What Expats SHOULDN'T Let the Packers Put in the Container

October 20, 2014

The other day I posted my Ultimate Expat Moving Checklist on Facebook. A blog post, I must say, that I've worked very hard for, if only to be able to use it myself one day should we ever move again, at which point I'd normally be tearing my hair out that I was so foolish to have thrown away all my other moving checklists of years past. Having it on my own blog, I figured, would ensure that I'd be able to find it again when needed. Even if it's just accidental, by Googling "expat moving checklist" and then being totally surprised to find a link to my very own blog.

Yes, I'm getting that old.

Anyway, the funny thing was that the comment I got in response was not about what else to make sure to remember to pack. It was the opposite. It was all about what not to pack.

What had happened, this reader told me, was this: She and her family were all set to move from the USA to South Africa, and she wanted to bring a San Francisco sourdough starter in her hand luggage. She had carefully cultivated and fed it over years, and anyone who's ever baked sourdough bread with their own starter knows how precious it becomes. Like your own baby. She made sure she kept it next to her personal belongings like passports and flight tickets and all that in her kitchen, until the fatal day when she briefly left the packers alone to pick up her kids from school. When she got back, the sourdough had been packed and none of the packers remembered into which box.

I can almost feel her despair. But there was nothing to be done, and that was the end of that particular batch of sourdough, which as expected did not survive the three-month journey to Pretoria intact.

Moving day: Once it's in a box, it's gone. Just hope it's not your sourdough starter.

Sourdough should not go into your shipping container. Here are a few more things:

The rental furniture
The passports
Rotten potatoes - duh!
Fresh potatoes - they will become rotten!

Why do I  mention rotten potatoes? Well. We all know that moving day can be crazy. The packers are spread out throughout your house, you're running around like crazy taking care of last-minute business, and everything takes on a life of its own. Including the potatoes in your pantry. Or, well, not a life of their own quite yet. That will only come later, as your container is peacefully moving somewhere along a shipping route on the Atlantic in 40+ degrees heat. Back in Johannesburg, all that is happening is that a packer mindlessly grabs the potatoes and packs them up, together with the kids' lunchboxes and whatever else is in the vicinity.

Boy do I never want to open that particular box again! What wafted out of that box was the foulest breath I've ever taken in, not to mention having to touch slimey and almost-liquified potatoes. I held my nose and fished out the lunchboxes and immediately threw them in the washing machine, but even four cycles of rigorous washing did not remove the rotten potato smell, so we had to get rid of them.

Here is my advice to all those in the midst of an international move: Take all perishable food out of your house before the packers arrive, or employ a guard stationed in your kitchen who will watch it like a hawk.
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Travel in South Africa in the Age of Apartheid

October 15, 2014

When I was still a kid, my older brother, who'd been off to university for a few years, decided to travel around South Africa for a few months. 

I remember when he came back and regaled us with his stories. He is a wonderful storyteller, and as an impressionable teenager I'd sit there and hang on his every word. My favorite story was the one he told about the hotels, or perhaps they were more like Bed&Breakfasts, that he stayed in while traversing the country. At the first one - I can't remember where it was, probably somewhere in the Transvaal, just because I love throwing out that ancient-sounding name for what today is Limpopo, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and parts of the Northwest Province - he was baffled as to how to take a shower. There were two distinct spouts, you see, one for scalding hot water, and one for cold. How to get the water into the temperate zone somewhere in between? The solution was a nifty contraption he eventually discovered for sale when asking around, and which he subsequently christened "The Milking Machine." Looking much like an oversize stethoscope, it came with two rubber cups that you fitted over the hot and cold water taps, and then you would stand underneath the dangling spout on the other end where both streams merged. 

He carried the Milking Machine with him everywhere he went after that. It was not without its pitfalls, because those rubber cups had a tendency to pop off just as you'd gotten soap all over yourself, and then you would stand there and try to get those slippery suckers back on again while tap dancing on your feet to avoid receiving first-degree burns on one side and frostbite on the other. You simply didn't have enough hands to hold on to all the loose ends at once, and so most showers resulted in flooded bathrooms. 

He also told us other stories and repeatedly tried to explain his impressions of apartheid to us, and what it meant for everyday life. I remember that it all sounded mind-boggling to me, defying any kind of logic, but I didn't pay close attention. It was the tale of the Milking Machine that stayed with me the longest.

