Essays

On kindness, on ignorance: A frightful passage

On kindness, on ignorance: A frightful passage

CNZ RCWT 2020 Writing Fellow Michalia Arathimos began 2020 in Melbourne Australia where the threat of bushfires would shortly be replaced by the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic. In this essay, she recounts her whanau’s decision to return to Aotearoa New Zealand several months earlier than planned and the harrowing journey that followed.

On kindness, on ignorance: A frightful passage

For my dear friend, Airini Beautrais, and Keith and Margie. 

The first whispers about Coronavirus to reach myself and my whānau in Australia came out of China in December last year. They reached us but we paid them no mind; we were busy making decisions about survival in the midst of the Australian bushfires.

In a popular YouTube video, comedian Julie Nolke plays her future self, post-Coronavirus, and her pre-Coronavirus self. Her pre-Coronavirus self mentions the fires:

‘I think those are going to be the defining feature of 2020,’ her pre-Coronavirus self says.
‘Yeah, you’d think,’ her post-Coronavirus self responds.
‘Oh no?’
‘Not even a little bit… Your definition of a pretty big deal is going to change.’

Our definition was about to change, too.

We were having a bad end to a bad year. Last year a confluence of appalling events visited themselves upon us in quick succession. My partner and I are both New Zealanders. We had lived in Australia for the past seven years, with our two boys, who are four and nine. In 2018 we bought a house in the bush outside of Melbourne. Then, unexpectedly, my partner’s contract ended. The remote working situation he had set up fell through, and he ended up commuting to Melbourne three hours a day, and not seeing me or the children on weekdays at all. All of this was not ideal, then the worst thing that happened. Our eldest son got sick.

He had streptococcal, which we only found out later, which caused a transient kidney infection. We didn’t know it was temporary. When we ended up in hospital, we only knew that he was very weak, and that his kidneys were leaking blood. We spent nine months checking his kidney function, and making sure that he didn’t h ave a more serious illness. At one point he was a few haemoglobin points from a blood transfusion. He recovered, but now he catches everything. We consider him to be immuno-compromised.

As New Zealanders, the basics of bushfire safety were foreign to us, but we did our best to read up on everything. Our house was in what is considered the highest risk category for bushfires. On Code Red days in Australia, you evacuate without any fire even being near you. On such days, the risk is so great that any warning message would not reach you in time. We decided to leave early even on lesser fire danger days. We had an extensive emergency kit and a detailed plan.

New Years found us on a camping trip on the coast near Melbourne. We were surrounded by our seasoned Australian friends, but as the bushfires took hold a sort of underlying tension was palpable at the campsite. One of our friends was a mother to a teenager who was being evacuated from East Gippsland. She was glued to her phone, waiting to hear that the girl had made it out safely. (She had). Our Australian friends had all dealt with such threats before. It was only when dry lightning began to strike the bush around us that I saw some of them tense up, studying the sky. That morning, a bushranger came around and suggested everyone relocate for the day. It was 42 degrees. My partner and I and our kids went to the nearest town, only going back when the high-risk day was over.

Back at home, having cut our trip short, certain words were entering our shared vocabularies: death toll, state of emergency, catastrophe, mass extinction, state of disaster.

Melbourne, where my partner worked, was cloaked in smoke, not from a particular fire—just from all of them. The air quality became visibly compromised, and people began to invest in masks, and the hardware stores sold out. Which seems laughable now. We made uneasy jokes about how it all seemed so very apocalyptic. My whānau’s safety plan now included the steps to follow if my partner was in Melbourne and I was at home in the bush with the kids: where to go if communication was cut, how to find us if we couldn’t get out.

In the 1920s an American physiologist called Walter Cannon first coined the phrase ‘fight-or-flight’. He said that in response to a perceived threat to our survival, the body helps to mobilise its own resources to deal with the circumstances. Jeffrey A. Gray, after Cannon, added to this description the notion of ‘freezing’. Such responses to threats begin in the amygdala, that instinctive part of the brain which is a part of the limbic system.

