August 31, 2010

Home Leave

I just thought I'd drop a few lines to tell you I haven't vanished from the face of the Earth, but my family and I are on home leave in the U.S., enjoying a hot and humid summer and the company of good old friends. South Africa seems far, far away. But I do miss it. I miss the cool crisp mornings with the promise of another beautiful day in the air; the wide toothy (and toothless) smiles of people asking how I'm doing today; the dramatic landscapes of the highveld dotted with short stubby trees; the beautiful lilt of South African English; the birdsong concerts in the early morning. And I miss the slower pace of life in general.

On the other hand, here are the things I absolutely LOVE here in the U.S.A.:

  • Water fountains and free ice water pretty much everywhere
  • Baseball (even the Royals)
  • You won't believe this, but the hot and humid weather
  • Pee warm lake water you can hang out in all day
  • The sound of crickets
  • Turning on red
  • Hawker-free intersections (although I have to say they do kind of grow on you)
  • Parking anywhere I want, without an attendant waving from behind me who I'm afraid I'll run over
  • Plastic money (I came without a dime in cash and haven't needed any, zip, nada - Amex all the way)
  • Wide open highways
  • The ability to buy anything I can dream of at any time of day or night
  • More specifically, shopping at Target
  • Our president (pre-2016, that is)
  • Our group of wonderful friends

August 14, 2010

Taking Stock of Our First Six Months in South Africa – Patience, Gratitude, and a Bit of Potty Talk

As the date of our first home leave is drawing close, I feel compelled to reflect on our time here so far. It always amazes me how fast you DO end up settling into a new routine, which, all things considered, isn’t much different from your old routine. It’s just that in-between stage that is so unsettling, where you gather documents like crazy, set up new accounts, find new places to shop at and people to be friends with. So it is not surprising, reading  back over my blog so far, that I seem to have engaged in a disproportionate amount of griping, to put it mildly, about all the things that have gone wrong or inconvenienced me in one way or another. To the uninitiated, it may sound like South Africa has the worst bureaucracy (it does) and that there are power, water, and phone outages every day (there aren’t). But let me now tell you about all the things South Africa has going for it.

