Joburg Expat: February 2011

February 27, 2011

African Tango: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Only one more week and we'll celebrate our one year anniversary of living in South Africa. Time passes way too fast! But that doesn't mean we'll ever quite overcome the "one step forward, two steps back" tango that seems to be so typical of our life here. Initially I thought it was just part of the growing pains of an international move and all the new things one has to still learn, but now I know it falls under the entire "Welcome to Africa" umbrella. In fact, I'm quite proud of the fact that I've been able to educate South Africans on, say, the best method of dealing with Eskom, but of course new "can you believe this?" moments crop up from time to time.

February 25, 2011

Are There Public Libraries in Johannesburg?

The answer to this one, much like the question about your iPhone in South Africa, has to be "Yes, but...." Yes, there are public libraries in Johannesburg. The best place to find the one nearest you is to figure out in which of the 7 regions of Johannesburg you reside, and then looking at the library list for that particular region.

Joburg 7 regions
Joburg library list per region (scroll down for links to each region)

The ones nearest the Dainfern/Fourways area in the Northern Suburbs are either Norscot Manor (Cnr William Nicol/Leslie, Penguin Dr, 011 705 3323) or Bryanston (Cnr New/Payne Street, Bryanston, 011 706 3518).

BUT, and it is indeed a big but, these libraries are so ridiculously behind the modern times that try as you might, you will not be drawn to them. I think they're mostly run by volunteers, and I really do commend them, but if  you come from a city like Overland Park, which is dotted with a network of state of the art libraries where you can order pretty much any book or DVD online, receive an email notification that it has arrived at your preferred library (no matter which library it actually was shelved at), and then pick it up from a drive-through window without ever leaving your car, you will understand how I feel.

When I first stepped into the library at Norscot Manor last year, I instantly felt transported back in time. You know that smell of old building and old books? No? Anyway, it smelled just like the library in my hometown of Tubingen, Germany, where I spent many an afternoon when I was about eleven years old. I'd load up on a stack of Agatha Christie's or Enid Blyton's Famous Five, drop them at the desk of the stern looking lady who'd inspect my library card and then proceed to stamp the little piece of paper pasted on the inside of the cover, and then I'd stuff everything into the saddle bags of my bike and pedal home, where I didn't lose any time to flop onto my bed and start reading. Well, let me just tell you, Norscot Manor has exactly the same selection of books as my childhood library, except a lot smaller. If you're happy with anything written before 1970, it is not so bad. It uses exactly the same system of stamps to remind you when your book is due, and trust me, the lady is just as stern, except black.

When I first signed up for library cards, I was given the choice of a free membership, which lets you borrow 3 books at a time, and some sort of preferred membership for R30 per year that ups your book limit to a whopping 5 books. Needless to say, I got cards for my entire family so that I could take home the stack of books I was accustomed to. If you do this, just make sure you bring your passport and proof of residence and birth certificates for the children. Then you only have to wait for about two weeks and bingo, you can go pick up your library card(s). When I first had to return our books was when true pain set in: Can you imagine going back to the old days of having to hunt through your house for books you might have borrowed, not really knowing which ones they are? Without an email reminder and printout telling you the titles?

To be fair, Norscot Manor is a bit of an anomaly, even for South Africa, in that it is some kind of old family estate on beautiful grounds, parts of which have been refashioned into a community center, hence the library. You should definitely check it out and have a coffee on the beautiful lawn overlooking Johannesburg.  As for other libraries, I read somewhere that the Johannesburg Central library has 1.5 million books on its shelves, so maybe that is worth checking out, but I'm not sure if it's in a part of town I'd want to go to. I recently went to the one in Sandton (Nelson Mandela Square, 011 282 5911overlooking Mandela Square, and the building it resides in is stunning, reminding me a bit of the Guggenheim Museum with its curved pathways leading to higher up stories. However, the stock of books on display there is almost as ancient as the one at Norscot Manor, just more plentiful. And I dearly paid for the one book I did pick up there in terms of trying to be rid of it again. I hardly ever get to Mandela Square (although it is also beautiful and well worth a visit and maybe dinner at Lekgotla) so that I returned the book at Norscot Manor (which I was assured was possible) where I waited about 20 minutes for the lady to go photocopy some ancient form, or actually two of them, and fill them out painstakingly with all my personal details (and a generous dose of tipp-ex) before I was allowed to leave.

