May 5, 2010

The First Shopping Trip

Imagine being in a store you’ve never been to before (Woolworth’s, also called Woolly by the locals, with probably your best quality groceries in Johannesburg, but more on that later), with about 1 hour’s time and a 2-page shopping list to start a new household, accompanied by your friendly driver G who insisted on coming and pushing the shopping cart, plus your 7-year old daughter who also insisted on coming and is helpfully pointing out every other item in the store, and you will understand that this was not my most relaxing shopping experience.

At least I wasn’t hindered by an abundance of choice or Walmart-type vast expanses of space to cover, so it was not too hard to file through every aisle and check off my basic supplies (apples, one kind, check, toilet paper, 2-ply or 3-ply, check, insect spray, one kind, definitely check. Plus, it’s much easier to make decisions when you have no earthly idea how much you might be paying for an item. I was glad to get through my list before running out of time (and out of shopping cart space, even though G proved very helpful by expertly rearranging whatever I threw in), and equally glad that apparently my American Express card was welcome here. This was a good thing, as I had run up a bill of 2,200 Rand, which I think is about $300. There are so many possibilities for exchange rates, like 2:1, 3:1, 4:1, 5:1, 10:1, 100:1, or even 1.5:1 like back in our Canada ski trip days, but no, we had to pick a country with an exchange rate that’s 7.5:1. Multiplication and division with 7 has never been a strength of mine. I might just have to disregard prices for the time being.

The reason I was in rather a hurry was that I had to be back at school by noon to pick up Zax from his test. That morning I had already gone to get my ID badge at the estate security office – which took quite some time and I think was an indication of things to come in terms of paperwork and bureaucratic speed – and checked out our PO box. A word on PO boxes from our “Guide to living in South Africa” handed to us by our Corporate Relocations lady: “Street deliveries of mail are not common in Johannesburg and even where available they are not necessarily reliable or secure and we therefore recommend you rent a Post Office Box for a rental charge of approximately R249 per year. There is a shortage of available boxes in some areas and therefore your application may be put on a waiting list.” Interesting! But at least there seems not to be a shortage in our area as we were already able to secure a PO box. It is in the shopping center next to our neighborhood and my first inspection yielded a pile of really old mail and a half-inch layer of dusty soil. I made a mental note to return with some cleaning equipment. Zax’s testing appointment was at 10:00, then said shopping trip, then a quick lunch for everyone while putting away what I’d bought, then back to school for the other kids’ tests at 1:30 (or 13:30, as I will have to get used to again). Sunshine’s was very fast (she says they just had her read a book with 5 words on each page and add some simple numbers), so I waited, then ran back with her to get Zax to meet with the principal at 14:30. By the way, each time we pass our security gate, in our out, we have to swipe my new badge. I’m sure this will become routine but it is already quite annoying. Also, after just one day with a driver, I am 100% sure that I do not want to have a driver but my own car. Nothing against G, who is very lovely, but I hate not having the freedom to come and go as I please, and I have to admit I am looking forward to the challenge of driving on the left side of the road. Weird, I know, but I do want to do it. However, this might not happen so soon, as everything seems to move at a much more glacial pace than it would in the U.S. To be honest, I had actually thought I’d already find a car in our garage upon my arrival, what with Noisette having been here for 2 months and car-buying a very manly thing to do. But apparently, we can’t buy a car without a bank account, and we don’t have one of those yet because we don’t have our permanent/work visas yet, and we don’t have those yet because we just now brought our FBI and Singapore police reports with us, which will hopefully trigger the whole chain of events. Apparently, it’s also not easy to even find available cars and get people to quote you a price on them. Getting an internet connection and phone line seems equally slow. We have an appointment with Telkom for installation of an ADSL broadband line sometime next week.

But back to that Friday of first shopping and school appointments. Upon getting back to school, Felix and Impatience were finished as well, so I left them and Sunshine sitting in some armchairs in the reception area while taking Zax to the High School principal’s office. It was a very nice meeting, with plenty of information on the subjects he’d be taking and choices for after-school sports. His only subject elective is foreign language and he chose Afrikaans – thinking it might be easier due to some connection between Afrikaans and Dutch and Dutch and German – but over the weekend he reconsidered and is now leaning towards Zulu, thinking that Afrikaans might mess up his already not so great German spelling. There definitely won’t be any risk of that with Zulu! Regarding sports, they have different seasons, and the one upcoming now is for rugby or field hockey. Our talk with the principal also revealed that Zax had done fine in his test, especially math (or “maths” as they call it here, adding to our growing dictionary of new words), which is not surprising, considering they were testing for 7th grade math and he was taking 10th grade geometry in Kansas. They do not offer subject advancement here, so we will have to see how that pans out. We were assured that the teachers would give him challenging work. But for now we will worry about other things. Sorting Zax into a house (no sorting hat but otherwise completely Harry-Potter-like, when you consider the house names Phoenix, Kraken, and Griffin!) would occur over the weekend, we were told. By the way, the principal also told us he had just last year taken a group of students to Wichita, or Hutchison to be exact, for a one-week space/rocket science program offered there, which is something I had seen in a summer camp brochure a few years back.

After we got back to the reception area, we found Felix and Sunshine stretched out in their armchairs, sound asleep. Impatience was the only one awake. It was quite a feat rousing everybody again and hustling them to the car in the now pouring rain. This gets us back to where we’re sitting in the house watching the thunderstorm on our first evening. I busied myself with getting the last groceries put away, starting a first load of laundry, and making dinner. I was quite exhausted at the end of the day, considering the fact that I hadn’t slept at all the previous night, but all my first-day efforts earned me a “I thought we’d at least have a completely neat bedroom after a whole day here” from my husband!