In news that may shock diehard sports fans and delight those of literature, last night in Germany, Deputy Prime Minister Bill English said that New Zealand's role as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair this week is more important than last year's Rugby World Cup.
"Last year nothing was more important than the Rugby World Cup," the country's second-in-charge said when asked at the opening of the event, just how significant this was to the nation.
"This year, this is more important."
English was one of several New Zealand VIPs speaking at the opening ceremony of the world's biggest, and most important, book fair in the fifth-largest German city of Frankfurt. In his speech at the Harmony Room, which was close to its 2,200 head capacity, English emphasised connections between the two countries, noting that around 65,000 German tourists came to New Zealand every year.
Afterwards, at a reception hosted in the specially constructed 2,500sqm New Zealand Pavilion, which, besides New Zealand beer and wine, also featured opera singers, culture groups and a video presentation, English said this was just a very good way for a small country to get attention from one of its major trading partners and one of the biggest economies in the world.
"We sell billions of dollars worth of products here but of course, they [the Germans] are quite preoccupied with their own problems," English said, making reference to the current economic crisis in Europe. In his speech before English's, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle made this clear by concluding his welcome with an emphasis on Germany's commitment to the European Union and its common currency, on the same day German Chancellor Angela Merkel was braving protestors in financially crippled Greece.
"[The Book Fair] makes it easier for us to get their attention, which makes it easier for our businesspeople to make connections," English said.
"When you're a small country at the end of the world, you have to keep working at that - otherwise you disappear."
Writer Bill Manhire also made note of this in a humorous speech, probably the best received speech of the seven made in Frankfurt on Tuesday evening. Other speakers included the mayor of Frankfurt, Peter Feldmann, and New Zealand writer, Joy Cowley.
"When you leave New Zealand, New Zealand vanishes," Manhire told the audience.
"It's never in the news or the newspapers."
And it's true that New Zealanders travelling overseas have found that sometimes, when telling people where they come from, they need to explain that it's next to Australia.
However that is certainly not the case in Europe's financial hub this week. Ask around on Frankfurt's streets and everyone from a personal trainer to the taxi drivers knew New Zealand was Guest of Honour at the Book Fair. "The Maori men are very strong and the Maori women are very beautiful," noted one cabbie taking a New Zealander to the opening ceremony.
"This is much bigger than the Rugby World Cup," Manhire continued at the reception.
"We should have spent much more money on this - two or three times more," he argued, in reference to criticism from some corners that too much had been spent - an estimated NZ$5.5 million - on setting up the pavilion and getting around 60 New Zealand authors over to Europe.
"The Book Fair opens a door - through which not just Germany, but the whole of Europe, will see the astonishing writers that are standing on the other side of it."
Other New Zealanders in attendance were equally enthusiastic about the first few hours of this five day affair. Aspiring writer, Lucy Diver, who is helping maintain the New Zealand contingent's Book Fair blog this week, was happy that more diverse aspects of her homeland were on show. "It's just nice to see it presented honestly finally," she explained.
"Everybody can see the body - the mountains and the sea and nature - but the whole point of this is to show off New Zealand's soul."
"It's going beyond exoticism," agrees Paula Morris, whose book Rangatira won the Fiction Category Award at the New Zealand Post Book Awards in early August; a lot of Germans see New Zealand as "exotic" and it's a word that's been used a lot in the German media, Morris says.
"In some ways I think what we are doing is both working for, and against, the New Zealand Tourism Board. We're certainly increasing New Zealand's profile over here - I've done more interviews in Germany than I've ever done in England. About 30 in the last month," says the writer who has lived in Scotland for the past two years.
"But in other ways the New Zealand we are presenting is more complex. We're saying there's more to New Zealand than a rural idyll, that it can be dark, and complex and problematic too."
So what did the locals in attendance make of it all? "I didn't know it was so far away," said Serbian-German poet, Ljubisa Simic, who was there with his wife, Olga and who has written a children's poem about New Zealand sheep.
"For us it would be an once-in-a-lifetime trip."
"It was very interesting," said Thomas Ludewig from Berlin, who specialises in public relations work in the publishing industry.
"I watched the dancers but I admit I don't know enough the culture. I know New Zealand is very beautiful though."
So it seems the complexity and the multiplicity of New Zealand's culture may not have sunk in quite yet. Then again, the Book Fair is only just starting.
By around 9pm in Frankfurt, the reception hall was emptying out, the doors to the New Zealand Pavilion were closed and wait staff were tidying away the empty bottles of Monteith's.
The serious business of the book fair begins tomorrow morning, where, for five days solid, from 8am until 7.30pm, authors will talk about and tout their works, publishers will make deals and the twin focal points of the 63rd Frankfurt Book Fair - digital publishing and children's books - will be fully considered.
- www.nzherald.co.nzBy Cathrin Schaer Email Cathrin