My partner and I began to consider ‘flight’.

My system was already on high alert. I had been the parent at home during my son’s illness, the one to manage the hospital appointments and the blood tests, awaiting the medical results. During this time a close friend who had dealt with her own child’s health problems described the space inhabited by the sick child’s parent as a space where time itself is different. ‘You’re in a different world to everyone else,’ she said. ‘You’re outside of time.’

She was right: as I waited for test results, in my son’s room at the hospital, in the wee hours of the morning, the seconds would slow down, till the clock seemed to tick unnaturally slowly, both my enemy and my potential saviour. When would they come and tell me that my child would be alright? I know that I was in a state of hypervigilance. I know because I, an anarcha-feminist patriarchy-hating hippy, dug out my Greek Orthodox christening cross, put on my most conservative clothes, and went to church.

My child got better. It was a bad year. But my definition of a bad year was about to change.

My partner and I were intending to return. We had always meant to come home. At the beginning of this year I found I had won two writing awards, both in Aotearoa. If I wanted to take these up I would have to come back this year. We made plans to move permanently in July, 2020.

The fires were still burning and I was still checking the Victoria fire App first thing every morning, when Coronavirus began to shut down countries worldwide. There were whispers out of China, then shouts out of Italy. We began to research masks again. By mid-March, a work colleague in Italy was writing devastating essays about what she was living through. I messaged her.

‘Australia is still two weeks behind us,’ she wrote. ‘You have time to prepare and, if you can, avoid human contact…’

a child sitting in a supermarket trolley in an empty supermarket
An empty supermarket in small-town Australia.

Galvanised, I tried to do a stock-up shop. But the supermarket in my small town had begun to empty of supplies. I drove to a different town to buy soap, bags of flour, and rice. Individually and collectively, we entered the psychological stage known as ‘fight’. Illustrating humanity’s darkest impulses, women brawled over toilet paper at Woolworth’s. Commentators have pointed out that this is the first time this generation of First-Worlders has faced material shortages. A man called Mark Hanna spoke about the lack of groceries in the States in the New York Times, on March 13th: ‘The heebie-jeebies got to me yesterday,’ he said, ‘–what if New York is quarantined?’

Oh, honey.

A diary entry in the same journal I am still writing in now, on the 10th of February reads: ‘I need to put the time in on this manuscript…’ Clearly, in February, my priority was still writing. Then: some scribbled-on pages, filled with practical lists. Then: abruptly, on April the 4th, 2020: ‘I am in another country.’

In mid-March, my partner and I pulled our kids out of school and kindergarten. Added to the anxiety that we all shared at this time, we had an added anxiety: what if we were trapped in the wrong country? Our wider whānau were all in Aotearoa. What if we couldn’t get back? We had older relatives who were living alone. Along with our concern about them, we knew that our immuno-supressed nine-year-old wouldn’t deal with the virus well. The Australian government appeared to be doing nothing. My usually calm, collected partner woke at three am one morning, and created a graph. It allowed us to track Italy’s Coronavirus numbers alongside Australia’s. At this time, the numbers were identical.

But somehow we entered ‘freeze’. We had a house full of supplies. We had a hospital close by. Australia couldn’t get that bad, we reasoned. We would stay where we were, and sit out the storm.

Then I spoke to my grandmother, who is eighty-eight, a survivor of war and famine, and a migrant. I asked her on the phone what she thought about the pandemic. I don’t think my grandmother has ever in my life admitted that things are harder now.

‘You told me about the village, Yiayia, and how you only had a little flour and olive oil to eat. And you went through the war, and the journey on the ship. But you were alright.’

Without hesitation, she said:

‘Oh no, darling. This is much worse.’

Her reasoning was that the virus had spread to most countries. To hear her say that this was worse than anything she had been through gave me a shot of pure adrenalin. My partner and I decided on ‘flight’.

