Smith Sister Sendoff: a stupendous surrogate family

Peel back the plain-jane surname, and you’ll discover diamonds better known as Andrea, Veronica, and Louise. I’ll begin at the beginning with Andrea — a serendipitous friendship kindled on the lawn outside a rural school in the New Zealand mountains. Gorgeous, laid-back, hilarious-without-even-trying. A sense of calm and an infectious breeze of happiness follow her everywhere she goes. Each time our paths crossed in the shadow of mutual friends and hangouts, I found myself grinning ear to ear.

Goat Island – the name doesn’t do it justice!

The Gods of Luck smiled upon us when we descended on Auckland one final time. We spent a sunny day at Leigh by the Sea snorkeling around Goat Island — a place fifteen times more beautiful than its name. Could it get better? Enter the Smith Sisters!

Andrea had agreed to help us find space to sort out our van and introduce us to her wonderful family. It took a few days to figure out who’s who in this energetic bunch. We spent our first nights helping Andrea house-sit at her sister Louise’s wonderful shed-turned-studio. We whipped up Thai Green Curry for dinner and got to meet Veronica (sister #2) and Louise’s daughter Kathryn. In between removing all our possessions from the Mazda Bongo, cleaning it, sorting out our things, and putting Operation Minimalist into high gear — we had an absolute blast! We were lucky enough to be talked into attending a family birthday party for a one-year-old boy. It was an adult afternoon fiesta in disguise, which segued into an all-night dance party when Jess turned up with “bubbles” back home!

the all-night dance party – the broom was lonely!

Louise and her partner Cyril turned up just in time for the final game of the Rugby World Cup the next day. Louise is a bundle of energy, always smiling, always full of positive quips, and full of the practicality about life common to all three Smith Sisters. To see the final rugby match (“test”), we went to “the club” – a.k.a. The Trotting Club — a private establishment where they all hang out. The game was intense, but New Zealand won again France! We made plans to go to the “classic,” historic countryside pub at Puhoi (poo-hoy, rhymes with boy) before going home. In the morning, we piled into Louise’s 1940’s Wolseley and were chauffeured through stunning countryside along the coastline up to the pub! We spent the entire, sunny, Labor Day afternoon drinking cold ones, chatting with friendly strangers, and singing along to Cyril’s guitar strumming. The day ended perfectly — we transferred all our stuff to Veronica’s and began days of “flattie fun!” (Roommates are called “flatties” here, since a rental is often referred to as a flat).

The crew, Veronica, myself, Kathryn, Andrea, and Louise – GREAT WOMEN!

Veronica is an amazing person who’s got flair with a capital F! She’s funny, with a streak of sarcasm a mile wide, and a ridiculously wonderful fashion sense — a woman after my own heart! We spent incredible evenings unwinding with a glass of wine, sharing fabulous meals, and swapping commentary on our days and life in general. She has a well-meaning, loud cat named Leo (or Mogwai for his funny ears) and a wonderful dog name Zeeta (whom I LOVED walking). We even got to meet her gentle, old horse — Ben!

We spent our days at Veronica’s doing what we could around the house and executing Mission: Wrap Up a Year of Life in New Zealand. At first it involved two trips into Auckland (Veronica lives 30 minutes north of the city). One was insanely stressful, but it did result in selling my backpack to a desk clerk and re-discovering Gumtree — the New Zealand version of Craigslist. The second was supposed to be a long day of van showings on the city streets. However, the first shoppers bought it! Celebration! Luckily, everyone was already coming over to Veronica’s for tacos that night!

Goodbye, Bongo! We miss you already!

Adjusting to life without a car went fairly smoothly. We hitched the four miles into Kumeu for seven days of our stay, spending 6 to 8 hours at a stretch doing internet chores. If this were 1970, instead we would have been going to travel agencies (Where to next? I’m composing this entry on a plane to   the Philippines! ), reading lots of books, pouring over paper bank statements, and making lots of telephone calls. I nearly did my head in spending so many hours “connected,” but ‘vale la pena!’ (Spanish for “it was worth it” or literally – “the pain has value.”) Our hitches home provided a refreshing end to an otherwise mind-numbing day. Of memorable note: the Indian man, the rifle-with-silencer-toting Bogan, race-car-driving Justin, Mr. Blue-eyes-and-thickest-lashes-ever, Mr. Flash-car-I-own-a-winery-just-going-to-pick-up-my-pure-bred, and Michelle who is a television personality on New Zealand’s 60-minutes. The one day I hitched alone (sorry Mom and Dad!) the nicest men EVER gave me rides. Going into town was a concrete contractor who stopped to buy me a basket of strawberries (and two for himself), and the ride home was Neil from England in his red convertible. Score!

Pat with our table-buddies at Puhoi

Somehow, we also managed to fit in heaps more fun! For example: an evening at Andrea’s daughter Shannon’s watching hilarious late-night kiwi television with Shannon and her hubby; another-child’s-birthday-turned-all-night-fiesta at Jess and Luke’s house; dancing by the firelight with Jess and Charlene; another trip out to the historic Puhoi pub; a sunny afternoon dancing outside with my sweetie at the award-winning Riverhead Tavern and enjoying the tidal flow; dressing up as Pebbles from the Flinstones and handing out candy on Halloween to kiwi kids; watching the Melbourne cup (only THEE biggest horse race in the southern hemisphere — what? You’ve never heard of it?); helping tote around the leavings from Louise’s professionally removed trees; and catching howling gusts in the mainsail of Allegra, the boat we worked on when we first came to New Zealand!

The woman who started it all!

Two complaints: 1) Outrageous sums charged by the postal service to ship $1,400 worth of backpacking gear back to the states (it cost over TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS for thirty pounds!). 2) Wine on the lips doesn’t look great on the hips. I’ve been recently awed by   A personal trainer temporarily traded his healthy lifestyle for the traditional American schtick so he’ll be better able to empathize with his clients. He thought he’d gain 50 to 60 pounds in six months on a regime of no exercise, sugary cereals, recipes out of cans, etc. He gained at least 75.   I can attest that three weeks of slacking on exercise, nightly glasses of wine, and too many hungry-and-not-prepared situations have already taken a ten-pound toll! Yikes!

But back to how awesome the Smith Sisters are and how hard they made it to leave New Zealand. Our last day was full of nostalgia, excitement, and sadness. We finished it off with an amazing Seafood Chowder a la Veronica, swapped stories with V, Andrea, Kathryn, Louise, and Cyril all night, and finally started working on our video to apply for the Amazing Race! It was hard to leave in the morning — to say goodbye to our wonderful “flattie” and to Amazing Andrea — and not shed a few tears. We’ll miss you, our little surrogate family! ♣

Photos on Facebook – click here!


  • November 16, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    You’re a talent! Is it a good or bad thing, that I have such humerous scarcasm???? I truely didn’t know that about myself. Love you, Jem, and miss you both.

    Your flattie – V xx

    • November 24, 2011 at 7:24 am

      A good thing! You’re hilarious! Miss you – Manila is crazy!

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