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Feature

Auf the Richter Scale

Foreign correspondent and Lyttelton resident Anke Richter wrote a satirical book about being a German immigrant in Godzone. It was released in her home country days after the February quake. Returning from her book tour she reflects on cultural clashes, inflatable sheep and funny timing.

Everyone in Christchurch will be able to tell you where he or she was when the big E struck. My story isn't very spectacular. On Tuesday, February 22, I was attempting to pamper myself in preparation for my upcoming book tour in Germany. Over the past year, I had worked on a satire that mockuments the highs and lows of living as a Kraut amongst Kiwis at the end of the world where apparently not much happens. It is set in and around Lyttelton, where I live - the Wunderbar, the harbour, the trendy cafes behind historical facades.

The book was due to be released in Germany on February 24. After all those months of writing and editing in seclusion, 16,000 kilometres away from my readers, I was still eagerly waiting to see the first copy. From mid-March, I was meant to read and talk on stage in eight cities between Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne, give interviews and sit on a TV show - all quite nerve-racking under normal circumstances. Hence the facial and highlights - to show those folks back home that life in Aotearoa had been good to me, never mind the sun damage.

After 12.51pm, when the road was bubbling underneath me and my city was breaking down, the hairdresser appointment was obsolete, the salon most likely gone and greying hair not top of my concerns any more. A few hours later I had collected my children and my husband. We made it back over the Port Hills to Lyttelton - the epicentre, as we had just heard on the radio.

My heart sank when we arrived at our house. Windows were broken, the garden was sloping and brick walls had tumbled. The beautiful old cottage had been our safe cocoon in a country where we had no old roots or family - a place we had chosen for its beauty and lifestyle eight years ago. It had been good to us. We proudly received our double citizenship a year ago. But on February 22, for the first and last time since my arrival in Aotearoa, I just wanted to run back home.

As a reflex, or an attempt to create normality in all this chaos and uncertainty, I opened the letterbox. And there was my book, with a shiny green cover of a garden gnome amongst a herd of cartoon sheep. I choked back tears with a harsh laugh. How was I going to promote this comical look at culture shock in the shadow of a real shock, without being distasteful?

Ad Feedback A video producer and I had just completed a funny book trailer partly shot at the Lyttelton Coffee Company, now freshly munted. Friends and colleagues from overseas who googled me to find out if I was still alive found me on YouTube instead, wisecracking with a stuffed sheep under my arm, all tongue-in-cheek about life in Godzone. My spoof had suddenly become tragicomical.

Many plans got sidelined that day; many bigger dreams died a sudden death. I didn't want to give up. The good things in life meant more than ever before. I had to travel to Germany. But I had severe "brain fog", caused by a constant swaying sensation since the quake and a level of exhaustion that a facial wouldn't fix after three weeks of cleaning up, holding it all together and doing reporting on top of it.

I could barely grasp the logistics of my travel plans. Everything was booked and postponing wasn't an option; it had been hard enough to get the venues and promote the dates. Selling books these days is a tough business and media attention is everything. For most Germans, New Zealand is nothing but an exotic holiday destination: small, clean, green and far, far away - as relevant to continental Europe as, say, Peru is to Australasia.

Christchurch doesn't normally make it into the world news. That had suddenly changed for a few days at the end of February, up until the disaster in Japan overshadowed everything. A cynic (or make that a marketing person) might say that the earthquake was not the worst thing that happened to my book launch, but helped it.

My view was that it gave me a reason to talk about what was closest to my heart: how people in my neck of the woods were affected by a natural disaster, how they coped, suffered and helped each other. I wanted to let the world know about my freshly ignited love for Lyttelton and its deeply touching and inspiring community spirit. And, of course, that the South Island was still worth a visit. I had a mission. And a stitched woolly heart in my cabin bag that some Lyttelton mums and kids had been making down on London St, hanging them on the barriers and on everyone coming past.

So I landed in Frankfurt on a German spring morning at 5am and went straight to the Leipzig book fair for my first round of interviews and readings on the same day. I must have come across similar to the city I came from: stressed, dishevelled and not fully operating, but highly emotional. My 90-minute-long performances improved over the next three weeks but my mental state deteriorated from the overload, sleeplessness and jet lag.

