Voulez-Vous, You Know, Kiss Me?

February 23, 2015

A recent post by fellow expat blogger Nikki about the sort of silly questions you get asked as an exchange student reminded me of a long-forgotten story that happened to me as a child. But go on, read Nikki's story first, as I'm sure you'll want to know how blow jobs and vegemite sandwiches can possibly be related to each other, and then get back here for my story.

I was thirteen, perhaps fourteen years old. A few years earlier, my mother, a big believer in exchange programs and learning languages, but also a big believer in doing it on the cheap, had - through some family connections - reached out to this family in Rouen, France, and from then on we were constantly exchanging kids one way or the other. My older brother stayed with them for a summer, their oldest boy came to see us the next break, and so forth, until it was my turn to go.

I was on the train back home after my second summer in France, still flush from the experience of living with other people who are interesting and exciting and, most importantly, never nag you. I was speaking French like a local with only a trace of an accent and was making friends with this French boy in my compartment. I can't remember where he was going or what he looked like, but the memory of meeting him is seared in my brain because he - gasp! - told me that "tu es tres mignonne." No one had ever told me I was cute - I wasn't - and it was probably just a silly pickup line, but nevertheless we had a grand old time on that train, talking about this and that and joking around until he felt the need to ask me a question.

Did I like Itlaire, he wanted to know.

Now, you have to understand that I had a pretty sheltered childhood. Not overprotected, mind you - after all, here I was doing this trip all by myself at such a young age, crossing international borders no less, and this being Europe in the 1970s most parents weren't particularly alarmed about any possible dangers lurking out there. No, what I mean is that despite my travels I was not very worldly, especially in terms of pop culture. Our family didn't possess a TV, and even radios were only introduced into our household when I was well into my teens. My mother disdained what she called hott 'n' tott music and for years my home entertainment was confined to listening to Peter and the Wolf on our old roundtable record player, as well as reading illicit Donald Duck comics under the bedcovers by flashlight.

My son complains that driving a Nissan Leaf to school is not cool at all and that it gives rise to constant teasing. I want to smack him over the head. Aside from telling him that he is saving tons of money on gas and that driving any car must surely beat having to ride the bus, but that he is welcome to resort back to that mode of transport any time if he so pleases, I'd like to tell him about my hardscrabble childhood. About how I walked to school barefoot in the snow for miles... Okay, sorry, wrong line. But does he know how difficult it is to compete with kids who watch every television show out there every single night, who are allowed to have posters of Leif Garrett* on their wall, and who own every ABBA and Pink Floyd album under the sun? I'd like for him to understand how hard it is not to be teased in that environment! I mean, could I ever invite anyone to our house and face the horrors of them seeing my record collection of Peter and the Wolf and Räuber Hotzenplotz?

Like any kid would, I became quite the expert at masking my shortcomings. I quickly learned the names of songs that were popular at the time, even though I'd never heard them, so that I could write Another Brick in the Wall in yearbooks where questions about favorite songs and such were asked. I learned to nod knowingly when hot actors were discussed, and I successfully faked my way through any conversations about groups or movies unknown to me.

Which takes me back to the pretty boy on the Paris-Stuttgart train. I was sure Itlaire must be yet another popstar I didn't know, and of course I couldn't admit my ignorance. I decided to bluff.

"Yeah, he's not too bad," I said, and nodded vaguely. I'm pretty sure I didn't say "I just love Itlaire" because, when you're faking it, you never want to come out too strongly for or against anything. But I do remember giving my approval.

After that, it wasn't the same. I must have said the wrong thing, because the boy faded away, never to be seen again. The train ride wasn't going to last forever, and perhaps at that moment we arrived at our destinations and had to part ways. That's what I told myself for years when recalling that memory of the first stirrings of romance in my life, immediately followed by the first stinging disappointment.

Not until years later did it come to me, I think it must have been when I was watching a French movie with subtitles: Itlaire, you see, is how the French pronounce Hitler. I, a German girl, had confessed to a French boy I was trying to impress that I thought Hitler was pretty cool! I still cringe at the memory 30 plus years later. I probably set back Franco-German relations by a decade with that comment alone.

And it's all my mom's fault for not letting me listen to the Hitparade.

Come to think of it, it's ALWAYS the mom's fault.

My oldest brother and I, with my other brother cut off on the side (who takes pictures like that?).
Anyway, a typical afternoon of home entertainment at our house growing up. No TV, no radio.
Just paper and paintbrushes and the occasional peeled orange for a snack. Of course, now I'm
grateful. I trace my creative streak back to such afternoons:-)

* So I had to go on Wikipedia to figure out how to spell Leif Garrett, and there was a picture of him as he looks today. Yikes! what happened to that pretty boy?

Other musings about my exchange student days:

Memoirs of an Exchange Student: I'm Leeeeeeeaving, on a Jet Plane...Culture Shock Circa 1983: They Have Phones Without Cords in America!

