I am not the one to speak for Christcurch. I do not claim to know what it is to wake to a wobble, wondering if it’s wind or worse. Up and down but not as fun as a rollercoaster, says one Christchurchian. We’re no strangers to earthquakes, but impossible to know what it meant for those who never expected it.
From a great distance, everything looks fine but for puffs of smoke that denote construction (or as is more likely, destruction). We are in the hills, on a solid footing. Our landlady is redoubtable, says that even the wind shakes the place, so what can you do, who cares? But then laughs,
"You’re from San Francisco, you know."
Driving down the hill (for you have to drive, it is a vast sprawl here), you see it for what it is. Roads lined with cones, which seems an affront to the care taken here; the roads of New Zealand are studiously maintained and make the infrastructure of the United States seem like that of a poorly-funded Central Asian oligarchy.
As for the general lay of Christchurch, it is a flat two-storied hell reminiscent of the San Fernando Valley. Walls are braced, cracks apparent. Here is a city waiting on insurance claims. Vast spaces, a hint of old brick, too many mean boxes of corrugated portables. You lose your breath when you see your first aged disaster, your first pile of historic rubble.
But there is so much that has been done right. Gap Filler, for example. You can swap a book, dance, get a sense of pegboard humor. Plucky stuff, reminds one of the jokey kitchens post-1906: tents with grandiose names, menus.
There are other things here, troubling things. Malls of a pop-up nature seem a good idea, but for the fact that few businesses are local. The oft-repeated mantra is that local money has three times the impact on a community, so does that mean the chains are one-third good? Again, difficult—I did speak with a resident who seemed critical, and I know why. Chains are chains—they can pull out of the project if profits are negligible.
No small matter, plate tectonics. I cannot tell whether the Aucklanders have forgotten their 50 dormant volcanoes, nor the live ones a short distance away. Here in the South, where there are fewer volcanoes (but four!), one can guess at the easy-going feeling about living with so much old brick. Christchurch was a gem of Empire: more churches than pubs was the rule, and so it was that the mannered city was like a small (teetotaling) London, though warmer by far and strangely forested. It was meant to stand as a testament to the might of the English spirit and propriety despite its distance. Of course, it became far more interesting than the British could have imagined.
In a backwards-glancing way, I’ve loved this place since knowing I’d visit. I love it because it’s a mess, I love it because it’s what we’re staring down every day of living on the Pacific Shelf. In a historical sense, I suppose I love it because my father’s father was a 2nd division Marine, coming out of Guadalcanal sick and in search of something besides malaria and kamikaze. Every year, Marines visit New Zealand in an homage to the kindnesses they received. That there are prodigious monuments to the U.S.M.C. peppered over the landscape, from north to south, show that the foreigners are received happily.
Before I left, my father’s advice: “Watch out; Dave said those New Zealand women were a good time.”
How could they be anything but? In this place, everything is good.