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Words to Live By

People like quotations and mottoes. If you Google almost any emotional or heavy subject, a suggestion for “quotes” pops up (although as my grade ten English teacher drilled into us, “quote” is a verb, “quotation” is a noun).

“Being confused quotes”

“Friendship quotes”

“Grief quotes”

“Personal growth quotes”

I think sometimes we like to see our emotions articulated and expressed eloquently by someone else. It makes messy, abstract emotions concrete.  If someone else felt similar enough to write a relatable statement, clearly, we’re not alone in that feeling, which is hugely comforting.

The thing I’ve found about quotations, mottoes, even song lyrics, is that we tend to relate them to us. We bring our own meaning to the (usually somewhat vague and generalized) words. In any creative endeavour, it takes two to make meaning: artist and audience. Hence why everyone’s experience of a particular piece is different.

Same idea here.

I’ve had a very, very rough two months. Last week in particular was really bad—I’ve been much quieter, online and in real life. But for the past few weeks, a few phrases have been coming to mind more and more.

The opening line of the best-known Māori haka:

Ka mate, ka mate; ka ora, ka ora.

I die, I die; I live, I live.

And a really old hymn.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

Where there is love, God is there.

Again, fairly generalized phrases, but imbued with my own meaning into a sort of combined security blanket, prayer, and good luck charm.

Ka mate, ka mate; ka ora, ka ora.

Even when things suck, I’m still here. Even when I’m down, I’m still moving. Even when it seems like there is no end to this, there’s still some incredibly awesome things out there.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

Anyone who’s read Hapax knows that I’m interested in theology, but I keep my own personal views fairly close to the vest. Still, the idea here seems right to me. Clearly, lack of sleep has made me into a complete and utter sap, but nevertheless…

Through all of this, there has been love.

I don’t have much patience with corporate-style mottoes or “mission statements.” They always seem fake—imposing meaning on the audience, rather than being vessels through which people find their own meaning. They express what someone wants you to feel, rather than reflecting the emotion you’ve discovered in yourself. A motto you stick with—the words that seem to play out in the background of life, over and over—means something to you.

All writing is symbiosis between writer and reader, even if the only reader is the writer. And maybe that’s why we like quotations so much. In a very concentrated, very personal way, our feelings and experiences are in dialogue with someone else’s.

Ubi caritas continues thusly:

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est,

Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor,

Exsultemus et in ipso jucundemur.

With the loose-but-pretty translation:

Where there is love, God is there,

Love has brought us here,

Let us rejoice and be glad.



Dunedin by the Numbers

After four months, it’s time to say goodbye to Dunedin, and explore the rest of New Zealand and the wider South Pacific. My term at Otago has been unlike anything I could have imagined. I’m highly impressed that all of my profs learned my name (it was also slightly unsettling… I hadn’t realized how accustomed I’d grown to the anonymity of U of T). I’m far more grateful for U of T’s resources. I like that Otago gives exam topics/questions in advance. I learned that I really, really like the bike lanes and public transit around the St. George campus in Toronto.

But I think I’ll present an overview of the past four months in the form of a list. Here is… Dunedin by the numbers.

1.70 – Price of a Learner’s Cone at the Rob Roy Dairy

60 –Estimated average age of the jazz quartet that plays the Robbie Burns pub

4 – Ascents up Baldwin St (incidentally, the steepest street in the world)

3 – Expeditions out to the peninsula

240 – Minutes of walking before we gave up and accepted that we were stranded on the peninsula

2 – Shots of espresso in a Long Black

3 – Sandman books in the Dunedin Public Library’s collection (that I found and borrowed, anyway)

0 – Times I got bored of seeing the Southern Cross

5 – Classes this term

4 – Bank branches guaranteed not to eat my card

90-120 – Minutes spent in the Good Earth Café every Café Sunday

3 –Photo requests from friends back home

2- Photo requests accomplished thus far.