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Joburg Expat Hits One Million

February 16, 2015

I wish it was one million dollars, but it's just pageviews. The number of times people have looked at (and maybe even read) my blog. Joburg Expat has just surpassed a million of those!

A million! (kinda embarrassing, though, to see it listed under last month's stats, which were not great)

When I first started Joburg Expat I didn't have any big readership in mind. I just wanted to share what I knew so that others would have an easier time making their decision to move to South Africa and, once there, settle in and all that. Who knew there'd be so much interest?

I sort of lost track of my pageviews after the excitement of checking them daily wore off. And after we moved back to the U.S., they sort of hit a plateau and have remained more or less steady each month instead of rising further. So I was a bit surprised when glancing at the stats the other day that I was approaching a million views.

To celebrate, I thought it might be nice to tell you a little about me, especially for new readers who are joining us now. Joburg Expat in a nutshell, so to speak. It just so happens that I recently wrote an article about our family for our neighborhood magazine that perfectly suits this purpose. The following is adapted from the original - names and locations have been changed to preserve privacy:

You could call us global nomads. My husband and I were born and raised in Germany, arrived in the United States in the 1990s for graduate school, lived in North Carolina for many years, moved around the country several times, and lived in Singapore for a while. That’s where our second son Jabulani, now sixteen, was born. Our other children are Zax (18 and soon off to college), Impatience (14), and Sunshine (12). We moved to our current home in Tennessee in January of 2013 after relocating to the U.S. from a three-year assignment in South Africa.

The things we were most grateful to rediscover were working traffic lights (including the fact that they are once again called traffic lights and not robots), Amazon, efficient and reliable service (except perhaps on the Comcast front), an abundance of power outlets in each room without the need for any adapters, the Starbucks drive-through, Major League baseball, the public library, water fountains, and yes, the U.S. Postal Service (it is still such a surprise when your mail gets there).

We were also happy to rediscover people who mean “right now” when they say it. South Africans have a rather conflicted relationship with the word “now.” When someone tells you he’ll do it “now,” it almost certainly means “never.” “Just now” means “maybe, but probably not today.” The only thing worth getting your hopes up for is “now now,” and even that is at best translated with “soon.”

And yet we do miss Africa. It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. It is precisely the slower and gentler pace of a life where nothing happens right away that has its charms. We miss the beautiful sunsets; the smiling and generous people who have the world’s best sense of humor; the parking guards calling you Mama; the screeching hadedas (a kind of bird) waking you up every morning; the hawkers at the intersection and the throngs of people milling about; the presence everywhere of Nelson Mandela; and above all, the African bush with all its glorious animals.

We even miss the language, which made for some misunderstandings early on. Ketchup is tomaaahto sauce, cookies are biscuits, biscuits are scones, and there is an entire baked-goods aisle containing rows and rows of rusks, which, frankly, can only be eaten without serious injury to your teeth by dunking them into your Rooibos tea. When you put something on your calendar you diarise it, an athletic cup is a ballbox (imagine my consternation when that first showed up on the school supply list), when someone promises to call they will give you a ring (or worse, a tinkle), things that are yummy are lekker, and when you’re having a bad day it is kak.

Going to a South African school and donning uniforms (yet sometimes no shoes) was quite an adjustment for the kids, but an exciting experience. They had to learn new languages, Afrikaans and Zulu, but perhaps the biggest adjustment came on the sports field. Zax and Impatience took up field hockey, the girls tried themselves at netball – a type of outdoor basketball with neither backboard nor dribbling, a rather sad affair if you ask me – and Jabulani played soccer, rugby, and cricket, the latter a game not unlike baseball but so slow that when the teams break for “tea and biscuits” at halftime it often constitutes the highlight of the match.

When we first moved to Johannesburg in early 2010, just in time for the Soccer World Cup, we had heard the most dire stories of carjackings, break-ins, and worse. Taking kids to such a place and to actually live there seemed quite insane. But, as often is the case, reality was much different from reputation. While Johannesburg is definitely not one of the safest places to live – along with many American cities I can think of – it has changed for the better in recent times, and we count our years there as some of the happiest of our lives.

The weather, for one, was nearly perfect. No need for air conditioning and bright sunshine year round. The sweeping landscapes, the friendly people, the outdoor lifestyle, and, oh, the wine! Don’t even get me started on domestic help, something I sorely miss (though I suspect the kids miss it even more, seeing as they now have to fold laundry, unload dishes, and prepare their own school lunches).

