About the only time of the year in Northland where you feel that you're at the beating, cultural centre of the nation, is on the Treaty grounds on Waitangi Day. Everyone shows up and non-famous ambassadors and foreign dignitaries trail through the local airports on the way to celebrate something that few of us have fully come to grips with ourselves.
Unlike the Constitution, understanding the Treaty and what it means to us as a relatively new nation seems to be more a work in progress rather than a given which has become so familiar that it no longer needs to bear questioning. Like a campfire in dry scrub, perhaps the Treaty's ability to ignite debate has built the media myth that the Waitangi grounds on Waitangi Day are a seething hotbed of political intrigue and dissent. For all I know, it might be true but I've never seen it.
For five years now I've been working in the mad Latin's coffee truck every Waitangi Day. It continues to be one of the best family days of the year.
The only regret I have is that I'll have to wait another year until I get to eat the world's best white-bait and mussel fritters. There is a bit of heated disagreement over which aunty has the best seafood chowder. There could be a bit of good-natured ribbing if someone burns something but that's about it. It's hard to take the TV presenters seriously, talking eagerly to camera of some form of argy-bargy. Not least because you never see them in Northland for all the good stuff that happens here. It's often a glorious day, there's a whole world of different kinds of food, the waka and their crews are always impressive and you end up feeling sorry for the celebrity presenter who has been sent to drum up drama in between taking sips from their espressos.
Years ago, I remember when one feisty young woman offed her wet T-shirt and hurled it in the general direction of Queen Elizabeth. Having just spent four years in Wellington, I was impressed at this form of protest as I remained under the impression that a riot could be started by simply wearing shorts down Lambton Quay or for having a variation in suit colour.
I welcomed the feral and liberating form of dissent then but now, like the many thousands of visitors who enjoy the grounds on Northland's big day, I come back for the genuine hospitality and grace offered by the Waitangi Trust when they open the grounds each year for a public celebration.
The ridiculously early morning start when all the food sellers and workers wait at the gates in the pre-dawn gloaming while keys are found and cookers heat up.
Priests, politicians and parishioners floating back from early prayers in the musky pinks and golds at dawn. The smells of 100 different ethnic foods being prepared - the calls to 'save me one of those' or 'I'll bring you one over when I get set up'. The kids' kapahaka groups beating out the pulse through the day. The dignified old waka; a retired sea captain observing it all. Impervious.
The ubiquitous Right Wing Resistance Neo-Nazi flag-waving lone skinhead pointlessly trying to make a point. Instead of being angry, people were nice to him last year and bought him a coffee. "What was that flag?" asked a Dutch tourist. "The United Front for Dickheads" said one young Maori guy. Everyone laughed and went back to their coffees and enjoying the day. The Treaty grounds on Waitangi Day; it's the perfect picnic.