New Zealand diaries

"I took my harp to New Zealand" - a travel tale by Asni

This series of articles was originally published in "Harpa" magazine throughout 2004

A nice spot to practise!

A nice spot to practise!

II. Arrival in Wellington

I was guiltily aware of the fact that even without the large harp, I had far too much luggage –two suitcases full of cd’s for sale, plus the basics for a three-month stay in a changeful climate; a small medieval harp, a laptop computer, and a carry-on bag containing a microfone, DAT-recorder and digital camera, together with a few things to tide me over the long journey. Perhaps it was the relief to see me not turn up with a huge harp case after all: in any case, my two heavy suitcases were checked in without a problem.

A little drama developed over the three pieces of carry-on luggage though – the tightening of airport security did not allow for that. Luckily I managed to convince the ground personell that I could not check in either my harp or my laptop, but I did have to part with my carry-on bag – I just about managed to squeeze the sensitive electronic apparel into the laptop case somehow. This did not make the prospect of the 25 hour flight any more appealing – and I am a person who hates flying anyway!

Even though the plane was fully booked, the flight turned out to be not as dreadfull as I had expected. In Sydney I had to change planes, and the showers that are provided free of charge to travellers on that airport, did a great deal to revive my spirits. So I faced up to the remaining three hours of air travel with much more confidence.

So there I was, suspended in mid-air in New Zealand airspace at last. Eight months of planning and working and dreaming were about to become reality, and for the first time I laid my own eyes on the country that I had been so intensely concerned with for so long. The intense blue of the ocean reflected the intense blue of the late summer sky, and long white clouds veiled the steep mountain peaks of the South Island, without completely hiding them from sight, as we approached Wellington airport across Cook Strait.

My first impression of New Zealand must not have been very different from that of those Polynesian navigators who first saw the islands appear on the horizon about a thousand years ago. "Aotearoa" is the name the Maori gave to New Zealand, and it means "long white cloud". "Do you even realize", I said to the friendly Kiwi lady who was sitting next to me, "what a gorgeous place it is that you live in?" And she answered simply, "Yes".

Wellington is a city of gaily colored, playful wooden houses: because of the frequent earthquakes, building in stone is not common, and highrises – which have to comply with special security regulations – are restricted to a relatively small area in the city center, which squeezes between the harbour and the surrounding hills of the town belt. To understand Wellington’s geography, one must think three-dimensionally: the suburbs stretch out over the steep hills and valleys that surround the harbour basin, and sometimes one has to take a long detour to get to a place just a few hundred meters away, because the intervening valley is too steep to allow for a road.

What is most striking, however, is the light: Coming straight out of a grey, subdued European winter, the intensity of the colors and shapes comes almost as a shock. Everything appears to be in ultra-high definition, the leaves on the trees gleam in neon colours, and the bright-coloured houses before the blue dropback of the harbour give the city an almost Mediterranean air. With such strong visual stimuli, it is not surprizing that New Zealand produces excellent film makers!

My friend Keith had promised to pick me up at the airport – a meeting which I’d been anticipating with a degree of anxiety, because after all, we only knew each other through the internet. The nervousness subsided quickly, however – apparently we had gained a fairly accurate impression of each other’s personalities after all! Keith and his family had generously invited me to stay with them – and so their spacious family home in Wadestown became my first home in New Zealand!

Apart from Keith and his family, the first person I met in Wellington was Robin Ward, a young harp student who had recently completed his degree at Victoria University. At some stage during his studies Robin had developed an infatuation with the baroque harp, and since there was neither an instrument nor a teacher available in New Zealand at the time, he did what Kiwis normally do under such circumstances: He built himself a very fine Welsh style triple harp, based on research he had done during a trip to Europe, and then he taught himself to play it.

I had corresponded with Robin before my trip, and it seemed to me that he was looking forward to my arrival with a degree of skepticism – therefore I was a little surprized to see him stand on my doorstep just a couple of days after I arrived! The first thing he asked me was "Why the baroque harp?" Whereupon I looked at him sternly and replied that I could just as well ask him the same question. In any case, it appeared that I managed to convince him that I really know my stuff, and since then Robin has been helpfullness incarnate.

Another acquaintance I made during that first week was that of Carolyn Mills, principal harpist with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, harp teacher at Victoria University and president of the recently incorporated Harp Society of New Zealand. Carolyn is originally from the United States, but has lived in Wellington for many years. She was able to give me some valuable advice regarding New Zealand music life and how to deal with it, as a foreigner. If I had been worried that the local harp community might regard me as a threat of competition (an experience which after all I’ve had to make a few times during my musical career), Carolyn quickly dispelled these concerns – and she has been generously supportive ever since.

Apart from these first contacts, I allowed myself to take things slowly during that first week, and used it mainly to get over my jetlag – which was not nearly as bad as I had expected, considering the drastic twelve hours time difference - and to make some last last preparations for my tour, which would first take me to the South Island.

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