Maybe what we loved so much about our life there is that, in the words of Paul Theroux, “Africa, for all its perils, represents wilderness and possibility.” It instills in you a sense of adventure. You somehow feel more alive, younger, willing to do crazier things than you’ve ever done before. You know those African airplanes you shake your head about when hearing of another disaster? Or those minibus taxis with threadbare tires and overstuffed with smelly people? We traveled in them. Kissed by elephants and battled bush fires? Been there. Bungy jumping off bridges and diving with great white sharks? Done that. (By the way, it’s not so much the sharks that are scary, but the freakishly cold waters off Cape Town.)

Africa gives you this sense of adventure, but seeing so much poverty around you also fills you with humility and puts many of our modern-day grievances in perspective. And it definitely teaches you patience. Because between Africa and your efficient American can-do-nothing-is-impossible self, Africa usually wins.

When you return from all that to the much more predictable existence in American suburbia, you can't help but feel a sense of loss, even though you're surrounded by beauty, the phones work every day, and you never come across any street signs warning you of “hijacking hotspots.”

But we are very grateful to have found such a wonderful community. From the very first day we were welcomed with open arms, invited into our neighbors’ homes, and included in their activities. The kids have found new music teachers and sports teams (lacrosse replaced field hockey, volleyball took over for netball, while rugby remains rugby), and my husband enjoys the more predictable challenges of his job at a local industrial company.

As for me, I continue to write the blog I started three years ago, which is still called Joburg Expat but nowadays generates fewer stories of incomprehensible government bureaucracy or bribing traffic cops, and more about the wonders of First World living.

Noisette, Jabulani, Impatience, Sunshine, Zax, and Yours Truly, December 2014
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Top Gear and Why Africa Stays in Your Blood Forever

February 9, 2015

Do you have a teenage son? If you do, you might be familiar with dinner conversations that start with "In Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson said..."

For a while, EVERYTHING 15-year old Jabulani wanted to tell us started with those words. Jeremy Clarkson and his two sidekicks were like demigods who could do no wrong. We were treated to endless recountings of Top Gear episodes, which cars they entailed, why this or that one was better than the other, how those guys got out of a tight spot and what kind of tricks they played on each other... It just went on and on and on, so I finally did what every good mother does: I decided to watch an episode with him, even though cars are the very last thing that interests me. (Or not the last, as I spend half my life in one, it seems. They just don't interest me as an object of desire. They interest me as an object of convenience and as such I take them for granted.).

Jabulani, to his credit, picked well. He was so thrilled that I would watch his favorite show with him that he chose the episode he thought I was most likely to enjoy: The Africa Special.

And he was right. I was instantly hooked.

(Real quick, if you don't know Top Gear, give it a try. It really is an entertaining show. It's basically all about cars, and about three guys who test different cars in the weirdest competitions they can think of, which always seem to result in the partial dismantling or blowing-up or perhaps even sinking to the bottom of a body of water of said cars. But the best feature of the show is the British humor. You can't watch without laughing out loud at their antics and jokes repeatedly. You can totally have no interest in cars whatsoever and still love this show.)

The Africa Special is the one where Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May set out to find the source of the river Nile. In three cars, of course, each one of them less suited to the task than the other. Their journey takes them through Uganda and Rwanda, and then across Lake Victoria into Tanzania and the Serengeti. They have to rely on pure ingenuity to keep going and adapt their cars to the task at hand, and at times they have to rely on the help of the people around them.

James May, Jeremy Clarkson, and Richard Hammond in Top Gear Africa Special. 

And that gets me to the theme of this post. There is a scene in there where all their cars get stuck in the mud. Almost instantly, it seems, a few barefooted locals materialize and help out by "building" a new road and pushing the cars and generally working hard while making it look as if there is nothing in the world they'd rather be doing at the time.

How often I have witnessed just such a scene while living in Africa! It is, to me, the epitome of that continent. Sure, there is the sweeping savannah; the majestic animals; the stunning sunsets; the smell of the first rain after five months of drought; the mesmerizing colors of red dirt against deep blue sky; the cry of the hadeda; the bustle and the jostling and the vibrancy in its cities; and the stately elegance of the women carrying loads on their heads. All that is Africa, but what has stayed with me the most about our life in Africa is the kindness of its people. The way a crowd forms instantly when there is a problem. The way everyone offers his or her opinion, in a genuine effort to help. The way no one is in a rush to get back to his own issues and problems and seems to have nothing better to do than helping you with yours. The way you are greeted with smiles wherever you go, everyone ready with a joke to lighten the mood. The way you just can't help but feel calmer and more at peace after such interactions. The way everything seems right with the world when you're in Africa, even if so many things are wrong.

I couldn't find an image of the mud scene, but this was another one I enjoyed. Africa teaches
you ingenuity. Photo www.TopGear.co.za

Its people, more than anything else, make Africa special to me, and why I can't seem to get it out of my blood. Have I wished, while living there, that things were more efficient? That people would focus on the task at hand? That they would do what they said they'd do so that I could check stuff off my list neat and tidy, like my American efficient Type A personality demanded it? You bet I have. Many times. But I also know this: All the people who've ever helped me in Africa - the many times I had a flat tire, for instance - might have been dropping some other task they were working on and without a moment's hesitation lent me a helping hand.

