Dunedin Through International Eyes

Dunedin Through International Eyes

I estimate that as I endure my stressful daily routine - sleeping, eating, considering going to lectures, deciding in the negative, sleeping, Facebooking, quick trip to Sav Jap, illegal downloading, sleeping again - I spend about 94.6% of that time thinking about how much I hate Dunedin (the other 5.4% is a recurring sexual fantasy involving Ridiculously Photogenic Guy and a riding crop).

My grievances are so numerous I could probably write an entire article on them, but in brief the main ones are:
the weather - colder than Angela Merkel’s vagina, with a fortnightly stunning day to remind us how shit it is the rest of the time;
the housing - no insulation, current flat’s shower pressure feels like small fruit bat urinating on the back of my neck;
the sex - sometimes good, mostly awful, always far too drunk;
the drugs - crap and expensive. Almost enough to drive an aspiring psychonaut to Life Pharmacy for some Robitussin.

Cold, inadequately showered, sexually unsatisfied and irritably sober bitch that I am, I find it incomprehensible that anyone from a less “culturally isolated” city/country/continent would make a conscious decision to come and study at the University of Otago for a semester. But apparently they do, and there are actually quite a lot of them. There are currently nearly 3,000 exchange students at Otago. The biggest cohort is Americans (650), followed by Malaysians and Chinese.

I somehow found a free slot in my hectic schedule to drop by one of the international flats on Great King and interview three exchange students about their Otago experience: Colin, from Boston, USA; Shane, from New York State, USA; and Jess, from Glasgow, Scotland. I was hoping it would be a massive bitch session, but the overall verdict was overwhelmingly positive save for a few complaints. Meh, whatever. My old flatmate in Berlin enjoyed his boyfriend evacuating his bowels on his chest then smearing the resultant faecal matter around his torso with his buttocks, but that doesn’t make it ok. Freaks.

The Good

Going feral

Unsurprisingly, the number one attraction of Dunedin for exchange students is the chance to go a little bit feral. Colin and Shane gleefully espoused the timesaving benefits of diminished responsibility for one’s own personal hygiene: “People would look at you funny if you didn’t shower every day at home, but it’s normal here. Pretty freaking sweet”.

I moved my chair back a couple of feet to pose my next question. Both were rocking majestic beards that gave off a sort of Borat-meets-Southern-Man vibe. Was this luxuriant facial hair a Dunedin addition? It was. Apparently most of the boys see little need to bother shaving while at Otago, “for warmth”. They have a point. I have always felt that one of the few pluses of Dunedin’s harsh winters and harsher summers is the freedom from shaving my legs unless the remote possibility of a Les Mills visit or getting laid presents itself.

Minimal class attendance

Also much beloved among the exchange student population is general freedom from academic responsibility. Reassuringly, the students’ lecture attendance records seemed to be as dismal as my own. Back home, they said that the standard low-achiever attendance pattern (first lecture, last lecture, maybe one guilt-ridden lecture sometime around mid-semester) would probably lead to failing the paper. Otago, probably understanding that such a policy would lead to 85% of students failing everything, has a more “laxed” approach. Colin: “Yeah, pretty much haven’t gone to anything since before mid-semester break. Went and got Frankly’s the other day though. I really like the hummus there.”

Nice people

Dunedin’s people were even more unanimously lauded than our superbly garlicky hummus. The general consensus was that we are all “super chilled”, “know how to drink” and “really like speed cooking”. The first two seemed fair enough, but the last one puzzled me until Shane explained that Critic’s old Scarfie reporter Lozz Holding had welcomed them to Dunedin with goon and a reenactment of a You Tube speed cooking clip he had seen earlier that afternoon. Shockingly, Holding’s attempted “2 minute Boeuf Bourguignon” did not go entirely according to plan. He departed after ten minutes in suspicious circumstances, leaving the exchangers with no clean pots or utensils and a small soup bowl half-full of what Holding referred to as as “jus” but Shane asserts was in fact charred marrow thinned to a slurry with Holding’s own urine.

The booze

More successful than the Boeuf was the goon, which all the exchangers professed a profound, almost spiritual reverence for. Cheap wine was another highlight, their preferred brands being Riverstone and Corbans. Shane waxed lyrical about our laws requiring alcohol brands to put the number of standard drinks per bottle on the label. His favourite way to wile away a drizzly afternoon of no lectures is the “standards game”. To play, you wander the aisles of Leith Liquorland trying to identify the cheapest possible standard drink. Shane plays weekly: “it’s almost become a ritual, you know? I’m gonna miss it when I go back to the States,” he murmured wistfully, with what was either a far-away or very hungover look in his eye.

The Bad

Vile weather

Jess told me without a trace of irony that she had selected Dunedin as an exchange destination for its weather: “It’s kind of near Sydney and they have nice weather there”. This is an assumption about as dangerous as booking a family holiday to Baghdad because it’s kind of near Dubai and they have nice shopping there. Jess’s dreams of cloudless skies, balmy breezes and taut tanned limbs were immediately shattered when she arrived and realised that actually climate is “absolutely fucking bollocks”. “Not just cold, not just wet, but both. Frankly it’s pretty ratshit whichever way you look at it.”

Backwards everything

When I asked the exchangers what they expected when they touched down in Dunedin, they unanimously answered, “central heating”. Um, yeah, nah. Let’s face it, we’re not exactly at the forefront of global living standards. Colin summarised Dunedin thusly: “It’s like the USA of the 60s - the fashion and stuff - combined with the technology of the 90s.” The preference for stubbies was cited as “worrying”, particularly when paired with “flip-flops” “in the middle of fucking winter.”

All the students were horrified at our ridiculously slow internet. Jess nearly shed a tear when she realised that in only a month she’d return home and be able to watch You Tube videos without waiting for five minutes for each one to load, “by which point you’ve lost interest and have gone to the kitchen to do some spots anyway”.

Not enough wanton destruction of property

There was palpable disappointment at the general lack of couch fires - “just a couple in O-Week; was kinda hoping for some more destruction to be honest,” says Shane. I asked why they had not got the ball rolling and the upholstery burning themselves. They agreed that it was important to be proactive, but their motivation to do anything except sit around the kitchen swaddled in blankets and doing spots had waned significantly since they arrived in Dunedin. Spots seemed to be a big hit - I heard several anecdotes about “Blackout Brian”, another American who has become so attached to this method of getting stoned that he brings his own knives and a small camping stove with him wherever he goes. What a GC.


Everyone agreed that the quality and availability of most drugs was a disappointment. However, the ever-resourceful Jess said that she has used the opportunity to “get off hard drugs, for this semester anyway”.

General ignorance

Jess has a friend in Glasgow who has managed to get himself banned from “like 30 bars”. When she repeated this story to some P.E students from Southland at the Cook, they didn’t believe her, because “it’s not possible for a city to have more than 20 bars”. What. The. Fuck. Sometimes I’m seriously ashamed to be Kiwi.

But Why?

Despite the general backwardness of Dunedin, the overall verdict was that all the exchangers “fucking love it”. Despite my misanthropy about my adopted hometown, I can see their point. Whether you’re Glaswegian or Bostonian or Wellingtonian, the best bits of Dunedin are its seediest and scarfiest. If you’re here for what is rapidly becoming a seven-year BA/LLB, some of it inevitably gets a bit tired, and physical and mental health becomes a concern. But a single semester? You may as well do all the spots and burn all the couches you like.
This article first appeared in Issue 14, 2012.
Posted 8:39pm Sunday 3rd June 2012 by Anonymous.