Friendliness: You won’t spend a day here where you won’t be greeted by dozens of strangers with a wide and sunny grin. They all seem genuinely happy to see you. Just going in and out of our security gate every day earns me happy waves all around, from people with fairly monotonous jobs who in a different world wouldn’t be happy at all. Just imagine airport security for a moment, staffed by smiling people, inquiring how you’re doing. Impossible, you will say, but that’s how it is here. It is this friendliness that makes up for a lot of things. I remember feeling the same way when we moved from Germany to the U.S. a lifetime ago. Germans are efficient but unfriendly, and Noisette and I honestly preferred the overall less efficient but friendlier Americans. Going from America to South Africa is the same all over again (how could I ever have thought Americans aren’t efficient?) – you are briefly annoyed by things promised and not happening, but then mollified by reassuring smiles.
The Gift of Patience: Tying in with the above, you can’t help but learn to be more patient. I just took out the to-do list I started when we arrived, and was surprised how many things are still on there, unchecked. But you know what? I’ve hardly thought about any of them lately.
For instance, we've been trying to set up bank accounts for the kids (for some reason, paying allowances in multiples of seven just seemed too complicated) but unbelievably this simple issue has been sitting in bureaucratic purgatory forever. More unbelievably, however, the kids have not asked for any money since moving here. I generally seem to have lost my manic urgency with to-do lists. If things don’t get done today, tomorrow is another day. Why put yourself under so much pressure if it really doesn’t matter? Everyone in America is always busy, and life seems like one big competition of who is the busiest. It’s only possible to get away from that if you physically remove yourself for a while and get plucked into a place where it’s okay to spend three hours drinking coffee and where you will not find a drive-through for the life of you. (I admit this newfound patience of mine was wearing a bit thin today as I went for a manicure appointment where I was greeted by five bowing ladies, only to find out that they had exactly five bottles of nail polish between them – “so sorry, we are buying more tomorrow” - and that three of those colors were navy blue, brown, and clear, and where I then proceeded to be waited on for TWO AND A HALF HOURS, during which time all the idle ladies could have easily gone out for a nail polish shopping spree, and gotten my weekly groceries in the bargain!)
Weather: I regret not recording the exact date, but it has not rained in Johannesburg since early May. And we’ve maybe had one cloudy day since then, two at the very most. By my estimates that makes over 330 days of sunshine a year. And not just sunshine, but clear cool nights and bright warm days, just like a gorgeous Carolina day in October. You can’t ask for much more. Granted, if you’re moving here to start a farm, you’re not going to be thrilled with a half a year completely devoid of rain, but the rest of us are quite happy with this kind of weather. It’ll be getting hotter in summer, and the evenings will be warm again as well, but the temperature rarely climbs over 27C which is somewhere around 80F. It is so NOT humid here that I’ve actually developed some longings for a stifling American summer day.
Humility and Gratitude: Seeing so much poverty amongst such cheerful people all around you will definitely change your perception of what constitutes a problem and what doesn’t, and all the things we can be grateful for in our lives.
Good Food and Travel: The opportunities for both are abundant and we are still working hard at sampling just a fraction of it all so that we can write more about it on this blog.
And now for the promised potty talk. I always thought it was only my 10-year old who is pulled towards conversations of bodily functions like a magnet to the pole, but I’ve noticed that you, the readers of this blog, were more intrigued with “impala-poop-spitting” than most everything else – admittedly quite a compelling topic. Anyway, one problem you absolutely will not encounter in South Africa is a clogged toilet. I realize that I’m talking about a country where a large number of people simply have no toilets, clogged or otherwise, but if  you live in a nice estate where expats typically live, your toilets will never back up. A combination of wide pipes and good water pressure will ensure that all your – need I go into more detail? It’s a good thing too, because I have no idea how I would describe a plunger at the local hardware store.

August 10, 2010

Will my Kindle Work in South Africa?

Yes, your Kindle will work in South Africa. And trust me, you’ll want to have one, if only to pass the time when standing in line to get your new cell phone! With books being fairly expensive in South Africa, you'll be saving money as well. Personally, I also enjoy having the New York Times at my fingertips every day. 

All you’ll have to do is go to the Manage Your Kindle page  and scroll down to the "Your country" section where you select "Edit" and choose “South Africa.” You'll then be able to choose an existing home address from your account or enter a new one. 

Your periodicals will be delivered to you wherever you are, at no additional charge. So even when I travel back to the U.S., I will still get my New York Times. I’m not sure what will happen if we go to, say, Uganda, but there is a Using Kindle If You Live Outside the United States Help page that has tons more information on this topic.

Only once or twice did I have trouble syncing. In that case, restarting the kindle usually helped (from home page, press “Menu,” then select “Settings”, then press “Menu” again, choose “Restart.”)

One awesome feature I’ve only recently discovered is the Kindle for PC (or iPhone, or iPad, etc.) option. Whenever you can’t sync but have an internet connection (or, like in my case, your 11-year old is hogging the Kindle to read “Artemis Fowl”), you can read any of your books on your computer. In itself, that’s not so great, but the nifty thing is that it will sync back and forth between your Kindle and computer (and any other device you might be using) so that you can always go to the furthest page read.

So, tuck your Kindle under your arm and head towards the closest Joburg coffee shop for a leisurely morning!

August 7, 2010

Should I Get a South African Driver's License?

“A ticket? What you want a ticket for, huh?”- The friendly official at the driver’s license office in Randburg.
It always amazes me how soon we forget. It’s only been three months, but now that our pictures are hung and I have a car and cell phone, I feel sufficiently settled that I’m already starting to forget my “hardships” from the first few weeks. Which is why yesterday I set out on another errand somewhat unprepared.

