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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 27, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


New Zealand, The Buried Pyramid, and Gounod

It happens that as I write this column, I'm in New Zealand, which contains the two largest islands in the world that aren't close to any mainland.

We Americans often think of New Zealand as being "close to" Australia, and I suppose it is ... if you think Seattle is "close" to Miami.

It took a twelve-hour flight to get from Los Angeles to Auckland, and when you add in our flights to Atlanta and LA, and then our flight from Auckland to Wellington, New Zealand's capital, it was a crippling amount of time to be in an airplane.

Because of the oddities of timekeeping and the international dateline, we left on a Sunday and arrived on a Tuesday and never actually had Monday at all. I suppose we'll get that day back when we return home, because we'll reach the States almost before we left New Zealand.

All your body cares about is seven hours of jet lag from North Carolina to New Zealand. I've learned the hard way that I need help to get myself on a reasonable sleeping schedule. Tylenol PM or Simply Sleep do a great job -- as long as you take them twelve hours before you need to be up and functioning.

I find that my first night, I need two (the normal dosage) to stay asleep the whole night; and on subsequent nights, I need at least one pill (a half-dose) or my body will think that it's morning along about one a.m., and then I'm non compos mentis for the rest of the day.

But those are standard travelers' woes. You have to take such things in stride if you're going to see the beautiful and fascinating places of the world -- and New Zealand is certainly worth the trip.

*

The southernmost parts of the South Island are cold -- they reach the same latitude south that Scotland reaches toward the north. And the North Island gets as close to the equator as Spain. Right now it's early autumn in Wellington, which is right in the middle.

Wellington, named for the British hero who led the armies that defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, is one of the loveliest cities on earth. Nestled among steep, green hills around a magnificent harbor, with islands and peninsulas visible in the difference, it's a place begging to be painted.

The streets are lined with shops -- no shopping malls have killed this downtown -- and everything is close enough to walk, though if you aren't so ambitious, there are hundreds of cabs. No need to own a car here.

The overwhelming influences on the climate are the wind and the sea. The south Pacific brings constantly changing weather, laden with moisture. For the week before we arrived here, fog had tied up the Wellington airport morning after morning. Fortunately, it cleared just for us.

Lots of places boast that "if you don't like the weather, wait fifteen minutes, it'll change," but Wellington is the only place I've been where this is literally true. We woke up one morning to bright sunlight and an absolutely cloudless sky, and told our ten-year-old that she didn't need to take her jacket, it would be too warm.

We took a cable car up the steep slopes of the city to the top of the Botanical Gardens and lingered in the museum, talking to an acquaintance while our ten-year-old explored the hundred-year-old cable car on display there. We were only there ten minutes, however, when we looked out the window and it was pouring rain.

Tropical rain. A gully-washer.

We looked at our daughter, and now the jacket she had tied around her waist didn't look like stubbornness, it looked like better sense than her parents had.

We bought an umbrella and waited for the rain to die down to a steady drizzle, which it soon did. But about thirty steps outside the shop a powerful gust of wind turned the umbrella inside out, snapping a couple of arms. From then on a flap of the umbrella hung down like spanish moss, but it was better than letting the cold rain flatten your hair against your head, so my wife continued to carry it, however pitiful it made her look. I, of course, bravely soldiered on without protection, until my clothing cling to my body like a diver's wetsuit.

*

But because we braved the weather, we got to see one of the most beautiful city parks imaginable. In the Botanical Gardens, dozens of paths winding their way from the top of the hill back down to the city. Part of the gardens include a historic cemetery, and one of the rewards of the hike is a gorgeous rose garden and a greenhouse with the most perfect begonias in the world.

And at the end of the park, you cross over a freeway on one of several pedestrian bridges and find yourself in the very heart of a world capital and only a few minutes away from a busy seaport.

The Kiwis -- as native New Zealanders proudly call themselves -- were much better prepared. They knew their own weather -- I saw hardly any umbrellas. Instead, everybody apparently had lightweight plastic ponchos folded up in purse or pocket, or else they wore lightweight jackets with hoods hidden in the collar.

And, of course, by the time we got to our hotel the sun was shining and the sky was again cloud-free.

Many mornings have had a rain so light that it was almost fog -- it kept us cool on our walks through the city. Some nights have had so much wind that it kept us awake. Nothing is ever the same for very long.

*

We stop most days at Ed's Juice Bar, a vegan establishment where Ed himself gave out free bananas to all customers on his birthday and where you can get the most delicious smoothies I've ever had. And at the end of the day, Ed distributes the leftover vegan sandwiches for free, a great boon to vegetarian street people.