Top Gear might not be the best example to showcase African kindness. Who knows, maybe they staged the whole thing to make it a good production. They probably often do. But I don't care. Watching the Africa Special made me long for Africa.

Watch it, and tell me what you think!

While we're showing pictures of trucks being shipped on a river, I couldn't resist sticking in
this one I found on Africa, this is why I live here's Facebook page
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Another Foray into South Africa's Past: Absolution by Patrick Flanery

February 2, 2015

It's not actually easy to describe this book. Is it a mystery? A literary novel? Or historical fiction? I suppose the answer is: a little bit of all.

Most of all, it's a book about South Africa, both present and past, interweaving the story of what might have happened to Laura, a young South African anti-apartheid activist 20 years ago, with how much of that story her mother, Clare, remembers and is willing to share with her biographer, Sam. Clare is a well-known and aging novelist, who I think is drawn to resemble Nadine Gordimer. She has almost completely withdrawn from public life and battles with her past and how she might have been complicit in certain events. She has suffered not only the loss of Laura but also her own sister who was brutally murdered together with her husband. Sam - who has spent many years in the United States and has only recently returned to South Africa - has the task of writing her life story, and for this purpose he questions her about the past in a series of interviews conducted at her secluded house. But it turns out that Sam himself played a part in Clare's past as well, and neither of them is sure of the other's motives during their repeated interviews. Did Clare hire Sam precisely because she knew who he was, or was it only Sam who sought out the assignment to find closure about the horrific events of his childhood? Does Clare truly not know what happened to Laura, or is she deliberately distorting the past so as to feel less guilty?

I liked the book, the many layers of different stories or rather versions of the same story, the reflection on truth and lies and the tricky way memory cannot always distinguish between the two. You are immediately roped in with the setting, the characters, and a few versions of the mystery. The narrative style reminds me a little of that South American magic realism, in that you're sometimes not sure as a reader whether something actually happened or not, whether it is just imagined, or the memory of someone. It makes you feel as if there's a veil over the story, a certain mist, that keeps you from seeing everything fully.

I have to say, however, that I liked the beginning of the book better than the end. We are plunged into the story with the arrival of Sam in the present time in or near Cape Town to set out on his biography project. Seeing South Africa through his eyes, someone who hasn't lived there many years, was a pleasure to me, as it reminded me of the ways I first saw it upon arrival. We are then introduced to Clare and her secluded life, partly a result of her having been robbed at her former residence and reluctantly moving to a secure estate behind layers of walls and security. From Clare we also get a first glimpse at the story of Laura - her daughter - and what might have happened to her, or what Clare remembers or speculates has happened to her. The rest of the book, however, dragged on a bit for me. I feel like most of the plot is actually revealed in the first part of the book, and the rest just delves deeper into it but doesn't tell you anything new. I know what the author is trying to do - illuminate what a tricky beast memory can be, and how the same event sounds very different as remembered by different people (and also different as the same person finally confronts his or her memories of it) but I still couldn't help but feel that I was let down towards the end, as there wasn't anything new I learned, yet was sort of waiting for throughout.

Still, Absolution is a good read about apartheid South Africa and the ongoing struggles of coming to terms with it. It delves into the issue of censorship and self-censorship in the writing community, the pros and cons of outright rebellion or quiet, behind-the-scenes work within the system. There is also one passage with a transcript of several fictional interviews conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which I found very powerful. Since I didn't live in South Africa during those times, I was never aware of the exact nature of the work of that commission, and it is very revealing to glimpse how it was conducted and why it was (and has been) so difficult to come to terms with the past.
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What's Your Big 5?

January 26, 2015

I recently came across this advertisement in a magazine, I think it was actually the Smithsonian. The balloon jumped off the page for me - we did a balloon safari ourselves (though over the Magaliesberg, which looked a lot greener or rather bluer than the desert-like landscape pictured here) in 2010, and I have fond memories of it.

I'm surprised by the many South African tourism ads you see everywhere. Not sure why it surprises me - after all, South Africa is one of the most diverse and stunning travel destinations in the world - but it does. It always gives me a jolt of pleasure to see South Africa mentioned, and a jolt of regret that I no longer live there.

In any case, this ad asked "What's Your Big 5?", which I thought was very cleverly done. It alludes to the "Big Five," which are, in case you are a newbie and don't know, Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Elephant, and Rhino. Not because they are the most awesome (I can think of many more awesome animals I've spotted on a safari than a buffalo) or the most dangerous (we've driven right up to so many rhinos, and they seem to be such easy prey for poachers, it's hard to see them as dangerous at all - try a hippo insead!), but because in the days when big game hunters still roamed Africa in droves, those five animals supplied the most sought after trophies and proved to be the most difficult to hunt. At least for someone just armed with a single shot rifle. That last part is just my interpretation.

