A community COVID case in Auckland last week spurred the country into action, with the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declaring a Level 3 alert in the nation’s capital and an Alert Level 2 throughout the rest of the country.
All known contacts traced were checked for testing or review. I was impressed by the transparency and rapid response. All news sources provided updates on the situation, and the public was reminded about the need to be vigilant. Wearing masks on public transport became mandatory, and there was visible evidence of people scanning QR codes in public venues.
Though weary, everyone saw the importance of compliance. I compared the inconsistency of response in the States. Although many wore masks, it seemed as if there were as many who didn’t. The mask wearing is not mandatory here, but nearly everyone seems to follow instructions they are given.
Once the exposure from the family of three who were positive was under control, the country alerts were reduced to Level 2 in Auckland and Level 1 elsewhere. It was a relief, but nevertheless worrying and a topic of daily conversation. New Zealanders are aware how tenuous their situation is and how important it is to maintain their hard-earned freedom.
The government announced yesterday that the Pfizer vaccines have been received and the first vaccinations will begin with those who vaccinate. No other indication of when the general public will receive vaccinations, so we are waiting anxiously to find out.
Watching a Zoom Town Hall sponsored by Assemblyman Phil Ting was helpful to follow latest developments in San Francisco Bay Area. Professor George Rutherford compared statistics between the 1918 pandemic with the one today. In 1918, over 3000 people died in the Bay Area (of a population of 350,000). Today, there have been 342 deaths in a city over twice the size. While the numbers are still increasing, it is a testament to modern science and how it has protected the population from grief and tragedy.
In the mean time, life carries on as abnormally normal as possible. Daughter Julianne, grandson Felix and I took a day trip to Lyttelton Harbor. It’s a quaint port town that, despite it being the epicenter of the second major earthquake in Christchurch in 2011 that caused extensive damage, many vestiges of a historic town remain evident.
Logging has become one of the major industries in New Zealand. Just behind sheep and cattle farming, the logs are often sent to China and other countries for processing. Lyttelton, a tiny port nestled on the coast beyond the hills of Christchurch, has preserved a lot of its original character and sense of community .
The featured image above captures a warm and colorful server at the local wood-fired pizza parlor. The owners endeavored to make the restaurant a casual and welcoming environment, similar to other establishments in the neighborhood aiming to please
The evening shifted to a different tone. The Gatherings is a restaurant focusing on curated wines paired with delicious seafood. We were excited by a local “Salty White”, an unfiltered wine by Hermit Ram from North Canterbury. Mussels and chips, a mint salad, and whole flounder were a perfect combination from the Chef’s Selection.
Like many cities throughout the world, you can always find a good meal if you take the time to look for it. Thanks to Daughter Melissa, this one was no exception.
Earlier in the week, frequent walks through the park and adjacent cemetery unveiled many stories to be told from lives once lived.
Sketching with local Christchurch City sketchers at Ferrymeade Heritage Park and in Central Christchurch at Tuam and Manchester yielded opportunities to see and hear the city up close and personal.
While pandemonium in the Bay Area over getting vaccinations prevails, New Zealand has been steadfast and calm over the rush to get everyone vaccinated. Naturally, the state of health for its citizens are just as much a concern as for those in the U.S., but the order of magnitude is much more significant in the States. As a tiny country and with prudent practice, New Zealand waits to see how other countries handle their vaccination programs and whether any adverse outcomes may result from the injections or the procedures.
We are neither vaccinated here nor there. We watch the news each day to see what unfolds in both countries. I rely on news feeds as mentioned previously from RNZ, San Francisco Chronicle, NY Times, and Deutsche Welle. Most are focused on the delay of vaccination deliveries.
In the mean time, we continue to go about daily life as usual–trips to the market, going to see movies, museum visits, and mall shopping. By American standards, extraordinary. By New Zealand standards, ordinary, but still cautious. There have been a few breaches and cases. so people still scan their devices for contact tracing, a process that doesn’t even exist in the States,
Let’s Get Together and Go for a Walk in the Park!
The past couple of weeks have been filled with many delicious walks through the myriad parks in Central Christchurch. Daughter Melissa laughed at me when I told her that there were too many public spaces in Christchurch for people to consume. From Hagley Park along the Avon River, there are plenty of strolls to sooth the soul.
The New Zealand Symphony performed a medley of themes from Blockbuster movies such as “Goldfinger”, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Star Trek”, “Magnificent Seven” and crowd favorite “Lord of the Rings”. In both cases, as you can see, it is inevitable for dancers get out and take advantage of the music.
