Monday, May 11, 2009

Hazing Ceremony

Supposedly, that’s the ad that Shackleton placed in a London newspaper when he was looking for men to join him on his expedition to the South Pole. But when we moved down here, we didn’t do it for the honor or the recognition. We did it for the residency permit.

Last year we moved to Invercargill, which, as I may have mentioned, is at the very bottom of the South Island. It is 2,000 miles from the South Pole, which may seem like a long way, until you consider that we can drive for half an hour on a Sunday afternoon and see penguins. In the wild. Playing. And the funny thing about the South Pole is, there isn’t any land to speak of between it and New Zealand. There’s just this great, howling wasteland called the Southern Ocean. So the arctic storms that originate in the place of icebergs and bottomless crevasses just come barreling right across the frigid ocean to land in… my living room. In Invercargill.

The frozen asshole of the world.

So why, indeed, did we move to Invercargill? The short answer is that no one else wanted to. Invercargill is where New Zealand hazes its new immigrants, making it very easy to get residency if you can get a job down here and agree to move to the frozen south. And because no one wants to live here, least of all New Zealanders who know better, it is rather easy to find a job down here. This means that Invercargill is fairly crawling with South Africans escaping the wreckage of apartheid, bewildered-looking Indians rubbing their bare arms to keep warm, and Americans stupid enough to confuse a movie about elves with the real-live country they were planning to move to.

But before we could move to Invercargill, we had to find a place to live. “Why do all the rental ads say ‘North Facing Lounge?’ I asked Peter, squinting at the real estate listings on my laptop. “Why the hell should I care that it’s facing North?”

“Maybe they’re Muslims,” he suggested. “And they’re confused.”

“What’s so great about North?” I went on, examining the accompanying photos. “You don’t get sunrises. You don’t get sunsets. You don’t even get a view of the ocean, for Chrissake.”

No, you don’t. What you get, of course, is a thick, sturdy wall standing between you and the prevailing weather. A North-facing lounge means that you can sit toasty and warm beneath your heat pump, the bulk of your house protecting you from the fury of another arctic storm. But we didn’t know that then. Nor did we realize, at the time, that the heat pump is considered a luxury, enjoyed only by those with the money to install such a modern convenience.

Most people just burn coal.

That’s right, coal. The stuff that turned the butterflies black and rotted out people’s lungs during the Industrial Revolution. The thing about coal is: it’s hot, and it’s cheap. On a frosty winter's day in Invercargill, there is a pronounced chemical tang in the air, a hazy yellow funk billowing gently on the breeze. Eventually, the scent alerts your brain to start firing warning signals, such as: STOP BREATHING NOW, but as an oxygen-dependent vertebrate, this can be difficult to achieve.

So we breathe deep. We grab a penguin and snuggle it for warmth. And, like Shackleton, we dream of the day we can move back north.

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