We thought Victoria would limit travel. We also knew Aotearoa would close its borders, and that it would be increasingly difficult to fly home. I thought we should pack up our family home and leave in a week; my partner said we should leave in three days. He was right, and we did.

We got rid of most of the things we owned. A woman from a local organisation came and took our food. She said indigenous communities in Australia had already been hit by privileged people (that was us) bulk buying; that they were already short of food. We sold our car, put some furniture in the shed, reduced everything else we owned to five suitcases, and found someone to live in our house.

At three am on the 22nd of March, we rose in our now empty house, saying goodbye to the national park out front where we’d often seen kangaroos, taking a last look at the Australia goldfields. We took our kids and our disinfectant wipes and masks and gloves and ended up at Melbourne airport, only to find that our flight home had been cancelled, and we hadn’t been notified.

Freeze, fight, flight.

Screenshot of a text message saying "Family, we are at the airport and our flight has been cancelled with no communication. We need to find a flight home we urgently."

screenshot of a second text message saying "please if you can someone find us a flight."

Now begins the part of this story where we were really in a freeze-fight-flight response. And it would not let up, not for many weeks, not until I am writing this now.

Our airline was Virgin Airlines, and they weren’t answering their phones. The call-centre in the Philippines was shut down because of Coronavirus. We were at the airport with our tired family, with our immuno-compromised boy, in the middle of a global pandemic. We had no house in Australia anymore. Melbourne airport was a ghost town, peopled by worried travellers. There were few people manning any desks, and few flights listed on the screens. We tried to call Air New Zealand, but we couldn’t get through. We began messaging family and friends to see if they could get us a flight from within Aotearoa. Thankfully, we found a flight, later on the same day.

two adults and two children with face masks on
The writer and whānau – masked up and ready.

We settled to wait on some conjoined plastic chairs, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with an older couple. My kids’ masks kept coming off. We bribed them not to touch anything with chocolate, but it didn’t really work. My four-year-old was noisy and I looked at the older woman next to us for assurance, doing that thing we all do when travelling with young kids: kids, right? Hoping that they wouldn’t mind. But the couple responded with a weird numbness. Anyway, we got to chatting. We chatted for some time before I asked her where they were coming from.

The woman gave me the most haunted look. She said that they had finally managed to get off a cruise ship, and were on their way home to Los Angeles.

The Australian government’s decision to let cruise ships dock in Australia at that stage has been harshly critiqued, and for good reason. I typed out on my phone screen what the couple had just said, and showed my partner: They just got off a cruise ship.

I said something bright and banal, and then we led our children away from them. I experienced a moment of unadulterated rage at these people for not letting us know.

A week later, in Aotearoa, we got sick.

A note here on the kindness of others: The reason we decided to leave was not, in fact, only the graph and my Yiayia’s comment. I asked a Facebook group I am a part of, the Brilliant and Amazing Writer’s and Mothers group, what they would do in my situation. Most of them said: ‘Come home.’ Then a close friend, also a mother and writer, offered me her parents’ farmhouse to quarantine in when we got back. Her offer and her parents’ generosity were a deciding factor in us leaving Australia.

We arrived in Wellington on the 22nd of March, hired a vehicle, and drove to the farmhouse. I hadn’t seen my friend’s parents for years, but they let me and my family stay in their house. My friend had done two weeks’ worth of shopping for us.

Twenty-four hours later, Aotearoa’s lockdown was announced. We couldn’t stay in the farmhouse; my friend’s family needed it for their children who were coming home. But we were quarantining and we didn’t want to put anyone at risk. In this time, my partner’s mother had a stroke, and ended up at the hospital, where only one person was allowed in at a time. We couldn’t go to her. She would be there for several days, but she would ultimately be alright. But we didn’t know where to go.

Then my friend offered us her house and her car, and went to stay with her parents, uprooting both her kids as well.

She knows how grateful I am, I hope.

And then, in her cosy writer’s house with everything seemingly settling down, whatever illness we had took hold. My eldest child, who’d had the kidney infection, was the worst affected. My partner and my youngest had coughs, which they would have for weeks. We had no fevers, no lack of smell or taste. The kids eventually developed rashes. I had weird blisters on my toes. My eldest child began to cough violently. Then he began to have trouble breathing.

