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AUSTIN AMERICAN STATESMAN, October 10, 1999.

The Freedom of New Zealand

Texan Reneť O'Connor wasn't sure what she'd find when she went to New Zealand for Xena: Warrior Princess. What she discovered was ruggedly beautiful land, honest people -- and herself.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND -- Until I moved to New Zealand in 1995, I thought of it as a very "New Age" place. But that's what most people had told me -- that it was a spiritual country, one of the most natural places in the world, where you could drink the water out of every stream....

I laugh to myself when I think about it now, because I've learned that New Zealand is more complex than that.

Sure, it is incredibly natural. New Zealand is filled with picturesque landscapes that, as yet, haven't been tortured by modernization. It's as if you're living in a part of Eden. Yet at the same time, you have a city like Auckland -- my home -- which is as contemporary as any city from around the world.

So it's the best of both worlds, I think. What's more, I've come to love the "Take me as I am" spirit of New Zealand. It's an accepting place. People are honest. You feel free to express yourself here.

I couldn't have picked a better country to call my second home. I love it here. And as it turns out, you can drink the water from some of the streams -- you just have to be careful to pick a spot upstream from the backpackers.

A code of honor

I've heard people describe their visit to New Zealand as "stepping back into 1950's America." A lot of New Zealanders laugh at that comment. They say, "What does that mean? That we're just developing the color television?"

I think that observation has more to do with the spirit of the people. There's a sense of integrity and respect between people that I think we've lost in the States somewhat. There's definitely a code of honor that makes people accountable for how they treat each other.

For instance: You can go down to some of the country towns, and people will have vegetable stands outside their homes. But most of these are unattended! There's a little basket where you leave your money and take what food you want. A true honor system...

Once I was given the role on "Xena," I think it was the people -- more than the natural beauty of the country -- that attracted me. They're friendly, personable. The population is quite small -- about 4 million people, at the moment -- and there's about "one degree of separation" between everyone. Everyone knows you, in some way, and what you've been doing.

There is a no-nonsense mentality here. You are who you are. And they take you for what you give. There's no need for facade, superficiality. In New Zealand, people wait for you to prove a sort of "mana". It's a Maori term, relating to honor, a pride you have of family or a person. And it's quite highly regarded here. As I watch New Zealanders and how they treat each other with affection, I realize that "mana" isn't necessarily "kindness" or "generosity". It has more to do with respect.

The rugged land

I think the natural environment of New Zealand has an effect on the character of its people. New Zealanders have traveled abroad extensively. I find that when they come home, they tend to appreciate their country even more. They see the beauty of it, and respect it more. It's easy to see, from my own work environment, that New Zealand is a rugged country. It takes stamina -- real physical stamina--to maintain your endurance here. New Zealanders are used to this, yet they still expect you to prove your own inner strength, to pull your own weight. As they say, "No whinging!" -- which translates to "No Whining."

Outside the city of Auckland, you can drive miles and miles and not see another car. Especially on the South Island of New Zealand. During a day's drive at Christmastime, I went through a rain forest, stopped at a glacier and then continued on through barren hillsides. On this tiny island, you can see geological facets from all over the world. We even have a tundra area, where you can see penguins! The South Island is surreal. So beautiful, so untouched.

I took an airplane trip from Queenstown, in the center of the South Island, through a portion of the Southern Alps. It was actually quite frightening, a little risky. But it was worth it; the land was gorgeous. We landed at a spectacular place: Milford Sound. It's sort of a fjord, where the mountain peaks jut out from beneath calm ocean waters....

It takes me about 20 minutes to get to work -- and it is a beautiful drive. We don't work in the city; we work around farmland. So I pass these beautiful pastures, filled with sheep. And these pastures are so lush, it's as if they can't be real. The colors are so vivid here -- the sky, the foliage, the streaks of a rainbow.

The sheer variety of native birds... I notice it all the time. Just outside the door, sometimes, I'll see rosella. It's from the parrot family, and its colors are brilliant red, green and blue. It thrills me, to see something like that, still living freely in nature.

I grew up in a suburb of Houston. So even now, after four and a half years, it's still hard for me to get used to the idea that I live in this lush, tropical home.

The city life

Auckland is quite a large city, home to 1.3 million people. It's the major port of the North Island. When I moved here, it reminded me of San Francisco. You have this great mix of people. And at the same time, its a cafe, cosmopolitan lifestyle.

Because so many different types of people live here -- Maoris, Europeans, Samoans -- people are respectful of different cultures, different lifestyles. And it's interesting to see how foreign visitors are received.

When you travel in other parts of the world -- say in Europe -- it sometimes seems that tourists are frowned upon. Here, they seem to appreciate it when people come -- because then they can talk about their own travels abroad.

You find that whenever you walk into a shop. They'll ask where you're from, what you do here. Nice, welcoming conversations. It happens all the time.

During my first three years here, I lived in a townhouse in the heart of Auckland. A year and a half ago, I moved into the country. It's been fun to see the friendly rivalry between the city folk and the country folk.

If you could live over here... it's such a clean lifestyle, and it's so clean and beautiful, that you never want to leave where I live. Still, my boyfriend and I make ourselves take day trips, or get away for a weekend, just because there's so much to see in New Zealand. On the west coast, there are beautiful black sand beaches that go for miles on end, with rolling hills leading up to them. On the east coast, the land drops away to the white sand beaches.

Not long ago, we took a weekend trip -- New Zealanders call it "a holiday batch" -- to Sandy Bay, about an hour and a half north of where we live. It's on the northern tip of the North Island. And it was a little cove -- a white sand beach cove -- and just off the coast were these little rock islands. We'd just sit, and watch the sun rise.

We stayed in this simple cottage, where you pumped your own water. It was just as basic as you needed -- yet so quaint in the way it provided those needs. For me, it was just another reminder of how little we need to survive in the world and be extremely happy. There were no telephones, no television. Just the beauty around us, and books, and each other. It was ideal.

Just be yourself

My experience in New Zealand has completely spoiled me. If I had to choose a place to live the rest of my life, I would stay right where I am now. There's only one problem with that: the possibility of employment after Xena. That's why my boyfriend and I intend to leave New Zealand to pursue our careers one day -- in the hopes that we can come back to New Zealand in the future. It's the most beautiful place on Earth to spend your life.

I'm so thankful that I came to New Zealand when I was in my 20s -- that crucial time in life, when you begin to learn about yourself as a person. I learned what it was, here, to develop a respect for people that was not necessarily about being "polite." It's about listening to who people are -- and appreciating what it is to be alive and around friends.

I grew up in Texas, a state where "hospitality" and "etiquette" are so important. That's how I was raised! But people used to make fun of me when I first came to New Zealand because of how polite I was to everyone. "Hey knock it off!" they'd say.

You don't have to try so hard in that way. Everybody wants you to be yourself. And I was able to do that, in the time of my life when I was trying to figure out who I was.

When I spend time with my mother in Austin, I frequently hear it said: "It's so nice when people come to visit Austin -- we just don't want them to stay!" And I think it relates to people's desire to maintain the soul of their home, to protect it from people who come in and don't respect it for what it is.

And I like that about New Zealand -- and the notion of respect. The key is to appreciate the beautiful place before you come -- so you can truly enjoy it for all it offers.

-- RENE… O'CONNOR

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