- Jackie Skrypnek
Get Your Garments Out Where We Can See Them
Part of the delight of travel is picking up on the little curiosities of another culture; how they do things differently (and to stretch your mind with the notion that there are different ways). Everyday patterns offer a window into what people of another place deem important.
Our recent trip to New Zealand confirmed that our two countries are culturally quite similar; we share a history of colonialism and remain members of the Commonwealth, our landscapes each range widely from mountains and forests to fields and coastlines all within one national boundary, and our ways of life are almost interchangeable. Given this backdrop of similarity, very small distinctions stood out to us all the more when we encountered them.
Take clotheslines, for example. We weren't at a single campground with laundry facilities that didn't also have a clothesline. And a clothesline that was in high demand! Dryers still received use, but judging by the shirts and socks, towels and undergarments dangling from bright plastic clothes pegs, it was free and renewable fresh air that was the drying method of choice. There's something beautiful about the unabashed mingling of one stranger's garments with another's on the same line. It feels like the subtlest acknowledgement of the goodness of humanity when you lay your clothes bare for all to see or, who knows, maybe claim as their own (though I suspect clothesline pilfering represents a miniscule and very niche line of criminal activity!). Of course clotheslines exist in Canada too, but it was their ubiquity in the common sphere that struck me in New Zealand. Far from banning clotheslines for aesthetic reasons (as has been known to happen in some Canadian housing developments)*, Kiwis seem to be saying "To heck with those high-energy dryers - let's get your garments out where we can see them!"
Chickens also feature prominently in the Kiwi culture-scape. Rurally that's no surprise, but we found handfuls of roaming hens to be a staple everywhere from urban yards and city hostels to campgrounds and even a fairly posh hot springs spa. No one batted an eye to have chickens scratching underfoot, or deemed them unclean or inappropriate as we might here in Canada. Instead, these bug-eating, egg-laying critters were integrated freely and unapologetically. My hunch is that it stems from the same philosophy that allows raw milk to be sold legally in New Zealand (under strict parameters). For a country that doesn't typically shy away from strong public policy for common benefit, they've refrained from outlawing basic food relationships and the result seems to be a healthy level of comfort with hens in the human domain.
One more tiny clue to Kiwi priorities came in the form of drinking water. Without fail, any establishment that sold food or drink would have heaps of clean glasses alongside fresh water in some fashion - a fridge full of glass flip-top bottles, a plumbed-in tap, or a several-gallon dispenser. Maybe filtered, maybe just plain ol' tap water, but it sent the message "no question, here it is - help yourself". Sure, you do see this in some Canadian coffee shops and, yes, your server will fill your glass if you're out for a meal. But in New Zealand it didn't matter how small the town was or what the café offered, this self-serve drinking water system could be counted on. It's a very small thing on the surface, but I think it speaks to a culture-wide understanding of water as first and foremost something essential that should be freely available rather than bottled and commodified.
Now, there were other patterns and ways of doing things in New Zealand that were just slightly less flattering (what does it say about Kiwi culture, for instance, that picnic tables were so hard to come by? 'Tis better to eat standing up? Or on the ground? Still a mystery...). But I picked up on these few in particular because they seemed to indicate, however partially, where their values lie. What might a traveller deduce about our values when visiting Canada (or a particular province or community)? What do our ingrained ways of doing things say about what we hold dear, both good and bad?
I don't have an immediate answer to that (it's tough, for one thing, to see your own culture as a visitor would), but it does raise the question of what patterns you‘d like to embed if you were building the cultural fabric of your place today (which we all are really, in a way). I don't think more widespread clotheslines, chickens, and drinking water would hurt!
*I'll go out on a limb here and guess that the reasons may go deeper than subjective aesthetics... could it be that clotheslines have become associated with lower incomes (and the subsequent lack of a personal dryer) and this doesn't sit well with some developments wishing to give off a "higher class" vibe? Or perhaps we're inclined to deny any outward displays of our real, messy lives?