When was the last time you were in shorts and sandals enjoying some BBQ out on the porch? Ok, well how about the last time you did that in December? How about while watching people bowling on the front lawn?
Welcome to Christmas in New Zealand.
Allow me if you will to take you back to a rainy week in September, and recount an ever-so-brief encounter in Poland. Hanging out in the dorm room one day (probably watching Terminator 2 or Aliens), I ended up talking to a very cool couple from New Zealand. Wehrle and Tash were from Auckland and were just getting started on a six-month adventure through Europe and Northern Africa. We chatted about this and that - about my trip and theirs, about New Zealand and Auschwitz. An hour later, I was convinced they were two of the coolest people I've met on the trip. For whatever reason - demeanor, humor, shared attitude about the hazards of everyday, cubed occupations and the healing powers of travel... we made a connection - where you feel you may have met at some forgotten point in the past and had a great time, and inexplicably forgot about it until they walked back into your life with backpacks on. Anyway, to make a long story shorter (and of course, relevant to the tale before you) we decided it would be a brilliant idea for me to look them up when I made it to New Zealand in December.
Fast forward to early December - True to our individual words, Wehrle, Tash and I have traded a few emails, concluding I'd be in the general vicinity of Auckland around Christmas time. Graciously and awesomely (is that even a word?) they invited me to join them for Christmas.
Now fast forward to December 24. Around 7:30, I took a bus across the harbor to meet up with Tash. She and a friend of hers were headed to meet some friends for a drink, and invited me to join them. It was great to see Tash again. It brought back the memories from Poland, and reminded me what it's like to see old friends. She was accompanied by her friend Laura, a tall blonde from England who was also making her first visit to New Zealand. We headed down to the happenin' part of town, and met up with a few more friends. Before retiring for the night, we made plans to meet up tomorrow morning to drive out to Wehrle's parents' house, where we'd all be celebrating Christmas.
Tash and Laura picked me up in a white hatchback, and sped us off toward Matamata. Being retired farmers, Wehrle's folks live in the country. Two hours of scenic green countryside later, we pulled into the driveway of an amazing ranch-style house set on two or three acres. It was a very modern design and a fairly recent build, which consisted of what seemed to be about 60% windows. And with their view, I can see why.
Wehrle met us in the driveway, along with several other members of his family. It was absolutely great to see him again. His hair was a bit bigger and the goatee a bit fuller, but it was Wehrle just the same. We went inside, where he promptly introduced me to everyone in his family, along with some neighbors who might as well be. Of course, five minutes later I had no idea who was who. Everyone was incredibly nice, which was wonderful, because I felt a bit like an interloper on a good family's Christmas celebration. However, everyone went out of their way to make me feel welcome, which was a present in itself. (Think about that for a minute. Imagine if your son/daughter brought some bigger-than average dude from another country - which they met in Poland for a grand total of about five hours - into your house for Christmas. How cool is that?)
After a quick tour of the amazing house, Wehrle and I caught up over a beer on our various travels since we last spoke. He and Tash had had quite an adventure, hitting 33 countries in a little under six months. They hit a bunch of places in Europe that I missed, and parts of Northern Africa, including Morocco. Sweet.
Now, as you might expect, Christmas dinner in New Zealand is a tad different than in the States. Like the entire country, things are a bit more relaxed. While big ol' turkeys, hams, mashed potatoes and gravy and all the fixin's eaten in Sunday's best may be tradition in the States, Kiwis bust out the barbeque - as you do in the summer months. It was pretty overcast, and a few drops were starting to fall, but don't think a little rain was going to stop the festivities. We absolutely stuffed ourselves on Swiss and New Zealand-style sausages, grilled meatloaf, boiled potatoes, four or five different kinds of salads, Swiss bread... It was a grand feast.
The rest of Christmas day was pretty similar to back home. A couple little ones ran around like chickens with their new toys; the ladies chatted about kids and gossip over cups of tea, the men talked about farming and sports around bottles of beer. Before long though, the rain cleared, and we all ended up outside - to watch some bowling. Yeah, that's right - bowling.
Apparently there is a decent-sized Swiss contingency in the area, and they meet on a pretty regular basis. One of their favorite past times is Swiss bowling, which is played outside. As you might expect, the "Swiss Club" has a portable set, which just happened to be set up on the Wehrle's front lawn. It was good fun. Everyone got involved - young and old, grandmas and grandpas. Unfortunately, the rain came back, and we had to call the game before a winner was crowned.
After, we ended up busting out a poker set, and after a slow start for some first-timers, had a pretty decent round of Texas Hold'em. To top it off, Borat happened to be on TV - twice! And let me say, being the only American in a room full of witty Kiwis while watching someone just embarrass our country is a weird place to be. There were lots of questions to answer.
Pretty much your average Christmas, right?
I wish I had the words to express the Gratitude I have to the entire set of family and friends who made me feel like a part of the family in a matter of minutes. You can't understand what that meant to me. Especially being so far from home. Tash and Wehrle - thank you from the bottom of my heart.
It was a Christmas I'll never forget. A beautiful setting, and beautiful people. I'm not sure why I've been so blessed this year. But it's amazing to see where you end up if you just show a little trust.