I spent Spring Break 2012 visiting my daughter and her husband in New Zealand, and now I'm able to tell everyone who raved about the place, and that was just about everyone I know, that they were right: New Zealand is a wonderful country.
The scenery is spectacular, the people friendly and hospitable -- "You can't buy yourself a drink," said my barber, waving his clippers for emphasis -- but what really impressed me about this excellent country was its smallness, a sovereign nation with the area of Colorado and four-fifths the population of Minnesota.
New Zealand demonstrates that, with countries as with buildings, less may be more. Auckland, the center of the country's largest conurbation, is a walkable, civilized city about half the size of the Twin Cities.
From Anne and Jeff's apartment overlooking Herne Bay, we walked for 10 minutes through a neighborhood of smallish Victorian houses with scrollwork porches and yards landscaped with what looked like enormous green and flowering house plants, a city in a conservatory, to a commercial street of ma-and-pa businesses.
The proprietor of one of the best restaurants I've been to in years greeted my daughter by name and seemed happy to meet her father from Minnesota. The sidewalks and shops and open-air fruit and vegetable market were full of people shopping, talking, dining. There was not a McDonald's, a Target, a Gap in sight.
The next day we drove for an hour to a regional park on the North Island's west coast, where we hiked through heathery hills with stunning views of the Tasman Sea; if I'd had another day in Auckland, we'd have driven two hours east to the country's east coast, which has endless white beaches along the (yes, ma'am!) Pacific Ocean. Oh, the pleasures of living in a country where the east and west coasts are three hours apart.
Then we flew to Queenstown in the South Island, a land mass the size of Minnesota, with as much scenery as any five of the western United States. Here we hiked to alpine glaciers, cruised a fjord enclosed by snow-capped mountains and festooned with waterfalls, and drove through rolling pastureland that reminded me of the golden hills of northern California, complete with vineyards but with more sheep.
All this was within a two-hour drive -- or, in the case of Milford Sound, a half-hour flight -- from Queenstown. Although the American West may have comparable scenic splendors, like the Tetons, the Grand Canyon or the Oregon coast, they are separated by stupefying drives.
In the resort town of Wanaka, we stayed at a bed-and-breakfast run by a retired oboist formerly with the New Zealand Symphony, a much-recorded world-class band based in Wellington, and his wife, formerly one of the country's premier dancers and dance teachers.
Talking with these distinguished down-home types after breakfast, I was reminded of my residence in another sparsely populated principality, South Dakota, where a person could visit the storefront Democratic state headquarters down the block and have a chat with George McGovern, who sometimes dropped in sans entourage.
New Zealand still has a good way to go to reach the level of communal intimacy of, say, ancient Athens, where a citizen might run into Sophocles or Pericles while doing his daily shopping in the agora, but it's far closer to this participatory ideal than are the mass societies of North America, Europe or Asia.
I had noticed while riding through the countryside that the towns and country crossroads we passed through had no chain restaurants, stores or supermarkets; every enterprise we saw was local. Our host the retired oboist confirmed this observation; because of national policy, geographical isolation and low population, the large multinational corporations have very little presence in New Zealand.
Nor do the Kiwis have an Imperial Valley from which wilted lettuce and pink tomatoes can be trucked in year-round. By necessity and preference, they appreciate the fresh and the local: "When it's not fresh tomahto season," as our host said, "we don't eat tomahtoes."
Since I visited the country in March, the end of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, there was an abundance of fresh and local produce wherever we went, and local wines -- there seemed to be as many vineyards as there were sheep pastures in the countryside.
Along with the humane scale of the country, there seemed to be a more humane scale to peoples' lives. Anne and Jeff told me, and I observed, that Kiwis seem less driven to achieve than Americans, less likely to defer the enjoyment of life until they've "made it" and more likely to enjoy the life they have already achieved, less likely to anticipate the larger income they will have someday, and more likely to enjoy, and live within, the income that they have.
