Up Front by Emma Hart



by Isabel Hitchings

Long-time PAS commenter Isabel is a resident of the area of Christchurch worst hit by the flooding. I've asked her to share her experiences, and explain what's happened in the area.

We bought our house in 2005, a charming, if slightly run-down, wooden bungalow, a month before my second son was born. The little corner of St Albans it was situated in (which, since last June has been referred to as The Flockton Basin) seemed near to perfect - close to town but not too close, on several handy bus routes, quiet leafy streets. It felt like a safe place to raise our children. And, for almost six years it was exactly that.

The LIM report mentioned a history of flooding but works done in the 1980s to divert Dudley Creek and install a pumping station in Philpotts Road meant that was no longer a concern. I recall remarking with wonder about how much more quickly water drained from our new property than our previous place in Northcote.

When the earthquake of February 22nd struck we were all in the central city and our car was stuck in the Grand Chancellor carpark. It was doubly fortuitous that a friend was able to squeeze us into her car as our street was flooded and impassable. That time the water stopped at the top of the joists beneath the floor.

We moved home a few days later, cleaned and scrubbed and shovelled until our house was a home again. Most of our damage seemed to be cosmetic and, when it took EQC less than a year to complete our repairs, we truly believed we were some of the lucky ones.

That first winter our street flooded severely a couple of times. At first it seemed an interesting novelty to sit in our warm, dry house and watch ducks paddle past the letterbox. We felt lucky (again), and a little guilty, when we discovered some of our neighbours did get water through their houses.

The novelty wore off fast. Surface flooding was a frequent occurrence and there were at least a couple of days each winter that we were simply unable to leave the house and had to miss work and school. On flood days the toilet would bubble ominously and, sometimes, become blocked.

On June 17 2013 we awoke to discover our house had, once more, become an island but, this time, instead of lapping around the steps before receding, the water kept on rising. When the water reached the car's exhaust pipe we called a relative to rescue us in his 4WD but were unable to reach him. When the water started coming through the floorboards we called the council, who told us to call civil defence who told us to dial 111. The fire service told us the water was too deep to get a truck through. They must have changed their minds because, a while later, a fire engine did appear in our street and, after yelling out the window, our family, complete with cat, were driven to safety. That was the only trip they were able to make down our street so some of our neighbours were left in their wet houses. We were out of our house for five weeks and some repairs are yet to be completed.

We are lucky to live in a community of strong, clever and articulate people, Jo Bryne chief among them. Jo has talked to the media, to the council and, to the community frequently since the June floods. At a public meeting Jo organised we were told, by council representatives, that some parts of our area had sunk by up to 500mm, that changed land levels and creeks meant that water drainage had changed radically over a wide area and that remediation, while possible, was a job that would take years due to the scale of the problem.

Since the June floods we have lived at yellow alert. Rain is a constant threat. More than a few drops and we turn the car around in the driveway, positioned for a quick getaway. When puddles form in the carriageway at the end of our drive (the lowest point of the street) we pack clean undies and pyjamas into a getaway bag and start piling belongings onto the dining table.

When it started to rain heavily on Tuesday we were, at least, prepared. My partner left work early to collect our older son from his school, rather than have him bus alone and a friend dropped me and the eight year old home from his (I work there and we usually ride the school bus.) We moved the car and packed a bag and started to clear the floors. At that stage the storm was predicted to be similar to that of June, a one in five year event, so we lifted everything we could to what we believed was a safe level, put our long-suffering cat into her carry cage, and left while there was still a scrap of daylight.

The rain kept going for the best part of another day and many parts of Christchurch experienced severe flooding. When we were able to visit our house this morning the tide line around our weather boards was 16cm above the mark the council made to show the June water levels and we estimate that 18-20cm of water went through our house. Some of our neighbours fared much worse while others stayed dry.

There are no easy answers here. Area wide remediation will be expensive and is not something that can happen in just a few months and raising individual properties will compound problems for their neighbours. Red zoning the area sounds tempting but there were plenty of houses that fared quite well in this week's extreme weather and it wouldn't be fair to force their owners to leave.

It's going to be another long clean up and, for some of us, it all feels like too much. With winter coming and proper remediation years away, even if the council can fast-track it, some people, ourselves included, are finding the thought of moving back to the flood zone hard to bear and the temptation to walk away is strong. That losing the equity on our home would be unpleasant rather than disastrous is yet another way in which we are, in a way, still the lucky ones.