It is this same brother who recently unearthed the ancient travel guide he had used back then. It is called South Africa: On R10 and R20 a day and is dated 1981-82. Looking for a better home for it, he bequeathed - and sent - it to me, which is how I now find myself in the possession of this gem.

Of course, I immediately peeked into the Johannesburg section. Some parts sound just like today, for instance:
There is a vitality and vibrancy in the air, the rush and bustle of a city intent on making the most of every business opportunity and the edge that comes with such keen competition. It is obvious in the traffic that moves with determination, drivers taking the smallest gap given them, always aggressive, intent only on reaching their destination in the shortest possible time.

And that was before the advent of minibus taxis. One can only imagine how slow-moving the rest of South Africa must have been in those days. Because "making the most of every business opportunity" would require, to my Western expectations at least, that people actually call you back the same day when they say "just now." And yet, the words vitality, vibrancy, bustle, and of course traffic are still the ones most often used to describe Johannesburg today.

But then I chuckled when I came across this:
The various attractions and activities in the city are spread between the Carlton Centre in the south and Hillbrow in the north, a distance that can be walked within about a half an hour...

You won't find many South African travel guides, especially those geared towards foreign visitors, promoting taking a walk anywhere near Hillbrow. Most South Africans I got to know haven't been there in decades and likely never will go again. To be fair, things have changed dramatically since the late nineties when Hillbrow was known as one of the most dangerous places on earth, where you'd only set foot if you were heavily armed and certainly never after dark. Even Johannesburg hasn't escaped the modern trend of urban revitalization, and many of its formerly taboo inner-city areas are once again hip and quirky and, yes, vibrant, drawing especially the younger artsy crowds. Walking is making a comeback too, something I got a glimpse of when joining the Joburg Photowalkers during jacaranda season (for which it is just now the time of year again!) and when going on a graffiti tour with Past Experiences. If you'd like to find out more about this newly-emerging trendy side of Joburg, read Heather Mason's blog 2Summers (see all links below).

Graffiti walking tour in Braamfontein with Past Experiences

Jacaranda tour in Rosebank with Joburg Photowalkers

My shock, even though it shouldn't have been unexpected, came when I turned the page. The following subheading was staring me in the face:
Accommodation for Non-Whites

Then came a short list of men's and women's hostels in Alexandra and Orlando und below that, curiously, a list of international hotels. In the equivalent section for Cape Town, this was explained with "All International Hotels in the city cater for all races." I guess it makes sense that those, in 1981, would not officially condone apartheid and therefore open their doors to everyone. But not so fast - when you then scrolled through the Johannesburg listings, you found that all rates are for "bed only." Apparently, you were allowed to sleep there, but couldn't be seen mingling with the whites in the dining room.

I'm glad that South African travel guides have changed in this regard.


More information on walking tours and today's "quirky" and trendy places in Johannesburg:

Joburg Photowalkers on Facebook
Past Experiences on Facebook
The best blog about exploring Joburg and beyond: 2Summers

I'm sure no one would really want to buy this travel guide, but I was impressed that it was listed on Amazon:

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South African School Awards vs American School Awards

October 10, 2014

I've written about the South African House vs the American House, and the South African Teenager vs the American Teenager. I've also compared schools quite extensively, but today I'd like to talk more specifically about award ceremonies at school.

On the surface, there is not that much to complain about those we've had here in the United States. They are always very well planned out, they last exactly as long as advertised, and you might even get someone to direct the parking.Organization is the name of the game.

But that is where the love stops. Because they are unforgivably boring. Since our school here is much bigger than Dainfern College, they also last much longer. Thank god we don't have them very often, or I'd probably be caught out for using my cellphone in school. It's already so tempting to text a friend I see sitting across the gym, up in the bleachers, and tell her how very bored I am. The speeches drone on in the background, except they are no real speeches, they are just lists of kids being called to the front to receive some kind of recognition. And everybody and their brother deserves recognition. Especially for distinguishing themselves for never missing a day of school the entire year. Of course however many germs they might have spread around by dragging their bodies to school with green goo streaming out of their noses neither gets recorded nor recognized. 

