“So…you’re not from around here…”

Sometimes there is just no hiding the fact that I’m not from around these parts.

I think I blend in quite well visually but the game is given away before I can even finish the first sentence that comes out of my mouth.

It has been one of those weeks when everyone seems to have picked it. Yesterday, for example, I went to Dudley’s local Territorial Army headquarters and spoke to a couple of recruits about why they had become TA soldiers. Before I was done, one of them said: “So, you’re not from around here then. Where are you from?” Less than an hour later I got a similar question from one of their senior officers.

Later I spoke to a local beer brewer and, after he asked me where I was from, he spent a number of minutes telling about his children who had been to New Zealand. It is nice how most people I speak to here have some connection to New Zealand – whether it be relatives living there or even having been there for a holiday themselves and being pleased to be given the opportunity to chat about it.

Last night I was on late duty and was chatting to the commander at one of the local fire stations. I’d not spoken to him before and as soon as I’d introduced myself he politely but curiously asked me where I had come from. “I’m originally from New Zealand,” I replied, quick to add the regular excuse: “but I’ve been here for about five years”.
“Lovely,” he said before asking if I was enjoying The Midlands.

Most of the time I don’t mind being a bit different and having people want to know about where I am from. But at times it can be frustrating.

Like the time I was in a previous newsroom and was asked to call an elderly ex-MP and ask him about his thoughts on previous prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s legs. Strange story, yes, but let me explain where it had come from.
I had been at a village meeting the night before where an ex-diplomat who had worked under Thatcher, had allowed himself to get a bit carried away – perhaps not realising the girl at the back of the hall had a notebook and was scribbling more and more furiously as he did so – on the subject of the Iron Lady’s “lovely legs”.

So I found myself seeking comment from someone more local who had also been in the political game at the same time and asking for his thoughts on Margaret Thatcher’s legs. There was just one problem: apparently I don’t say “legs” the way most English people do.

So our conversation went around and around in circles as he kept repeating “ligs? What do you mean?” and I kept repeating, more and more urgently: “No, LEGS!” In the end, with my chief reporter and news editor beside me both struggling not to laugh too loudly, I had to give up.

Then there was the time I first moved here when I paid my power bills over the phone. To do that, I needed to use an automated system and read out various numbers – bill amounts, card details and the like. After the first few failed attempts where the lady’s voice said she couldn’t understand me and then I got cut off, I began to try to read out the words and numbers the way I thought an English person would. It worked – but it was such an effort!

Meanwhile, this part of the country isn’t without its own challenging accents. Soon after I arrived one of my colleagues asked me what I thought of the accents and if I found them difficult to understand at times. I said they were fine. She said: “You’ve not come across the Gornal accent yet then…” A few days later I found out what she meant when interviewing a lovely couple about their golden wedding anniversary. I struggled to understand what the husband was telling me. Not only was the accent like nothing I’d ever heard before, but there were different words for things as well. He was very kind and patient, however, and decided he would let his wife speak and that might help things. Well, she had lived in Gornal for longer than he had and, while she tried her best to make things better, they were actually even worse! But I’ll get better at it.

I still don’t quite understand why, after more than five years in the UK and only one trip back to New Zealand in that time, I still sound like a Kiwi. Maybe it’s one of those accents that never completely disappear. Meanwhile, I quite like the kindness and curiosity it provokes here in The Midlands and I’m enjoying being a Midlands Kiwi.

The Elusive Midlands Kiwi

kiwizoneJust before Christmas I went to Dudley Zoo. The zoo is built on a hill in the centre of the town and an 11th century castle looks over the animals and their visitors.

It was a bitterly cold day and the lemurs tried to climb onto my head but it was a great zoo. I was given a guided tour by the zoo’s chief executive who showed me various animals including some wonderful flamingoes and, among my favourites, the penguins. The little oblong birds cheerfully waddled around then dipped and dived into their massive pool, seemingly unbothered by the freezing temperature of the water.

