Before I moved to New Zealand, I imagined that most Kiwis spent their days picking apples and shearing sheep. I now realize the foolishness of my preconceptions. Most New Zealanders spend their days sailing, surfing, skiing, tramping, mountain biking, road biking, jogging, kayaking, climbing up rocks, rafting down rivers, bungy-jumping and skydiving. If they have any time left, they go to work. Or fishing.
Because I have only experienced a couple of these sporting activities -- one of which is tramping -- I clearly belong in the lowest socio-physical bracket of the New Zealand populace: couch-potato/invalid. This can be quite debilitating when it comes to conversation at New Zealand dinner parties.
In order to cope, I have developed a strategy which involves randomly injecting my sentences with words such as: 'Ironman', 'coast-to-coast', 'pumping surf' or 'icy slopes'. Then, while everyone else is busy talking, I spend the next two hours in my host's wine cellar. In between bottles, I emerge to catch snippets of athletic-type dialogue, such as: "... those adrenalin injections are great when your body gives up on you after a hundred kilometres". I nod, feign interest, and then drift off into an alcohol-induced haze -- dreaming of meeting people who read books from time to time.
Unlike my New Zealand-born friends, I didn't emerge from the womb with a rugby ball in one hand and a hockey stick in the other. Exercise in Germany was slightly more sedate. There was an annual skiing trip to Switzerland, and the odd martial arts class, but that's about it.
I once attended a gym, but the brain-deadening dullness hardly seemed worth it for the miniscule gain in muscle-tone. I did, however, cycle everywhere: to school, the cinema, and work. But, of course, this was never counted as exercise -- just a sensible means of transportation (ask any Dutch people, they have the same strange habit).
I know it seems inconceivable to New Zealanders, but I didn't stand on a surfboard until my late thirties. The occasion, I am now slightly embarrassed to recollect, was called the Roxy Surf Jam. It involved 40 lithe teenage girls from Sumner and myself. Three weeks previously I had given birth to my second son, and in my black wetsuit I resembled a small whale who had inadvertently swallowed an inflatable boat. Whoever said that girls look great in wetsuits clearly didn't see me on that day. The same can be said for lycra, by the way.
Since then I have frequently wondered what could be done to improve my sporting abilities, and turn me into a fully-integrated member of New Zealand society. The answer came from an unexpected quarter: Kiwi Boot Camp.
Boot camp is a new exercise programme based on tried-and-true military techniques. It consists of hardcore physical activity: three times a week, rain or shine. If anything would turn me into a proper New Zealander -- then this was it. Boot camp involves: running in line with your field kit, crawling through mud, and standing at attention. Boot camp does not involve: stepping, dancing, prancing, or wearing silly pink aerobics gear.
According to the promotional material, five weeks of boot camp would "improve my fitness by 70 per cent". Boot camp would make me sweat like a soldier -- at dawn, in the middle of winter, and without lycra. Boot camp would "change my life" and get me "closer to the group".
What more could I ask for? I signed up for a trial session.
On a sunny Saturday morning, I found myself in Christchurch's Hagley Park with three paramilitaristic instructors. Our 'platoon' consisted of four middle-aged women, now called 'recruits'. The instructors began to shout orders at us recruits: requiring us to march, stand still, bend our knees, run, throw ourselves down in the mud, jump up, bend our knees again. After 30 seconds my pulse rate had reached medically-hazardous levels. "Faster, recruits!" yelled the instructor sadistically -- his thumbs hooked into the waistband of his combat pants.
Next we were forced to do 30 push-ups -- five times in a row. I began to understand the full meaning of the expression 'War is hell'. "Pull your elbows back!" barked the instructor. Decades of yelling at recruits had inflated his neck muscles until they were bigger than his shaved head. At any moment, I expected him to pull a hood over my eyes, tie my hands behind my back, and ship me off to Guantanamo Bay. In fact, it would have been a relief.
Surprisingly, I survived.
The next morning I wanted to brush my hair, but my hands would only move up as far as my shoulders. Overnight I had developed a previously-unknown medical condition which I dubbed 'horizontal paralysis'. To brush my teeth or hold a fork was difficult and painful. To reach upwards, for instance to the food shelf, was virtually impossible.
My family, who should have been tending to me in my crippled state, showed no sympathy whatsoever: "No arms, no biscuits!" Germans can be so cruel.
Through a haze of pain, and the vestiges of yesterday's pseudo-military activities, a sudden thought occurred to me. Maybe I should take up shooting? After all, it is an Olympic sport. Not to mention an interesting opportunity to get even with uncaring family members, boring exercise-nuts at dinner parties, lithe teenage surf-chicks, and sadistic boot-camp instructors.