(Lost Count) – Times I’ve nearly been run over

5:30 – Awakening for the ANZAC Day Dawn Service

3 –Nationalities living under one roof

1 – Ring to Rule Them All

1000 – Highest I can count in Māori

18 – Recommended inside temperature in degrees Celsius, according to NZ Health

6 – The actual temperature in our kitchen

9000 – Words written for essays

1 – Wild penguin sighting

16 – Most books I ever had out from the library at one time

251 – Pokémon officially recognized in this flat (sorry, but if it came after GSC, it doesn’t exist to me)

182 – Approximate age of a wonderfully massive and craggy tree in the Botanic Gardens

(Too high to count)  – Times the creepy robotic self-checkout kiosk voice has chirpily reminded me to “Please place item in the bagging area!”

15 + – Weeks to switch my instinctive “default” from right to left

4 – Amazing, challenging, wonderful months

Thanks, Dunedin. Let me summon my very best Māori and say “Ka roto koe i taku ngākau, e noho ana.”

You’ll always have a place in my heart.

Favourite Māori Words

One of my favourite classes this term was Introduction to Conversational Māori. And yes, please note the use of the past tense — I’m done, but for exams. I’d wanted to take at least one class in New Zealand that I couldn’t take anywhere else, Māori seemed to fit the bill, and I’ve always loved languages, so I was a keener from the first lecture.

Māori is completely different from any other language I’ve studied (read: French and Old English). It’s from the Polynesian group of languages, which may or may not be derived from a distant branch of the Indo-European “family tree” that encompasses a huge number of languages. Grammatically, it’s both relatively simple and surprisingly complex. Whereas in English and French, verbs are conjugated to show tense, number, and mood (I run/he runs/we ran; je vais/je suis allée/vous iriez), Māori uses particles:

I am running: Kei te oma ahau.

I ran: I oma ahau.

I will run: Ka oma ahau.

Easy, right? Sure, except that Māori compresses an awful lot into each word. Consider the difference between “tēnei ngeru” (this cat here by me), “tēnā ngeru” (that cat over there by you), and “ērā ngeru” (those cats over there, away from both of us).

Or, “Ka hoki mai ahau ki te awa” (I will return (as in “come back here”) to the river) versus “Ka hoki atu ahau ki te awa” (I will return (“go back there”) to the river).  

So, obviously, I love it. But that’s enough of a grammar lesson: Māori has some great words, and I wanted to share some of my favourites.


More coolness. The taniwha: a water spirit, typically a guardian.

KāingaPlace where the home fires are kept burning

The āi diphthong makes kāinga a fun word to say, but I love the literal translation. In Māori, there’s a sharp distinction between where you are from, and where you currently live. Kāinga refers to the latter; I’m from Toronto, but right now at this moment, my kāinga is in Dunedin. That being said, it’s one of those words that can be interpreted metaphorically, so I could technically say that my kāinga is in Toronto, which would tell you a lot about my feelings, ties to home, and so forth.

WhakapapaFamily tree/genealogy

Whakapapa is another important concept. Where you come from and who you come from greatly influences who you are. It’s also the name of a town on the North Island. Fun fact about  Māori: wh- is pronounced like the English f. “Hang on,” you say. “Doesn’t that mean that whakapapa would be pronounced like…”

Yes. Yes, it is, which is why I was greatly amused when my flatmate, while booking her post-exam travels, exclaimed, “Sweet as! I’m taking the Naked Bus to Whakapapa!”

Tamariki Children

Many words in Māori sound like what they mean. Maybe it’s just me, but I think “tamariki” sounds like a perfect word for children. Same thing for puku (stomach) and waiata (to sing/song).


However, many words are loan words from English. Not sure if anyone’s noticed this, but New Zealand is kind of isolated. When the Europeans arrived, they brought a lot of things for which no words existed in the Māori language, so extensive borrowing of words occurred.   Māori also has about half the consonant sounds that English does, which leads to some really cool patterns in transliteration.

Beef is a perfect example. There’s no B in Māori; it tends to become P (as with Britain – Piritene, bread – parāoa, and bus – pahi). The long ī is the same sound as “ee.” Wh, as we’ve discussed, sounds the same as f. Thus, “pīwh,” but since you can’t have a word of one stressed syllable ending in a consonant, the unstressed i gets tacked on the end to create pīwhi.

Cool, eh?

KanikaniTo dance/a dance

Following those sound laws, we take the unstressed i’s out of kanikani, change the k back to a c, and get “cancan.” Considering the abundance of gold prospecting and settler towns that sprang up in New Zealand through the latter half of the nineteenth century, I can only imagine what the Māori were thinking.

