December 24, 2013

The Spirit of Christmas

Christmas is all about love, about reflection, about holy thoughts. Right?

In the past few weeks, I've had a lot of those in my life. At least once a day I thought the words "I'd love to live somewhere on a distant planet where there is no Christmas; or at least no Christmas shopping." I've engaged in a lot of reflection upon my 21-item pre-Christmas to-do list - "put up lights: check; decorate tree: check; assemble teacher gifts: check..." And I just woke up with "holy shit, I totally forgot to order flowers for my in-laws and now it's too late to get them there before Christmas."

I'm just filled with the spirit of Christmas.

This year I was under extra pressure, because right after Thanksgiving Sunshine exclaimed that she was SO looking forward to Christmas, not having had a proper one in practically three years.

I admit our South African Christmases were a bit lacking in spirit. I could blame it on the pitiful tree, or the fact that all my Christmas cookies stuck together like glue in the heat. Or the fact that we altogether skipped the last one to go on a safari instead.

Yep, definitely not a tree that will get you into the spirit

The spirit of Christmas may all be in the Advent calendar - 19 x 4 individually wrapped presents

So this year it's been back to my 24-item pre-Christmas checklist in all its glory. Decorating the house (plus warthog) with lights ("Mom, all the neighbors already have their pretty lights up"). Selecting a real tree and carting it home on the roof of the car. Baking batches and batches of cookies arranged in pretty tin boxes that can never remain full. Designing, writing, and sending out Christmas cards once again, because I no longer have the excuse of a non-functioning postal service.

And, of course, the shopping. You'd think that in the land of Amazon this would be done in a flash, but even so, the shopping always gets me in the end.

Like when your daughters inform you they need Christmas presents for their friends because they've all started giving them theirs, and there is now only one day left before the last day of school. You should of course have thought of this and bought them ages ago, but now it's Thursday morning and you need presents tomorrow (because you might be unorganized but not uncaring). You settle on hand sanitizers from Bath and Body Works - a store you normally avoid at all costs, due to the smell - and one daughter is perfectly fine with you running out during the day when there is no traffic and picking out whatever scent you care for - or don't care for, in the event - but the other one absolutely positively has to come with you to make her selections. So you pick her up at 3:30 pm right after school to race to the mall, grab the five little bottles for her five friends, and race to her gymnastics class at 4:15. It can be done if everything goes smoothly.

Except you may have miscalculated the timing, because how can an 11-year old girl be expected to pick out five scents for all her friends quickly? Without smelling every single one of them on the entire table and hemming and hawing for at least half an hour? Especially when what she really wants is "vanilla snowflake," the one she has in her own hand sanitizer from her Advent calendar a few days prior, but now they only have "vanilla cupcake" and "warm vanilla sugar?" She can't be expected to settle for any of those, can she? Even though you know for a fact that the person assembling the Advent calendar had picked that one without any reflection whatsoever, out of a sea of similarly repulsive smells, just to have done with item number 17 on the pre-Christmas checklist - "assemble Advent calendar: check." So now you have tears flowing, clerks rushing to help but also unable to conjure "vanilla snowflake," you wait while every other body lotion and shampoo in the store is picked up and sniffed and put back, you finally end up with the five hand sanitizers for $1 each that you could have picked in five seconds, you wait in an impossibly long line to pay for them, you rush to gymnastics class even though by now it is half over, you spend the next hour in traffic trying to get home, you rush to get dinner on the table so you don't also miss your tennis class, and you are almost out the door with your racket when your daughter makes her confession, this time making tears dwell in YOUR eyes:

"I forgot one friend," she says. "I thought it was five of them, but there is one more, and she already gave me a present."

I will not share what thought went through my head just then. I admit that I was ready to go through my toiletries and find a gently used lip gloss and nail polish or whatever it took and repackage it as new to come up with the missing present. I even contemplated ransacking the Advent calendar in hopes of finding something useful there. But in the end I capitulated. Because who can resist this lower lip?

