September 13, 2010

A Warm Welcome

From the minute we boarded the Air New Zealand plane we noticed a different attitude. The flight attendants were happy! They gave us a genuine welcome, made small talk with passengers and generally paced the aisles with a smile. A far cry of difference from the US Airways flight attendants on our previous flight from Phoenix to Los Angeles. Those flight attendants were fine; Nothing better or worse than what I would expect on a jam-packed domestic flight. They looked tired and slightly grumpy and I didn’t blame them. They are most likely underpaid and overworked. Most American airlines have been financially struggling for years, as manifested in their repeated staff cutbacks, pay cuts and increasing surcharges for everything from baggage to bathrooms. Many internationally based airlines, however, are partially subsidized by their government. Less pressure to make a profit means better working conditions which in turn lead to happier flight attendants. It also means more perks on board which leads to happier passengers. Freshly settled into our seats, slightly disoriented by the pleasant optimism of these accented flight attendants, my mom and I looked at each other with an “Is this dude for real?” expression when the “onboard concierge,” Mark, announced that he was available to advise passengers on navigating the Auckland Airport or on what to see and do in New Zealand. I mean seriously, that’s a little unsettling.

Another glass of wine, please. Thank you.

I made my first idiotic American blunder within the first 30 minutes of the flight. Actually, it had nothing to do with being American nor was it particularly idiotic. But once overseas (literally) I suddenly feel I have been cast in a movie as a goofy-grinning, somewhat dazed and overly talkative American. I have a very quiet voice but when I am the only American around, I often hear my own Budweiser and “Friends” accent reverberating off the walls around me as all other foreigners speak in sophisticated, gentle tones. How does that happen? How do I come to feel so “American” so quickly? We were 30 minutes off the coast of LA! This little scenario began when the flight attendant asked me if I was staying in New Zealand. Trying to adapt to the new excessively friendly environment, I thought she was making conversation. I launched into an explanation about how I was moving back to New Zealand after two years away because I’m married to a New Zealander, but my mother, she’s from Arizona, she’s only staying 3 weeks just to keep me company and help me move back into my house until my husband did I mention he is a New Zealander finishes his work commitment in Alaska and joins me in New Zealand later next month. Stupid smile on my face. So yes I am staying in New Zealand for at least 3 or 4 years because I’m starting a PhD program but I’ll surely be making visits back to America during that time because I would miss my family and homeland too much not to but I am looking forward to living in New Zealand again because it’s a wonderful place, isn’t it? She handed me a customs form and asked the next person, “Are you staying in New Zealand?” He answered only, “yes” and was handed the customs form. Oh boy, here I go again, returning to a setting in which I feel slightly inept a little too often for my liking.

Another glass of wine, please. Thank you. Man, they make good wine in this country.

The flight was as good as a 12.5 hour flight can be. At the airport, the immigration officer was also eerily cheery and, upon seeing my Resident Visa, said something along the lines of “welcome back home.” Woah. The first time a US Immigration officer said this to my kiwi husband upon re-entering the US, James looked proud and thrilled. These little moments mean a lot. Standing around the baggage carousel, waiting for my four 50 pound bags and skis, we were greeted by New Zealand’s fiercest security guard: The little beagle. She sniffed and wagged her threatening little tail as her vicious owner directed her to my bag, “C’mon love, now this one, Daisy.” Daisy sniffed. And sat. Her master glared at me. “You have food?” “No!” I trembled. “You’ve had food in that bag recently?” “Yes” I quivered. “No worries,” she said, “C’mon Daisy, this one now.” Whew! We passed the intense New Zealand border security unscathed. That was intense.

Once in the domestic terminal, security did not make us separate our liquids into 3 oz bottles in a ziplock bag, nor take off our shoes, belt and jacket, nor pat us down after the metal detector, nor make us hold our hands up for some x-ray that Fox News threatens might later appear on an xxx internet site. No, they just scanned our stuff and said, “G’day.” Weren’t they afraid we were terrorists? Why did no one yell at us to put our cell phones and change into the little bowl? Didn’t they know that the six bottles of wine being carried by the man in front of me could have been disguised explosives? Have they no decent sense of fear??