TumuA safe place to dock one’s canoe

My favourite word in the whole language. The Māori/Pacific/Indigenous Studies Building is called “te Tumu.” Finding “safe places” seems to have been a predominant theme over the last year or so. Maybe that’s why the concept resonates with me so much. Certainly, it seems to be cropping up in my fiction more and more.

Good Advice That I Ignored

Before you go on exchange, you get lots of advice from lots of people. However, in the excitement, you don’t always listen to it. By which I mean, a combination of denial and overconfidence leads you to simply not believe some of the things people tell you.

For instance…

They said, “Dunedin gets really cold.”

I said, “Cold is what? 0 degrees Celsius at night? I’m Canadian, I’ll be fine.”

Actually: It’s not the cold outside that gets me, it’s the cold inside. Yes, I’m used to ten, fifteen degrees below zero. But I’m also used to coming inside to a warm house.

They said, “Things are expensive in New Zealand.”

I said, “Well, our dollar’s stronger.”

Actually: Things are expensive in New Zealand.


They said, “Culture shock happens to everyone.”

I said, “Not me. It’s practically the same culture, and anyway, I’ve wanted to go to New Zealand since forever!”

Actually: The core values/essence/whatever of our cultures are  similar, but little things throw me. The humour can make this inhibited, polite little Canadian girl squirm even as laughter fights to get out. People walk on the left. Tomato sauce on pizza isn’t a sure thing – you might get apricots and/or barbeque sauce.


They said, “Take a few things from home.”

I said, “That’s silly. Won’t that just make me more homesick?”

Actually: I am SO thankful that I brought my own mug. And getting the Uni Print Shop to blow a photo from Black Creek up to poster size was the best fifteen bucks I ever spent.


They said, “Academics take a back seat on exchange.”

I said, “Not for me, they won’t.”

Actually: Choir conflicts with one of my twice-weekly Conversational Māori lectures. Guess which one gets skipped?


They said, “It will all still be here when you get back.”

I said, “No, it won’t! I’ll be homeless and jobless and everyone will have forgotten me!”

Actually: Last time I checked, the plan was to move back into the same apartment (ha – watch, next month I’ll have a post on “Not Jinxing Things”), and my boss has assured me that she is “counting on” my working again.  


They said, “It’ll go by so fast.”

I said, “Pfft.”

Actually: Until this week, six months seemed like forever. Now I only have five. I don’t quite know how that happened – and it seems that time is slipping through my fingers like sand. There’s so many things still to see, to learn, to write, to bake – New Zealand, I’m not done with you yet!


Hei Matau

Well, I can cross one entry off my List of Things to do in New Zealand. I was walking by the Octagon, which is Dunedin’s main town square (despite the fact that it is, indeed, octagonal), when I discovered that a local market had set up camp. The artisans were mostly grey-haired and smiling, fiddling with their glasses (for the men) or their knitting (the women) as a contingent of cruise ship passengers prowled the stalls. I sauntered by, planning to just admire the wares. Though the kiwi-emblazoned tea towels and knit pot-holders were adorable, I wasn’t sure I needed to buy any.

Then I saw it. Tucked away in the corner: two men with a collection of carved-bone necklaces.

For the last year or so, I’ve been wearing a necklace that I picked up in Costa Rica. It’s metal, with a stylized fish-hook pendant similar in design to those made by the Māori. I quite like it, but I’d long ago promised myself to get a proper bone hei matau: the Māori fish-hook.

The men and I chatted about the weather, Canada, and the market as I scrutinized the rows of pendants. Finally, after much debate, I settled on one which fit my criteria: decent size, slender enough to look kind of like an actual fish-hook, and incorporating a few specific Māori symbols.

Hei matau: The fish-hook – symbolizes determination, strength, good luck, and safe travel over water (useful for me, eh?).

Koru: Represents an unfolding fern leaf and symbolizes growth, potential, and my favourite: perpetual motion, while always coming back to centre.

Whale Tail: Strength, protection, harmony with the ocean.

Quite a lot for one small carving, and quite a lot that resonates with me.

Kia kaha! (Be strong!)