About that gym, here is what I wrote about it in an earlier blog post on the same subject:
What was very different this time lay in the amount of pomp and solemnity, or rather lack thereof. I suppose it's hard to extract much pomp and solemnity from a vast gym where you're sitting on hemorrhoid-breeding bleachers and surrounded by banners of athletic awards hung from the rafters, bright neon lights above and squeaky sounds of rubber sole on gym floor drifting up from below. It was much easier to achieve in a posh auditorium with cushy seats and stage lighting.
To be fair, this is a public school, versus a private one in South Africa. No school fees, just tax money. Which, judging by the size of the houses we are surrounded with, can't be all that bad. Nevertheless, we are stuck with this gym, and each year I carefully read one sports championship banner after the other to pass the time, wondering why it is that our school hasn't achieved any glory on the sports field since 2006, or whether perhaps it was just that the money for the banners ran out.

But even in this gym, you could shake up the party. What's missing here is the spirit, the heart, the desire to teach not just ABCs and fractions but how to grow into the person you want to be. What's missing here is that there is no singing of hymns; there is no Mrs van der Ploeg hammering on the keys of the piano and leading the charge with her soprano; there are no soaring speeches by the headmaster and captains of industry and sports; there are no frisbees flying into the audience to encourage participation; there are no robes with colors; and, most regrettably, there is no Mr Webb lighting a fire in a wheelbarrow on the stage, nor is there Mr West leading his entire staff dancing to Gangnam Style.

All we get here is the monotone ramblings of our ancient and wizened principal. You'll thank me for not having captured her on video.

What we need here is a little South African spirit. The kind of spirit shown by the award-winning Team Vuvuzela during this year's annual Cumberland River Dragonboat Race. 

By the way, while we're comparing things, do read up on South African toilets vs American toilets, to round out the picture.
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Only in Africa

October 6, 2014

Most of you have probably come across a Facebook page called Africa, this is why I live here. If you haven't, go check it out, you'll like it.

The postings there perfectly capture the spirit of its name. And, in a way, the spirit of my blog. When I still lived in Africa it was a wonderful remedy on days when I felt despondent about getting nowhere with my phone calls. And now it is a wonderful reminder of what it was that we so loved about living there - the humor, the naivete, the blunt telling it like it is.

The owner of the page put it in even better words, on the occasion of reaching 100,000 Likes (we can all only dream about that):

AFRICA IS IN US, NO MATTER WHERE WE FIND OURSELVES. When all is said and done, no matter who we are, what language we speak, where we originate from, what colour our skin or where we find ourselves in the world – the interactions between us, on this page, show how much in common we have, how we share that unique African sense of humour, we are able to laugh at ourselves like no other people.We CHOOSE to see the fun/quirky/crazy/ This Is Africa’ness of it all…and THAT is what makes me love my continent and my people as much as I do – I thank you, from the bottom of my heart for participating with your comments, your in boxes, your emails…all your wonderful contributions from all over our magnificent continent.It is YOU who make living here the amazing, memorable, rich and full to the brim life we live – I thank you.
That paragraph almost made me cry. But mostly, when I go there, I laugh out loud.

A recent look at Africa, this is why I live here made me remember that I have my own collection of "Only in Africa" pictures I've collected over the years. I've uploaded some of these to my Facebook page as "Humor of the Day" shots, but now thought I might put them together in a collection. I can't give credit to the photographers in this case - most of these were sent to me via long email chains that make tracking down the photographer impossible (and some have appeared on Africa, this is why I live here as well).

So let the show begin. Sit back and enjoy!

There are more of these houses in South Africa than you might think. There are also less road signs.

No words.

If you live in a neighborhood called "The Governor's Club," thinking about your basement while looking at this picture leaves you slightly ashamed. Or envious that you overspent on that home theater, depending how you want to look at it.

I can't quite see this in American skies...

...nor this on American fence posts (except for the part about shooting).

Found on Peter Nyaga's Facebook page 
Very funny until you've been on one of those roads. 

"We circumcise... In heven you will be in a good way" is already a classic. But combined with the "tree cutters" and image of the giant chainsaw - shudder!

Lost in translation.

Keeping the precious cargo safe...

...while the not so precious cargo is put on the roof.

Perfect logic. If not perfect English.

