Once in a while, a setting or a scene remains etched in my mind. In many cases they are the awe-inspiring settings of well-known landmarks. Those are the easy ones. Sometimes, though, less obvious places reveal something you weren't expecting. And that "something" may not be much at all - just a view of local life, or the ramblings of a community elder. The sleepy little town of Greymouth, New Zealand for some reason had two such scenes for me. And they were in very different places - well, kind of. One was from the bar, and one from church. How's that for balance?
Saturday night, I found myself walking the deserted streets of Greymouth - mainly because I was bored and didn't want to spend all night in the hostel with a bunch of randoms putting a puzzle together on the dining room table.
I meandered my way by the Monteith's brewery, then down by the river, then back through the old downtown area. After about a half hour of wandering, I found myself in front of an Irish bar called "Danny Doolin's". As it was one of the only establishments open, and that it was only 9:00 and the sun was just now going down, I decided to see if they had run out of beer.
I walked through the wood and glass door to find a low-ceilinged room with worn green carpeting and dark wood fixtures. Three men sat at the bar, talking to two girls behind the counter. An old man stood near a pillar, listening to the conversation. An older couple sat at a table on the right, conversing in low voices over empty wine glasses. I heard the crack of a pool table in the back rooms.
A couple of heads turned as I came in, but the music kept playing. I walked up to the bar, and asked the cuter of the two girls what she recommended. As she was pulling the tap marked "Export Gold," a girl came from a back room and stopped when she saw me. "Oh my God. You're huge."
To make a long story short, the girl was about 4'11" and was fascinated, which in turn made everyone else fascinated. She darted out from behind the bar and started measuring herself next to me. Now, honestly, this happens from time to time. What do you do? Everyone now has a smile on their face and is enjoying the scene. I can't very well be an a-hole and push her away, right? She looked up and asked if she could take a picture. Yeah, sure. Whatever.
After the resulting picture-show, I followed an invisible current away from the spectacle I was just at the center of the low doorframe nearby where I could hide a bit. Hard to hide when you are one of seven people in the bar. I was alone for all of 30 seconds when the white-haired old man came waddling over.
As he approached, it seemed I was being confronted by J.R.R. Tolkien himself. A thin but pleasant smile on a short, compact old face. A rosy, button nose protruded between wrinkled red cheeks. Wisps of white hair seemed to protrude from every orifice - nose, ears - it even seemed his eyebrows had extra hair. His eyes were small but happy, and seemed recessed a bit due to the overgrowth above them. He was wearing a checked white and red collared shirt covered by a pale grey sweater vest. Grey old-man trousers were hiked up too far, revealing brown socks with geometric patterns which dove into worn black shoes with tassels. An age-spotted right hand was wrapped around a pint of gold ale, and the left was tucked neatly into his pants pocket.
He sat at a nearby table and talked at me for a while about the train from Christchurch and about his unquestioned preference for Monteith's Golden vs. Monteith's Pale Ale. Flippancy and disregard for "real" life was attached to "North Islanders" with a wave of the hand. We talked about pleasant weather and real scenery which those "North Islanders" also knew nothing about.
He rose slowly from the table, and I then received a tour of the bar - consisting of about 15 short steps. I was shown the doorway leading to the gaming area, and the doorway leading to the attached hotel. I was shown the pool table which had been in use since my arrival, and was shown the fireplace, which in case you were wondering is original in this building.
Five minutes later, an acquaintance of his came in - an older man with a burgundy sweater and a charcoal golf hat, which provided a much-needed distraction. I rounded a corner, and sat down at a table in a vacant part of the room. Above the bar was a small television re-broadcasting yesterday's friendly between the L.A. Galaxy and the Wellington Phoenix. To my surprise, no one was watching it. Perhaps they already knew the outcome. Perhaps they care about as much about Beckham and soccer as we do in the US.
I watched the people in the bar for a few minutes. They carried on, talking about whatever you do in slow Irish pubs on Saturday nights. I watched the girls behind the bar talk to each other in whispers and to the old regulars in shouts that pulled up stools near the taps. I saw hugs and handshakes of mates as they left - slaps on the back and the ordering of another round as new friends came in.
After another ten minutes, I finished my beer and headed out, amid the stares of the remaining patrons. For whatever reason, this experience stuck with me. It wasn't all that different than others I've had this year, but I've been thinking about it ever since.
After breakfast on Sunday morning I asked reception where I could find a good church. My choices were somewhat limited. After shaking off the signs for a Catholic and an Anglican delivery, I got one for a Baptist Church. That'll do.
It turns the Greymouth Baptist Church is a good two kilometer walk from the hostel.
About 20 minutes later, I found the alluded-to yellow "Baptist Church" street sign pointing to the right. It took me a couple minutes to actually find it though, as this particular church occupied the back 2/3 of a retail building. The front end turned out to be a second-hand furniture shop. The small parking lot was about half-full, with a few people just turning off their engines. In front of me, family of six was herding itself toward the entrance. I followed them in - finding a pleasant little foyer with tile floors and a Christmas tree. I was greeted by a salt-and pepper bearded man with a firm handshake, a cheerful smile and a church bulletin.
I entered a set of glass doors into the small sanctuary and found a seat toward the far-right of the semi-circle of folding chairs. At the focal point was a small, nicely carpeted stage with a bare white wall. A cross was posted to the wall on the side - composed of twisted rusty metal and old wood. It seemed out of place here, but kept my attention.
A few minutes later, the father of the family of six I saw earlier shepherded his lot over in my direction and sat down in front of me. He turned around offering a big smile and an introduction. Philip was a talkative balding fellow with rimless glasses, probably in his mid 30's. His wife was a quiet slightly overweight red-head, who occupied with keeping track of the children, which included two twin boys who looked to be about two years old. We had a good discussion, covering topics of travel, church and the ocean. Interestingly, invariable of the subject, our conversation somehow ended in a discussion of property values.
The service was nice - a short set of contemporary songs, led by a short, black-headed guy in his mid-40's. A small projector threw the Christmas-themed lyrics onto the bare space behind him. The congregation of about 40-50 sang out to each song - complete with the ridiculously off-key old bird behind me.
In an admirable feat of double-duty, the song leader turned out to be the preacher. He led a quick prayer, then provided a brief interlude by allowing members to come forward to run advertisements from the newspaper through an office shredder. A couple minutes of laughter at a symbol of keeping Christmas focused on the right thing.
I had a second to look through the bulletin, and found the contact information of the small staff. Oh - and there was Philip's name - Church Accountant. Of course.
There was a brief discussion of Advent, and the lighting of the first candle. The sermon was short and sweet, and we were dismissed after a final song and a concluding prayer. After the service, I hung around to talk to a few members of the church who all seemed to stick around afterwards for a cup of tea, including an amiable guy who spoke about the church's focus on Advent this year.
As you might expect, traveling doesn't always afford a chance to make it to a service every week. It was great to be around a happy church family. Small as it may have been, it felt good to be back in church, and around a set of people who genuinely felt like a community. Something you almost forget about after being on the road for a while.
Seems like no matter how far away from home you get, small town life is about the same. Townies at the bar, locals at the church. Community is community, and life is life, be it in a local tavern or in the church sanctuary - or in the US or New Zealand for that matter.