Needless to say, I volunteered to go back to the mall the next morning to buy the missing sanitizer in time for her class party, even though it kills me to drive 40 minutes roundtrip for a $1 item. I found out the mall only opens at 10 am. I decided to kill the extra hour by going to Old Navy for another present I still needed. They didn't have it, so I went to Dicks Sporting Goods. Found what I wanted at Dicks' but it was less than $50, and I'd be damned if I was going to walk out of there without using my $10 off for anything over $50 coupon. Wracked my brain about what else I might need and settled on a new tennis skirt. Tried on five different tennis skirts. Was then late for mall opening. Was seen running a mile from the remotest parking lot, in the rain which by now had started falling. Dodged all the people in the food court offering free samples of Bourbon Chicken and the Israeli guys with the dead sea lotions who I swear must be former (or current) Mossad agents they are so aggressive. Made a beeline for Bath and Body Works yet again, bought another five hand sanitizers - of course, because they were 5 for $5 - and ran all the way back to my car. Got a phone call on a school phone from a distraught Sunshine, new tears choked back, to inquire why I wasn't at the class party at 10:00 as promised. Screeched into the school parking lot - illegally into a one-way lane because a police car was blocking the entrance to keep late arrivers out - and ran all the way to the classroom where the party was being wound up. Immediately felt guilty because some mother had thought up the cutest and most adorable crafts, for which I now vaguely remembered I had days ago deleted an email encouraging me to commit to supplies through signup genius (can I just say here that in the days when my OLDEST child was in elementary school I did my share of class-party-organizing and supply-buying?)

Whew! I'm exhausted just typing it all. I never saw the girl the gift was for, on whose behalf I had labored so very hard. But she better LOVE her gift. Which has so much spirit of Christmas in it.

December 19, 2013

Life in South Africa: The Unannounced Playdate

I recently got an email from a new reader who, like me, now lives in the United States and spends her time alternately missing South Africa and appreciating the fact that she no longer has to deal with its flaws.

We both agreed that we miss the South African lifestyle. But what, exactly, is the South African lifestyle?

Is it - for those who can afford it - a big house in a beautiful estate, with manicured lawns and someone to iron your underwear? Is it living imprisoned behind barbed wire and running red lights at night for fear of being attacked? Is it the sunny skies and the equally sunny people, people who can make you laugh any time of day, people who will dance in the streets whether they are happy or angry or sad, people who will have changed your tire before you've even had time to call roadside assistance? Is it the imperfection of everything official, the act of shrugging your shoulders and saying "This is Africa" when things go awry, knowing you should feel frustrated but finding yourself smiling instead? Is it being surrounded by natural beauty every way you look, and being able to park your car right next to a lion just a short drive away, should you have the urge? Is it seeing immaculately dressed children in their school uniforms, girls politely wishing you a good afternoon, and boys holding doors open for you?

It is a little bit of all of that. But one thing this reader said to me rang especially true. "I miss the South African lifestyle," she wrote. "No need for an official playdate, you just bring your child unannounced to play and swim while you sip rooibos tea on the patio."

I immediately knew that she was absolutely right. More than anything else, the Unannounced Playdate is the face of the South African lifestyle. How many afternoons did I spend leisurely at a friend's house, only having meant to drop off or pick up my child, and, after being invited in, whiling away hours with great conversation while nibbling at biscuits and sipping tea? How many evenings did I give up waiting for Noisette to return, when he was just supposed to quickly pick up one of the kids and ended up staying for several rounds of beer and wine?

In South Africa, you are ALWAYS invited in. Whether you really know the people or not. In fact, being invited in is the way we met the majority of our South African friends. Most often, you'll be invited in and come upon a whole group of people who were invited in prior to you when they picked up THEIR children, and before you know it a nice little party will be in full swing. Granted, it's easier to spontaneously invite somebody into your home when it's perpetually cleaned and picked up and orderly looking, thanks to your full-time domestic help. But that's not all of it. It's just that South Africans spend more time relaxing, and they like to do it together with friends. South Africans know how to LIVE. Or, as my new reader friend pointed out, South Africans work to live, not the other way around like many Americans.

