Tuesday, 25 November 2008

30 before I'm 30

I have spent a great number of hours in the Indian High Commission recently. Getting a tourist visa for India is a lengthy and complicated process, and has involved waiting in lines, bank statements that are over a year old, waiting in lines, complicated forms, waiting in lines and then some more waiting in lines. While at the High Commission last week I had a long wait filled with sifting through my handbag, examining my passport, and make lists. One list I made was the how many countries have I visited now list, and realised that India would be country number 30.
Turkey - half way to thirty
This was exciting - a couple of years ago back in NZ I told my family that my goal was to see 30 countries before my 30th birthday. Back then, it felt like something that I would have to really work at and employ great strategy and cunning, so it was a pleasant surprise to realise that I have now almost achieved it without making conscious effort. And, I have decided to list what countries I have seen here for no other reason other than that I am in a self indulgent mood. So here they are, in order:

1. New Zealand; 2. USA. A trip to Hawaii aged 15, my first time overseas and it was so awesome I got back to NZ and signed up for AFS student exchange. I also went back to the USA to work in a country club in Wisconsin when I was 21; 3. Italy. I went to live there for a year between 97 - 98 to attend school, live with a family and learn how to cope with only being allowed one shower a week; 4. The Vatican City. Yeah, I know that sounds a bit cheatsky, but the UN recognise it; 5. Switzerland. So pretty, I expected Heidi to come bounding down a mountain. 6. San Marino; 7. Australia; 8. Tonga. I stayed with my Aunt and Uncle here and it was a fabulous experience, although I did narrowly miss being hit by a falling coconut;9. Vietnam; 10. Laos; 11. Thailand; 12. United Arab Emirates; 13. Austria. ; 14. UK, I am taking the UN's lead and counting the UK as one, that includes Scotland, Wales and Nothern Ireland; 15. Turkey; 16. Bulgaria; 17. Greece; 18. Ireland. We liked it so much the first time we went back for more earlier this year; 19. Belgium. We've been to Belgium three times now. I'm not quite sure how that happened; 20. Portugal; 21. Germany; 22. Luxembourg; 23. Hungary; 24. The Netherlands; 25. Czech Republic; 26. France; 27. Poland; 28. Egypt; and 29. Morocco.

It feels a little odd putting all the countries I have visited in a list, as they all seem to have the same value when listed when they shouldn't. I only spent a half day in the Vatican City and San Marino, yet have had postcodes in NZ, the USA, the UK and Italy. Bulgaria was a traumatic week, whereas Turkey was a glorious four. In any case I am no way done with travel yet and still do not consider myself well travelled. Maybe if I see 4o countries before I'm 40 I will be then ;)

Thursday, 20 November 2008

A rant about winter

The problem with the English winter is that the days remind me of Hobbes when he wrote about men’s lives being nasty, brutish and short. The leaves lie sodden and smelly on the ground, the backing soundtrack to my tube commute is “Sniffles and Snorts in Sneeze Minor” and it’s dark at 4pm. There is so much to see and do in the UK, but given the weather we have pretty much put all local sightseeing on hold for a few months and have been spending our weekends doing inside-things. Such as, watching Season Four of Lost (amazing!), and finally going to the V&A Museum (very interesting). I’m not bored, but I have realised that our blog entries have been a lot more about blocks of text rather than interesting photographs, and apologise for that!

As Confucius said: “He who suffers a British winter must stock up on good books and warm food and try not to get too lazy and unfit.” He didn’t say that? Well he should have! I am pretty sure that he also uttered the wise saying “If Lauren and Tane stay in the Northern Hemisphere for one more full winter they are mad. MAD”.

You know what the worst thing about winter in London is, though? It's that I know that New Zealand is probably warm. So, please feel free to leave plenty comments telling me about gale force wind in Wellington or freak December snow in Auckland as such comments will be much appreciated!

Wellington in 2007: the last summer I was there. [insert: wistful sigh]

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Leonard Cohen

What was it about the old musos? Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop and now Leonard Cohen - they're all old enough to be in rocking chairs, not rocking arenas. Maybe if you survive all those drugs you become immortal or something.

Lauren and I went to the excellent O2 Arena to see Leonard Cohen on Friday night. The guy's 74, we thought, he's not going to be around for much longer. Even if he's rubbish, at least we could say we'd seen him.

He wasn't rubbish.