Kiwi employers are required by law to give their employees at least four weeks of paid vacation every year, and unlike many Americans, who often don't take the two or three weeks off that most jobs offer, Kiwis take the full time off, along with many national holidays.
The only sizable class of American workers who enjoy comparable working conditions are tenured academics; it was a novelty for me to experience an entire country that enjoys something like the working conditions that attracted me to the moderate pay and long vacations of the academic life.
Ten days is not enough time to get to know a country, but it is enough time for an accurate first impression, and after 10 days I was impressed. There were hints of a complexity and the possibility of ambivalence about the country: the traffic in Auckland seemed as intense and "driven" as it is in Minnesota (and everyone drives on the left, of course, which produced some alarming moments), while there were plenty of prepackaged and processed foods in the supermarket we visited.
Anne assures me that there are big-box retailers in the country outside her inner-city neighborhood, though hardly on the scale of Rosedale or the MOA. Racial tensions between the Euro-Kiwis and the Maori persist. Yet my overall impression was of a lovely, small, friendly, human-sized country, and as I waited in the Auckland airport to begin the long journey home, I wondered why all countries couldn't be like New Zealand.
At this point the answer to my question came into view: the Boeing 777 that was to fly me home. This immense airplane, equipped with the most powerful engines ever developed for an airliner, was visibly beyond the means of a small country to produce.
When I got home, I discovered that the development budget for the 777 amounted to almost 10 percent of the national budget of New Zealand, and that 10,000 engineers and technicians participated in the plane's development. New Zealand and Australia together could not assemble the resources to produce such a plane.
Even the United States, with the world's largest economy, might strain its resources to produce an all-American jetliner: researchers and subcontractors from all over the world contributed to the 777's development and production. It took a global economy to produce this technological marvel that allowed me to enjoy a 10-day vacation on the far side of the world.
And I remembered the containerized cargo ships in Auckland harbor, the Toyotas and Kias and Mazdas and Peugeots that came at me down the wrong side of the road. I remembered that it was a wealthy American university, the University of Pennsylvania, that helped finance the observatory where we took a tour of the southern sky. Clearly the small-scale life of New Zealand is enriched, and perhaps even made possible, by the masses of capital and talent that only mass societies can accumulate.
Yet one of the advantages of living in an immense smorgasbord of a country like the USA is the number and variety of choices available to us. We can live in a state the size of a European country, like Texas or California, or we can live in a more New Zealand-sized state like Minnesota, a semisovereign political unit distinct enough to be part of a traveler's identity, at least in countries where geography is still taught in the schools -- most Kiwis who asked where I was from knew about Minnesota (though this knowledge may have something to do with the collapse of the Metrodome roof two winters ago, an event that was front-page news in New Zealand).
Once we have found our New Zealand-sized state, we can settle in a cul-de-sac subdivision five miles by SUV from the nearest convenience store, or we can find a walkable neighborhood to live in. When Anne asked about walkable St. Paul neighborhoods to consider for their eventual American relocation, I was able to name several off the top of my head: St. Anthony Park, Crocus Hill, Mac-Groveland, Highland Park, downtown White Bear Lake.
All have locally owned restaurants and shops within walking distance of the surrounding residential neighborhoods (and the big boxes are usually just a short drive away). Once we are settled, we can patronize the farmers' markets, the local suppliers, the organic farmers. We can eat fresh tomahtoes in season only and remember them fondly in January, rather than settling for their pale tasteless Mexican cousins.
All the pieces of an ecologically sensible, human-scale life are present in this country; putting them together requires that we resist advertising and the way of least resistance, that we make conscious choices about where and how we live, that we live deliberately, as Thoreau wished, and advised us, to do.
To live deliberately, we need teachers and role models -- Thoreau's advice is as timely as ever, but his practical solutions are a bit out of date. I can't think of a better place to learn how to live small and sensibly in an industrial society than New Zealand.
And it's only 15 hours from MSP by giant jetliner!
Michael Nesset teaches English at Century College in White Bear Lake.