let’s celebrate Christmas on a remote island.
First of all, December in Stewart Island does not really rhyme with lights and decorations as I’m used to in Alsace. Some houses are a little bit decorated, but there’s nothing on the streets, no huge municipal Christmas tree. Maybe that’s because a lot of Stewart Island’s inhabitants are leaving Oban for Christmas in order to celebrate the holidays with family and friends in South (or North) Island of New Zealand. So, there’s not so much for feeling the Christmas vibe here.
December in New Zealand also means the beginning of Summertime. But apparently, it goes for all New Zealand except Stewart Island. Here, the weather is capricious, sometimes it’s sunny, sometimes rainy, sometimes windy, sometimes you’re freezing to death, sometimes you’re hot as a dog, and sometimes all of that can happen in one single day. So much about the cliché of Kiwi people in swimming suits grilling sausages for Christmas, it won’t happen here. Sorry to disappoint you guys, I’m sure you would have loved to see my fat ass in a swimming suit on some paradise beach.
Then, it has to be known that Kiwis doesn’t celebrate Christmas Eve (here’s another Alsatian tradition inherited from the Germans), they open their gifts on the 25th morning and have a gigantic barbecue for lunch. As I couldn’t skip the traditional Christmas Eve, and I’m working with Julius, who’s German, and that three other German guys are sleeping at Hilltop Backpackers (Tim, Julian & Jonas – yes, there are heaps of Germans here in New Zealand), Helen (our host’s sister) decided to celebrate a ‘German Christmas’, for my great pleasure!
DECEMBER 24th 2015 – CHRISTMAS EVE
After a morning spent working, packing the last arrival of the year of smoked salmon (goodbye smoked salmon, I’ll be missing you loads!), we drag our Christmas Big Fish (2, 250kg), a gift from the house, to cook our German Christmas Eve dinner.
But, before starting to cook, we have a perfect time watching Star Wars Episode VI, the last movie of our Star Wars marathon (we decided to forget about Episodes I, II and III, so as the world should) so we’ll be perfectly ready to see the JJ. Abrams’ one when we’ll finally leave this Island. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…!” (Han Solo)
Julius is cooking homemade German bread, I’m baking Christmas cookies (‘Bredeles’ as we call them in Alsace) with Brenna, some scones, and some chocolate mousse. Tim and I are taking care of the salad, and we make carrot’s flowers thanks to this vegetable’s pencil sharpener. Isobel, Brenna, and Melody bake the traditional Pavlova and some roasted potatoes and pumpkin. Helen brings three chickens and some gravy (the famous brown sauce for the meat). Hell, that was a good dinner, and we stuff ourselves like pigs.
Helen has some gift for each one of us. That’s so lovely! I get a Christmas ball decorated with Tui Birds, and a lovely children book ‘Pee Wee the kiwi’ accompanied with a kiwi plush. Helen says that she couldn’t help offering a book to a bookseller. I’m very very touched by her attention.
We spend the rest of the night playing cards, laughing and being stupid. When I go to the bed, the kitchen is a real mess. But I’m happy. I’m smiling. Satisfied about this Christmas Eve.
DECEMBER 25th 2015 – CHRISTMAS DAY
Today is a holiday in New Zealand so we’re not working this morning. I’m meant to Skype my family around 10:00 am, they’ll be in the middle of their Christmas Eve’s celebration. I bring my computer down to the library so I could have some Free Wi-Fi, settle myself on the outside bench and… it’s awfully slow. Maybe too many people are trying to Skype for Christmas, I don’t know, but it surely isn’t working. I try with my phone and manage to catch a glimpse of my mother for a few seconds and we’re cut off. I give up. And call the Italian lover instead. I just wanted to hear a comforting and familiar voice.
I go back up to the Hilltop Backpackers, a little bit frustrated, but soon forget about this incident. I have to cook some dishes for the Barbecue lunch. Nancy, the girl who used to live long term at the Hilltop and has finally moved into a HUGE house with other long-term travellers, Thomas, Martin, and Beth, has invited us to celebrate Christmas.