Cohen is a great lyricist and songwriter - the best description I've read of him is a "the poet laureate of high maintenance love affairs" (see Chelsea Hotel #2 or A Thousand Kisses Deep for example) - but there's one thing that really sets him apart.

The band comes on stage, followed by a straight-backed man in an elegant dark grey suit and matching fedora. A waltz-like beat starts, the three women singing backup begin a low 'la la la la', and Cohen opens his mouth to say the word 'dance'. Around the arena, thousands of people gasp. That voice.

Cohen's voice is to singing what the Marianas Trench is to nature. Deep, dark and incredibly seductive, it draws you in and floats you away. As you'd expect, Cohen didn't do a lot of running around stage, and only played an instrument three or four times, but when you've got a voice like that - and a terrific backing band - you don't need to.

What you wouldn't expect is that he'd play for two hours and forty minutes - excluding a break. It was fabulous stuff. Many of the songs were better live than, with his 80s tunes stripped of the cheesey frills and many songs infused with virtuoso playing of a double-stringed lute-like instrument (a tamburitza?). So many of the songs were wonderful, it would have been hard to pick a highlight - had he not played Hallelujah. I don't like his original version that much - it's fgot those 80s frills that make it far inferior to the Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright covers - but this version ... wow.

Lauren summed it up: "I don't think any live music that will top Leonard Cohen singing Hallelujah live".


Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Things I don't get

The other day I was listening to the radio, and the presenters were having a conversation about things they don't get that most people do. You know, the stuff that everyone seems to be into that you just aren't, or the book that others rave about that you found a little mediocre. So, I decided to compile my own list, and am interested in whether any of you also don't like these things, and what would be on your list.

Things I don't get that most other people seem to:

1. Milk. I have never liked milk - the last time I drunk it in 1998 when I was living in Italy and didn't know enough Italian to say "I would rather exfoliate my eyeballs than drink that putrid muck."

2. ABBA. It's not like I dislike ABBA, I've just never really been a fan.

3. Any rugby that doesn't involve the All Blacks. Provincial rugby feels like watching the more recent Big Brothers - you know you haven't seen these exact people at it before, and a new person can win each time, but it really doesn't seem that different.

4. Jane Eyre. I just didn't find it that good.

5. Milk chocolate. I love chocolate that covers marshmallow or has a tasty centre, I've just never really got milk chocolate.

6. Cooking. It's like the more effort put in, the less pleasure I am likely to get out eating it. When deciding between an hour for cooking an excellent meal vs 30 mins cooking an alright meal, the latter usually wins unless I am trying to impress somebody or am having an especially boring day.

Do you have any?

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The times they are a changin'

You have to smile when white conservative politicians like John Key and Britain's David Cameron talk about how similar they are to black liberal Barack Obama (I'm cool too!), but they do have a point. They all riding a wave of desire for change.

People get sick of governments and their leaders, no matter how who those politicians are or how well they have done. Irritations and scandals accumulate like barnacles and eventually voters decide it's time to get a new boat. It's different in some democracies, like Japan or Sweden, when the same power has held power for decades, but not in New Zealand, Australia, the US or the UK. Change is why John Howard went. Change was Obama's campaign slogan. Change is almost certainly going to doom Gordon Brown. And change is why John Key was playing 'The Times They Are A Changing' at National's victory party yesterday - though, as TV3's John Campbell dryly noted, Dylan probably wouldn't have cast his vote for the Nats.

Voting for change in and of itself is stupid. Giving The Bill and Ben Party power would be a change. But after a few years the urge to try something different is something many voters feel, which is a nightmare for long-standing governments and a blessing for oppositions. Comes a time when all the opposition has to do to win is look moderately competent and not too scary. This election, John Key did those things and did them well.

A few thoughts on the New Zealand election:

1) If many politicians delivered every speech as well as they do their concession speech, they wouldn't need to concede. As John McCain did earlier in the week, Winston Peters and Helen Clark brought down the curtain on their careers with grace and dignity.

2) With the global economy in meltdown, this may have been a good election for Labour to lose. They've got three years to rejuvenate themselves and criticise National while the bad news rolls in. National have made a lot of promises and it's going to be very hard to keep them all.

