Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Observing differences

There is much that is similar between NZ and VT, but much that is different. This blog post is a collection of random things that have surprised me, in this first month of our stay in Vermont.

Coffee. I'm no coffee drinker, but Bruce, and our friend Kathy (who has just returned from a Fulbright in Wellington) deplore the coffee here. "What would I give for a decent flat white" they murmur, as they sip what passes for coffee in the cafes in Vermont. which leads me to...

Cafes. 'Cafe' means something different here. On our first day in Burlington, looking for a light lunch, we sat down in a cafe and ordered a sandwich each. We were a little bemused by the fact these sandwiches could only be located on menus, and had to be served by a waitress - but hey, they do things a little differently here. Imagine our surprise, then, when the waitress returned, carrying four large dinner plates containing huge and complex sandwiches accompanied by fries and salad. Any one of them would have served all four of us. We've learned to order two and share. Cafes here serve predominantly or solely full sized meals, with full bar services. Asking for a cup of tea invites some slightly odd looks.

But the lack of NZ cafes does present us kiwis with a problem. What do you do when it's 3pm and you're in a strange town and you just want a snack? I still don't know. I tend to walk down the street, studying the shops, muttering "All I want is a cup of tea and something small and sweet that is not a muffin the size of my head! Is that too much to ask??" Mostly it is. I imagine my counterpart, walking down Lambton Quay, glancing at cafes with cabinets of sandwiches and slices, snarling "all I want is a decent sized lunch. How can these miniscule slices of bread-and-something possibly feed anyone?"

Flags. I love the way there are American flags flying everywhere - lines of them down the main streets, jutting out above the porches of both big gothic houses and mobile homes (by the way, I always thought mobiles homes were like caravans or camper vans. But they're not - they're closer to our prefabs). But what intrigues me most of all, is the way flags are tucked into flowerpots and centrepieces on dining tables and in pots of chrysanthemums by letter boxes.

I think about how someone, some time, planted those petunias, looked at that  pot and thought "what we really need here, just to finish it off, are some flags" and then went out and bought them, and added them to their arrangement. I cannot imagine the thought processes. Is it a desire for, or expression of, patriotism? a desire for a little more colour? Or is it just "how things are done here" and therefore doesn't require any thinking at all?

Language. While the girls are having a lot of fun comparing accents at school, I've been thinking about the words we choose. My favourite word in American is:

You see it everywhere on the road signs, and it always makes me smile. It's so much more evocative than "Give way". It seems more confrontational, and conjures up, in my mind at least, images of men with swords and plumed hats, or maybe in full body armour.

The NZ word that seems to surprise people most here is 'kiwi". Over and over again, I have this conversation:

"You're from New Zealand! how exciting! What do you call someone from New Zealand?"

Me: "A kiwi".

Question marks fill the silence.

Me (helpfully): "after the bird - not the fruit".

With a sigh of relief, " oh! right! I wondered there for a.....there's a kiwi bird???"

Irony: Vermonters seem to me to have an ironic sense of themselves, and how they're seen by the rest of the country. We recently bought this bumper sticker for our car:

This is one of my favourite tshirts:

The hillbilly group singing in Church Street have a sign saying "Keeping Vermont boring" on their guitar case.

Safety. It takes some getting used to, the feeling of safety and security here. I commented to a colleague about the way kayaks and canoes are tied up by the lake, oars loosely laid on the beach - and bikes are left on porches without a padlock in sight. No-one would do that in NZ, I said, they'd be stolen. He laughed. "It's just the way we live here", he said,. "My biggest security problem is locating my house keys when I'm going on vacation, when I haven't used them for 9 months".

Courtesy: People say that New Zealanders are friendly, and that may be so. I tend to think we're a little reserved too - or maybe that we're not extroverted in our friendliness. The people we've met here also seem to have that reserved air, but combined with a remarkable courtesy and generosity. I don't want to generalise - we've been here for only a month! - but amongst the people we've met there is a kind of quietness, a holding back. As a very stressy, driven person, I find it unusually restful and relaxing. I find myself....calming down.

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