I didn't celebrate Thanksgiving this year. I didn’t talk to a single American in person and I had no energy to whip up creamy mashed potatoes or hearty batch of stuffing. I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch and steamed vegetables for dinner. So no, in a sense, I didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving.
On the other hand, I had the most Thanksgiving experience of my life, starting with my birthday week spent in the North Island. I had finished the Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk on Monday and after spending two consecutive days tramping through the rain, I decided to forego a free camp spot and drive to some place dry that could offer me a hot shower. I had been connected with someone who lived in Napier but was debating on skipping it so I could forego awkward small talk and feeling like an imposing stranger. I decided I’d drive to Napier and find a hostel and maybe I could meet up with this woman during my 15 hour whirlwind in Napier.
The woman who I had been connected to in Napier also grew up in my small Nebraskan hometown. She had lived in New Zealand for a long time and had a few kids but other than that, I knew almost nothing about her. I called her up letting her know I was coming and asking if she wanted to meet for coffee and despite giving her a last minute warning, she offered up a place for me to sleep in her spare bed. I couldn’t resist and humbly accepted.
I arrived at Cindy’s place around 6pm and she and her 25 year old daughter had just gotten home from work. Their house was so comfortable and cozy and their Maine Coon cat made me feel right at home wasting no time curling up in my lap with its soothing, content purrs.
They took me out to dinner with their friend Rob and we spent the night exchanging travel stories and personal histories. We were equally fascinated with each other and Cindy indulged my curiosity on how exactly a girl from the middle of rural Nebraska ended up living on the other side of the world. As fate would have it, Cindy moved to New Zealand in the 80s after meeting a New Zealand running guru in the U.S. He encouraged her to come to NZ to train with him and before she knew it, she was running across New Zealand’s vast countryside, cursing the hills and missing the smooth, flat Nebraska pavement; a feeling I can sympathize with all too well. She was close to a sub-three-hour marathon in her heyday and regaled to me her different marathons and the aches and pains that came with them. I was totally enthralled and shared my own goals and stories; how I had gotten into running, that time I qualified for Boston and then subsequently ended up on crutches, throwing my perfectly good golden Boston ticket away. Her house was filled with trophies and medals from her running days and spare room was equipped with weights, exercise bands, treadmills and indoor cycling bikes.
Cindy was stylish, making thrift store bargains look like designer clothes. She wore rectangular black rim glasses and her perfectly coiffed white hair was worn in a sophisticated bob. I couldn’t help but hope that maybe one day I’d be as cool as she is. Her daughter Tara was close to my age and while I didn’t get to talk to her as much, I seemed welcoming and easy to talk to. She was mature and independent so we got along well.
Cindy’s friend Rob also joined us for dinner. He works in a law firm and is an animated character. He takes pleasure in fine wine and good food and seemed genuinely interested in my travels. When I told him I was going to Upper Hut to spend my birthday in a tree house, he was stunned. Why exactly would I want to do that when I could spend another night in Napier and be treated to a nice birthday dinner surrounded by new friends. I brushed off his politeness, but he persisted. “Call them up,” he said, “see if you can change your reservation. We will make your birthday special.” I was hesitant because, for one, I didn’t want to overstay my welcome and two, I don’t change gears easily. When I have a plan, I follow through. After some more convincing, I decided to contact the tree house owner and asked if I could postpone a day and she said no problem.
The next day I spent the morning cleaning and organizing my house-car, washing every piece of clothing I had, and calling friends and family to check in. Since it was my birthday I allowed myself as many cups of coffee as I desired and lounged around with Molly the cat for as long as I pleased. It was self-indulgent in every way and had my birthday ended right then, I would have been perfectly content.
That afternoon, I ventured to the city center in the afternoon to take advantage of the crystal clear skies and warm sun. Napier is one thousand times cooler than I imagined. It’s advertised as the Art Deco Capital of the World. Not really knowing too much about art, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The city was flattened by an earthquake in the 30s and they rebuilt the city center in the style Great Gatsby.
The city still maintains this old charm with vintage cars, art deco style buildings, and sign posts with old-timey fonts. I was surprised by its quirkiness and was thankful I decided to spend an extra day to see the city. Tara told me each February they have an Art Deco weekend where people near and far come to the city, dress up in 20s style clothing and enjoy the festival. I saw an Edith-esque photo of Tara in the house of her dressed in a drop-waist dress, short bob, felt hat and elbow length gloves. I was perplexed about this photo until she explained that everyone does it. I decided if at all possible, I wanted to return to the festival in February where I will shamelessly dress up as the Dowager Countess.
That night Cindy, Rob, and Tara treated me to a nice Mexican restaurant, margaritas and all. As if that weren't enough, they handed me a birthday card is $260 cash, $10 for every year of my life. I was speechless and Cindy quietly pointed to Rob, suggesting he had been the mastermind behind the gift. I sheepishly tried to refuse, which obviously didn’t work, and humbly accepted the overly generous gift.