Fine, you might say, too  much trouble, I'll just buy my books instead. I had a feeling you'd come up with that, so just a tiny word of caution here as well: Books are very expensive in South Africa, I'd say up to twice the price of books in the U.S., if not more. And they're not as easy to find either, with many bookstores not carrying what you're looking for (and not knowing how to order). I've been disappointed with, the sort of equivalent in South Africa, both with their price and availability (and God knows how you will actually get your stuff with all this fraud within the Postal Service), but that is one option. Another new bookstore that looks promising and has been on my list to check out (mostly for the very exciting fact that they also serve Starbucks coffee!) is Skoobs at Montecasino. Here is a quick list of the bookstores I can think of:

I'm sorry if this is not the most uplifting post (unless you're nostalgic about the library of your youth). But there is a solution, one which I've already put on the kids' birthday lists: Buying everyone a Kindle, which works just as fine in South Africa as anywhere else. I've been unhappy with the fact that our kids are not nearly reading as much as back in the U.S., and the books that they do occasionally read are all imported via some back avenues from Amazon. If I want the kids to read, I'll have to give them each an exciting device where they have a world of reading at their fingertips. Even if it won't come cheap. In fact, maybe it will actually come cheap in the not so distant future, when Kindle books will be made available to borrow from libraries, as some other e-books already are. Either way, if you're in the process of relocating to South Africa, arm yourself with a few Kindles. You won't regret it.

February 21, 2011

Cricket for Expats

'When's the game itself going to begin?' - Groucho Marx while watching a cricket match at Lord's field

Batsman protecting the wicket
If you're moving to South Africa, you'll have to learn about cricket. Otherwise, you'll sit at the Vodacom store waiting to be seen (for the third time) about your new cellphone contract, staring at the TV screen in the corner with a cricket match on, and you'll be bored to death. Or you might sit on the sidelines of your son's cricket match - as I did with Jabulani the other day - and also be bored to death, at which point you will start asking questions just to pass the time. There was actually a day - hard to believe now, after so many little league baseball games to sit through - that I felt much the same way about baseball, having just arrived in the United States from our native Germany. I remember thinking how on Earth people managed to sit through an entire game and actually be riveted by what's going on. So, in all honesty, cricket is not really that strange.

I'll try to explain it in a nutshell, with the help of a book a colleague of Noisette recently gave me. It's called "What is a googly?" by Rob Eastaway, and it is hilarious. I found myself laughing out loud while reading it. First, the setup: Basically you have two teams of 11 players each, all dressed in white (go figure). One team is in the field, like in baseball, and the other is batting. What's different is that there are always two batsmen, standing at opposite ends of the pitch, which is a stretch of short grass, much like a golf green, in the middle of the cricket field, which in turn is round (or rather elliptical) and bordered by the boundary line. Each batsman has behind him a wicket, a construction of three sticks in the ground with some more short sticks balanced on top. The fielding team is scattered around the field, with a catcher of sorts behind the batsman, except that he is called the wicketkeeper, the only player who actually has a glove. On the other end of the pitch is the bowler, the guy who throws the ball and tries to get the batsman out by  knocking over the wicket, or by getting him to hit the ball into the air so that it can be caught. It always amuses me that the bowler runs across half the cricket field to wind up his throw, when it is a fact that higher speeds can be achieved by such an elegant move as a baseball pitcher's windup, which involves no running at all. But the laws of cricket were laid down in 1788 by some posh gentlemen in England and apparently are really hard to change, so that we should be happy that there is any overhand bowling at all, even if it has to be with a stiff arm and the ball has to bounce.

