If Alice and I were to travel together for a year, it would be habit for me to wake up at 7:30 and prepare tea and soak a bowl of raw oats with almond milk. If the morning was cold I would know to give Alice the warmest cup so she could squeeze it to rid her hands of chill. I would know that meal times are inflexible, to be observed at 8:00, 13:00, and 20:00, and I would know that snacking is forbidden. I would also know that I should be amenable to any meal time change as Alice saw fit. Should I break the snacking rule I would know that if Alice noticed I would need to share whatever snack I’d broken the rule with. We would hike every week, and on every hike I would watch Alice bound far ahead of me. I would carry walking poles for myself, but she would not, although I would have to be willing to lend her mine whenever the situation demanded it. We would sing our favorite national songs to each other. She would have memorized Yankee Doodle Dandy and I would have memorized France’s national anthem. At night we would read by candle light and pass back and forth a cup of tea. She would always take the last sip even though she would always offer it to me. We would never, ever kiss, but field questions as to what process we followed that has us acting like such a married couple. We would drive and at least one time we would run out of gas. And, at the end of one year, we might have full conversations, in English, and understand each other.
These are Alice’s physical specifics: She is 173cm tall, or there about, and slender. She is in obvious athletic shape, her hips, legs, and shoulders in the contours that are brought about by frequent, long bouts of exercise. Her brown hair has blonde streaks. Her face is amply touched by sun. Her nose is minuscule with a small upturn at the end. She is attractive. Two elder men, using parlance appropriate in 1953, asked me, “How did you manage to travel around with such a cute thing?” As is common among long-journey travelers with small suitcases, Alice often wears the same clothing pieces: a pink scarf, blue jeans with a brown belt, and Converse sneakers. Yet, as befits a French citizen, she comes across as sartorially gifted. She is frighteningly quick in giving the patented two kiss French hello.
How I met Alice was that she left her iPhone on an empty picnic table in Northland’s Paihia. I saw it and sat down and sipped tea while watching the sun fall into a mud flat. She emerged from a tent, so I waved and asked if the cell phone was hers. She sat down, tea cup in hands to steal its warmth. “I’m sorry,” she said after a few moments, “I don’t speak English so good.” The next morning we met again and shared a ride to the library, where we sat on the lawn and borrowed free wifi to converse using Google translate. I typed words into the English box and she read the imperfect French translation on the other side. There is some terror in conversing this way. If she’d laugh at a banal statement I’d wonder how, exactly, Google’s software decided to translate a word with a double meaning. The method was sufficient enough though. We learned that for the next three weeks we’d follow a similar itinerary, she out-pacing me slightly in Northland, each day 50-100 kilometers in front and always chirping through Facebook Messenger sightseeing and camp ground recommendations. Then she’d go to Coromandel to see a brother with whom she claimed estrangement, and I would go to Auckland. Then we’d contemporaneously move south towards the sulfur tinged air of Rotorua. We decided to meet there. I had made a booking to hike Lake Waikaremoana, a popular multi-day bush tramp nearby. “Maybe I will join you,” she said, but scoffed at my plan to traverse the 46 km trail over four days, “Two days enough.” Turns out she is a champion trail runner.
A day later she sent me a message: “I decide to do all the trip with you, it will be better if we take our time and I agree with you to enjoy the landscapes!”
When Bitchface broke down weeks later it was Alice and a French couple she traveled with who I was on my way to meet.
“I’m not going to make it down tonight,” I said.
“So I understand, may be we could meet us for the Lake Waikaremoana? Do you think really send or get ride of your van?”
“I don’t follow…I found someone that can drive me to a bus station that can put me into Rotorua at 12:15pm…Would you mind picking me up please? I’ll make it up to you!”
“Sure ; ) Do you want that I wait to you go to the volcanics attractions? Take all your things for camping!”
And, bless her, just after noon she and her two younger companions pulled curbside next to Rotorua’s bus station and I got in the car to join them.
