It's Like Camping Without the Hassle

July 28, 2015

I recently came across an article on Jozi Kids called "100 Benefits of Load-Shedding."

One hundred? Okay Jozi Kids, I think you might have gone just a tad overboard. There are not even one hundred benefits of Nutella. Or central heating. Or indoor plumbing.

But I do get their idea. Rather than stressing out about something you can't change - might as well embrace it and turn it into positive thinking. So, instead of once again complaining about Eskom - my favorite blog topic the first year we lived in South Africa - I here give you:

Top 10 Benefits of Load-Shedding for the Expat Wife

  1. It gets your 13-year old off the xBox, pronto. He will run into your kitchen in a huff. He will be outraged - OUTRAGED, I'm telling you - at this interruption of his routine. And you will be giddy with glee at this intervention from on high over matters you can't be expected to have any control over. This is Africa.
  2. It absolves you from cooking duty. You were going to prepare a three-course dinner, you really were. But now your oven isn't working, and your dishwasher won't work afterwards either, so it's everybody fend for themselves with whatever cold cuts they can find in the fridge.
  3. Alternatively, your husband will do the cooking. There is that problem that once your fridge and freezer are out of power, the stuff in there will go bad. What a golden opportunity to fire up the braai, which of course is man territory, to have the most delicious steak prepared for you without you having to lift a finger. For bonus points: Get to know your neighbors by inviting them over to the steak dinner.
  4. You get a good night's sleep. No lights in the evening means you go to bed early. Which, this being South Africa and the hadedas sure to wake you at 4:30 in the morning, will ensure that you sleep long enough. It has the added benefit that you might beat the infamous Joburg traffic by leaving the house at 5:00 AM.
  5. It's like camping without the hassle. S'mores over the fire, watching the sunset, spending time with your family without electronic distractions... Oh, the bliss! If it weren't for pesky mosquitoes, the hard ground under your sleeping mat, and the less-than stellar ablutions facilities. Load-shedding is the perfect solution: You get to have all the fun but sleep at home on your comfy mattress under the mosquito net with a perfectly fine toilet at your beck and call around the clock. 
  6. You have a better chance of not reaching your capped internet limit. Nothing is more annoying than living in a country where your internet is capped at 9 gigabytes per month. At a speed of, I don't know, the Flintstones' first car. What better way to conserve your bandwidth than, uhm, not using it?
  7. You get excellent story material for your blog. If your trash were always picked up with mind-boggling regularity, if all the traffic lights always worked, if your mail would actually get there, what in the name of sweet Jesus would you write about on your blog? Except, hold those thoughts. Until the Internet comes on again so you can share them.
  8. Write a letter instead of sending an email. This will be an excellent opportunity to see if the "out of order" sign has been removed from the slit in the mailbox at your local post office. Bonus opportunity: Put some cash into the envelope. It will make your local postal clerk very happy.
  9. You briefly get to return to the real world. This gives you an opportunity to take pictures and gather material you can later post as a Facebook status update.
  10. You get to binge-watch your favorite TV series later. This is so much better than having to see them in real time, one at a time. Bonus: microwave some popcorn while you have power.
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The Price Tag of Safety

July 23, 2015

If you could do everything in your power to keep yourself and your children safe, wouldn't you do it?

Duh, you will say. Of course!

But not so fast. I'm going to show you that there is a price you pay for safety. Or, conversely, that you get unexpected benefits when easing up a little on the safety. It's the age old question of freedom versus security: It's not possible to have 100% of each at the same time.

Take crime. It's definitely an issue to take into consideration when contemplating a life in South Africa. But it's just one issue. You'd make a mistake to base your decision only on that. In the case of South Africa, most expats there will tell you, it's worth taking on a little risk for the great life you get in return.

While this is true about crime, it's also true about safety in general, and South Africa makes for a wonderful case study. Some examples:

  • Seat belts often seem to be optional in South Africa. Children can be seen climbing around inside moving cars all the time. But that's actually tame compared to when you see children riding around on roof racks of 4x4 vehicles. When we first arrived, Noisette and I both swore we'd never let our kids do that. Until they were invited by friends to their car's roof rack and had the time of their life.
    Children enjoying a rooftop ride in South Africa
  • I also don't think I ever contemplated letting a 13-year old drive around on regular roads for hours at a time. But when that same thirteen-year old has had to perform the adult task of changing a flat tire - three times in a row, I might add - then your view of what is and isn't appropriate might change. Most of our local friends' kids knew how to drive a manual, and their cars showed the scars of the learning process.
    40 miles on a godforsaken gravel road in Namibia - perfect
    opportunity for a 13-year old to 
  • I've already told you about the lion park in Joburg, and the fact that you never once sign an indemnity form before entering. And yet people have been killed in that park. You might have heard of the American woman, just weeks ago, who fell victim to a lion attacking through the open car window. It's tragic, and I cannot condone the verbal attacks I've seen online targeted against this woman and her lack of judgment, but it's also true that what makes safaris so great, or even possible, is the fact that there are no fences, no warning signs, no indemnity forms. All that stands between you and a lion is the talk given to you by your guide, which you'd do well to pay attention to.
    South African school children at school sport, barefoot
  • South African children run around the school grounds barefoot all day long. Entire cross country races are completed by hordes of barefoot kids. Are there, miraculously, fewer pitfalls awaiting bare skin on African soil, you wonder? Not likely. And yet I know of no edicts against bare feet in South African schools.
  • A friend told me a story of a fundraising event at their school. Someone had brought in a wrecked car and a sledgehammer and deposited both in the middle of the rugby field. For a per-minute fee, kids could climb onto that car and smash it to pieces. Needless to say, the field was subsequently covered in glass shards, but cleaning it up didn't occur to anyone until the next match was well underway. I can't quite imagine this activity being offered at your average American school.
    Thinking back, I can't believe we were this close to the lion,
    not even a sleeping one, when I took this picture in Madikwe
  • Not one of my kids made it through their South African school's Design and Technology class without cuts or other injuries. Even the younger children are entrusted with knives and hammers and drills so as to learn how to handle them. And there isn't even a school nurse on hand.

