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I know, I know, you haven’t heard from me in ages.  Am I alive?  Am I well?  Have I gone round the twist or fallen off the face of the earth?  Yes.  Yes.  Not really, and no.  Rather, I’ve been sucked into the routine and life that is Lake Tekapo and the Godley Resort.  Time flies when you’re working nine to twelve hour days.  Despite all intentions to the contrary, I’ve been here for an entire month – and I’m not miserable!  Perhaps I was craving routine and regularity more than I realized.  Mostly I work afternoons and evenings in the hotel restaurant. I’ve learned the drill quickly, and especially enjoy the days when the F&B manager is off and I get to be in charge of setting up the buffet and organizing the waitstaff. The staff here is actually quite a tight little community – perhaps we feel the need to band together in our second-class status. Whatever the case, I thoroughly enjoy the people I work with: Jeff (or Jean-Francois) a young, blue-eyed French-Canadian from Quebec; Martin, the super-polite Argentinian; Christine, a brilliant, politically-minded and multi-lingual (Arabic, Russian, French…) Scotswoman; Amanda, the I-don’t-care-about-the-rules Kiwi, Victoria, a German newcomer who’s always cheery and smiling; Josie, the cute, pigtailed Philipino who’s worked in the restaurant for fifteen years and finally resigned last week; Moni, my Indian neighbor and foot-reading drinking buddy; Stephen, the musical, Chinese-born adopted Kiwi chef who does his best to make my morning shifts exciting; Graham, the Kiwi housekeeping manager and oenophile who makes me feel hugely appreciated (the only official manager to do so; this is why he’s my favorite); and Earle, the Kiwi handy-man extraordinaire who’s been everywhere (including NH!), seen everything, and never misses an episode of “Spongebob Squarepants”.  There were a few others who have since moved on, hailing from Canada, England, the Solomon Islands, Japan, the Czech Republic, and Maryland, USA.  We’re a diverse bunch.

I was surprised to arrive and meet Darryl, the American.  However, he turned out to be precisely the frat-boy/traveling partier I’ve come to NZ to get away from, so I wasn’t sad to see him leave a week into my stay.  But, the bubble has been burst – it seems there are Americans in NZ after all!  After four months of meeting everyone but, I’ve learned to listen for the accents over the breakfast buffet or as I’m taking wine orders during dinner.  It’s always an interesting moment, when either the guests or I can’t stand it any longer and have to find out: “Excuse me, but may I ask where you’re from?”  I’ve met quite a few west-coasters, and one memorable Rhode Islander.  There are Americans here, but they’re not backpacking.  They’re typically middle-aged, well-to-do pseudo-adventurers on three or four or five week vacations.  Most hire cars – I meet very few on the organized bus tours, which puts them a step ahead of the hundreds of Korean and Japanese tourists we serve every week.  The Asian tours are only as long as a week or so – land in Auckland, fly to Christchurch, ride a bus to the Milford Sound and Queenstown, stop off in Tekapo for lunch, then on a plane from Christchurch to Auckland the same night.  Proper whirlwinds, these are.  I can’t imagine taking such a trip and calling it travel, but the tour guides and bus drivers I’ve spoken with say that their clients have a blast.  To each his own, I suppose.  The Americans, however, rent cars, as they like to do things their own way, on their own time.  True to form, I’d say.  Still, five weeks?  I maintain an impressed and interested front as I talk with them, and wish them happy travels, but this, too, seems pale and unexciting compared to the lifetime of a year that I am spending here.

It is quite satisfying, though, to stand and converse with a fellow countryman, thousands and thousands of miles across the world, and to enjoy the sensation of meeting someone with whom I share a background, culture, and history.  The Americans recognize me as one of their own – they spot the accent and ask endless questions about how and why I am here, what I’m doing and where I’ve been, and often leave tips: a sort of acknowledgment of our commonalities.  The million dollar question, though, is “What do your parents think of you being here?” One man, a Mr. Dunn from Rhode Island, seemed to take special interest.  Questions about my accommodation, my expenses, my safety, my ability to travel and communicate with home, my career path, my connections he asked.  Long after he and his wife had finished dinner, he returned to the bar, where I poured him Johnny Walker Black on the rocks and listened to his concerns and ideas and questions in between clearing plates and resetting tables.  By the end of the night he was a bit drunk – more on self-important generosity and the thrill of benefaction than the whiskey – and offered – no, insisted – that I meet him in the morning to use his satellite phone to call my parents for free.  And when he got up from the bar, he announced grandly that he was leaving my tip under his glass, despite my assurance that tipping is neither required nor expected in NZ.  On collecting the glass, I was shocked to also collect a bright pink NZ$50 bill.  “It’ll help with the rent,” he had said indulgently when he pulled out his wallet.  Partly, this was fantastic.  It would indeed help with the rent, and the upcoming inspection for my car.  But a curious twist of distaste settled in the back of my throat, and I lay awake that night wondering whether or how to give it back, before deciding that doing so would likely offend him.  His intentions were good, kind, and helpful, but I wonder whom he was thinking of, me, or him, when he selected the lavish pink note instead of the green ($20) or the blue ($10).  It’s a queer sort of feeling to be on the receiving end of that kind of giving.  Guests from other countries, though less likely to leave tips, are equally intrigued by my accent and the story of how I came to be working here, in Lake Tekapo.  My favorite thing in these encounters with Kiwis, Aussies, Europeans and others is the Accent Guessing Game.  Some are spot on – “American?”  More often – “Canada?”  Once I served a couple who were convinced that I was a Kiwi, and on another night I couldn’t contain my disbelief when a couple from Oz (Australia) said I talked like a Texan, but the best, and most unexpected is, “Irish?”  This is the guess I hear at least once a night, making it the most common response, and one that gives me no end of pleasure.  Irish?  Reckon this means I can stop worrying about feeling as if I’m wearing a huge sign that says “GW-Loving American” on it.

