It is strange how people seem to belong to places, especially to places where they were not born. Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories.

Christchurch rises in a glimmer from the estuaries and marshlands that separate solid ground from the Pacific Ocean. Silver suburbs fill the vast valley like chessboard squares; kings, queens, bishops and knights meet as dark towers in the city centre. They huddle against the ever-present winds that change the weather from beaming to blustery with scarcely a moment’s notice. The prevailing easterly is a raw, damp ocean kiss; the nor’wester plows its hot breath into the plains from the Southern Alps, bringing swirls of gritty earth from Rakaia Gorge and Ashburton to settle on clothes just pinned to the line.  The light that shines over the city is sharper, younger – as if the sun is just discovering its own power. Even on cloudy days Christchurch shimmers; it is that much closer to heaven.

The compact city is a study of colonial contradictions. Its romantic Gothic-Revival architecture – a style that seems misplaced in such a bright and bustling land – knocks against post-war modernism that represents Canterbury’s soaring peaks and sunswept plains with glass and steel. And scattered throughout, as counterpoint to pretension, are throwaway structures of indiscriminate style. These contain tiny dairies (what we know as convenience stores), mobile phone dealers, bank branches, and internet cafés. It is a city that, for all its high heels and wine bars,  its silk ties and leather satchels, can’t hide its rough and tumble roots as a Maori battlefield, as the pride of the Church of England’s colonial ambitions in the Southern Hemisphere, and as even now, as an urban anomaly surrounded by paddocks and vineyards, towering mountains and infinite ocean. Sturdy gumboots and delicate rose pruners, Crusaders’ jerseys and Christ College blazers meet to define the grit and grace of The Garden City.

What Lyon is to France, Christchurch is to New Zealand. It is a city that celebrates food, from local produce to imported exotica.  The most beautiful cheeses from around the world and from farms next door are hand-matured at Canterbury Cheesemongers; the bounty of Waipara Valley, Selwyn, and Hurunui farms is celebrated at the year-round Christchurch Farmers’ Market; olive oil from Athena Olive Groves, Akaroa salmon, Pigeon Bay lamb, wines from Waipara, locally-roasted coffee from Underground, local chocolatiers She-Chocolat and Xocolatl seduce punters and local gourmands alike.  It is a city of cafés that are 100 percent Kiwi- offering long blacks, flat whites, and lattés in glasses, tantalizing slices and soups of roasted kumara; it is a city of restaurants ranging from Burmese to Basque. Cantabrians are as passionate about the provenance and preparation of their food as any Parisian or Piedmontese.

Christchurch is a punting serenely down the Avon River and boosting major air in the surf at Sumner Beach. It is Evensong at the Cathedral and trance ’til dawn at Base Bar. It is a leisurely stroll through Hagley Park’s botanical gardens and a jarring descent on a Port Hills bike trail. It is sweetness and sophistication, the Kiwi “No. 8 wire” independence bolstered by keen sense of community.

He Aituā Ōtautahi!  O sweet Christchurch, why did this happen to you?

In the early afternoon of February 22,  this lovely city crumbled in the wake of a 6.3 temblor, an aftershock of a larger, but much deeper earthquake that occurred in last September.  The projected death toll is above 20o, more than 10,000 homes are marked for demolition, the cost to rebuild the city is estimated in the multi-billions. The spire of the Christchurch Cathedral toppled and countless Victorian era-edifices, weakened by the earlier quake, are beyond all hope of repair. Modern buildings, built before the stricter codes of the 1980s, flattened like decks of cards. Roads throughout the Canterbury region were made impassable by soil liquefaction; even homes and business still standing are deemed too hazardous- their owners given only a few minutes to gather valuables and to say goodbye.  Our friends are safe, though several have lost their homes and, temporarily, their livelihoods.

Christchurch was our home. I pore over the on-line photographs and videos that detail the earthquake’s damage and my heart breaks anew each time. I biked those streets, wandered in those shops, felt the stone of those landmarks. I long to be there, to help sort through the rubble, to help rebuild, to mourn all who were lost. I know the city will return – more beautiful than ever – with a renewed sense of strength, survival and commitment to community. But seeing it brought to its wrecked foundation fills me with a longing that will never heal. It is a reminder of a dream broken, a story left untold, a heart that will never be whole, for so much of it was left behind in Ōtautahi.

Christchurch from the Port Hills 2007

February 22, 2011