Sobering arrival in Christchurch, a city still clearly marked by the earthquake. It is chilly and grey, not unlike the weather in Berlin apart from the wind. Low buildings. Motels. Large shop signs and billboards aimed at car drivers along the edges of the pavements. It all seems American to me – but only at first glance.
A drive to our accommodation, short walks. I have no sense of orientation at all. A strange feeling of being in a suburb, never leaving the edge of town, until I eventually realize that this city doesn't have a centre any more for the time being. It's too inadequate, brought to a standstill. Hastily assembled construction fences mark out the vacant houses that can no longer be lived in. Some askew, with a rip in the façade or broken-off gables and roofs, others semi-demolished. One suddenly looks at all the remaining buildings with mistrust, in search of fractures, unevenness. A gap at every second or third street corner. Paved over with grey stones, remains of the rubble. Many people, I'm told later, still don't know if they're allowed to keep their homes; they're waiting for a surveyor's report to plead in favour of demolition or repair.
You could go in there, I think when I see a still new office building with a glass façade that looks absolutely intact. But then I look more closely through the windows and make out tipped-over shelves, desks and chairs, collapsed pillars, wires hanging from the ceiling. On the entrance doors of a neighbouring house, the spray-painted comment "Clear" and a date. Does that mean it's been given the all-clear?
I have to spend a long time standing in front of the barrier blocking off the terrain where the destruction was the greatest. It is still not open to the public. Friends and relatives have attached flowers, cardboard signs and small pictures to the fence, commemorating the people they lost here. The flowers have shrivelled and dried, fluttering in the wind.
In the evening I meet up with two artists, who are trying to redefine some of the destroyed areas as places of public encounters, improvising with little funding. A touching attempt – which also works. In the middle of a wasteland that I pass the next day and look around, a fridge has been set up, filled with books for the locals to borrow and either bring back or exchange for others. Alongside it makeshift cosiness: a few flowerpots, a reading bench. And in fact someone does soon turn up with a plastic bag, opens the fridge, takes something out and tops it up again.
The evening ends on a bizarre note. Overtired, and by now thoroughly confused by my tiredness, I let the "gap-fillers" talk me into watching an off-theatre production in a shed, a short walk away in an unpaved, puddle-ridden backyard.
A bare room. A tiny stage on which an almost naked, long-haired man is lolling on a stretcher or a mortuary trolley. To his right a double-bassist, on the left a female singer. A play by the German dramatist Werner Fritsch, staged in what seems like a rather over-ambitious production. An hour and a half that soon feels very long, as my jetlag-plagued brain only understands fractions of the English. The bassist is wearing a Frankenstein mask and the singer – to my disbelief – a Hitler mask. As they screech, pluck, yell and declaim, I sit devotedly in the darkness.
In the year of New Zealand’s guest country of honour appearance at the Frankfurt Bookfair 2012, the German novelist Inka Parei is criss-crossing the “Land of the Long White Cloud - Aotearoa”, travelling in a camper van. She will reflect regularly on her impressions and encounters in this blog.