September 12, 2016

When in Rome, Buy a Lacrosse Stick and a Kindle

It was about 3 months into our new life in Johannesburg. I was sitting in the headmaster's office at Dainfern College and laying out carefully curated arguments to convince him that my daughter, and girls in general, should be allowed to play soccer.

He listened to all of it very patiently, said he understood my reasons, and smiled at me not unlike Dumbledore, in a gentle yet stern way. Then he said:

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I didn't like hearing this at all. How unfair, I thought, that my daughter would have to start from scratch playing netball - what the hell even IS netball? - even though she had played, and been fairly good at, soccer for years. What kind of signal did that send to her? Why was South Africa so behind the times? Wouldn't it be good for them to change their ways?

But - as every other expat knows - I was very short on time fighting these kinds of battles, what with a container having arrived with furniture that needed arranging and pictures that needed hanging and an entire new routine that needed establishing. So I didn't dig in.

Since the school team was a no-go, I went and signed her up for a boys' soccer team that allowed girls. I took her there, watched a few badly-run practices, and was not surprised when she wanted to quit a few weeks into it, telling me the boys were silly and were never passing her the ball and anyways she'd rather play whatever sport it was to be with girls. She joined the netball team the next day.

She chose to do as the Romans do. For pre-teens and teenagers, this is often the only sensible solution.

Then we had to start all over again when moving back to the United States, where there was of course no demand for good netball or field hockey players. The old headmaster's words still rang in my head when we scouted out the new schools, and what the Romans were doing best in Brentwood, TN, seemed to be lacrosse. So we we went shopping for a lacrosse stick.




Our oldest son also switched to lacrosse. Here he is practicing "wall ball" at school.

During the course of our moves, we've had to adapt in other extracurricular areas as well. Arriving in South Africa meant out with baseball, basketball, gymnastics, girl scouts, vacation bible school, and in with field hockey, cricket, rugby, scuba diving, and singing.There was plenty on offer - in fact more than before - but a lot of it was new to our family.

In other areas of daily life, it was also out with Starbucks drive-through for a quick coffee on the fly, and in with afternoon braais that segued seamlessly into long evenings in the company of unhurried friends. Out with efficient shopping trips to Target and in with a cobbled-together shopping list featuring Star Butchery for biltong, Woolies for the pure joy of shopping, and a street vendor or two for some clothes hangers or a Springbok rugby shirt.

As I've said before in a blog post titled Expat Joys: Variety and Life Skills, turning expat hassles into expat joys is just a matter of perspective. You can go the path of the "grumpy expat" and try to force your old life into your new environment, meaning you'll most likely be stressed out and miserable, or you can learn how to be a successful expat. A lot of the latter course starts with "Doing as the Romans do."

The cool thing is that you get to dabble in stuff that you've never dabbled in before. In South Africa, we got into scuba diving and horseback riding as a family, activities we'd never have started without the new opportunities presenting themselves. I myself became a hobby photographer, took piano and violin lessons, and began playing tennis, a sport that has stayed with me and has proven to be a wonderful way to meet new people.

But adapting to your new environment isn't always all upside. For example, doing as the (South African) Romans do meant that our kids were hardly reading books anymore. Their peers didn't seem to be reading much, or if they were, the level was quite a bit lower, public libraries were nonexistent, and paperbacks were terribly expensive. So I convinced my husband that the investment in four brand-new Kindles was worth it. Sometimes you have to do as the Romans do with a twist.

Today, our basement is littered with old baseball bats, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks, and more helmets of varying shapes and forms than you might imagine are possible. It is my secret dream that someone would come up with The Universal Helmet that can be worn for every sport there is. Doesn't each helmet have more or less the same functionality? But I guess the Romans had their own helmets too.

And their own lacrosse sticks.

When in Rome, buy a lacrosse stick so your kids can cavort with the little lacrosse-playing Roman bambini, but also get them a Kindle so they can best them in reading!



September 5, 2016

10 Ways Johannesburg and South Africa Have Changed Since 2012

Eish - you leave a place, and in the blink of an eye it changes on you!

In the three and a half years since we left South Africa, so many things have changed. I guess it's normal that things change. But it feels as if nothing much changed at all while we lived in Johannesburg, and then boom! - the minute we are gone, new stuff sprouts up all over the place.

What kind of stuff am I talking about?

