I hate to admit it, but after a lifetime of hating people, I am starting to like them. They are touching me and it feels good, most of the time. I think now that most people want to be honest and decent, if their bloody lives will let them. It seems to me that, for a lot of people, a city life is a pressure-filled life. A sort of exciting merry-go-round, fun if you don’t fall off. And I think a lot of the people we get here are those who have fallen off, or at least want to get off.
Someone said to me that this place is a “turnaround” place. Right at the end of the Sound, it’s the place where you stop for a while when you find you can’t go any further. And then you turn around. Some go back to where they come from, at least knowing that they want to. And some go off to a new destination, having found that it wasn’t as hard to get off the merry-go-round as they had thought. I think that I came here like that. Only I haven’t left yet.
Heike was like that. I first met her when she came for a few days as a guest. At that early stage of her travels she was bright, bubbly and full of excitement at the prospect of travelling through the wonders of South Island nature. Later, nearly at the end of her travels, she wrote and asked if she could come again, but this time for a longer period and as a “woofer.” A woofer is a kind of modern tramp. They work a few hours a day for their keep. I said OK.
Heike this time was a little different – happy enough and full of praise for New Zealand and New Zealanders, but a little wistful at the thought of her imminent return to Germany. Over the next couple of weeks, bit by bit, it all came out. Her travel in NZ had opened her eyes to a different kind of life and environment. To her, NZ was a land of blue seas, green bush and crashing waterfalls, inhabited by people who put play before work and family life before money. In NZ, people had time to sit round and talk about things and did not live for work, she thought. While as a New Zealander I was more than a little chuffed at her feelings about my land, I privately thought that this didn’t quite sound like the country I knew. I said very little, hoping that in the end she would work it all through.
But she didn’t. A couple of days before she was due to leave, we were mustering the sheep. During a break, when we were gathering a few mushrooms for dinner and talking about how they were going to be cooked, she burst out with, “How can I go back to Germany after this? Look at me. I am here on this beautiful day in this beautiful land, and the thing which is most important is how we are going to cook these mushrooms tonight. This could never happen in Germany. I can’t go back.”
Her despair wrenched at my gut like a knife and we sat down, forgetting the sheep for a while. We talked, something like this:
“Why can’t this happen in Germany. Do you not have sunny days?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” Heike said.
“Do you not have green grass and sheep and nice scenery?”
“Well, why can’t this happen in Germany?”
“People there don’t have time.”
“Look, Heike, I don’t really want to tell you this, but I think you’ve got the wrong idea about New Zealanders. Most ordinary people in our cities are so busy competing with each other they don’t have time, either. In your travel here you have been meeting people like me whose job it is to have time to talk. I think that really we are not so different to Germans.“
“I hate my job,” she said.
“Well, what you rather do?” I asked.
“I want to work with children.”
“Why don’t you?”
“In Germany, this job is not considered high. It is poorly paid. In Germany you are only respected when you work to the maximum of your capability, and your capability is judged by the quality of job you have.”
“But the people who matter, your boyfriend, your parents, your friends, they would still love you, wouldn’t they?”
“Yes. I don’t know.”
I was stumped, she unconvinced, and so we went on. I don’t know who was the more depressed. I couldn’t begin to understand a culture apparently so rigid, and I didn’t really believe it, but I didn’t know. My rosy glow of self-satisfaction was gone. Her experience in my country, as good as it was, had made her miserable.
I was still sad when it became time for her to go, a sadness that even the warmth of her parting hug could not dispel. I felt such a bloody failure. I said that I would think of her and I meant it, but I knew that the thought would not bring me joy.
About six months later, a card came. It was from Heike. She said that she had chucked her old job in, was working with intellectually handicapped children, and that she was very happy and settled back in her country. It seemed that her fears had been unfounded. It was her mind that had been keeping her prisoner, not her country. Her travel experience had shown her a different way, which in the end she followed, and all was well.
I hope all is still well, Heike, and that one day you might come back and read this story and know how much happiness your card gave me that day. You touched me, and I liked it. I said I would think of you and I often do, particularly when I’m collecting mushrooms.