When Noisette and I take walks around the golf course we now live on (or, as Noisette will point out, when he takes walks while I stay behind reading the newspaper), we come past one beautiful house after the other with the most gorgeous decks and patios, and they'll all be abandoned. No one EVER sits on them. People are always too busy. No one ever just relaxes, or so it seems. In South Africa, people are busy too. But they prize sharing time with their friends more. So, even though you are busy this very moment sitting at your desk trying to sort out your huge Eskom bill due to some accounting glitch (the South Africans among you will now have shouted "Ha!" - I heard you.), you will go and answer the doorbell and invite your friend Sue in for a glass of wine, who came to pick up little Louis from a playdate with your son. And Sue will gladly accept, even though she was on her way to buy a bottle of much-needed propane gas, without which the house will be bitterly cold on winter mornings, and which might be sold out a few hours from now. She will think about the wine with the friend now versus the warmth in her house later, and the glass of wine will win out. (By the way, lest you think it's just the alcohol talking, it works equally well with a cappuccino.)

I do miss the Unannounced Playdate, and all that it stands for.

What's better than sharing a cup of coffee with a friend? Although Starbucks coffee in
particular will take a bit of digging in South Africa. But hey, I couldn't withstand the
chance to put the image of my likeness in this blog post. Don't believe it? Read this!

To be fair, let me put in some disclaimers. Firstly, I have made new friends here, in workaholic America, who also qualify for the Unanncounced Playdate group. Who call me with 15 minutes lead time to come meet them for lunch. Whose doorstep I have no doubt I can leave my kids on without warning should there be some kind of emergency. These are the friends I prize the most. Secondly, now that son number one has his driver's license, I have resorted more than occasionally to sending him on errands involving picking up and dropping off kids for playdates and such, so that even if anyone felt like inviting me inside, that would prove to be a bit tricky. And thirdly, the above hospitality I so generously call "South African" may not be so much South African as a specialty of Johannesburg. I've been told that the people of Cape Town, for instance, can be altogether more "stuck up," though I've never been able to find out if this is true.

So when we now raise our glasses in a toast to the South African lifestyle, what we may mean is the Joburg lifestyle. Whichever it is, our family fell in love with it!

For more insights on the South African/Joburg psyche, read Joburg, Capital of Crime. Excuse me, Kindness.

December 16, 2013

The Yearlong Quest of a Christmas Card

A reader of my recent post about corruption in South Africa took issue with my generalized comments about thievery in South Africa and an "underlying attitude" he identified as less than helpful. "There is a lot of anecdotal info in your post," he wrote, "but a few hard facts with respect to the actual incidence of mail theft would make some of the claims more credible."

Never mind that I think I took special pains to make sure that my comments were in fact not generalized at all. That in general I have almost exclusively good things to say about South Africa and especially its people. That I singled out the postal service only because it has repeatedly deprived my kids of well-meant Christmas presents, or the pleasure of having their friends receive a birthday present they painstakingly selected, paid for with their own money, wrapped, and sent off to South Africa. Never mind all that. What really made me stumble over that comment was the mention of "hard facts" and that my research was lacking on that front. I take my professionalism very seriously.

Therefore, I shall be conducting a (very timely) experiment:

Today, on December 16th 2013, I am sending out 142 Christmas cards. (And yes, you may pat me on the back for this almost unprecedented lead time; in the past, I have struggled to get them out the door on the 23rd of December, if before Christmas at all.)

Here is the breakdown of my Christmas card list by country:

Canada 1
Germany 29
Japan 2
Netherlands 3
Philippines 1
Singapore 2
South Africa 15
Sweden 1
Switzerland 1
Taiwan 1
Thailand 1
USA 85
Total 142

(Please note that there might have been more than 15 cards to South Africa, but some of our South African friends seem to have opted for U.S. addresses in their own anecdotal response to fraud in the South African postal system.) 

It will be very simple. I'll be collecting the following "hard facts":

Do people get their Christmas card?
Do they receive their card in its original form (i.e. not in any way tampered with or opened)?
Do they receive their card in a reasonable time frame?

I had to add that last one, because I'd like to bring this experiment to its conclusion, say, by the end of January. Can we agree that that's a reasonable time frame? 

When asking some of my US-based friends to verify their address, after our three-year postal-service-induced exile from the Christmas card world, one of them told me that I'd be receiving TWO cards from them this year. Because they JUST had their last Christmas card, sent to us at the end of 2012, returned to them from South Africa as undeliverable. That in itself is not surprising, since we did move away shortly after Christmas last year and presumably the card arrived just a few days after I had canceled our post box (there is no mail forwarding in the South African postal service). But where has it been since then? It was gone for an ENTIRE YEAR! Exactly where that card spent the year is a mystery I would dearly love to solve. And why it re-emerged now, precisely, or even at all, is an even bigger mystery.