The French companions were temporary travel mates. They had traveled with Alice to Rotorua where they would split off and into their own adventure. This is common. Determining friends in New Zealand is similar to determining friends when you’re fifteen, e.g. friendships begin and end with who has reliable transportation. A solo traveler with a car and a spare seat and a hitchhiker/other-sans-car-traveller with gas money in hand and low itinerary expectations make excellent companions, their respective situations enough to trounce most personality or language deficiencies. Hitchhikers who stand roadside hold not only a placard bearing their desired destination but also try to demonstrate an ebullient personality—ecstatic waves, Dentyne smiles; a Dutch guy I traveled with advertised having chocolate bars—which is often sufficient currency to get a ride. This sort of ride share derives partly from the spontaneous nature of travel that New Zealand warrants, but it’s also part pragmatism. Booked travel is expensive, and without a car a traveler is subject to New Zealand’s sparse Intercity bus options. Not to detract from the job Intercity does or the destinations they serve, but due to New Zealand’s minuscule population and non-direct roads, routes are necessarily infrequent and long-lasting. Plus, New Zealand’s prime attractions and memorable spots require pulling over or suffering through a belly tossing car ride over poorly graded dirt roads.
So that day it was three French travelers and me. The most competent English speaker was the boy, whose name I didn’t record and who I shall refer to as Flamber. English fluency is not compulsory in the French education system the way it de facto is in the Dutch or German ones. As a result French travelers are an insular group. They’re numerous but don’t reach the same assimilation levels as the Dutch or Germans do among their native English speaking counterparts. English speaking French are fluent because of some unique circumstance, be it parental requirements, concerted effort to learn through studying or working abroad, etc. This was the case with Flamber, who’d honed passable English skills while studying architecture in Sydney. He was young and tall and came attached to a more diminutive girlfriend. Their relationship was in its infancy, so their amorous affections matched each Pepe Le Pew type stereotype, inclusive of giggling, tickling, and tent shaking. Her name was Eleanor. With the French accent I thought I was being told it was “Eel-Uno,” which is likely the proper phonetic pronunciation.
Eel-Uno’s English had advanced no further than the preface to Unit 1 of any standard issue English language text book. We limited our communication to smiles, eyebrow raises, and forced laughing, which can surprisingly be used to express anything from, “I don’t know which way this trail goes” to “have you seen anyone else from our group?” If substantial information needed conveying, she channeled this through Flamber.
In the car the three French speakers bumbled over proper English words before expressing them to me, sometimes requiring all three minds to string the proper vocabulary and conjugations together, but it was always Flamber who was the arbiter in what sentence was uttered and then repeating in French whatever my answer was. Whenever this occurred Alice and Eel-Uno watched me, as if in my facial expressions they would get verification as to the veracity of Flamber’s recounted lesson.
We spent two days and one night in Rotorua, camping in our respective tents on a lake shore, visiting thermal hot pools, and walking through a red wood forest. Not sharing a language allowed me to cart off on my own during sightseeing, as after a time struggling through pleasantries finds an amicable end, and the French were content to keep their conversation webbed within their trio.
Alice and I said goodbye to Flamber and Eel-Uno in Rotorua. Alice and I would spend the next six days together, congealing rough spoken sentences to learn each other’s histories, traveling the 163km that separated Rotorua from the Lake Waikaremoana trail head, a rough road destined to take over three hours and which Alice precipitated by saying, “I forgot to buy gas” while pointing to a quarter full tank. Then we would spend four nights hiking the lake wrapping Lake Waikaremoana trail, sleeping in sleeping bags next to each other with the zippers facing opposite ways, slapping mosquitos and filling our many hours of downtime with reading and praying both quietly and out loud that a French speaker could be found on the trail. And then we’d end our joined travels on an empty Sunday street in Nelson, New Zealand.
Alice, it turns out, lives a distant life. She lives on an island that she variously referred to as “my island” and “La Réunion.” La Réunion is an overseas department of France and a volcanic island sprung from the balmy tropic waters of the Indian Ocean about one hundred miles east of Madagascar. To my understanding it is more beautiful than New Zealand. New Zealand, Instagrammable, glacial, both mountainous and flat, finds in La Réunion its microcosm, a distillation of all New Zealand’s wonder concentrated into a twenty-five kilometer craggy oval of space. Alice was polite in mentioning this, and reduced her compliments to New Zealand’s geography to, “This is nice.” She was stubborn when it came to swimming though, refusing to go into any body of water except for one, a stream in Rotorua called Kerosene Creek where people poached in thermal vent warmed ~35C water. Yet she would not join me, no matter the amount of prodding, the need to shower, the clear, beckoning opalescent water, for a fast dip in Lake Waikaremoana and instead squatted and frowned on the shoreline, regarding the cold water with the type of disdain you see in people who have a permanent surplus of ideal conditions.
