Thursday, October 27, 2011

Wellington's Secret Center

I like to think about cities from different angles, not just what they're famous for. Shortly after we moved to Wellington, New Zealand I got to see a part of the city unknown to most residents and visitors. You'll find the story in Part Four: New Zealand Yarns, Chapter 12, and here in today's excerpt.

Beautiful Wellington Harbor

Wellington's Secret Center

New Zealand's supermarkets in 1979, not super by US standards but more like the neighborhood grocery stores of 1950s America, had a narrow selection of brands I had to get to know. The meat market displayed the usual cuts plus some I did not want to know (blood sausage, for example). The greengrocer's shop became my regular hangout.

Tony Ng, the proprietor, and his wife, Christine, became my mentors. New Zealand born, both Tony and Christine came from Chinese heritage. Hearing the distinctive kiwi accent from their distinctly Asian faces surprised and fascinated me. Christine showed me the Chinese technique for roasting a whole chicken (plunge it into boiling water first for a few seconds to tighten the skin) and she taught me how to prepare dim sum.

Tony and Christine's shop, smaller than most produce sections in American supermarkets, displayed a bounty of fruits and vegetables. I learned that they stored more in the back room. Tony liked to keep a stash of favorites for each of his best customers. He had an uncanny ability to remember what his patrons liked and to predict their shopping patterns. He told me to ring (telephone) him if I had any special requests and he would try to find what I wanted at the wholesale market.

"How does that work, Tony? The wholesale market, I mean…"

"Have you seen my lorry – I go to the Wellington market once a week and fill it with fresh vegs. Speak up if you'd like to go with me."

 Tony's wink showed me he was joking, but I was serious. I had a couple of fleeting second thoughts when Tony told me to meet him at the shop at four o'clock in the morning on Thursday, but the early hour didn't make me change my mind.

In the pre-dawn darkness, Tony handed me a thermos of tea Christine had brewed for us. "Pour us a cuppa, there's a good girl."

As we roared along in the old truck, sipping strong, sweet, milky tea, I tuned in to Tony's love for his work. His enthusiasm opened my eyes to the magic of a city caught in the lull between nightlife and workaday, a mysterious combination of suspended animation and pent up energy pressing for release.

Tony parked his truck with several others in a shadowy car park at the rear of an enormous building. He held the warehouse door for me and I passed through into sensory overload. My poor eyes squinted shut against the brilliant overhead lights. My hands covered my ears against the shrill whistles, shouts and bangs. My nostrils tingled from the riot of pungent odors of fish, seafood, tealeaves, and spices. The vendors whistled and banged to attract attention to their wares, and the buyers shouted their bids above the racket. Tony pantomimed that I should roam around while he made his purchases. He hurried off to bid on the best and freshest of the day.

Even though I paid close attention, the bidding process remained a mystery. Like a foreign language, a flurry of gestures and jargon communicated clearly between vendor and buyer and left me bewildered. I wound my way among the stalls and absorbed the symphony of sounds and smells without trying to analyze what was going on.

I regained normal consciousness when Tony tapped my shoulder. "Sorry to tear you away from all this, but the party's over, by Jingoes."

In little more than an hour, Tony had completed his bargaining, made his purchases, and loaded the truck. As we stepped out of the glare into the twilight of early morning, I wondered why the crazy market appealed to me so much. I couldn't put it into words. As the kiwis might say, it was "simply brilliant" to peek inside a hidden part of city life and find its colorful and vibrant secret heart. ###

Find Voluntary Nomads  in paperback at Amazon and Barnes and Noble and in all eBook formats at Smashwords as well as in PDF at Outskirts Press

Next time -- an excerpt from Chapter 13

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