Hello, Telkom? I haven't had phone service in over three weeks...

Just make sure you use your blinker.

Friday afternoon - time to open the bar!

Maybe the concept of the 24 hr kiosk needs to be explained? Then again, if you count in African time, 9-6 is probably right around 24 hours. Because African Time is like dog years.

This makes perfect sense.

Great product placement. Toyotas are indeed the vehicle of choice in Africa.

Pastors get their own toilet. AND it is bigger.

...Or, if you need to touch yourself, use the pastor's toilet from above. There is extra space in there.

Someone with a sense of humor. Or someone who had a lot of their doors accidentally smashed in.

No mincing words, telling it like it is.

Uhm... Maybe it was just that there wasn't enough money for two sign posts? 

This is my all-time favorite. You have to read the whole letter.

If you can spare some of "your" nuts...

No relation to your nuts from the previous sign.

Maybe it's a good thing you've already had an erection and your nuts turned into peanut butter.

If you manage to electrocute more than your "Willy" this is where you go next.

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Test: In Which Country is Mount Kilimanjaro? And Other Trivia.

September 30, 2014

You don't have to have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to be able to answer a bit of trivia about it. You don't even have to have read Kilimanjaro Diaries, though it does help a great deal. You will be an instant teacher's pet if you have.

For instance, do you know how many attempts the first man to summit Kili undertook? What the record for its fastest ascent is? What the sign on top says (or does not say)? Who Johannes Rebmann was?

To find out, and to learn some fun facts, take the Kilimanjaro Quiz here:

It won't take more than a few minutes, and you'll have fun with it, I promise! Make sure you read the instructions on how to participate and qualify to win prizes.

Hint: Look inside Kilimanjaro Diaries for some of the answers!
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Africa Bookshelf: Little Bee

September 25, 2014

Creating an “Africa bookshelf” was one of the first things I did when starting my blog back in 2010. Leading up to and throughout our expat assignment in Johannesburg, I took great joy in learning more about this continent I knew so little about, by way of the works of some great storytellers. Among the highlights I count Twenty Chickens for a Saddle (Botswana), Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (Rhodesia/Zimbabwe), and the two South Africa classics Cry the Beloved Country and The Power of One. And, in the travel literature department, Dark Star Safari (a cross-section of Africa).

My Africa bookshelf. Spilled onto the floor. Wish the pile was 3 times bigger!

Unfortunately my Africa reading has slowed down considerably since moving away, which is why I was particularly pleased to have Little Bee fall into my lap, quite unexpectedly, by stumbling across it at the library. (The library, by the way, is one of the joys of having moved back to the United States. I do NOT miss the library in Johannesburg.)

The setting of Little Bee is mostly England, but the narrator is a Nigerian girl, who in several flashbacks takes you back to her childhood in Nigeria as she tells her harrowing story. Despite of this, I wouldn’t necessarily call this book harrowing. There are flashes of humor in it, the characters are exquisitely drawn, and despite everything that happens, there is a hopeful note in it, one of survival and love and sacrifice.

Little Bee, the girl, starts her narrative in a bleak immigration detention center somewhere in England, just as she is about to be let out of there in what turns out to be a mistake by the authorities. Aware of her illegal status, she turns to the only people she knows in all of England, and through what unfolds from there we find out how she is linked to that family by a hair-raising incident that happened in their past. The author does an excellent job of feeding us bits and pieces of that story, alternating past and present and throwing in new twists along the way.

I like how the story is alternately told by Little Bee and Sarah, the English woman whose life becomes more and more entangled with Little Bee’s and whose son, Charlie, is what ultimately binds the two together. Sarah’s voice is just as strong as Little Bee’s, and even though she’s led a rather privileged and comfortable life, she has her own demons and memories to battle with. How they overlap with the Nigerian part of the narrative is revealed in a superb piece of storytelling.

I was drawn into the story from the very first page.
“Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl,” 
begins the book.
“A pound coin can go wherever it thinks it will be safest. It can cross deserts and oceans and leave the sound of gunfire and the bitter smell of burning thatch behind. When it feels warm and secure it will turn around and smile at you, the way my big sister Nkiruka used to smile at the men in our village in the short summer after she was a girl but before she was really a woman, and certainly before the evening my mother took her to a quiet place for a serious talk.” 
In this brief description, we get a big dose of foreshadowing, or rather flashback, about the narrator’s prior life. We can sense the danger, especially to girls who are just turning into women, and we can foresee some form of tragedy concerning Little Bee’s sister Nkiruka.