Bowler releasing the ball and non-striker
watching the action
Now for the action (yes, there are periods of action in a cricket match; or, better phrased by Bill Bryson in Notes from a Big Country it is "full of deliciously scattered micro-moments of real action"): The bowler bowls the ball to the batsman on the other side of the pitch, the striker, while the batsman on his side of the pitch (non-striker) just waits. If the striker then hits the ball, he can score a run by running to the other end of the pitch and crossing the line there with some part of his body or his bat (he actually has to take his bat with him to be able to score). Meanwhile, the non-striker also runs, so that they each pass each other in the middle. If both arrive safely, a run is scored. If the ball is hit far enough, the batsmen can keep running and score additional runs, though this happens rarely, because you automatically get 4 runs when the ball crosses the boundary, or 6 when it crosses the boundary without bouncing first (sort of like a home run). Runs can also be scored without hitting the ball (extras),  like on wides, no balls, leg byes, and byes, but I won't get into any of that.

Besides scoring runs, and perhaps even more importantly so, the batsman's goal is to not get out. Unlike in baseball, each batsman only has one single stint at bat (though it can be a considerably long one), and therefore tries to prolong that as much as possible to score runs for his team. The team is done scoring runs when ten batsmen are out, at which point the other team gets a turn (the only exception would be two innings matches, where each team gets to bat twice). In order to not be out, the batsman has to protect the wicket. If the bowler knocks the wicket over, the batsman is out. Incidentally, if the batsman himself accidentally knocks over the wicket with his bat, he is also out. He could also be stumped by the wicketkeeper if he swings and misses and fails to keep any part of his body or bat on the wicket-side of the crease. In that case, the wicketkeeper can knock over the wicket with the ball, and the batsman is out. A run out happens when a batsman doesn't get to the other end in time, i.e. a fielder throws the ball back towards the wicket and knocks it over, or the wicketkeeper catches it and knocks it over. Another common way to be out is if the batsman hits the ball and it is caught before touching the ground, much like a pop-fly. There are a few other ways to be out which I won't cover here, but it is worth noting that one of them is when your team captain comes up to tell you you're out so that another batsman can have a turn!

Batsman watching his hit and
deciding not to run
Great, you will think, what an exciting game with so many ways to see spectacular outs. Except that they rarely ever happen. Instead, the batsman will stand there, hardly even moving, and bat away, running up the score. It could be hours before anything new happens. Why? Because - and this is my biggest beef with cricket - the batsman doesn't have to run! Can you see where this is going? If you don't have to run, of course you're only going to do it when you're 100% guaranteed that you will safely score a run, or several of them. All you have to do is protect that wicket by swatting at any ball that might bounce toward it, which is not too hard, given the fact that the bat is wide and flat. Being run out is quite embarrassing in cricket, because it must have been a dumb decision to run if there was any risk involved.

Just so that it doesn't get too monotonous, a bowler will only bowl six balls for what is called an over. After the over, the fielders change ends (the batsmen stay put), and another bowler will bowl his over from the other side of the pitch. After that, the first bowler can have another over, or a new one can be brought in, and so forth. To sum this all up, I'll use a quote from aforementioned book: "All of this frantic activity keeps on going, with batsmen batting and running, bowlers bowling, and fielders fielding and changing ends, until ten of the batsmen are out, or until something else intervenes (like lunch, rain or the discovery that one of the teams has won)." Every once in a blue moon a bowler will score a wicket which is cause for huge excitement,or a batsman will be caught out. Now you will understand how cricket matches can last 5 days. It just takes that long to get ten batsmen out! Luckily, they've since come up with other forms of cricket (or I'd still be sitting at Jabulani's match) called Twenty20 matches, where each team gets 20 overs. Whoever scores more runs in those 20 overs is the winner. This might mean that in a particular match only the first two batsmen will ever ge to bat, if they manage to stay in that long.

That's pretty much it. Of course there is plenty else to understand, like strategy, how to read the score, the mind games between bowler and batsman (just as in baseball, there are fast bowlers and slower bowlers who are usually spin bowlers who master the art of making the ball bounce unpredictably across the pitch), the fielding positions with names like silly mid-off, square leg and slip, and a plethora of additional terms. For instance, I always thought a test match was a something like an exhibition game, something to test the waters with. But no, it is the most serious of all cricket  matches, an international contest. And a ball box is what Americans call a cup. Oh, and let's not forget about etiquette. At Jabulani's last match, I was indignant that no one was willing to run, when it looked like there was plenty of time. After plenty of yelling on my part, I thought to inquire why none of the coaches were yelling for the kids to run. I was informed that this was considered bad etiquette. I really have to learn to keep my mouth shut at my kids' South African sporting events!

