AUCKLAND, New Zealand. The morning skies are grey as our plane touches down at Auckland Airport, but that doesn’t dampen our spirits as my family and I peer out the windows for our first glance at New Zealand, the adopted homeland of my cousin Mary Beth and her husband Gary.
“I wanna go to the bathroom and check out the sink,” my son says.
He’s interested in seeing the Coriolis effect, the force first described by French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis that causes water in sinks and toilets in the Southern hemisphere to drain in a counterclockwise direction, the opposite of what we Americans are used to seeing in the Northern hemisphere.
“Not now, sweetie, the seatbelt light is still on,” my wife says.
“We’ll have plenty of time for that later,” I say as we pull to a stop and passengers stand up and begin to de-board.
We spy Mary Beth and Gary as we emerge from the jetway and, after hugs and kisses all around, Mary Beth asks if we’d like to grab some dinner.
“But–it’s nine o’clock in the morning,” I say, a bit puzzled.
Now it’s her turn to act surprised. “Yes–so what?”
“Uh, I think the kids should get some breakfast in them,” my wife says.
Suddenly, the source of our confusion becomes apparent to Mary Beth. “You two are still on Northern hemisphere meal times,” she says with a laugh. “Down here, we start the day with meat, potatoes, broccoli–the works!”
I look at the kids, who don’t seem enthusiastic. “We’ll just grab some orange juice,” I say as we head towards the short-term parking lot.
We stow our luggage in the trunk of our hosts’ car, and Gary eases his way out of the parking lot.
“Look out!” my wife exclaims as Gary pulls into the left-hand lane of the high-speed motorway that surrounds the airport.
“What?” Gary replies, somewhat startled.
“Oh, I forgot, you drive on the left side down here,” my wife replies, a bit calmer now.
“Yeah, and not just that–watch,” Gary says as he makes a sharp right-hand turn from the left-hand lane.
My wife is unimpressed. “People do that all the time in America,” she says. “We call them ‘senior citizens.’”
I glance in the sideview mirror and notice a double-trailer truck bearing down on us at high speed. “Uh, Gary,” I say a little nervously. “You see that truck coming, right?”
“That guy?” Gary replies. “Don’t worry–I’ve got plenty of room,” he says as he pulls into the passing lane. “You forgot–objects in mirrors are further away than they appear down here.”
“Oh, right–the Coriolis effect,” I say.
I’ve noticed as I’ve watched Gary’s maneuvers in and out of traffic that Mary Beth has remained remarkably calm, a placid smile on her face. “I think it’s great that you don’t criticize Gary’s driving,” I say to her.
“Do women do that where you live?” she asks incredulously as he cuts off a young couple in a Volkswagen Scirocco with a “Baby on Board” window sign. I look at my wife, who makes a pugnacious little moue with her lips.
“It’s in my DNA,” she says. “If the Coriolis effect means I couldn’t bitch about your dingbat driving, I say to hell with it.”
We take an exit ramp and stop at the toll gate.
“From the airport?” the attendant says as he examines the ticket that Gary hands him. “I owe you four dollars and twenty-five cents.”
“Gosh,” my wife says. “They pay you to drive on the highway?”
“It’s the Coriolis effect!” Mary Beth exclaims. “We used to take the bus but they only pay you $1.50 for that!”
Gary tells us a little bit about the country as we head into downtown Auckland. “Did you know that there are more sheep than people in New Zealand?” he asks the kids.
“Wow,” my daughter says, fascinated.
“We have lots of sheep in America too, sweetie,” my wife says to her.
“Yes, like people who elected Mel Carnahan to the Senate after he died.”
The kids nod in wonderment, and Gary pulls up in front of a movie theatre.
“Are we going to a movie?” my son asks.
“It’s such a hot day, I thought this would be a good place to keep cool,” Gary says.
“What’s playing?” my wife asks.
“It’s a noir Presbyterian film festival,” Mary Beth says. “Really dark themes with perverse characters and ironic plot twists.”
My wife, a lifelong member of the United Church of Christ, the straightest Protestant denomination in America, absorbs this information with a disturbed look on her face.
“You mean–no happy endings, or upbeat sound tracks?”
“No,” Gary explains. “The Coriolis force has a significant impact on our popular culture. Take Olivia John-Newton,” he says, referring to the relentlessly pleasant Australian pop singer whose last name is “Newton-John” north of the equator. “The only people who listen to her down here are depressed, suicidal Goth kids.”
My wife recoils involuntarily, as if someone has just punched her in the gut. She may be experiencing Coriolis-induced vertigo, a malady that affects travelers from the Northern hemisphere much as Montezuma’s Revenge keeps American tourists confined to Mexican hotel bathrooms.
She looks nauseated, and I put my hand on her forehead. “Are you okay?” I ask.
She takes a deep breath, then bursts into tears and blurts out–”I want to go home!”