A few months go, the Munich artist Tommy Schmidt invited me to be part of his project “Weltreise München“. The concept, he explained over a beer at the Gorilla Bar, is that one does not have to fly long distances to visit other countries. It’s possible to travel the world without leaving Munich, because the world has come to Munich. An audience of eight, plus Tommy and a driver, would cycle from place to place on a 10-seater tandem bike, and at each destination experience a different country.
Naturally I said yes to this really interesting project, and on Sunday 19th Andy and I welcomed the travellers into our apartment. They were fresh off the bike from New York (in the neighbouring suburb of Schwabing) and after New Zealand they pedalled off to Iceland, a few minutes ride away.
In New Zealand we served freshly baked scones, and wine from the Waihopai Valley in Marlborough. I showed objects and pictures, and told stories: from my own life, historical information, Maori legends and excerpts from playwright Reneé’s memoir and my sister’s book about her three years of WWOOFing round NZ. Behind me on the TV, the video of an Austrian couple’s long and thorough tour of New Zealand played, and behind that, on the far back wall of the living room, a slideshow of depressing statistics played. I wanted to show that, despite most Germans imagining Aotearoa as a paradise, environmentally pure and socially perfect, we have problems just like everywhere else. Did you know that more than half of our rivers and lakes are too polluted to swim in, let alone drink? That we have more threatened indigenous species than anywhere else in the world? And that we have the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world? Underneath the “clean, green” image that is presented to the world lie some ugly truths.
It was really interesting to research and prepare for this performance-presentation. I was already aware of the damning social and environmental statistics, the negative impacts of colonisation, the violence and so on; but I did not have the statistics at the tip of my fingers. Thanks to the internet, it’s not difficult to find information; and it’s unfortunately quite depressing. Tommy asked for music suggestions for their cycling soundtrack, and one song I proposed was Blam Blam Blam’s “There is no Depression in New Zealand” – just as relevant today if not more than when it was released in the 1980s. Did you know that we have the highest reported rate of intimate partner violence in the developed world? That 32% of Maori, and 40% of Pacific peoples, are living in significant or sever hardship? Is this acceptable, in a country that many in the wider world percieve as ideal, something to aspire to? Add to that growing income equality (the wealthiest 10% own more than 50% of the country’s wealth), continuing degradation of the environment by the dairy industry (in almost every environmental measure including the marine environment) and rapidly expanding tourist numbers (an increase of 40% in the last four years), and Aotearoa loses some of its shine.
Of course it’s not all bad news, and we still have much to be happy about. We are still small enough, and honest enough, to be able to engage in public discussions about racism and to take rapid action in some instances such as gun control. We have a prime minister who is not afraid to say that capitalism is a blatant failure and a government that is prioritising kindness and wellbeing. These are difficult concepts to move from nice words to real action, but it’s significant that the words have been spoken and that even small steps are being taken. And on a personal level, the project has been an opportunity for me to reflect on my own life, the many moments and decisions that have led to me being here in Munich and giving this performance, and to select which glimpses of my life to share with a roomful of strangers whose own lifetimes of moments and decisions have led to them cycling to New Zealand on this sunny Sunday afternoon.
The Weltreise München travellers listened intently, they laughed and smiled, they were shocked by the statistics, and they loved the scones and wine. Hosting is important in New Zealand, I told them; when visitors come they must always be offered something, and being able to whip up a batch of scones at a moment’s notice is – or rather, used to be – a necessary skill for a kiwi housewife. Speaking of kiwis, we talked about the bird and the fruit – known as chinese gooseberries when I was a kid – as well as the people. Many questions were asked about our wildlife, about Maori culture, the geography of the land, and of course tourist tips – when is the best time to visit? and what are the must-see places?
Finally, they cycled off to Iceland where a choral performance awaited them. They’d already enjoyed Chopin from the pianist in New York and would later learn about a Nepalese wedding – a good balance of music and talking. It really was a Weltreise (world journey – you can read the Pedalhelden blog post here) and I guess they will still be feeling jet-lagged a few days later!