Usually when someone makes reference to the “two nations divided by a common language” they mean the UK and US. They could, however, just as easily substitute NZ.

Dunedin is simultaneously familiar and yet strangely foreign. A significant proportion of streets, districts, parks, shops, etc are named after places in Edinburgh, which is, after all, the very city’s namesake (the Burgh of Edin vs. the Dun of Edin). They still even drive on the left here (albeit with metric distances and speeds and a really crazy “give way to drivers turning against you” rule). But they’ve evolved their own crazy version of English, where, for example, TV ads bemoan the fact that you can buy cigarettes in the dairy, you wheel a trundler round the supermarket, you can win a trip to a bach of your dreams anywhere in the world, shops have large “EFTPOS” signs in their windows, and radio programmes can talk for an hour about students getting their “OE” in London or New York without ever once explaining what that actually is.

They also have their own version of the Australian habit of shortening everything to two syllables: it took me much too long to realise that “Coro Street” wasn’t just a local soap (and, as an aside, the UK population should pray that no-one at the BBC decides to fill that newly created Neighbours gap with Shortland Street…)

And that’s all before you deal with the Maori influence (and have to learn how to pronounce place names like Whangarei and Ngongotaha), and the variety of words that have leaked through into everyday language.

I’m also reliably informed that calling yourself “George Street Normal School” is perfectly acceptable in many countries, but to me it sounds like someone trying to find an even more innocuous sounding way of saying “Special School”.

And it’s not just the language. I’ve also never quite worked out why you get your Fish And Chips from a Chinese Takeaway, or why soft drinks come in 600ml containers, and it’s taken me a while to get used to my toaster being inside a cupboard. And you can always tell you’re in a small country when primetime TV has ads for fork lift trucks. (I really want to provide a link so that everyone can enjoy the ludicrous jingle of “There is nothing like a Crown / For picking it up / And putting it down” but I can’t find it anywhere. Help, please, anyone!)

But there are some things that are fantastic here. A small example is that they have a TV listings magazine for intelligent people, that actually thinks nothing of running a 5 page article on an interesting topic. It’s not quite the New Yorker, but it’s certainly no Heat.

A common pet peeve of mine is also neatly avoided here in that they have at least as many warnings about drowsy driving they do about drunk driving (which accounts for a much smaller number of deaths but is much easier to detect and thus gets all the attention in most countries). Although I can’t quite see the UK adopting the slogan “If you stop a drunk driver you’re a bloody legend” any time soon.

But by far my biggest delight here has been airline travel. It’s as if it’s still 1988. When I rang for a shuttle to take to me to the airport yesterday I was first surprised that they didn’t ask what time I wanted to be picked up, but only what time my flight was at. Then I assumed they’d misheard me as they said they’d pick me up approximately an hour after the time I would have expected to arrive at the airport. But, indeed, no. You can still turn up 20 minutes before your flight, show absolutely no ID anywhere in the whole process, stroll through to the business lounge without anyone checking you should be there or having encountered any security screening at all, and even carry the Starbucks you bought downtown right on to the plane. It’s a classic example of something that has been slowly taken away piece by piece in most parts of the world, and even though you know things have changed, you’ve forgotten just how much so until you’re confronted so starkly with how it used to be. I suspect it’s as much to do with the relative isolation of the country as a deliberate plan to avoid the terrible creep, but the longer they can keep it up the better!

Two nations divided

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