Friday, March 11, 2011

You can never go home

So sang the Moody Blues.

Nearly five years ago I left my home city of Christchurch to work in Australia. Aussie lacks the South Island's soaring mountains, green plains and roads made for Triumphs, but it does have a booming economy with more jobs and much better pay. So I traded the mental and physical landscapes of New Zealand for the arid farmlands and mines of inland Queensland.

New Zealand is only three or four hours away, though, so when I'm sick of staring at a brown grassy veldt studded with gum trees, cows, crows and Country'n Western, I fly back to Christchurch. The old home town doesn't change much - while I get lost in Brisbane and only drive there when I have to, Christchurch's roads, landmarks and cityscape are engraved on my brain. I know where the best cafes are, my favourite bookshop (Fazazz, Lichfield St), Filadelphio's Pizzas - all great cures for homesickness.

Not now though. In September, as I was flying back to Oz from a week in the Cook Islands, Christchurch was hit by its biggest earthquake in a hundred years. Buildings cracked, residents had to leave homes twisted and condemned, and people counted themselves lucky that in a city thought to be well away from major faults, no one was killed. From Australia it seemed remote and faded from the front pages after a day or so. I was always planning to fly back this April for my father's 70th birthday, and expected that by the time I returned, there would be little evidence of September 2010. Yeah right.

I'm still flying back next month, but it will be to a city vastly different from the one I left five years ago. The world watched on February 22nd as Christchurch was smashed by a second quake. Technically it was an aftershock, an earthquake triggered by September's larger but deeper quake. From the city's perspective though, last year's quake was merely a precursor. February 22nd's was almost as big, but far closer and shallower, and the damage this time was devastating. Buildings that wobbled and cracked last time were utterly destroyed. The oldest and most treasured, many in the centre of town, fell on people sitting outside having lunch, or inside at their desks. Most new buildings survived, but it's hard to retrofit the oldest, most revered heritage buildings to the same standards. And so they tumbled. Stone buttresses and arches, built by settlers from England and Scotland a hundred years ago, feel permanent, as though they've grown from the earth and are as ancient. And yet they shattered like children's building blocks when the earth flexed its muscles.

When I fly back this time it will be to a city slowly knitting its broken bones back together. Crumpled streets, shattered landmarks, the centre still cordoned off, it won't be home anymore. And as new buildings rise to replace those familiar old stone icons, it won't ever be 'home' again.

The Canterbury Provincial Council Building, built between 1858 and 1865 (from The Press)


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