It was New Year’s Eve and we were on our way to Berlin. As we’d purchased the cheapest train tickets possible, we weren’t speeding between cities, but meandering from small station to small station. Standing, freezing, on dilapidated platforms, we gazed across the tracks towards a succession of depressed and depressing buildings. One such station boasted a vainly optimistic advertisement inviting the traveller to actually stop there for a change, instead of merely passing through. ‘Passing-through towns’ seems an apt name for these places.
There was, however, one town we passed through whose station was surprisingly intriguing. Even beautiful. I was so tired – all the shabby stations we’d passed through already had so blurred before my eyes – that at first I didn’t notice this one was any different. Then strange shapes started to loom out of the mass: wavy lines, bulging columns clad in garish mosaics, and golden spheres that could have been from an old, tacky sci-fi. It reminded me of the various bits of Gaudí architecture we’d recently seen in Barcelona, but it also reminded me of a public toilet.
Not just any public toilet, you understand: a specific public toilet in New Zealand, designed by an Austrian immigrant called Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser. The Hundertwasser Toilets are a major tourist attraction in Kawakawa, a small town in the Northland Region of New Zealand. If you’re ever on a road trip between Auckland and the Bay of Islands, you’ll probably pass through/water in it. The toilets are worth seeing, with an architectural style that can, at worst, be described as quirky. Built in 1999, just before Hundertwasser’s death, they’ve transformed Kawakawa from merely a ‘passing-through town’ to a destination in its own right.
The longer I scrutinised that German train station, the more convinced I became that it had been designed by the same person. We googled it. Sure enough, we found the Uelzen station was indeed a Hundertwasser and, like the toilets in Kawakawa, it had transformed its hometown into a tourist destination. I wish we’d had time to explore it properly, but we were already on our next train, sauntering towards the next small station.
Throughout our European adventure, I’ve found myself revelling in the discovery of even the slightest New Zealand connection. Despite a certain stand-up comedian in London telling me (and an amused audience) no-one gives a f**k about New Zealand, people we meet won’t stop proclaiming their love for it. On a train in Barcelona, I saw a woman with a New Zealand-themed tote bag and said, in my half-remembered high school Spanish, “Vivo en Nueva Zelanda.” Her face lit up and we talked, in a broken mix of Spanish and English, about all the places she’d visited. In London’s Natural History Museum, I pointed out a stuffed kiwi with perhaps a little too much excitement.
I think it’s fair to say that, after five-and-a-half months of globetrotting, I’m ready to return to my adopted home. First, though, we have a couple of weeks in Malaysia!