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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Wellington, je t'aime

I am surprised to see myself write the above - I've never particularly liked Wellington. Too many suits, too many hills, too much wind and rain, too much earthquake potential.

I flew up on Sunday evening with my friend M., also a historian-in-training, and I was fully prepared to get what I could out of the few days in Wellington, but not expecting to enjoy it all that much.

Well, I did.

Perhaps I have had more than I can take of living in a house with five other people. I don't know. But there was a real luxury to staying at a mere backpackers:

Nomads Capital Wellington. A room to myself, a bathroom of my own, NO MICE. Waking up in the morning, wandering out the door onto a dignified central city street, meandering past Karen Walker and Kate Sylvester on my way to find coffee.

Speaking of coffee, Wellington has a reputation for the good stuff. It has a higher number of cafés, per capita, than cities like New York and so for the cafés to survive the coffee has to be good. Flying up with M., who used to live in the windy city, she was almost salivating at the prospect of it. I was sceptical. Surely you had to have a very refined taste of coffee to be able to tell the difference between all the different cafés?

And then I had breakfast at a Wellington café, and the coffee was everything it was cracked up to be. I could EXIST on that stuff alone. The food, however, was also excellent and the service perfect. I felt luxurious.

Wandering through central Wellington streets, it surprised me how vibrant the city feels. Despite all the suits. It's strange to think that Christchurch is now a bigger city than Wellington, because it just doesn't have the same pulse. I suppose it makes sense given that Wellington is the capital city so it's got all the government jobs and the high-powered atmosphere. Wellington seems more highly strung. It's more like a 'big city'. Christchurch feels like a large rural town, at times.

Another thing that is strange is that Wellington has a fantastic variety of ethnic restaurants, often on the very funky Cuba Street, whereas Christchurch has a more limited variety. Another friend from my university and I were looking for somewhere cheap to eat on Monday night, before I suddenly saw the Malaysian restaurant I was surely fated to eat at. Reasonably cheap, with a menu of food I haven't been able to eat since last time I went to Malaysia - from that point, my friend had little say and we just HAD to eat there. I chose my favourites - masala dosai and roti chanai, with a mango lassi to wash it down - and felt so extremely satisfied with Wellington that walking back to my accommodation in the rain was a pleasant experience. And then sitting in a cosy little cafe reading Agatha Christie, rain streaming down the windows, was the perfect end to a nice day.

Wellington could begin to feel claustrophobic. I come from the wide open vistas of the Canterbury plains, the flatness of Christchurch and the huge sunset sky, whereas Wellington is nestled in among steep hills and even in the flat part of town the buildings seem to swallow up the space above you. For two nights, it's a lot of fun. If the big earthquake does come to Wellington (the city is sitting precisely on the Alpine fault line that runs the length of New Zealand), it would be terrifying.

My purpose in coming to Wellington was to go to a conference being held at Victoria University of Wellington, which sits perched on the side of a steep hill. As sorry as I was not to climb this hill (ha!), it was more tempting to ride the cable car up the hill:

For $1 (student rate), this is a cheap and easy way to get up the hill, and besides that there's a novelty value that makes it much more fun than walking or taking the bus. And you really do feel that you're sitting in a box that is being pulled on a rope up the hill. Weird.

Victoria University of Wellington:
... is a university that by its very existence helps its students get fit. The flat playing field in this picture above is possibly the one flat piece of ground in the entire university. The rest is made up of constant stairs and constant slopes, and there are probably hundreds of mysterious little paths all over the place making their way down the steep, steep hill and between buildings.

The funny thing about the campus is that on the first morning, before I registered for the conference, I wandered around for a while trying to get a good view of the city. But nowhere could I find an unbroken view. It was very strange, given that this university is 2/3 of the way up a very steep hill - but there was always something getting in the way.

Imagine my joy when M. and I went for a walk between conference sessions on the second day of the conference and discovered a little old cemetery on one of the steepest parts of the hill, graves at a ridiculous gradient. You must know by now that I love cemeteries. And this was one of the most romantic of them, hidden away from sight - we even had to climb through a hedge just to get to it!
My joy was even greater, though, when we found that by standing on top of the huge slab of concrete marking the Sisters of Mercy's grave (apologies to the Sisters of Mercy), the wind rushing in our face, we suddenly had an unbroken, wide view of the city, the harbour, and the suburbs disappearing up the valley.

It was exhilarating. One of my favourite moments of the trip.
The conference itself was really fun. I presented at the end of the first day and got a lot of questions which I think is always a good sign, and was followed by someone who was researching a slightly different time and place but who was dealing with very similar concepts. That, I think, was one of the most valuable things about the conference. Even within the history department of a university it's sometimes hard to find people to talk with about the things you're researching who really understand, and so it's very helpful to be given a situation in which you meet the only people in the country who are particularly interested in the same things as you.

The other three from my university who went all did really well, too. And overall I was reminded of all the reasons I've chosen history (although I was also reminded of the types of history I'm not keen on, and the elements of academic life that I'm going to find challenging).
On the final night, I left the conference and went for a wander along the waterfront, and then followed my nose back to the backpackers to pick up my bags. A light dinner in the cafe next door - lamb, haloumi and red capsicum on skewers of rosemary with minted yoghurt for dipping, MMM - followed by a hot chocolate, and then off to the airport and home to Christchurch. Rather a lovely few days.


heidikins said...

Oh goodness, this sounds like a lovely break. I'm so glad it exceeded your expectations! Yay Wellington!


Sarakastic said...

All of these pictures look like posstcards

Stacy said...

Congrats on a successful conference. First one?

Wellington sounds lovely. If I ever visit NZ, I'll need to stop by for coffee. (Oh, and probably other stuff too as long as I'm in the neighborhood.)