“A short black, a long black and a flat white”, I half expected the sentence to continue, “walked into a bar”. However, this wasn’t yet another variation on the classic bar joke but three of the ways that Kiwis enjoy their morning cup of joe. Amused, I put down the guidebook after reading, ‘What to Drink in New Zealand’. Living in New Zealand was going to be fun!
Coffee was foremost on our minds back in March of 2013, when Mr. Bill and I finally checked in at the Domestic Terminal, after a madcap dash around Auckland during the morning rush hour. We desperately needed caffeine and had I not read the guidebook, Mr. Bill would have ordered two regulars, one skim, instead of two flat whites, one trim. (I like the fact that I’m trim.)
One might well wonder what sane person, would leave the airport to travel the short distance between the International and Domestic terminals, via the congested neighborhoods of Auckland. Yet that is precisely what Mr. Bill did on our first trip to New Zealand. Lest you think Mr. Bill insane, this is what all locum tenens must do, upon arriving in New Zealand. Before he could begin working for the Bay of Plenty District Health Board, Mr. Bill needed a license* to practice medicine in New Zealand, which is granted by the Medical Council of New Zealand. The final requirement for all applicants, is an in-person interview in Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch, where they must present their medical credentials in person, for the council’s inspection and if approved, pay a fee in order to obtain their medical license.
This was nerve racking to say the least and we fervently hoped, that this was a mere formality. The Medical Council already had copies of Mr. Bill’s medical degree from Georgetown University (which they had requested be translated from Latin into English), his certificates stating that he was a Board Certified General Surgeon and a member of the American College of Surgeons, as well as a list of every operation he had performed (yes, surgeons keep these statistics, in order to maintain their medical licenses and hospital privileges). Yet we could not help but wonder, if any candidates had failed this final inspection and been sent packing. Adding to the stress, was the pressure of fulfilling this obligation within a four hour layover, as Mr. Bill was expected at Whakatane Hospital the following morning. The clock was ticking from the moment we touched down in Aotearoa. Four hours didn’t seem nearly enough time clear customs, check our bags onto Whakatane and travel to the interviewing official’s home, which was an estimated hour round trip; let alone return to the airport in time, for our connecting flight. Mr. Bill’s recruiter had booked the flights and assured him that it was doable, so we gave it a go!
That first morning is forever etched on our minds. It was a brilliant new day in a new country. Blue skies, palm trees and heat greeted us, a far cry from the six inches of fresh snow we had left behind in Connecticut. Customs and transferring our bags had gone fairly quickly and we hustled outside to hail a cab. There was a line of waiting taxis but none with drivers. I was frantic, where was the queue with the drivers? There was no time to waste, our flight had arrived late, Mr. Bill’s appointment was at 9am and it was already after eight o’clock. We had to find someone on duty to drive us! Mr. Bill however, was unconcerned being faster on the uptake than me. He pointed out, that the drivers were all there, just sitting on the ‘wrong’ side of the car. Of course! I had forgotten that they drive on the left in New Zealand. What looked all wrong to me at first, was alright after all. Mr. Bill engaged a great cabby and explained the situation. Our driver was thrilled! He was a man on a mission. A map was produced, consulted and discussed at great length with Mr. Bill. Then we were off. Mindful of our time crunch, our cheerful driver zigged and zagged through the heavy Auckland traffic, avoiding the gridlock on the A-1 motorway. All the while, we received a running commentary on New Zealand culture, geography and grocery prices. (Did you know that in 1970, you could purchase a whole lamb carcass for what you pay for some lamb chops today? No, we did not.) His accent was hard to understand and for the first time I began to worry, that I wouldn’t be able to understand Kiwi English. I needn’t have worried; our cabbie was from Croatia.
It took forty minutes but Mr. Kolja Mijian delivered us to our destination. This was no small feat, as the house was hidden down a right of way and tucked into the hillside of one of Auckland’s many suburbs. He wished Mr. Bill well and said that he would turn the meter off while he was waiting, explaining that was “the professional thing to do”, despite Mr. Bill asking him to please, keep it running. Mr. Mijian was clearly a gentleman who took pride in his work. (Please note dear reader, that when Mr. Bill paid the cab fare later that morning, he added a generous tip. By doing so, he was guilty of being an ‘Ugly American’, by not respecting New Zealand’s no tipping culture. However, Mr. Mijian was gracious in accepting it and did not hold it against us. He even gave us his personal business card for whenever we were in Auckland!)
Being curious, I tagged along with Mr. Bill, rather than waiting in the taxi. We were both nervous and feeling a bit lightheaded, jet lag no doubt but also very excited. We had finally arrived at the last hurdle. Soon we could begin our grand adventure. The house was modern with sleek glass panels and dark wood that gleamed in the morning sun. Windows and sliding doors were open and curtains fluttered in the breeze. It was thrilling to see the brass plate above the doorbell inscribed, ‘Officer of the Medical Council of New Zealand ‘ and ‘Justice of the Peace’. I had to restrain myself from taking a picture of the plaque. The time was now 9:10. We were late. It couldn’t be helped and we hoped the interviewing officer would be understanding.
Mr. Bill rang the doorbell. That set a dog to barking but no one came to answer it. The barking died down and all was quiet once more. We looked at one another in mild panic. Was no one home? This was the only contact information that he had been given. There was no Plan B. Mr. Bill needed this official’s stamp, before we could continue onto Whakatane. We waited. After ten minutes, Mr. Bill rang the bell again, which set the dog to barking again. An irate woman stepped onto the balcony and told us to, “STOP ringing the bell”! She was indignant, adding that we were early and ordered us to ” just WAIT outside on the bench” ! Ouch. Chastened, we apologized profusely. Then sat down, after being dressed down. It reminded me of the scene from The Wizard of Oz , when the all-powerful wizard thundered at Dorothy and company to go away, that he wasn’t granting them an audience that day. He didn’t care that they had travelled so very far to see him and neither did our welcoming official. Unbeknownst to us, the recruiter had emailed, informing her that our flight had been delayed and that we might not arrive until 9:45. Our Herculean efforts to present ourselves on time were all for naught. Mr. Bill’s interviewer was not amused to see us bright and early on her doorstep. The old trout!
Mortified, I returned to the cab to wait, abandoning Mr. Bill to placate the Medical Council Officer. Eventually Mr. Bill was admitted to the inner sanctum, where she determined that William Americo Longo was indeed one and the same as William A. Longo and Willian Longo. She stamped his paperwork and we were on our way. And no, in case you are wondering, she did not offer Mr. Bill a cup of tea, let alone a glass of water. Hardly an auspicious start but that truly has been, our only unpleasant encounter in New Zealand. We love Kiwis. They are friendly, helpful and incredibly welcoming. There’s always one contrarian and we consider ourselves lucky to have had it over and done, on day one. Poor Mr. Mijian was incensed, when told what had happened, which prompted a tirade on lazy government workers and many apologizes for being treated so appalling, on our first day in New Zealand. It felt good to have one friend in our new country and it made the return trip fly by.
Back at Auckland Airport, we checked the departure board and discovered there was enough time for a cuppa. Coffee never tasted so good. We clinked our cups together, toasting our arrival with a flat white. Now each time we return to New Zealand, we head straight to the little cafe opposite the gate and order flat whites. Best of all, it’s always Mr. Bill’s shout. *
- Licence or license? You dear reader may decide! In British English, licence is a noun and license is the verb. In American English, license is both a noun and a verb and they are spelled the same. With apologies to the Queen, I’ve chosen the latter.
- Shout- To pick up the tab