Small Family in Six Suitcases

Hi. How are you? We're a family of three who moved to New Zealand from Seattle in July '05. We sold or gave away pretty much everything except what we could carry onto the 'plane. We thought we'd write a bit about it. We'll love it if you can join us for a few moments.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Totara floors -- which I concede sounds like the name of a jobbing showgirl, and probably one who gets men to light cigarillos at the side of her mouth -- are actually what we have underfoot in our little home. Totara is a kind of timber native to New Zealand.

I look after 'em. I have never lived anywhere with polished hardwood before and, even though winter is pretty much here and they are thus not at their warmest, I love them and sweep them and mop them not just weekly but whenever they are even halfway sullied by bootprints or crumbs.

These exposed-wood floors are in our kitchen and hallway. Although the kitchen section is pretty much covered for the winter by a rug, I carefully angle the broom and brush any dust along the length of the exposed borders, and into the dustpan. I shouldn't be surprised if, one day soon, I don't nudge an edge of the rug upwards an inch or three and check underneath to make sure the totara is still there and happy. I haven't done so yet: I just say that I might. Don't let any of the international news bureaux get above themselves and jump the gun.

I have crept past diligence and into being proprietary about our totara's upkeep. I know this because I now use the reverent construction "my floors" when talking about them, in the manner of a school caretaker imploring them kids and their blasted studded bags not to deliver a scorched-earth policy upon "my banisters" or even, in man's darkest days, "my nice linoleum".

Here's how I clean them. I fill the big oblong laundry-room sink with warm water and add a squeeze of dish liquid. Then, leaving this to steep, I go away and sweep and follow this up with the mop and sudsy water. Then the three of us huddle in one room, precisely like refugees, while the wood dries. The totara 'comes up' beautiful after that little lot.

It is my magic procedure, and I leave it with you.

What else in the last couple of days? We had a truckload of firewood delivered on Saturday, one third hardwood to two thirds softwood, and despite his limp Winston helped me stack it in the garage for hours, nay past dusk, until it was all done. And firewood is not easy stuff for a convalescing toddler to lug around.

I think he sticks close to me so that he doesn't miss out on any sun-shattering paternal Truths and Wisdoms, of which my method of cleaning floors is but one instance.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Do It Ourself

Man, has it been a real homeowner's week here! Teeming with stuff around and about the house. Any week when you end up using the phrases "blue gum", "Khalaf rug" and "10% goes straight out your floors" within a country mile of each other is a gen-u-ine homeowner's week.

I've already hitched up my jeans with my thumbs twice this morning, and the clever money is on my doing so twice more before lunch.

First cab off the rank, we caught our (we think lone, renegade) mouse a few days ago. I had made a humane trap out of an inverted pop bottle, and it worked. I came out to the kitchen late on Sunday evening and heard him scratching around in the bottom of the bottle where I had put crackers and peanut butter. So we carefully covered the trap, transferred him gingerly to the van, then Vera went out near midnight, drove several miles avoiding all road bumps, and stamped on his neck. Just kidding: she released him. And so far, no more droppings or gnawing noises. Not even from me.

Then we had to order more firewood and work out whether the chimney needs cleaning. And, golly, if anyone needs a name of someone good to sweep their chimney in this area, let me know. The guy helped me with 20 minutes of free advice over the phone, waiting on the line while I did flue and burn tests. In the end he said "Don't spend your money on hiring me, just get some really good wood". So we're having a mix of gum, oak and softwood delivered this weekend.

Our polished timber floors are also -- what a surprise -- chilly now that winter is here. So we have been finding out about underfloor insulation options. We did a partial quick fix by buying a huge Egyptian rug, very cheaply, from The Warehouse. It covers the whole kitchen area. That helps a lot, as should the efficient firewood.

Terrifically, we got to know our neighbors Sharon and Alan, and their children, better this week. Sharon is a writer with, among other things, a number of children's books published. They have helped us so much already with tips and encouragement, and this weekend we plan to do a tit-for-tat whereby Alan will mow our lawns with his wonderful sit-on mower and we will trim their garden edges with a weed whacker.

(Now when two writers find out about each other in a small community, it can be what P.G.Wodehouse would call a real Damon-and-Pythias moment, and anyone trying to get a word in edgewise between them is in a position akin to a chimp with clipped toenails attempting to carve a foothold into a diamond cliff-face. Sharon and I had a good chat, and Winston and I went to look round their great family home and property. They have built a laundry chute and Winston was amused to see his shoes suddenly pop out of it seemingly from nowhere.)

Oh, and to cap our whole rugged week I trimmed my beard over the bathroom sink last night and only used one piece of kitchen towel to try to wipe out the bits from the bowl. The rest I just scooshed down the plughole with tap water. I just don't care, slow-blocking hazard or no slow-blocking hazard. My house.

