WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Isn't it mainly nostalgia one feels in New Zealand? Bits and pieces of soft, comforting memories warm one's mind, just beyond the grasp of consciousness. Or have some of us lived here in a dim past lifetime? Is that what it is?
Maybe it's that we're reminded of a long-ago childhood. It's all here: the crisp clean air, the rich fertile soil, crystal waters that we thought we'd never see again.
Wandering up and down the New Zealand landscape warms the heart, enriches the soul, makes one stronger and more resistant to the clamoring pressures of our daily lives. It restores one's faith in all that makes life bearable.
I think so often of Betty and Richard Croft, living their quiet tranquil lives in Te Puru, a couple of hours out of Auckland.
Betty, born in Tasmania, spilling over with never-ending nurturing warmth. Earth mother. Richard, steeped in politics, unable to ignore any opportunity to make a new friend anywhere, anytime. By Betty's definition, Richard "fits into the environment."
A man for all seasons. The Crofts are prime examples of that special Kiwi quality I call "sophisticated innocence."
Betty is like my Aunt Kate in Wisconsin. Before one's luggage is in the house, she's in the kitchen, mixing up pie dough. Childhood memories flood the mind.
That Sunday morning my husband and I arrived at their tiny white house, clinging to the side of a steep fern- and tree-covered bluff just above the road up the west coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. We were there only a few minutes before Richard was on the telephone inviting over his Labour Party friends to meet "the Americans."
Then, with no fuss or bother or even a rattling of pans, scones and pikelets appeared on the table, along with Betty's homemade jams and a pot of hot tea. Pure, unadulterated pleasure.
You think, "This is the way life should be. What else do I need?"
You get more. More hours and days of Betty's concern for your comfort, your feelings. Richard's penetrating conversation, revealing his deep awareness of the world, his down-to-earth humor.
My shyness was overcome by the charm and wit of their friend, Peter Jensen, retired attorney and seaman, born in Denmark 82 years ago. He's a tall, brawny man, muscles bulging from under his T-shirt, his leathery skin burned brown by the sunshine of sea and shore. He seems to know everything and has been every place you mention. He quotes Shakespeare, Chaucer, Mark Twain, Steinbeck.
Putty in His Hands
In spite of his irascibility, he knows how to talk to women.
His attractive son, Carl, came in later with his two little pea-pod, blond, blue-eyed daughters, Micah and Fairley. Sturdy and rosy-cheeked, they smiled shyly.
Carl is tall and slim, with blue eyes the color of a storm-tossed sea. He doesn't say much. He smiles and listens, with a gentle charm that intrigues.
In his father's backyard, adjoining the Firth of Thames, Carl has a trimaran sailboat up on blocks, waiting for the day when his work as a geologist is behind him and he can begin his dream voyage across the Tasman Sea to Australia and maybe beyond. Even in this New Zealand land of dreams, there is the reality of earning a living.
Another friend was Ted Howard, a bearded, young Labour Party man who has stood for Parliament with the hope of eventually winning election. He has a quiet intensity and soft-spoken sincerity.
In his skiff, Howard fishes commercially for flounder in the mud flats of the firth and makes computer installations on the side. He carries a small computer with him and pulls it out to write notes or keep track of his appointments.
Garden Near the Beach
The next day we saw Peter Jensen working in his garden, just a few meters from the beach. He stopped to chat and show us his son's trimaran. It lay just steps from the shoreline sand in front of craggy, sandy banks covered with ice plants and trailing orange and gold nasturtiums.
Jensen said he spends a lot of time fighting a battle of wits with rats. On calm mornings the rugged old man takes his nets out alone in his worn fiberglass dinghy and sometimes returns with unwanted stingrays. He buries the remains deep in his garden to decay naturally. Unfortunately, that attracts the rats, pitching the battle.
On the South Island, riding in a rental car along a winding road below Coronet Peak, between Queenstown and Arrowtown, you wonder if you've been cheated by not having been born in this beautiful land.
The tug of nostalgia was strongest for me in the Queenstown area. It's like going back home after a much-too-long absence. People greet you with open arms. They'll put the kettle on and bring out the best cups and saucers and a plate of cookies or tea cakes from the pantry.
The warm sun shines down on this picturesque part of the country, and you marvel at the strewn-out puffs of white cloud hanging low in the azure sky. That's another thing you've noticed. The sky is different here. The clouds seem closer.