20 July 2011


"More British than Britain."

Travel guide writers love to toss that phrase around, and it annoys the crap out of me. Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka? More British than Britain. Victoria, Canada? More British than Britain. Christchurch, New Zealand? More British than Britain. What does that even mean? Do the residents of these cities have afternoon tea twice a day? Are their teeth extra crooked? I understand the image those writers want to evoke, but I don't like it. Cities like Victoria and Christchurch may have some elements of British character, but they're unique places that reflect their own climates, geographies, and native heritages. When you're on an island in the North Pacific, surrounded by orca pods and conifers, hanging flower baskets on the street lamps doesn't make the place more British than Britain. / end rant.

We wandered around Christchurch (Chch to the locals) for a few hours today to try to get a feel for its character. We strolled along the River Avon, walked down residential side streets, and peeked into yards to see what grows here. For every hulking Victorian home with towering weeping willows, there are three or four beachy cottages framed only by dwarf citrus trees laden with ripe fruit. Every home, no matter how grand or ordinary, shares one unfortunate feature: an inspection certificate on the front door to let the owners know whether or not they're allowed back in.

The red zone in the middle of Christchurch-- the area that used to be the city's central business district-- is completely off limits. We toured the neighborhood on the red zone's periphery, where at least half the buildings show serious damage to their exteriors, and many others are uninhabitable because of structural damage that's not visible to passersby. And it's not just the buildings. The sidewalks are cracked and twisted.

The spring '11 quake was smaller in magnitude than the one that hit Christchurch the previous fall, but its location and depth-- it was very close to the surface-- made it far more devastating. It's interesting to see what survived the shaking. There's crumbled brick everywhere-- no surprise there-- but there are perfectly intact old leaded glass windows in many buildings that were otherwise damaged. The entire city is a construction zone, and although there's been plenty of disorganization and delay, the government hopes to make lemonade here. They're going to demolish the severely damaged structures across from the river, and build a scenic park in its place.

Most stores and restaurants have had to close, so the few that are open are packed. The manager at our hotel made a dinner reservation for us, because he was concerned that on this random Thursday night, we wouldn't be able to find a table, even at a brew pub.

There's not much to do or see in Chch these days, but it was important to us to visit. Why? We're figuring that out as we type. The earthquake, not unlike the bigger one that struck Japan a month later, changed a major city in a major way. It's a reminder that things that seem permanent-- both manmade things like ancient buildings, and natural things like the shapes of mountains or coastlines-- are only permanent until they're not. And if the destruction is scary, the reconstruction is a reminder that people rebuild and recover, and life goes on. So we wanted to see Christchurch for the same reason we wanted to visit the World Trade Center site in 2004. Newspapers bombard us with images of falling towers and cathedrals, but they don't always show us what comes next. They don't always show us the way people learn to cope, or the way communities come together to build something stronger and safer than what they lost.

So I guess we came to Christchurch for the lemonade.

Location:Christchurch, New Zealand

1 comment:

GibblesNBits said...

So good. I'm glad you went so I can "see" with you. Enjoy the lemonade; drink one for me.