Cross the street to Real Earth, an organic food café with astonishingly delicious sandwiches and entrees. Or wander on up to Rouge, a bistro on Cuba Street, where an ambitious international menu complements the character of one of the most delightful shopping streets in the world.

We have eaten at Shed 5, a world-class restaurant on the wharf not far from the ferry that carries cars and people to the South Island, and at the less formal Dockside Restaurant right next door, where the food is hearty and delicious.

New Zealand was founded as an English colony, but they have risen above the sad culinary heritage of the Mother country. Still, they do have the English tradition of the Hearty Breakfast with a subtropical spin -- french toast with bananas, or piles of American-style pancakes along with the more traditional (and semi-edible) English fare. It's amazing how many restaurants and delis offer breakfast all day, or at least until mid-afternoon.

Beware the word "bacon" on a menu, though -- it doesn't mean the narrow crisp strips Americans are used to; it means big fatty slices of thin-sliced ham that are undercooked unless you specifically ask for them otherwise.

We found many of these restaurants simply by asking Angeline, a clerk in Design Zoo, a wonderfully quirky boutique where we also found some irresistible costume jewelry. In fact, practically everyone in Wellington is happy to serve as a tourist bureau.

And they're qualified to do so. Because New Zealand is so isolated, Kiwis explore their own country first. Hiking seems to be the national pastime. Or maybe it's kayaking the coastline and rivers. Either way, they take pride in knowing the best things to do in many places, and they have seen the sights that to outsiders look almost unbelievable on the postcard pictures.

*

New Zealanders have an accent that at first sounds British until you realize that you don't actually understand many of the words they're saying. Soon, though, you begin to recognize that the words you don't understand are in fact English: They palatalize the short e and a when they're in a stressed syllable.

The result is that a sounds like short e, while e is like a short i with a hint of a y in front. When you aren't listening closely, it can sound as if the word effect were effEEct, or never were nEEver.

Don't try to do this accent yourself, however ... American mouths are not prepared to make these sounds accurately. I'm usually pretty good at picking up accents, but after several days of trying, I'm only occasionally getting it sort of right.

*

New Zealand takes Easter more seriously than any other nation I've been in. On Good Friday, businesses are locked up tight, as they are again on Sunday. Visitors are thrown on the mercy of their hotel restaurants -- or they can go to Indian, Turkish, or American restaurants, which for some reason stay open.

Of course, by "American" I mean Subway and McDonald's. Since we have an ironclad rule that we will not eat at a McDonald's outside the U.S. and Canada, that leaves us with Subway. The quality is as high as in America, but some of the meats are not exactly what Americans would expect. One bonus that I wish they'd bring home to the states: Little cups of very good commercial ice cream.

On the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, Wellington's downtown was the site of an exhibition of brass marching bands. They came from all over the islands, and a couple were brought in from Australia as well. The band from Brisbane really made an impression with their 1930s black suits and hats, looking like movie gangsters.

One band included a musician whose cerebral palsy would normally have kept him from marching; but he was accompanied by an assistant who steadied his body and kept him in line as he marched along. That's the kind of inclusion that makes sense. They sacrificed one kind of perfection in order to gain another and better one.

*

After the bands, we walked down to the old Cathedral of St. Paul, a restored structure built entirely of wood. Naturally, a wooden structure cannot be as massive as the stone cathedrals of Europe, but with its white-painted exterior and magnificently worked interior, it is a remarkable witness of the faith, skill, and ambitiousness of the last-settled of Britain's major colonies.

*

New Zealand was not unpopulated when the English arrived. The Maoris, a Polynesian people, had long since settled the island, and it was then the largest and most populous Polynesian society. The English, to their credit, tried to make New Zealand a model of cooperation between European settlers and native people, and there were sincere efforts to keep to the limits of the original treaties.

But, as with our own American treaties with Indians, there were two problems. The first was that the Maori signers of the treaties represented only some of the Maori kingdoms on the islands, and the others felt no obligation to respect the treaties' terms.

The second problem was that you can't flood a country with European settlers and not expect their burgeoning population to begin to frighten -- and impinge upon -- the natives.

So there were wars between Maoris and English, and the English predictably won. But here their history and ours diverge. Real efforts continued (and continue today) to keep the two peoples living comfortably, side by side.

Maoris who want to continue living in the old ways, more or less, have places where they can do it; those who want to integrate fully into the life of the Western nation of New Zealand may do so. The result is that walking the streets of Wellington, Maoris or part-Maoris are as likely to be represented among the people in business suits as among the shopkeepers and students.

