CURING MILLENNIUM MALAISE

AUCKLAND, New Zealand – Is there a pill, a vaccine, an anti-inflammatory to ward off or relieve the dreaded plague called Millennium Malaise?

Here it is only April, and the toll is horrific. Millions, maybe billions, infected – sick of thinking, planning, contemplating, wondering how and where to deal with distant Dec. 31. Could anyone imagine that Millennium Malaise would be an affliction with its own theme song? But can’t you hear the soupy, aged strains of “What are you doing New Year’s . . . New Year’s Eve?”

With the cosmic odomoter inexorably set to spin all four digits, revealing 2000, I hear people plotting exotic journeys to places they believe they ought to be when it happens. What about safari-ing in Africa . . . trekking to Machu Picchu . . . tuxing it up with Antarctic penguins . . . sailing a junk out of Taipei . . . biking the Silk Road . . . listening to Big Ben bong the 12 big ones? Serious stuff for folks who worry that they’ll be out-tripped.

Was it like this in 1899? Is everybody on edge because we get only one shot at it? My recommendation is tenting on Boston’s Revere Beach, positioned for a brisk swim as the sun and millennium’s opening daylight sprout from the Atlantic – followed by thermal bundling and considerable brandy from a rental St. Bernard. But I haven’t heard of a travel agent offering that one. Yet.

Suppose there isn’t any first light? As you know, End-of-the-World Millenniacs are out there, doomsinging, primed for a concluding chorus of “Fold Lang Syne” and a farewell shout: “Happy No Year!”

If you’re of like mind, I know a bookmaker in Melbourne, Michael Eskander, who will lay you 1,000 to 1 against. “Actually, you can name your price,” he advises, “because if you win there may be a problem collecting.”

Generous fellow.

“You ought to put your malaise to rest today by deciding to come right back here, to New Zealand at the end of December,” suggests Maria Sweet, proprietor of an airy hairy salon called Exhibit A. She is making a diligent scissorly search for remnants of my locks to trim. “This is the country of the initial daybreak of the initial day of the initial millennium that any of us will ever witness arriving.”

Location is everything, I suppose.

“Absolutely. And the price is right for you Yanks with your dollar worth about twice as much as ours.”

Another of many reasons to love Kiwi country.

Maria says that the east coast town of Gisborne will be the “hot spot” for those hoping to blink in the virginal light of 2000 – “a blink-in drink-in on the beach.

“When Captain Cook landed on New Zealand in 1769, staking real estate claims for Britain, Gisborne was the place, well southeast of Auckland. But he called it Poverty Bay, poor pickings, and moved on. It’s our most easterly community, closest to the International Date Line – thus the world’s ‘Hello, 2000!’ town. You can rent a car or take an eight-hour bus ride from Auckland. No airport or train station there.”

Margaret Mettner of Gisborne’s tourist office says her area is known for excellent wine, “considered the Chardonnay capital of New Zealand.”

Will there be enough to go around? You do expect a few visitors, don’t you?

“Oh, yes, a few,” she says, chuckling on the phone. “Perhaps as many as 200,000. But the vineyards won’t run dry. We’re putting on extra grapes.”

First light sounds like second thoughts on my part. Or first fright. Isn’t Gisborne a settlement of merely 30,000?

“That’s right, but we’re planning carefully, and we have a lot of space,” Mettner says. There are motel rooms available in the $50 to $250 range. That’s in US dollars. But most people will probably be camping on the beaches. We’re organized, and we believe visitors will be respectful and orderly.

“We’ll have dancing in the streets, concerts, a Maori music festival, art exhibits, horse races. Plenty to do. There’ll be a bullock drive from Wairoa, a reenactment of pioneer days.”

Do you have to bring your own bullock?

“Only if you feel like it. TV networks have scouted us for camera positions. The world will see Gisborne, one way or another.”

Sounds like fun such as Gisborne has never seen. Even if “Larry King Live” shows up, as rumored. Is Mettler looking forward to we-are-the-world descending on her precinct?

“I think I’ll take my holidays that week.”

Maria thinks I’d be more comfortable in Auckland, preferably without a bullock. “Most hotels wouldn’t welcome one.

“Seeing Jan. 1 sweep in brightly from way up high, the observation deck of the Sky Tower – our tallest structure – should be exciting. The view is fabulous, and there’s a casino. You can gain a new year while losing your shirt.

“That’s a modern outlook. But for a real Kiwi feeling, I like One Tree Hill. Even though it rises in the center of the city, it’s a very bucolic park and seems remote. A resident flock of sheep keeps the crest neat, unshaggy.”

Kindred barbering spirits, Maria?

“In a way. But not stylists,” she says, smiling professionally. “Karekare Beach on the west coast, a half-hour drive outside of town, would be a romantic place for a New Year party. Starkly beautiful. Black sand. Rock formations like drip castles. Much of that wonderful movie with Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel, ‘The Piano,’ was shot there.

“You could also charter a boat and oversee 2000′s inauguration in Huaraki Gulf where the America’s Cup races will be held. Auckland calls itself the ‘City of Sails’ because of our seafaring heritage. Most tourists would probably prefer it to be the city of sales.”

Anything to avoid staying home, I guess.

Although Professor Irwin Corey, the late comedian and a roadie, didn’t have to deal with Millennium Malaise, I am comforted by his profound words: “Remember, no matter where you go – there you are.” The main idea is – malaise be damned – to be somewhere to greet 2000. Anywhere.

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