Here are my observations during our whirlwind trip of last month of what is new in Johannesburg:


  1. William Nicol is now 6 lanes wide from Fourways to Dainfern (and I assume all the way to Diepsloot), meaning where you previously had to compete with a thousand minibus taxis to squeeze into one single lane coming home during afternoon rush hour is now a thing of the past. Construction on this had actually started in the months before we left, giving us the entire inconvenience of closed lanes without any of the future benefit.
  2. New Retailers have sprung up like mushrooms after a wet summer, giving South Africa the same shopping-crazed hype that we experienced in Singapore in the late 90s. It's as if shopping has become South Africa's new pastime. New franchises have poured into the country at an ever increasing stream, such as Burger King, Domino's Pizza, Forever 21, H&M, Krispy Creme, and Starbucks
  3. In equal measure, new shopping centres continue to be opened. The new Dainfern Square Shopping Centre next to Dainfern Valley is oh so convenient, with such nice stores as Vida e Cafe, Yume Sushi, a Virgin Active gym, Exclusive Books, and of course the fabulous Woolies. Right across is a new garden center I would have loved to have there when doing all my gardening. If you live in my old neighborhood, Dainfern Valley, and if you're so inclined, you can now shop and eat to your heart's content on foot or via golf cart without ever having to get your car out of the garage. 
  4. New houses in secure estates keep being built. Nashville, where we live now, is one of the new boom cities in the U.S., but I'd be darned if there weren't even more home construction projects going on in Northern Joburg. Take the legendary Steyn City, for instance. Developed by billionaire Douw Steyn, this new neighborhood right next to Dainfern Golf is either a crazy enterprise or absolutely brilliant, depending on how you look at it. It's a city within a city with schools, shopping, and even an equestrian center built right into it, so you presumably don't even have to go to the new Dainfern Square anymore, since everything will be available within the walled city. Strikes you a bit medieval, doesn't it? Just check out Steyn's own 3000 square meter mansion. Eish!
  5. Vodacom fibre (and other providers). One of the curses of living in the developed world is that you routinely get leapfrogged by developing countries with the emergence of new technology. This is how we're still handwriting checks for our kids' class fees and the plumber who comes to unclog our toilet, whereas South Africans have used EFT banking for years if not decades. And this is how our internet speeds have become very sad affairs compared to what some of my friends now get in South Africa. From the few conversations I've had, it sounds like Afrihost is still the way to go in terms of your internet provider, with great pricing for uncapped data and excellent customer service, without a contract.
  6. There is now Netflix in South Africa. I was informed of this from several sides, practically before I'd had a chance to say hello, that's how excited this news was first received. No more need to set up complicated constructs to change your DNS address, or employ a VPN. You'll still need a Roku, Google Chromecast,  Apple TV, or even a Smart TV, but you can connect those directly to Netflix and watch all your favorite shows. Or, rather, most of them - not all the shows Netflix streams to South Africa are the same, apparently. If you do want the same as in the U.S, you WILL need a VPN, but be careful - Netflix is able to detect and block the more commonly known ones. 
  7. Most U.S. TV shows are now available for South African viewing on MNet DSTV within 1-24 hours of airing in the U.S. It's called Express from the U.S. If you consider that while we lived there only 3 years ago, we were 2 or more seasons behind on everything, this is a startling development. Sadly, however, this also means that my beloved Chaplin's, a cute little DVD rental shop in the Valley Shopping Center, is now out of business. No need to watch actual DVDs if  you can get any show from the U.S. almost instantly. I have such fond memories of Chalin's! You'd almost always run into an acquaintance there, and you'd have to be fast on a Friday night or all the good movies would already be taken.
  8. I already wrote about this in a previous post, but Amazon now ships to South Africa. It's done this for a while, but the shipping rates seem to have come down drastically, making it a very affordable option. A friend of mine had a $95 textbook - not light by any means - shipped for $13 from Amazon.com and received it in 10 days. That is definitely no longer prohibitive, and it opens up a whole new world for South Africans and expats alike.
  9. This is a minor change that won't affect most expats, but there are now actual minibus taxi bus stops sprinkled along the most popular routes, little shelters with a bench and a roof over them. They immediately caught my eye. In a city that has such low coverage of public transport, this stood out to me. I also saw them in the Eastern Cape, so it's not just a Gauteng phenomenon.
  10. I saved the best for last: Uber cars. This, more than anything else, has changed the world for most of our South African and expat friends. Where teenagers were bound to the house or neighborhood, or had to rely on parents to cart them around, they are now much more flexible to safely and inexpensively get around with Uber. Adults use it too. We used it to get to and from the airport, for about $30 each way. It's as if a whole new world of public transport has been opened up that didn't exist before. Joburg is teeming with Uber cars these days, meaning you won't have to wait even 3 minutes for one of them no matter where you are (okay, I didn't test that one; I didn't try to haul one from within Alexandra - that might have been the true test). And, as I said, they're very affordable, more so than in the U.S. Which is actually amazing since gas (petrol) prices are quite a bit higher in South Africa.

our Uber driver at OR Tambo International Airport

This concludes my list. Did I forget anything?

But I'm not quite done yet. This blogpost wouldn't be complete if I didn't also mention some of the things that HAVEN'T CHANGED since I've left South Africa.

The highveld is as dusty as ever in winter, and the air has that same smell of woodfires.

You can still get an excellent meal at very affordable prices in a great selection of restaurants

The wine seems to have gotten even cheaper, or perhaps it has gotten more expensive in the U.S. For the price we pay at restaurants here for just one glass, in South Africa you can get an entire bottle of a very decent vintage.

Jacob Zuma's antics are as shameful as ever

Shopping at Woolworths is as wonderful as ever 

You still encounter a few random road blocks every day, and have to hope that your car doesn't scream "expat" at the cops pulling you over to ask, have you brought anything for them today?