The only solution, ultimately, to racial divides is for intermarriage to be common enough that the boundary lines blur into invisibility. Just as in Britain nobody even bothers to separate the bloodlines and facial appearance of Danes and Celts and Anglo-Saxons -- which once were sharply distinct from each other -- so in New Zealand the lines are blurring.

Which doesn't mean that there isn't a strong movement to try to preserve Maori language and culture -- along with resentment when the advantages and incentives given to Maoris seem to some whites as having gone too far.

But as long as both races are talking to each other, and taking part in the same political process, the back-and-forth will continue to work. Compromises are reached; excesses are backed-off from; New Zealand has to be accounted one of the success stories, compared to the many places where racial and ethnic conflicts have resulted in hideous bloodbaths -- like Rwanda and Bosnia.

I am heartened by the fact that in Greensboro, for instance, our race relations are rather close to how things seem in New Zealand. I hope we can stay on that good road. Heaven knows we don't lack for people who'd like to see hate bring an end to the harmony that generally prevails. Most of us, fortunately, manage to ignore them.

Meanwhile, we are coming to feel at home in this place. It's possible we won't come back again, so we're drinking it in as much as possible. New Zealand is, geographically and socially, one of the treasures of this planet; lucky are the people who live here, and lucky those of us who have a chance to visit.

*

Jane Lindskold's novel The Buried Pyramid is a very unusual fantasy. For one thing, the fantasy aspects of the story don't emerge until very close to the end, and then come almost completely as a surprise. Up to that point, Buried Pyramid is a delightful pastiche of the early twentieth-century novel of adventure and exploration, owing rather more to H. Rider Haggard or Rudyard Kipling than to Thomas Hardy.

Sir Neville Hawthorne is determined to return to Egypt, where he was once on the verge of discovering the tomb of a long-forgotten pharaoh. But just as he's about to leave, he becomes the guardian of his young niece Jenny Benet, who grew up in America as an apprentice physician; she's also a good shot.

Joined by a friend who is an expert in hieroglyphics, they make a slow progress toward Egypt, accompanies by accidental companions who seem not to be so accidental after all, when they keep turning up again and again. And they also receive cryptic notes in various codes from an anonymous "friend" who may or may not be trying to steer them away from danger.

Lindskold writes with the feel of the literature of the era, but it's illusory -- in fact she moves through the story much faster than readers demanded in those days. The result is a thick but delightfully readable novel with, in my opinion anyway, a satisfying ending.

If I had any evidence that I could get a movie made, I'd option it for film; I think it could be wonderful fun. But no, Hollywood would insist on speeding it up and adding a lot of extraneous adventure, while cutting out the conversations that make it such a pleasure to read.

*

The Greensboro Oratorio Society is best known for bringing us Handel's Messiah every Christmas, but it's worth remembering that Handel isn't the only composer to write gorgeous sacred music.

In fact, that word, "sacred," may lead some to believe that some of the greatest music in history is "church music" and therefore shouldn't be part of a more secular life.

But that is such a short-sighted view! For one thing, ordinary worship services simply don't have time to present the longer compositions, so it's not as if people who go to church are ever getting this great music.

For another thing, most of the history of Western music took place in nations with established churches, so that composers naturally turned to sacred Christian subject matter, both out of personal faith and also out of the practical consideration that church music would be performed ... and, one way or another, paid for.

So if you dismiss this sacred music as "religious" you miss the point. Of course it's religious, but it's also magnificent. It's our culture at its finest, and even though we live in more secular times, with religion often separated from our public life, that's no reason to shut ourselves off from true beauty.

You don't have to be Catholic, for instance, to appreciate the many beautiful settings that the words of the Latin mass have been given by great composers over the years.

Charles Gounod, whose settings of "The Lord's Prayer" and "Ave Maria" are very well known, also wrote Messe Solennelle, or "Mass to St. Cecilia." Gounod had a remarkable gift for memorable melody; the seeming simplicity of his music hides a deep understanding of subtle harmony.

The Greensboro Oratorio Society, under the direction of Jay O. Lambeth,

will be presenting Messe Solennelle on Friday, 22 April, at 7:00 p.m. in Phillips Chapel at Canterbury School, 5400 Old Lake Jeanette Rd. It's almost a month from now, so mark it on your calendar.