I found it hard to hold a full conversation - no space to take any more in. While I was to finally reap some interest in my work, I was hardly able to enjoy it fully. There was the day I sat on a train, again, and had left my cellphone in another city. I had to go on a talk show when I arrived but had not been thinking about what to wear - no time, no concentration, and shops completely stressed me out. That I'd spilled a whole water bottle in my handbag and over myself on the train didn't make things better - but at least made me look like a proper earthquake victim.

One of the props for my shows was a world map from the board game Risk, on which New Zealand had been conveniently forgotten, like so often. Other Kiwiana paraphernalia I had collected to earn a few laughs with my German readers included Stella, the inflatable sheep ("small size for easy handling" it said on the package), possum fur nipple warmers, a miniature Maori doll with a moko - and last but not least, sweat bands that said "I love NZ", ready to be lifted up in rapid defence if the souvenirs or any statement in my book might cause offence.

What I had planned to be an ironic and cheeky gesture prior to the quake was now exactly what I meant, from the bottom of my heart - despite the fact that I had learned my lesson as a newcomer over the years to always point out how much I adored this country. The cringe- inducing question "And how do you like New Zealand?" was one of many running jokes in my book. (Just to put Kiwis at ease here about its content: the joke is on the Germans in the end. Phew! They don't mind. Self-loathing and criticism is big over there.)

There were some great moments on the tour, mostly sentimental ones. In Cologne, my childhood home town, former Christchurch comedian/actor John Hudson performed a roaring haka at the end of the show after I had read out a list about what makes a typical Kiwi. Never ever has a front row been showered with more spit, sweat and fierce passion.

In Berlin, a barista from Lyttelton who had left Christchurch after the quake sat in the audience. What a wonderful surprise for me, but also a worry: How offended would a fellow earthquaked Lytteltonian be by sheep-shagging jokes in these trying times? He surprised me again by telling me later that I should have used the microphone to demonstrate Stella's anatomy fully.

Wherever I read and signed books, people came up to me afterwards who had either lived or travelled in New Zealand and wanted to share their memories. The real stars of the evening were the places where sandflies, jandals and Buzzy Bees live. In Menden, a small country town in the west, a woman from Christchurch who had been in Germany for half of her life gave a heartfelt account of the heartache she felt for our broken city. It almost turned into a counselling session for both of us, had it not been for the local punter who interrupted us.

"Are you planning to stay in New Zealand?" he demanded to know. His tone was persistent, his manner very direct. I wasn't used to inquisition-style conversations any more. He even followed me across the car park: "You must regret that you moved there, don't you?" I was embarrassed on his behalf. Talk about cultural cringe. Luckily he didn't shine a torch in my face before I made it into my car. How I missed the Kiwi art of indirect, polite small talk at that moment.

My last reading at the Hamburg writers' festival was preceded by controversial publicity. The long-running literature event is now officially called the "Vattenfall Lesetage" and is organised by a big Swedish power company, Vattenfall - just like Montana sponsors the World of Wearable Arts. I am sure that teetotallers perform there too. Vattenfall provides electricity from nuclear power plants among other sources of energy. Nuclear power had become more than a hot topic in Germany since the Japan disaster - it had become the enemy of the people. No other country in Europe does angst, left-wing rage and concern like the Germans do. The events in Fukushima had re-ignited a nationwide anti-nuclear mass movement.

Good on them, I thought, you go, green Krauts - until I was publicly questioned, like other authors from the festival, how I could support this company's alleged "greenwashing" by appearing at the festival. But I didn't see the point in cancelling a reading that was already sold out. Why let people down? How would that help the world at this stage? From the little I grasped at the time - my "quake brain" was still not operating fully - I was not a puppet in a pro-nuclear-power show but was simply entertaining people with stories from a country that, by the way, happens to be nuclear free.

My dilemma ended in a hefty discussion with a German friend and lawyer. I have been missing a controversial discussion with a good punch since the day I immigrated, but I wasn't prepared for this. Was it not OK, I asked him, having just come from the other side of the world and out of a natural disaster, to not take a political stance for once? Where I live now, people are not so opinionated. As an Antipodean, you are allowed to keep out of a debate. Not good enough for my German friend. He answered that it was that kind of mentality that had once helped Hitler to rise. Seriously. He wasn't joking. I had apparently gone from an earthquake victim to a nuclear Nazi.

By then I was ready to go home to Lyttelton and its broken walls. Aftershocks hopefully end, culture shock doesn't.