A couple of days in, we made a trip to emergency. There my son had an unsuccessful Coronavirus test. It was one in the morning and he panicked and fought it, and had to be held down for forty-five minutes. We were told it probably wasn’t an accurate test, but to wait for the results.

The next day, my son’s breathing worsened, and we called an ambulance. The paramedics arrived in full PPE, and only one of them could come in. We all wore masks. Our son’s oxygen saturation was at a borderline level. We said he’d been tested for Coronavirus, that he had no history of asthma or anaphylaxes. ‘Thank you for coming to work today,’ I kept saying, as we coughed and the woman tightened her mask. She told us to stay home, if we could.

A woman in a mask and a child on a bed
The writer and her son ill and in quarantine.

We coached our son in his breathing until the wee hours, steaming his air passages over a basin of hot water, and putting him in the shower. For a few nights his breathing would worsen at night and my partner and I would tense and wait to see if we would need to go to the hospital, or not. We were meant to quarantine him within our house; I broke the rules and held him at night.

A few days later, I got sicker.

Our story is complicated by us having had four negative Coronavirus tests amongst our family. During this time we researched the effectiveness of the tests. Some studies of the nasal swab test say it’s almost 60% effective. Some say it’s only that effective during the worst of the sickness: for the five to seven days that the illness is most apparent, and then the effectiveness lessens everyday. During the last conversation I had with a Coronavirus nurse at the hospital she said their tests were at best 50% effective, and that it didn’t really work on kids. There is a lot of conflicting research.

Also, our son has a cat allergy, and my friend who lent us her house has cats. One doctor we spoke to thought the shortness of breath my son experienced may have been a bad cold mixed with a reaction to the cat hair left in the environment (my friend took her cats with her). But my son has handled cats since with no problems. He also has no history of asthma, but since this virus has developed occasional asthma-like symptoms.

When he was struggling to breathe, we asked him to describe what it felt like.

‘It’s like I’m breathing in a long, slow breath, but I can only take in about 70% of the air,’ he said.

When I had the same symptoms, I discovered this was completely accurate. I was my son’s main point of contact; the only one allowed to see him lest he infect the rest of the family. I wore gloves which I changed frequently, and masks, and I wiped down the surfaces around his room and cleaned the bathroom he was using. I washed my hands so much my skin cracked. When I got sick, we all gave up these measures. We obviously all had it. I could hardly walk down the stairs, went to bed for days, and had dizziness and shortness of breath. A friend asked me what the shortness of breath was like; if it couldn’t possibly be a panic attack? ‘No,’ I told her. ‘It’s like I was trying to breathe but the oxygen couldn’t get into my lungs.’ I also have no history of asthma. The shortness of breath passed after a few days.

Having turned up in a community we knew few people in, and having been given a house and car, our dependence now grew. Miraculously, support began to appear. A sister’s friend brought us groceries for weeks and weeks. A friend of family brought us a heater, material to make masks with, and medication. Old friends we hadn’t seen for years brought us groceries and checked on us everyday to see if we needed anything. Our friend’s parents brought us firewood.

We have behaved as though we have had Coronavirus. When everyone went back to school we waited, getting clearance from a doctor before sending the kids into school. My eldest coughed for a solid nine weeks, and was severely fatigued. When I tried to go for a run I found my aerobic fitness had decreased hugely. We want to get an antibodies test, but they are not readily available here. Whatever we had was not like any cold I’ve had before. Today it is thirteen weeks since we arrived in Aotearoa, and I have only just now seen my grandmother.

I don’t know if the older couple at the airport gave us Coronavirus; it could have been anything we touched in transit, anyone we sat beside. And it could have not been the virus. We had negative tests, after all.

