Travelling without children is like... well, let’s just say this fish didn’t miss those little bicycles as much as she expected to. When I headed home for a quick visit this month, I flew unencumbered. Even my suitcase, which took mere hours to pack rather than the usual week-long logistical exercise, felt feather-light. And it still felt light on the way home, when it was full of books and food and frocks (my happy little greenback contribution to the New Zealand economy).
It was my heart that was heavy. Living so far from home is difficult in many small and a few large ways, and although I’ve been doing it for most of my adult life and, good lord, for half of my entire life, I’m still not used to it. I’m very good at it, but I’m not used to it.
At first, it was hard and exciting. The internet made it a bit easier. Splitting my heart between three different places (family, partner, me) was horrendous. Consolidating into merely two locations again was a relief. The arrival of children (and their far flung cuzzies, whose growth we witness in abrupt stop-motion) made it hard again. And harder still is the knowledge we push away every time the plane pushes away from the gate: that there’s a chance we might not see someone next time.
I’m optimistic, because the alternative is simply uncountenanceable, and I don’t even care whether that’s a real word or not. I refuse to countenance it, anyway.
But every parting – at the front gate as much as at the departure gate -- is a little rehearsal for a more final farewell somewhere down the line. I’ve mastered the stiff upper lip, swallowing any unseemly display of emotion (although I’m not sure why, or whom I think I’m helping by doing so, apart from sticking it to the manufacturers of tissues), but I flew back to the US with a tummy full of tears.
I’ve been thinking of a play I once saw about Irish emigrants to the New World, in which one character, a daughter, calls from the departing boat to a parent on the dock, “I’ll write!”
The parent waves, and then pauses. “But I can’t read!”
And the daughter says, all tragicomically glum, as if she’d completely forgotten: “Oh and I can’t write, either.”
I just don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t write, and they couldn’t read.
Trail of tears aside, travelling without children was a revelation in so many ways. That ringing in my ears – what was it? There’s a name for it… oh, that’s right, silence! And look at those things at the end of my arms! Two of them! Suddenly empty, and strangely useful! Not to mention: you know that feeling of waking up every day all bright and refreshed and ready to go, because you’ve had exactly enough sleep? Me neither, but I had it for two weeks.
Travelling sans enfants changes your vision, too. My eyes are usually directed downwards and around in an unceasing whirl of surveillance. Every parent of smaller children knows this feeling: half lighthouse, half police helicopter. But this time my eyes were free to lift themselves unto the horizon and take a leisurely look around.
I usually visit NZ with rose-coloured glasses planted firmly on my nose, but this time: Auckland, what the hell??!! Where did you go? What are you doing? And what idiot taught you to drive?
Honestly, I was shaken. Has it always been this bad? Has the city always been utterly in thrall to the car? Why did the Auckland chicken cross the road? Because it didn’t get the memo about how road-crossing has been phased out. I counted long stretches of suburban, residential roads where pedestrians were actively discouraged from crossing the road, where you had to walk a kilometer to find a pedestrian crossing. That's just wrong.
It’s funny, I’m living in a city that is currently battling car culture in favour of more pedestrian friendliness; a place where people regularly blow through red lights, and this is regular drivers, not boy racers; sometimes even cop cars. And yet a car turning off a main road into a side road will almost always concede crossing rights to a pedestrian waiting on a corner, especially if they’re accompanied by children. Whereas in Auckland, cars turn without a second thought. It’s as if the people really are invisible.
I was shocked, shocked. Here I am in America lecturing the locals on traffic-calming and showing off our excellent road safety advertisements! And there you are, busily ignoring all conventional wisdom on the subject. Oh, Auckland, like a bouncy castle with a slow leak, you’re letting us all down.
Ironically, New Haven, where I live, is currently in the process of undoing a Waterview-style motorway extension and planning to restore the neighbourhood that was demolished to make way for it. (The former Model City has developed 20/20 hindsight on the subject, alas, far too late for poor old Oak St and its residents).
I was having a chat to my parents about that Waterview motorway – as Pt Chev residents they have a vested interest in a quicker, slicker drive to the airport to pick up their prodigal daughter (and so have I). My Dad was wondering why they can’t just build the motorway along the water's edge, to join up with the causeway across the water. Apparently there’s a good reason, but I’d like to be reassured that this option was properly considered before being ruled out.
I said, the thing is, I can see the logic of linking up the ring road. But tunnels give me the willies and I'm not the only one, so I never quite saw that as a goer. And then on the third hand, I really, really don’t like the way motorways cleave neighbourhoods in half.
“So do rivers,” he said, mildly.
This was a perspective I hadn’t considered before, and a strangely attractive one. Hmm, yes. Motorways as rivers; artificial causeways channelling traffic and commerce from the high places to the low. You can’t fish or bathe in a motorway, but other than that, I kind of liked the analogy.
But no city has as many rivers as it has roads, and if all our roads are rivers, even the ones we live on, then suddenly we’re Venice, or the Irrawaddy Delta, or New Orleans, and that’s just not sustainable or even necessarily pleasant.
Actual rivers, though: there’s a point. A river is alive in a way that a road is not. (Need me to go all Pattern Language on yo' ass? OK, try this and this). Think of it. Auckland, City of Sails -- And/Or Oars!
Let’s pour water on troubled fossil fuel. Here's how it works. Take any decent-sized stream – say that one with the waterfall that runs through Waterview -- and turn it into a canal. Cut a channel across the narrow part of the isthmus (that’s why it’s called Portage Rd) to link the harbours, a nice little shortcut. Grafton Gully is a gully because it had the Waiparuru stream running down it: imagine if you could take the white water rapids route to campus. And so on across the city.
Rivers run to the sea, so you'd link working hours to high tides to encourage harbour commuting -- with free bikes at both ends, of course. In fact: every boatshed a bikeshed, and vice versa! (Yes, I've been drinking David Slack's kool-aid. It's delicious.)
Of course you'd need compulsory kayak lessons in all schools. (The awesome Matipo Primary does it already). Then row, row, row your boat full of kids to school. I'm coming over all Swallows and Amazons just thinking about it.
The waterway I’d really love to see restored -- "daylighted" is the technical term -- is the Waihorotiu Stream that runs under Queen St. Those poxy nikau, marooned in concrete, quite the wrong shape and scale, are a pathetic stab at rewilding the place. Why not go all the way? Give us running water babbling merrily down – all the way to Party Central! A sun-dappled pedestrian precinct, organized around a pristine little river planted with native bush and benches to sit on, where perky pukeko pose for photos with delighted tourists.
Seoul’s just done it. (More inspiring pics of Cheonggyecheon here). Providence did it, to great acclaim, with an ongoing summer art event that draws visitors from all over. Singapore and LA and San Antonio too.
Auckland, I'm looking at you. Take a punt. Or a skiff, or a rowboat, or just a paddle with your trousers rolled up, but don’t let me down again.