Dining With Christchurch Refugees

The recent earthquakes of Christchurch have had horrid consequences. Worried about our friends Kevin and Margaret O’Connor, longtime Christchurch residents, we were much relieved to catch up with them in Dunedin, a short drive from Mosgiel where they are now refugees.

Tom and Kevin at the Eureka

Since we were working hard at the Hocken Library conducting research, we chose the nearby Eureka—a short walk of a few blocks—for lunch. Kevin and another dear friend, Tom Brooking, met us there. Over cold Emersons and hot venison pie, old friends caught up on new business.

The Eureka
Poster inside The Eureka

That night we met Margaret and Kevin for dinner at The Palms. They sat quite comfortably at the linen-covered table, both adorned with smudges on their foreheads in remembrance of Ash Wednesday, while Margaret—cell phone in hand—reassured one of their daughters of their well-being. Despite being in their seventies and eighties, Margaret and Kevin appeared unaffected by their forced move away from their lovely home on Clifton Hill in the Christchurch area. Although they expressed some surprise at being refugees—when throughout their lives they’d hosted refugees in their own home—they also seemed to be enjoying their refugee status as something of a lark.

Extensive earthquake damage on Manchester St. near second-hand bookstores and shops. Photo found at www.nzraw.co.nz/news/christchurch-earthquake-crowdsourcing-project/

When the earthquake hit, Kevin was in his favorite bookstore/café. The earthquake shook the cafe and debris fell from the busted-up ceiling, landing on him, but after a few stitches to the noggin he was fine. The biggest worry was the condition of their home, which fortunately withstood the shocks and tremors in good order. Margaret was at home, but she and her neighbors quickly headed to a nearby vacant lot where walls couldn’t fall on them. Access to their neighborhood was soon cut off with falling rock, and they lost all power and water service. It appears that their area will be among the last to resume service.

So, Margaret and Kevin are staying with friends in Mosgiel. Two of their grown daughters, who also live in New Zealand, venture into the Clifton Hill house on occasion to toss perishables, return books to shelves, and try to bring order to the mess. New Zealand government, which automatically offers medical services and other benefits to its refugee-status citizens, has set up stations where people like Kevin can venture to pick up groceries for their host families. Now you might think those groceries consist of rice and beans, canned goods and non-perishables. No. Feta cheese and fresh fruits were among the foodstuffs that filled four bags. Margaret and Kevin are well-satisfied that they will be able to return home soon and that their government is well-equipped to take care of its citizens’ welfare.

The Palms Restaurant, located in the Imperial Building. Photo found at www.palmsrestaurant.co.nz

But now, back to dinner at The Palms. Located on the periphery of Dunedin’s downtown center, The Palms sits across from the Queens Gardens and in view of the statue of Queen Victoria. The Palms resides in the Imperial Building, built in 1906, continuing a seventy-years-long tradition of being a restaurant location.

In New Zealand, menu items are categorized as entrées (appetizers), mains, and desserts. We were treated by the chef to an aperitif—an odd, warmed concoction of beetroot soup with a peppery taste, topped with a sliver of savory meringue–served in cordial glasses. It looked pretty, but . . . well, it was odd.

Not so odd were the ensuing dishes. Tom’s entrée was a collection of mussels, clams, and fish in a coconut curry, poppadom, date & ginger curry mix. Mine: seared lamb cous cous with fruit and pinenuts. For mains Margaret and Kevin chose seared tuna with sumac and rice crust, accompanied by niçoise salad. Tom had New Zealand lamb rump with lamb shish-ka-bob and mint summer fragrant jus ratatouille and carrot jam, while I dined on pork fillet wrapped in streaky bacon, beetroot and potato rosti, grilled red onions, fresh spinach, and apple and garlic sauce. If you choose a dinner by its price instead of its cut of meat, you would have had a hard time: every main cost $30 NZ.

Not everyone has been as fortunate as Margaret and Kevin in the wake of the Christchurch disaster. I am delighted, however, to share this particular story of refugee friends, a sumptuous dinner, and a happy ending.