Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Auckland: A Tour Through An Alternative Life

One of the joys of travel comes from the freedom of being someone different. You go someplace where nobody knows you, in part, so you can do things you normally wouldn't do, even if that “wouldn't do” is something as simple as an extra dessert or a spa treatment or staying out late. But another joy of travel for me is the opportunity to imagine a different life. Whenever I visit a new place for any meaningful length of time, I try to imagine what kind of life I might lead if I lived there. Where would I work? What would my home be like? Would this be my go-to bar, my favorite restaurant, where I buy my groceries? Some places are more difficult to imagine myself living in (Cairns, Brooklyn) for sometimes mysterious reasons, while other places (London, Melbourne) I almost feel like I am inhabiting that alternative life by the time I leave.

But nowhere has this sense of living an alternative version of Josh been as strong as it was in Auckland. Part of this is that there is something Boston-y of Anglo cities above a certain size, with a certain relationship with its neighborhoods and a certain sense of urban planning (or lack thereof), so it was easy for me to find the “Cambridge of Auckland” and the “Somerville of Auckland,” and so forth. But the real strength of this sensation came from a very late night that ended in a hotel lobby in Seattle.

I met Jenna at a booksellers' conference (which is even more fun than you would assume) in the lobby of the hotel, along with a slew of other booksellers who had been out on publisher sponsored nights-on-the-town and had collected with the remnants of their energy around the small tables in the hotel lobby. I ended up with Jenna, a bookseller and the manager of Timeout Bookstore in Auckland and a bookseller from Melbourne (who brandished a bottle of whiskey at one point) and, as happens at such conferences, business cards were exchanged.

Fast forward a little over a year and Rissa and I are planning our honeymoon. Initially, we hadn't included Auckland, but once we saw how much time we would have to spend on the trip, we decided to add it. Somehow (I'm going to go with magic) I still had Jenna's card so I emailed her, re-introducing myself and asking her advice for places to stay and things to do in Auckland. And she obliged, sending me a list of priced-out possibilities. A list that she concluded by suggesting we forget all that other nonsense and just stay with her. Of course we said yes, because, when you get the chance to stay with a local in a foreign country you take it. It was strange, the nature of my excitement changed when I got that email. I was already excited of course, but, for some reason, knowing we'd be staying with a person added something, I don't know, palpable to my excitement.

To understand why our time in Auckland was such a visceral alternative life, I need to tell you a little about Jenna and her boyfriend Stu. As I'm sure you already surmised, Jenna is, like me, a bookseller at an independent bookstore. She is also, like me, an artist, though she is a photographer (and videographer, perhaps) rather than a writer. (Though I bet she writes too.) Stu is also an artist, a musician, and, if you can believe this, like Rissa, a homebrewer. (you could see Rissa's jealousy of Stu's brewing garage from space.). Oh, and if an internet connection had been a little more stable, one night we would have met Jenna at her KNITTING GROUP that met in a BAR THAT USED TO BE A BUTCHER SHOP. Oh, and they have a cat with a literary name. (Eleanor the Catton.) Of course, we still are different people and so, Rissa's and my alternative lives in Auckland wouldn't have exactly matched the lives of Jenna and Stu, (especially given that I am way more into rugby than they are) but odds are, if Rissa and I had lived our lives in Auckland, Jenn and Stu would have likely been our friends. I don't know if we'll ever see them again, and I don't think there's much of a chance Rissa and I will make a life, or even a second visit, in or to Auckland, but regardless of potential futures and alternative lives, Jenna and Stu are our friends, now.

We landed in Auckland and arranged to meet Jenna at her bookstore to drop off our stuff and (as is our wont) go directly to a museum (which I wish we had more time to spend in). I'm always amazed by bookstores like Timeout Bookstore who, much like WORD in Brooklyn, can be vital, engaging, successful retails stores, (with a bookstore margin!) with the floor space of an opulent walk-in closet. Our arrival at Time Out, included one of the most satisfying moments of my, to this point, brief career as the marketing director at PSB; one of the booksellers recognized me from PSB's Buzzfeed list about awkward bookseller moments

Perhaps the most touristy thing we did on our trip (perhaps with the exception of the Foodie Walking tour we took in Melbourne, which I totally left out of the Melbourne post. Executive Summary: We ate meat and cheese and bought German spices.) was go on a guided tubing tour of Glow Worm Caves in Waitomo, an area about two hours drive from Auckland. Two hours of driving I did. On the left side of the road. (Achievement Unlocked!) Overall, driving on the left wasn't that difficult, especially once we got through the section of Auckland in which the GPS had not been updated to account for construction, but it was still a strange experience. First of all, because of how the instruments are arrayed, I kept turning on the windshield wiper when trying to put on a turn signal, a phenomenon that cycled back and forth between infuckingfuriated and goddamn hilarious for the entire trip. Second, as Jenna's American roommate warned us, I pulled to the left pretty much the entire time. (I still have no idea what the neurological mechanism at work here is.) The tour itself was an absolute blast. We put on wet suits and road inner tubes through underground caves whose ceilings were covered in glow-worms. (i.e. bio-luminescent maggots) It was all a bit hokey, but the environment was so alien and fascinating it trumped all the tourist-trappiness. The air was different, of course, but, in an interesting, way, so was the silence. After the tubing tour, we booked it about a quarter mile (in the car) to the walking tour we also scheduled. The second cave we toured was actually run by an indigenous family and had been so since the mid-1800s when the first tours of the cave were given. We drove back and had a relatively the quite night. (The night of the aforementioned unstable internet connection.)