Now I'm not advocating for anybody to be reckless. Seat belts, for instance, are non-negotiable, especially on the roads of Johannesburg. Access to guns, such a huge safety hazard in the wrong hands, should be tightly restricted. Airline pilots, it turns out, should have more stringent psychological evaluations.

And yet there is a limit on restrictions and precautions before you pay too big of a price.

Yes, you can ban the use of the monkey bars at your school forevermore and save a few kids from the fate of a broken arm, but isn't losing the joy and thrill of climbing high and swinging wildly too high a price to pay?

Yes, you can ensure school kids eat a proper lunch and sit down quietly in an orderly cafeteria monitored by ten parent volunteers, but what about all the other fun things they could be doing instead at break time? Even if that means they forget to eat their lunch?

Yes, you can put rules in place that force children to include everyone on the playground, but aren't you robbing them of a learning ground to improve their social skills?

Yes, you can put fences around all the wild animals and eliminate any risks to the visitor, but what a tragedy that would be for Africa.

There is a price you pay for safety. Often it's worth it. And I would argue that nowhere have we had to endure such stringent safety measures (but not indemnity forms) as in Africa. They get it when it matters. No one wants you to fall off a tree during a canopy tour. Stand up in a safari vehicle for a closer look at the sleeping lion right in front of you, and you will be dressed down very sternly by your guide.

But the price you pay for more safety isn't always worth it. In general, South African kids seem to grow up with more opportunities to injure themselves than your average American child, but also with more opportunities for experimentation and personal growth. The approach of those in authority seems to be that of letting things move along and dealing with the consequences when they arise, instead of trying to anticipate all consequences ahead of time and eliminating them by imposing draconian rules.

In many people's minds - particularly someone like me who grew up in Europe - the United States is a land of golden opportunity, of personal freedom, of relatively few government restrictions. But to many South Africans, life there would seem unduly restricted.

Getting back to the issue of crime in South Africa: Yes, it would be wonderful if the country was safer, with fewer break-ins and carjackings, without the need for high-voltage fences around neighborhoods, less violence against women, less violence in general. Perhaps one day it will get there. But in the meantime, don't let crime define the country. There is so much more to life in South Africa that you wouldn't want to miss out on. You might start with this list: Top Ten Reasons You Should Move to Johannesburg Despite the Crime Rate.

You might also enjoy: Legal Common Sense in South Africa
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Healthcare for Expats in South Africa

July 19, 2015

Perhaps you'll remember that it didn't take long for our family to make the acquaintance with a hospital after moving to South Africa in 2010.

  • Less than a month in I was struck down by tick bite fever, except I didn't know it, and ended up going to the emergency room. 
  • About a year later, over New Year's, our  youngest daughter Sunshine made an unpleasant acquaintance with the corner of a night stand when jumping on the bed with her brother Jabulani and needed several stitches in her forehead. 
  • A bit later, that same brother in turn made an even more unpleasant acquaintance with the foot of an attacking soccer player when trying to save the goal, and needed surgery on his arm. 
  • Not to mention getting the whole family vaccinated for yellow fever, getting tested for concussions after rugby matches, and keeping an orthodontist busy around the clock with three out of four kids with more wiring in their mouths than behind your cable box.

The good news in all that? Let's just say that we definitely got our money's worth out of our global healthcare plan!

Are you moving to South Africa? Then you better get yourself such a plan too. The following is a guest post sponsored by Medibroker International, a company providing broker services for expats looking for international health insurance. 

Expat Healthcare in South Africa

You might have chosen South Africa as your expat destination for a dazzling job opportunity, the warm climate or for the expat lifestyle; but chances are you have a few concerns about your move.

Safety is a daunting issue for most expats planning a move to South Africa. Just as you take steps to protect yourself, it’s also important to get protection for your health and finances by purchasing private medical insurance. It’s boring, it’s unavoidable; but Medibroker International can make it simple.

Looking after your health should be your number one priority when moving to a country with an infamously fragmented health system. There is a vast gap between public and private health facilities in South Africa which makes a comprehensive health insurance plan essential if you’re going to be living there for any length of time over 12 months.

Johannesburg Healthcare

While the City of Gold has the most medical facilities in South Africa, the standards of these hospitals and clinics vary. In fact, Johannesburg has a long way to go before it fulfils its ambition to be ‘One City One Health System’.