One of my favorite recurring phrases is when Little Bee begins a sentence with
If I was telling this story to the girls from my village back home…” 
Invariably, this brings out some cultural chasm between rural Africa and the Western world, like when she tries to explain modern kitchen appliances, or why some Western women let themselves be pictured naked on magazine covers. There are many such comparisons and invariably they bring a smile to your face, even though the story overall is not a happy one.

Another line that stayed with me long until after I finished the book was this one:
“We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.” 
Again, appearing early in the book, this contains a large clue about just how dark and haunted Little Bee’s past must be, but it also gives a hint as to her character’s strength and will to survive.

All in all, a gem of a book, one of my favorite reads this year.

Check out the Afrika Bookshelf for my entire list of Africa book recommendations.
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Good News: It's All Done Online! Bad News: They Were Offline.

September 21, 2014

I recently came across this line in a reader comment:

Good news: You no longer need to fill in a form. It's all done online! Bad news: they were offline.

We were talking about the new South African travel guidelines which now require parents traveling with children to carry a long-form birth certificate with them, or they won't be allowed to travel into or out of South Africa. This reader had gone to apply for said form, while also applying for a new passport, and was pleased to find out that you no longer needed to fill in a form (I think for the passport). It was now all done online! But alas, at the moment the system was offline!

This deadpan comment had me laughing so hard I choked on my coffee. Those two little sentences, like nothing else, epitomize the South African bureaucrazy I so came to loathe during our three expat years. (And yeah, I made a typo, but then decided to leave it, because crazy, right?)

And which, to be fair, gave me so much material to write about. Just search for "Eskom" on my blog and you'll get the picture.

In a way, it's typical of the developing world. Some cumbersome and old-fashioned technologies get leapfrogged and in some cases you get to mobile phones, phone banking, and online forms more quickly than elsewhere. I still miss the ease with which I conducted all our banking in South Africa, transferring funds via EFT without a hitch, and I can't believe I'm back to writing physical checks again now that we're back in the United States, where the checkbook-printing lobby must be uncannily powerful. I just mention that in the spirit of fairness.

But all this leapfrogging doesn't help when there is no guarantee that the new technology actually works or is even understood, and more often than not you're back to square one. I still remember the many trips it took for me to renew the license disk on my car, because at every post office I visited the system was down "at the moment." At one of them, it had been down for over a year.

So, if you're an expat new to South Africa, don't get your hopes up at the promise of something being available online. It might very well float around the Internet somewhere, but if you can't actually connect to it (or, I might add, only do so very slowly at about one megabit per second when you are, in fact, connected), it's back to standing in line at the post office. Or the licensing department. Or Home Affairs. And we all know what that is like.

You'll have to bring a really good book and some strong coffee to brave that.

"A mouse has cut the wire, good-bye!" is what immediately came
to mind when I started writing this post, and I dug out the source
in a box in the basement containing old childrens' books. I'm very
pleased I found it so quickly. An uncluttered basement = expat bonus!

By the way, I'd like to end this with another piece of good news: Those new South African travel guidelines requiring parents traveling with children to carry a long-form birth certificate with them starting October 2014? As seems to be the pattern with controversial new laws floated by the South African government, they have been postponed until June 2015, in the face of enormous pushback as well as an overwhelmed Home Affairs department (though, let's face it, they are ALWAYS overwhelmed, aren't they?). Anyway, everyone can breathe again. Until June at least.

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How Do I Obtain or Renew a Study Permit for a South African School?

September 15, 2014

I was astounded how much discussion my recent blog post about the scarcity of space at Johannesburg private schools spurred. While I was aware that this was beginning to pose a problem for expats in South Africa, I didn't know how dire the situation had already become.

But it also prompted questions of a more technical nature concerning attendance at South African schools, and I'd like to highlight one such question from my Facebook Page and some answers here. 