So I'll be meticulously keeping track of my Christmas cards this year. Not just the ones sent to South Africa, but all of them. I'll notify you if you are to be the (lucky) recipient of our card, and please don't think I'm totally anal when I ask you to let me know when you receive it. It's all in the pursuit of science and "hard facts." Then I'll evaluate the results by country. I'm aware that the numbers for some of them are too small to make them statistically valid, so I'll likely have to throw out most countries. But I think it's fair to say that I'll be able to get enough data to compare South Africa to the United States and Germany.

Let the games begin!

(Oh, and in case anyone at any of the world's postal services is listening in: I am NOT including any money in any of the envelopes. Or any bank cards with my account information. I just mention this to spare you the effort of feeling up all my mail or, God forbid, having to actually open it.)

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December 10, 2013

From Soccer World Cup to the Death of Nelson Mandela

Watching all the coverage of Nelson Mandela's memorial in Johannesburg, I was struck by this thought: That our family's years in Johannesburg were book-ended by the two biggest events in South Africa’s recent history - the 2010 Soccer World Cup, and now the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013. We arrived in time to witness the former, and departed before we could partake in the memorial events for the latter.

In a sense, the World Cup prepared South Africa for what was to follow three years later. It focused the world’s attention on a country it had formerly more or less ignored, if not reviled. First there was apartheid to despise, and then there was the violence that followed after the end of apartheid. When we first floated the idea of moving to South Africa to our friends and family, we were met with disbelief and worse. “Why would you move to such a dangerous place?” was the consensus. Living in South Africa, everyone was convinced, must be akin to going straight to hell. A terrible place populated by terrible people who let their country slide into such a state. A view, I might add, that was shared by more than a few South Africans themselves.

What we found, of course, was quite the opposite, as anyone following this blog knows.

But it seems like it wasn't just us who learned to appreciate the wonders of South Africa. It was the entire world that started paying attention. And it was the Soccer World Cup that made this happen.

As people flocked to South Africa from all over the world, they discovered that they liked it there. It was a beautiful country, everyone realized. And crime wasn't nearly as bad as everyone thought. Or perhaps it got better through a much-overdue push by the government to rein it in just in time before the opening whistle. Whichever is the case, not only did the World Cup ever so subtly change perceptions abroad, it also changed hearts and minds at home. “We actually can do this,” people seemed to think in disbelief. “We’re not screwing it up!” The sense of pride and joy we witnessed among South Africans from all walks of life during those early days of our expat stint is one of the fondest memories I carry away with me. The street vendor selling us flags and mirror covers at the intersection. The Dainfern College kids belting out Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika during morning assemblies, wearing their “proudly South African” t-shirts. The most cynical South Africans cheering on their country’s performance in hosting the games. The Rainbow Nation on full display as blacks and whites and straights and gays and Jews and Muslims all huddled in front of the big screen TVs at Melrose Arch watching Germany give Argentina a drumming (and give England a drumming too, I can't help but point out). 

The 2010 Soccer World Cup showed South Africans that they have a lot to be proud of. That they live in a desirable country, not a despised one. That the world loves them.

When concerned prospective expats ask me about crime in South Africa, I always joke that the expat's biggest fear about living in South Africa is not that they might be attacked, but that they might be told by their employer that they have to move back home. Of all the expats I have met over the years, there was not a single one who was eager to leave. Quite the contrary. Living in South Africa, to many people it seems, is like a dream come true.

Watching the memorial events for Nelson Mandela unfold on TV, I get the sense that South Africa has grown up in those three years. There seems to be none of the fretting of "can we do this," none of the soul-searching, none of the derision that preceded the World Cup (I remember a picture a friend posted with a lone decrepit soccer goal on a dirt patch with the caption "South Africa is getting ready for the FIFA World Cup" or something similarly sarcastic").

Today, in 2013, South Africa is simply proud. Grieving, but full of love and joy at the same time. And confident. It knows that all the world's eyes are on it, but there is no sense of nervousness, no fretting about organizing masses and masses of people. It knows that it is laying to rest the last great man of our times. One that could (and still can) bring together people of many different backgrounds and races.One that will never be forgotten by the world.

