August 22, 2016

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?
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Africa, Here We Come!

August 15, 2016

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

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Top 5 Places for History Lovers in Johannesburg

August 8, 2016

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:

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What's in YOUR (Expat) Suitcase?

August 1, 2016

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

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


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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You might also like:

19 Things to Put on Your Shopping List for South Africa
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Your Typical Errand in South Africa

July 25, 2016

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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5 Ways Moving Abroad is Good for Your Children

July 18, 2016

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

July 11, 2016

"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? 
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Do They Speak English in South Africa?

June 27, 2016

The short answer to the question, Do they speak English in South Africa, is yes. Check. You can breathe easier now - one of the things not to be afraid of when moving to South Africa as opposed to, I don't know, Uzbekistan.

But the long answer makes for some interesting insights.

For instance, did you know that English, though the language most widely used and understood in South Africa, is the mother tongue for only 8% of South Africa's population? And that Zulu tops that list with 24%, and that altogether there are 11 official languages recognized by the South African government? (Which comes in handy if, say, your driver's license is issued in Tsonga, meaning you won't have to get another one when moving to South Africa.) All of this, and more, I've explained in one of the very first Joburg Expat blog posts in May 2010, The Language(s).

Zulu is a wonderfully poetic language, but a complicated one. The grammar isn't intuitive, but some words are. Often, you just use the prefix "i" or "isi" followed by the sound a thing makes, and voila, you have yourself a word, like isithuthuthu (motorcycle). Xhosa, a close relative to Zulu, uses many of the same words but with a good helping of three distinct click sounds that seem impossible to emulate by a non-native. See Zulu Potty Talk for more on both Zulu and Xhosa, including a lesson on how to click your tongue the right way.

But back to English. You can't just assume that English is English and that's that. Don't be fooled. There is a lot  you need to learn when stepping onto South African shores, if you want to catch on to what's being talked about. It's not only that the accent is different - a lovely accent, make no mistake - but that there are a ton of words you'll have never heard of, from Babbalas to Yebo and at least another 43 South Africanisms. You will have to learn that We Will Give You a Tinkle probably doesn't mean what you think, that Being Pissed can be totally misconstrued, and that a Ballbox is literally a box that holds a guy's balls.

About that accent: The most to the point description of South African English can be found in Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown by Paul Theroux, a keen observer of people and African travel writer par excellence. 

"After a few days I became attuned to the accent, which in its twanging and swallowed way seemed both assertive and friendly. Johannesburg was "Janiceburg", busy was "buzzy," congested "congisted," West 'Waist,' and said 'sid'. There was no shortage of glottal stops, and a distinct Scottishness crept into some expressions; for example, a military buildup was a "mulatree buldup" Nearly everyone had a tendency to use Afrikaans words in ordinary speech, such as dorp, bakkie, takkies, naartjes, and dagga. These words had percolated throughout Central Africa long ago, and I knew from having lived in Malawi that they meant town, pickup truck, sneakers, tangerines, and marijuana. If there was a pronunciation problem, it was that for dagga or Gauteng you needed to use the soft deep, throat-clearing gargled g of Hollanders."

We love FaceTiming our South African friends every once in a while, just to hear precisely that lovely twang again. During school assemblies, the headmaster used to speak about the "yurr," and it took me the longest time to figure out that it meant "year." He'd also talk about "shedules" and "diarizing" things on our calendars.

Oh, and about that "soft deep, throat-clearing gargled g." Bill Bryson, in one of his books, used a less kind description of that sound, but I can't recall now exactly where. It is the same "ch" sound that you associate with a movie about evil Nazis, in which, say, a regiment is called to attention with a bellowed Achtung! by a sadistic Obersturmbannführer.

It has always struck me as funny how South Africans insist on applying that sound to any stray G that comes across their path, whether it's of Afrikaans origin or not. For some months, it seemed like I couldn't drive anywhere without having to listen to a particular Volkswagen advertisement on the radio that ran around the clock, and each time the "g" in Volkswagen was pronounced the Dutch way. Volkswagen is German, you people, and as a German I like my g's plain and simple, thank you very much! is what I always wanted to yell at the radio on those occasions.

But if you live in South Africa, you'll have to get a hang for that G sooner or later, particularly when living in Johannesburg, nestled in the province of Gauteng. If you want to practice it, try saying the year 1999 in Afrikaans: Negentienhonderd nege en negentig - every one of those "g's" a guttural one. You can read more on Afrikaans in An Ode to Lekker and Kak.

To end on a beautiful note, here you can hear five of South Africa's official languages by listening to its National Anthem.

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You Have to Water the Grass For it to Be Green

June 20, 2016

A common affliction of mankind is to pine for what one cannot have at the moment, to want to be elsewhere, anywhere but here.