Unlike the performance of The Messiah, there is a charge: $7 in advance, $10 at the door, or $5 for students and seniors. You can call 373-4553 for more information. (The performance will also be presented at Central United Methodist Church in Asheboro on Sunday, 24 April, at 7:00 p.m.)

I suppose you could listen to this work on CD. But there's something about dressing up to go to a concert and being in the same room with the singers. The sound is livelier, the experience more powerful; it's how Gounod meant his music to be heard.

And if you happen to think of yourself as non-religious, remember this: There is no Church of the Unbeliever asking composers to write beautiful nonsacred music for their choirs to sing. There is no Mass for the Faithless to be set to music. To hear music of enduring beauty, you'll just have to set aside your prejudices.

*

More about New Zealand

On our way to New Zealand, we managed to sleep through most of the long flight from LA to Auckland. We were still so groggy when we landed that despite our best effort to doublecheck, we inadvertently left behind the stuffed lamb that was our ten-year-old's sleeping companion.

She didn't notice until we had already taken the bus ride from the international terminal to the domestic one and we were through security and waiting at the gate for our flight to Wellington. But this stuffed lamb, named "Reader," has been her companion since birth, and of course she wept when she realized she had lost it.

I had no hope at all, in the hour we had left before departure, of recovering the lamb. But I had to try, at least. So I went back out of the secure area to an Air New Zealand ticket agent to ask what might be possible. I fully expected to be treated like a madman for even thinking anyone would have the time to deal with a problem that was, after all, caused by our own carelessness.

But the ticket agent listened respectfully and immediately referred me to a manager who, instead of being invisible behind solid walls, sat behind a large window looking out over the ticket area. He invited me back into his office, and quickly put me on the phone with the person at the international terminal who then called on a walkie-talkie to confer with the people who were actually cleaning the plane we had been on.

I remembered we were in row 37 on the right-hand side. And, unbelievably, she sent people back onto the plane to check. The lamb was right where it should have been.

Still, there was no way for me to come and retrieve it. What the international terminal manager and I worked out was that they would hold it in the found property office, filed under our name and the date we arrived. Then we'd pick it up on our way out of the country eleven days later.

After profusely thanking her and the ticket counter manager for their help -- which was way out of the ordinary, in my experience -- I went back through security and out to the gate, where the Wellington flight had not yet started boarding. Our daughter was relieved to know that the lamb had been found and that she would get it back on the way home.

Then we heard the gate agent's walkie-talkie start chattering about a lamb. What a coincidence, I thought. But it was no coincidence. Air New Zealand had gone to the trouble of sending an interterminal courier to bring us the lamb. The gate agent handed it to us just before boarding.

This is not the first time that an airline has helped us recover something we left behind -- Delta once found and returned to us a diary. But the way I was treated at Air New Zealand and the extra effort they went to took us completely by surprise. If only I flew their routes more often -- but instead I can only reward their thoughtfulness by telling you about the kind of corporate culture where such kindnesses are even possible.

*

After the science fiction convention was over, we had a free afternoon in Wellington before going to Christchurch on the South Island. So we boarded a ferry and crossed the enormous harbor to Days Island. The scenery was astonishingly beautiful, a sparkling bay surrounded by lush green hills dotted with houses, all under a constantly changing sky.

On the other side we found ourselves on a lovely beach, behind which was a small cricket field where a family was playing at this most inscrutable of English games.

We stopped at the café right behind the beach at Days Bay and had obscenely delicious "Santé hot chocolate," so called because it has a Santé chocolate bar dropped into it, which melts as you drink. They also made a thick lime milkshake for me, even though they had never heard of such a thing before, and we had bagels and cream cheese, despite being a long way from New York.

Then we took the fifteen-minute walk along the beach road to the village of Eastbourne. The walk took us past seafront cottages, large and small, which seemed to vie with each other for finding ways to be beautiful or lovely or charming or downright fantastic. Then there was a soccer field and a children's park that our daughter played on with newmade friends.

The main shopping street of Eastbourne was mostly galleries and real estate offices, but since this was four o'clock on a holiday, we found most of them either closed or closing.

The gem of the trip was, unfortunately, one that few will be able to duplicate after us -- a small gallery where a world-class sculptor had retired and sold only his own work. But he will soon be closing his shop and letting a Wellington gallery handle the sales. And, of course, the value of his work has long been established on the international market, so it was all out of our financial reach.

What we liked best, though, was the walk, the sights, the feel of the place, which was only a twenty-minute ferry-ride from downtown Wellington. In fact, one of its greatest charms was that Wellington was visible in the distance, like a jewel set in the great ring of green hills surrounding the bay.


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