Next week South Africans will likely return to their regular programming and compare their own president to the one who spoke so much better, the one they'd much rather have. Next week the griping about traffic and e-tags will return, the frustration with corruption and cronyism, the fear of unsafe roads and crime, the reality of a vast underclass of poor people with hardly any running water near their homes.

But today, South Africa is the envy of the world.

You might also like to read: Nelson Mandela.

December 5, 2013

Nelson Mandela

I have a hard time remembering what sort of feelings I had about Nelson Mandela a little over three years ago, prior to our expat stint in Johannesburg, South Africa.

I knew who he was, of course. That he had been a civil rights leader stuck in prison for a long time, and that he eventually became president, an inspiring leader boldly navigating his country though the treacherous waters of a transition to democracy, possibly preventing the slide into a bloody civil war.

I knew all of this, and yet I knew nothing.

To know what Nelson Mandela was to his country, you had to live among South Africans.

You had to witness the pride with which South Africans of all colors threw themselves so fully and enthusiastically into the 2010 Soccer World Cup, the first ever on African soil. Everyone was determined to make this a success and show their country in a good light, from the street vendors selling flags and t-shirts at the intersection to the children celebrating their “proudly South African days” at school. Even would-be criminals smashing windscreens in pursuit of cellphones and easy cash temporarily let up on their pursuit, or at least so it seemed to us, newly arrived in Johannesburg, and finding our fears of crime vastly overblown.

You had to witness the zeal with which Nelson Mandela’s life story was celebrated by all South Africans, whether measured in the diverse crowds flocking to the Apartheid museum, his house in Soweto, Liliesleaf Farm, and Robben Island, or the outpouring of public support for charitable causes during Mandela Day every July 18.

You had to hear the school children, black, white, and everything else, belting out Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika every week during assembly, effortlessly switching between its five languages and feeling nothing but pride in what really is a collection of rather contentious songs from the past.

You had to walk the streets of Johannesburg and realize that you couldn't turn a corner without feeling Mandela's presence in some shape or form.

Saint Mandela graffiti (note him holding a spray can) in Downtown Johannesburg

Mandela statue in Sandton's Mandela Square

Mandela exhibition at the Apartheid Museum

You could glimpse a little of Mandela’s magic by watching Invictus, where he is so brilliantly portrayed by Morgan Freeman as the statesman who refused to take revenge on a hated symbol of Boer power, the Springbok rugby team, and instead rallied the entire nation in pursuit of an unlikely world championship.

But really you just had to be in South Africa to see how this man was so universally loved by his people. Because he refused to be petty or vindictive or outraged. I’m not saying he wasn't cunning and calculating, because he was. This is evident when reading his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. He also made mistakes. But mainly he simply loved his country. All of it.

And that is what he will be remembered for.

I just wish I could be there now, joining the people lining the streets in remembrance of one of the few truly great men of our time.

If you haven't read Long Walk to Freedom, this might be a good time for it. For more suggested reading about South Africa, like Cry the Beloved Country or The Power of One, check out my Africa Books page.

Hardcover Kindle Edition

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December 2, 2013

Corruption in South Africa

Anybody following this blog knows that I absolutely love South Africa. It has a lot of great things going for it, and I have told you about most of them, repeatedly. To the point that some might accuse me of wearing rose-tinted glasses.

Well, let me tell you about one thing I absolutely hate about South Africa: Corruption. Or actually, I'm not even sure corruption is the best word. Thievery, more like it. There are a lot of people in South Africa who think that it's perfectly fine to take something that's not theirs. There are also a lot of honest people, to be sure, but this article won't be about them.

It can happen to you anywhere.