Sketching in Christchurch
Along with the German Language exchange, I joined a local sketch group. We meet weekly at the library to sketch each other, work on personal art projects, and chat. I still participate in hometown sketching via Zoom. Both the monthly Portrait Parties below and the weekly Tuesday evening Jam Sessions give me an opportunity to stay in touch with San Francisco fellow sketchers as well as to engage in a variety of challenging and lively sketching tasks!
The following series was based on selecting favorite portraits, then sketching them or simulating them in costume and then sketching the simulations! A totally fun and engaging event that we plan to do again.
Sketching via Zoom has created opportunites for screen shots to freeze images while listening to live music. I also sketch from live shots to keep the eye-hand coordination sharp–but sometimes have to jump ship!
The second impeachment trial to convict Donald Trump took place this week. I captured four of the House Managers who gave their impassioned testimony claiming that Trump was directly responsible for inciting an insurrection on the National Capitol. Sadly, he was not convicted by a Senate vote of 57-43.
I follow RNZ, or Radio New Zealand, daily as a source for local information in the country. The feed earlier this week reported a COVID-19 case, where the virus was transmitted to two health care workers in a Christchurch quarantine facility last November, 2020.
Russian sea crew staying at the hotel spread the virus when they walked through hotel corridors to the smoking area outside. Sometimes they went up to 4 times an hour, so the movement was significant. They infected two health care personnel in the hotel through microaerosols in the air. After discovering that, the Ministry of Health put crew in single rooms (previously they had shared rooms) with balconies so the crewmen could smoke directly adjacent to their rooms without having to go through the corridors to do so.
This is just a good example how easily the virus can be transmitted. Knowledge about personal behavior and simple modifications can avoid transmission. But it is a huge challenge to change human behavior. It’s already difficult to convince people to wear masks. To ask them to refrain from smoking would be impossible.
In another story I read in the New York Times, a journalist traveling by car across the U.S. discovered little or no mask wearing during his stops. He was traveling from Connecticut to St. Louis to take his mother to meet a relative. The journalist was appalled at the lack of compliance in mask wearing. Signs were posted everywhere, but no one was complying.
This journalist’s report was discouraging to me. It didn’t give me much confidence in rushing back to the U.S., despite promising plans to vaccinate everyone. In the mean time, we continue to live safely in New Zealand. We take each day at a time and wait to see whether conditions will improve in the States.
We go about our daily activities, visiting the local library, shopping at the supermarket, running errands in town, and enjoying New Zealand’s beautiful, pristine environment. The oceans surrounding the islands and the mountains carved by earthquakes and volcanic activity are clearly visible everywhere. Sun, wind, and rain change constantly from hour to hour, so the weather is, yes, a major topic of discussion.
A hike up to the top of Mt. Pleasant near the house we are renting gave us spectacular views of Christchurch. The harbor at Ferrymead, beach at Sumner and many inlets along the bay provide housing sites with views to cherish. Paved and gravel roads to outlying areas lead to many walks and pathways for hikers and bikers. (See featured photo above)
Taking strolls along the Esplanade reminded me of the fancy turn-of-the-century promenades I imagine along Brighton in the U.K. Today they are filled with surfers, families, and foreign visitors. The scene looks very SoCal or something out of La Jolla. Like in Papamoa, the distance from car to beach is only a few steps.
Unfortunately, this Sumner building is a sad reminder of the earthquake in 2011. The first earthquake in Canterbury weakened the structures in Christchurch, then a second one in Lyttelton caused most of damage to buildings like this one. Buildings still standing vacant are looking for a developer to raze and renovate.
Finally, a chance to sketch via Zoom with local Bay Area sketchers!
Since arrival in Christchurch a couple of weeks ago, I am beginning to fall in love with this charming South Island city. The easy adaptation encouraged me to connect with two local meetups, one for sketching and one for German language exchange .
Before COVID in March last year, I had been following these interests in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was an active member of SF Sketchers, a group that met monthly to sketch outdoors with other fellow sketchers. Sunset Sketchers, a subset of the group, met in cafes on weekends for morning coffee and sketching in San Francisco’s Sunset District.
Since the pandemic hit ten months ago, we continued to meet sporadically outdoors but this group and other spinoffs finally settled into the Zoom meeting format. Weekly and monthly meetups allowed members to stay in touch by sketching each other, but no places and not live.
Being in Christchurch, I am able to connect with others having the same interests in person. I meet the local sketching group at the library every week, and my first field trip with them will be to the Ferrymead Heritage Park this weekend.