I hope you've enjoyed my little cricket treatise. I might be posting more as I learn more. There is an entire Cricket World Cup coming up, with plenty of opportunity to watch and learn. For more information, read all about cricket on Wikipedia, especially this excellent cricket/baseball comparison. Baseball and cricket actually have quite a bit in common, especially an obsession with the collection of any kind of statistic you can imagine.

Oh, and I almost forgot: A googly is a nasty bowling trick by which the ball looks like it's heading away from the batsman, but instead bounces straight towards the nether regions of his private parts, if you know what I mean.

February 18, 2011

"Everyday we Deliver a Little More a Little Faster"

I came across the quote "Everyday we deliver a little more a little faster" in a South African post office yesterday. I almost burst out laughing, wanting to add "...because we are soooooo slow and deliver soooooo little so there is much room to grow," or wanting to change it to "we need to deliver a LOT more a LOT faster." At least it seems to acknowledge the problem: A lot doesn't get delivered, and if it does, it's not fast.

February 16, 2011

Expat Tip: Always Keep Tire Lock Nut in Your Car!

Have you ever heard of a tire lock nut? I don't blame you if you haven't, because I had no idea until last Friday, but trust me, now I know.

It turned out to be another one of my typical South Africa days, though I have to admit I can't blame it on culture as much as my own stupidity and carelessness. As is typical for a Friday, I was rushing out the door before dinner to take my domestic to her bus stop. The reason I always rush is that Fridays are busy with the kids' swim galas all afternoon and it's the only night of the week Noisette has a chance of coming home early. So I don't at all enjoy leaving the house at 5:00, but this "taxi service" has sort of encroached and I feel bad not providing it.

What's more, whereas I usually just went up the road to the nearest bus stop, I lately have been going through Dainfern (the perks of our recently acquired golf membership!), because it saves Sibongile time and money. However, it adds 17 speed bumps and - it turns out - one giant curb to my route. In short, I hit the curb right after the entrance (which, after subsequent inspection, juts out at a sharp angle and shows many marks of being hit by everybody else!) and busted my left rear tire, a fact which unfortunately I didn't discover until I was out of the estate at the other gate. I dropped off Sibongile and headed - very slowly - to the nearest gas station. Alas, they couldn't repair such a big tear but not to worry, they would change my tire, I was informed. Fortunately I had a little bit of tip money on me, so I gladly took up the offer. They removed all my tools (which, in the Audi, is an intricate puzzle of interlocking pieces) and spare tire, and inflated it. Then they took off screw after screw to take off the wheel, until only one was left. This is where my education in South African road matters started. The guy got up and searched the trunk again, obviously looking for something he wasn't finding. Finally, he turned to me expectantly:
"Where is your lock nut?"
"The what nut?"
"Lock nut, you know, the one that goes on this screw here."
Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the one screw looked different, with a sort of jagged edge that the regular wrench couldn't grip. It turns out that, in South Africa, many cars have wheels outfitted with such special nuts, especially the bigger, more expensive ones, because - I should have known - otherwise your wheels could be stolen. You might park your car in front of a restaurant at night, and come back a few hours later to find all four wheels missing. Tire lock nuts are like special keys - they are all different and only fit their counterpart.

This is when it began to dawn on me where I had last seen my tire lock nut. Noisette had handed me some kind of bolt thing, after we had bought the car, and said something like "this is for your car." He might have said wheels. In any case, the thing rattled around in my glove compartment for the longest time, until I finally got so tired of the noise, I took it out and put it in our garage, together with some other car stuff. "This is a good place for this," I remember thinking at the time.

I'm sure you can imagine how this panned out. Noisette was still at work and couldn't possibly come rescue me. Dainfern security wouldn't come because I don't live in Dainfern (I don't blame them) and Dainfern Valley security wouldn't come because the other side of Dainfern was too far away from them. I finally reached my friend L who lives in Dainfern and she was kind enough to come. Not just to drive me home (over said 17 speed bumps), but to wait for me while I rummaged the garage for the lock nut, drive me back (by now 34 speed bumps altogether) to the gas station, and wait with me while the wheel was being changed. I will be forever grateful!

