Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Chez nous

After a month in New Zealand and only a week back in Manhattan, Busytot has come out as a confirmed café crawler. We just had lunch at Chez Nous, which was a pallid substitute for the café lunch I promised him. The café I had in mind turned out to be packed full of Columbia undergrads – first week of semester, rainy day -- so what could we do but go home, set the teeny tiny table with plastic knives and forks, and order up cheese toasties, peaches, and chocolate milk for two. Thankfully, Busytot fell in with my cunning scheme, after some initial scepticism (i.e. shrieking "No go home! Want go café!"). Advantages of the domestic ersatz-café: vastly more elbow room than your average city eatery, own choice of music (in this case, Don Linden's classic selection of vintage kiddie songs with the beloved "Kiwi Song" on endless repeat), and best of all, the clientele can fall asleep on the floor after eating.

Behold the urban child. I was reminded of writer Adam Gopnik's description of his daughter's imaginary friend, a chap called Charlie Ravioli who was always too busy to see her and whose PA would frequently put her on hold when she called him (Charlie Ravioli has become quite a meme, all by himself). It hasn't got quite that bad around here yet, but the first morning we woke up in the city after arriving back from New Zealand, Busytot's first comment upon waking was a dreamy "Oooh, garbage truck... garbage truck go backwards..." And yes, outside the window, the garbage truck of the apocalypse graunched its way up and down the street, waking the dead and the jet-lagged.

Only a week back in the city and we're sleeping through the garbage trucks and fitting back into our American life. You know how when you travel, certain mundane things carry the aura of the Other Place long after your return, how you hoard the last few drops of Fairy Liquid, or French dentifrice, or Danish hair skum, but one day they're finished and you're back to prosaic local products? This time, it was the switch from Treasures to Pampers, and handing over the last of the little boxes of UHT milk, the one that proclaims itself "the milk NZers grow up on." And reaching the bottom of the box of Hubbards' feijoa-flavoured cereal...

Someone once said that patriotism is the memory of foods eaten in childhood. I don't know if that's entirely true, but there seems a whole lot of food-based nostalgia going on in NZ at the moment, from kiwiana wedding menus (sausage rolls, mini-pavs) to feijoa-flavoured everything. It's not just the cereal and the fizzy water, but vodka from 42 Below, and a very yummy liqueur that, as far as I can tell, was made in Greenhithe. As the label on the latter points out, the feijoa is originally a South American fruit, as indigenous to New Zealand as, well, Chinese gooseberries, but it's also indelibly the flavour of a Kiwi childhood, especially if you were lucky enough to have, or live next to, one of those damnably prolific trees. We used to put washing baskets full of the things at the end of the driveway, labeled "FREE!"

The feijoa liqueur is particularly redolent, and it makes a nice metaphor for what seems to be happening to New Zealand at the moment: there's a sort of distillation going on, a concentration of particular flavours that is both welcome and a little intense. I tried to immerse myself in it over the four weeks we were there -- I feel like the chap who drowned in the giant vat at the whiskey factory, and who bravely fought off his rescuers -- and will attempt to describe it in the next several blogs. I don't promise anything coherent: it's as impossible to anatomize a return to an ever-changing, multi-faceted place as it is to explain your family to strangers, and probably for similar reasons. Watch this space.

But here's something I can detail for you. It was a major treat to finally put faces to most of the other Public Address bloggers. I'm happy to report that they're all devastatingly good-looking and uniformly charming, and altogether not so different from what I had imagined. See, in the movie version of Public Address that had been playing in my head, our Russell was inexplicably played by Russell Crowe. Turns out our Russell is smarter, nicer, has more whiskers and would far rather hug you than thump you. He also makes the best coffee in the southern hemisphere.

For Debra and Chad, I already had author photos to go on (which are generally as accurate as the gruesome mugshots in one's passport, only in the opposite direction). Happily, these two resembled their glam studio photos far more than they did, say, Liza Minnelli and David Gest. I had no mental picture for Damian, save that he had shoulder-length hair and a surfboard in one hand; I am pleased to report that he is much more urbane and well-groomed in the piece (which is to say, that's not really him in the picture that you get if you do a Google image search for Damian Christie ).

Meanwhile, Matt and Karl, our loyal designers, coders and debuggers, always showed up on my mental screen as Sean Bean and Viggo Mortenson, wearing manly armour and speaking in iambic pentameter. Substitute keyboards and desk-chairs for swords and horses, but otherwise the resemblance was spooky. Alas, Rob didn't make it to dinner, so he's still stuck in my head as Hugh Grant (circa About a Boy, rather than Maurice). And yes, I realize I've left one person out: dear readers, feel free to picture me as Sarah-Jessica Parker, albeit after a stiff regime of protein shakes, wearing something made in NZ, and without most of that silly hair.