I had decided that it was time to get my South African driver’s license. It had been on my long-term list from the time I had googled the topic and found that after a year of living here, you’d have to get a local license. Granted, it hasn’t been a year yet, but a) my international driver’s license was somehow lost in the  move, and b) Noisette’s encounter the other day with the police made me think that a local license was better.

So I didn’t further research the topic and instead set out on a bright morning towards Randburg, the place I’d also registered the car, armed with the following: My U.S. driver’s license, my passport, the 35-page lease agreement for proof of residence, by now somewhat dog-eared from all the toting around, and the Telkom and bank statements thrown in for good measure. But as I got closer, I started to have misgivings – surely I would need cash? How much? As I pulled into the parking lot and saw dozens of guys with “passport photograph” placards on display, I realized that I would need those as well. This was confirmed when I squeezed into a door that was about to be closed “due to overflow.” I took the proffered form, got assurances that I’d be let back in (it was way before closing time but they shut the door anyway) and set out to get passport pictures. It was easily done. For R45 I was handed four pictures plus the phone number of the guy, offering not a date but to stand in line for me, for “however much I was willing to pay.” I declined for the time being, since I was already here, and proceeded back to the end of the line. Which did NOT move! The gentleman in front of me and I timed our movement, while we had a pleasant conversation – he turned out to be a writer working on a novel about South Africa – and in about half an hour we had moved up just a few meters. We tried to estimate the length of the line, which worked itself around a corner and upstairs, where it disappeared from view into the netherworld of bureaucracy, and calculated that it would be at least another 2 hours.

Just as I was wondering if I shouldn’t take up the photographer’s stand-in-line offer, a man appeared from upstairs and proceeded to bark orders in heavily Afrikaans-accented English. He wanted to see all those of us who were renewing their license but didn’t have a fingerprint on the back. At first I didn’t think he could  mean me, since I wasn’t renewing a license, but then I thought I’d ask to make sure.
“What if you have a foreign license?” I offered timidly.
All eyes, about 120 of them, turned to me instantly. It had been a boring wait and everyone was eager for some excitement.
“Then you shouldn’t be here,” he lectured, clearly enjoying himself.
I could only get a driver’s license if I had a South African ID card, I was told. But I wasn’t going to give up that easily, and proceeded to ask more questions, everybody hanging on my lips. Finally, I asked him what to do if I got a ticket and didn’t have a local license.
“A ticket? What you want a ticket for, huh?” was all he could say to that.
I assured him that I didn’t WANT a ticket but that it was entirely possible that I’d get stopped. 
“Well, you tell them that the law says that you can use your foreign license as long as it hasn’t expired. Next!” were his final words to me.
Okay, well then, I said to my new friend, the writer, and made my way to the door – almost disappointed that I’d never find out what lay beyond those stairs and how long it would have taken to advance to the Holy Grail. But at least I’ve now gotten an answer for my fellow expats on when and whether to apply for a local driver’s license.

You can't, and you don't need to.

Note: I’ve since then been stopped by the police (routine road blocks, they do them all the time), and was admonished to get an international license ASAP. But when I told my little story from above, the police officer wasn’t sure at all whether I indeed needed an international license or not. I think it’s just something they say to intimidate you in hopes of wheedling some money out of you, honestly. However, if you do want to get an international license just to be on the safe side, you should do so while STILL IN YOUR HOME COUNTRY as it can only be gotten there. Also, make sure your regular license doesn’t expire soon, as the international license is only good in conjunction with the normal one. All in all, I’m quite happy to keep using my Kansas license, although I do get nervous about losing it. The best bet would probably be to go to a police station and get a certified copy of it to tote around instead of the real thing.

More car-related posts on Joburg Expat:

Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa
Tips on Selling a Car in South Africa
Expat Tip: Always Keep a Tire Lock Nut in your Car
Should I Get a South African Driver's License?
Six Things to Know about Renewing your Vehicle License Disk
Finding a Good Car Insurance
Getting Your Car Serviced in South Africa

August 3, 2010

What the Hell is Netball?