Egypt: It's Complicated

So it turns out the longer I'm home from Egypt, the harder it is to write about. Everything I was going to say becomes hedged around with caveats. I kept telling people how lucky we were, seeing it the way we did, but was it luck? We made a conscious, and on my part pretty much agonised-over, decision, and that was the payoff. No, we didn't get shot, but I'm not sure that was any more of a risk than it would be anywhere else at any other time. 

I'm going to write about the politics elsewhere, so I don't want to get into that too much. I will say, though, that I had to rethink a lot of things once I was actually there, and get a bit embarrassed re: Western paternalism. I will say that if your view is basically "Democracy = Good, Army = Bad", you need to understand that, very broadly, the grassroots democracy movement supports the army and sees it as an ally. There's an Egyptian pop song thanking the army for coming to the aid of the people against Morsi. 

It's complicated. 

To focus on our personal experience, we never felt we were in any danger while we were in Egypt. Yes, there were times when security was heavy and obvious, and our bags were x-rayed and searched at every major tourist site, but it was less intrusive, and far less pointless, than security in transit at Sydney airport, for instance. In Egypt, they do it Because of Reasons. 

Tourism in Egypt is down 80% since the political unrest began. We wandered through tourist infrastructure designed to cope with thousands of visitors a day, practically deserted. Our Nile cruise ship was one of sixteen operating out of a normal four hundred. To see Philae, and the Temple of Hatshepsut, and the Valley of the Kings, in this kind of tranquillity is normally impossible. It was fucking amazing. 

The down side was the touts. So many people in Egypt are dependent on selling tat to tourists in order to survive. Middle-Eastern sales tactics can be intimidating to Westerners at the best of times. At the tourist sites in Egypt, and the souk in Luxor, it was off the wall. 

It was interesting to note who coped with this better. For men who've never been able to understand why women get upset about street harassment, I heartily recommend a visit to an Egyptian tourist market. See how long you can handle, "Hello! Good morning! Where you from? Welcome to Egypt! What's your name? Smile!" from men who will not leave you alone. The women coped better because we already knew not to engage, to keep our heads down and not make eye contact, to stick together and walk briskly. Yes, they're being "nice". Because they want something. For a while we were worried that Egypt would make us permanently rude, automatically dismissive of any friendly gesture. It actually took longer to get used to wearing seatbelts again. 

It was a little better in the Khan-al-Khalili in Cairo, though that might have been the tourist police escort we had with us. One man made considerable headway with our group by throwing open his arms and shouting, "Good morning! How can I take your money?" 

In Egypt I saw things I had dreamed of seeing since I was a child. I visited sites I had studied in the abstract at university. No other country has this appeal for me. We also, because of the way we travelled, got to drink NZ$12 gin and tonics and watch Russian women hobble about archaeological sites in tiny skirts and high heels. Cruising the Nile from Luxor to Aswan is the perfect way to see Egypt, to watch it slowly drift into Africa. 

On our last night in Aswan, after the Sound and Light show at Philae and before a 4:30am start back to Cairo, my travelling companion and my shiny new friend Jackie sat up with me in the lobby of the most beautiful hotel. We had an expensive gin and toasted my mother on the anniversary of her death. 

The tour was made for me by our guide, Hoda Sayeed. When we went to the Egyptian Museum, she took us to see almost everything I had on my list. Everywhere we went, she showed us the things relevant to Hatshepsut, and spun that story out across multiple sites. While I was almost overwhelmed at the Temple of Isis at Philae, she confided that this was her favourite temple. When we tentatively suggested that we found Aswan rather more to our taste than Cairo, she dropped her forehead into her hands and, a native Cairene, said, "Cairo is the worst!" 

She talked to us about politics, about the Nubian land confiscations, about sleeping in Tahrir Square with her mother and using her guiding contacts to get the protesters food. Repeatedly, in answer to our increasingly bold questions, she told us what an arsehole Morsi was and why. By the time we left the tour, I don't think there was one of us who wasn't a little bit in love with Hoda. 

By the time we left, to be honest, I was even starting to love Cairo, with its noise and its filth and its incomprehensible traffic. It was becoming more exciting than terrifying. I would go back in a heartbeat. Hoda says we can stay at her house.


Neither Deep nor Wide

The day we were stuck inside the main tent at Wadi Rum all day because of the rain, our Jordanian tour leader asked me what I did. To keep things simple, I've learned to reply, "I'm a writer," and then try to change the subject almost immediately. 

Too slow. "You will write about Jordan?" he asked me. 

