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Straight Lines

October 11, 2014

One of the most confronting aspect of moving from Christchurch to Wellington is that nothing is in the right place. More exactly, I know where things are and how to get to them, but if I try to imagine a map from the standard overhead perspective I realise that my mind has developed its very own projection of the city.

Christchurch is flat. Christchurch is square. If you want to get to over there, you simply point roughly towards it and continue on. Missing your turn is no problem, there’s always the next block. You get lost in places where every road is filled with identical subdivided townhouses and the Port Hills are too far away to use as a marker. The Avon and the one-way system try their best to let us pretend things are more complicated but their hearts aren’t really in it.
Wellington is curved. The waterfront curves, the ground itself curves towards the sky in inconvenient ways, the tiny roads curve around in unpredictable directions. Things can be ‘close’ but extremely difficult to get between. “You can’t get there from here” is understandable in this context, but also you can always see a relevant bit of the city and so you have no need for a compass.

Civic 'Square'

Civic ‘Square’

So to reconcile this difference my brain seems to distort the city into a nice regular, square grid. I can’t exactly explain it – how well can you explain your sense of direction? – but if you can imagine forcing the waterfront to be a straight line and determining everything else from there you’d be somewhere close. There is ‘uphill’ and ‘downhill’ from the water, and there’s ‘up and down’ where ‘up’ is the Parliament end of town and ‘down’ is Courtenay Place. Easy. To me.

In the times I visited Wellington before, this system always seemed to work. And I never really expected to know where everything was. I’d been to various bars and had absolutely no idea where they were in relation to anything else, but that didn’t matter. So when I first started trying to actually figure out where things were this messed up geography kind of frustrated me. Wellington’s tiny, why can’t I just figure out the map in my head? Especially trying to explain where places were: actually walking someone to a place would be faster than my crazy explanations where none of my landmarks are actually landmarks.

But now, I’m starting to enjoy having my stupid wrong picture. It’s my own thing, and it stands in opposition to the ridiculous, magical powers of GPS and Google in my pocket. I don’t want to follow my path from God’s point of view, or wander along with my eyes on the same old screen. I want to experience the meandering streets and know I’m going the right way, but madly over or underestimating how long it will take. I kind of love trying to take shortcuts on foot and realising I’ve just added a massive detour. The hills help too, because a feeble 2-D map provides all sorts of false hopes before you realise that the ‘straight’ line home is over two big hills.

Maybe it’s also some kind of childhood nostalgia from growing up in Hong Kong. I really have no idea where any of the places I used to go are (or more accurately were) in Hong Kong, but I remember climbing up hills, exploring secret pathways, the hidden places that the allowing a third dimension into your city planning literally give rise to. In the flatlands everything is out in the open. Although you never go beyond the fences there are somehow fewer secrets. But when you have a terrifyingly steep staircase to house number 48 that you can’t even see from the road, anything is possible. How far down the gully can a house be? How do you get into that place? What’s in that little gap between this level and the next street up? I love these mysteries.

It’s also helped by walking everywhere. Bussing, driving, running, cycling, walking, each way of taking the same route seems to create its own landmarks and its own geography. The contorted bus route down from Northland is far longer and drearier than it needs to be. The cycle wants to be longer to save wear on the brakes. By foot is when you are slow and safe enough to notice the interesting places.

The bliss of peering down the steep access ways and wondering where the houses are that go with a row of semi-abandoned garages at the bottom of a cliff are worth the extra-long wanders at 2am when I don’t really care about getting home half an hour late. I’m also starting to get over the feeling of being encased and trapped that was so strong for the first few weeks: as if there’s no space for anything, everyone is so cramped, escaping to open country seems impossible. It’s been a common theme in my psychology since moving that the things you give up are gone instantly and easy to miss, while the things I’ll end up loving take time to discover and appreciate.

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