The one blip of my birthday was a dead car battery, which happened an hour before I was to meet the crew for dinner. I didn’t have jumper cables so I opened my car hood and solicited any stranger on the sidewalk who made eye contact with me. It took a while, but finally a nice man pulled up beside me and asked if I needed help. He jumped my car in a few seconds, told me he was a Christian and gave me his church’s business card so I could check out their website. I thanked him profusely and we parted ways.
While at my birthday dinner, Rob and Cindy expressed deep concern over my car troubles and encouraged me to have it checked out by their trusty mechanic before I left town the next day. I know finding a good mechanic who doesn’t immediately write me off as a dumb girl is a difficult task so I agreed. After dinner, Rob took a look at my car, which started up right away, and reiterated the need to have it looked at. As he left, he slipped another $100 in my hand, insisting it was for the car battery I’d imminently have to pay for. Again I tried to refuse but he was gone before I could really make a case for how ridiculous this was.
The next morning I took my car to their mechanic to get the battery checked out. It took a few hours and by 12:30 pm, my car was ready with a new battery. As I went to pay, I was told the fee had already been taken care of. Of course it had. The silent birthday present giver had struck again, quietly and without any fanfare.
I don’t know why I keep getting so lucky with strangers here in New Zealand who have absolutely no reason to be nice to me. I’ve never won any sort of lottery, I never get chosen at raffles, I’ve never been particularly lucky in any sense of the word before, yet for some reason, I’m striking it rich in New Zealand when it comes to finding generous people. I don’t know what I could possibly do to show my deep gratitude to my Napier hosts, but I hope they read this and feel my appreciation. It’s an act of kindness I’m sure I'll remember for years to come. I’ll be 85 years old and reminiscing about the kindness and selflessness I found in New Zealand. It’s a perfect Thanksgiving story and experience that will fill my heart with joy for years to come.
I wanted to end the story there, but I’d be cheating you if I didn’t tell you a little bit about my tree house experience as well.
As I bid a heartfelt adieu to Napier, I headed south to Upper Hut, a small town thirty minutes north of Wellington. I had found a tree hut on Airbnb and thought I might continue my birthday week of indulgence by renting the house for a night and spending the entire time curled up in bed with a new book. It didn’t go exactly like that because for one, the tree house had free unlimited wifi with I believe to be the enemy of non-electronic leisure time, and two, I met Nathalie, Phelg, and Finlay, my tree house hosts.
I arrived and was greeted by two smiley boys, Phelg who is 8 and Finally who is 10. They had no idea where their mom was but decided they would be more than happy to give me a tour of their property starting with their garden. They led me down a winding dirt path to the lower garden which was filled with lambs, chickens, baby chicks, rabbits and the ugliest yet most lovable pig I’d ever laid eyes on.
The boisterous boys weren’t shy and seemed happy to shove chicken after chicken in my arms so I could have the “complete” farm experience. After about twenty minutes, we found Natalie, their mother, and she encouraged me to make myself at home in the treehouse. After declining a cheesy portion of pumpkin lasagna, I cooked some food for myself and dined with Nathalie and her boys.
Nathalie hails from Hamburg, Germany and moved to New Zealand after being placed in Wellington while working for the Foreign Ministry. On her third day in Wellington, she met a nice boy and after being tired of the hostel life, she decided to move in with him. This man eventually became the father of her two kids and though they separated later in life, they still remain friends. She obviously misses Germany and the hustle and bustle of a big city life. She works part-time now to help pay for her property and has a revolving door of WWOOFers to whom she attributes the success of her property. She said she had never even dreamed of having a treehouse but she ran out of projects for her WWOOFers and they suggested they build a tree house from bits and pieces laying around the house. She never imagined the steady stream of guests the tree house would bring. She’s loved all of the tree house stayers, claiming they are all laid back and easy to get along with. She has a spare bedroom in the house that she also lists on AirBNB but hardly ever gets bookings for it. The infrequent bookings she does receive seem to be from people who expect tiny shampoo bottles in the bathroom and a perfectly immaculate bedroom.
Like me, Nathalie worked in cultural exchange for a while, supervising German kids who had come to NZ to live with host families. We swapped horror stories from 2 am calls and exchange students who got intimate with host siblings or in some cases, host parents. (Yeesh). For dessert, she had baked me a chocolate cake using a family heirloom recipe. The boys sang me a lovely version of Happy Birthday that called me out as being 102 and smelling like a zoo. Very endearing. After cake, I said goodnight and cozied up in the tree house with my book and the completely free and unlimited wifi. I took full advantage, streaming spottily and uploading tons of photos for future blog posts. I felt like I was living in the lap of luxury.
It was the perfect birthday in every way and the love I got from complete strangers made it a birthday I’ll never forget. A million thanks to the strangers I may never see again. I’m truly moved by your generosity and if birthdays are at all indicative of how the year will go, 26 is going to be pretty damn good.