Sunday, February 25, 2007

Summer Celebration

Last night, we sang with a massed choir as part of the Starlight Symphony event, an evening of outdoor entertainment for an estimated crowd of 200,000, presenting a complete spectrum of music from opera/classical to New Zealand Idol pop music and lounge lizard schmaltz.

Our massed choir of about 400 members began rehearsals for the concert just a week ago. Our conductor had to try to keep 400 people together, which is not an easy task ... but not nearly as hard as keeping 400 people together WITH the orchestra. However, under the able management of the gifted and ever-patient John Rosser, we all pulled together and presented a very respectable concert. John was dressed in a glitzy new waistcoat that his septuagenarian mother sewed for him (as she does every year). He also wore white gloves so we could see his hands better in the dark, which he donned ominously, shoving each finger tightly into the fabric as if he was getting ready to commit a heinous crime and didn't want to leave any fingerprints. Fortunately, the white gloves also made him look a bit like Mickey Mouse which reversed the sinister factor considerably. The choir was seated in the bleachers in front of the Cricket Pavilion while the orchestra was on the stage behind us, along with the hosts and soloists. The only problem with our seats was that they were hard, wooden, backless bleachers. I had heeded the warning to bring a cushion along, but Curt assured me he wouldn't need one. Ha. Guess who wanted MY cushion for the 2nd half when his butt started to go numb.

The crowd had set up folding camp chairs and laid out picnic blankets on the grass, stretching across the Auckland Domain for several hundred metres. As darkness came, children activated their green and blue glow-in-the-dark candles, swaying them to the music as you might see at a rock concert. It was a well-mannered, multi-cultural, multi-generational crowd.

Besides the choir and the orchestra, there were about 6-8 soloists. One of the more curious performers was a soloist who, a few days earlier, had arrived at our choir rehearsal in his flash convertible (parked conveniently but illegally right in front of the venue), with his shirt unbuttoned too far and wearing designer sunglasses. Next, he proceeded to blow kisses to us. Hmmm. The expression on our conductor's face of barely concealed contempt was almost as entertaining to watch as the strutting itself. Then our star opened his mouth and sang. What a voice! He has a lovely, clear tenor voice, a successful singing career in London, and is good looking. So I was incredibly curious as to why he felt he needed to act so cheesy. And that was only the rehearsal! Wait till you hear what he did at the performance: he wore a lizard skin jacket, and during one part of the song, he pulled it off one shoulder as if he was stripping/undressing. There was also, of course, a good deal of hip thrusts and come-hither looks. It really was too much for me. But he sang like Pavarotti so I may have to forgive him most of his sleaze.

One sweet moment was when the throng of revellers arose to dance a waltz performed by the orchestra. The sight of all that spontaneous joyous motion was quite a spectacle to see. Leading the dance on stage was a discus thrower "who could smash a watermelon with her thighs" (as the host described her) but was remarkably light on her feet. She had been a contestant last year on New Zealand's Dancing with the Stars and she and her dance partner had been a crowd favourite all the way until their second-place finish. I can see why. It was quite impressive and a little surprising to see this huge woman wearing a size 26(?) glittering gown gliding across the stage with such glamour and grace. She qualified for the Olympics on Thursday and danced for the crowd on Saturday. Wow.

The choir also had a good time performing a bit of choreographed cardboard flashing during the classic Beach Boys' tune, Good Vibrations. For most of us, putting the cards up and down at the right time was more difficult than singing, plus we had to sway (in the correct direction), and do a psychedelic card spin for The Big Finish. Who knew we had such diverse talent.

The programme energy was raised to a mighty crescendo with full orchestra and choir performing Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, complete with cannon, a barrage of fireworks, and a laser light show. The crowd went wild. The concussion from the cannon fire was enough to take your breath away. Sitting at the outer edge of the altos meant that I was only a few metres away from the cannons. Even though you know they're going to go off, you're still blown out of your seat. Ka-BOOM!

Sitting at the outer edge of the altos also meant that I was right by the aisle where the celebrities entered and exited. The Prime Minister went by. Hi, Helen. As did my friend the lounge lizard (with his cell phone stuck to his ear). This is the point at which I could name-drop a little ... except I've never heard of the stars who were there: Boh Runga, Andy Lovegrove, Geoff Sewell, The LadyKillers. I'm obviously too old to know who the latest stars are.