So I saw the ad and immediately got to thinking. What WAS my Big Five? Friends of mine, when I posted the ad on Facebook, beat me to the punch.

The smell of the bush
the smiles of the people
the taste of the food
the warmth of the sunshine
the feel of a wine glass in my hand on a Sunday afternoon

wrote Natalie. My friend Jacky was even more concise. Hers are:

open roads
and 4x4s

Both paint wonderful images of South Africa in just a few strokes. I can't really top that, but I'll add my own nonetheless. As you know, I'm not one to confine myself to few words when I might as well use many, so mine won't be quite as brief.

Joburg Expat's South African Big Five

ONE: Reclining in the lounge chair by our pool with my (admittedly non-South-African) newspaper sometime in the late fall when the chill of the night still lingers past sunrise, gazing over the glittering surface of the water, letting the morning sun warm me while listening to the screeches of the hadedas and watching a weaver bird build his nest in the acacia tree.

TWO: Rattling through the African bush on a bumpy safari truck full of anticipation about the next animal we might come across, and listening to the guide part with his immense knowledge about plants, animals, and most everything under the sun.

THREE: Picking up my child from a playdate and parking the car in the driveway already knowing that I'll be asked in for a coffee and a glass of wine and probably an entire boerewors to boot, not emerging until hours of great conversation and laughter later.

Hearing nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika sung by South African school children standing at attention in their uniforms and then listening to a soaring speech by the school headmaster in his beautifully accented South African English.

FIVE: Exchanging battle stories about wildfires extinguished, broken axles repaired, busted tires changed, and tennis matches lost and won, all in the company of our wonderful South African friends over glasses of Chardonnay and big bowls full of biltong, with the roast already sizzling on the braai and the Malva Pudding in the oven. 

The Big Five is what everyone comes to see in South Africa, but you may take away a very different Big Five when you leave. Have you found yours?
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The Wild Things

January 19, 2015

Maurice Sendak, the legendary children's book writer and illustrator, once said that he modeled all the characters of his "Wild Things" after relatives - aunts and uncles who scared him as a child.

I was recently filing through the troves of safari pictures I amassed during our African travels, and I was struck by how many of these wild animal portraits resemble family portraits from the olden days. You know, the sepia ones where no one is smiling but instead staring at the camera as if they were on death row. Before ever going on a safari, I imagined having to stealthily track the wildlife and catching a brief glimpse before it got away. But often, it's nothing like that. Instead, these animals will stop in their tracks and stare at you just like you are staring at them, giving you a great photo op.

Here I've assembled my favorite such "family portraits" of my own Wild Things. If I was Maurice Sendak, I'd use the inspiration to write a children's book and become rich and famous.

"It's shameful what these young folk are wearing nowadays,
don't you think, Edna dear?"

"Have you heard about that new crazy dance... I think they
call it the Charleston?"

"For Chrissakes, Arthur, will you stop farting
and just stand still for a moment?"

"Mother, he keeps pushing me!"
"Just shut up and look at that man with the black box."

Sorry I couldn't resist. My grandmother circa 1913, far right,
with her parents, sister, and 3 brothers

"If they tell us to say cheese one more time, let's scratch them."

Grandma Hattie trying to shove her false teeth in place for the photo.

"You think they can see me?"

"What an awful bore standing still for this commoner who calls
himself an artist. I do hope tea and scones will be served soon!"

"Can you please tell me when it's over?"

"If I wanted to, I could kill you with one swipe."
"If I wanted to, I could kill you with my pointy mustache."
(an unspecified ancestor of Noisette's)

[blank; no thoughts whatsoever in there]

"And as I was saying... uh... wait, where were we?"

"You think we should rather show them our pretty butts like this?"

"One day they'll call this African Gothic. Wait, where's my

"Who needs a pitchfork with those horns?"

"...and then turn slightly to the side, like that, so you'll look
thinner. It will work wonders with those stripes!"

"I wonder if that black box sizzles if you spray it with water..."

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Africa House

January 12, 2015

One feature of my blog that I'm quite proud of but which gets the least attention is its Africa Bookshelf. I love reading, and I love telling others about the books I've read. While my passion for reading covers a wide range of topics, I particularly love to return time and time again to the Africa Bookshelf and add more works into the "read and reviewed" column.

The most recent such addition is The Africa House: The True Story of an English Gentleman and His African Dream by Christina Lamb. Pour yourself some tea and sit back - this one turned out fairly long as I had bent over so many page corners to later quote from.

Africa House is an exquisite book. Reading it gives you perhaps one of the best descriptions of British colonial life in Africa in the early 20th Century that you will come across. And so much of what you find in Africa today is determined by its colonial past. In that sense the observations in Africa House are highly relevant for anyone with an interest in Africa.

