A tiny reminder from the other side of the world takes root here

One of the things that often unites this country’s massive expatriate population is a desire to surround ourselves with a few reminders of home while we make new lives in the UAE.

For some, it’s a restaurant serving food just like the kind available in their countries of origin – regardless of whether that is a south Indian thali, American burgers, Lebanese hummus or English fish and chips. 

For others, their business names serve as reminders of the life they left behind. This is particularly poignant for the many Palestinians who were driven out of their homeland and whose villages and towns live on in the names of their bakeries, tiling businesses and car workshops.

For me, it’s a fern. 

It’s asplenium bulbiferum, to be precise, but better known in New Zealand as the hen-and-chicken fern because of its trait of self-propagating through small bulbils that sprout from the fronds then detach themselves from the parent plant and hope to land somewhere moist enough to take root.

The mature fern sitting on my work desk now was grown from a tiny bulbil harvested from the fern house in Christchurch Botanical Gardens last year. The fern house was a favourite place to visit on grey wintry days during the dozen years when I worked for a newspaper in the city.

The Christchurch earthquakes put paid to so much from that time.

My old newspaper’s office – a Victorian gothic building – partially collapsed, with one fatality. It was later demolished, along with many of the stone heritage buildings I used to pass on my way to the fern house. 

I’d left New Zealand before the quakes but still owned a house in Christchurch and used to visit roughly once a year. Most of the central city remained cordoned off because of earthquake damage and although the botanical gardens were open, the fern house remained closed. In a city with thousands of families whose homes were uninhabitable, the fern house slipped – rightly – down the list of priorities. 

On my last visit a year ago, it was an unexpected surprise while on a visit to the inner city to find it had been repaired and reopened. 

Walking in was an eerie déjà vu moment back to my previous life from nearly a decade before, so I nipped a few of the bulbils from mature hen-and-chickens ferns, secreted them in a plastic bag with a little water and brought them back to Abu Dhabi with me.

Just like the English who hanker for fish and chips or the dispossessed Palestinians whose dreams of returning home live on in the names of their small businesses, I yearn for the lush greenery and untamed nature of New Zealand. 

For the time being, a tiny hint of home lives on in a pot on my desk. Despite possessing gardening skills that might most kindly be referred to as Darwinian, one of the tiny ferns I collected survived. From being barely bigger than a fingernail in size, it has now grown 20 times as big. The fronds have sprouted bulbils of their own which have been harvested and planted ready to give away to other homesick Kiwis. 

In its way, this process has turned full circle. The buildings in Christchurch that succumbed to the earthquakes were built more than a century ago in an architectural style poorly suited to an active seismic zone but were primarily intended to remind the English settlers of Christchurch of life back in the old country. 

They succeeded in that goal, with Christchurch regularly being named the most English city outside of England despite being about as far from England as it was possible to be and in the midst of an earthquake zone. 

Now I in turn have a reminder of my old life in New Zealand on a desk in a newspaper in Abu Dhabi.

JHenzell@thenational.ae

Published: August 1, 2015 04:00 AM

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