After you experience the freeze-fight-flight response, your body apparently returns to normal after about twenty minutes. So if you experience such a feeling for a prolonged period, say nine weeks, or say, a year, how long would it take to return to a feeling of normality? My diary on the 11th of June, 2020 reads: ‘Again, the question: ‘what do you really want?’ To write my novel…’ From this I gather that I have finally descended from the mad anxiety of this strange passage, perhaps at a slower pace than the rest of Aotearoa, but at last.

When we could go out again, I went to a cafe. The cafe owner said that Jacinda Ardern and government had overreacted, that Coronavirus was just the same as the flu.

He said we would all suffer economically, that lockdown was a giant mistake, that thousands of old people die of the flu each year anyway.

He said that Coronavirus wasn’t that bad.

He was a white man, probably in his sixties, and he didn’t seem all that healthy. I looked at him and thought of my son struggling to breathe as the paramedic assessed him.

I thought: ‘You wouldn’t survive this. This thing would drop you in a second.’

I wanted to scream, but I didn’t. I smiled, got my coffee, and went home to my whānau.

I’m another country from the one I lived in at the start of this year, earlier than planned and rather unexpectedly. My definition of a big deal has changed. The ignorance of narratives like the one the cafe owner put forward would make me feel desolate, if it wasn’t for the overwhelming support gifted us by our friends, and by people we don’t even know. If it wasn’t for the incredible kindness of others.

image of two children standing in front of a lake
Home

 

This essay was originally published on the Verb Wellington website. We are grateful to Michalia and Verb for allowing us to reproduce it here.

Paddy Richardson on place-setting: getting it right

Paddy Richardson on place-setting: getting it right

Paddy Richardson, the 2019 CNZ Randell Cottage Writing Fellow, says she loves research but there is no substitute for actually treading the same ground as the characters she’s writing about. Her Randell project, The Green of the Spring, focuses on the experiences of Otto Bader, a German internee on Matiu Somes Island during WWI. The great value of the Randell residency was the opportunity it gave her to get to know Wellington and to visit and stay on the island.

At home in the Randell Cottage, James Norcliffe

At home in the Randell Cottage, James Norcliffe

Photo of James Norcliffe
Photo supplied by VUP

By James Norcliffe, 2018 Creative New Zealand Randell Cottage Writing Fellow

New Zealand writers are not really spoilt for choice when it comes to fellowships and residencies. There are a number of well-established and well-endowed residences, usually associated with universities and a couple of prestigious overseas possibilities – the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship in the South of France and the Berlin Writer’s Residency.

One of the most singular and attractive residencies, however, must be that run by the Randell Cottage Writers Trust in Thorndon, Wellington. The fellow is offered six months in a charming cottage in St Mary Street off Tinakori Road to work on a given project. There is a stipend and the cottage is rent-free.

The Trust itself was formed in 2001 and the cottage opened its doors to writers in 2002, the inaugural writer being Peter Wells. Before me, there have been 33 writers to date and I am utterly delighted to be the 34th.

Many things make this a distinctive residency. Perhaps the most obvious is the French connection. For one half of the year the W.I.R. is a French writer, and a New Zealand writer has the other half. The funding reflects this: a partnership supported by CNZ, the New Zealand France Friendship Fund and the Embassy of France and added support coming from the Wellington City Council and the Friends of the Randell Cottage.

Then there is the cottage itself. It is a rare experience to spend your days and nights in a beautifully restored work of history. The house dates from 1867 and there is a plaque on the outside wall to verify this. It was originally built and owned by the Randell family who raised ten children here. The current house has larger dimensions than the original built by William and Sarah Randell, as in 1875 an extra two rooms were added to the south side to accommodate the growing family. Apart from a lean-to beside the kitchen the dimensions have remained the same ever since, although the disposition of a couple of the rooms has changed with the front bedroom (three girls) becoming a living room (and a most comfortable writing room) and smaller side bedroom (boys) becoming the bathroom. Originally, the bathroom, lavatory and washhouse were in an outhouse separate from the cottage.

