Kiwi Abroad

Matt Kennedy-Good extends his OE and follows his heart to Finland

Speaking of New Zealand

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Sanna and I enjoying a full moon party in Thailand en route to New Zealand. Photo / Matt Kennedy-Good
Sanna and I enjoying a full moon party in Thailand en route to New Zealand. Photo / Matt Kennedy-Good

Wherever my girlfriend Sanna and I went in South East Asia, people said the same sort of thing.

"New Zealand? What a country!"

"Landscapes too beautiful for words!"

"People so friendly you'll never want to leave!"

Sanna - nervous about moving to New Zealand - began to wonder if I was paying people off.

I was accustomed to hearing such gushing compliments about home. When a group of travellers from around the world say where they are from, I find it is usually the mention of New Zealand that excites people the most.

Whether it is the scenery, the people, or Flight of the Conchords, wherever I have travelled people seem to love something about New Zealand.

Even though I can take about as much credit for the hilarity of The Flight of the Conchords as I can for the beauty of the Southern Alps, it still feels like I am in some way more popular because of my accident of birth.

Other Kiwis I know have reported similar experiences.

Jon Bon Jovi once bought my cousin a beer simply because he was from New Zealand.

Other friends escaped a fine for not paying on the New York subway when the guard recognised their accent.

"You crazy kiwis!" he yelled. "Get away with you!"

But my favourite example is from a few years ago, while I was travelling in the US with a friend from Wellington.

We had just met a couple of cute Canadian girls, one of whom my friend had his eye on.

Although my friend has always been shy, initially things were going well for him.

She was single, a big fan of The Lord of the Rings - which my friend had apparently worked on - and loved nature.

After only a few minutes of conversation - far too early in my opinion - my friend asked for her email address.

The girl was hesitant. I couldn't help grimacing, seeing that he had come across as overly eager.

Finally, when she had no alternative she spat it out: "It's Wannabeakiwi@hotmail.com," she said, avoiding eye contact.

It was a good night for my friend.

While travelling with Sanna, the positive comments were even more welcome than usual.

With every glowing review she seemed more relaxed about leaving all her friends and family behind in Europe and travelling to the end of the earth.

For a time I even became worried that she would be disappointed when we arrived. I warned her about Wellington's relentless wind and the joke that houses are so cold people leave their fridges open to warm them.

It was at this time, while we were relaxing on beaches in southern Thailand, that we swapped a few of our books for Paul Theroux's The Happy Isle's of Oceania.

Although reluctant at first - I had found his book Fresh Air Fiend a rather tedious work of self glorification - in the end I agreed to the exchange.

Officially I capitulated because I thought it would be interesting to hear his perspective on circa 1990 NZ. Secretly I was looking forward to more lavish praise to heighten our excitement about arriving in NZ.

More than just interesting, I found his views engrossing. Not that I told Sanna this.

"I think we should swap back" I said. "It's awfully bulky."

"It will ruin the surprises," I explained, when she insisted on keeping it.

In the end, I gave in. It was only one man's perspective, after all.

Below are some of Theroux's kinder comments (the ones where he isn't inferring that all New Zealanders are racist, for example).

Wellington was "bungaloid" with a "wind so strong it had shape and substance".

Christchurch was a "prim and moribund... purgatory".

Dunedin was "cold and frugal with shabby streets" full of "ignorant and dirty" students.

Auckland suburbs like Ponsonby, he saw as "second-hand and small and seedy, ill-suited and mediocre..."

The most terrible aspect of this, he went on to say, "was that the New Zealanders themselves did not seem to know what was happening to them in their decline...".

Everywhere he went, people asked him what he thought of Na Zillun.

"Wonderful" he would answer (with self satisfied irony I'm assuming). Upon hearing this, people would always shrug and deny the compliment in a way so persistent that "it was almost as though in their stubborn humility they were fishing for compliments".

It was possibly the most withering assessment of any destination I have ever read by any author.

Along with shaking my view of home, it made me wonder: Is this why people speak so highly of New Zealand? Because they think we are desperate for the compliments? I cringed at the thought.

On the bright side, I wouldn't have to waste anymore time ensuring Sanna's expectations weren't set too high.

"What do you think of the book?" I asked her a few days later, noticing she had read a few chapters.

"It's ok" she said, "but this Paul Theroux seems to think an awful lot of himself. Did you read the chapter where he keeps repeating how someone supposedly told him that he was the funniest writer in the world?"

"I didn't get that far," I said.

"It gets boring after a while," she said.

"I prefer writers that are able to make fun of themselves."

"What do you think of his comments about Na Zillun?" I asked.

"If you think he is harsh on New Zealand, you should see what he says about Australia" she said, tossing the book aside derisively.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

- Matt Kennedy-Good

Pictured above: Sanna and I enjoying a full moon party in Thailand en route to New Zealand. Photo / Matt Kennedy-Good

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