"Oh yes. Yes I will," I said, in the tone of voice that reminds even my closest friends that sometimes I can be kind of a screaming bitch. 

We were having a lovely time in the Bedouin camp. The guys were charming and flirty and plied us with hot sweet tea and dancing. By this stage of the tour, though, some of our group were getting a little uncomfortable. We'd collect at the edges of the fire in twos and threes and murmur, "Where are the women?" For days, the only women we'd seen were other tourists. 

Jordan suffered from a terrible disadvantage for my travelling companion and I. It came after Egypt, where we'd had the most remarkable tour guide. When we'd parted in Cairo, at five in the morning, I'd said to her, "Our Jordanian guide is going to have to work his arse off, after you." 

He didn't. What he did do was give long talks in the bus on Jordanian marriage customs and the Islamic points system. I left Jordan a more committed feminist and atheist. I do try to travel as a guest in a house I have freely chosen to come to; to be gracious and patient and respectful of custom. By the time we left Jordan, if one more guy took my bag, pushed my chair in, or reached around me to give my bill to my male companion, I was going to lose my shit. 

I will do one of the things Basel asked me to do, though. I will assure you that Jordan is safe. We were surprised to find that their tourist industry has suffered almost as badly as Egypt's has, even though Jordan is one of the most peaceful and progressive countries in the Middle East. Tourism is a major source of income, and right now, when a nation of six million is struggling to support a million Syrian refugees, they need the money. Our group was mostly fairly liberal Australians, and Jordan's historic and current attitude to refugees made a mortifying comparison for them. 

Since I've come home, I've tried really hard to not be jaundiced about Jordan. I wasn't angry at Jordan, just disappointed. We went there in the off-season, and we were expecting it to be cold. We weren't really expecting to get rained on in the desert so we had to be moved out of our tents in the middle of the night in case of flash-flooding. We weren't expecting it to be so much harder to get a drink than it had been in Egypt. Our attempts to get a gin and tonic reached near-farcical levels. ("Andrew, the bar is gone! It's just gone. I know it was here because someone's hidden an empty wine fridge by the elevator...") 

Petra was worth it. The site is massive: like Jerash in the north, we're talking about the ruins of an entire city, not just a couple of buildings. Like Jerash, I didn't have the time and energy to see everything I wanted to, hot heavily-mascaraed Bedouin guys aside. The tombs are so weathered they look like they've grown naturally out of the rock. The brilliant colours of the striated stone should be seen, because they're a total bitch to photograph. 

Also, Petra was awesome because there was free internet. Here's something you really need to know about Jordan: there's no 3G. None. Anywhere. Which at least means it doesn't matter that data in Jordan is mind-buggeringly expensive. At our hotel in Wadi Musa, however, they'd give you a day's free internet if you booked in a Turkish Bath. 

The Turkish Bath was heaven. Man. Do that. Unless, I guess, you have issues with being touched in a firm and uncompromising manner by, in my case, a woman who barely came up to my chest. She managed to remove all traces of the six hours of walking I'd done that day, and most of the henna tattoo I got in Aswan. 

Several things gave us culture shock when we arrived in Jordan because they were so different from Egypt. (There was a dog at the airport. It was on a leash. And wearing a coat.) One was the art: the ceramics and the jewellery particularly. So much more ornate and complex and such beautiful colours. Our fellow travellers got used to the sound of me wandering around shops muttering, "No! No more jewellery. No." I did manage to nurse a ceramic bowl all the way back to New Zealand from the mosaic workshop in Madaba. Mosaics are gorgeous, and also very very heavy. 

The Dead Sea was great. I'm not much of a swimmer, but this was basically lounging around in a big wet living room. If floating about there is something you'd like to try, you might want to get on it. At the moment, it's dropping a metre a year. One solution being explored is to pump water in from the Red Sea, but that could also mean an end to the bobbing about. Also, the visible evaporation from the Dead Sea makes for awesome sunset photos. If only there were some sort of blog where I could show you those...


To the Letter

I still enjoy reading your mum's letters. Today's generation are going to miss out on having such personal reminders of their elders as the electronic age takes over. 

I have engaged in some wonderful email correspondence, full of passion and wit and replete with bullshit, but nobody is ever going to find those missives hidden in the bottom of a long-forgotten box. Which in the meantime is just as well, but one day I will be dead, and people will have to forgo the chance of admiring my soul spread out across the page the way I have my mother's this last week. 