Trust me, if you’re moving to South Africa and if your family has any girls, you’ll learn about netball soon enough. But first for some background: A big part of school life here is sports. With the school days being shorter, and – from our first observations – less homework given, there is a big emphasis on after-school activities. Our school offers plenty and mandates at least one of them per child each term. This is actually a very neat thing, since any kid from Grade 1 upwards can join a team and gets to experience competitions against other schools as well as Interhouse Championships (more on houses later), thereby eliminating the need to join clubs outside of school. There is no additional charge for any of this and the instruction, in our case, is very good.

However, while at first glance the extracurricular offering may look very comprehensive, you have to be a bit careful before you pick a school based on certain sports: Just like in the U.S., there are different seasons for everything so at any one time there are just a few choices, and, more frustrating, there is a BIG separation between boys and girls. I’m sure once I’ve lived here longer I might better understand this, but right now it feels as if, post-Apartheid, they wanted to hold onto some way to segregate people, honestly. Now, I understand that girls don’t necessarily need to play rugby (in fact, I don’t think I want my boys playing that either), and that they can maybe live without cricket as well – after all, they do get to play softball, which irks my boys to no end because there is no baseball – but it is very hard to swallow that girls are not allowed to play soccer. In a country that just hosted the World Cup, for crying out loud! The school blames this on a lack of interest from girls, and also a lack of fields and leagues with other girls’ teams, but the fact remains that this is very discriminatory. As a result, almost no girls here play soccer (prompting the schools to say “see, there isn’t enough interest.”

The sport the girls get to play instead of soccer is netball. Trust me, we’re really trying to fit in, with a “do as the Romans do” philosophy and all that (otherwise our kids would be enrolled at the American School) but netball is a stretch. Basically, imagine basketball played outside on a tennis court – so far so good – where you take away the backboard and make both ball and basket smaller. Okay, not too bad, you might think. But now take away – of all things! – dribbling! One of the most glorious basketball moves – in my humble opinion, and I’ve spent hours teaching it to my kids – is the layup. Very hard to do without dribbling! So you’re now left with a bunch of girls (no boys playing this game) standing around crowded together and passing the ball, until the “goal shooter” ends up with it and shoots, which usually results in a basket, because defenders apparently are not allowed to jump or even get close. I can’t say for sure that that’s a rule, so forgive me if I’m misrepresenting things, but I didn’t see much jumping in the few  netball matches I’ve watched so far. Feet are firmly planted on the ground at all times. Steals, apparently, are not allowed either, at least not the kind where you rip the ball out of your opponent’s hands. All you can do is politely wait for the other person to shoot, without getting too close, and then perhaps stretch your arms towards the ball if it misses, but if your opponent happens to reach it first, you have to quickly step back to the outside of that 3-foot zone to let her shoot again. Moreover, the entire field is divided into zones that certain players are allowed into, so that only goalkeepers and goal defenders are allowed around their own basket, and goal shooters and goal attackers likewise on the other end, which leads to a stop-and-go kind of game where girls will suddenly  pull their hands back form a pass they might have caught because their feet were slightly outside of their zone.

But I’m determined to look at the positive side of things. At least they’ll become very good at getting open and passing, and using their pivot foot. There is a whole lot of pivoting going on! And the good news is that netball isn’t terribly hard, especially with basketball experience, so Impatience has already gathered some outstanding performance award, scoring the only two goals for her entire team in her last game. Or baskets. Or whatever they might call them. I find it quite embarrassing when, during a game, I’ll yell “get the rebound!” only to attract strange looks from all sides. I take it it’s not called a rebound, or perhaps you’re not allowed to get it, whatever the name. But it’s not just that, I think it’s the yelling per se that attracts stares. I’ve come to the conclusion that ultra-competitive-pacing-the-sidelines-and-yelling parents must be a uniquely American institution. All you’ll ever hear at a match here is a quiet and polite “well done!” even if the actual feat nowhere approaches “well-done-ness” in any way. The little Under-8 girls were showered with praise for their one-and-only match of the season, where I drove one hour each way, through traffic, to watch two 10-minute halves, interrupted by 10 minutes of orange-wedge sucking to combat exhaustion. In fact, being prone to arriving late, I might have missed the performance entirely, it was so brief. I wanted to shake somebody and tell them that little girls can play one-hour sweat-soaked matches just as well as their soccer-playing boy counterparts!