  • You get your car back from the repair shop, and all the CDs, including the one that was currently in the stereo, are gone. So is the small change you kept in the console as tip money. The only time you'll get your car back without anything missing is when you've already stripped it of anything valuable yourself before dropping it off. Because the car dealership made you sign a form attesting that you did just that. 
  • You come to a traffic light - excuse me, robot - that's out of order, and you don't even pause to think why this might be, because it is such a commonplace occurrence. If you did pause to think about it and investigate further, you'd learn that very often vital parts, such as SIM cards controlling the traffic lights, get stolen. 
  • You wonder why your internet connection is once again not working, and it turns out the copper wires connecting your neighborhood were carried away. If you're lucky, they'll get replaced. If you're unlucky, Telkom has given up and will no longer replace them. 
  • You drive out into the country and come to what looks like a fourway stop, except there is only one stop sign between the four sides. If you were to look closely into the surrounding community, you might come across a house that has its siding patched up with stop signs. 
  • You get a letter of warning from your neighborhood association informing you that the, ahem, shit pipe connecting Johannesburg to the Northern water treatment plant might begin to leak soon, because its aluminum siding is being removed under cover of night at an alarming rate.

But by far the place where I find theft to be the most annoying (and rampant) is the South African Postal Service. There is just no telling whether something you send to or from South Africa will ever get there. Chances are it won't. Especially if its shape suggests that something valuable might be in the envelope or package. If you send a simple letter to a friend in South Africa, you might as well not seal it but leave it open for the world to see and inspect, and it might stand a better chance of arriving than if you seal it, forcing whoever is intercepting your mail to actually rip it open to see what' inside. Because there is no doubt that every single parcel or letter is intercepted and scrutinized for its potential value.

Ha! is all I can say to that.

This past summer while touring Europe, our kids spent a considerable amount of time and effort buying presents they wanted to send to their South African friends. Out of three packages, only one arrived. The one that did we had sent to an office address in England, from where it was couriered by weekly company mail to South Africa, thereby escaping the South African Postal Service altogether. Not a trace remained of the other two. They weren't even big things and can't have been of huge value to anyone. In fact, if you must know the truth, one was a condom, sent as a joke. I can only hope that it did its job to improve some South African postal worker's chances, if ever so slightly, from contracting HIV. In fact, I'll chalk that one down to a good cause. But the little chain with an Eiffel tower on it, of special meaning for the friend with a Paris fetish? That one just makes me angry.

At some point in time, had stopped shipping to South Africa. You know Amazon. They like to be everywhere on the globe, so for them to shut down an entire market it must have been serious. Boxes with Amazon printed on them disappeared at such an alarming rate that it got too expensive to replace all the packages that were lost. Especially when all the replacements disappeared too. It's hard to imagine that some years back the thievery was even more rampant because it's bad enough now, but Amazon did eventually resume deliveries to South African customers.

It just took one Christmas for our families in Europe to realize that shipping anything to South Africa was not a good idea. Let me tell you, our post office box in Dainfern Valley was a lonely affair after that. It just wasn't worth checking it anymore when the only thing appearing in it with any regularity was the pest control statement and skin care advertisements.

Most people will blame all this on inefficiency. "It's Africa," they will say and shrug. I know, because for the longest time that is exactly what I did. Until one day we received an e-mail from our German bank. "Just double checking with you, are you sure you want 10,100 Euro transferred to a Nedbank account as per the attached fax we received?" was what it said. "Hell no," was our answer, and we sighed a big sigh of relief that some German bank clerk had been paying attention. Not only had the writer of the fax gotten a hold of our account number by intercepting a replacement bank card sent to us, he (or she) had also forged Noisette's signature at the bottom of the letter. Which he could only have gotten by looking into the postal service files to find the signature on the application for the PO box. The only giveaway was that the letter was written in atrocious German. A slightly more advanced Google Translate, and we might be 10,000 Euro poorer today.

Ha! again

The moral of the story: If you live in South Africa, don't have ANY foreign bank or financial institution of yours send statements to you in the mail. Don't even think about it. Have them sent to a friend or relative in your home country, and then have them couriered to you once in a while. Or better yet, don't have any statements sent at all. Use online banking.

A lot of South Africans complain about corrupt police officers who will ask for bribes in a traffic stop. But frankly, I don't find that nearly as bothersome. And not only because it gave me great writing material for three years. All you have to do is resist paying a bribe, and if everybody did that, the problem would be solved. But how can you resist someone stealing your mail?

I miss Africa greatly, but nothing gives me more satisfaction these days than going into a United States Post Office branch and entrusting them with whatever goods I feel the need to ship elsewhere. Except to South Africa.

You might also like to read: My Shining Moment: How to deal with corrupt South African traffic cops.

