Read an Excerpt
Why I Live in New Zealand
The affair began on the flight from Sydney to Auckland. I was sitting next to a tall, blond woman. She was beautiful. She was young-thirty-four. She was also smart (she had studied at Harvard, the University of California-San Francisco, France, Germany) and spoke five languages fluently. She was a doctor and she had a charming sense of humor. As the plane circled Auckland and I looked out, I realized I was falling in love. Not with her. I already fell in love with her six years previously. She was my wife. I mean with Newzillin (New Zealand). As we circled over Auckland, I could see the whole city laid out beneath me, but what really got my attention were the ocean, the harbor, and the bays. Everywhere you looked there was water, and small green islands with volcanoes on them. It reminded me of Hawaii, and I have always had a soft spot for Hawaii, ever since I lived there as a fourteen-year-old for one year, and then had strange ecstatic dreams about tropical oceans for years after. When I got off the plane, I saw green hills surrounding the airport. But they were not the green I was used to. This green was like no other green I had ever seen. It was green green. And the blue of the water near the airport was blue blue. There was a strong breeze blowing in the balmy summer (it was December-remember, reversed seasons in the Southern Hemisphere), as it often blows in Auckland, taking away the little pollution there is. So the light is not distorted in the way it is in Los Angeles. I had just been running in California, at Laguna Beach, where my mother lived, and while I loved the place as you can only love the places of your childhood, I could barely see the hills just a mile or less away, so bad was the smog. Yellow air everywhere. So this is what the world looked like when you were seeing it without interference.
There is a joke about New Zealanders. As soon as you arrive in the customs area at the airport, the officer, sensitive as all New Zealanders are to perceptions of their country, asks: "How do you like New Zealand?" (The mandatory answer of course is: "The most beautiful country on earth," or, as they say here, Godzone.) How on earth, foreigners wonder, can you know when you have just disembarked? But I knew, I knew. And it was no joke, the woman at the desk did ask me, and I answered truthfully: I am in love! (I am not alone. When my eighty-four-year-old mother had been here for less than a day, she, too, was asked how she liked her new adopted country. Like a nice Jewish lady she always answers a question with a question, so she said, truthfully, "What's not to like?")
People were unbelievably friendly at the airport; there is free coffee and tea, and special lanes at immigration for families with kids. There was a telephone with a big sign: free local calls. Volunteers brought carts to arriving passengers, and offered help. There was a small stream with tropical flowers in the middle of the terminal.
We rented a car and started to drive into the city. The breeze was light, the air was warm, and it felt just like the tropics. Everybody was in shorts and sandals. Actually, lots of kids were barefoot-something else I had not seen since I was in the ninth grade in Kailua. We left the airport and were immediately driving alongside a mangrove swamp. Mangroves! Like Bali. Where was I? Was this really a temperate climate? (For the longest time I was convinced the climate here was tropical, or at least semitropical. I was chagrined to learn it was more soberly called temperate.) Sea wherever you looked. And volcanic mountains. What a paradise, I thought, feeling like I had been given a drug. I was high on the beauty of this place just driving from the airport. What would happen to me in the next few weeks? Leila worried. She was right. Within two days I told her: "I have found my home." Why did I feel like this? Does it happen to others?
When I was living in Toronto, one cold winter morning I told my analyst (I was in training to become a Freudian analyst-bad mistake) that I missed Los Angeles. "Of course," he said, "it is home." Well, that made sense, it was home, for I lived there for most of my childhood. But Auckland, New Zealand? I had never before set foot in this place; how could I feel I had come home? It remains a mystery to me even now, but I find I'll still suddenly feel ecstatic for no good reason just driving along the shore that leads from our house into the center of Auckland. Islands do this to me. Something about being on an island affects me deeply. It is green surrounded by blue. Personally, I think it is deeply rooted in everyone. I am no great fan of sociobiologists (now called evolutionary psychologists), but they have one point I am in agreement with: We have innate, genetically mandated preferences for certain kinds of scenery that involve water and trees. It's really nothing but common sense. If humans evolved in certain climates and landscapes, then to find them again could represent survival, as well as happiness, so it is little surprising that when we see them again, it is if we "recognize" something we already knew. Even hospital patients do better when they look out on green as opposed to a blank wall. Duh, as my daughter Simone frequently used to tell me when she was a teenager.
Over the next few days, my seemingly drugged state did not abate. On the contrary, the more I saw, the more certain I was that this was to be my home. I would drive Leila and our three-year-old son Ilan around Auckland, just exploring at random, and I would bang on the steering wheel in wild enthusiasm: "Look at those giant banyan trees!" Wrong: They are Morton Bay fig trees, from Australia, not native at all. "Look at those giant ferns! This could be a million years ago!" (Actually, I got this right: These were pongas, (Cyathea dealbata), which grow up to forty-five feet high, New Zealand's tallest tree fern. The uncurled parts of the new shoots look like little babies asleep, and they are edible, a tall native fern. They were indeed here when dinosaurs roamed New Zealand.) There were ferns everywhere. Almost all of the ten thousand known species of ferns grow in New Zealand. "Look, avocado trees! Papaya trees! Guava trees! Banana plants, with stalks of red flowers and yellow bananas hanging down!" I drove aimlessly, in a state of enchantment.
