there. The hard drive’s fine, and I backed everything up yesterday. I just need your computer to work on them. But this is going to slow things down a lot, and I’m going to have to put off some other things to get the planning done. By January, though, we should be back on schedule. Don’t worry about it.”
6 February 2005 – Ludlow, Vermont (5 days before departure)
“Wasn’t that a terrific day of skiing?”
“I just can’t stop thinking about next week.”
“Think about it! A week from now, we’re going to be somewhere over the Pacific, sound asleep and losing a day of our lives. And then, Waiheke Island and spring! Can you believe it? I just feel so incredibly lucky. And happy. And excited.”
“Me too. Everything is going right. I mean, how can we be this…uh-oh.”
“I think there’s something wrong with the car.”
8 February 2005 – Quechee, Vermont (3 days before departure)
“Hey, it’s me. OK, so the garage says we need a new fuel pump. There’s no way it’ll be ready before we leave, because they have to order the parts. So I’m going to have someone take me to the bus station tomorrow morning, and you’ll need to keep the rental car until Friday. Your mother will pick up our car when she’s here next month, drive it back to our house, and have someone pick her up and take her back to Vermont.”
“That’s too confusing. I can’t think about it right now. How are the New Zealand plans coming?”
“Well, I’m a little tired of things breaking…but I’m sure I’ll finish tomorrow.”
10 February 2005 – Boston, Massachusetts (1 day before departure)
“Dad, I appreciate that you and Mom came all the way from Philadelphia to see us off, but I just don’t have time to be your butler, chef and entertainment tonight. I’ve still got about seven hours of stuff to do, and I’d like to get some sleep at some point. Here’s the remote, the Golf Channel is 88, have fun.”
“Son! I can’t believe you’re treating your father-in-law this way…”
“I’ll make it up to you. So…takeout Chinese, pizza, or barbecue? I assume you don’t want sushi.”
“Barbecue. How about some nice pork ribs for your father-in-law?”
“Whatever you want, Dad.”
11 February 2005 – somewhere over New York
The overhead speaker crackles with static, then hisses to deafening life. “We’ve got word from air traffic control, and things don’t look so good.” Theresa squirms in her cramped, uncomfortable seat – 737s aren’t exactly ideal for cross-continental travel – and wonders, aloud and not for the first time, whether all these problems and delays are some sort of portent of impending disaster. “We’re going to hit some turbulence in about ten minutes, and unfortunately it looks like it’s going to keep us company all the way to the west coast.” Groans all over the plane, a few sweaty palms latch onto armrests. “Sorry about that. Flight attendants, please return to your seats.”
“Well,” I mutter, picking up a foil packet containing a half-dozen dry pretzels and my glass of quickly-melting ice water, “at least they’re sparing no expense on the amenities.”
La trattoria di flan
The marvelous thing about the long descent into Los Angeles is the conquering breadth of it. Sure, there’s an element of nature-destroying horror to any sprawl, but only the most reactionary can fail to be impressed by the endless flowing tide of civilization that covers every valley, hill, mountain and coast. Human triumphalism, writ horizontal.
Except that tonight, we can’t see any of it. We know we must be close, because we’ve been descending nigh unto forever, but not a speck of light pierces the thick sheets of cloud. In the midst of a long, gentle turn, a sudden constellation of lights bursts into view; not above, but below.
A ship. We’re over the ocean.
In front of us, the endless luminosity of the City of Angels is dampened to a dull, lurid glow by gentle washes of rain, and the effect is rather disappointing. L.A. should be more decadent, more alive, than this. At the moment, it just looks like Boston on pretty much any spring evening. Boston with palm trees and a rectangular street grid, that is.
Dan Fredman, a man of many online personae but known to most (of a wine-chatty bent) by at least one of them, waits by the luggage belts in a mist-spotted fedora. We banter about the uncanny (for Los Angeles) weather and the traffic chaos it’s causing – apparently, not even farmers benefit as much from a sharp California shower as do tow truck operators and body shops – collect our bags, and pack into Dan’s car for a quick ride to an airport-proximate eatery. It’s late, we’re late, and everyone’s a bit tired and eager to leave the waking world behind, but we can’t visit another city without sharing a few drops of crushed grape with old friends. Two, in this case: Dan and Kriss Reed, another local. Our planned fifth has, unfortunately, been the victim of a rain-slicked skidding accident, and will need to nurse her car into the shop for the evening.
Score another one for the tow trucks and their profits.
It could just be fatigue, but we’re all a little confused by the chosen venue for our drop-sharing. Alejo’s Presto Trattoria looks and smells like a West Coast take on a thousand East Coast Italian-American dives, with big piles of pasta, a permeating aroma of roasted garlic, and a noisy, festive, familial atmosphere…except that pretty much the entire staff is Hispanic. Well, that’s no real surprise in L.A., but it does play with one’s sense of familiarity. The menu is long and overly-comprehensive, as one would expect…and as none of us are all that hungry, we split a few quick appetizers – bruschetta, insalata caprese, fried calamari – and move on to big plates of pasta. At which point, things become even more confusing. Far be it from me to criticize the recasting of a classic – especially so close to Hollywood – but how often is spaghetti carbonara drenched in a thick, cream sauce with tomatoes and little flecks of bacon? Well, it’s a first for me, anyway. It’s not bad, exactly, but it’s sure not what I expect.
Thankfully, the wines – just two of them, and this, too, is odd for an East Coaster used to two-bottle-per-person bacchanals; the locals here have to drive afterwards – make up for any inconsistencies in the food.
Lafkioti 2002 Moschofilero (Mantinia) – Stale lime crystals borne on a salty sea breeze, with a lime juice and vodka cocktail (not to suggest that it’s alcoholic; it’s not, it’s more of a tactile sensation). Fresh, clean, and eminently evocative of sitting on the described ocean beach with the aforementioned cocktail, in cool white linen, soaking up the cobalt blue of a sun-baked ocean. Don’t look for complexity here, but do look for purity.
Franceschi “Il Poggione” 1990 Brunello di Montalcino “Riserva” (Tuscany) – Roasted strawberry and game spiced with faded clove and pepper dust form an evocative nose, and are followed by masculine dark cherry and tar on the palate. The acidity is balanced and the tannin firm enough to harden up on the medium-long finish, yet there’s unquestioned subtlety within. Maturing nicely, yet I don’t think there’s any real hurry.
Full of cream, tomato, and slightly mushy pasta, I pass on dessert. Though I do note with bleary amusement that the offerings include flan. Flan? Ah, the real Italian classics. Maybe they should just call it panna cotta and let everyone think it’s overcooked.
Back on the rainy – and now slightly windy – streets, Dan takes us the few blocks back to our airport hotel. The Westin L.A. Airport, which we get for an absurdly low rate through some sort of online voodoo, is luxurious beyond necessity for two weary travelers who just need a comfortable bed for a night…but then, a comfy bed is a comfy bed, and not to be disclaimed by the asceticism of necessity. The roar of the last few late-night planes fades away, we sink deep into soft pillows, and soon all is silence.
Oh, and the life-changing thing? Yeah. That can wait until tomorrow.
Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.