The German Language Exchange group meets every month at a local cafe. Led by a high school German teacher, the small group of five provides plenty of opportunity to speak and listen to German. Three of us are recent arrivals that quarantined before entering New Zealand. One is a woman from the UK, and the other is a New Zealander returning from university studies. We have plenty of material coming from abroad and explaining our experiences in German!
After the devastating earthquake on Feb. 22, 2011, the center of town is laden with new developments. It has taken a good ten years to return to life. With an injection from the government, Christchurch is now able to display its resilience and durability proudly.
Being relatively flat and laid out on a grid system, you can get your bearings quickly to navigate around the city center. The lovely Avon River meanders throughout the city and provides another means of orientation for the visitor.
A Devastating Earthquake in 2011
Unfortunately, many buildings in this area were flattened by the earthquake. Due to liquefaction, the same curse that affected San Francisco’s Marina District in the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. Christchurch was not considered to be in an earthquake zone. Buildings in Christchurch were not designed at the time to take the vulnerability of soft, marshy land into account.
A few statistics about the earthquake: there were 182 deaths, and over 200 buildings that required demolition from damage caused by the earthquake. Over 300,000 tonnes of liquefaction were removed, and there was a 3-meter (about 10 feet) difference in distance between Rolleston and Kaiapoi after September 2011.
A large, block-long empty site peeks into the past: earthquake devastated sites like this one yearn for a developer to step up. A few new buildings have cropped up, but the many empty parking lots convey the extent of the damage, physically, economically, and emotionally.
New Life for Christchurch
Old Regent Street is double-loaded with period-style shops and cafes. A miniature golf park next to an amusement park and the city park provides plenty of free activities for children of all ages. Pop-up vendors selling favorites such as real fruit ice cream and chips fulfill desires for the weak at heart.
Today, many blocks of the city center are vacant or used for parking. City planners and the government have put alot of effort into urban renewal and bringing life back to this area.
Exploring the south side of the city led to a series of wall murals located on buildings. The empty parking lots in the foreground provided excellent sightlines for artwork while brightening an otherwise dreary environment.
The Avon River and scenic paths on either side calm the soul. In the adjacent Botanical Gardens, magnificent trees display themselves to strollers. Maori patterns are introduced along the paths telling the history and origins of the Maori culture.
A final stop at the City Library revealed exciting explorations for life-long learning. You can join free weekly programs to learn how to use laser cutters and 3-D printing, as well as how to use more old-fashioned skills like sewing and embroidery side by side. The weekly sketch group meets downstairs to hone one’s artistic skills.
Sketching in Christchurch
Speaking of sketching, I finally drew inspiration from a monthly zoom sketch group. We went back to basics using contour drawings, where you don’t lift the pen while you coordinate what you see on the paper in front of you. I exercised the same concept for the Tuesday night jam session with Bluegrass musicians via Zoom. Here’s what I came up with.
I have been contemplating how to initiate 2021, after a three-week hiatus from posting Travels with Myself and Others. The uncommonly normal existence in New Zealand seems awkward and inconceivable in light of the unprecedented events taking place in the U.S. Perhaps it is best to acknowledge what has allowed our privilege to be here possible.
The New Zealand government, along with a few other island countries like Japan, Korea and Taiwan, has overcome huge obstacles to protect its people from the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this tiny country of 5 million people, the government has been as transparent and straightforward as possible in its approach to the pandemic.
It also maintains stringent control over non-native flora and fauna. Travelers are unable to bring in foreign species such as fresh fruit and vegetables. Even sun-dried goods such as herbs, mushrooms, sausages and dried meat may contain microscopic live organisms. These items are confiscated and require zapping in high temperature ovens before being released.
Similar to these protections that have been in place for decades, the government takes special precautions against incoming biohazards and diseases such as COVID-19. In going through the agricultural area of Te Puke in Tauranga, signs along the highway remind everyone to protect its local kiwi fruit production.
New Zealanders are aware of their special circumstances. They are grateful for the government’s efforts in being vigilant. They read the news headlines and follow international developments closely. They follow the rules. Everyone knows about the thin line separating them from most of the rest of the world. In the end, no one is separable.
There was talk about creating a bubble for travel with Australia, where 75% of expatriate New Zealanders live. However, breaches in Melbourne, Sydney and where the new COVID-variant is detected, widening the net seems unlikely at this time.
New Zealanders have been very understanding and compassionate, as they hear distressing stories from other countries rampant with COVID-19. They want to make sure that New Zealander living abroad are able to repatriate and be comfortable during the two weeks in the managed isolation facilities.
New Zealand has done the right thing. With good leadership, good policies and practical thinking, it is one of the safest places to be on earth at the moment. We are fortunate to be here and hope that it will remain this way.