3) Key has won a resounding victory, which is in a large part down to his personal popularity and rebranding of National as centrists. But he now has a difficult path to tread. He can govern with ACT, but that means a move to the right that will alienate the moderate swing voters he has done such a good job of capturing. Alternatively, he can govern with the help of the Maori Party - but a deal that involved something like changes to the Seabed and Foreshore Act or entrenching the Maori seats would be anathema to many conservative National supporters.

Helen Clark was a master of managing governments under MMP. Can Key? If not, this could be a short National government.

4) Labour's suddenly got some very big shoes that need filling. This was a bad election for them, but not a terrible one - they only lost six seats. A lot of that goes down to Clark, whose approval ratings were excellent for such a long serving leader. But she's stepped down, and soon the almost equally influential Michael Cullen will follow her. No one in Labour springs to mind as able to make those slippers fit.

5) Roger Douglas is back. It's like Wham having another No1 single. But weirder.

6) No more Winston. He's been in parliament practically my whole life. Yes, the times they are a changin'.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Some thoughts on the US elections

Though the polls have been predicting it for months, though we've been talking about it for more than a year, though it was going to be an extremely difficult for any Republican to win after the disastrous years of George W Bush, it still feels a little unreal.

The Democrats didn't screw it up. And America has a black first family.

I've been addicted to this election campaign, with its endless twists and compelling personalities, from the first primaries on. Not so long ago, the smart money would have been on Hillary Clinton vs Rudy Guiliani. And now here we are.

I'm going to miss it.

Some thoughts:

1) Obama, for all his intelligence, calmness and amazingly uplifting oratory, will inevitably be a disappointment. The hopes that are invested in him are impossibly high and the challenges impossibly huge. This is not eight years ago, when Bush came in to peace and prosperity. The global economy - and the West's in particular - is sliding rapidly downhill. America is fighting two wars, which may both be unwinnable. Iran is looking to get nukes and North Korea already has them. Africa is full of as many horror stories as ever. And, worst of all, the world is warming as resources shrink.

2) For the reasons above - plus that the next election won't see blacks, Hispanics and the young as fired up for historic change - there's a very good chance that Obama will be a one-term president.

3) But he can't be counted out. Yes, he's fairly inexperienced in government, but he also ran perhaps the best political campaign of modern times. That shows he's got the ability to assemble, direct and inspire a great team. Not bad attributes for a president.

4) You have to feel a bit sorry for John McCain. He seems like a good man and was the best candidate the Republicans could have selected, but he was running against history and was caught between a rock and a hard place politically. He's too moderate to energise the guns, guts and God crowd, so he chose Palin and moved to the right. For example, though he's been tortured and has opposed the Bush administration's sanctioning of it, he didn't stand up against waterboarding. But then he was too conservative for the moderates and made it a lot easier for Obama to paint him as Bush, mark two.

5) McCain didn't run a good campaign, either morally or politically. For example, there were some ugly implications that Obama was unAmerican, particularly from Palin. He lurched from position to position over the economy, coming out with policies seemingly at random, grandstanding over the first debate and generally coming across as reckless and impulsive. So while it wasn't a classy campaign, his concession speech was one heck of a classy finish.

6) When you see something like this video and this one, even if you're to the right of the political spectrum you'd be a hard-hearted person not to feel moved about what just happened.

7) We're going to see Leonard Cohen next week. I really hope he plays 'Democracy'.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Ah, democracy

Last weekend we joined a number of other Kiwis in New Zealand House, ticked a bit of paper, and deposited it into a big box to be sent homeward bound for counting. We also took some photos to demonstrate to those of you back home that we may be on the other side of the world, but voting in the New Zealand election has an orange theme the world over. Now, all that's left for us to do is get up at 5am next Saturday and try and find something online to watch the results coming through, and to rustle up some other kiwis for a celebration/commiseration lunch afterward. Yay!
Because we are resident in London, we ex-pats are enrolled in the last NZ electorate we resided in. Curious, Tane asked the electoral people what electorate most people voting at NZ House are enrolled in. Apparently, more New Zealanders move to London from our own Wellington Central any other electorate in the country, so more special votes are cast in London for there than anywhere else. That got me wondering - what electorate in NZ has the fewest number of special votes cast for it? I have no idea how to find out but would be very curious. Also, with the obvious overseas examples, I wonder what NZ electorate has the most special votes cast within it? My guess would be Dunedin North, my old electorate that is also famous for having the highest percentage of people in New Zealand identifying themselves as "Jedi" on the 2001 census. Does anyone know the answers? Does anyone else care?