The broken robot at Cedar Rd and Witkoppen is still out since the last time I drove by in 2012.

Joburg traffic is still Joburg traffic

You still get your drugs in those funny little cages

You still get your cappuccino artistically enhanced

August 29, 2016

Reason Number 2 Why You Won't Want to Leave South Africa: Woolworths

I've said it before and I'll say it again: In all my time at Joburg Expat (approaching 7 years), I have yet to come across any expats who look forward to leaving South Africa.

There are many reasons (I've recently found 30 of them) why people don't want to leave South Africa, chief among them the outstanding climate, the friendly people, and the laid-back lifestyle.

But when you talk to anyone who's made their home in Johannesburg or elsewhere in the country and ask them what they'll miss most about South Africa one day, I'll miss Woolies will come up almost immediately.

Woolies, of course, is what South Africans fondly call the grocery chain Woolworths.

My all-time favorite staple at Woolies.


When we first moved to Joburg, I thought that Woolworths was in some way connected to the English department store of the same name, the one I associated with cheap discount goods sold in cramped aisles and large bins to sift through, so I was a bit apprehensive. But there is no connection. Woolworths was founded in 1931 in South Africa (with its first store in Cape Town), and the English chain it actually was, for a time, associated with and modeled after, is Marks and Spencer.

Of all the reasons to be proud of South Africa, Woolies should be at the very top. It is, in my humble opinion, the world's best grocery store. In all my years in Germany, Singapore, and the United States, I haven't found another grocery store I'd rather spend time in and shop at than Woolies.

After we left South Africa, I thought that perhaps my infatuation with Woolies was misplaced. That perhaps I suffered from pure nostalgia, that I bunched Woolworths together with all sorts of irrational loves viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of hindsight that wouldn't withstand the test of time.

But I've just been back to South Africa, and one of my first errands was to go shopping at Woolies to fill my second suitcase brought specifically for that purpose. Immediately I was drawn into its bann again and remembered how much I loved it. It felt like coming home. I was practically giddy pushing my cart through the aisles, and it was super hard not to fill it up with everything in sight.

Biltong selection at Woolworths

Only my husband's valiant efforts kept me from loading up on biltong, on account of the biltong-sniffing dogs at American airports. Same for the little sausage sticks called Cabanossi that I could snack on all day, and have never found in American grocery stores.

Instead, we decided to buy a biltong machine, complete with biltong spices. My excitement to try it out is somewhat dampened by the fact that it's the wrong voltage meaning the built-in fan won't work, and the required light bulb doesn't fit into the socket. It will require so much tinkering that it would have been easier to build it from scratch. I'll report on my biltong-making venture at some future time.

It was also very hard to pass by the yogurt, the cheese selection, and the snack shelf. Yum!

Outstanding deli salads and fresh snacks at Woolies

It's hard to put my finger on exactly why I love Woolies so much. Mostly, it's a combination of two things: quality and convenience. 

The quality of the food you can get at Woolies, particularly the fresh produce, is consistently outstanding. You know how you will get a bad batch of peaches and think to yourself, oh well, they can't all be good, and move on? Not at Woolies. Every single batch of anything I've ever bought there was good, or better than good.

The best low-fat yogurt you'll ever taste.

While shopping at Woolies definitely puts you at the high end of grocery stores in South Africa, it's still not very expensive, particularly when compared to food prices in the United States. Woolworths has a large range of its own branded goods, in fact you won't find many branded goods on its shelves. This might initially be a turnoff to the newly arrived expat looking for Nestle chocolate chips or Honey Nut Cheerios, but trust me, you'll come to love the Woolworths brand so much that you'll cry big tears when you no longer have access to it.

Interestingly, Woolworths doesn't have a deli with cut-to-order cold cuts like so many other grocery stores. You'd think that's a big downside but it never bothered me. They do sell a few packaged hams and cured meats that were always enough for me, and not having to wait in slow deli lines was actually more of a bonus than a drawback.

And it looks like you can now even get German soft pretzels at Woolies, as well as other artisan breads, which used to be the only weakness when making a Woolworths shopping run.



But even more than the excellent quality, it is the convenience of shopping at Woolies that won me over so quickly.

Whoever is in charge of Woolworth real estate and store locations is a genius. If you like it just five minutes from home, go to the little Woolies with just four aisles that you can be in and out of in ten minutes. If you like a wider selection, go to the large shopping center you do most of your errands at, and there will be a large Woolies there as well. But even there, you won't be overwhelmed by miles and miles of aisles with too many choices. By actually limiting choice and instead focusing on good quality products, Woolies makes grocery shopping so much more enjoyable. I remember my first shopping run after we returned to the U.S. and how exhausted I was after comparing a bazillion brands in vast superstores. Turns out, unlimited choice is not nearly as great as it's made out to be.

Woolworths somehow manages to bring back the little mom and pop store experience of old, but with modern-day quality and selection. I also like who they are as a company, as described in their Good Business Journey initiative.