Okay, back to shoving some fingers into the belt loops of my denims. It's hitching time.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


When was the last time you suffered from an old-fashioned chill? I ask because I think I hosted one last night. It intrigues me when folks get chills in 2006, because I thought that chills more or less went out with zinc buckets and people who put apostrophes into the words bus and pram. (To be honest it would have intrigued me in 1969, let alone 2006.)

But a couple of weeks ago our good friend Louise was rubbing her neck when we dropped in for coffee because she had been sitting in a draught the night before. And now, she said, she had a chill. Thought: maybe only New Zealand still recognizes chills? Could be.

So here I was at home, yesterday evening. I'd had a long and a hot bath which admittedly, if done on a late-autumn night, inserts you into proto-chill territory, although after I got out I put on some sensible after-bath clothes such as one of my fleece sweaters. I wasn't "asking for it", homies. However I then went to the computer, put my earphones on and spent an hour sitting still (mistake?), listening to music. Then I got up and headed for bed.

Man, I was cold. Everything suddenly felt like the inside of the fridge. Everything. Hallway. Bedsheets. Doors. Oxygen. I wrapped myself in the duvet like a taco and fell asleep. For a while.

At 3.35am I woke up with that rotten feeling you have when you suspect you're going to be physically sick. To vomit, in other words (sorry). It's awful, isn't? It's one of the very few times when your whole mouth and face, in mime-grade silence, devoutly and exactly utter the expression "Oh, no-oh-oo..." And as they do so, you shiver. You almost quake. Now I'm so skinny (try being married to a ballet chick and be the half of the duo that people refer to as "the really thin one") that I can hardly afford to shiver for more than about five seconds a year. As it is I look a popsicle stick, for goodness' sake, without any Richter moments.

Anyway, then I went -- as we all do when faced with this -- into fight and flight mode. This is that strange, here-and-now, pins-and-needles-y phase you get into whilst you're trying to work out really, really earnestly whether you truly are going to throw up. You put on the radio. You peer at the night light. You change radio stations. You switch back. You straighten your toes confoundedly under the covers and, here's the clincher, you try to think about whether any food you've eaten in the last half-day makes you feel particularly nauseous and then about whether you can even entertain the notion of eating anything ever again. Oof. Oh. Oof.

I didn't vomit. I had a fairly lousy night's sleep followed by a full day looking after Winston -- which turned out, as it always does, to be wonderful -- but my tummy stayed where it was. But what I did do, and what made the night's sleep fairly lousy, was to keep on shivering even in the 6am-8am slot, and I had to cocoon myself so tightly in the duvet that I looked like I was getting ready to mail myself. And, again, putting even a toe outside of my wrap felt as cold as an iceblock. When I did get up I made a fire and had a mug of tea and felt a bit better, though I had to keep layered all day to feel okay. Right now I feel pretty much 100% again.

So there we go. A real, genuine chill. Not a cold, not food poisoning, not flu (unlike our pal Helen on the South Island... hope you are feeling better, Helen!) but a chill.

I feel like offering myself to the local museum, to be put on a perspex stand next to the Settler Days Embroidery and the restored penny-farthing.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Monarch

This Monarch butterfly hatched in the cottage yesterday. Our neighbor had cut down a tree that was interrupting 'phone service, and he found the chrysalis and gave it to Vera and Winston a few days ago. Vera put it on the sofa on a greeny branch and -- here's a thing -- I didn't even know why the branch was there until I shouted to her just moments ago to find out where she and Winston had stored the chrysalis, so I could write this. With all the lifting and plonking-down of Winston that we have done recently, I'm just delighted that it stayed in one piece. I had known, nebulously as it were, that we were hosting the little chap-to-be somewhere here at Six Suitcase Towers, and I think I vaguely imagined that taking in a chrysalis somehow entailed Vera standing on a chair and hanging it up like a set of wind chimes.

Anyway Vera noticed the butterfly had emerged when she got up yesterday, but couldn't find it an hour later. When she got home from work at 5pm she found it in the laundry room, poised aeronautically on one of Winston's nylon sleeper suits.

It stuck around here for about a day. We all thought the little chap was doing the old 747-wing-test bit yesterday afternoon, ensuring all cabin doors and food trays were secured for takeoff, so we gently lifted the sleeper suit and carried it outside and onto the still-warm hood of our van so his feet would be warm for the virgin flight.

I have to say that the three of us then gave him a bit of well-meaning but unnecessary peer pressure. We hoisted Winston onto the hood and generally stood around with beer cans saying "Go on, my son! Off you pop! Gertcha!" and other comments of a like nature. Monarch, in turn, turned his head, his eye rolling from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, with one little leg curled off the sleeper suit. Surely he was getting ready for the off. His set jaw put me in mind of Orville and Wilbur Wright.

But no. So a few hours later, when it got cold, we brought him back in for the night.

This morning Winston and I put him out on the front step, and he hung around just long enough for me to take the above photo. W. had just gone to get some of his toy emergency vehicles to show the butterfly when he suddenly flew off (the butterfly, of course, not my son). Winston saw it but I didn't as I was fetching one of the toys.