Mt. Ruapehu National Park
Everyone was more than ready for 2020 to end. With a few strategic choices and decisions, we were able to fulfill our goal of reuniting our nuclear family in New Zealand. Our last few weeks were filled with joyful holiday activities among close family members and a new addition to the family. We traveled from the North Island to the South Island.
We celebrated our Christmas holidays in Ohakune, at the edge of the UNESCO dual World Heritage Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks. During the off-peak season, we were able to enjoy one of New Zealand’s popular winter destinations with few or no crowds. (It is summertime now). On New Year’s Day, we took the gondola ride up Mount Ruapehu, the largest active volcano in New Zealand and the highest point in the North Island (over 9,000 ft).
Volcanic activity in the area restricted a 2 km radius area, but fortunately it wasn’t in the gondola’s path. New Zealand is unleashed when it comes to extreme sports such as bungee jumping, zipping, and hair-raising climbs. Being liability free, New Zealand is a hearty land for adventure travelers. Seismic and volcanic activity along the ring of fire further increases the potential danger and drama. Some tourists were killed last year when the volcano at White Island near Tauranga erupted.
Overnight in Wellington
We stopped to visit friends and the Te Papa Museum in a brief overnight stopover in Wellington on the way to Christ Church. Filled with a variety of classic and modern art, history, and natural history, the museum had plenty of material to teach and inspire visitors of all ages.
The Wellington Sunday Market in the Central Business District offered summer fruits and vegetables that seemed brighter, fresher, and larger. I was drawn to the pattern, shape, and form of each product. After a delightful and leisurely evening with a close relative, we managed to slip in a dim sum lunch the next day in the center of the city before heading to Christchurch.
Ohakune Forest Walks
Earlier in the week, we took one more hour-long forest walk in Ohakune before heading to Wellington. We had a chance to appreciate the gorgeous display of famous New Zealand ferns.
Middle Earth is a reference to Peter Jackson’s famous Lord of the Rings. Much of the filming took place between Auckland and Tauranga, but it seemed like a more appropriate name for the middle of the North Island. I haven’t seen the series yet, but I am inspired by being here.
With thanks to our pastry chef daughter, we shared the joy of cooking with our beloved family between Christmas and New Year’s. We concocted, baked, glutted ourselves with special meals and dishes and challenged each other’s intellectual skills on a hand-made Scrabble board.
The song beginning with the words “Beautiful Dreamer” wafts through my mind as I ponder the sights and sounds of New Zealand. There are plenty of birds chirping outdoors. They wake me up when the dawn is breaking and continue throughout the day, but they seem to be particularly energized at dusk. Many species of birds share the stage here and give me determination to recognize them by name.
Having arrived in New Zealand a month ago, we are undergoing a transformation of normality. We can get hair cuts, go to the mall to buy Christmas presents, eat in restaurants, and more importantly, hug those outside our bubble. We follow the news in the U.S. intently and still share the lingering fear of what lies ahead. Despite the depressing news, we resolved that the best way for us to overcome unsettled feelings is to carry on with life as if it is normal…because it is.
We made a special trip to circumvent the local Tauranga area by car yesterday. As a thriving community of 150,000 people, it is no match for Auckland or other world cities, but its charm and intimate character speak volumes. There are well-heeled districts reminiscent of Auckland’s, but the beaches, country living, and resort life side by side increase its energy and promise.
We took a short walk through the “bush” along the shoreline in Welcome Bay. New Zealanders love “tramping” from very rigorous walks such as the one in world-famous Milford Sound, to tamer, local district walks.
The local radio talk show discussed the recent plight of international students. 60,000 university foreign tudents who left New Zealand to return home temporarily due to COVID-19 are now unable to come back. New Zealand’s economy not only relies on its foreign student population for income from tuition and fees, but it also funds many programs for other local students. The arts, music, labs, and research are being threatened if the students do not return. The pandemic affects everyone in big and small ways, even when the country is COVID-free.
We’ll be heading out to explore the middle earth of the North Island this week in an area known as Tongeriro National Park. It’s known for its ski area, but we are taking advantage of its off-peak seasonal rates for a family reunion.
Before that, I’ll be busy baking Stollen, my traditional Christmas treat. For the first time, I am also preparing mincemeat pie, which apparently is a recipe that originated in the 11th Century. Thanks to the Crusaders, who rocked and raided the Middle East, they pilfered the method of combining meat with dried fruit and spices. With time on my hands like many of you sheltering in place, I may also attempt to assemble and decorate a homemade gingerbread house. Give any of these a try and we can share stories of delight or disaster.