Since Mum died, my cousin has occasionally been sending me old letters of my mother's, and our mutual grandmother's. They are just the kind of historical documents I love. They offer glimpses of lost stories, a few brush-strokes of a forgotten painting, They show us change so unself-consciously. Both my mother and grandmother refer to people by the titles my cousin would have used for them – so Nanna calls her daughter and son-in-law "Mum and Dad". It was obviously standard at the time, and now, creepy as fuck. 

One of the things I took from Mum's house was the box full of my letters from uni. I was only sorry that my box full of her letters had rotted in our garage while I wasn't looking. I lost the sad joy of piecing that correspondence back together in its entirety. As it is, I'm left with 'censored for parent' glimpses of my old life, and the memory of my mother complaining about one of my boyfriends on the grounds that, "The last thing this family needs is more genes for big noses." 

My cousin is right about how things have changed. It shows my age that, when my best friend moved to Auckland, we wrote each other letters. I haven't a clue what I said to her, but I retain her tales of mad flatmates and the seeming impossibility of Auckland public transport. That was back when, if we were feeling particularly extravagant, we'd phone each other, after ten when the rates were cheap. 

"Anyway, it seems that is all water under the bridge now, and that you are bringing enlightenment to the sons and daughters of the nobs of St Johns Hill. Hope you are living up to the tone of the suburb."

 There comes a point in our lives when we start to see our parents and grandparents as actual people, who have an existence independent from us. Their letters to their friends are as close as we can get to their unguarded conversations. I have a strong suspicion my mother's late-night chats with her best friends in the forties were an awful lot like mine in the nineties. 

My mother's letters are full of her voice, and scraps of the stories of her life I never knew. They cover her time at Teachers College in Dunedin – she lived at 375 Leith St in 1946, and it looks exactly the same today – and her extended working holiday in Australia to attend the Melbourne Olympics. One details the time she and I travelled from Wellington to Lyttleton on the last sailing of the Rangitira. Oddly, one of my earliest memories is looking down on Wellington Harbour at night and thinking it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. I had a very well-developed aesthetic sense for a four year old. 

And one letter floored me. Ever since I first read it I've wondered what to do with it. It's so personal, but its significance is so much wider than that. I've thought hard about it, and the privacy implications of having the voices of the dead. I want to share it. We're coming up on the time of year which for me is infused with memories of her death, and I want to share her life. The electronic age gives me the ability to pass these words on, and they'll persist in your memories and Google's search results, at least for a while. (The other great thing about paper letters, of course, was that Google was unable to use my mother's private correspondence to sell her cigarettes, gardening tools and parental anxiety.) It was written in 1977, on the occasion of my mother's running away from home. 

I'll leave you with it, and a slight feeling of guilt: I owe my cousin a letter, and I've written this instead. 

I suppose you've heard that I've changed my status to that of solo mother, to the delight of most of my friends. We've been here for just a week and the place has been wonderful. 

Warwick [my brother, seventeen at the time] took a day off work and we made the move in the afternoon after I had finished work and were well clear of the place before his lordship arrived home. I think I covered my tracks pretty well and had lulled him into a false sense of security by planting things in the garden right up to the time we left. A few people know we are here now, but I don't think any of them are likely to tell him. Still I get a funny feeling when the door bell rings occasionally. 

The neighbourhood is good and the houses to either side of us have beautiful gardens – some consolation where there's nothing to look at in your own. 

Emma hasn't had to change her school but has quite a bit further to walk. Our furnishings are a bit spartan, but being without TV has made me much more familiar with radio. 

I have applied for a Housing Corporation loan, dragging in Nanna as one of my dependents, but don't know how it will go. I seem to spend my afternoons running from there to Social Welfare, to my lawyer, to the landlord's lawyer and back again. Consequently some of our boxes are still not unpacked. 

Warwick got a bit sick of stand-up lunches (always seemed to finish up with tomato sauce on his overalls) so on Friday night we went to town and bought a second-hand kitchen table, small enough to fit in the boot of the car, for $8. 

The sun is valiantly trying to get through and I must away to town and see about Nanna's phone bill and pay Emma's insurance. I'm told it may be a month before our phone is connected so that makes extra running about. 

Excuse brevity, 




Good Friends

Nobody wants to be an arsehole by accident. Arseholery should be deliberate: calculated, stylish, and above all deserved. The last thing you want to do, while trying to help, is say something crashingly stupid and hurt someone you care about. 

