The Benevolent Overlords
19 May 2022 | Kensington, Whangarei, NZ
When SCOOTS sailed away with her new owners in June 2021, Eric and I were officially boatless. Boatless, yes, but not homeless, thanks to the generosity of our dear Kiwi friends, Jeannie and Merv Dobbs.
We'd met Jeannie and Merv in 2016 in La Cruz, Mexico, when they dinghied over to SCOOTS to see whether Skip Sims, SCOOTS' original owner, was still at the helm. Eighteen years earlier, when they'd left New Zealand on their boat, Meridian Passage, they'd sailed north in the company of SCOOTS. They introduced themselves, we invited them aboard, and we've been good friends ever since.
All of us were in Mexico to prepare for the Pacific Puddle Jump, a loose rally of boats that would sail to French Polynesia, keeping in touch through an SSB radio net. In 2016, Eric and I were still relative newbies, only two years into our cruising life. For Eric and me, the PPJ was the beginning of our South Pacific adventures; for Jeannie and Merv, it was their trip home to Whangarei, and the end of their cruising.
Fast forward to 2018. By now, Eric and I were spending our winters (June-December) in Fiji and our summers (December-June) in New Zealand. Jeannie and Merv had sold Meridian Passage and bought a house in Whangarei. Merv, who'd spent his pre-cruising life as a builder, and can't sit still for more than a couple of minutes in a row, was having a great time doing an extensive renovation of their house. Jeannie, who also likes to keep active, had resumed her job as a nurse part-time, as well as helping Merv or planning their gardens.
Sometimes, when Merv needed an extra pair of hands, and it was the half of the year when we were in town, he'd call Eric. During smokos (Kiwi "coffee breaks"), Merv told Eric that he and Jeannie planned to add a room on to their house, to provide a place for cruisers or other people who might need it short-term, as a way to repay some of the kindnesses they'd received from people during their cruising days. From then on, Merv began calling it "your room," and Eric would laugh. Haha, little did we know. Ha. Ha. Ha.
Fast forward again to 2021. Eric and I were still in Whangarei, our cruising having been put on hiatus by the pandemic. Jeannie and Merv's house and gardens were finished and they were gorgeous. They had added on that extra bedroom, with its own fridge, sink, microwave, bathroom (with a bidet, this will be important in later blogs, trust me), and its own entry from the outside. At this point, the pandemic was having its way with the rest of the world, but in New Zealand, things were under control, and actually pretty normal. The boat market was really hot. In March, Eric and I decided to list SCOOTS for sale.
But before we did, we asked Jeannie and Merv if they were serious about allowing us to live in the extra room in their house. They said they were. "Even if we don't know how long we'll be there?" we asked. "No worries, mate," was their reply.
In June, SCOOTS was about to sail away with her new owners, we called Jeannie and Merv again and asked if they were serious. They said yes and we said how about on Tuesday? So we moved into Jeannie and Merv's extra room, beginning our next adventure: full-on Kiwi immersion.
At the beginning, none of us knew how things would play out: Would we all get along? How would we divvy up groceries? How would it be, living with housemates after all this time? But also, at the beginning, we decided to try things and see how they went, changing them up if necessary.
We soon settled into an easy routine: during the day everybody did their own thing. Each evening, we'd watch "The Chase," a British game show, and then the 6pm news on TVNZ1. It was a lot of fun, and it also gave us all insight into how Kiwis and Americans view the world and their places in it.
We usually ate dinner together. If Jeannie had worked that day, Eric and I would make dinner; if not, then Jeannie would usually cook. At dinner, all sorts of light-spirited cross-cultural education and shenanigans would happen; after dinner, Eric and I would retire to our room, leaving the "Big House" to Jeannie and Merv, whom we'd begun calling our "benevolent overlords."
Merv liked to amuse us from time to time by putting on an "American" accent to say something funny or to make a point. Whatever he said in his "American" voice, it always began with "God damn," in a slow, thick Southern accent. Apparently everyone outside of the US associates a Southern accent - and profanity - with Americans. Oh well. Maybe they're not wrong.
Sharing so much time with Jeannie and Merv really indoctrinated us into the Kiwi culture and vernacular. We learned all sorts of things we never knew, even after several years of living in Whangarei aboard SCOOTS. We even learned some new Kiwi phrases, such as "chuck the cat a goldfish," which means "pay a bit extra." We all kept an open mind about the way other people do things, and we laughed a lot.
Here is one of our typical dinner conversations. One night Merv grilled some snags ("sausages" for you Yanks) for dinner. We brought our bottle of mustard to the table. Jeannie and Merv stared at us, here they go, the Yanks being nutty again.
"Mustard?!" Merv asked. "What's that for?"
"For our sausages," Eric told him. "
"Yuck," said Merv.
"What do you put on sausage?" Eric asked.
"Plum sauce," Jeannie said.