As we approach Christmas, I hope each of you will be able to spend time and celebrate with those nearest to you with joy and love, whether in person or virtually. A safe and healthy Holiday Greeting from the Fong-Chou Family!!
Now that everyone has a working context of my reasons for being in New Zealand during the Pandemic from last week’s post, it seems like a good time to reflect on my thoughts about my being here. Obviously, it feels glorious, exciting, and unbelievable. But behind the initial cloak of exhilaration, is a gloomy feeling of an imbalanced existence.
The first sensation is that of chance. Like winning the lotto, or how fortunate you feel for something that happened to you but that you had no control over. No skill, or talent, or grit. Just luck. How is it that I, as an American, can travel halfway around the world, to flee the doom of the rest of the world’s woes? Will we pay the price later? Is it a fluke, or is it something that will suddenly reverse?
The second sensation is that of loneliness. Why are we able to go about freely, in a dream-like society, to walk about and engage with other human beings? What privileges are we given for something that other citizens throughout the world are unable to do? As social animals, humans depend on our relationships with others. Despite being able to interact with 5 million other humans on a captive tropical island, what keeps us from interacting with 5 billion others?
The third impression of being in an odd, or unique country as New Zealand, is the abnormality of normality. People go about their daily lives, yes, with difficulties, but far, far less than those faced by the rest of the world. We can smile at others on the street and they can smile back, with 2/3 of our facial features unmasked.
We are able to hug each other—the most priceless possession at the moment for me and my family. And we are able to conduct life in normal ways—shop, go to the post office, have dinner in a restaurant. And we can even get ourselves exasperated at traffic, stand in line a little too long, and complain about the sports teams’ failures.
What has caused these feelings? No one asked for the pandemic. There is a price for interacting. The urban advantages of living close together are challenging us. But rural freedom is also paying its price. Neither environment is doing much better than the other, as we see numbers climbing in the U.S. in both types.
I have always been fascinated with anthropology. But it will take anthropologists a long time to come forward with their analysis of the pandemic. Maybe it will take decades or even hundreds of thousands of years before they are able to grasp the phenomenon of what we call COVID-19 and the havoc it has wreaked on our society today.
Perhaps they will find evidence of the pandemic. Like mass burial graves in Italy or China. Or chemical traces of the vaccine in our bodies we took to extend our lives. Or a sudden drop in world-wide birth rates, just like what one reads on tree rings indicating droughts. The scads of evidence collected will not convey the human emotion and stress.
New Zealand has indeed done a few good things. And with skill and endurance. A commendable deed between a government by the people and for the people. The U.S. has lost its moral compass, but long before this pandemic. The basics of human dignity were already tossed aside.
I feel as if I am living in the future, seeing normality in a world yet to experience it. Soon, the rest of the world will normalize. Streets will be populated, animated with people meeting people, and lives connecting again. Soon, the rest of world will be living their expected lives with fun, humor, sadness and irony. I am looking through this lens now.
I am grateful to be in a country that enables me to temporarily avoid the woes of the rest of the world. I can only hope that the rest will become “normal” again by this time next year. There will be many stories, tragedies, and fallout, just as there had been from the last pandemic. And we will recover. Mankind can only cope with so much before the next one strikes.
Officially, we are just completing Week 2 of our “Freedom from COVID” visit to New Zealand. We spent the first two weeks in a managed isolation facility after leaving San Francisco on a flight to Auckland via Los Angeles. We were released and allowed to enter normal society on November 23.
After celebrating Thanksgiving at Papamoa Beach in a sprawling suburban house with our family in the Tauranga area, my husband Gee Kin and I transferred to a cozy cottage in the Papamoa Hills. There is a view in the distance framed by the Bay of Plenty, Mt. Manganui and the South Pacific Ocean.
Our short walks up the road from the cottage revealed plenty of flora and fauna. Without much effort, we sauntered past sheep and cattle grazing in the rolling hills, a horse next door, and birds including tuis, pheasants, and hawks.
I picked a bouquet of wild hydrangeas and daisies along the roadside in the midst of tropical ferns hidden in an alien pine forest. The non-native species here are now shunned. A massive national campaign is underway to return the natural environment to native species.
By the end of the week we couldn’t wait to get back to the beach. We could roll out of car in the free parking lot in 15 minutes and immediately feel the sand between our toes. We walked an hour each way without seeing many people as the beach stretched miles before us.
Daughter Julianne, partner Jeff, and precious Baby Felix are having lunch on the balcony of their barn on the avocado and lemon farm where they are staying in Te Puke, kiwi fruit capital of the world.