She’s Norman by birth and is twenty-eight and left Normandy in her early twenties. She used simple words to describe her hometown because her vocabulary is limited, although using such uncomplicated adjectives made it easier for me to imagine why she left. Her hometown is small. Pretty. Near the ocean. A place where a girl like her, one who hated being indoors for long periods, could muddy her feet at low tide and climb trees with no height-weary adults standing below with upturned mouths yelling at her to get down. The town with its tudor-style buildings and brackish fogs and limited job prospects didn’t conform with her ideas of a home. She wanted tropics. Yet when I met her she was in the throes of determining whether she had a life worth putting together in Normandy. She had a physical therapy position in La Réunion that paid her well and allowed her ample time off. Yet familial and friendship bonds were like some distant, still connected tether that pulled year round and yanked on holidays. This is true for most expats: A feeling of constant oscillation between places where we feel we might belong and where other people believe we belong to them and they to us. So she will, she said, return to “the mainland” to take stock of what might be there. There may be something. She doubts it.
She had one goal coming to New Zealand—practice English. Each morning and evening over our time together she dutifully read the practice sheets she’d downloaded on her phone. As we hiked up bosky ridge lines she questioned me on irregular conjugations. In the car she interrupted quiet spells to turn down the music and ask for the singular past participle of a certain verb. Instead of realizing what a marvelous, patient teacher I am, I learned that I have no clue what the pluperfect or perfect continuous is. In the midst of giving winding grammatical explanations, I realized I had a native speaker’s rudimentary understanding of the odd intricacies and verb tenses of his own language. I untangled the weird morass of irregular conjugations because she kept asking, “Why is it this way?” and all the untangling did was reveal how non-sensical this damn English language is.
But where I faltered in explaining our language’s foundations, I believed I excelled in speaking in a way that made her comprehension easier. I slowed down my speech, setting it to such a downtempo cadence that I would forget the end of my sentences by the time I got to them. My enunciation skills took me back to the “red leather yellow leather, unique New York, the human torch was denied a bank loan” pronunciation days. Yet each time we met another English speaker she would speak a few sentences with them, turn to me if I was near, and say, “They speak more clear than you do,” which of course sent me into fits and I said as quickly and verbosely as possible that she was wrong and had no idea what she’s talking about.
Even though I thought I was being patient and considerate, a benevolent teacher if you will, over a week it’s hard to hide entirely your nature. So despite consciously slipping into using elementary school words and altering my sentence construction to comport with how she’d translate French to English in her head, so “want to grab breakfast?” became “Would it please you to have breakfast?” or “how old is your brother?” became “how many years does your brother have?” I am convinced that she mistook jokes I made at her expense for actual English lessons. Humor is only a final consideration when learning a language since assuming sincerity is natural when the goal for two people is to be understood. A pun, for example, is a lowly form of language use for a native speaker, but for a non-native speaker it’s a milestone of language understanding. Alice struggled to pronounce “boss.” She pronounced it “bus.” When we started traveling together and when facing a decision I was apathetic with I’d shrug my shoulders and say, “You’re the boss on this one.” “I’m the bus?” “Yes—the boss—the one who makes the decision.” “I am the bus.” She said. So from then on I’d always say, “You are the bus.” She would then put her finger in the air and proudly exclaim, “I am the bus!”
Our hike was four days. We were fleet footed and reduced each projected eight hour hiking period into a mince of four or five. We started out by 10:00 most mornings and by 15:00 we were finished. I sensed a tedious resentment from Alice about this since she’d clearly advised against four days weeks earlier. With our many hours to spend we divided time between reading and striving for conversation. Once we’d covered the easiest topics—favorite foods, favorite color, relationship commitment issues—we graduated to communicating in song lyrics. Her preference was house music though, so the lyrics we shared were lyrics that we learned in grammar school and hadn’t sung in decades. Some songs, nationalist ones, are patriotically stamped into our DNA and all the lyrics unravel like a dropped yarn spool once we recall the first line. She tried translating the French national anthem for me and she liked the melody of Yankee Doodle Dandy. She loved the factoid that so many patriotic American songs stole their tunes from British drinking songs.
We stayed in huts and on one night a campsite. The campsite was like a lily pad of grass rounded into a stagnate lake finger. At first our only companions were a duck, a pair of black swans, and mosquitos. Alice and I, facing the prospect of four hours before dark with no entertainment except what we could provide each other, were of the same mind when Alice said, “I hope a French person comes.”
I think it was God who, sensing Alice’s linguistic desperation, sent one. The hiker was a vivacious, short red-haired girl and able English speaker and the only French speaker we came across on the trail. While making noodles she seemed able to fork from Alice each juicy tidbit about Alice’s thoughts on traveling with an English only speaker. Thoughts that Alice were unable to express for a week came out like she was speaking to a decades long friend, so I spent the next hour glancing back and forth between them, Alice speaking, the new French girl cackling while looking at me. Alice was red faced with laughter by the time she got to the tent. “That girl,” she said, “I like very much.”