Note: This post was written without any incentives or sponsorship by Woolworths

August 22, 2016

Paradise

Coming back to South Africa was almost exactly as I'd imagined it. 

The red sunset over a dusty city. 

The smell of wood fires in the air. 

The smiling faces around me. 

The feel of a Zulu handshake. 

Ordering a whole bottle of Chardonnay with dinner for ZAR 80 which is less than $7. 

Waking up to the cry of a hadeda. 

But since then we've entered a new dimension of bliss: the Wild Coast. I won't bore you with a lot of writing and instead just go ahead and post the first pictures from our Meander starting at Kob Inn going westward. 












This last picture is the view I have this very moment soaking my feet in the hot tub at our inn, sipping a freshly-brewed cappuccino and waiting for a massage. (Which is well-needed after 22 km against the strongest nonstop wind I've ever had blowing in my face.)

Can life get any better than this?

August 15, 2016

Africa, Here We Come!

I'm so excited, I don't even know how to start this blog post.

The reason I'm excited is that after 3 years and 7 months, I'll be treading on African soil once again. Tomorrow I'll be embarking on the first leg of a long flight to Johannesburg.

Johannesburg, people! I can hardly wait. I have a hard time imagining how it'll feel. Will everything look as new and intriguing as it did when I first arrived in September 2009? Or will it seem familiar?

The very first picture I ever took in South Africa: the entrance of Dainfern estate in Johannesburg

Either way, I plan to soak it all up like the thirsty African soil after a long dry winter. I can't wait for any of these firsts:

  • Hearing the first "Eish!" being spoken.
  • Glimpsing the Johannesburg skyline for the first time when driving in from OR Tambo
  • Driving by a phalanx of street vendors and taking in what they're hawking these days
  • Having a salesperson return change to me by extending one arm and touching their other hand to that forearm in that most graceful African gesture
  • A minibus squeezing into the impossibly small gap in front of us
  • Catching a glimpse of the glorious Magaliesberg to the North of Johannesburg in the wintry haze
  • Hearing the first screech of a hadeda
  • A parking guard smiling into my window
  • Touching the first Cape berry in the produce section of Woolies
  • Even - gasp! - a broken robot.


Seriously, it's true. Even the tiniest memory of  our Joburg days makes me nostalgic. It's the power of The Rose-Tinted Glasses of Hindsight. We Americans like to grumble about our crumbling infrastructure, but it was 3 years and 6.5 months that I went without seeing a single broken traffic light after moving back to the U.S. Just two weeks ago, I came upon a busy intersection where the light was blinking red. Everyone was confused and very gingerly made attempts to get across. I was elated. I was overjoyed. "A broken robot!" I shouted, much to my daughter's consternation whose friend gave me a very puzzled look.

You'll agree that I'm dire need of my Africa fix.

But what, my dear friends, should I make of my one full day in Johannesburg?

I doubt that I'll be sleeping for a single second. I'll be running around with a notepad all day making sure nothing, absolutely NOTHING escapes me that I might blog about, and I'll be up every night jotting it all down and sorting pictures. Maybe this will be a good opportunity to sample all of Joburg's new coffee shops I've been reading about.

I wonder if it'll feel like picking up exactly where we left it off in December of 2012 when we said Goodbye Africa.

I cannot wait for any of it.

Oh, and what will I be doing in Africa? More on that in upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned!

Nelson Mandela towering over me, September 2009,
Mandela Square, Sandton, Johannesburg

August 8, 2016

Top 5 Places for History Lovers in Johannesburg

I've written about so many different things to do in and around Joburg that I decided I needed to bring these to my readers again, this time in a slightly more structured fashion. So I've decided to pick different themes and summarize my Top 5 recommendations for each.

Today's theme: History in and around Johannesburg. It wasn't an easy pick as there are many other worthwhile attractions, but here we go:

1. Apartheid Museum 


Any tour of Johannesburg's and South Africa's history has to start with the Apartheid Museum. You can't help but be touched by the weight of history when issued your entrance ticket classifying you as "white" or "non-white", letting you experience the violent days when armored trucks roamed township streets and trials were held to convict freedom fighters for treason against the state as if you had been there yourself.

And while you're in Soweto, continue on to the Hector Pieterson Memorial about 20 minutes away, which is the jelly equivalent to the Apartheid Museum's peanut butter, to learn about Hector Pieterson, the 12-year old boy who was killed during the Soweto Uprising of 1976. On your way you might also stop at Nelson Mandela House on Vilakazi Street where the great man once lived (and within walking distance of another great man's house, that of Archbishop Desmund Tutu), Walter Sisulu Square where the Freedom Charter is on display, and Regina Mundi Church where you can see bullet holes next to beautiful stained glass windows. Don't worry if you can't fit it all into one trip, because for sure the giant bustling township of Soweto will lure you back in with its siren call, having become quite the tourist hotspot with many attractions like wine tastings, music festivals, and bike tours.

Read A Trip Back into South Africa's History and Soweto for more information.