Why are we in New Zealand?
Five million residents in New Zealand (of which 13% are Maori) are currently able to move about and conduct daily life normally as they have always prior to the advent of COVID-19 in March, 2020. Under the leadership of the prime minister, the New Zealand government tackled the pandemic early and “hard”.
Around 70,000 New Zealand citizens who were living abroad have been repatriated. Qualified spouses or partners of New Zealand citizens, like me, are allowed to join members of their families. New Zealanders have had a tradition of taking a couple of years abroad to do an “OE” (overseas experience). Many who have been living in other countries are now returning for the first time.
In March, there was a complete lockdown throughout the country. The international borders were closed and all incoming travel was banned. All businesses were closed (no takeout or delivery) and residents could not leave their homes except to buy groceries. This lasted for about a month. Except for a few minor breaches, the country has managed to contain any major outbreaks. Services and facilities were gradually opened by levels in a rational, consistent fashion with minimal reversals.
Around 6,000 hotel spaces are provided throughout the country to monitor and test returnees before they are released after 14 days with no symptoms. Travelers cannot come to New Zealand without a voucher for managed isolation facility. Over the upcoming holiday period, spaces are booked out. Airlines do not allow passengers to fly to NZ without a valid voucher for quarantine. Other island countries such as Taiwan, Korea and Japan have implemented similar policies for quarantine.
During the 14-day isolation period, travelers are given two nasal tests. The Ministry of Health calls daily to check in and take temperatures. The only times isolees are allowed to leave their rooms is for pre-booked 40-minute exercises in a confined outdoor area, where those exercising are escorted and monitored by Defense personnel.
New Zealand has always been extremely protective of its land and environment and prevents external hazards or pestilence to enter the country. COVID-19 policies are an extension of existing policies. Because New Zealand relies heavily on its tourism industry, it is also important to preserve its crown jewels for the future.
While only a tiny country by international standards, New Zealand has focused on what it can do in a responsible manner to protect its people. In close collaboration with the Ministries of Immigration and Quarantine, Health, and Defense, the government has maintained an explicit program to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
And to complete the punchline for being here: it was a serendipitous adventure by Gee Kin’s father, who arrived in New Zealand in 1906 at the age of 19 from China to discover, like all immigrants, his fame and fortune. He stayed and left a legacy for his descendants from which we now benefit.
After two weeks in quarantine at a managed isolation facility and three COVID tests in Auckland, we were released into normal society on November 23. Our journey before, during, and after had many twists and turns, but we were able to execute our plans to travel to New Zealand. I am extremely fortunate to come here with my husband, a New Zealand citizen, to join our daughters, who are both New Zealand citizens.
In this country of 5 million residents, Jacinda Ardern, the current prime minister, is known here and throughout the world as having managed to keep New Zealand free from many of the world’s woes over COVID-19. There is still much caution and work to be done, but we are witnessing how these efforts have translated into big differences from those of other countries.
It didn’t take much adjustment, as our long-term memory guided us to the familiar past easily. Without masks or social distancing, we could conduct ourselves just as we had done pre-pandemic. We could go to shops, supermarkets, and restaurants. It didn’t seem as surreal as our short-term memory flashed a vague feeling of anxiety and wistfulness.
We left Auckland and drove three hours south to Tauranga, located in the Bay of Plenty. It is a large beach resort similar to Santa Cruz or Newport Beach on the California coast. As the weather was turning into summer, the balmy breezes, warm days and cool nights reminded us of our coastal weather. We took a short walk through Mt. Manganui with beautiful , crisp views of the bay.
Our Air Bnb was located a couple of blocks from the extensive Papamoa Beach. With over 10 mile stretch of pristine sand beach, residents of this small community of 20,000 have no problem with parking or access to it.
New Zealand is better at acknowledging its Maori culture and history. Substantial progress has been made in recent years in promoting the country’s first inhabitants. Maori names and language are being integrated into daily life. We encountered some students at Papamoa Beach practicing for an upcoming event.
Small-scale farming is ubiquitous throughout the country. We stopped at a strawberry patch and a lemon and avocado farm to enjoy the spring bounty. The header above is where daughter Julianne is living.
Most of this first week has been consumed with our arrival and joyful family gatherings, so my comments on New Zealand are brief. Please stay tuned for more to come over the next few months!
As we enter into an uncertain future over the next few months and the advent of the holiday season, it seems inappropriate to revel in travel experiences. Yet they bring fond memories of a time past. I wonder whether we will ever be able to have such joyful experiences again. The COVID pandemic has indeed affected every country to a large extent because of travel. Globalization has taught us that there are drawbacks to a shrinking planet, and costs to mixing human interaction, culture, economies, and democratic principles.