Public Healthcare and Local Health Insurance in South Africa

It’s wise to avoid relying on South Africa’s public healthcare system if you are an expat. At present it is overburdened by locals and seriously underfunded. Things like poor sanitation, substandard housing and unjust social conditions have put a real strain on publically funded healthcare in the country. Public hospitals are generally understaffed, lacking even basic supplies.

Local health insurance can also be unreliable in South Africa – there are horror stories of local insurers cancelling cover when a policyholder notifies them of required treatment. This leaves the policy holder uninsured in their time of need and faced with the near-impossible task of finding a plan that will cover them for a condition which is then classed as pre-existing.

Private Healthcare in South Africa

Fortunately, expats can benefit from private healthcare systems in South Africa of a world class standard. In fact, Johannesburg’s private healthcare is the most robust in all of Africa.

Private healthcare currently accounts for around 55% of the country’s spending on healthcare. To access the best facilities, you will need private health insurance. Buying a policy before you go will help alleviate any apprehensiveness you may have about seeing a medical professional in a new country because you are usually able to choose your Doctor. Staff in private facilities are highly trained and you will benefit from shorter waiting times in addition to an increased quality of care.

In South Africa expats will typically pay for medical bills as they are incurred and each service is usually paid for separately. You can then use your receipts to claim a refund from your insurer by submitting a claim.

Health Insurance for South Africa

An international health insurance plan is often the best option for expatriates living in South Africa, particularly if they will be travelling outside of the country or would prefer to receive medical treatment elsewhere. International cover has become more sought after among Brits now that the NHS crackdown will affect repatriates.

Steve Nelson, sales advisor at Medibroker says:  “With many international plan providers to choose from it is important that you get the right level of cover for you and your family. It is important to consider benefit levels, scope and cover and of course any exclusions. Getting this wrong can leave you exposed to hefty medical bills that you will have to meet yourself.”

If you are working in South Africa or are on an international assignment and your company does offer a benefits package that includes private healthcare, you should question the extent of that cover. Does it include maternity? Are your family covered? What about medical evacuation cover?

Medibroker provide a completely free and impartial broker service to expats looking for international health insurance. They will make sure they understand your needs before recommending a suitable health plan from a portfolio of over 30 providers. Request a quote today.

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The Expat Shopper in Johannesburg

July 16, 2015

I'm not the world's biggest shopper. I don't love the excitement of going out there to hunt for bargains. I don't revel in waiting with bated breath for the grand opening of a long-awaited store. And I don't go all crazy over finding my favorite brand-names far from home.

Because I don't love shopping, I've become really good at making it efficient. Especially as a newly-arrived expat, you need to know where to buy your steaks, your chocolate chips, your converter plugs. Especially your converter plugs, if you live in a country like South Africa where all the power outlets are wrong, no matter where you've come from.

I've come a long way from my first shopping trip in Johannesburg as a newly-arrived expat, that day I found myself staring at an empty fridge that needed to be filled before the kids came home. I somehow learned the ropes of shopping in Johannesburg, painful trip by painful trip, and even though I'm not a bright-eyed Mommy blogger who inundates her readers with links to all the things they absolutely must own, I have put together a surprisingly long list of tips on where to buy all sorts of different stuff in Joburg. So I thought, why not share it with you all in one place to save you the trouble.

You may have to do a bit of work and scroll to the bottom of some of these posts to get to the place where I reveal where you should go or XYZ, only because I learned the painful way. I apologize if you have to read through some of my complaining to get there.

In Johannesburg, this is where you buy your...

Baking supplies
German sausage (for Germans only:-)
Good bread
Electric appliances
Drugs and beauty supplies
School uniforms
GAP clothes
Picture frames
Gardening and building supplies
Gas bottles (and refills)
Sporting goods
Sports, Health, and Wellness
African crafts
Stone art from Zimbabwe
Christmas trees (the real deal)
Christmas tree (the fake kind)
Goods on Amazon (not really)
Anything you can't find anywhere else (aka street vendors)
Used stuff
Used cars
If you have to ship it from the U.S.

I'm sorry if this picture is misleading; this is all the stuff I had trouble finding in South Africa. 
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The New Dainfern Square Shopping Centre

July 13, 2015

I've told you several times how much I enjoyed the Valley Shopping Centre right next to Dainfern Valley, the neighborhood we used to live in while in South Africa. I enjoyed how close it was, that I could pick up medicine, a movie, my dry-cleaning, and a few steaks and wine for dinner all in the space of 20 minutes, and only having to park my car once. It was small, but it had everything.

Well, not quite everything. Now that the new Dainfern Square has opened not far from it, on the corner of William Nicol and Broadacres Drive, I have retroactive pangs of jealousy about all the great stuff I missed out on so close to our doorstep.

Thanks to today's guest blogger Debbie Spazzoli, here is a rundown of what Dainfern Square has to offer.

Dainfern Square Is Finally Open!

Just over a month ago the long awaited Dainfern Square finally opened. I am sure that many of the residents of Dainfern and surrounds are thrilled with this welcome addition to the suburb.

On a recent Saturday morning we decided to pop down and see what new shops and restaurants were opening up. To get there, we drove up the wonderful new and widened section of William Nicol Dr. - just imagine, three large lanes in both directions!

The great news was that the Virgin Active gym was opening that day. We dropped off Hubby at the entrance for a chance to try their brand new machines and visit the change rooms. The boys and I however decided that we would rather try the new Mugg and Bean for brunch. We were not disappointed.

