In the moment: Five Kiwis' special experiences

By Alan Perrott, Greg Dixon

Dame Fiona Kidman. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Dame Fiona Kidman. Photo / Mark Mitchell

There are some things in life you will never forget. Five well-known New Zealanders talk about their special experiences

Dame Fiona Kidman, writer, Wellington

In 2006 I was the Katherine Mansfield memorial fellow in Menton, on the Riviera in France. I'd never lived abroad before, though I'd gone overseas quite a lot.

One of the things we loved to do was to go up into the villages up above Menton. There are little roads winding up into the mountains and you go higher and higher and loop around the most extraordinary hairpin bends. You just wander around in a village and have a lunch there, a bit of rose wine and look out for miles and miles across, in one direction, to Monaco and, on the other side, Italy.

It's truly marvellous. We did a lot of this going into the villages. And there was one in particular that we went to called Sainte-Agnes. It's the highest coastal village in the whole of Europe.

Straight up from the sea, it's 5.6km. At the very top, if you're very fit - and we did this only once or twice - there are ruins of an old chateau. It's a pretty steep climb.

About halfway up, two women have created a medieval garden and it is the most exquisite little place. It has only those herbs and flowers that were grown in medieval times. Its gardens are shaped in little stars and crosses. And it was just the most beautiful, peaceful, extraordinary place.

The last day that we were there, looking down on this vast coastal landscape over three countries at once, was beautiful, magical and it was simply saying goodbye, in a way, to this time in France. We, my husband Ian and I, knew, because we're not terribly young, that we would never have an opportunity like this again. It just seemed to capture a special sort magic for us. It seemed to sum up the whole Riviera experience. So I wrote a poem about it.

One of the special things about being in Menton was that, although I had published several collections of poetry early in my writing career, I hadn't done a book of poems for 17 years. And it was in Menton that I started to write poetry again. I hadn't gone there with the intention of writing poetry.

It was extraordinary and truly unexpected. It was part of the gift of fellowship, if you like. When I read back the poem I feel a great sense of longing and also a sense of gratitude. It's also dedicated to my husband, so it's a love poem too. It's a poem about being old together and having had an miraculous and wonderful experience together.

The garden at Sainte-Agnes
for Ian

Hanging there in the rocks,
the highest coastal village
in all of Europe: the first challenge
is to climb to the ruin of the castle
at the very top, and next
is to climb back down. But somewhere

round eight hundred metres
there is a medieval garden
tended by two patient women.
There were days when we needed
to go to the hills, to sit in the garden
beside the low parterres

shaped in crosses and stars
around the apple trees, to simply
watch the small orange butterflies
losing themselves in the spent
tiger lilies, inhale the thyme
and chives and potted sage

and watch the sheep of Sainte-Agnes
grazing in all the dim sweet
green world down below. If it was
never more perfect than this
it would be enough and more. Dear,
there is is so much to remember.

Where Your Left Hand Rests: a collection of poems, by Fiona Kidman ($36.99, Random House).

Geoff Scott, restaurateur and chef, Vinnies, Auckland

The proudest moment of my childhood was during my short and illustrious rugby career in South Auckland for Ardmore Rugby Club.

I grew up on one those classic 10 acre (4ha) blocks - city life while farming - out in a place called Brookby, which is between Clevedon and Whitford. It was classic good life, where you bred rabbits and had a milking cow and goats. It was "city slickers go to the country and have a crack at the good life".

Anyway, I was 10 and our team was asked to play a curtain-raiser for the British Lions' tour of New Zealand. It was 1977.

We went to Pukekohe stadium to play before the Lions played Counties-Thames Valley. This was massive, absolutely massive. And just being little whippersnappers, instead of getting to play on the whole pitch, we had to play across the pitch.

So they had one game of whippersnappers on the left-hand side, another game on the right. We were still in bare feet, believe it or not. I can't remember who we were playing, but it was just huge, just going onto the pitch, out there in uniforms with our famous red shorts. I was playing number 8. I was very handy at the age of 10, very handy indeed.

In fact I was so handy that it came as a bit of surprise actually that at half-time, to my disappointment and surprise, I was subbed off - in front of a record crowd.

To add insult to injury, the team was so short of uniforms that day that I had to change my shorts with someone actually on the field in front of that massive crowd.

In the space of one morning of my life I'd had this absolute absolute exhilaration, excitement and pride, only to be smashed within seconds of being told, at half-time, "Scotty, you're off, someone else is coming on in your place and can you please just take those red shorts off and give them to your mate".

It's a moment, unfortunately, I'll never forget. It was the absolute high and low in one day. And it was pretty much the rugby career over.

I never really recovered from that. I played a bit of high school rugby but it never really seemed the same.

Alexandra Owen, fashion designer, Wellington

Just over a year ago, my husband James Whitta and I had a secret registry office wedding. We planned it months in advance. We didn't want a big wedding. We're quite private people and not really show ponies and I really couldn't bear the thought of getting into a white tutu and exchanging intimate feelings with hundreds people there.

We needed to have witnesses who weren't family members to witness the marriage. We were really desperately trying to avoid a [fuss] and we knew that if we told anybody, there would be this sudden lockdown from the family and pressure to have a "wedding".