Sorry for the tirade, I had promised looking at the positive and here I go ranting again. All in all, we really do like the school sports here, if not the actual sports as much as them being offered in the first place. (And I'd also like to apologize at this time to all netball aficionados the world over who might read my demeaning description with outrage; I googled it, and apparently it's quite a sport, played very seriously, exported into the world no doubt along with British imperialism, judging from the countries it is played in today).

So the girls played netball first term, Impatience also ran with the cross-country team, Jabulani, having the fortune of being a boy, got to play soccer – on an excellent team I might add - and absolutely loved it, and Zax, due to the odd twist that the sporting season seems to be different in high school, got to choose between rugby and field hockey. He wisely chose the latter and ended up loving it as well, though their team regularly got battered. Hockey is really very much like soccer, except that you are bent over what seems to be too short of a stick, which only has one side you’re allowed to use, and there are some additional twists like short and long corners. This term, Impatience has added hockey as well, and there have been athletics – which is what we’d call track and field – tryouts in order to select teams for the next season. The school also has tennis and golf teams, and once the temperatures get warmer, by October, swimming will commence, as will the softball and cricket seasons.

I think I’ve already mentioned the other extracurricular activities, such as chess club, debate team, robotics, drama, choir, orchestra, arts, and individual music lessons which the kids are allowed to schedule during certain parts of the school day, which I think is brilliant. The one aspect of South African school life that I haven’t described yet are so-called houses. I’ll assume that you’ve read Harry Potter, so you’ll know what a house is. To make it easier, Dainfern College seems to have borrowed from Hogwarts terminology by naming one of their houses Griffin, which is the one our kids are in. The other ones are Phoenix and Kraken. I don’t know if there is a House Cup, but the students do amass points for their houses by the merits they earn, be it by answering a difficult question, helping out a teacher, or politely greeting a parent in the hallways. Griffin, it seems, is always in the lead. The only thing that’s missing is a gigantic hourglass on the school grounds! Every once in a while there is an Interhouse Competition in the current seasonal sport, where the students, from Junior Prep to High School, don their house t-shirts and run or swim or kick against their classmates and for the glory of their house. Those days are big affairs for everyone, students and teachers alike, and they are great fun. I think it was worth moving to South Africa just for all of that!

More about Netball: Netball or Basketball?

August 2, 2010

Is There a Starbucks in South Africa?

…And the answer is: YES (with the tiny disclaimer that the "a" needs to be left out - there is not "a" Starbucks, but Starbucks is being served here)! 

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and until yesterday I would have told you NO, there isn’t. I would have gone on to lament this sad fact, and I would have described in detail all the other options for coffee and cappuccino I’ve been researching, and their benefits and shortcomings. But yesterday, Jabulani mentioned to me, almost in passing, that his teacher – his TEACHER – had told him there was a Starbucks at Montecasino (a sort of replica Tuscan village with restaurants, shops, hotels, cinemas, a casino, and a comedy club, most of it indoors but with trees and painted-sky ceilings that look very real-life).

As you can imagine, I dropped all my other projects and googled it right away. It turns out it’s not quite that you will find Starbucks outlets sprinkled throughout Johannesburg, but that, at the start of the World Cup, Starbucks has launched “proudly serving Starbucks” bars in just a few exclusive South African hotels. The Sunsquare at Montecasino is one of them, and there are two others in Sandton. I cannot BELIEVE that it took me 6 weeks to get any wind of this, but it is a very well-kept secret. You don’t just stumble into the Sunsquare Hotel when strolling through Montecasino.