The real excitement, and the thing that’s made Tekapo feel more like home, has been moving out of the cold, dirty staff quarters and into a bright and cozy flat with Anja.  We live in a three bedroom holiday house (like a seasonal condo at a ski area up north in NH), a ten minute walk from the hotel, with three rooms downstairs and an open concept second story with the kitchen, bathroom, and living room.  It’s clean, it’s warm, and it’s all ours.  It’s my first real apartment!  The best part of it, though is the sundeck and the glass sliding doors that keep the lounge filled with heat and light nearly all day.  The view from the deck is what I love the most.  To the west, a wicked (if a bit distant) view of the Southern Alps.  To the very near east, the mountains of Burke’s Pass.  The alps are usually snow-covered, and as the best spot in the house to see them is the upstairs toilet, I often spend a bit longer than necessary sitting on the pot in the mornings, just staring out the window.  The mountains to the east are like the edge of a large, rocky bowl separating Tekapo from Fairlie and all points east.  What fascinates me about them, though, is the way they hold the clouds.  These thick, white, fog-like clouds condense and collect on the other side of the pass, filling up the earthen bowl until they begin to overflow and spill into the Tekapo valley like a waterfall or the wraith-like tendrils of liquid nitrogen.  On my mornings off, I spend hours curled into the couch in front of the large sliding door with my cup of tea, reading and watching the clouds spill over the pass.  It is, I’ve learned, immensely satisfying to live in a place this beautiful for a long enough period of time to begin to know the landscape and the weather patterns, to be able to recognize landmarks, little valleys and hills and mountains, to wake on sunny mornings and be able to accurately guess whether it’s snowed in the peaks at the end of the lake during the night.

In my spare time, I read.  I hike, a little, when a recently pulled muscle in my leg isn’t holding me back.  I’ve visited Mt. Cook (the tallest peak in NZ) twice, once with Anja and once on my own to do a steep but rewarding hike to the Mueller Hut.  The last hour or two was spent in the clouds, canceling any opportunities to see Mt. Cook from somewhere other than ground level; I could only hear the ice calving off the sides of the mountain in front of me rather than see it, but this was still a new and terribly humbling sensation: hearing and feeling something moving near you like a roll of thunder or the sound of an eighteen-wheeler moving at full speed, but not being able to see where it’s coming from.  We’ve had a few days of Indian summer (apparently not unique to New England), where I’ve lain outside to soak up the heat against the cold of the nights.  Went biking along the edge of the lake with Anja, and even attended a Catholic mass at the Church of the Good Shepherd (do a Google Image search) – perhaps the most spiritual experience I’ve ever had in a proper religious setting.  Every other night after work I usually stroll across the driveway to Moni’s flat.  We share a love for Bombay Sapphire and can usually find something to argue about over a couple of drinks.  Other nights I drink tea or hot chocolate with Anja in the cozy warmth of our kitchen/lounge and munch on whatever dessert we’ve managed to snag from the buffet (creme caramels, ice cream, fruit salad) or found left behind in one of the hotel rooms (fruit, milk, cheese, the occasional half a bottle of wine).

For the last few days, I’ve been catching up with old friends – Anne and Kathrin!  They are, sadly, less than five weeks away from their return flight to Germany, and have begun making their way north to Auckland once more.  Stopping over in Tekapo for several nights, they were a more or less permanent fixture at my and Anja’s place, baking bread, hanging laundry to dry across our bedroom, telling stories and reminiscing with me over our last five (five!) months in NZ.  I had this past Tuesday off, and we celebrated with a fantastic luncheon; Stephen came over to cook us a long-promised meal (spinach and mushroom risotto with greek salad), and the Germans and I tackled dessert: homemade ice cream.  Though the recipe was entitled “Easy Ice Cream,” we soon learned that “easy” is only the correct adjective when the ice cream is prepared in a kitchen equipped with an electric or at least manual blender.  Though, we also learned that it is, in fact, possible to whip cream and meringue egg whites with only a whisk and a couple of forks.  All it takes is determination, the correct stance, and people to relieve you when  your arm feels like it’s going to fall off  And about sixty minutes.  This, we decided, was a dessert that we earned.  Apple, cookie, and mango ice cream, hand whipped, hand mixed, and all-natural.  Mm mm mm.  I need never buy ice cream again!  I haven’t slept much this week, between early shifts and wanting to catch up with A and K, and this weekend looks to be equally jam-packed (going south to Queenstown with Moni for a day and a half), but it’s been a good one.  It is very strange to think that I was with these two girls the beginning, when we had no idea about NZ, where we’d go or what experiences we’d have.  Departure, then, was a distant and impossible event – and yet here we are, saying goodbye to each other with hugs, sad faces, and words of encouragement and friendship, after what surely couldn’t have been more than a minute or two.  Am I that close to being home myself?  Better not blink…

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