The higher the stakes, the more your friend needs support, the worse it is. What do you say? When it comes to grief, or the stress of dealing with serious illness, this post on Ring Theory is something I've found really helpful, as a way of codifying what's Wrong and why: 

When talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking, but if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort in, dump out. 

What I want to talk about here is how all of those things apply when you're dealing with a friend who's in an abusive relationship. After Mum died, we talked about this a lot, the things people had said and done. It's something I know I've fucked up in the past, and I regret that so much. I didn't know what to say, and what to do. Now I do, and I've learned it the way I've learned everything else: the hard way. I am living in a relationship which has been abusive. 

I'm not going to talk specifically about my own situation, partly because I am utterly sick of doing so. But let me offer my hard-won wisdom on how to not Fuck Up talking to someone in my position.

Please be aware that I'm speaking in general terms here, and not everything I'm talking about has actually happened to me. This is about what is typical, and some of my experience is not typical.

Let's say you've just found out a friend is in a relationship which is abusive. I'm going to assume you found out from your friend, but if you didn't, your first step should be to talk to them. Don't take anyone else's word, especially their abuser's. That's not to imply that the person who told you is lying, but you should show your friend that you value their perspective and their voice.

You're going to have a whole bunch of Feelings. Shock. Guilt that you didn't spot it sooner. Anger, at a whole bunch of stuff. Awkwardness. Fear and worry. You're allowed to feel all the feels. You're not allowed to feel them at your friend. They have enough to deal with. Dump out, but respect their privacy while you do it. 

The abuse is news to you. It's not new for your friend. You'll want something to be done right away. The abuse has most likely been going on for the entirety of the relationship. Let that sink in. It'll make your friend's current attitude much more understandable. For them, nothing has changed. 

Believe. And take them seriously. Don't think, "Well that doesn't sound abusive, really." Most abuse does not leave bruises. Have a look at Women's Refuge's relationship quiz. Note how many questions are about physical violence: one. Also, note how many are gender-specific: none. I want to highlight these three: we'll come back to them. 

When it comes to my partner, I feel like I can’t do anything right. 

My partner tells me that I couldn’t do any better because I’m too ugly/fat/stupid/lazy. 

I feel like my partner would be much happier if it was just the two of us all the time. 

On average, it takes seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship. Don't think this is going to be a week where you help them leave, and then everything will be happily ever after. This is going to be a long process. It's going to be hard. At any point, it's allowed to be Too Hard. You're under no obligation to destroy yourself trying to be supportive. 

Here's the most important thing I need you to understand: advice is not support. That's a tough one. I love giving advice. Look at me doing it right now. But advice is not support. Your friend knows their situation better than you do. Yes, whatever it is, they've thought about it. They actually do know what's at stake, thanks. There are organisations with enormous experience in this area, which offer counselling and advice. They don't offer friendship, because that's not their job. It's yours. 

Never, ever say, "You should just leave." Look at those three statements from the quiz up there. Abuse is about control. Part of that involves undermining the victim's confidence. Their abuser makes them feel stupid, scared of doing or saying the wrong thing. They may practice gaslighting: telling someone their perceptions of events are wrong, or that abusive incidents simply didn't happen. An abuse victim may find themselves completely unable to make the smallest decision, lost to themselves as a person. 

When I talked to a woman from Refuge, she asked me questions, listened to me intelligently, and then said, "Keep on doing what you're doing." She made me feel stronger, like I was a capable adult whose decisions should be respected, including my decision to stay. How do you think, "You should just leave," makes me feel? 

(Actually, I can tell you. It feels like when someone tells a depressed person to "cheer up", or when a man lectures women on "common sense" precautions to avoid being raped. Like that.) 

Offer help in concrete ways. Don't say, "Whatever I can do to help," unless you actually mean it. (I, personally, like to call those bluffs, just to see the obvious blind panic.) Say things like, "If you need to leave in a hurry, phone me and I'll come and pick you up." Or, "We have a spare bed if you need a break." Or, "Can I take the kids out for the afternoon?" If you don't know what they want, ask them. Put your friend in control. 

You can be supportive just by sticking around. Abusers like to isolate their victims socially. Strong support networks make both staying and leaving so much easier. Offer to take your friend out. Make them laugh, if that's the role you play in the Friend Group. Stress relief is vital. Sometimes, not Talking About It is vital. Just be there. 

Eventually, your friend might leave, or they might not. There's nothing you can do about that. You can't make someone leave if they're not ready to. It's not your fault, because it's not about you. Just be there. Please.