Upside-down and off balance

As Diane drove us home from the airport, my white knuckles kept grabbing for the steering wheel. It wasn’t there. Diane was holding it, on the wrong side of the car. A couple times I reached for the rearview mirror, which was aimed at her instead of me. When we entered our first roundabout, I flashed back to Bangkok in 1972, when my dad sideswiped a taxi while he was still learning to drive on the left. If we had known the language, I’m sure my virgin ears would’ve burned at that cabbie’s vocabulary.
There would be no language barrier here in New Zealand, but the backwards traffic was enough to throw me out of my comfort zone. As we left the “big city” of Invercargill (population 50,000) for the country highways, it seemed like we were going way too fast (100-110 kph), and that we were going to sail off the left shoulder into the sheep pastures.
But when I relaxed and settled into this upside-down world, what a sight it was: brilliant green, rolling pastures sloping down to a bay of crashing waves, with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, blue skies and big white clouds. I could learn to like it here.
The next day, I thought I’d try my hand at the wheel. I reached the wrong way for my seatbelt and had trouble finding the gear shift lever. At least the ignition was on the right. As I pulled onto the road, It felt like I was driving a motorcyle with a sidecar. What is that seat doing over there, on my left? The whole thing is off balance this way.
Every time I turned, the windshield wipers came on instead of the blinker. After a couple hours of driving, I realized I had never looked in the mirror. When you’re on the right side of the car, your head doesn’t turn that way.
At each intersection, I froze, wondering which way to go. After 43 years, getting yourself to look right-left-right instead of left-right-left is no easy task. “Let’s see, they’ll be coming that way, so I need to go this way … wait a minute … no, they come this way, I go that way … this way, that way … that way, this way … aaaaaaah!” So you hit the gas and hope your instinct for self-preservation (and everyone else’s) doesn’t let you down.
Driving was a small part of the adjustment. Here are some others: It’s cold here. Not just outside, where August is like February back home, but inside, too. Kiwi houses have thin walls, glass like cellophane, no weatherstripping around the doors, poor insulation, and no central heating. We went into a hardware store in a neighboring town, and it was about 55 degrees (or 12.8 celsius).
The accents: As the son of a linguist, I’m always trying to figure out language. The difference between American English and Kiwi English is all in the vowels. Short “i” is more like an “uh” sound (fish is fush or foosh), short “e” is a long “e” (Brett is Breet), long “o” is “iyo,” (no is naiyo, or shortened to “naiy”). Then there’s vocabulary. The trunk is the boot, the hood is the bonnet, fries are chips and chips are crisps and speed bumps are judder bars and rugby has a whole language all its own that is still Greek to me. I went on a field trip with my son’s class, and one of his classmates talked my ear off the whole way. I’d say I caught about 10 percent.
The kids have to get used to wearing uniforms to school, and a whole new set of rules. Leif hates the black shoes, and Cedar gets cold in her plaid skirt, and their classmates laugh at their accent, but for the most part, they’ve handled every change with a sense of humor and adventure. It doesn’t hurt that they get plenty of attention as the only American kids in their classes.
The forest is also foreign. I took a hike the other day and felt completely baffled. I’m a guy who likes to know the names of things. I know nearly every tree and bird and wildflower back home in Minnesota, but the flora and fauna here have nothing in common with those I’m used to. Only the Holsteins, sheep, garden flowers, clover and pine plantations are familiar.

And as for the story about the water swirling the opposite direction, I must admit I haven’t noticed. Flushing creates more of a chaotic cataract than a gentle whirlpool. But according to, the Internet urban legend police, it’s a myth that water goes down the drain in a different direction down under. Now the cars, on the other hand …

Picture: Te Wae Wae Bay was just as stunningly beautiful the day we left as the day we arrived.

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