Here is a list of stores that are open or will be opening soon:

  • Woolworths Food Emporium, Pick n Pay
  • Exclusive Books
  • Jeuval Hair Salon, Sorbet Nail Bar and a Sorbet Dry Bar (wash, blow and go!) Beauty Factory, Goodfellas Barber Shop
  • Estate agents Sothebys and Pam Golding
  • Mugg and Bean
  • Vida e Café
  • Melissa’s (yummy!!!!)
  • Yume Sushi
  • Col’Caccio and Turn’nTender (coming soon)
  • Postnet, MTN, Vodacom4U, Standard Bank
  • Take aways – Debonairs, Fish Aways, Pizza Hut, Anat Steers and Kawai (opening soon)
  • Clicks and Dischem and The Body Shop
  • Kitchen Quarter is relocating from Lonehill
  • There are also ATM’s, a car wash, and a travel agent.
  • The Virgin Active has a wonderful view but if it was up to me, I would have put the coffee shops upstairs instead of the usual South African way of putting them all facing the carpark.

Take away food court

View from Virgin Active

Still some construction going on

Exclusive Books


Woolie's, of course!

Aaaah - looks just like America.

Melissa's, again. Never heard of the place but it does look tempting.

All in all it is convenient, and I am sure I will be back because I can never resist a visit to Melissa’s.

For a full list of stores at Dainfern Square click here.

Debbie Spazzoli moved from Zimbabwe to South Africa in December 2004 with her husband and their three sons on a 2 year inter-office permit. They have lived in South Africa for 10 years and are proudly South African permanent residents. Their boys are almost more South African than Zimbabwean but have many happy memories of growing up in Zimbabwe.

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Koeksister Who?

July 6, 2015

A brief explanation about the demographics of South Africa:

Based on the latest census in 2011, roughly 9% of South Africa's population is white. Within that group, about 61% are Afrikaans speakers, 36% are English speakers, and the remaining 3% speak other languages such as Portuguese.

A good portion of the black population - which of course constitutes the vast majority of South Africans - also speaks Afrikaans, though mostly not as their mother tongue. Today, however, it is only the Afrikaans speaking part of the white population that I'm going to write about. Or rather, their cooking. Which might be one and the same. Afrikaners are very proud of their cooking.

I'd like to say that I actually don't know if the word Afrikaner is offensive or not. Or a source of pride for those who have Afrikaner bloodlines. Just like some WASP Americans take pride in tracing their ancestry all the way back to the Mayflower and the first pilgrims, some Afrikaners can trace their heritage all the way back to Jan van Riebeeck who was the first European settler to set foot on South Africa's southwesternmost tip. More Dutch settlers followed, but alas, as so often in history, the English were hot on their heels and eventually managed to wrest the new colony from their hands. But not entirely. Eventually, both sides entered an uneasy truce which you could say has lasted until today. (This was the very condensed version. For a more in-depth history lesson, read In the Footsteps of Paul Kruger and the Voortrekkers, and for a bit of background on the English-Afrikaner conflict, read my review of The Covenant by James Michener.)

Afrikaners have also been called Boers, a word you might know from the Boer Wars. There were two. Winston Churchill was there. And concentration camps were established then too. By the British. But I mostly know the word Boer from Boerewors, an excellent piece of sausage. Which brings us back to cooking.

Koeksisters (pronounced "cook sisters" or close to it) are one of the South African food staples. Right behind biltong, rusks, and all things off the braai. They are a very sweet and very sticky delicacy made from a donut-like dough shaped into mini-braids and finished off with sugar syrup. The word derives from the Dutch koekje, which means cookie. Apparently there is also a spicy Cape Malay version of the koeksister which is rolled in dried coconut. I've never seen that version, but we came across the Afrikaner koeksister on many of our travels. Sometimes it was simply sold by the roadside, and sometimes it was touted as "the best koeksister to be found in all of South Africa" by the establishment selling them. Recipes are handed down through the generations of Afrikaner families (and the occasional "English" family too, I think) and there is a lot of friendly competition as to whose is the best.

I can't say I've exactly missed koeksisters. Much like I wouldn't miss Dunkin Donuts if we moved away from the U.S. again. But nonetheless I was excited to come across a whole kitchen full of koeksisters the other day, right here in Middle Tennessee. That's because we have a club here called Friends of South Africa. We do a lot of fun stuff and we field a killer dragon boat team, but mainly, what we do best is cook (and eat).

Recently we got together at Anile's house to learn how to make koeksisters. Or, as in my case, we watched others make koeksisters while we stole samples off the tray.

Here is the koeksister prep table:

I didn't linger at the prep table too long, because it looked like a lot of work and nothing to eat (yet). Here you can see how you cut the dough so it can be braided. What's with that drafting paper underneath? Do you have to be that precise?

Here is the braiding part. Looks exactly like when my girls get their hair braided at the beach in the summer. That's how fast these women can braid a koeksister!

Now comes the big moment, the frying of the koeksisters. Note how uncrowded the pot looks. I think that's my undoing whenever I fry something (which is once every 5 years, approximately). I am impatient to be done and put everything in at once, and then it doesn't brown.