Without thinking about it, we were in Auckland for Halloween, so we spent the morning of the 31st kicking around downtown Auckland trying to find costumes for the party we'd be attending that night, eventually finding acceptable vesture in a thrift shop near Timeout. The party had a campfire, a DJ, irrationally angry neighbors and eventually a cab ride back. The next day featured Josh's Great Chili Ingredient Adventure, which was pretty much exactly like The Lord of the Rings, except, instead of bringing a ring to Mordor, I had to hit the area grocery stores for the ingredients to the American style chili Rissa and I would be making that night, and instead of a treacherous guide, my biggest challenge was that the Asian supermarket where I found most of my ingredients did not take credit cards, and so I had to rush to an ATM, assemble the ingredients that supermarket did not have and then come to pay in cash. Very kindly, the clerk allowed me to leave my cart of groceries and skip the line when I got back. The chili happened, as did some excellent BBQ prepared by Stu and then Jenna took us to a bar/club about an hour north of Auckland featuring a musician who was friends with Jenna and Stu and a band that had a range like and whose sound was not radically dissimilar to The Velvet Underground from Loaded.

Before heading out to the Auckland City museum on our last full day in Auckland, Rissa asked Jenna for a recommendation. Rissa wanted to try Pavlova, a national dish of New Zealand and was hoping Jenna had a good idea for where to find some. Jenna said, “There are a few places that serve it, but I'll just make you one, since the real way to eat it is at home.” And so, after a day at the museum, and a fantastic final dinner at a restaurant called Depot, we had Pavlova and celebrated, a little early, Rissa's birthday.

Our last day in Auckland was “Carissa Leal's 40-Hour Birthday” which involved hanging out in Timeout's neighborhood (the Cambridge of Auckland) grabbing a cocktail or two, and, because we are categorically insane, hiking a small nearby mountain, before spending a little quiet time in Timeout's office in advance of 27 hours of plane travel back.

This is the part of the blog series where I sum everything up. Anthony Bourdain usually gets around these moments in his shows by restating the challenge of such statements in a way that gives him some purchase on the places he's discussing. It's an effective technique, one that I didn't really notice until I found myself in this moment, where the big sum up of my trip would normally go. But, in my mind at least, I don't want to sum this trip up, I want it to linger in my consciousness, for memories to pop up at random times, for me to be working on a poem or a story or an essay or something years from now and be stuck until I remember something about this trip. To put this another way, I don't want this trip, or any other, to have a conclusion, I want it to have a presence.

Other Auckland Notes: I flew halfway around the world to end up at a Halloween party to be told by a Montreal Candiens fan from Ottawa that the Bruins are a bunch of goons. Did not get a satisfying response when I brought up Subban's occasionally extremely reckless play or the persistent (though diminishing) diving. Apparently the Montreal media has some pretty stout filters.

Asian Food is Better Australia and New Zealand: A lot better. One of the best dishes we had on our trip was a beef stew type thing from a backwater Vietnamese restaurant in Cairns. Spicy House in Auckland was cheap and hands down better than any Asian food I've ever had on our home coast (which is why it ended up in the Where Chefs Eat guidebook) and the noodles we had were also goddamn fantastic. It makes sense when you think about it. Australia and New Zealand are just a lot closer to Asia than Cambridge is and so it is easier to get the necessary ingredients and they have to travel far less to get here. So if you're traveling on the other side of the world, even if you're not in Asia, make sure to get at least one Asian meal.

What I Missed While I Traveled: There were things I expected to miss while we traveled: friends, family, the cat, the Bruins, the bookstore, my writing routine, and I did miss all of those things, but you are most able to learn what is enfolded in your existence when it is removed. Two things I was surprised to miss as much as I did: iced coffee (discussed earlier) and bread. I had no idea how much I missed bread until I picked up a small loaf at a French bakery with the intention of just picking at it while waiting for Riss to wake up. (Which comprised Part One of Josh's Great Chili Ingredient Adventure.) The petit pain did not make it home. Some weird primal joy took over and I stuffed that fucking thing right in my gaping maw. So apparently, bread is an important part of my existence.

Gloworm Caves

Noir Restaurant

Auckland Panorama from Mt. Eden

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