The story of an extraordinary man

But it's more than a story about life in Africa. It is the life story of an extraordinary man, most likely one you've never heard of, but one who you'll come to love on these pages. His name is Stewart Gore-Browne, an English gentleman in the truest sense. He first came to Africa in 1914 as a young army lieutenant, on some sort of surveying commission with the British army, and when he went off to explore the land on his own at the end of his stay, he came across an enchanted piece of land in what today is Zambia but in those early days was called Northern Rhodesia. It was all part of the empire envisioned and relentlessly pursued by Cecil Rhodes in the late 1800s. When he first set eyes on the area on the banks of Lake Shiwa Ngandu that he had stumbled upon (a giant sapphire nestling in a bed of green hills), he knew with absolute certainty that he was going to come back and settle precisely on that spot by building a grand estate, even though he had no prior experience that might have qualified him for such a venture, nor an income giving him the financial means. World War I intervened and so it wasn't until 1920 that he came back and was able to realize his dream. It would take many years to come to full fruition (and, it can be argued, never achieved financial success).

What I love about Africa House is the way the author manages to tell a more or less ordinary person's life and makes it interesting. She leans heavily on Gore-Browne's diary and the many (thousands?) letters he wrote, most of those to his beloved Aunt Ethel back in England. In fact, even though she was some 15 years his senior, she was in many ways the love of his life, and the fact that he could not have her a great tragedy. Passages from his letters are seamlessly fed into the narrative so that it moves at a fast pace, yet gives the reader a distinct feel for the time and place and especially Gore-Browne's complicated personality.

On the one hand Gore-Brown was a hopeless snob, which most often shines through in his correspondence with his aunt, who of course was of similar upper-class breeding. For instance:  My gear looks so nice, the table with the clean white cloth, shining silver knives and the cockioly bird china cups, plates and teapot. They look like they belong to a person of substance. I loathe the kind of Englishman who travels with folding tables and enamel mugs as if he'd purchased all his things in a general store. At some point, he had to host impromptu visitors to the estate, Sir and Lady Vyvyan, who improbably stepped out of one of the early Imperial Air service planes when it was forced to land in the bush due to bad weather (Lady Vyvyan was very relieved to see white people. She told us that when they started hurtling down through the jungle, she and her husband had been imagining cannibals and witch doctors and all sorts.). Even though he had chosen a life far from everything and everyone he grew up with, he was always elated to have guests of his own background, even if it meant mobilizing his entire estate without any warning to put on a good show of hospitality. In this case, it meant putting hundreds of his men to work around the clock to straighten out a piece of land near the lake to use as an airstrip for the plane to take off from again.

But he also held a deep love of the natives, or Bantu as they were called then. He felt himself responsible for everybody he employed (in the heyday of the estate, those numbered in the thousands) or who was otherwise connected to Shiwa Ngandu, to the point of treating them like his children (Sometimes it is like dealing with children, even the most basic instructions go unheeded.) He was even reported to beat them when misbehaving, a fact that seems impossible to reconcile from today's vantage point. But as time passed, his view grew more nuanced (I used to have ideas of conferring patriarchal benefits on the Bantu but that's I'm afraid all moonshine. The natives don't want to e patriarched.). He eventually decided to enter politics (I know the problems of this place by now and would like to be involved in some kind of system where black and white can work together, he writes to Ethel). His views were quite progressive for the time: Hope for Africa lies not in segregation, repression by a dominant race or even some form of benevolent white autocracy though of course this is the tradition we were brought up in, but in a kind of partnership between the white and black races, however long that might take. There is a beautiful anecdote from 1946 of an incident in an African pub on the outskirts of Lusaka, where his manservant Henry had taken Gore-Browne one evening. White police officers entered the bar in a raid, and surprised to find "a gentleman" there, accused him of being a "bit of a kaffir lover are we?" for hanging out "in a nigger bar." Gore-Browne, who by then was a well-known politician in good standing, later recounts that he told him these people here have worked all day for a few pence. Their wives work and their children work. They probably haven't eaten meat since Christmas. While you are stuffing your fat faces with beer and chicken and slurping your whisky sodas, they are surviving on one bowl of watery porridge. And you begrudge them one bowl of millet beer you wouldn't even let your dog drink! A young native protege of his, Harry Nkumbula, who  had witnessed the scene, said of what happened: Tonight is the first time that I have ever seen a white man defend one of us against one of his own. My shame is that we cannot stand up for ourselves. But one day we shall have all the fine white words at our command and then you will be proud of us. 