Nevertheless, here is my defiant celebration of the past. Secretly, I hope that the world will rebound in the coming year. In doing so, perhaps we will be older and wiser at our choices, and ensure greater appreciation of our relationships, our environment, and protecting both.
In previous posts, I confessed about my love for Dresden. Granted, Berlin topped my favorite city in Germany, until Munich came along. Like children, it’s hard to give way to one over another. Nevertheless, I maintain great fondness and admiration for Dresden, the first city where I studied German and formed deep impressions about Germany.
Music and art surround you in Dresden. The U.K.’s Daily Telegraph regarded Dresden as having one of the best music festivals in Europe, with popular performers like Rufus Wainwright and Eric Clapton showcased along with world-famous classical conductors and symphonies. When I first studied art history in college, I became curious about where Dresden was (pronounced DRAYS-den by Germans). Many famous Romantic paintings were located in Dresden.
I returned to Dresden several times–for the music, the beautiful Baroque architecture, historical museums and art collections, the intimate surroundings, and the familiarity.
The new state of Altstadt vs. the old state of Neustadt
The location of Dresden’s landmarks are confusing, because the old part of the city was rebuilt after WWII and should be called Neustadt. But the neighborhood to the north of Dresden on the other side of the Elbe River is already called Neustadt. It was named that after a big fire in Dresden in 1685.
The beloved original Baroque buildings have been imitated every 200 years or so and throughout generations in between. So it is barely detectable whether they are from today (21st century), yesterday (19th century), or from its original reconstruction (1685). Dresden is fixated on the urban massing and proportions of five-story blocks with mansard, gabled roofs. It has committed itself to an elegant and functional building form worth repeating.
The plazas and central area of Dresden surrounding the major museums, the Frauenkirche, the Residenz, and the Semper Oper continue to impress old and new visitors to this historic imperial city. The large pit that was left open for a few years in the middle of the city due to archaeological excavations have been filled. In its place are replicas of the old Baroque buildings that were bombed during WWII. (See header above).
In the center of town, numerous free musical events took place throughout Altstadt (the old new part of the Old City). Fellow German classmate Vladimir and I reconnected and caught a couple of young and old rock bands, two choir groups, and a brass chamber music ensemble. The often shuttered Japanese Palace was open on the weekend to host some of these events.
The Neustadt neighborhood, created after a major fire in the heart of Dresden’s Altstadt, or “Old City”, is still relatively historic and elegant, with Baroque buildings from the 18th Century. So it’s a bit of a misnomer and confusing to first-timers here. The streets are still relatively narrow in scale, with streetcars rumbling along the cobbled streets in a predictable ambient noise level. They are punctuated by the occasional bells ringing from the many local Protestant churches nearby.
The Neustadt area where I live is jammed with young residents and visitors. It’s a lively scene every night. Party-goers on bicycles invade the corner and perch on the curbs for hours on end. While the noise is evident, the scene is manageable. The bauhof or courtyard in my apartment building provides just enough sound separation to make any noise barely detectable.
The true test will be the annual local festival in the area next weekend, when the neighborhood comes unwound for three days. Clubs and restaurants will offer free music in nearly 20 different locations.
Courtyard buildings, designed to allow light and air into the deep superblocks, create intriguing walkways and chasms of sunfilled delight and discoveries from the busy thoroughfares now laden with shops and restaurants.
Inside the Kunsthof Passage, or “Arts Passage”, is a delightful array of new buildings designed in the same proportion and massing as the surrounding Baroque buildings. Exteriors are decorated with tile artwork in a fanciful display of creativity and fun. “Lila Sossa”, a resturant now becoming an institution in the area, serves organic dishes and desserts from Mason jars.
I’ve been buying my groceries at the corner Bio-Markt. It’s a minature supermarket complete with organic produce, fresh meat, dairy, and bread. I avoided the bread and wine to promote healthy living, but I did buy some landjaeger, one of my favorite dried sausages. It is packed with flavor, great for a snack or outing, and demonstrates one of Germany’s culinary skills: sausage-making. A joke on twitter said the Germans, facing COVID lockdown, have now resorted to their würst-käse scenario.
Food is still inexpensive and inspired by international standards of quality and diversity. I had a vegan rice wrap with glass noodle and spring rolls with tea for under $8 for dinner last night, but had trouble deciding among the extensive selection of Japanese, Afghan, Indian, Turkish, and even German specialties within a one-block radius of where I lived.