According to great-granddaughter Beverley Randell’s history of the cottage and the family, A Crowded Thorndon Cottage, the Randell’s had seven children when they moved in, including baby Richard, and three daughters afterwards. I find the cottage remarkably spacious, but then I would. In the 1870’s twelve people lived here!

In the early 1990’s, Beverley Randell, her husband the publisher Hugh Price of Price Milburn and their daughter Susan Price, repurchased the cottage and had it lovingly restored to as close to the original as modern convenience allowed. They gifted the cottage to the Trust to allow for the residency.

Trust member Sian Robyns told me how the Price family went to great pains to decorate and furnish the cottage appropriately. She said they scoured the lower North Island to find pieces of furniture, fittings, even hunting down appropriate wood for repairs to moulding and flooring.

The results of these efforts are lovely. When you can stand in the large kitchen and look to your left, you are transported back a hundred and fifty years. A Victorian glass panelled door with a round polished wood door handle opens into the lean-to. Beside it stands a sideboard bearing willow-pattern china – milk jugs, sauce jugs, cups, saucers, plates and bowls, and beside the sideboard a neatly blackened Shacklock Orion coal range with an iron frying pan, a couple of flat irons, an iron saucepan and an iron kettle. The walls are covered in replica Victorian wallpaper: very floral, very busy and very pretty.

If you turn to your right, though, you will see a refrigerator, a stainless steel bench top and sink, an automatic dishwasher and an electric range.

This is the pattern of the cottage. Loving Victorian detail: polished kauri and rimu woodwork, cane furniture, wing chairs, fumed oak dining chairs, Turkish style rugs on wooden floors, and prints of colonial Wellington on the wallpapered walls. All of this in the midst of heat pump and broadband, microwave and HP Office Jet Pro.

My bedroom is a case in point: a magnificent iron bedstead with brass knobs (I always longed for brass knobs) with, not one, but two Victorian-style quilted counterpanes (there is another on the single bed in the spare bedroom), but also an electric blanket of toasty efficiency.

All of this makes for very comfortable living. As it happens I am writing a novel with a dual narrative – one storyline set in the nineteenth century, the second contemporary. It has just occurred to me how wonderfully appropriate it is to be living in the Randell Cottage while beavering away at this. Such serendipity.

The final advantage of the cottage is its locale. The narrow valley down which Tinakori Road runs is not recommended for its sun and, although the cottage is sunnier than I expected, St Mary Street is steep and on the ‘wrong’ side of the road for sun. Despite this, the immediate neighbourhood makes for very pleasant living. Directly opposite are the Wellington Botanic Gardens with their walks and natural delights. Up behind, the rather more strenuous walks of the Te Ahumairangi Hill will take you in all directions, mostly including up. I made it to the lookout after a morning of heavy rain, and – when my shoes dry out – will try it again. It is a short walk to the city itself and not too far to the supermarket. Jacinda, Clarke and Neve Te Aroha are close neighbours although I’ve yet to drop in. Tinakori village seems mainly to comprise eateries and antique shops, so ideal if you develop a taste for food or for Victorian living.

I have a writer’s superstition about waxing on about work in progress. Suffice it to say, from my point of view it’s going splendidly. How could it not? The Randell Cottage is a perfect writing environment, peaceful and quiet with wrap around comfort, utterly charming setting and supported by a team of very helpful, friendly trustees. I feel very fortunate and very grateful.

(This essay was originally published, in a slightly abridged form, in the September issue of The Author, the journal of the New Zealand Society of Authors. We are grateful to NZSA and to James for allowing us to share it here.)

 

Two Seasons and Countless Treasures, Than-Van Tran-Nhut

Two Seasons and Countless Treasures, Than-Van Tran-Nhut

In January 2014 French writer Than-Van Tran-Nhut swapped the boulevards of Paris for the windswept hills of Wellington.  Here, she reflects on her six months in Thorndon as writer-in-residence at the Randell Cottage.

