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Flying South For Chrimbo
Helen Gilchrist



In October, I eagerly fled England and jumped on a plane to New Zealand. Quite apart from the floods, gales, and days when it seems to get dark before it even gets fully light, I was also glad to have the opportunity to escape the perennial rituals of a British Christmas. This year, I felt I could just about manage without Christmas Eve in my local pub: red felt Santa hats and tinsel all around, cheesy all-time Christmas classics belting out from the jukebox, and fighting my way back from a packed bar with overflowing glasses of warm beer, followed by the eat-drink-eat-sleep-drink-nibble-sleep of Christmas Day.

The Kiwi festive season is different from anything I have ever experienced, yet familiar at the same time. It's hot, about 26 degrees, and the evenings are long, light and warm. Christmas Eve: slapping on the sunscreen, lazing about in the hot sun on a boat in the middle of a lake, leaping around on a wakeboard on the cool clear water - but there's still the last-minute madness in town, no parking spaces, huge sticky hot-and-bothered queues at the check-outs, panic searching (what the hell can I get Uncle Jock ?) - fortunately for me I can avoid all this, as the vast distances between me and my family, combined with the prohibitive cost of international postage, have excused me of the stresses of Christmas shopping this year.

And then there are the parties: they're going off all over town, celebrating the beginning of the holiday, old friends back home for Christmas catching up with each other - no different from England really - except that everyone's out in their gardens, on the beaches, suntans, summer styles and sunglasses, bar-b-ques fired up, outdoor candles and mosquito coils burning, and wheelbarrows stacked full with ice and bottles of cold beer.

Christmas Day: my friend Ben and his family have kindly taken me in, and it amuses me how strangely familiar it all is - it seems to me that family Christmas is the same the world over. OK, so the weather's different and weíre sitting outside rather than inside, eating salads and strawberry pavlova rather than turkey and Christmas pudding - but there's still the age-old rituals of oohing and ahhing at presents (socks, sweets and soap alike), eating and drinking too much, afternoon naps, and generation gaps. I giggle inwardly as nana and grandad wince over grandaughter's new belly-button piercing; the "young-uns' disappear to the park for a game of Frisbee just as mum and auntie are beginning to talk about the washing-up; great uncle makes outrageous sexist, political and racist comments to provoke his spirited, idealistic younger relatives into a good argument; and the younger members of the family fidget and glance at their watches as early evening approaches - time to make excuses and escape for drinks with friends. But itís all good to me as I eat, drink and laugh with them; and never before on Christmas Day have I paddled along the beach at Raglan, watched the surfers in the spray-hazy golden evening light, or sat supping ice-cold beer on a bar terrace in a T-shirt.

TIS THE SEASON TO STRUT YOUR STUFF

Christmas and New Year have always been renowned as the party season - but try mixing the party season, the beginning of the summer holidays, a beautiful beach town, hundreds of hormonal teenagers staying in baches (the Kiwi word for a small beach house / shack) without their parents, weather hot enough for even the most modest to expose a fair measure of bare flesh, and you have a wicked and very amusing cocktail!
We, along with this cray-zee party crew, headed to the town of Whangamata for a week over New Year. About twenty of us ended up staying at a friend's beach-house, hanging out, eating and drinking (more!), messing about on the beach, surfing, fishing, kite-flying but one of the most amusing activities was watching the teeny-boppers (gosh I sound old, don't I ?! (No! Ed) out in force, hormones raging, tanned flesh flashing, checking each other out in view of a quick "pash" later on (pash = snog). If you're a young Kiwi male between the ages of 16 and 22, you ain't nothing without a pimped-out set of wheels, loaded up with your cool mates giving out the vibe from behind their designer-label sunglasses. Shiny chrome, roaring exhausts, blacked-out windows, and throbbing base are crucial necessities in the teenage mating game. It is these which get you noticed by the groups of bronzed girls in short shorts and low-cut tops, as you cruise up and down the main strip clocking up your lazy laps.

Sitting out on the deck one lunchtime, we counted the same souped-up campervan roar past fourteen times in one hour! We also laughed at the even more blatant approach of six lads sitting out in their front yard on a sofa, watching the chicks walk past and giving them marks out of ten using large painted number cards they had made.

But us oldies (over the age of 22) managed to enjoy ourselves too -even if we weren't pashing on the beach outside the Surf Club, we were still mixing it up in Craig's basement and garden, dancing to some good tunes, and getting creative with the cocktails (traditionally everyone brings a bottle of some ingredient for a White Russian, Slippery Nipple, Screaming Orgasm, or whatever takes your fancy).
And then, midday on New Yearís Day: sitting on the beach feeling a little fuzzy and delicate, super-sensitive to the relentless sun beating down, diving into the sea in an attempt to wash away the hangover - and thinking of my friends, twelve hours behind on the other side of the world, who would be just about at the peak of their revelries; drunken hugs, kisses, and the clinking of glasses as midnight strikes and everyone starts wishing each other a happy 2001.


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