The drive for equality and Zambia's independence

Ironically, it was his upper-class snobbism that left him so offended when common courtesies weren't extended to all people equally. If an African is in my house at teatime, I would naturally ask him to tea. It is a simple question of manners, he wrote to Ethel. And seeing the colour bar enforced, particularly by uncouth whites of no breeding, so infuriates me. As a member of the Northern Rhodesian Legislative Council or LegCo, he tirelessly fought to end the color bar, to allow offices to employ African clerks, and to permit Africans to form trade unions. In a speech he gave, prompted by an incident where a shop owner was urged not to sell "European goods to these stinking kaffirs and what not," he said to the assembled Council: "All I would ask, as I have half a dozen times before, is the recognition of our common humanity with the African." Recalling how blacks had fought for the Allies alongside whites in World War II, he addressed the Governor directly: "I would ask whether those men back from Burma who marched past you, Sir, the other day, I would ask whether they are stinking kaffirs?"

When Zambia finally became independent, with Kenneth Kaunda as its first president (who it is not surprising to learn was also a former protege of  Gore-Browne's - I've always liked the fellow and he's got a big job before him) Gore-Browne was the first white man to renounce his British citizenship to become a Zambian citizen. The Independence celebration was one of the greatest days of my life, he writes, and he remained an influential advisor to the young new government until his death in 1967. Kenneth Kaunda himself said of him: "Stewart Gore-Browne was one of the most visionary people in Africa - he was born an English gentleman and died a Zambian gentleman." Gore-Browne remains the only white man in Central Africa to have received both a state funeral and a chief's burial. His grave is on a hill overlooking his beloved estate.

What I most love about Africa House are the vivid descriptions of Africa that still hold true today. It was good too, to breathe the air of Africa again, that smell of virgin land, of nature in full-force, of ancient earth and beasts that have passe through, and just a slight hint of threat, reads one passage early on. The women carrying loads on their heads, he wrote, were making a jolly sight, walking with that classic grace which English women seem to have lost. Behind them follow the old chief and his wife, rounding them up, everyone singing all the while. By mid-morning the whole place is resonant with harmony as different work-gangs go back and forth in various directions, all singing. There is a passage describing how remote indeed the location of his estate was, that it was so rare to see another vehicle on the final stretch of road "that if one did, one usually puller over and made tea." That's not unlike you still feel in some parts of Africa today.

All the things of which Stewart Gore-Browne writes concerning his daily life are so vivid to me that they make a yearning for Africa come screaming back through my veins. Sure, his account is rose-colored through the colonial lens and a part of his Africa is forever gone, and yet he seems to have grasped the essence of it as few white men have been able to do.


Note: Even though the book, to me, was more about the man than the house, the fate of the house does indeed become important to the reader, as it is such a central part of the story. Like I mentioned, the estate almost never made any money from the many ventures Gore-Browne concocted, and after his death fell into disrepair. I remember reading a passage early on, where he describes the custom of lining up all the house servants and foremen in uniform on the front lawn and welcoming new visitors with song and dance, and thinking that is just how they did it for us at game lodges!. His real strength was playing host and giving visitors an unforgettable experience. Had he lived today, he would have made a very profitable existence out of the house as a luxury safari destination. I fact, that is what one of his descendants eventually did with Shiwa Ngandu. It is comforting to know that it has found a place that Stewart-Gore Browne would have approved of.

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Not Mañana, Just Now!

January 5, 2015

Noisette always accuses me of reading too much. I accuse him of reading too little. And yet it is he who often comes across exquisite nuggets of writing about life or travel overseas.

So it was with "A Move to Panama" in The Wall Street Journal on December 1.

At first, I wasn't sure why I should read it. Panama isn't one of the countries on my radar. If there is a country we've got our eyes on in terms of retiring, as the writer of this article has done in Boquete, a small rural Panamanian town almost equidistant between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it is South Africa. Or perhaps even Botswana or Namibia.

But then I was struck by the similarities. He and his wife had been looking at countries in search of "a simpler life" and were immediately captivated by Boquete on a two-week vacation: "The weather is ideal; the countryside has spectacular views; expenses are moderate; and Panamanians are gracious and tolerant of outsiders. Some call this paradise."

I don't think many would call South Africa a paradise, mainly due to its persistently high crime statistics. And one could argue that not all outsiders are tolerated, given some of the nasty excesses of xenophobia that occasionally flare up across the land (though of course never directed at us). But weather and countryside do come close to my definition of paradise, as does the part about the simpler life.

Why does the promise of a simpler life sound so alluring? Are our Western lives so complicated?

At first glance, you'd rather think the opposite. I mean, where else but the U.S. can I sit in my central-heated and perfectly comfortable home all morning, order everything that I need by button-click from Amazon (and I do mean, everything!), drive a short distance (without encountering any broken traffic lights, nor much traffic) to the library to pick up my pre-ordered books that I get to read for absolutely free, and pick up the mail at the end of the driveway which arrives automatically and without fail every day of the week?

Complicated my life is not. And yet we seem to all yearn for something simpler, easier, more down to basics.