Does anyone have any experience of what is needed in terms of visas for children? We are trying to make our way to SA from the UK on a three year visa for voluntary/charitable work (a saga in itself) and I have been told by the embassy in London that our children need to have study visas issued here in the UK before we travel. Anyone know anything about this at all? 

The SHORT ANSWER is this: After enrolling your child in the school, the school will issue a letter to you that confirms that the child is enrolled, and the duration of the term. You will then submit this letter together with your other documents to Home Affairs to obtain the study permits, which are linked to the overall work permit allowing you or your spouse to work in South Africa.

However, as with every bureaucracy-related issue in South Africa, there are usually many answers, depending who you ask. The best advice usually comes from those who have recently dealt with the same issue, so I thought I'd post all the READER COMMENTS below:

You do need to have a confirmed school place and a letter from the school before you can apply for the study permit. My son didn't have a study permit when we arrived and has just applied for one as he was offered a school place. If you don't have a study permit, I think you need an 'accompanying' visa ( don't remember the terminology).
Yes, the school will issue a letter for the study permit. When our son started at AISJ in Jan '12, he did it on the basis of the study permit application filed in Joburg. We submitted the permit to the school in due course. More recently new children starting Grade 0 (local ovt school like Dainfern College )are given letters a couple of mths before the start of school. While my children received theirs before school started, I know of several who again started based on a copy of application given long processing times. While my son came on an 'accompanying permit', his current renewed visa has the school name and 'accompanying father' status on it. With rules becoming stricter by the day, its a good idea to contact relevant authorities just to be on the safe side.
This may be more than you want to know. We have just gone through the process to renew our boys' study permits. We are Americans, have been in South Africa 4 years and still under my husband's work permit. Our children are now 12 and 15 years old. The boys' study permits expire in December and we submitted the paperwork in July. Here is what we had to submit: a certified copy of our marriage certificate, certified copies of their unabridged birth certificates (which only means the parents names are on the birth certificates too in addition to the regular information), completed and signed medical certificates (a South African form is required), completed and signed radiological report if your child is over 12 years old (again another South African form), 3 months bank statements, proof of medical aid and a letter from their school. We were also told this time the school letter had to include the following information: the school has a vacancy and the pupil is not displacing a South African citizen, the student complies with the language requirements of the school and their academic record is acceptable, the school fees have been paid and that the school will keep the Department of Home Affairs informed if the pupil discontinues studying at that school. I hope this helps. Good luck on the move from the UK to South Africa...you will love it here!

It seems like the requirements are getting stricter and that what used to be a simple letter has become slightly more intricate, but otherwise the procedure is still the same.

The other part of the question is whether the study permits have to be issued by the embassy in your home country, or whether they can be obtained when in South Africa. In our days (2010-2012), we were able to enter the country on 3-month visitor visas while waiting for the study (and spouse) permits to be issued by Home Affairs. To make sure, I looked up the language on the Department of Home Affairs website:

Study permits must be applied for at any regional office of the Department of Home Affairs near the educational institution you will be studying at or at the nearest South African embassy, mission or consulate abroad... Study permits are valid for the duration of the course for which they are issued, alternatively 36 months for school and 24 months for other institutions.

This seems to confirm that it is possible to obtain the study permit once you are in South Africa. It might help to print out the respective language and bring it with you to show to immigration officers upon entry. At least that's what always worked for me during traffic stops, a whole other adventure. It could be that technically your children won't be allowed to study without the actual permit, meaning they'd have to wait with attending school until the permits are issued, but we've found that the school will be happy to let the children start if they know you'll eventually submit the correct documents for their files. Again, this might have gotten a bit stricter, but I doubt it: Once a school has enrolled your children, it will want to have them, including the school fees!

For your reference, check out the Home Affairs website with the complete listing of requirements for every type of temporary residence permit.

And now, getting back to the scarcity of available private school slots, apparently Johannesburg does not stand alone. Here the comment from Joyanne West, a private school headmaster in Cape Town in response to my article:

May I add that this situation is even worse in Cape Town where there are even fewer private schools. I had 140 applicants for 40 places....the first child was registered on the day of her birth and the 140th child was registered in her 3rd month! Parents from JBurg arrive in CT and cannot believe that there literally are NO spots available.

The only bright spot? Durban. Apparently, school space is not an issue there yet. And with its tropical climate and beautiful beaches, what's not to like about Colorful Durban?