The programme concluded with the New Zealand national anthem sung in Maori and English (as it always is), and the pride and goodwill of the people was palpable. The evening ended with a quick and orderly departure of the sated crowd, and we only saw a limited amount of litter which we found unusual for such a large number of people where alcohol was neither prohibited nor abused.

The festive spirit engendered by the free concert was a perfect way for us to blend into the local culture and to feel more a part of the wider Auckland community. Mostly it was a magical evening of good clean fun, made even more special by my singing buddy, a recent widow, who was reminded of last year's event when she had been seated out in the crowd with her husband. We hugged and she wiped her tears while we listened to the New Zealand Idol judge crooning the words from Bridge Over Troubled Water:
When you're weary, feeling small.
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.
I'm on your side. when times get rough.
And friends just can't be found,
Like a bridge over troubled water.
I will lay me down.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Back to Work

The summer holidays are over, and school has started up again. I'm back at work. It's weird to have this all happening in February instead of September. I may never get used to it.

Being away from work for 2 months over the summer meant that I forgot my passwords (There are 3 different ones for various library systems). I couldn't remember my morning routine at work as I open the library, turn on the lights, turn on the computers, etc. Every morning I seem to forget something different. I even forgot to feed the fish.

One bit of excitement for the library staff was a box of chocolate given to us by an English teacher. This assortment was the expensive kind and even came with a diagram showing which shape represented which flavour. I love those. We 4 librarians decided to each eat one chocolate every day. Since it was the inaugural day of the box, though, I proposed that we each eat two this time. Lucy seconded the seconds. We ate two. At the end of lunchtime, Barbara sealed the box with a label and wrote her signature across it, to try to make sure I didn't eat any more. (I arrive at the library every morning at 7:30 and am all by myself for the first 90 minutes so I could - in theory - eat extras during that time and nobody would be the wiser.) Still, I couldn't believe they didn't trust me! I told Lara and Lucy what she'd done and said, "Can you believe it?" They responded, "Yes." When I got home that night, I told Curt what Barbara had done. "Can you believe it?" "Yes."

Later that week, I encountered a good example of the British influence on New Zealand society. We were discussing the news that Prince Harry was going to serve in Iraq. They were all worried about him and concerned for his safety. I said, "He's just the second son. They'll still have William." Well, that elicited a horrified response from everyone which included loud gasps and statements such as, "You're so American!" They said it good-naturedly, and clearly kidding me, but there's an element of truth there. Of course, they went on to explain that it's commonly believed that Prince Harry's real father is James Hewitt, with whom Diana was having an affair. Apparently Hewitt is a redhead and so is Harry and most people believe that Charles isn't Harry's real father. This was all news to me.

Another example that happened this week was when Lara was trying to describe a certain student: "She has dark hair cut in a bob." Nobody knew who she was talking about yet. "And she looks very British." Suddenly EVERYONE knew who she meant. What does one look like if one "looks British"? Apparently, it means one has pale skin. Looking British is not a description that we would use in America, but everyone here certainly knew what it meant!

I also learned 2 more pronunciations this week:
• Mocha is pronounced mock-a, not moke-a. I told Curt to make a note of that for the next time he orders a coffee.
• Furore is the NZ spelling for furor, and is pronounced fyer-or-ee. I'd seen the spelling but didn't realise it was pronounced differently until I head someone on the radio say it. I learn something new every day.

It's nice to be back in New Zealand where my brain is constantly stimulated by Kiwi pronunciations, words, and culture. When describing this aspect of living abroad to an old friend in Bellingham, she pointed out that most people would find so much newness exhausting. But no, I still find it exhilarating.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Fiji Layover

We flew from LA to Fiji on our way home to New Zealand. We left on Monday, 29 January and arrived in Nadi (pronounced NAHN - dee) 11 hours later on Wednesday, 31 January. Megan wrote in her journal for Tuesday, 30 January, "Didn't happen - crossed international date line." I don't know why that always seems worth mentioning. It's not really magical or extraordinary. It's just a trick of the calendar.

