Wanaka people are generally more attractive, more intelligent, better educated, healthier, wealthier, and whiter than their counterparts in most New Zealand communities. And, given the low crime rate, more privileged. Wanaka’s current version of a graffiti artist is a mystery knitter (affectionately known as ‘knitsy’) who adorns lamp-posts with her (his?) delightful creations in the middle of the night.
And there are so many interesting people around the place; cafe workers who turn out to be bright, intriguing travellers from elsewhere who have changed their plans and decided to stay. I vividly recall a wealthy Italian enjoying her annual holiday after grinding out long working days back home for most of the year. I happened to notice her one evening standing alone, staring at the lake and mountains. Perhaps she was thinking of nothing more exciting than getting her washing done, but her wistful expression suggested an inner struggle to justify not returning home.
I know two unrelated people who came here on holiday and, to the consternation of their partners, refused to return home. They were fortunate to have enough money to ride out the financial adjustment and are now settled, with their partners. But interesting jobs that pay well are hard to find. One man had retired early with a golden handshake when the government department he headed in England was disestablished. He fell in love with Wanaka and the notion of a non stressful part-time job to give his life structure. When the scarcity of suitable jobs finally hit home, he resorted to cleaning hotel rooms. Although poorly paid, cleaning offers hours-to-suit and apparently some job satisfaction. That’s my conclusion after talking to a retired police prosecutor and a retired historian, both now part-time cleaners. To complete the picture, I know a married couple who retired from their teaching jobs (very early) to come to Wanaka and stack shelves in the supermarket.
It’s the mountains, lakes and rivers that draw people, and the weather. Winter is usually harshly cold but dry, and there are four distinct seasons for nature to parade its finery. The fact that so many well educated and talented people accept relatively menial jobs makes for a relaxed and interesting social mix; shades of the New Zealand egalitarian dream. Of course, cleaners and coffee-makers who rely on their jobs for their sole income may disagree.
Oddly, since there are many young, low-paid workers excluded from the bounties of the beautiful lifestyle, there are no obvious downmarket residential areas. Not all houses are of a high standard by any means but all are expensive. Which is probably why so many once hopeful families leave again. Nevertheless, most families living in this tourist area are comfortably off.
I attended a concert at my grandchildren's’ primary school at Hawea Flat, about ten kilometres from Wanaka. The event was so well attended by parents (and proud grandparents) there was no standing room left, latecomers had to watch through the windows. The brown, auburn, fair, and blonde-haired children, plus the two red-heads and one Asian child with darker skin and black hair, is not exactly a multicultural mix but certainly typical in these parts.
I’m glad my grandchildren live in such a sheltered, caring, well-off community. I just wish all children enjoyed similar opportunities. I wonder if one or two of those golden-headed children went home to stressed, hard-up parents? And if so, would they be better off in a relatively deprived community, where big houses, private music lessons and weekend skiing were not taken for granted by their classmates? I don’t know. But I do know that wealth and opportunity divides children into social classes. There I go again, perversely injecting my class analysis and spoiling a lovely picture. I blame it on the honours season for leaving me feeling tetchy. Remember when John Key invited honoured New Zealanders to trade-in their medals and ribbons for knighthoods? I still haven’t got over their unseemly haste to adorn themselves with titles.
But back to Wanaka where few people are too proud to be a cleaners. Which is remarkable really. Because some of them come from Europe and the UK where social inhibitions would prevent them from doing ‘menial’ work. Perhaps it’s the mountains, lakes and rivers and the clean air that allows them to breathe deeply and think for themselves.