2. Liliesleaf Farm


Liliesleaf Farm, while also inextricably linked with South Africa's Apartheid era, makes for a very different experience than the Apartheid Museum and is best tackled on another day. But it is no less fascinating. Located nowhere near Soweto but rather in what's now the Northern Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia, Liliesleaf Farm today looks like a peaceful country retreat, belying its part in the violence that tore South Africa apart in the days when Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed faction of the African National Congress, embarked on a campaign of sabotage and bombing to draw attention to the civil rights struggle. Here you will learn all about the Rivonia Trial and how Nelson Mandela came to be captured the second time and locked away on Robben Island. With South African municipal elections just completed, a visit to Liliesleaf Farm is a great way to go back in time and learn how the ANC came of age, who its major players were, and why it still holds such political (if waning) power today.

Read Liliesleaf Farm and the Rivonia Trial and Nelson Mandela for more information.

3. Maropeng Visitor Center and Sterkfontein Caves


This might strike you as an odd selection for this blog post, but then again the Cradle of Humankind is one of South Africa's oldest historic sites. It's located about an hour to the Northwest of Johannesburg surrounded by beautiful hilly country, worth the trip in its own right. Learn about the earliest hominids at Maropeng, which admittedly is a bit of a Disney-like attraction, though much smaller in scale, with a boat ride through evolution and a series of educational displays. Combine it with a visit at Sterkfontein Caves where 2 million years old "Mrs. Ples," was discovered.

With Professor Lee Berger recently in the news with the Homo Naledi discovery, the Cradle of Humankind should be on your shortlist if you're at all interested in archaeology or anthropology, but it also makes for a fun and educational outing for the entire family. You could top it off with a balloon safari and a dinner at nearby must-experience Carnivore Restaurant (or the equally unique Leafy Greens Cafe if you're a vegetarian).

Read Back to the Cradle for more information.

4. The Rand Club


For some reason, my previous blog post about the Rand Club created quite the controversy, which may be the only reason why I'm including it again here. I had gotten an invitation for two at some event there, I've long forgotten what for, and so my husband and I decided to try it out. I took many pictures and went home to blog about it, with special mention of the food, which we found mediocre, and the "faded glory" look of the place, which I described as having lived past its heyday from when gold was discovered near Johannesburg until well into the Apartheid years.

You wouldn't believe the outpouring of venom I received as a result, from people who take great pride in the Rand Club and its selective admissions policy. To them it must have seemed like I attacked the very symbol of their pride and nationalism.

Whatever you may think of it, it's worth a visit. If you go, I'd love to hear about it, as it has recently been renovated and reopened to the public (or only to members and their important friends, for all I know). You can't help but think back to Cecil Rhodes and his grand African ambition when you sit in the wood-paneled bar or look up into its magnificent glass dome.

Read The Rand Club: Truly a Bygone Era for more information.

5. Kruger House Museum


More captivating than even the house was the railroad car in
which Paul Kruger left South Africa to go into exile
Technically not in Johannesburg but rather Pretoria, so I hope you'll forgive me for misleading you a bit. The thing is, you absolutely should go to Pretoria when visiting Johannesburg, as much of the nation's history lives on in the nation's capital (or one of its capitals, to be exact). There are many other places to visit there (Voortrekker Monument, Church Square with the Palace of Justice, where the Rivonia Trial mentioned above took place, and Union Buildings, to name a few), but for our family the most memorable was Paul Kruger's former home. It's not nearly as grand as you'd expect the house of a former president, especially a president so universally beloved as "Ohm Kruger," and that exactly is its appeal. It reminded me of my grandparents' home in Southern Germany, down to the musty smell of old furniture.  

If you don't know much about South Africa's history, a visit of Kruger House Museum will pique your interest enough to delve into it deeper and go beyond what you know about what came later during Apartheid and after its fall the transformation into a democracy.


***

This article is part of the Joburg Expat Top Five series. You might also like:


August 1, 2016

What's in YOUR (Expat) Suitcase?

Remember those credit card ads that ask: "what's in YOUR wallet?"

I was recently reminded of that line when I saw this picture:

Source: www.telegraph.co.uk

It made me want to ask,

What's in YOUR suitcase?


Even though most Brits (and also Australians) I know are VERY loyal to their Marmite, apparently it can become too much of a good thing when well-meaning visitors arrive with armfuls of the stuff for their expat host's pantry. 

Of course not all expats are cut from the same cloth. Even a single ONE of those jars would be one too many in our household. But it's hard to imagine that our family would ever complain about having too many of these:



6.6 lbs of pure joy. Bring it on, people who are visiting us!

It occurred to me that whatever you pack in your suitcase is a dead giveaway of your nationality, more so than anything else. You might adapt to your host country in many ways that allow you to blend in, adopting customs and lifestyles, perhaps becoming fluent in their language. You might be able to pass for a local if you truly love a place, but if forced to open your suitcase after a trip abroad, your true identity would be revealed by its contents.

So, what's in YOUR (expat) suitcase?

