Thursday 9th December
The oddest thing about living in London – and I mean genuinely, sense-defyingly odd – is that no one talks to each other. I don’t mean, obviously, that people do not converse with colleagues in the office or with friends down the pub or with their partners at home – even Londoners aren’t that blinkered. When I say that no one talks to each other, I’m referring specifically to those situations where strangers are thrust into close proximity – the sort of situations where the only appropriate thing to do, you would think, is to talk – and decide, contrary to all natural instincts of kinship and solidarity, to ignore each other. The prime example of this is, of course, on the Tube, where millions of Londoners spend at least an hour of every working day crunched up together in conditions that wouldn’t pass health and safety standards for battery hens, but almost never communicate, or even exchange the merest flicker of eye contact, with the people around them. Given the intimacy of these scenarios, where one can often find one’s nose precious millimetres away from another commuter’s ear (or, if they’re particularly lofty, armpit), it seems absurd that any sort of verbal interaction with our fellow passengers should be strictly prohibited. Indeed, so rarely does one have a conversation with a stranger on the Underground that those occasions when one does are vividly memorable. I recall, for example, one instance where, as I stood on the eastbound Circle line platform at Paddington station scanning through the previous evening’s football headlines in my just-purchased copy of the Guardian, I received a momentary fright when the man standing next to me suddenly piped up, “Cracking game last night, wasn’t it?” A perfectly friendly, almost certainly innocent gesture, those non-Londoners amongst you might think, but to me it was the unequivocal sign of a man who was completely unhinged.
The reason why I mention this is because one of the most immediate things that struck me about New Zealand was just how much strangers love talking to each other. Whereas in London, striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to you on the bus would most likely be interpreted as a creepy come-on and guarantee that their seat was hastily vacated at the next stop, in New Zealand it would seem odder, perhaps even impolite, if one did not make such a gesture. The difference is just as marked in the style of service one receives in shops, bars and cafes here. Though standards have certainly improved back home in recent years, one would still rarely be treated to much in the way of conversation by a waitress in a café or barman in a pub. Here, though, service comes guaranteed not only with a smile, but almost universally with a cheerful enquiry about how your day is going or where you’re from. Even the guy behind the ticket desk at Auckland’s Britomart station – the type of person we tend to caricature back home as bored, stoney-faced and monosyllabic – was so happy to chat with us and hear about our time in England that we were still bantering away about the decline of Liverpool Football Club several minutes after we’d completed the purchase of our two train tickets. (Maybe there’s something in the football thing?)
Of course, it helps that there are far fewer people in New Zealand – approximately 4 million compared to 60 plus back home – and that places are generally less busy, thus allowing the likes of our friendly ticket man to natter away to his heart’s content without having to rush to deal with the next customer (there was no one in the queue behind us that day – again, an unthinkable phenomenon in the London Underground). Similarly, I’ve been struck by how forthcoming the bus drivers are here though given how few passengers they tend to carry at any one time you can forgive them for indulging in a little light-hearted repartee over the intercom. One such driver on the route from Queenstown to Arrowtown in Central Otago was even cheeky enough to suggest that I was taking Holly out there to propose over a candlelit dinner!
While this talkativeness is clearly attributable to Kiwi culture, it is by no means limited purely to Kiwis. We’ve encountered all sorts of people here, from all different parts of the world, who have demonstrated just as much sociability and volubility as the locals. We have even, believe it or not, met a number of Brits who have seemingly shaken off the shackles of awkwardness and stiff-upper-lippedness imposed by certain elements of our society and fully immersed themselves in this ethos of affability. My most memorable experience of this to date was outside a pub we stopped at one balmy evening in the tranquil town of Nelson, our next destination on from Christchurch on the northern scalp of the South Island. Having plonked ourselves down on a couple of deck chairs in the beer garden (a pleasant change from the one-foot strip of pavement that passes for an outside drinking area around many of the pubs in Westminster), we soon found ourselves engaged in conversation with the 50-something couple sitting alongside us: an England woman originally from Slough and a jovial, heavily-tattooed Scot who apparently regarded us as such instant confidantes that he divulged (after another couple of pints, admittedly) the deeply personal information that he had an alcoholic brother who had stopped him seeing his own family for the past 30 years. The conversation, which ranged from nostalgic reminiscences about the homeland to some invaluable advice about the quickest route from Nelson to Picton, where we were due to catch a very early ferry the next morning, seemed to exert some kind of magnetic pull over the surrounding patrons, as we were soon joined by a series of equally genial characters eager to share a piece of the action.
Perhaps less interesting than the people we met there was Nelson itself, which had some pleasant enough streets but little else beyond the beautiful hill-top Cathedral to keep travellers there for long.
I hear Nelson’s real treasures are to be found in the surrounding countryside but for us it was a convenient stopover at the end of a long driving day that had taken us all the way up from Christchurch along the scenic Kaikoura coastal route.
Though we didn’t have enough time to make too many stops, we enjoyed the roadside seal-watching opportunities and ate a hearty lunch at possibly the world’s most scenic service station, the rustic, sea-facing Kekerengu General Store. Less appealing was the northern town of Blenheim, which seemed to embody the worst of New Zealand’s predilection for insipid shopping streets pimpled with plastic and concrete.
Ironically, the one place in Nelson that we didn’t find especially sociable was the YHA Central Youth Hostel, where we spent the night before our early drive to Picton. Considering that hostels usually guarantee you at least a couple of random conversations with fellow travellers, there were curiously few people about and those that were visible tended to be gobby teenagers swarming around the kitchen. Perhaps, though, when there are so many opportunities during your average day in New Zealand to chat to strangers in pubs, at train stations and on the bus, the hostels here are maybe best left for what they were designed for - a good night’s kip.