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. The following Monday I took the car in to get a new tire, and it ended up costing me R11,000. That's $1,500! First, my Audi Q7 comes with these wide 20-inch tires, which are made by Yokohama or Pirelli. Yokohama is what was already on there, and the cheaper option, so I wanted one of those, but after calling three different tire places it turned out that they were backordered until the end  of March. Plus there was no way one tire would be enough, as they were both already pretty used up. After less than a year? I went online and found a whole string of complaints from Q7 drivers, saying that car eats up tires like nothing else. Leave it to me to find the car with the most expensive tires. I'm somewhat comforted by the fact that the particular tire I wrecked was the one that I already had repaired from a nail hole, and that it seems those tires wouldn't have lasted that much longer anyway. But what an expensive weekend. I ended up buying two new Pirellis "on special" for R5,500 each. Yikes. Driving on them feels very nice though. Needless to say, I'm now very careful around curbs of any kind.

Still, as always, it makes for a good story. My advice to new expats here:

  1. Before you buy a car, find out what the tires might cost, and don't go for wide-rim wheels. With Johannesburg's pothole-riddled streets, the amount of security gates you have to go through, and the many trips into the bush you might undertake, you will go through tires rather sooner than later.
  2. Make sure the tire lock nut, in case your wheels are of that kind, is ALWAYS in your car. In fact, if you buy a used car, make sure it COMES WITH the tire lock nut. There even is a place for it with your car jack, which of course in my case I've only found out now.
Note: My car and I are cursed. Not long after getting said new Pirellis, one of them was flat again. Fortunately, this time it could be fixed for R30 at the service station, after a giant screw was found and retrieved, but still...

February 12, 2011

“Just Now” or “Now Now”?

The South African Concept of Time

South Africans have a fairly complicated relationship with the word “now.” This is an across-the board phenomenon and has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. There are three distinct forms of “now” and as an expat you better learn the various meanings, or you will be very frustrated when things don’t happen. The following should give you some idea:

Now: Eventually, Maybe.
What could be simpler than interpreting “now” as meaning “at this very moment,” like “immediately? But don’t be fooled! “Now” spoken by a South African is more like the exact opposite of the word as we know it. If you’re told “now,” what the other person really means is “maybe later, but definitely not now.” As in “I’m leaving now to fetch your license plate,” meaning anytime between several hours from now until maybe next week, or, quite frankly, never. Especially if this was the first request of whatever it is you’re asking for, an answer containing “now” should not be what prompts you to check it off your to-do list!

Just now: Later.
“Just now” is a bit higher on the priority list than “now.” It’s a distinct improvement but still nowhere near “this instant.” If you’re told “I’ll check into your claim and call you back just now,” you might actually expect that to happen the same day, but clearly not immediately.

Now now: Shortly.
If you thought you’d finally find out how to make something happen immediately in South Africa, you’re mistaken. I hate to disappoint you, but even the third and last iteration of “now” will fall short of your expectation. “I’ll do it now now” means “I will get to it as soon as I can.” That’s the best you’re going to get.

But don’t be frustrated with any of this. The weather is great here! Someone else is doing your ironing! 

The best way to enjoy South Africa is to adapt and learn. Understand which “now” is meant and move on. Soon enough, you’ll be  throwing out “now's” and “just now's” of your own, and happily continue what you were doing without a second thought.


You might also like: 

My 43 Favorite South Africanisms
Click here to browse funny blog posts about South Africa.

February 6, 2011

Getaway to Cape Town

For our family, one of the best parts about moving to South Africa has been the easy access to some of the world’s greatest travel destinations. Where else can you get to the bush to see lions, a top ten diving location and tropical beach, or one of the most beautiful cities of the world, all within just a few hours? I suppose it’s one of the benefits of expat life, as you tend to use your (most likely) limited time to the fullest (if this is your first time as an expat, doing so is my number one advice to you), but I do feel that Johannesburg is an especially well suited home base for expat travelers.

February 3, 2011

Safari as Food

I recently came across this picture in a Johannesburg supermarket (thanks Bing!):

So I thought I should match each of those pate cans with pictures I took of the actual animals you'll be eating: