Hey, you! Yes, you! How's it going? Pretty mean out there, eh? How've you been? What do you reckon of Sonny Bill? You think Jacinda will pull it off? How's life treating you? Enjoying Auckland? What are you up to? Doing ok? Well, are you? ARE YOU?
Chances are, you've heard all of the above - and probably already at least twice today. I know I have. And, truth be told, it seriously weirds me out.
Let me tell you why.
It's no secret that Kiwis are a friendly bunch. But the friendliness of these denizens of the Land of the Long White Cloud takes on a whole other meaning when you're, well, not from here - and especially when you've spent significant time in places not exactly known for the warmth of their citizens.
I should probably be a bit careful here. Don't get me wrong: I love Germany. But "friendliness" isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the people of Deutschland. Speaking from experience, if you're approached by a stranger in Berlin, odds are that said stranger is either a) drunk, b) hoping to sell you drugs, c) dealing with a mental health crisis, or d) an awe-inspiring "alte Frau" (elderly woman) who wishes to scold you for committing an offence that, 50 years ago, someone would never even think of doing (like crossing the street at a crosswalk when there are no cars around but the crossing signal is red).
I also used to live in Sweden. You never, ever talk to strangers in Sweden for any reason. End of.
Aotearoa, however, is a different story. You seemingly can't go anywhere here without someone materialising out of nowhere to say "hello" and ask how you're doing. While I'm sure some people would find such overt friendliness charming, I find it odd. After all, in Sweden, asking someone if they're "doing ok" is usually something you say to someone who you think might be at risk of harming themselves.
Another thing I've noticed about Kiwis: they seem to like to hug people a lot. I've never been much of a hugger. And, again, in Scandinavia normally you absolutely do not, under any circumstances touch someone for any reason unless they are a very close family member or someone you're intimately involved with. You just don't do it. Needless to say, getting used to that here has been a bit of a shock.
And what's up with all the smiling? I'm not a dentist. Why the constant need for people I don't know to show me their teeth? Thanks to my experiences here, if I ever did decide to go back to school to study dentistry, I could just skip the first couple of courses and go straight to the hands-on root canal lessons.
You'd think after more than two years in this country I'd be used to all the smiling and hugging and friendliness by now. But no. Every time a stranger introduces themselves in a non-professional setting, I'm about as confused as that time I had to make a self-confession to a crooked museum director and his Korean People's Army in rural northern North Korea: I'd run afoul of some regulation about photography that, to this day, still baffles me.
Just the other day, for instance, I was attempting to purchase food at the supermarket. As usual, I was head-spinningly bamboozled by the sheer amount of different chocolates for sale; believe me, when candy is one of your three main food groups (along with hot chocolate and coffee), deciding what's going to make up the bulk of your diet for the coming week is serious business. While scratching my head so hard I was on the verge of hitting my frontal lobe, a bearded fellow in a plaid shirt and jeans seemingly stepped out of the shelf.
"A lot of choices, aye?"
I was momentarily taken aback. Who was this person? I was fairly certain they were human, at least; I don't believe ghosts usually look like the Brawny Man (of US paper towel company fame) or Jemaine Clement's more rugged twin.
Before I could respond, I was treated to an in-depth lecture about the benefits and drawbacks of all the different brands of chocolate for sale. This wasn't the first time a stranger had randomly started a conversation with me in the chocolate aisle at a supermarket, either. Then again, I once found myself in a castle in the woods full of people who actually thought they were vampires (I'm not kidding), so maybe I'm just a magnet for strange people.
Aside from offering unsolicited advice about what type of confectionaries to buy, holding doors open for you even if you're 200 metres away, and saying "Kia Ora" as you stumble past, Kiwis also seem to go above and beyond to help strangers when they don't have to.
While getting ready to move to Auckland, I was worried about not being able to find a place to live. I relayed my concerns to an editor who lived in the city, and in less than 24 hours she provided me with the phone number of a friend of a friend who had a place that I ended up moving into. I was all the more amazed considering this particular editor has a schedule that would make 99.99 per cent of us drop dead within a week. At that point I hadn't even met her, communicated with her beyond email, or even been working for her for very long.
There've been other instances of seemingly random acts of kindness, too. But, honestly, if I were to list them all, your eyes would glaze over at least three times.
So, are Kiwis the friendliest people in the world? They just might be. If nothing else, it certainly feeds into the stereotype that the whole nation is really just one giant, oversized village.
But as I've learned, every village needs a "Julmarknad" (Swedish Christmas market). If only because their chocolate selection is second-to-none.
Would a friendly Kiwi please direct me to the nearest one?