I had booked three days in Fiji because we actually got a cheaper return trip fare by landing in Fiji instead of flying direct from LAX to Auckland. The Fiji government was overthrown a few months ago in a military coup and the global community responded by shunning trade and tourism. To encourage tourism, I think that the government probably subsidised the airline industry with incentives to bring more tourists back to the island. The net result was a cheaper flight for us, so we couldn't pass up the opportunity to explore part of this South Pacific tropical paradise, despite the recent coup.

We arrived at the airport at 6:00 AM and the heat and humidity were already uncomfortable. High temperatures in Fiji this time of year are about 30 degrees Celsius (86 F) but the nighttime low temperature doesn't dip much below 25 C (77 F). A small group of island singers greeted us with traditional Fijian songs as we cleared customs. We gathered our baggage and found a man holding a card with my name on it, all pre-arranged in advance for a quick shuttle to our hotel. Unfortunately the destination on the card read "Tubakula" and not "Saweni Beach" as I expected. I asked the driver if these two names referred to the same destination, and he assured me that they were part of the same ownership. Big mistake. We hopped on the air-conditioned tour bus and drove anti-clockwise around the island toward the capital, Suva. About 90 minutes later, he dropped us off at Tubakula where the receptionist had absolutely no record of our booking. The booking agency had stuffed up our details and sent us to the wrong side of the island. They quickly called another driver who altered his morning plans and drove us back to Nadi and then about 20 minutes beyond to Saweni Beach Apartment Hotel. As we were driven back and forth across the island, we encountered a half a dozen military checkpoints that seemed to be more for appearance's sake than for security. Eventually we arrived at the correct location and checked in to our self-contained unit early at 10:00 AM, having toured much of the scenic main island for free, albeit in a slightly jet-lagged stupor.

The hotel consists of 12 apartment units, each with a kitchenette, and one larger dormitory for backpackers. Apart from one backpacker from the UK staying in the dormitory, we were the only hotel guests for the three days that we stayed. Tourism is definitely suffering from the coup. The experience was surreal in that we had near-exclusive use of this beachfront hotel with shimmering pool and tropical gardens with swaying coconut palms for next to nothing.

There was a hotel cafe, but we were more interested in learning to use the local bus system to travel to Lautoka nearby to buy groceries for our meals. At the bus stop near the hotel, a friendly woman waiting recognised us as non-native (not that hard to tell!) and helpfully explained how to pay the driver and when to change buses and where to catch the return bus. The buses appear to be war surplus vintage. Our bus was air-conditioned the old fashioned way (it didn't have any glass in the windows) and we had to agilely step over the exposed gear box by the driver to get to a bolted bench seat. The buses get plenty of patronage from the locals as fare to Lautoka was only 75 cents. Riders nimbly disembarked as the driver slowed down but rarely actually braked to a complete stop along the route. Thick black diesel exhaust billowed in a trailing cloud.

We bought fresh produce at a market, and stopped for groceries at the supermarket. A small boy helping his mother in the market was really excited to see us since the colour of our pale skin was such a novelty in the mass of humanity. Buying groceries in Fiji is very much like our experience in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico - unfamiliar looking vegetables amid the flies and heat, and abject poverty always just a few paces away. Although Fiji is a poor country, I believe that their quality of life is probably somewhat self-selected and that given a choice, they may actually prefer to live with their family among a few goats and chickens to supplement the copious garden bounty rather than sell out to the man for western style affluence. It's a tropical island after all. Other cultures simply do not share the American value of seeking maximum compensation in exchange for labour or capital investment and the expectation of commensurate prosperity as a measure of one's worth. Good on them! On the other hand, roughly one person in every family has left Fiji in search of better economic opportunities, often to New Zealand.

With the aid of another helpful local man, we found our return bus and brought our supplies back to the hotel. The hotel owner brought a complimentary bottle of chilled wine to our room and apologised for the stuff up with the airport shuttle service. I eagerly accepted her unsolicited and gracious offering. Now we were fully stocked for three uninterrupted days of rest and relaxation.

The remainder of our visit consisted of frequent trips to our almost private swimming pool (10 metres from our door), occasional dips in the warm, placid ocean water with white sandy beach (ignore the tidal rubbish), leisurely strolls among tropical foliage dodging killer coconuts, reading, napping, and not much else. After a whirlwind of activity in the US for the memorial service, it was a perfect way to ease back into the rhythm of ordinary life. I'm glad we visited Fiji - like most of our travels, I feel enriched by the experience.