Germans are learning how to eat better and their culinary adventures are catching up with the rest of the world. Germany has the second highest number of Michelin star restaurants after France. Like the English, German latter day culinary awareness is under-appreciated. The fruit basket on display at a fair is a reminder of how ugly fruit and vegetables are wasted for visually-appealing choices.
Pictures at an Exhibition
Although I am primarily in Dresden for a German course, I feel like I am leading a double life. I have been researching Music Festival concerts being held for another week here. I have managed to squeeze three performances in three days while attending classes. If you were ever contemplating how to learn about music by going to performances, this is the place to do it.
Prices are reasonable and with student “rush” tickets from the Goethe Institute, you are in business. I paid 20 Euros for “Pictures at an Exhibition”, a piano recital at the Albertinum Museum. It turned out to be a double bargain, since access to the museum was free immediately before the performance.
In a fascinating program combining music and art, Tokarev first played Tsaichovsky’s “Character Pieces for a Year” for piano. Each month’s themes portrayed different moods and feelings, from romantic songs to grand celebrations. The second half was followed by Mussorgski’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. The tunes were skillfully enhanced by a video installation.
The program certainly increased my appreciation of the two composers, and it communicated the beauty in their work. Kandinsky’s “Large Gate from Kiev” painting from 1924 was featured in deconstructed movement and timing. Everything was seamlessly coordinated into an exquisite visual and musical experience.
Nikolai Tokarev, the soloist, has won numerous European piano competitions, performed alongside many European orchestras, and produced CDs interpreting beloved Russian composers.
The Albertinum Museum exhibition, “100 Years of Bauhaus” was the second windfall. Created in Germany in 1920s, the Bauhaus included members shown in the exhibition such as Maholy-Nagy, Feininger, Klee and Kandinsky. It was a good warm-up to the performance.
The teachings of the Bauhaus formed the foundation for my undergraduate training in design at UC Berkeley. The Bauhaus developed design concepts and tools for mass production. Art, technology, architecture, painting, sculpture and construction are integrated with each other and this approach was developed from this movement.
Two-dimensional geometric lines and color like those by Piet Mondrian evolved into three-dimensional shapes. It is easy to see how industrial design and furniture like those by Marcel Breuer were an extension of isometric details and design.
The attendees at the Exhibition were exhibitions themselves. One woman wore a tastefully chosen black and white polka-dotted dress with red heels and accessories. Another more casually dressed gentleman clad in classic German black pondered in front of a textured wall. It served as a backdrop for artwork designed in the 20’s as part of the Bauhaus movement.
Last but not least, a quick rip through the classical section of the Albertinum revealed many forgotten items in storage and on display–a sad reminder of the dilemma of wealthy collectors.
After the end of the performance and three encores, the warm evening air outside reminded me of what a special place Dresden is in place and time. The view below is photographed from the Albertinum in Altstadt. Frederick Augustus, Elector of Saxony and the King of Poland, built most of Dresden’s original Baroque buildings here in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries.
An irresistible ticket price of 10 Euros drove me to the Semperoper to see Angela Georgeiou, the Romanian diva, in Tosca. Despite being in my favorite opera house, sitting in the fifth row slightly off center, a “clean” stage without a distracting cast of thousands, and the bargain, the performance was disappointing.
Here are two other concerts I attended:
Grigory Sokolov Piano Recital
Born in 1950, Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov can still apply all faculties and fingers to a long and rare public performance. The audience was extraordinarily attentive, reflecting the pianist’s skillful yet delicate playing.
The Germans, as I have mentioned before, are stingy with kudos but you know you have seen something worthwhile when the audience gives multiple standing ovations (after stamping their feet). Sokolov showed his gratitude by performing several encores. It didn’t hurt that the newly renovated Concert Palace in the heart of Dresden is acoustically perfect. Musicians travel to the venue by bike and tourists arrive by public transportation at the front door, so pre-concert traffic is non-existent.
Dresden High School for Music
Music permeates daily life in and around Dresden. The Dresden High School for Music demonstrated its mettle with a high quality string orchestra consisting of 11 to 19 year olds. Serious students and attentive audiences symbiotically promote a strong future for classical music in Germany. The school was beautifully and acoustically designed for music and performing arts.
Rather than for me to carry on about why I love Dresden, I will defer to earlier posts written in August 2014. You will find them in the search or in the summary of posts for that month.
We will be pausing the Europe Series/Silk Road Extension next time, in order to feature real-time postings from New Zealand. Be sure to join us for new insights of traveling in a country that has managed the COVID pandemic better than most other countries.