All the best, little chap! You were a model house guest and as you wing through life let it always cheer you that, whatever else may happen, you're not likely to get slung into jail for not being symmetrical enough.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Cast off!

Winston's cast came off today! This happened a day later than had seemed probable because the Te Kuiti docs wanted us to double-check with specialists at Waikato Hospital. So we went to Hamilton today for fracture clinic.

The clinic folks were friendly and efficient and concluded that his spiral-fractured tibia has healed enough to give him an opportunity to re-start walking on it. (Incidentally, this is at least the second time this week that we have had excellent, fast service from a public organization. A few days ago I phoned the NZ Inland Revenue's 0800 number with a tax question, had the phoned answered by a human within seconds, and a straight answer about a minute later. Cheers! (Goodness, I'm starting to sound like a letter to a local paper)).

Just ten minutes ago he stood with both feet on the ground; I supported him under the arms.

He and I had a lovely morning in Hamilton together. The weather was sunny and warm with blue skies. We went into the city centre after we had finished at the hospital and bought a couple of treats. He deserves them. Golly, has he been patient and adaptable during the last six weeks, insisting on getting around my himself during his play... such as one memorable morning when he moved each of his toy tractors in turn from bedroom to living room, scooting there and back I don't know how may times on his butt!

Vera picked us up from Hamilton on the way back from her teaching in Auckland -- it had been an early start for all of us this morning! -- and we were back home by 1.30pm.

So thanks to Te Kuiti and Hamilton hospitals for helping Winston so far, thanks to everyone for your get-well support and wishes... and thanks, Winston, for being so terrific!

Monday, May 01, 2006

Fescue to the rescue

Right: Winston with our local pals.

Grass seed should come with a sachet of scarecrow seed taped to the pack. You'd rip the sachet open a couple of days before using the main product, tap out the contents onto the ground, poke it down. Sprinkle it with a little water. Done. And by next weekend you'd have three weird sisters spiked in nasty relief against the skyline to put the wind up all sparrows who would think to scarf down the lawn hopes of honest men.

Some digging-machine work was done in our back yard recently. The guys put the earth back very nicely, contoured it well, and brought us a big scoop of topsoil besides, but grass needs to be put back over the brown earth strips and excavator marks. As this is mid-autumn, ideal grass-planting season, I was out there yesterday with my rake and my kilo bag of Hardwearing seed.

This morning, of course, I wiped a finger of condensation from the inside of the kitchen window and looked out to see a small advance column of birds out there. Ah, well. Good on them. The stuff is begging to be their food: it's tiny and tastes good. (That's my other idea, by the way: make each individual seed the size of an accordion and tape noisy foil ribbons to it. Wake up, manufacturers).

Funnily enough, though, they were about the only birds I saw out there for the whole day. It has crossed my mind that I might have bought a brand of seed that was coated with bird repellent, and that those early scouts winged home like beaten Chicago hoods. But I don't know. Personally I think the whole concept of a chemical bird repellent is a bit outlandish and clumsy.

Something else we did this weekend was to write and deliver nine cards to the neighbours we have not yet met personally. I bought some bright yellow blank cards, each die-cut with a single circle in the middle front, then borrowed a blue felt-tip pen from Winston and wrote a jaunty "Hello!" inside the circle. Then I opened the card and wrote a few lines in ballpen, introducing ourselves. After lunch Winston got into his wheelchair -- his leg cast comes off this week, hopefully, by the way -- and we all went out and popped the cards in mailboxes.

We came home from a shopping trip next day to find a huge bag of fejoas on the verandah. No note, just the bag of fruit. It was really nice. And it prompted us to hop up the steps, turn frontwards kinda sorta obliquely to the whole neighborhood -- in case the donor was watching -- and make the exact brand of "durn-kid's-a-mite-slow-in-the-head-is-all-thass'up-y'all" grin you see on a child who has just opened his main gift on Christmas morning.

Today Winston and I took a walk around the streets to see the local animals again. We were on our way to visit the pigs when we saw a man, the pig owners' opposite neighbor, striding over to them with a white bowl piled with vegetable scraps for their brunch. We got talking. What a nice guy. He worked as a train driver for many years and is now retired. In passing I told him that, the previous day, Vera, Winston and I had been watching the pigs and had heard one of them crunching and crunching on somthing very hard. Then we saw a chunk of glass bottle on the ground. We looked at each other: can pigs eat glass? Was this pig eating glass, or was it just an aural coincidence? Should we tell the owner? Anyway we strained our eyes for several minutes and could see not a trace of blood in her mouth as she chewed, so we just reached in and fished the glass hunk from their mud, threw it onto the verge and walked on. And today all four animals seemed in tiptop, Empress-like health.

Lots of phone calls today to the tax service and bank, because it's the time of year to start getting that sorted. Meanwhile Vera recovered from her morning drive to and from Auckland to work.

Tonight I told Winston three bedtime stories. He said "Just one more, Daddy..." but no, I said, that was three and enough for tonight. "Then I'll tell YOU one", he replied. And he did.