I tricked two of my employees, Kenzy Cheeseman and Julia Thompson, into being witnesses at wedding, basically because they were forced to be at work in the morning and would come to any appointment that we told them to come to. But also they'd been in the business a wee while and we were quite fond of them.

We told them we were going to a meeting and that it was very important. Julie, who worked instore and did some marketing work as well, has since left. Kenzy is my head pattern-maker, so makes the beautiful clothes with me.

Anyway, I told them "this is a very important meeting at Trade and Enterprise, you've got to do us proud, make sure you dress up very smartly". So they did. They looked amazing. They wondered what was up in that morning actually, because apparently we walked in beaming and glided through our workspace.

Everyone was very curious as to why James and I were so happy. On the morning we took them up to The Terrace in Wellington where both the Trade and Enterprise offices and Births, Deaths and Marriages are and managed to get as far as the lift and push the button for Births, Deaths and Marriages without them noticing. It was quite hilarious, they came right up in the lift without realising.

Kenzy even said out loud "oh Births, Deaths and Marriages" when I pushed the button but still didn't click. We just kept saying, "no, we're going to Trade and Enterprise".

The door opened and the celebrant was there and said "are you here for the wedding?" We said "yes we are" and everyone broke into a roar of surprise and horror and excitement. They were really excited and we shed a few tears. We had to a wait before we went into the registry - the "pink room". It has pink walls and pink carpet with a picture of the Queen on the wall. It was quite funny.

We had to have our picture taken with the Queen. We've got pictures of Kenzy and Julie signing the marriage certificate. You basically have to say two sentences in ordered be legally married before you sign.

So it was very short, just the way we wanted. And no, we're not planning any deceptions for our first anniversary on March 20. Alexandra Owen's first Auckland store opens next Friday.

Bernice Mene, former Silver Fern, Auckland

I was 16 and on my way to Germany for a sixth form exchange trip. I was really excited but really nervous as well because not only was I going to be away from my family for 10 weeks, I was going to a completely foreign country.

It was supposed to be about being completely immersed in the German language, no English at all. I was way outside my comfort zone. But I'd been studying German at school for four years and all the way over I kept thinking to myself that everything would be all right. It helped that there was a whole group of us travelling together, including my best mate.

Safety in numbers, I suppose. Then we got off at Dusseldorf and went out to find our host families - well they found us, they had our photos.

So, I saw them waving at me and walked over, smiling and practising my welcome in my head. Everything was fine until they started talking. I didn't understand a single word. I just remember standing there, nodding and shaking my head, not understanding anything that was happening and quietly panicking that I was going to have to keep this up for another 10 weeks.

Four years of German lessons flew out the window. On the trip out to their home in Essen, my host father kept pointing at all these buildings and things and delivering this lecture as we drove past. I just kept on nodding.

Let's just say I was a little apprehensive about how well this experience was going to pan out. But pretty soon we were all laughing about it because just about the only thing I could say that they could understand was: "How do I get to the station?" And they couldn't speak any English.

The next few weeks were really intense, I just did the best I could. I listened hard and kept on trying. They were really different to any family I knew as well, from the food they ate to what they talked about - lots of politics.

At the end of the sixth week - I remember I was sitting on the toilet in their home - when I suddenly realised I was thinking in German. It had just sneaked up on me. When I thought about it I realised I had been dreaming in German as well.

Just coming to the realisation felt amazing, I hadn't thought it would be possible. That moment was enough to send me down a languages track and into teaching. I did it again just recently, after Dancing With The Stars.

Once that was over I really felt like I needed a break. I just took off on my own and did a three-week immersion course in Costa Rica. I loved it. The whole time I was felt transported back to sixth form.

Ruth Carr, vocalist in Wellington group Minuit I was adopted out and for years my birth mother had been telling me that she had never had any other children. Then out of the blue she called me and said I had a brother who wanted to meet me.

To be honest, I was over all the bullshit she had been telling me by then. I had no more energy for her games, especially as I'd had a recent cancer diagnosis and was dealing with a lot of stuff. So, I said "no, push off". Then I started to think about him and not her. I decided I really should do this and set up a meeting. This was 2006, I was 31, he was 28.

When I saw him my first thought was: "We are not related ..." He was really tall, a big dude - whereas I'm really skinny - with black, black hair.

But he had green eyes like me. Then he started to tell me his story ... it was really moving. His [adoptive] parents divorced. She got custody, but his dad stole him and they were on the run around Aussie for a few years.

Then when he was 16, he came home from school and found his dad dead from a heart attack. He said he had always, always, always wanted to have someone else in his life like a brother or sister or something. Then our birth mum accidentally let it slip. He said hearing that news was like a dream, like imagining your family were gypsies and then finding out it's true. He became desperate to meet me.

With all that, it wasn't long before we were both bawling. A bit later on, I sent him a necklace to celebrate, they're dog tags engraved with the date we found each other ... he got me ... well, something else.

Anyway, we're totally in touch now. We went over for his wedding and go over from time to time to visit our little nieces. We look after each other's back now. But you have to remember that this was something I hadn't wanted to do.

Imagine how that rejection would have felt for him? So I learned some important things from that meeting: you can easily break someone without meaning to; don't let other people script your life; and that the adults in charge really do suck.

The next generation needs to do a much better job.

- NZ Herald

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