Nancy’s house is a happy house. Plenty of couches, a flowered wallpaper from the 70’s and surely the most amazing light switch of the world. Friends come and go, there’s a good vibe here, a barbecue with some sausages and of course some salmon, salads, potatoes, marshmallows… There’s even a chicken wandering around the garden. At the end of the day, Nancy is preparing mulled wine. Man, it smells like home…! I take a big smell of it and let my happy memories rise to the surface.
I like Nancy. We get along pretty well. This girl is a true badass. She’s going fishing Paua Shells in the depth without any wetsuit, swimming in the freezing Ocean almost every day and running on the walking tracks. I hold an endless admiration for this chick.
I’m also getting to know Melody better, she’s a fresh newbie helper at Hilltop. Born in China, she’s living in New Zealand since she was a child. She took a break from her stressful environment in Auckland to help on Stewart Island.
It’s crazy how every person that I’m meeting on the way has his own story, a tortuous path that leads to New Zealand. I also come to distinguish two types of travellers here. The ones having a break from ‘real life’, who came here after their studies having a break before finding a job. The ones having a break from their jobs for a few months or an entire year to travel. The ones who know they’re going back home, for they have a home, a job, a cat, a lover, a reason to come back. And you have the other ones. Like Nancy, like Selena, like Alessio. The ones who bought a one-way ticket. The ones who left their jobs (or the ones who went through redundancy, right?) The ones who sold their stuff. The ones without a home, a job, a car, not even a spoon, and, far from having a break from ‘real life’ went to live ‘another life’. The ones who thought that leaving was a matter of survival. Like me.
DECEMBER 26th 2015 – BOXING DAY
Today is also a holiday. And the sky is bright blue and blindly sunny outside. Julius went off to walk the first part of the Rakiura Track until North Arm Hut (about 8:00 walking return.) As I might work at the Kai Kart (the fish & chips restaurant) at 17:00, I’m not going with him. We still walk the Ryan’s Creek Track together, which is way more beautiful now than it was a few days ago under the pouring rain. I also walk again to Fern Gully and have a picnic break over there.
On my way back to Hilltop, I find out that Holger doesn’t need me anymore at the Kai Kart. I’m now very much frustrated that I didn’t go to the North Arm Hut. And it’s too late to start the walk. I drag Brenna out for some other walks, to Evening Cove, Ackers Point, and RingaRinga Beach. We try (hard) to take jumping selfies – without succeeding- and got bitten by the bloody sandflies.
DECEMBER 27th – BACK TO WORK DAY
As all the work is done with the smoked salmon for the year, Helen is giving us some little works to do. Julius is building a door for the chicken fence. And trapped the ladder inside. The giggles are unanimous.
When work is done, the sky is still perfectly blue. This Sunday afternoon seems perfect for our Christmas Tree photo shoot on the beach. We drive until Braggs Bay, the boot full of Christmas Tree, decorations, firewood and… Marshmallows!
Sitting around the fire, we cook/burn some Marshmallow, and I make the fine speech to my fellow helpers. That’s my first Christmas away from home, away from what and those I know, from my own family, my own friends, my own traditions. And my mates made sure I didn’t miss those things that much. Thanks to their laughs, their jokes, this crazy Christmas Tree on the beach and all this gigantic amount of food we had. They, we made ourselves feel like home here in Stewart Island.
And I know that once the adventure will be over, we might never see each other again. But we surely had had a hell of a Christmas on Stewart Island. And I’ll never forget about it, for it was authentic, friendly and sincere.
Merry Christmas to all of my friends from New Zealand, Japan, France and everywhere else. Love you and miss you heaps.
Bake (or buy) a huge meringue.
Bake (or buy) some whipped cream to put on top.
Cut some kiwis and strawberries and put them over the whipped cream.
Here we go, here’s your Pavlova!
LET’S GO THERE!:
STEWART ISLAND SMOKED SALMON, 11 Miro Crescent, Oban, Stewart Island
HILLTOP BACKPACKERS, 15 Whipp Place, Oban, Stewart Island