To get to my new place of work, I go through South Dunedin, an interesting, downbeat suburb in Dunedin with a working class background and history. It may not have much in the way of charm, but at least it has plenty of character, unlike some of the more prosperous, tightly-buttoned suburbs.
It is the most densely populated suburb in New Zealand, built on reclaimed, boggy land as flat as a pancake, and with a water table (which rises and falls with the tide) no deeper than two spade lengths down below ground-level.
It is made up of a hotch-potch of low-cost, wooden bungalows and villas, closely-packed together; chin-to-chin, shoulder-to-shoulder. Part of the population are long-term residents who go back generations. I often think of a little girl we knew from a South Dunedin family without much in the way of material benefits, who lived a joyless, hand-to-mouth existence. She lived only four or five blocks away from the beach, but at four years of age had never been taken to see the ocean. We took her to see it one day. I'll never forget her wide-eyed expression. When she saw White Island, a rocky outcrop about 4 kilometres out from the beach, she said, "What's that bit of dirt doing there?"
Lots of writers have written about South Dunedin, including arguably NZ's most famous writer, Janet Frame.
When a friend and I (who worked together in South Dunedin for a time) are hard-placed to describe someone's puzzling behaviour, we'll say, 'It's a South Dunedin thing,' and both instantly know just what we mean by that. The South Dunedin-thing may be hard to define, but it might be fun trying. One day.