“Are you taking lots of pictures?” my dad asked me yesterday on Skype, bending over sideways to get in the frame.
“I guess so. I mean, I’m inside the bakery or cleaning up around the lodge most of the time,” I explained, “but the scenery around here is just so beautiful. I’m hoping to go on some more hikes soon and have some new pictures.”
But, true to form, my dad was hoping for something a little weirder.
“What you need, Jess, is more pictures of just mundane little things,” he offered. “Doorways and back alleyways. People in the streets. That kind of thing.”
The kind of stuff, essentially, that I already overlook here as the understood minutiae of daily life, but might prove exotic or revealing to those keeping tabs back home.
Truth be told, I think I needed that reminder; that push to remember that what I’m doing right now is, in fact, very different; that even the most ordinary details of daily life are somewhat extraordinary given the circumstances. It’s a bit too easy to forget this, really, when you spend so much time running back and forth in confined spaces – a town with one main street, the ten square feet behind a bakery counter, the various tiny rooms of a backpackers’ lodge.
But today – the second in a row that I’ve been off from the bakery and, incidentally, the second in a row that it’s rained all day with the force of a wrenched fire hydrant – seems like a pretty appropriate time to talk about the mundane. And let me tell you: it does not get any more mundane-yet-foreign than watching TV in NZ.
Let’s talk about American Idol. I can assure you that, prior to leaving America, I didn’t just have zero interest in the show – I prickled at the whole premise of it. I’d go so far as to say I still do, actually. But you know what’s ironic about American Idol? It’s on in New Zealand. A lot. Despite the fact that, as far as I can tell, there’s no such thing as New Zealand Idol. Despite constant flashing disclaimers that voting isn’t open to Kiwis and that, therefore, locals here have no hope of actually contributing to their favorite contestant’s victory. I find the whole thing a little bizarre, but what I find more unsettling is the fact that I’ve actually been watching it.
As much as I’ve always thought of the show as representing an aspect of American culture I never particularly cared for – the whole “popularity equals quality” concept – the whole spectacle is, it turns out, still a piece of home. And so, the other night, I found myself over at the flat of two Americans across the street drinking wine and commenting on the “pitchiness” of certain contestants’ renditions of Billy Joel songs, agreeing with my hosts that other contestants had “douchey” haircuts or “looked like Céline Dionne in that get-up,” and hoping my favorites didn’t get voted off. And so, it turns out, escaping America may actually bring out the American in me.
To be fair, one of the reasons I’ve been watching American Idol is the fact that there are literally two TV stations here. Which means that at any given time you can expect to find some combination of the following on television: Idol, British primetime soaps, the kind of American sitcoms I’m not even entirely sure people are actually watching in America (think Suburgatory), and the New Zealand news.
You’ll notice I did not say “the local news.” I’m not even certain they have local news programs here, simply because it’s such a small country (when they do the weather, the poor weather girl just dwarfs the map of the whole country on the green screen. None of these Weather-Channel-style sweeping arm gestures and walking from one side of the map to the other: the whole job gets done in the flick of a wrist) where not a lot of what we in the States would call “newsworthy” events take place. And so the national news always seems to end up covering, at length and in bewildering detail, some truly head-scratching stories. There are the National Enquirer-grade pieces (a full hour on a Kiwi woman who allegedly ran a white-baby-making operation in the Ukraine), the stories reporters such as yours truly might be assigned on a particularly slow news day in Hollister (last night’s entire news hour was dedicated to a family of cattle farmers in the Catlins who were having trouble wranglin’ the cows because there was snow. Snow! In New Zealand! Can you imagine!), or items that might merit a line or two in the police blotter section of a local paper (a Kiwi couple was recently arrested on an American cruise ship for drug possession).
Mundane, most definitely, but also out of the ordinary in a way that I find kind of delightful. In New York, you wake up every morning (or, in my case, log on at the office after your first cup of coffee) to headlines telling of global political unrest, imminent wars, or murders that took place 15 blocks from your apartment. And it’s not as if those headlines aren’t still being written while I’m over here. But it’s almost endearing to be in such an insular environment for a little while, where the worst thing that happens is that the cops find one marijuana plant growing in a rural cornfield and the elderly neighbors go into uproar.
So, yes, I am taking in and appreciating the mundane aspects of life in New Zealand. Fear not. But right now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m at the same cafe I patronize every day, using their free internet and Bogarting my usual spot in front of the fire place while I wait out the rain. Again. But now, I need to go research Indonesian tourist visas.