IMG-20130203-02713And last weekend I went to West Midlands Safari Park at Bewdley. The park, like the zoo, was brilliant. My travelling companion and I were able to drive around and be harassed by various breeds of animals, including camels, giraffes and various types of antelope. We also got close to lions, tigers and would have got close to see the cheetahs – if they’d been a bit keener to see us.IMG-20130203-02709

There was just one thing missing at what were two great animal sanctuaries in the heart of The Midlands: A kiwi.

I don’t mean me or the tangy green fruit that also shares the name. I mean my home country’s little feathered mascot.

The kiwi has struggled in recent decades against predators such as dogs, stoats and ferrets. Of five kiwi species, one is critically endangered, one endangered and two classified as vulnerable, but I felt sure there must be a zoo or animal conservation place somewhere in The Midlands looking after one.

So, in an effort to track down any kiwis of the feathered flightless variety in this region, I googled “kiwi” plus “Midlands” searching for any record of them having set foot in these fine lands. What I found was disappointing. Dozens of businesses: Kiwi IT, Kiwi Maintenance, Kiwi Design and Print and Kiwi Windows in the Midlands. Further south there is even a giant kiwi carved by homesick kiwi troops after World War One on a hill overlooking an army camp at Bulford but no evidence of the real thing.

So I asked a contact at Dudley Zoo if it had ever had a kiwi or if they knew of where I might see one in The Midlands. This was the response I received:

“I’ve had a word with one of our curators and apparently we have had them in the past but they are very difficult to acquire.

“I believe the NZ government restricts overseas breeding programmes and just a handful of zoos across the world hold them within their collections. Frankfurt, Netherlands and San Diego are I believe among about a dozen centres.”

So it appears we kiwis are very difficult to acquire.

I think The Midlands should have a kiwi and I’d like to try and think of a way to make it happen. With such a fine collection of other animals in the region’s animal sanctuaries, a kiwi would be a great addition and The Midlands could be the only part of the UK to have one. Still, I can’t think of anywhere better than The Midlands to look after these rare little birds. I’ve certainly felt at home here.

Food in the Midlands – second to naan

SL1711092_3 rationsDSC04611One of the first things I’ve learned in the Midlands is how passionate people are about their curry. Everyone has a favourite curry house and will proudly sing its praises. Recently a special curry fan and I sought recommendations for somewhere to eat in the area so I asked a local MP.

He came up with five or six suggestions from his favourites and then made the debate public on twitter, prompting another flurry of responses. It seemed everyone knew a great curry house where my curry companion and I could be well-fed for a good price.

It was my latest experience with food in the Midlands – a bit different to a rather inauspicious first experience a few years ago.

I have had two periods of residence in the Midlands. When I first arrived in the UK, my first job was in Gloucestershire and it was here, as a brand new Midlands Kiwi, that I was introduced to the relationship between Brits and their food.

Looking for the local supermarket, the first large building with food in it I saw was, strangely, called Iceland. But when I went inside I spent ten minutes wandering around like a lost puppy before leaving the store empty-handed, slightly dazed and wondering if fresh fruit and vegetables were simply in very short supply and I would have to develop a taste for frozen chicken tikka pizza or mandarin cheesecake.

When I asked a colleague, I was introduced to the British supermarket hierarchy. Certain supermarkets were seen as the domain of the well-heeled, others were seen as middle-of-the-road and those remaining were only for milk and chips (which I believe are called crisps here) in an emergency.

There is an obsession with food here – not just in the Midlands but in the UK. People’s pride in their local balti restaurant is the good side of this. But the obsession cuts both ways. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to rely on TV to pass the time, you’ll know that food dominates – whether it is Jamie Oliver’s latest cooking instruction or that one where they make the fat person and the thin person swap diets. It also extends to print. I’ve just read a Sunday paper with at least three columns dedicated to food (not including the usual cooking pages).

This combines with an obsession with bargains. You can buy three pots of pasta sauce for the price of two – even though you’ll never eat the third before it turns yuck. Then there was the time where a special guest and I decided to get dinner at the local chippy (a word I didn’t know before I arrived here, by the way) and were surprised to find it cheaper to buy two cod and chips meals than to buy two cod and one serving of chips to share. The food was excellent but, for someone used to buying only what I am sure I can eat, the relationship between pricing and quantity is a bit bemusing.

And then there is the strange concept of battered chips…