Even though it pains me to say so in my role as the Joburg Expat: If you're an expat mulling over an assignment in South Africa, and if there is a choice of location, give Durban some serious consideration.
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A First World Problem: We Have No Time

September 10, 2014

I keep a file on my computer of miscellaneous pictures from our Joburg days. The other day, feeling nostalgic, I felt compelled to post this one on Facebook:

The caption read, Another thing I miss about #Joburg: Skoobs, a cappuccino served in a real mug (most often served with a pretty design on top), and people who have time to share said cappuccino. Come to think of it, that's the thing I miss most - people who have time.

The post went on to outperform all my other recent posts. Don't you love how Facebook screws you and tells you that for $10 it will show this post to all the people who like your page? Well, didn't those people hit LIKE for my page precisely because they WANT to see such posts? Why should I have to pay to reach them? But I guess you can't argue with a free service. Plus, how Facebooks is screwing us wasn't really what I wanted to write about...

The reason the post did so well was because a lot of people responded, mostly other former expat spouses like myself who are nostalgic for the long and leisurely coffee mornings while living in South Africa. Some argued that it was a matter of having domestic help and therefore time for such extravagant pleasures, and there is some truth in that.

But I think there is a bigger underlying theme: As a general rule, people in Africa have more time than people in the Western world. Which is why people in the Western world fall in love with Africa the minute they step on its shores. 

If you think about it, many of our First World Problems (or FWP) have to do with a lack of time. And, as the term suggests, most are self-imposed. It's easy to laugh about them, as in my recent post about coyote sightings and ungainly outhouses, or in this recent article about back to school shopping in the 1970s versus today. I just about cracked up at this opening paragraph:

Back to School, 2014:

1. Take five deep breaths and say a positive affirmation. School begins in two weeks. It is the middle of July. Don’t worry, you still have time to order BPA-free bento boxes and authentic Indian tiffins made with special stainless steel that did not involve any child-labor, sweat shops or animal cruelty. Remember, you have Amazon Prime. You can get the free two day shipping and you will have plenty of time to read reviews and make this very important decision because your kids are in summer “camp” which is actually just another word for school in the summer because OH MY GOD you were so tired that day you had to have them home all day with you and you couldn't go to your restorative flow class at yoga. And that was also the day something went terribly wrong with the homemade glitter cloud dough recipe that was supposed to go in their sensory bin and the very same day that they were out of soy milk at Starbucks and you had to immediately email corporate to let them know that duh, they should actually be selling almond milk and/ or coconut milk. Get with it Starbucks. Soy is so 90s. Ugh, but you digress. The tiffin. The bento boxes…

Go on, read the entire article, you'll laugh out loud. If you're a parent to school-age children, you'll totally see yourself in the 2014 version of it.

But it's not really a laughing matter, is it? Never since the beginning of time have we had so many gadgets at our disposal as today, gadgets for our entertainment but also our convenience that are meant to make our lives easier. And yet all they seem to do is make them more complicated. Just reading the above had me feeling out of breath:

The urgent need to research everything to death
The feeling that another parent is going to trump you with more research and better stuff
The idea that if we don't explore all the options we somehow fail our children
The rushing around to buy the perfect props for our kids
The obsessive need to then instantly communicate our trials and accomplishments with the world via Facebook and Instagram and God knows what else that thankfully isn't on my radar yet

About two years ago, in People who have Time and People who Don't, I wrote this:
Americans are busy. We have no time to spare. We fill every minute of our day with activity, and when that turns out not to be enough we find ways that allow us to do ten activities at once. We complain that we never have any time, and yet when we are faced with the prospect of an empty stretch of half a morning, we sign up for yoga lessons..

While on some level we all know this, and admit that overscheduling ourselves and our children isn't in anyone's best interest, we struggle to change our lives.

Until we arrive in Africa and have our eyes opened.

From all my conversations with returning expats, the biggest concern by far is not how their children will catch up in school or whether they'll make new friends or what the new job is going to be like. It is whether they can resist being sucked back into the rat race.

How can we live in the First World and have time?