Entering the flight to Dunedin to complete this long journey, the jolly flight attendant sang out, “You look like you’ve been traveling a while.” Assuming she must know the person behind me, I turned around. But she spoke to me. “Come on board, this will be a nice relaxing flight for you. Just long enough for a cup of tea.” Again, mom and I exchanged the “Is this for real?” look. As we taxied down the runway, the safety video dished out the standard instructions with a comic twist: in the spirit of the coming 2011 Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks demonstrated the bracing position and the oxygen masks while cracking little jokes. The plane was full of seemingly carefree passengers chuckling along.

In this Pleasantville setting, I had a sudden new appreciation of how chaotic, rude and unwelcoming the LA airport must be for New Zealanders travelling in the opposite direction. At the same time, I already missed LA’s chaos a little bit. I choked up when our flight pulled away from the LA terminal earlier. That airport is a hole, but it was my last experience of a little American craziness, teaming with every walk of life imaginable, excessive noise, the juxtaposition of dinge and vibrancy, and of course that feeling that you kind of have to watch your back. I know that after a year or more away from America, I’ll pass through LAX on my way back for a visit. Some incredibly rude stranger will yell at me about something. That will feel sooooo good.

For now, yes, a cup of tea would be great, thanks. Yes, with milk and sugar. Thanks very much. I’ll put on my own friendly and relaxed jacket for now. And underneath, I’ll try not to lose that edge that renders me comfortable and competent in a place like LAX or New York City, Washington DC or St. Louis - all places that I am connected to.

During the domestic flight, I soaked up as much of New Zealand’s beauty as the clouds would allow me to absorb. What a gorgeous land. Separate from its beauty, I had wondered for some time what feeling the sight of Dunedin below the wings of the plane would drum up in me. Would I cry with worry or smile with reassurance? Well, the truth is that by the time the plane pushed through the omnipresent clouds I felt numb. I was sleep-deprived from the flight itself in addition to the broader exhaustion from weeks of preparing for this move. I was emotionally spent after leaving my beloved Alaska and saying goodbye to my sisters. And that was fine, no epiphanies were needed; there was nothing left to do but get off the plane and get on with it.

My parents-in-law greeted us at the airport and drove along the scenic route to our house. Mom and I ooohed and awed at the little lambs along the way. Back in my house, my in-laws had turned on the heat and set up my bed and brought in an extra bed for my mom. Fresh flowers were on the table and a quiche for dinner was in the otherwise-empty fridge. What warm and generous people.

Seeing as I had less than $4 New Zealand dolalrs, mom and I decided to grab the bus into town and head to the bank. We boarded the bus. “Five dollars,” the driver said. My face flushed hot red. I stammered, “I only have $4.00! The price has gone up!” as I arbitrarily checked my wallet for the miraculous appearance of another dollar coin. “We’ve only just got into the country a few hours ago and I’m trying to take this bus to the bank to get some New Zealand money!” Boy, sometimes this dreaded foreign accent is so handy! He paused and smiled. “We’ll do it this way.” He waved us onto the bus. “This one is on me.” He pulled away from the stop and welcomed us to New Zealand. As we stepped off the bus at the door of the bank, he wished us “a very nice stay.” I was beginning to feel more appreciative and less unsettled by this friendliness.

Later in that first day, I put my wallet down on the table and saw my Alaska driver’s license staring up at me. “That won’t mean much here,” I thought. Aware my movements, as if in deliberate slow motion, I dug through my carry-on baggage until I found where I had stashed my New Zealand driver’s license. I pulled the Alaska license out of my wallet, with tears welling up behind my eyes and that old lump developing in my throat. But, with a tinyglimmer of satisfaction, I put the New Zealand license in its place. I might just belong here a little bit too. It was a small, private and immeasurably significant gesture, taking all of five seconds before I turned to do other things. I know my transition back into New Zealand won’t be as simple as swapping licenses. But for now, it’s off to a pretty good start.

1 comment:

  1. Welcome back to the country! I know what you mean about LAX and the difference you notice on Air NZ - we commented on it, too! And we had our stuff sniffed by the cute little beagle, and yes, we had recently had bell peppers in there, so she was pretty interested. I was so worried that she would detain us, but she asked us the same question (Did you have food in there recently?) and smiled and moved on. Whew!

    That story of the bus driver is priceless :-) I hope you're able to get some sleep and get settled in!