I’m back in Paris now and living my second summer this year. After a spell of cold and rainy weather, the temperature has risen again and I hope the white Japanese anemones will settle nicely under my rose bushes. In between their roots are bits of New Zealand soil, and some of their leaves once stirred in the Wellington wind. They are my links to a small garden on a hill in Thorndon.

It has been weeks since I left, but I still return to Randell Cottage in thought. I only have to close my eyes and recall the familiar routines: pulling up the shades of the entrance door in the morning and leaving it open, lifting the sash window in the kitchen to let the wind fill the rooms, connecting to a wi-fi network named Writers Trust. That’s how it was for almost six months and I can still feel the cool brass of the hexagonal doorknob, the little snib that keeps the lock retracted. The front door stays open most of the time, a luxury one can afford in this part of the world. Bird songs and occasional music drift into the house. There are no locks on the gate, no shutters on the windows, just a welcoming threshold.

I remember the light in Wellington. Golden rays on the afternoon of my arrival in January, washing over the Cottage while shadows gathered beneath the hills; pale light reflecting off a blank grey sky; black light on hot pink flowers and tangerine-coloured leaves, when magic took over the Botanic Garden; illuminated words cut into Katherine Mansfield’s metal skirt; the glow of a bus brushing across the Braille sculpture on Lambton Quay.

I remember the string of yellow and red lights moving along the coastline as I looked across the Lady Norwood Rose Garden from the spur above; darkness closing in on the harbour under clouds grazed by a dying sun. And the silver sliver of a moon sailing through a sky studded with unfamiliar stars, the Southern Cross to remind me that the Equator lies north and the South Pole is only 5400 km away.

There were days of rain, but not enough to dampen my memories. Drizzles and showers, the sound of drops skipping on the path or pounding on the iron roof just meant more moisture for the plants. And weren’t we surrounded by water anyway, with the harbour beckoning below, lustrous or leaden, depending on the mood of the clouds? I would run down to the wharf, racing through the old tombstones in Bolton Street Memorial Park, to watch people jump off planks, their bodies in flight before they hit the icy water. Beneath the surface, clinging to wooden poles, yellowy crabs and star-shaped creatures watched them fall in slow motion, shrouded in a veil of bubbles.

Of course there was the wind, chasing clouds over Tinakori Hill, making airport windsocks fly frantically while airborne planes dipped and yawed – the kind of wind that lifts a giant eagle with a wizard astride and messes your hair when your picture is being taken. And you know you’re not in France when a wind from the south means chilly weather.

I loved this place where the moon waxes and wanes in the opposite direction to the one in the northern hemisphere, where people drive on the left-hand side, rotate clockwise at roundabouts, and swim laps likewise (yet run laps anticlockwise?). It’s all a matter of symmetry and it forces you to change your point of view.

It has been six months of ongoing discovery: trevally and tarakihi, red cod and hoki, kumara and Smitten apples, flat white and magic slice, hangi and fish & chips. On the track of an extinct endemic gecko, I stumbled upon feisty kaka, clever kea, a precious white kiwi, two nearsighted kune kune and one short-lived baby fantail. I had mesmerising encounters with birds and beasts drawn by French explorers in the 19th century. I was able to pore over atlases printed in Paris in 1826 while sitting in the National Library of New Zealand, 19000 km away and 188 year later. All this thanks to a book collector named Alexander Turnbull whose grave I always ran by on my way down to the city centre.

I was surrounded by books: Two Worlds, First Meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642-1772, written by Anne Salmond; The Mijo Tree by Janet Frame; a pile of works by New Caledonian authors. In the Cottage were books that gave me a glimpse of New Zealand society: short stories by Katherine Mansfield and other Kiwi writers, The Honey Suckers by Victoria McHalick, novels by Fiona Kidman and Kirsty Gunn (the Kiwi 2009 Randell Cottage resident), The Collector’s Dream by Pierre Furlan (the French 2004 Randell Cottage resident), so beautifully translated by Randell trustee Jean Anderson. And one very special book written by Susan Price: A Mind of His Own, The Childhood of Hugh Price. It tells the story of the young boy who, with Beverley and Susan, would later gift Randell Cottage to the Trust, making the writers residency possible. It contains old pictures of houses, ships and trains, toys and stamps, notebooks and certificates, things that make up a life and keep its memory alive. Above all, it shows the love of a daughter for her father.