And finally, the dunking of the koeksisters into the syrup. Note how the syrup is kept in a bowl of ice water. Apparently it's real important that it's very cold. So as to stick better, I assume.

I hope that this will prompt you to try making your own koeksisters sometime. They will either turn out to be lekker koeksisters or kak koeksisters. (For a little primer on Afrikaans, click here.)

Here is Anile's secret family koeksister recipe (no doubt handed down from Jan van Riebeeck's wife himself):

Anile's Secret Koeksister Recipe

For the batter

  • 6x250ml King Arthur unbleached flour (250ml is one cup)
  • 20ml Baking Powder
  • 5ml salt (1 tsp)
  • 30g margarine
  • 500ml milk (but use a little less).
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
  1. Sift all the dry ingredients together. Heat milk and margarine until margarine is melted. Let it cool and add the eggs. Add mixture to the dry ingredients and mix until a soft batter forms. Rub hands with a little oil and knead the dough well for 10 minutes (you can also use the Kitchenaid). Cover and let stand in a warm place for 20 minutes.
  2. Roll it with your rolling pin, cut in strips, braid or twist. Fry in medium oil until light brown. Dunk in cold syrup immediately after removing from the oil. Place on a drip rack.

Syrup (prepare this the day before baking your koeksisters)

  • 12x 250ml sugar
  • 6x 250ml water
  • 7.5ml salt
  • 15ml vanilla
  • 30ml lemon juice (optional).
  1. Heat sugar and water until it's about to boil and all the sugar is melted. Stir continuously. Once the syrup starts boiling, set timer for 7 minutes. Remove from heat after 7 minutes, and add the rest of the ingredients. Cover with lid and let cool. Refrigerate overnight. Use half of the cold syrup for your first batch of koeksisters, keep the rest in fridge. Keep adding the cold syrup as you go along. (Best to keep the syrup in a bowl of ice water while dunking the koeksisters).
  2. Store koeksisters in refrigerator to prevent from getting soggy. Can also be frozen.

I haven't tried making them myself, but there seems to be one hard rule: Do not, under any circumstances, leave the koeksisters in the syrup for more than 4 seconds! Also not less. 4 seconds exactly. I don't know what happens if you forget - maybe you'll be forever glued to the koeksister upon touching it if you do it wrong.

In any case, it seems to be a good idea to have plenty of wipes nearby when you're eating one.

Ta-daaaa! Ready to dig in. Which we did, trust me.

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Two Countries, Two Churches, One Wrong

June 29, 2015

When I started writing this blog post a few months ago, I had no idea that this topic would once again be at the forefront of our nation's conscience. That once again unspeakable evil would occur in the basement of a church. That this post would not merely be an anecdote comparing the histories of two countries I had the privilege to live in, but that it would have to shine a light on all the work still ahead of us in these countries today.

It began with a volleyball tournament. In April this year, Sunshine and I were headed to Birmingham, Alabama, where her volleyball team was going to compete in the regional championship.

We arrived on a Friday evening, and I was a bit miffed when finding out that we wouldn't play our first match until 2 PM the next day. Coulda saved the money for that hotel room and driven out in the morning, was my first thought. So I started thinking out loud: "What could one do in Birmingham on a Saturday morning?"

The answer, coming from an almost-teenage girl, totally surprised me: "We could go to 16th Street Baptist Church," said Sunshine without a second's hesitation. "We were just talking about that in Social Studies."

I could claim that as one who was tortured, yes tortured as a child by parents dragging me through one unspeakably boring church after another - Renaissance, Gothic, Roman, you name it; Europe is full of them! - I hadn't wanted to bring up a church visit to a 12-year old. But in truth, I simply hadn't thought about it.

It was my child who reminded me that there was living history all around us.

So we spent the morning touring 16th Street Baptist Church and surroundings under a sparkling blue sky.

Sunshine was particularly taken by the memorial to the four girls who died in the horrific bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Addie Mae Collins. Cynthia Wesley. Carole Robertson. Carol Denise McNair. I in turn was particularly taken by the image of my girl mingling with the dead girls, not much younger than herself at the time they were killed, playful children with the same dreams and aspirations shared by kids the world over.

Even as inanimate statues, the police dogs make you cast a wary eye in their direction. One shudders at the thought of their hot breath and teeth inches from one's face, barely restrained by threatening policemen.

The church itself was closed to visitors, but you can tour the basement, so that's what we did. There is also a museum across the street, but we had to leave before it opened. Our visit only took about an hour, at most, and was soon eclipsed by the sound of loud shouts, bouncing balls, and squeaky sneakers meeting gym floor during two long days of volleyball. (Note: Sunshine's team came in last.)

Only weeks later did it occur to me that I had once visited another church that was just as deeply intertwined with the struggle for freedom and equality.

On a tour through the township of Soweto near Johannesburg almost exactly five years ago, we had visited Regina Mundi Church. In it, you can still see bullet holes from June 16, 1976, when during the Soweto Uprising student demonstrators who fled into the church were shot at by police. While no one died in the church itself, 175 protesters were killed that day, including Hector Pieterson, whose picture made news around the world and to whom a memorial not far from the church is dedicated.

It is actually the anguished face of Mbuyisa Makhubo that we remember from this picture. He is the
one carrying the lifeless body of Hector Pieterson after he was shot. 

