I love being in a town when no one knows you’re there. Not that I’m avoiding anyone but there’s something magical about wandering with no plans, seeing what you see, being a stranger in a strange land.
Maybe the quiet and anonymity is made more delicious by not having the constant 5 year old with me….free of the burbling chatter and desire to climb on my shoulders I feel light and invisible.
This ‘strange land’ is my old home town, which I left nearly 20 years ago. I visit it many times a year even though almost all the strands of my family have also departed. I have friends and memories I need to revisit and grow.
They say you can never go home and that is certainly the case when the city you grew up in is smashed by a cruel and unexpected shrug of nature.
Christchurch has looked like a 20th century war zone for over 2 and a half years; the central city especially so. Life is creeping into the empty spaces with all its quirks and colour but it will be decades before it functions again as it once did.
With a couple of hours free before I have to work then fly home, I’ve come to the Lyttleton market, looking for coffee and an artisanal snack. But it is too early so, like the handful of other tourists, I am loitering, watching the stalls being set up.
For many years I had a job setting up the market at the Arts’ Centre. I could write a novel about what I saw. Maybe all markets are so. I feel the ’90s flooding back. It’s a bit much.
A coffee chain place was open so I’ve grabbed a macchiato while I wait. The barista asked for a name even though the only others in the cafe are a mother and daughter, probably touristing, too, as they have full make up at 08:30 on a Saturday; it is too fresh to be from an all-nighter.
Latching onto my feeling of anonymity, I said the first name that came to mind, Elvis. That made the daughter look.
So, with caffeine fixed into my system and these words tapped out of head and into my device, this big fat Elvis will leave the building, buy some pastries for lunch then head into town to wander the erstwhile ‘red zone’ of the central city, taking photos of the broken, beloved Cathedral & have a real coffee at C1 (the best cafe in Central Chch, recently re-opened).
That is, once I try a Vietnamese pork belly sandwich.
Well, C1 was looking pretty flash in it’s post-quake building (the old Alice in Videoland…in an old Post Office building).
It sits amongst a sea of empty lots and broken buildings where the city used to be.
There’s always plenty of parking in Chch these days thanks to all the stony gaps.
However, the queue in C1 was massive so I headed on to check out more sights.
As I stood by the fence surrounding the broken, ubiquitous symbol of my home some tourists were arguing over which way was west. It felt nice being able to put them right, reassuring them the cathedral was indeed laid out on the same axis as all other cathedrals. That it didn’t fall because they put it up wrong.
I could say so much about what it felt like to stand in the Square for the first time since the earthquake. In one word, it was ’emotional’. Not unlike viewing the body of a loved one. Familiar but wrong. Reassuring and disconcerting.
Afterwards, I went to see the temporary Cardboard Cathedral. Funny, it looked more plastic from the outside. But the giant cardboard beams are beautiful.
It is very light inside and, as the old Rev who approached me pointed out, the concrete floor is heated, unlike the beautiful mosaics and tiles of Christ Church Cathedral.
It is warm and looks out on the green of Latimer Square where an elusive horse has been seen grazing, he said.
When the old Rev asked me where I was from, I said Christchurch. I considered saying the town where I live now. But this is my home town. It has changed (as have I); more buildings have ‘left the building’ than have stayed.
I feel sadness, loss, hope and happiness. A stranger amongst the new and familiar. A visitor with an assumed name.
I wish I was staying the night.