Every time I opened the gate, I was reminded that Randell Cottage is a Wellington landmark: the round metal plaque states that it is a Notable Home – Home of Sarah & William Randell, bricklayer, and their ten children. On several occasions, from my desk, I sighted groups of tourists peering into the garden. Behind waves of pink anemones the small house with a red roof elicited looks of appreciation and it felt nice to be somehow a part of a historical place.

On my numerous visits to Te Papa, I would stop at the World of WearableArt exhibition, where clothes from past international shows held in Wellington were on display. I marvelled at the creativity of the designers: a gown bristling with spikes of polished wood, a shiny laser-cut dress crafted after a Rorschach inkblot, a bodice etched with an ancient map, under a coat lined with paua shells. And a corset of white china whose blue willow pattern had been directly lifted from a plate donated by Beverley Randell. Once again, Randell Cottage appeared in the warp and weft of Wellington’s cultural fabric, as history wove itself into art and beauty.

Even when I went to the movies I was reminded of the Cottage. Relaxing in a velvet-clad sofa at the Light House Cinema where I saw What We Do in the Shadows, a parodic vampire movie filmed in Wellington, I followed Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh and Jermaine Clement on their nightly prowls. True, they were keen on any unclogged artery, but they definitely demonstrated good taste when they singled out Denis Welch, my predecessor at Randell Cottage.

During my residency, I left Wellington several times: I went to the South Island to hike with my husband Joël who came to visit; to Christchurch, Auckland and Palmerston North, on my tour of the Alliances Françaises in New Zealand; to New Caledonia where I was warmly welcomed by Nicolas Kurtovitch (the French 2007 Randell Cottage resident); to Australia to give talks at universities in Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide.

I left many times. But always I left lighthearted because I knew I’d return.

I roamed endlessly around the Botanic Garden where blue and purple hydrangeas grew in a fairytale hollow. I watched the seasons pass as roses bloomed and withered, their petals scattered by the wind. I felt the temperature plummet and saw the light fail, when the summer song of the cicada ceased sometime overnight. Time was catching up on me.

So I tried to outrun it by doing more, cramming my days with new experiences, stretching them till three in the morning. I hopped on bus 10 to the zoo, bus 11 to Seatoun to do the Eastern Walkway, took the East by West Ferry to Eastbourne. I committed to memory the sound of traffic lights signalling it was safe to cross, the tug needed to open the letter box by the gate, the shimmer of the silver fern globe floating above Civic Square.

The last moments I spent with my friends in best-loved places: dining out and drinking ginger beer at Sprig & Fern;having tea at the Cottage; indulging in an afternoon flat white at French Cancan; returning to my favourite haunt, the hole in the wall on Bond Street called Fisherman’s Plate, with superb Vietnamese soups and derelict decoration.

All my travels and experiences fueled a blog I kept over these two seasons in which I sought to capture the moments and encounters that made this residency so special, such an unforgettable period in my life. It tells of the lectures I gave at the Alliances Françaises in Wellington and Palmerston North, the reception at the Résidence de France where I was officially greeted by Ambassador Laurent Contini, the annual general meeting of the Friends of the Randell Cottage, the presentation I gave at the National Library, just a week before my departure…

In the end, at five in the morning on 26 June, Gollum watched Fiona Kidman and her husband Ian give me my last Kiwi hug.

In Sydney I started at the boarding call for a flight to Wellington. Only this time, it wasn’t for me.

And yet, half a world away and ten time zones behind, I haven’t lost my bearings. Just as explorers of old, hoping to return, buried bottles in the sand to mark their passage, so I’ve left a part of my heart under long white clouds – right here: 41°16’42.8″S, 174°46’06.3″E.

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