Is it five packs of tampons to last you the next two years, because you are extremely loyal to the brand you've used ever since you can remember (only to discover, when those five packs do run out eventually, that the local brand you've been avoiding for years is actually far superior)?

If you're a South African living abroad, I would bet my right arm that I'd find a bottle of Mrs. Balls Chutney nestled between your socks. That and some clandestine biltong - if you can get past what I've heard are biltong-sniffing dogs at certain American airports. As much as I love biltong, my choice of South African import is Woolworth's luxury muesli. If I could, I'd import a year's supply of Cape gooseberries to go with it for my daily breakfast:



Asian expats seem to be particularly partial to their spices. Which is totally understandable because you can't produce such heavenly flavors with just salt and pepper. Just be sure when smuggling your herbs they don't look like a sh*tload of weed.

Personally, what I always put on special order from my Singaporean friend is Chinese sausage or Lap Cheong. No fried rice recipe is truly complete without this delicacy if you've ever had it.



If ginormous jars of artery-clogging Nutella weren't enough, German expats also like to import their oversized Milka and Ritter Sport chocolate bars. If you've ever had it, you'll know why.

I can't remember the purpose of the cucumber. To somehow negate the calories?

How about you? What do you nestle between YOUR shoes and toiletry kit, wrapped in some dirty underwear to serve the dual purpose of extra padding as well as warding off prying customs officials? 

Or perhaps you don't do any of these things. That's the good thing about globalization, Donald Trump's shouting notwithstanding: In this day and age, you can pretty much get anything anywhere in the world without paying a huge premium.

But in a way that's also a sad development, as it makes the world less interesting. Part of the fun of living abroad is discovering new delicacies and merchandise, and then scheming the rest of your days how to get your hands on it when you're no longer there.

Something gets lost when there is no more scheming. I wonder if people from communist countries ever reminisce about the old days when they had to stand in line days on end whenever rumors flew that a rare batch of hand soap had arrived?

So, even if nowadays you can find it on any shelf in the far corners of the Earth, I will never stop packing jars of Nutella in my suitcase.


A beautiful sight in the Godforsaken town of Helmeringhausen in Namibia, just
South of the Tropic of Capricorn. Although an even more beautiful sight that day
was the lone garage. Find out why in Travel in Namibia.

***


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July 25, 2016

Your Typical Errand in South Africa

Moving to South Africa, or to Africa in general, and adapting to life there, is most of all an exercise in patience.

The irony is that when you arrive, you are all ready to go go GO! for months you've been busting your backside getting visa applications filled out, securing coveted waitlist spots for your children in a South African school, and making sure your packers don't accidentally pack the potatoes they find in the pantry into your container (which, trust me, you want to avoid). You've shown an almost superhuman effort getting it all organized while firing on all cylinders, so that by the time you step out of the glass doors of OR Tambo International, you are buzzing with the energy of five triple-espresso shots, ready to take life by the horns and subjugate this new country to your wishes.

And then South Africa does what it does so well: It puts on the brakes. Sloooooow down, it tells you, not so fast young lady, no need to get everything checked off your list on the first day. Or ever, really. Welcome to Africa!

For the first few weeks, most expats fight a valiant fight, flailing their arms and willing things to happen NOW, not JUST NOW or even NOW NOW. But in the end, South Africa wins, so that eventually you are totally resigned to the fact that an errand, any errand, will always take the better part of a day, if not week, even if it is ever so small.


Living in Africa will teach you to be relaxed while running errands. Source: Unknown

For the budding and newly-minted expats among you, I'd like to share some typical errand stories, just so you can get an idea of what expects you in your new life. Take this story from one of my readers:
I went to the post office to pay a traffic fine of ZAR500. I waited in line for 15 minutes, then the guy looked up my fine and told me how much I owed. Then he told me that traffic fines can only be paid in cash (even though there is a sign at ever post office window saying "Pay with Visa".) I didn't have enough cash on me.

So I left and tried to find an FNB ATM. There isn't one at Campus Square. So I went shopping at Pick-n-Pay so I could get cash back (long line, surly checkout person, and in the end one of the pawpaws I bought was rotten on the bottom). I went back to the post office and waited in line for 45 minutes -- it was packed and hot and unpleasant. I got to the front and the same guy tried to pull up my fine. He tried on three different computers and finally, after about 15 minutes of trying, told me that "the system is down." So I left without paying my fine and wanting to stab myself in the eye with an icepick.

I went to Postnet to see if I could pay the fine there. They charge a ZAR 80 fee, which I declined. A guy overheard me and told me you can pay traffic fines directly through FNB online banking. I went back home, logged into online banking, clicked the "traffic fine" link, and paid my fine in 30 seconds.

To be sure, online banking and payment via EFT is a bright spot in South African bureaucracy, making some dealings easier than here in the U.S., where we still use - gulp, can you believe it? - checks. Handwritten and sent to contractors in the mail.

Most often, however, it is a case of South African Bureaucracy Driving You Nuts. Like Going to the Bank in South Africa. Or A Typical Day of Shopping in South Africa. If you happen to run your errands in one of the townships, you enter a whole new dimension of dysfunction. Read Alexandra Tour Guide for a Day, and tell me if you don't feel like pulling out your hair follicle by follicle just after reading it, let alone living through it.

And yet. In the end, it will grow on you. Like every expat before you, you undergo Type A Remedial School, and eventually you go home "as one cool lady or very medicated." You will think back to your life in Africa and think:

"Those were the days. If only everything wasn't so darn efficient here!"

***


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July 18, 2016

5 Ways Moving Abroad is Good for Your Children

As a parent who admittedly has been caught up way too much in the college prep race, I found myself thinking a resounding YES! when reading the following article:

I Don't Care Where My Children Go To College

Go on, read the article, but if you're a lazy reader and would rather go for the Cliff Notes, here is the essence:

"I’ve made a decision: I am not going to steal my son and daughter’s childhoods so they may wind up at Yale instead of Westchester Community College. I am not going to force them to be who I say they should be by signing them up for every class and making them stick with it. Instead, I am going to sit back and watch them find their own path. I am going to expose them to life and do it as a family. I am going on month-long family vacations in foreign lands and I am not going to worry about how it will look to the football coach or the college counselor."

After reading this article, it occurred to me that these sentiments expressed by Catherine Pearlman are exactly why expat life is such a gift to our children, no matter how much it may temporarily disrupt their lives.

Expat life can open up your kids' horizons in many ways. Our kids may have learned more from
various safari guides than they did in an entire school year.

Specifically, there are 5 ways moving abroad and living as expats is good for your children:

  1. Moving abroad takes them out of their comfort zones. Let's face it, we'd all rather hang out right on that sofa with the popcorn bucket and remote control wrapped up in a cozy blanket in the very epitome of a comfort zone rather than voluntarily venturing out of it. But lo and behold, when forced to venture into the big bad world, we learn to be courageous and self-reliant. Being the new kid in a school full of kids who speak with a different language or accent and seem to know what they're doing can be a very humbling experience.
  2. Moving abroad gives our kids (and - shhhhhh! - us) a chance to reinvent themselves. Who wouldn't like a chance to start over again, a chance to be a clean slate, a chance to remake, refurbish, and improve him- or herself? When we moved to South Africa, friends warned us that 13 (our oldest son's age at the time) was a terrible age to move. It turns out that 13 is also the age kids are most in need of reinventing themselves.
  3. Moving abroad expands your child's horizon. Before South Africa, our kids only ever lived in a bubble of privilege and entitlement. I'm not saying that they didn't live an even more privileged life in our very wealthy neighborhood in Johannesburg, but being the extreme minority for a change gave them a very different glimpse of how the rest of the world lived: the endless lines of people waiting for minibus taxis they would cram into at the end of their day on their way home to the shack settlements in Diepsloot, the lack of the most basic infrastructure in the townships we visited, the way street vendors their age had to make a living by hawking goods and services. Not only that, but living in a country with 11 official languages made them realize there are a lot of different cultures out there, with their own being only one of many. I'm not saying it's a given expat life will automatically have this positive effect. Expat children can very well grow up to feel very entitled. Read Entitled Expat Kids: How to Avoid Spoiling Your Expat Offspring to avoid common pitfalls.
  4. Moving abroad gets overachieving parents off their children's backs because now those parents have REAL issues to solve. Sometimes, the parents even rely on the children to navigate a strange and exotic culture, perhaps even a foreign language, because with this uncanny knack for fitting in as best as they possibly can, children often figure things out before their parents.
  5. Moving abroad lets parents escape the rat race of working so hard at their kids' future success, that hamster wheel of relentless pursuit of the best opportunities. It sometimes takes seeing an entirely different culture and their approach to raising children to allow us to take a step back and view our own parenting philosophy from afar. It can be an eye opening experience to see that there are other paths to our kids' future than just the one we thought was paramount, the one everyone else at home was working so hard pursuing. 
Expat life may very well keep us from being that one-track parent trying to keep up with the Joneses and overscheduling our kids. Because as expats, who the Joneses are and what they do changes with every move until you realize that there are happiness and success to be had in a lot of places, and that there is no one path leading there. 

Might as well enjoy the ride. And let our kids enjoy their childhoods.

July 11, 2016

Transitioning Back to an American School after Three Years in South Africa

"We are trying to decide which school to send our children to in Johannesburg, do you have any advice?"

Many of the emails I get from prospective expats begin with this question. I can appreciate the importance of it - where your children go to school determines where you go looking for a house, and looking for a house is the very first important to-do on  your Ultimate Expat Moving Checklist.

As I've told you in a previous blog post, International or Local School, the way we chose a school for our kids in South  Africa was anything but well-thought out or scientific. We simply kept driving by Dainfern College on our way in and out of a cluster of neighborhoods our estate agent wanted to show us, and the kids milling about looked so pretty in their school uniforms. And many of them were walking to and from school! That fact alone was enough to sell me on the idea, and so we chose to forego the American International School of Johannesburg that our company would have willingly paid for and enrolled the kids at Dainfern College, a South African private prep school. We did not regret it for a moment afterwards. These were the most enjoyable three years for me in my kids' school careers. That alone should count for something, right?

If you're in that same position we were in at that time, where you need to pick a school in South Africa and are overwhelmed with all the factors to consider, I advise you to read Everything You Need to Know about South African Schools, which addresses a multitude of all the concerns you likely have.

But the worry about the transition back into the U.S. system is a concern deserving of its own writeup. The reasons expat fret so much over the choice of school is not only a desire to secure the best education for their children during the next several years. Of more importance is often how they fit back into life at home once the expat assignment is over.

Because so many American expats have questions for me regarding that transition, I wanted to summarize our own experience for you. I'm not saying yours will be the same in any way. All I'd like to do is give you a level of comfort that things will most likely turn out alright for you, even if you don't make the simplest or most convenient choice.

Our kids transitioned well, even after three years of a "weaker" South African curriculum. A few months ago as the school year was coming to its end, I was invited to several awards ceremonies at our middle and high schools. Even though in a comparison of South African School Awards vs American School Awards South Africa wins by a mile, the fact that my husband and I continue to get to go to them is rewarding in itself. It shows that the South African private school curriculum doesn't seem to have done any permanent damage.


Our two middle children on their way to accept high school top student awards

In fact, I would say the diverse experience probably helps more than hurts. There was a bit of a catch up period right after we'd moved back, especially with U.S. history and math, but nothing crucial. Our oldest was in the middle of 11th grade when coming back, and for that reason only we had everyone go back the half year rather than forward, so he could start grade 11 from beginning rather than middle. For that, he had to repeat the 2nd half of 10th grade, which was incredibly boring but helped him take more AP classes in gr 11, have time to obtain his drivers' license, get his first paying job, and take the PSAT - all rites of passage for an American teenager. He ended up being accepted into 8 universities, one of them in the Ivy League, and received multiple scholarships. If anything, the South African private school experience helped his resume because it made him stand out a little bit more. It certainly made for a good college essay.

Our second son, because we made everyone go back the half year, had to go back to the second half of grade 8 in middle school, even though he'd already been in high school in South Africa (high school goes from grade 8-12 for a total of five years in South Africa). It was probably a mistake, as he was much more mature than those middle schoolers, and it took an entire year for him to find new friends once he was finally in high school. He might have been better off moving up to the next grade, and the school certainly would have let him.

Our girls had just finished grades 6 and 4 respectively, and we had them repeat the second semester of those grades. Again, there was no academic reason for this - it had mostly to do with preserving our family symmetry trickling down from oldest to youngest. Their school would have let us enroll them in grades 7 and 5. If  you're American and worried that time in a South African school will "derail" your kids' path through school so that they lose a year when coming back, don't be. Most schools will take them back into the grade they would normally have been in, and academically there is generally no need to repeat a year.

But what do the kids say, you might wonder? It's a valid question. My kids would be the first to tell you that South Africa was behind academically. Especially in math. And they resented that. They didn't like having to catch up when thrown into these classes. Would they have preferred to never have left the "American track" so that the transition would have been smoother? No doubt.

And yet as a parent I see other aspects that my kids wouldn't consider or value. The fact that exams in South Africa rarely included multiple choice questions but required long-form essays. That kids only rarely scored above 80%, making that feat all the more meaningful, no grade inflation there. They weren't prepped for tests like here with sheets that listed exactly what was going to be on the test. They weren't told how to keep their notebooks or take notes - much more was left up to them, from a much younger age, so they were able to become more independent learners. A South African "Matric", the equivalent of an American high school diploma, is a nationally standardized examination, meaning a particular school can't dumb down as they please. Passing your Matric and getting a few distinctions is a pretty big deal. And, my favorite: The school put a huge emphasis on polite behavior. I remember coming back to the U.S. and dropping the kids off the first day of school, when a door almost hit me in the face because the kid in front of me didn't think to hold it open. I was more surprised than annoyed. In three years in South Africa I had been utterly spoiled by the "Good morning, Ma'm" I would hear left and right when walking across campus. All these are non-academic values that I, in hindsight, value much higher than mere academics. For all I care they could have not progressed past long division and I still would have loved all the other things they did and learned.

The bottom line: Yes, transitioning back to the U.S. is most definitely easier if you've remained in the American school system via an international school. It'll be as if you've never left. Whereas if you've temporarily left the American school system, it may take a bit more effort, especially in that year between 10th and 11th grade where which grade you enter into makes a difference. Before South Africa, I never would have considered adding an extra year to our kids' school careers.

But to close with my words from an earlier blog post: Expats often don't know when or where the next posting is coming, so why not take the scenic route and make sure you immerse yourself fully into whatever is on offer at the moment, and trust that it will make you into a well-rounded person, no matter what the actual "curriculum" says?

To read more stories about transitioning back into the U.S. system from abroad, read my article in the Wall Street Journal, Expat College Admissions: A Bit Like Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. If your timing is such that your child may finish high school in South Africa instead, you might find interesting advice in Finishing Matric in South Africa - Then What?