Regina Mundi was built in 1964, less than a year after the Birmingham church bombing. At
that time, 16th Street Baptist Church was already 92 years old. 
Iconic picture of the "Black Madonna" in Regina Mundi Church in Soweto

Two different countries. Two different continents even. Two different churches, one young, one old, one Catholic, and one Baptist. Two civil rights struggles.

But one wrong.

When you live in South Africa, history seems to be a lot closer. It seems only yesterday that Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and that he was overwhelmingly elected as the first president of a free South Africa. It seems as if South Africa trailed much behind the United States in terms of civil rights. That apartheid was so obviously wrong over there, while we had come to our senses such a long time ago over here.

But of course that's not true. If anyone thought the American civil rights chapter is closed, then what started with Michael Brown's shooting and the ensuing protests in Ferguson almost a year ago reminds us all that there is much left to be done. Last week's cold-blooded shooting of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, 52 years after the Birmingham church bombing, was an unspeakable act of evil. Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd. Susie Jackson. Ethel Lee Lance. Depayne Middleton-Doctor. Clementa C. Pinckney. Tywanza Sanders. Daniel Simmons. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Myra Thompson. Wonderful people with the same dreams and aspirations shared by people the world over.

There is much left to be done, but there is also a lot of hope.

"We have a deep appreciation of history. We haven't always had a deep appreciation of each other's history," President Obama said in his eulogy of Clementa Pinckney. Aside from the awesome symbolism of an African-American president singing Amazing Grace at this eulogy, aside from the almost unanimous shock and outrage in Charleston and beyond that seems to have brought the country together in some ways, I think this idea of how we look at history is what gives me hope. My daughter wanting to see history, and not for one second looking at it as "their" history but simply as our common history, should bode well for the future - both in South Africa and these our United States.

My daughter Sunshine, then 12, on the steps of 16th Street Baptist Church


Up next: What Sunshine wrote about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
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When is the Best Time to be an Expat, Revisited

June 25, 2015

Almost four years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled When is the Best Time to be an Expat?

I was prompted to revisit that topic by a recent reader comment. This reader was herself moving frequently for her job, and was glad to hear how adaptive most expat children typically are, as she didn't have any of her own yet. Her worry, I'm sure, was that once she did have children, her career might have to be put on hold, because by then surely she could no longer continue her nomadic lifestyle.

This is a good time for me to once again reflect on the topic of moving with children, because we've reached another milestone: In a few months, our oldest  - Zax, you will remember him from this blog and from my Kilimanjaro climb - will be starting university. Right here in the United States, only a few hours from where we live, although as perpetual movers we are not sure how long we will be this close to each other.

Making the decision about where to go to university wasn't as difficult for Zax as it might be for other 18-year olds. A friend once asked him why he didn't want to look at more campuses, and he said this: "We've moved so much already, and I always ended up pretty happy wherever it was, so I'm pretty sure I'll be happy at the next place too." Prompted by our urging, he applied to a good number of universities and got into almost all of them, but in the end chose the first one he was accepted into (and, we parents were happy to note, also the most affordable one).

Perhaps for him, the most thrilling part about going to university, any university, is knowing that he will get to stay there for four years in a row.

So, when is a good time to be an expat, and do we harm our children in some way by perpetually dragging them around the world?

In my first try, the blog post mentioned above, I came to the conclusion that the best time is now, whenever that is for you. Seize the opportunity when it arises. Go explore the world, and it will be good for your family. Our son's example, who seems to be comfortable in his skin now that he is leaving home, seems to confirm that a lifetime of moves has been good, or at least not harmful.

However, I don't want to belittle the heartbreak that comes with a life of moves. We've had plenty of it, and as the kids get older, the heartbreak seems to become deeper, and grudges about "making us move" linger longer. When your teenager tells you he/she is "tired of starting at the bottom once again," it is not easy to brush off. Having done it before and having gotten through it with a tougher skin and perhaps even happier doesn't inoculate you against future heartbreak. Inflicting this on my children, again and again, is the guilt I carry around with me as a parent.

The older your kids are, the harder it is to tell them what to do, and that includes moving. But it doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. Evading what seems hard is not a good recipe for life, and moving away from all that you know, perhaps even to an entirely new country, might be the greatest opportunity you can give your children (and yourself).

The truth is, there is no way to know what's best. In the end you can't "make" your kids happy anyway. They write their own life story from a much earlier age than we might think. We are just there to accompany them on the great journey of childhood and adolescence. We keep them from getting hurt when they don't know any better, we cheer them on along the way, and we nag them about way too many things because we can't help ourselves. But they are never a "product" that we "created," even if that is the most fervent wish of every helicopter mom out there.

In the words of J.K. Rowling, who has written many wise words, there is an expiration date on blaming your parents. Our kids might not get that memo, but there is! So, expat (and all) parents out there: stop berating yourself, stop racking your brain about what to do, and - in the words of another wise woman in one of my favorite songs - enjoy the ride!
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Born Procrastinator, Part II

June 22, 2015

(This is Part Two of the nailbiter "Will Zax finish his German online class in time before graduation?" Click here for part one.)