"Plum sauce?!" Eric said. "On sausage?!"
After a good amount of razzing each other about our weird eating habits, we tried each other's sauces on our sausages and decided that in fact both were good.
Here is a small sampling of the things that we learned about during our stay with Jeannie and Merv:
~~~Mixing savory and sweet items on the same plate is anathema in New Zealand. Merv was
absolutely appalled by our habit of putting fruit on the same plate as our scrambled eggs. Not mixed in, not touching. Just occupying the same plate. He even made a point of telling our friends in common about it, who were also appalled, and looked at us as if we were cave people.
~~~Things we learned about toast. Vegemite (a paste made from yeast extract) is popular in New
Zealand, although its appeal is lost on Eric and me. Merv put it on his toast every day, which we thought was gross. To be fair, we each tried it again, and nope, it's still not for us. Also, we learned that Kiwis prefer their toast cold and hard. They even have little racks to hold the toast while it cools (and loses its appeal, from our point of view). They eat their cold, hard toast with butter (which of course doesn't melt), or Vegemite, jam, or tahini. "Why would you want the butter to melt?" Jeannie would ask. "Why wouldn't you?" Eric would reply. Whenever Jeannie made toast for Eric, she would tease him about having "warm bread."
~~~Kiwis (and Australians, too) store their dishes and glassware in drawers, rather than in
cupboards. As a person of limited stature, I think it's brilliant! You're standing there at the kitchen bench ("counter" in American), you want a plate or a glass, you open a drawer, and everything is within easy reach. No finding the step stool, or stretching up on tiptoe, to get them from a cupboard. If I get the opportunity to design a kitchen for myself, I'm going to do that. Of course, they have cupboards, too; they just store other things there.
~~~Most Kiwis don't use a dryer, preferring to dry their laundry on the line, even if it takes all day.
Or sometimes overnight. With New Zealand's sporadic showers, or daily deluges, this can make things tricky. So most Kiwis also have some alternative, covered area in which to hang their laundry.
~~~New Zealand meat pie etiquette. One day, Eric and I were in the kitchen, eating meat pies for
breakfast. (This would just be "pies" in Kiwi; "meat pies" would be redundant, as sweet pies are a rarity.) On his way to the garage, Merv saw us and stopped. "You can't eat pie for breakfast!" he said. "You can eat them at morning smoko, or for lunch, or any time after that. But never, ever, for breakfast." He finished with a drawling, "God damn."
"What about bacon and egg pies?" Eric asked. "Aren't they for breakfast."
"No," Merv said.
"Then why make them with bacon and eggs?" Eric asked.
"It doesn't matter," Merv said. "You don't eat pie for breakfast."
In addition to sharing cultural tidbits, we also participated in a free exchange of skills: Merv gave Eric free use of his garage workshop, and Eric gave Merv free use of his technological skills. I helped Merv arrange his photos on his computer and make a slide show with them, he taught me how to make perfect poached eggs. Jeannie showed me how to make a yummy spinach pie, I attracted the first tui to her tui feeder.
When the Delta variant of Covid finally came to New Zealand in August 2021, Eric and I happened to be vacationing in the small town where the first known case had visited a few days before testing positive. When it was announced that the area was going into lock down in 48 hours, we phoned Jeannie and Merv, to see if they would prefer that we not come home. They said, "No, come home. You can isolate in your room until we're sure you're not infected." Which is what we did. Every day for the next week, Jeannie would make dinner, and bring some for us on a tray. She'd leave it just outside our patio door so we could take it after she was safely back inside. We would smile and wave at each other through our respective glass patio doors. A week later, when no Covid cases had turned up in the town where we'd been, Jeannie and Merv decided that we could come out of our room and join them in the Big House again.
We had a lot of fun being Jeannie and Merv's "chase team," when they'd ride long distances on their e-bikes. We would drive their SUV after dropping them off with their bikes. Sometimes we would pick them up later in the day; other times we would make an entire weekend out of it, staying overnight at a campground or hotel so they could enjoy two long rides. They got a nice bike ride, and Eric and I got to do some sightseeing in some beautiful, out of the way places.
Jeannie and Merv became part of our family, and they treated us as if we were part of theirs, including us in their family gatherings, introducing us to their friends, sharing details and photos of their time in Whangarei before cruising, and all around the Pacific while cruising. We felt as if we were a family, not just two pairs of people living in the same house.
For six months we enjoyed the hospitality, humor, and friendship of our "benevolent overlords." It was a new type of adventure for all of us, an experiment that worked out better than any of us could have imagined. Through their kindness and generosity, in an atmosphere of fun and camaraderie, Jeannie and Merv provided us with the opportunity, the time, and the space to live our lives fully while the details of our next cruising adventure sorted themselves out. The time that we lived with Jeannie and Merv wasn't "the time between boats." It was its own worthwhile adventure, one we wouldn't trade for anything.