Surely the grass must be greener on the other side!

One would think this sentiment is particularly true for expats, especially repeat or serial expats. People who are constantly yanked from their surroundings and have to rebuild their lives elsewhere might be excused for not embracing each new place equally well. It would be understandable if they thought the pastures "on the other side" were indeed greener - because, after all, they might have already seen the other side - and to put all their efforts into getting there.

But interestingly enough, I've observed the opposite. The more seasoned an expat you'll meet, the more they seem to be happy wherever they are at that moment.

Part of this is attitude. I've written about how a positive attitude is a key ingredient for How to Be a Successful Expat. And, if you don't start out with it, how a positive attitude can be learned through, you guessed it, expat life itself. It's a bit like a chicken and the egg thing: You need a positive attitude to make it as an expat, but you often only learn to affect a positive attitude through the experiences you gain as an expat.

In other words, happiness and success don't just happen on their own. It's not, it turns out, the color of the grass that determines whether you're going to be happy in a place or not. Or, rather, it IS the color - we all know grass looks the best when it's green - but WE are the only ones who can make it that way.

You Have to Water the Grass For it to Be Green.

A fellow expat full of wisdom once uttered that phrase, and I loved it enough to go in search of a blog post to fit around it. There is so much of life's beauty in that one sentence. If one lived by no other mantra, one could become a good and content person by making it one's guiding principle. Buddhism in its entirety might be distilled into that single observation. It's both an appeal to your diligence, so that you might not sit on your haunches and expect things to happen without hard work, and to your autonomy, meaning you have control over your own happiness if you do the right things.

What are the right things? How do you best water the grass?

Much like watering grass, watering the figurative expat grass works best in small but frequent doses. It's not scoring one giant coup, like negotiating an awesome deal with the company that's sending you abroad. It's not finding the perfect country, the perfect house, or the perfect school. All these play a role, no doubt, but you can take little steps every day that ensure your overall happiness in a new country.

In the Wall Street Journal's The Good Expat: 5 Steps to a Successful Expat Experience, I've gone into more detail what kinds of step these are, like making sure you get out and about as soon as you've arrived in a new place, participating in the local life whenever possible, keeping an open mind about things, laughing about the things that are awful in spite of your open mind, and perhaps even writing about your experience.

All of these are best accomplished by setting small goals for yourself and your family: Explore one new store each month; plan a family outing to a place you haven't yet seen every other month; volunteer at a charity once a week; host a dinner or organize a joint activity each time a new family arrives at your school, pick up at least one new hobby in your new country, have your kids try out at least one new sport. The possibilities are endless.

By no means do I advocate for an overscheduled calendar with all these new activities. Chances are, your life may actually slow down because the pace has changed by moving continents. What seemed so urgent before is now perhaps something people don't care about as much, so you adapt. Nothing cures you of your Western-style Type A obsessive-compulsive workaholic tendencies as well as life in a slower-paced (perhaps but not necessarily 3rd World) country.

What I'm saying is that you have to work at your happiness. What you put into your expat assignment (or, really, life in general) in terms of time, outreach, curiosity, and friendliness will be returned to you many times over, I can promise you that.

You water the grass wherever you are, and it will turn green.

Some expats are happier than others, and it's often the ones who seem to cling to their habits and activities from home that struggle the most. Going on home leave every opportunity you get, enrolling your kids in the school that's the closest replica of the one at home, driving them for hours so they can keep playing the sport they already know versus the one that's played five minutes from your house - these are all akin to straining your hose so you can spray the yard five houses down from you. The precious water will be spread too thin, and you will end up on a dry patch of land.

Most expats have learned the art of watering the patch of grass they're endowed with - maybe not the first time, but surely the second and third times. They've learned that most everything in life is temporary, and that it's important to start living right away rather than later.

I'd venture to guess it's almost harder for non-expats. If you've stayed in a place all your life, you might get awfully tired of all that watering. It just never ends! If that's true for you, perhaps it's time to move to greener pastures. Sometimes that's a chance to Remake, Refurbish, and Improve yourself. But if you do, don't simply arrive and expect a lush oasis, just because you've heard good things about a place. The drudgery of daily life is going to catch up with you no matter where you are, and you might wake up one day in a parched and dusty landscape.

Wherever you are in life, don't forget to water the grass around you.

Yes, this expat child is watering the pool, not the grass, but it's the closest picture I could find
in my vast archives to approximate the situation. And it has a bit of grass in it too. Green, even.

If you liked this article, you might also like:

The Balanced (Expat) Family
Welcome to Type A Remedial School

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Why Would People Want to Move to South Africa? Let Me Count the Reasons...

June 13, 2016

Some time ago I received the following reader comment:

I am astonished to read that people want to move to SA.
Are they blind on both ears?

Anatomical issues aside, I was bothered by this comment. It is the typical reaction of people who know nothing about South Africa and yet feel compelled to make some kind of judgment about its fitness as a place to live.

Perhaps the best answer is to just shrug and say, "suit yourself." One less grouchy person to contend with. Let them miss out on what could be a beautiful life experience.

But I've never been one to just shrug it off. And the thing is, the other side of the coin needs to be represented, as a counterweight to the doomsday-sayers crowding the expat forums. These are the people who perpetuate the myth that South Africa is a cesspool of crime and corruption. They want to tell you that you're better off living somewhere in Europe where you're always safe and where governments are beyond reproach.

I hope you caught the sarcasm in that last sentence. The point is, no place is completely safe, and no government beyond reproach. Some places are safer than others, I grant you that, but they might have other factors counting against them, such as the weather. Or the gloomy faces put on display by the majority of the population. Or any number of other things that play a role in making you happy, day to day and also in the long term.

So why would you want to move to South Africa? Here are three reasons:

1. South Africa is a beautiful country

Perhaps it's the coastline along two oceans you'll fall in love with. Or the bush teeming with wildlife. The rugged peaks of the Drakensberg, the view down from Table Mountain, or the exotic vibe of Durban's beachfront. Here is a small taste of the scenery awaiting you in South Africa:

Sodwana Bay, just south of the Mozambique border

Franschhoek, South Africa's fabled wine region

Johannesburg street with blooming jacarandas

Sunset near Kruger Park

Nelson Mandela Bridge in downtown Joburg

Giraffes in Madikwe Game Reserve

The Southern tip of Africa near Cape Town

Elephants near the border to Botswana

Cape Town waterfront with Table Mountain in the background

Aerial view of the Magaliesberg near the Cradle of Humankind

2. South Africa offers an incredible lifestyle

Perhaps I'm a simple mind, but for me, lifestyle starts with the weather. When the sun is shining, I'm happy. And by God the sun shines in South Africa, particularly in Johannesburg and the surrounding highveld. It shines in the summer and it shines in the winter, and yet temperatures almost never get oppressively hot. This fosters a lifestyle full of outdoors activities. The kids run around outside, and half their school day seems to take place out of doors. Shopping and infrastructure are there when you need them, but the wildest Africa is always within easy reach if you want to get away. The quality of fresh food is amazing, eating out and evening entertainment is very affordable, and you can indulge the luxury of live-in domestic help. To top it all off, South Africans are some of the friendliest people on Earth. If you're not invited to a braai at someone's home for some Boerewors and a glass of Chardonnay within a few weeks after arrival, I'd say you accidentally stepped into a wormhole and have landed in some faraway galaxy instead of South Africa.

3. People who HAVE moved to South Africa don't want to leave

There is no better way to judge what people think of a place than to see how they're voting with their feet. I don't claim to have done a double-blind study on this, so if you're now opening your mouth to accuse me of anecdotal writing, you are absolutely right; I have nothing but anecdotes. However, as the founder of one of the most-read expat blogs about South Africa - 1.6 million pageviews strong as of this month - I have many such anecdotes. Very few expats end up in Joburg without first having read my blog, and many of those end up contacting me personally to ask questions. And between all these people as well as my extensive network of friends, I haven't met a single one who has voiced unhappiness about their life in South Africa.

Yes, we all know that blogs and Twitter and Facebook pages are echo chambers. Perhaps only those of us who share the same views are talking to each other. I'm sure there are expats who've tried South Africa, didn't like it or had a bad experience, and have returned home. But I do know that there is a huge number of expats living a happy life in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and many places in between, who have their eyes (and ears) wide open and see a beautiful country. Their biggest fear? That the day they'll be transferred back home is coming too soon.

Granted, expats are not locals. Many South Africans do vote with their feet and leave the country. They fear financial insecurity, a job market with few opportunities for them or their children, a government that might take over private enterprises, and yes, crime. Leaving their home and building a new life elsewhere is often their ticket to what they crave most, a second passport, their security blanket, just in case. As an expat moving TO South Africa, you already carry that passport with you, meaning the problems driving South Africans away aren't necessarily your problems. You get the upside of weather and lifestyle without much of a downside.

Still not convinced?

Several years ago I wrote Top 10 Reasons You Should Move to Johannesburg Despite the Crime Rate for ExpatsBlog, an article that was somewhat tongue in cheek but touched the same points. It received many wonderful comments from people who shared more reasons why they thought life in Johannesburg was or had been a wonderful experience. Be sure to check it out if you're still on the fence on whether you should move to South Africa or not.
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