We drove out of downtown, along the water's edge, heading east, following the coast. On my left was the water, filled with what seemed a million sailboats (not far off the correct figure-there is practically one boat for everyone in the country). Hundreds of people jogged along the waterfront (jogging was actually invented in New Zealand), and they cheerfully waved at us. We went past a little beach town, Mission Bay-where everyone seemed to be sitting at a café looking out over the beach-past the next little bay, Kohimarama, and then into St. Heliers, another seaside town. Well, town was too big a word for a single street with a bank, a bookstore, a fruit store, a travel shop, a real estate agent, and a post office. Like a scene from a 1950s small American town, women walked along wheeling babies in jogging strollers, or they sat outside the restaurant on the corner, looking out at the magnificent cone of the six-hundred-year-old Rangitoto, the island just two miles offshore that is found in every picture of Auckland. In fact, Auckland is built on volcanoes, and many of them are still, in principle, active.
I kept driving, following the coast. I came to a road, Peacock Street, that was aimed at the sea and said no exit. We parked at the bottom of the road and saw a small path leading down to the ocean. We started walking and found ourselves in a forest of giant pohutukawa trees. They were, I soon learned, possibly a thousand years old, and they were then in bloom with bright red flowers. We passed a tiny monument with a plaque, and stopped to read it. It said something about an 1840 treaty having been signed in this bay, which was called Karaka Bay. I had been browsing through our Rough Guide, and I suddenly realized that the plaque was referring to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document that established New Zealand as a country, a treaty between the indigenous Maori and the recently arrived Europeans. It was the equivalent of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. How could that be? The monument was small, just a rusting tiny spire with names engraved of sixteen local chieftains who had signed the treaty on this spot. In America armed guards would staff this sacred site. Here it looked abandoned.
We walked on. All at once the view opened up and we stared at a vast expanse of ocean with many little green islands just a mile or so offshore. There was a sandy beach with rocks and shells, and a strip of healthy grass along the path. On the other side of the path were ten small houses; such a home is called a bach in New Zealand (from "suitable for a bachelor"?). The movie set was in full flower: A few families were picnicking on the beach, children splashed in the shallow water, and a bright yellow kayak was in the ocean, too. "Leila," I said, "this is it."
"Well, actually," she replied, "if we could live here, on this beach, I would move to New Zealand."
This is where we now live, on the beach in Karaka Bay. As I recount it now, it still feels like a dream. And it is true: Had we not driven through Auckland, had we not wandered down the hidden path to the beach, had I not left my card with the neighbors, had I not agreed to buy the house over the phone, et cetera, I could very easily imagine the dream fading. Instead, here we are, in real time: Leila and I and our two children, living, breathing in New Zealand. About to become New Zealanders. Strange. Beyond strange. It could so easily have been otherwise!
Did this really happen? Of course. But how and why? Why do people move their whole family to a completely new place? Sometimes they must. They are sent or they seek an opportunity, a teaching position, some are even banished from their own country. But on a whim? Because they have a fantasy? How many people have ever sat down in a vast travel library and said: "Right, let's choose the perfect country"? I had not done that. I had stumbled on New Zealand, though I remember when I told somebody in London that I was going there she said, "Ah, the world's best-kept secret." Yet I was totally unprepared for the magnitude of the coup de foudre. It was like falling in love, when something in the other person appeals to something you cannot name or define or even know exists. Some kind of affinity obviously links people.
I had a similar experience with Leila. She had come to visit a fellow German, an artist who was living with me in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. The three of us went for a walk on a deserted beach just down the highway from the house where we lived. I listened to Leila for a few moments, then I said to her: "Look, the Arabs have a word for it, it's called beshert, 'it is written.' We are destined for each other." She had such an open look. I liked that she was training to be a pediatrician. I liked her manner, the way she laughed with, not at. Only half an hour into our walk and I felt smitten. I continued: "We both speak lots of languages-we have lived in lots of countries. We are both, miraculously, vegetarians, and for similar reasons. We are both passionately interested in the Holocaust. We could travel the world together, live a year in each country for the next twenty years. I know I am twenty-five years older than you, but I know this was meant to be. I think we are going to get married."
Leila laughed in a good-natured way. "Yeah, right. One problem, though."
"Oh? And what might that be?"
"I wouldn't even have lunch with you, let alone marry you. Older is a euphemism. You are ancient. I don't even know anybody as old as you."
I was crushed. Served me right for making such a foolish proposal. Besides, she had a point. Leila was twenty-eight. I was fifty-three. She wanted children and I already had an adult daughter.
But I am getting carried away. I could go on for the next twenty pages telling you how I eventually succeeded in winning Leila over to my side. That is another story. This is about New Zealand. I just wanted to make the point that, yes, I am impulsive, and yes, I act on fantasies, but also that I have, sometimes, a deep intuition when something is right. I was sure about Leila, and I was sure about New Zealand. Something in me responded to the scent of paradise.
I wasn't wrong about Leila. I got it exactly right, and we have been together now for almost ten years. I have found my soul mate, my best friend, the woman in whose arms I will one day die. I know that. Perhaps there is, though, a fantasy element in my love for New Zealand. After all, my life has been dominated by the search for utopias. I have driven across the United States many times, each time taking a different route. And each time there is a hopeless longing, a fantasy really. It overcomes me at certain moments, usually in the early evening. The sun is about to set. My companion and I have stopped talking, lost in our thoughts. There is a sense of autumn, of leaves turning, of days becoming shorter, of the arrival, soon, of winter. As we drive along there is a signpost for a small town I have never heard of, somewhere in Utah, or Arizona, Montana, Colorado, Northern California, upstate Oregon, or near Seattle. We climb a hill, and then, just before the little town is visible-wham, I am hit with my fantasy.