It is now mid-April 2015. German 303 is nowhere near finished and it is about a month until graduation. The thing is, we've been told you can under no circumstances graduate and participate in the ceremony if you don't have all your credits in place. German 303 is his one missing credit. The irony is that even High School German I, something he could have done in his sleep - learning to say "Guten Tag" and "Wo ist das Hofbräuhaus" most likely - would have technically fulfilled the requirement. But no, he is enrolled in the most demanding German class to be found this side of the Atlantic, or so it seems to me.

By now (and I have patiently outlined this in mathematical format once again) Zax needs to be at a pace of 2-3 exercises a day to stay on track. Painstakingly, answers about reflexive personal pronouns in the third person singular are scribbled and uploaded to BYU headquarters. This stuff is not only time-consuming, it is hard! I am German by birth, but I am beginning to agree with Mark Twain who famously said he'd rather decline two drinks than a German adjective. In the interest of getting this thing checked off my mental list, I've offered to help with corrections.

May rolls around. Zax is almost done, he says. "Take a look at the final exam," I say, "just so you know how that works."

How it works is that you can't just take that online, as I naively expected. No sir, you have to have the paperwork sent to a proctor who is authorized to supervise exams for BYU. His high school counselor assures us she can be the proctor, having done it many times before. "Have them Fedex it to me," she adds. "We don't want to lose any more time!"

No kidding! But it also turns out the final exam can't be requested until every module is finished and the oral exam has been taken. Zax goes online to request an oral exam date within the next three days while he finishes up the last exercises. The day before, the instructor reschedules. Another three days go by before Zax can take the oral exam. Another two days until it is graded, late on a Friday night. Too late to now request the written exam before the weekend.

At this point I try really really hard to bite my tongue so as not to say "I told you so, this is precisely why I advised for a three-week buffer, to allow for such contingencies." I almost succeed.

Monday rolls around. 5 days until graduation. Are you getting sweaty palms just by proxy? We go online to request the final exam. Except it can't be sent to the high school counselor because she's not on the list of proctors. What? Why the hell do they have a faulty list? Several phone calls later the reason is found. "You're taking a university level class," Zax is told. "Your proctor needs to be a teacher at a university, not a high school."

We look at the university list. There are five in the Nashville are. Zax, to his credit, does not hesitate. He picks up the phone (yeah, I know, this must have KILLED him, right?).

"Yes, hey... I was wondering, would you be able to proctor an exam for me?"

I'm sitting next to him on the sofa, listening in.

"Yes, sure," says the lady on the other end. "Sometime this summer?"

"Uhm no," says Zax, undeterred, "can you do it tomorrow?"

[Pause for five minutes of nonstop laughter.]

Then: "You are serious, aren't you?"

Zax: "Uhm, yes, that would be great."

"Okay, I'll do it Wednesday. Come in at 8 am."

I allow myself a minor victory dance. It seems like we are on track - barely. The exam is overnighted to Belmont University. We track it online and see that it gets there Tuesday at 9 am, as expected. Wednesday morning at 7 am, Zax is lacing his shoes to drive in for his exam. I go play tennis. I come back two hours later and he still sits on the staircase. I almost explode. "She called me and said she didn't have the exam," he informs me. "She told me to wait until she calls again."

"So what, you're just going to sit there?" I demand. Yes, it turns out, that is precisely what he's going to do. He will not under any circumstance call her to hurry her along.

I call there anyway. I call the university's mail room. They check their incoming mail. Oh yes, they have received the Fedex package, just forgotten to deliver it on campus. Whew! They carry it to the proctor lady's office. I call that office. The lady is at lunch and cannot be reached. She finally does call back at 1 pm, exam in hand. Zax takes off. Big Breath. One step closer.

I manage to get the lady on the phone while Zax is sitting the exam. She doesn't seem to be too serious about her proctoring duty as she isn't even in the same room with him. But what she IS serious about is not letting him take the finished exam with him to deliver it back to Fedex. I beg and plead with her to not let it go back to that mail room to be sitting there another extra day that we don't have. She agrees to let ME pick up the exam and take it to Fedex this evening. Not sure why she trusts me more than him. Can't she see I'd commit murder at this point to get this to BYU? But anyway, another Big Breath.

The exam is long. It takes three hours. It is after 5 pm by the time we roll into Fedex, precious package in hand. We have until 8 pm for next day delivery, so no problem. I say a silent prayer to Fred Smith and his brilliant business plan.

Holding the precious cargo on my lap

The next day is Thursday. Two days until graduation. We begin calling BYU at 10 am when we see that the package has been delivered. We put in a rush request for grading. Zax hasn't heard back from his instructor in a week, another cause or concern. His direct line seems to be disconnected. We call the 800 number again to complain. Oh no, that's not who will grade your exam. That's just a TA. Final exams are graded by the actual professor.

My heart plummets. A professor? Not just some graduate student who might have pity on a fellow student? The chances, after all this, seem slim.

Thursday ends, no grade.

Friday passes by, hour by painful hour. They hold a practice graduation at school. My son is given his seating assignment. The counselor must be sticking her neck out for him. I begin to hope again. But 28 phone calls later, we still have no news. The final exam entry is still staring at us from the website with a big glaring blank where the checkmark should be. It only counts for 10% of the grade, but it needs a passing grade of 60%. It feels like Zax's whole future is riding on that one little checkmark.

We go out to dinner, my husband and I. Zax goes to a friend's house. He is either unconcerned, or he is pretending to be unconcerned, because anything else would be a concession to my year-long nagging.