I think it has to do solely with pace. By streamlining processes, by building better infrastructure, by making everything convenient, we've gotten so good at getting stuff done that we are constantly adding more stuff to our list. The more we accomplish, the more we want to tackle. It's like a drug that stimulates you for a short while and then burns you out.

Africa, and apparently, Panama, are an antidote to that. It's like going cold turkey on your workaholic ways. At first this can be extremely uncomfortable. The writer of the Panama article describes it this way: "If you're thinking about a move to Latin America, it's best to leave type-A expectations at home... The dictionary translates the Spanish word mañana to mean tomorrow; here they translate it to mean not now, but sometime in the indefinite future. That is a cultural reality and, for some expats, a difficult transition."

Ha! I have just such a word (2 words, actually) for "not now but sometime in the indefinite future." You can read all about it in "Just Now" or "Now Now"?, one of my early blog entries on Joburg Expat. And I've also written about the need to shed your type-A personality in  Welcome to Type-A Remedial School, just as above writer recommends. Surprisingly, it often turns out we don't grudgingly surrender it as much as willingly embrace a life freed from it. "Living in Africa," I wrote, "will infuse you with a healthy dose of humor, if you'll only allow it. You will laugh about things you used to frown at, you will forgive where you used to hold a grudge, and you will find beauty in everything, from the toothless smile of the street vendor to the fat bum on the sidewalk in front of you blocking the way."

In short, a simpler life.

All you need is patience and an open mind, and the reward might be something close to paradise.

Maybe this is true wherever you might live?

Can you spot Jabulani? Whose name means "happy."
As I said, patience and an open mind!
(picture taken near Cape Point in April 2011)
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Looking Back on 2014

December 31, 2014

Lots of stuff happens when you're an expat. You see new places, you meet new people, and you have plenty to write about. 

Then you move back home, and that year is kind of busy too. You pack and unpack household goods until they come out your ears, you get settled in new schools and places of work, and once again you have plenty to write about.

Then comes the year AFTER, and nothing much happens in it at all. You go about your back-home business every day. You order stuff from Amazon, which even after a year of such luxury still gives you a little jolt of pleasure every single time. Ditto for Starbucks and working traffic lights aka robots. You spend a lot of your time with the household chores previously done by your maid during your days of glory as an expat sipping-mojitos-by-the-pool wife, and you spend some more of your time arguing with your husband over why you don't feel the house needs to be quite as clean as it was during said glory days.

2014 was that year after for us. Not that much of note happened, and so not that much of note is deserving of mention in this reflection of the past year.

One thing, however, IS, and I'll shamelessly seize the opportunity to put in another plug for it: In March 2014, I published my very first book, Kilimanjaro Diaries. Making up my mind to sit down and finally start writing sometime mid-2013 was actually the biggest biggest hurdle to overcome and doesn't belong in this year at all, but the part where I finally pushed the "publish to Kindle" button so that people could come rushing to buy it does. It came around the end of March, after countless rounds of conferring with my editor, applying corrections, and proof-reading it until I could no longer stand my own story, and I do admit that it was one of my great moments not just in this year but my entire life. And shortly after that, in May, came another, even better moment, when I held an actual paperback copy in my very own hands. For about 11 hours straight before I could bring myself to let go of it. I also count giving a talk about my book and signing copies of it at Parnassus Books right here in Nashville among the other highlights of this year.

And while I'm shamelessly plugging it: No matter which country you are in, Kilimanjaro Diaries (Kindle version) can be purchased by clicking this link. Unless of course you already own a copy, in which case I'd like to say thanks for your business!

Looking toward 2015, I have big plans: Publishing the German translation of Kilimanjaro Diaries in January or February and publishing my second book, the one about a 6-person family traveling through Namibia in a 5-person car (and changing lots and lots of tires) later in the year. I also plan to get started on a third book, the topic of which I won't reveal just yet. But who knows - I'll also have to help get our oldest child out the door and into university, and at the rate that project has been going this year, I might very well spend the entire first half of 2015 nagging and sending out deadline reminders.

Finally I thought I'd end this review of 2014 by listing the most popular posts on Joburg Expat this year:

3rd most read post, somewhat surprisingly, in which I compared South Africa and Brazil through the lens of each country's soccer world cup and and how determined people can achieve great things, even with the deck stacked against them:
  From World Cup to World Cup: Soccer, Poverty, and Determination.

2nd most read post
, in which I reflected on first world problems we encounter here in our sheltered and spoiled life, and hopefully gave you a few good laughs:
Coyote Sightings, Ungainly Outhouses, and other First World Problems

1st most read pos
t, with a very boring title but apparently full of good information for fellow expats navigating the intricacies of South African bureaucracy:
How to Register a Car in South Africa
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A Very Merry South African Christmas!

December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas to all my South African readers and friends!

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