You might also like: The Unannounced Playdate

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Expat 2.0: Remake, Refurbish, Improve

September 4, 2014

I recently came across an article which, on the surface, had nothing much to do with expats. Rather, it was about philosophy. However, as I've found is so often the case, life as an expat provides the perfect backdrop to the philosophical viewpoint discussed.

Every philosopher, so The Wisdom of the Exile went, could benefit from being sent into some form of exile at least once in their lives. They should be "exiled, displaced, deported - that should be part of their training... For when your old world goes down it also takes with it all your assumptions, commonplaces, prejudices and preconceived ideas."

Substitute "person" for philosopher, and "expat assignment" for exile, and there you have what has become my firm belief: Having lived as an expat at least once in your life will make you a more well-rounded person. Of this I have no doubt. To become such a person, you have to have an open mind. And to have an open mind, you have to be shown, again and again, that your preconceived notions about places and races and cultures are probably wrong. Or if not completely wrong, so at least very incomplete.

When you first arrive abroad and don't have the first clue as to how things work, you have to rely on helpful people around you to show you the ropes. You immediately accept that they know more than you, no matter what their level of education might be, and that you best listen and learn. If you don't, you probably won't have an enjoyable expat experience. You learn that what you thought you knew wasn't even close to being enough, you learn to be humble and listen, you learn to go with the flow and accept imperfection, you learn to find beauty in unexpected places.

If you never leave home, you "envelop yourself in an increasingly thicker veil of familiarity that blinds you to what's under your nose... Because everything has become so evident, you've stopped seeing anything." I'd say that is particularly true to those of us who've grown up in a comfortable Western middle class life. What an awakening it is when you first go out into the world and realize how pampered you've been, and how petty your First World Problems seem by comparison. But it works the other way too. Upon returning to the U.S. from South Africa, I noticed bits and pieces of American culture that never really stood out to me before, just because I hadn't been surrounded with them for a while. Had I not written about them quickly, while they were still fresh, they soon would have faded back into the commonplace.

"As an exile you learn that the world is a story that can be told in many different ways." Don't you think that's a beautiful sentence? This is what being an expat blogger comes down to: Essentially, you're retelling the same story in many different ways. The story is always about life, love, failure, perseverance, betrayal, and redemption. And expat life provides a treasure trove of different hooks into that same story, new paths springing up in front of you with each move you undertake. Without being uprooted from your old world and dumped into a new one, more or less stripped naked to the core, you might never get the chance to get to that new level of seeing things.

When you go abroad, you also get a tiny chance to reinvent yourself. Because nobody knows you there, nobody has pegged you to be anything other than what they see as they're getting to know you. "Selves can be re-made from scratch, reassembled and refurbished." Don't you love the idea of Refurbished You, You 2.0, or The Story of You 2nd Edition? As scary as it seems, as inconvenient as it appears, getting a chance to remake yourself into something new and better should be appreciated for the incredible gift it truly is.

When you remake yourself, just be sure to fit the pieces together correctly.

Quite apart from all this philosophy talk, and even if you have no desire to become a better person, never leaving home would be terribly boring, don't you think? It would be like being stuck at Level One of a video game, completing the same tasks over and over without any challenge. Of course no one lives their life like that. There are plenty of challenges along the way, no matter whether you leave or stay put. I don't want to belittle the rocky road many people find themselves on. But becoming an expat has a way of speeding up your life, of making it more flavorful, of helping you evolve faster, and of perhaps making some challenges go away altogether - if only because you find yourself redefining what constitutes a challenge and what doesn't.

And finally, as for that "increasingly thicker veil of familiarity" you might eventually suffocate under if you always stay in the same place - the same can be said of an increasingly thicker pile of "stuff." Most of my friends groan about garages and attics that have to be uncluttered from years of unfettered accumulation. They turn green with envy when I tell them I have none of that. "Exiles travel light," and so do expats. Part of it is necessity - you are forced to purge or your container won't close - but another part is the realization that stuff is not all that important.

We don't need stuff, we need friends. And memories.

So, even if it might not have made me into a better person, I can definitively say that my expat life so far has given me an uncluttered garage, plus friends and memories for a lifetime.

Who can ask for more?

Also check out:
Being an Expat Means...
The Expat Toilet
How to Be a Successful Expat

We don't need stuff, we need friends. Especially BFFs. (drawing by Sunshine)

Seychelles Mama
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