Of course I had to conduct first-hand research of the situation, so I set out to Montecasino today, dragging Impatience along because she was bored. And indeed, we struck coffee gold. It took us an hour altogether – driving there, parking in the garage, walking through Montecasino, finding the hotel, waiting for our coffees (in true African fashion, there were about 4 people supervising the brewing while one did the actual work), walking back to the garage and then racing back home (I came across a police check minutes from home and remember thinking “I’ll puke if they pull me over and my coffees get cold” but luckily I was waved through – but what a glorious feeling to return home to Noisette and press a still-hot Starbucks cup to his lips! Not to mention that tongue-scalding first sip I gulped after a 6-months sabbatical from Starbucks!

I should mention that it was different from the U.S. experience in a few ways. First, no Frappuccinos, which had my kids very disappointed. They offered a similar concoction but not quite the same. “It’s coming,” I was promised. Second, it is impossible to get anything skim here. What they have is “Skinny Cappuccinos” but at most they use 2% milk, not fat-free, which after years of fat-free you can totally taste. So I won’t be having Starbucks every day from now on, which, considering it will take an hour every time, isn’t practical anyway. Of course one can hope Starbucks will consider this experiment a success and launch regular cafes soon. Right here in Dainfern, at the junction of several upscale security estates and a top-notch private school, would be THE South African prime location for a hopping Starbucks, I can tell you that!

I would do South Africa a disservice, however, if I left it at that. I’ve survived without Starbucks for six months, quite happily, and I also suspect it is more the IDEA of Starbucks I’ve missed rather than the actual taste. There are plenty of other coffee options. The only thing you will not find is anything FAST or drive-through:

  1. Mugg & Bean: Probably the best-known chain of coffee shops in Gauteng (and beyond), actually more a full-fledged restaurant with great lunch food as well; their Muggaccinos and American Iced Coffees are quite good, and the Cappuccinos are simply excellent; you’ll find them everywhere – Broadacres, Montecasino, Fourways Mall – quite big and in the nicest locations, very crowded especially on weekends.
  2. Seattle Coffee Company: These are the closest in appearance to Starbucks, but not quite in taste; there is one in Montecasino as well.
  3. vida e caffé: I think of Portuguese or Brazilian origin, I’ve found two of these, one at Design Quarter and one at Broadacres; their lattes, I was promised by the girls’ tennis coach, who’d been to the U.S., were the closest to Starbucks in South Africa, and he was quite right; this is also where I’ve received the fastest service.
  4. Fournos Bakery: Not so much known for its coffee but its extensive and excellent baked goods, which go very well with a nice cup of coffee.
  5. Cafe Frappe: This is just our little neighborhood coffee shop in Valley Shopping Centre, where I can ride with my bike, but after having sampled the rest, I have to say their cappuccinos (and Frappes, a Greek thing, more of an acquired taste) are amongst the best.

And for the best cappuccino with a view: Maropeng Visitor Centre in the Cradle of Humankind, about an hour from Johannesburg.

I’m sure there are plenty more, but these are the ones that stood out for me. In reality you can get very nice cappuccinos pretty much anywhere in South Africa, as if you were right in Italy, much better than I’ve had in most U.S. restaurants. The only requirement is that you sit down for a leisurely hour of coffee-sipping, with some good company. Since we’re starting to become used to the concept of African Time, I have to say this is actually a quite enjoyable thing. I don’t feel nearly as rushed as I did in my American life. The only added-value Starbucks can possibly offer in this country is the everywhere-ness of it, and fast service. In fact, if they erected a stall right on the Fourways intersection of William Nicol Dr, they could serve lattes in the time it takes to get through the light!

For further reading on the topic of South Africa's coffee culture I recommend the article "Coffee Break - South Africa's Developing Taste" by Ron Irwin.