We come home from dinner. I check my emails one last time. Lo and behold, there is an email from BYU: The exam has been graded, just in the nick of time at 6:34 pm the night before graduation and just how Zax had predicted, and he has not only passed the class but has gotten an A- in it. The counselor cannot be reached at such a late hour.

We all file into the big auditorium (ironically, at Belmont University) Saturday morning, waiting with bated breath to first see if Zax marches in with his classmates, and then later if his name is called. While we stand there, I catch the counselor's eye who is standing with the teachers cheering on her charges. I give her the thumbs up. She makes the sign of the cross. We both exhale one long breath.

It is over. He's done it again. And has probably learned nothing from it. "I knew I'd finish it in time," he will say for years to come. And he is not wrong.

On to the celebration!

By the way, above right is the guy I must next nag to complete HIS German online class. 

But we have one entire year to do it in. Plenty of time to procrastinate...
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Born Procrastinator, Part I

June 15, 2015

A family of six comes with all types.

I have a husband and a daughter who are superb planners. When confronted with a deadline three months away, they have the ability to instantly backtrack a project start date that makes allowances for events like hurricanes, tsunamis, and as yet unprecedented breakdowns in infrastructure.

I also have a son who is a procrastinator. When confronted with a deadline three months away, he has the ability to instantly determine the last possible start date by weighing the likelihoods of any such events as mentioned above and, also being a math whiz, calculating their expected value. He is usually right on the spot with a few seconds to spare.

To get an idea, let me tell you about German 303.

German 303 was the online language class he had to take as a senior to fulfill his language requirement for graduation. Expat life had stripped him of the necessary two years of a foreign language. Or, rather, the foreign language American school authorities saw fit to recognize. Somehow neither Zulu nor Afrikaans made the cut.

We let him take German II as a junior. Yes, German, his mother tongue, our concession to the role we played in putting him into that predicament. German I would have been too agonizing, but the trouble with German II was that there was no German III on offer from our school the next year.

Of all the ways he could have gotten the required German III credit, he chose German 303 as an independent study course at Brigham Young University, the highest possible university level German class in the program, if not the country.

So far, so good. The paperwork was signed in July 2014, the school year started in August, he was given an extra study hall period dedicated for this independent study course, and the deadline was graduation day - May 23, 2015. Nine long months to finish, eight modules plus one final exam, which came out to be about one module per month. If you wanted to look at it that way.

The hurdle between my son and this beautiful college campus: German 303

Except Zax didn't want to look at it that way. He saw it as a lot of time stretching out in front of him with an extra hour every day to watch YouTube videos during his independent study period at school. What he heard loud and clear was "independent." What he chose to ignore was "study." This would be a really loooooong blog post if I was going to repeat all the conversations we had about his German class, but they all pretty much went like:

Me: "Have you worked on your German homework yet?"
Him: "I've started, yes."
Me: "So how far have you gotten?"
Him: "I've read the introduction."

Sometime in October he attempted (at my urging of course) the first task of the first module (eight tasks to each module). It was hard. It took a lot of time. Each module had him go through a long list of grammar exercises, then read a bunch of German newspapers and watch a lot of German TV, he had to analyze those articles and newscasts and commentate them, and then he had to write his own article on a similar topic and produce his own podcast, in the end tying it all together in his very own newspaper (he called it the "Hintertupfinger Anzeiger" - he's not without a sense of humor). It was a tall task even for someone fluent in German like him. Even I struggled with the grammar at times, never having learned any rules of my native language.

Christmas break came and went, with a few more feeble forays into module two. By now the conversation was more to the tune of:

Me: "How far are you with your German class?"
Him: "I'm working on module three."
Me: "Oh great, so you've uploaded one and two?"
Him: "No, not yet, I still have to finish some parts of those."

I know I know, this makes me sound like the mother of a sixth grader. Not that I ever had to ask those questions of my 6th grade girls, mind you. In my defense, by early 2015 I had gotten some tentative inquiries from his high school counselor, wondering what the status was. I'm sure she knew him well enough to double check. I felt a sense of duty to report back with some semblance of progress.

When spring break approached, I saw fit to bring some mathematical calculations to my aid. He likes math, this would speak to him, loud and clear.

"Let's say you need to be finished by April 30," I said, "to leave some extra time for grading and paperwork. By my calculations that puts you on pace for one of those modules each week, about one task from each module per day."

Easy peasy, you'd think, but oh no, my procrastinator son knew better. He had a date in mind, graduation on May 23, 2015, and he was going to be finished by then. Plenty of time to get started for real!

More time passed, and the pace was far from one module per week. But conceding that time was indeed getting a bit tight, Zax quit his lifeguarding job. He started sitting down every night to work on his German. Which was great, except it was a lot more work than he thought, and he also had AP exams to deal with at the same time. Ever so slowly, he uploaded his finished work to BYU, and immediately the graduate assistant assigned to him would grade it.

By the end of April there was still a lot of unfinished and ungraded work sitting in his file.

"Don't worry," Zax said. "I'll be finished before graduation."

His counselor emailed me. I could detect a slight note of panic in her prose.

"Don't worry," he told the counselor when I sent him to talk to her, "I've got it under control."

- End of Part I -

Will he finish the German class in time? Stay tuned...

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