There’s not much to be said for the hike itself as it relates to Alice. Her trail running background had her pacing far ahead of me except on the last two days since intermittent rain had turned the dirt track into a muddy quagmire. She had picked up a wood staff from an overnight hut and used this for part of the penultimate day in order to vault herself over mud puddles since she wore hiking sneakers as opposed to waterproof boots. When we departed the next morning I saw the staff left on the door jam.
“Are you going to take this?” I asked.
“No,” she said, repeating the quote she’d delivered to me four days earlier while she saw me extending my hiking poles, “It slows me down.” So, naturally, a half hour later she turned to me with a hand out stretched to borrow one of mine so she could continue to vault over the mud puddles that cratered the path.
When we returned to the parking lot from where we departed, I bought as many candy bars as I could with ten dollars. Alice took a twenty minute hot shower. When we were ready to go I reminded her: “Gas.” There was a small pump station with gas available for an exorbitant price. She put five dollars in the tank and when she turned on the ignition she said, “It shows no gas.” She pointed to the gas gauge, which hadn’t moved. Our travel range indicated 70 kilometers. The nearest gas was in Wairoa, 60 kilometers away, so we set off without concern, fine so long as we stopped.
The road and landscape to Wairoa was typical. Windy. Up and down. Blind cornered. In and out of townships whose labeling on maps belie the fact that the town is no more than ten shanties with perhaps a diary. We arrived in Wairoa with our travel range stating we had about 30 kilometers left. Wairoa was a moderate size town, one that could support more than one gas station, so I didn’t express concern when Alice passed the first one. I figured she thought it would be the most expensive, catering to motorists with near empty tasks willing to pay the peace of mind surcharge. But then Alice drove by the next gas station. Then the one after. The brief downtown went by and so did what was likely the last chance to fill up. We were on a road that went through lines of conical trees and over a river then back into the expansive, jagged green of New Zealand country where gas opportunities were few and could not always be depended on for being open or in business.
“What are you doing, we need gas!” I played this remarkably uncool.
She was blasé. She waved at the gas odometer, “We get gas at next town.”
“There might not be a next town!” I had visions of being stalled on a gas-less country road trudging from a ripe sunset on a dark blind shoulder to the next gas station with my thumb up, all so Alice could avoid the unpleasantness of a five minute stop.
“There is always gas in next town,” she said with Trumpian confidence.
There is a much maligned plot device in narrative art called deus ex machina. Its literal translation is “God from the machine,” but it has evolved to mean that an unexpected power or happening arises during a dire plot situation and solves whatever conflict the protagonists face. Audiences despise the trick, but, I can assure you, when living in the realm of “life is stranger than fiction,” witnessing a deus ex machina moment feels like you’ve been touched with a God’s hand and you suddenly wonder if perhaps guardian angels are real.
The dues ex machina moment here was a sign. I have seen a sign like this one perhaps five times in my life. They always precede particularly perilous drives, ones notorious for long, desolate stretches with sand bleached by sun, where ancient lakes evaporated into alkali flats, places where dead tumbleweeds are caged within bovine skeletons. But the sixth time I’ve seen this type of sign was then and there, and in all my life I have never been so resoundingly proved correct in so short a time. I nearly jumped out of my seat to point to and read: “Next Gas 183 KM.” Alice made a u-turn and pulled into the gas station. We put $20 into the tank.
“My relationships,” she said, starting to give insight into a topic we’d touched on earlier, “Usually end because I am stubborn.”
We spent our final night in Nelson. Each hostel we came to was booked, except for one that offered a double bed. Alice seemed horrified at the prospect that we would have to spend another night together. But when you come to depend on someone for entertainment and live days with your habits intertwined, it takes some time to unravel individual proclivities. Our relationship was platonic, and there was an initial foreboding that we weren’t particularly compatible, even for real friendship. Yet when we both sat on a common room couch and I stood up and said, “I’m going to lunch,” she began to put her things away and stood up with me.
“Okay, where to?”
“You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want.” She sat down again, unconsciously a part of my plans, even as we readied to say goodbye.
It was later afternoon when we did. It was a Sunday too so Nelson’s streets were nearly empty. “Goodbye,” she said, and kissed both my cheeks and walked up the hostel stairs, leaving me in the sunlight outside, back again with days all to myself.