You learn a lot serving coffee

You learn a lot serving coffee. For one thing – people hardly ever suspect you might be really listening, which means they quite often say what they really think. Like publicans, baristas are used as a sounding board for opinion – a satellite dish of thought amplified by caffeine.

This year I had the privilege of serving coffee on the Treaty Grounds on Waitangi Day and there was a definite buzz in the air that had absolutely nothing to do with the espresso.

It was a very different day to the one, 19 years ago when a group of us, young university students, had left Wellington and driven all night to take part in the 1990 ‘celebrations’.

It’s funny how history remembers things - in the official pages of NZ history online Waitangi Day 1990 is remembered for the British Queen’s speech where she conceded that perhaps neither the letter nor the spirit of the Treaty had been adhered to by the crown and that perhaps it was time to take an honest look at it. The site also rather glibly mentions that ‘protesters were not absent.’ This would have to win the understatement of the year award as I remember Liz’s speech being drowned out at times by shouts of ‘Go Home’ and earlier in the day a black wet t-shirt splatting somewhere nearby as it was aimed with some force at Queenie’s head as she sped past and we struggled to keep our footing.

19 years ago the air had fair crackled with anger the kind that can either be the catalyst for profound change or could just as easily have boiled over into racial hatred. We never got to see or hear the Maori Queen, the white-gloved hand of the British monarch waved eerily from behind black glass. We finished the day dispirited and confused playing ‘spot the undercover cop’– of which there were literally hundreds in the crowd. We were Alice lost in a fractured nation where the undercurrents of past injustice had suddenly boiled to the surface and no one knew where it would carry us.

Waitangi Day 2009 and it’s a very different story; a few groups of uniformed police wander the grounds but the thick blue lines that bordered the roads all that time ago are absent. Then, I don’t remember many people speaking Te Reo apart from the formal pre-written speeches. This time I heard Maori spoken by many as they ordered lunch and joked with friends and many of the speakers were young.

A few try to provoke some form of protest but no one is taking the bait. A guy in a tee shirt with ‘Colonisation is Beautiful’ wanders round like the kid with the ‘kick me’ sign stuck to his bum.
I ask a customer what he thinks. “I don’t know – he could be right. Could be worse, if it wasn’t the English it could have been the French aye?” Another young bloke in full combat gear with goggles on and a black bandana with a skull round his face carries a flag with the words; “Support it or F#%k off!” Putting lids on coffee cups I ask another guy what the flag represents. “I think it’s the official F%@$K off Flag!” he jokes. Everyone laughs.

An Aussie tourist, noting the happy groups of families picnicking insists;” There’s a lot of in-fighting between Maori – isn’t there? I mean they’re not really very unified…” he trails off. I look around, uncomfortable. The three other customers – all Maori could have been Ngapuhi, Tainui, Ngati Porou, all strangers, all silently greeting each other with warmth, smiling and pretending no one had heard what the guy had said. Stopped in his tracks by magnificent indifference the tourist eventually melts back into the crowd while the other three sip their espressos and just keep chatting, enjoying the company and the glorious view.

If there was any disharmony I wasn’t feeling it. What I could sense was a quiet confident strength in a fledgling unity on many different levels.

The fact that two political leaders prayed at the service rather than using it for posturing was a sign to many not of a new-found religious fervour but that the road ahead may be undertaken in a spirit of humility and sincerity.

How far we’ve come.

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