November 25, 2013

Culture Shock Circa 1983: They Have Phones Without Cords in America!

Culture shock is a topic every expat is familiar with. You get it when you go abroad, and then, surprisingly, you get it again when coming back. Sometimes the latter hits you even harder. 

The thing with culture shock is, you usually get over it pretty quickly. So that if you fail to actually tell people about it while it's happening, you might totally forget you ever had it. Which is why keeping a diary is so great. Going back and reading over what you were culture-shocked about in 1983 is an entire culture shock experience onto itself.

Yes, 1983. 

I may not have told you this yet, but my first expat experience came when I was sixteen years old. I was plucked from a tranquil and progressive Southern German town (think Birkenstock, beards, and John Lennon glasses) and dropped into the deepest Mississippi (think Confederate flag, pickup trucks, and y'all) to live with people I’d never met before for an entire year.

I was in awe from the moment I arrived.

From Europe Into the Future

To understand this, you need to know that America, as everyone else in the world calls it, was every teenager's dream in late 1970s Euorope. Back then, we didn't vacation in Disneyworld. We didn't fly on airplanes. We only got to see American movies about a hundred years later and then dubbed into high German, which you will have to trust me when I say is absolutely godawful once you know the real thing. There were virtually no American fast food chains, beyond a few McDonald's in the big cities. Levy's jeans were unaffordable. Going to America, you were absolutely certain, would mean that you'd get to rub elbows with Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman while walking down Sunset Boulevard. Never mind that by 1980 no actual American even remembered Gregory Peck or his awesome sex appeal in Roman Holiday, because, well, only Germans apparently were still watching 1950s movies at that time. Come to think of it, maybe it was just me.

You might wonder if I can be trusted to remember my culture shock experience from thirty years ago with any accuracy, but rest assured that you’ll get it straight from the horse’s mouth: I have in my possession a treasure I now consider more dear to me than most anything else on my bookshelf – a binder, 2 inches thick, packed with hand-written letters between me and my parents from my entire exchange-student year, painstakingly hole-punched and chronologically filed away by my mother, who always had a passion for family history. I look at these letters now and not only send praise to my mother's memory for her foresight, but feel wistful that letter-writing is a disappearing art form. What will my children look back on one day? Surely not their collective text messages and Instagram statuses.

Back to the Past Through the Glory of Handwritten Letters

It is with the help of this binder full of letters that I can share with you my unedited impressions of America during those first few steamy August weeks of 1983, translated from German:

August 15, 1983: “Our house has four columns in the front that make it look like a Greek temple… There is a gigantic TV in the playroom, about four times as big as our TV. How to work all the video games is something I will have to learn… Everyone is very relaxed here; the priest came yesterday and brought crabs which we all ate for dinner.”

A house with columns, you guys!

If that isn't culture shock. I mean, it all sounds very normal reading it now, but to my 16-year old self in 1983 it all seemed very alien. The luxury of living in an entire house, one with Greek columns no less, when I’d grown up in a first-floor flat where our entire family of five shared one single toilet. And the giant TV. My parents had only caved and gotten a TV two years earlier. I had spent fourteen years of my life without any TV screen at all, and now there were three to choose from, one of them taking up the whole wall of one room, or so it seemed. And the fact that I felt I needed to mention the priest dropping in for a crab feast just shows you how much more uptight and reserved our German family life was by comparison. You saw the priest only at church (and up close only through lattice at confession), but never in a million years would he have been invited into our home.

It was definitely the American gadgetry and abundance that seem to have shocked and awed me the most. 

August 18, 1983: “Every car here has air conditioning… Also, their car has a little gadget that beeps when there is a radar trap nearby so that you can slow down until you've passed the police car and won’t be caught…There is a funny telephone here, it doesn't have a cord but an antenna on the  handset, so that you can carry it with you wherever you go…There are at least ten different kinds of cereal for breakfast… For lunch they typically eat hamburgers or something similar; when you are in town, it can go very fast: you drive your car past a speaker, say what you want, drive a bit farther, pick up your food, then drive into a parking space and eat it. I've never seen a McDonald’s like that in Germany. Here, they even have banks that work like that."

Air conditioning! A house phone not attached to the wall! Drive-through banks! You'd think I came from North Korea or something, the way I was going on and on about such mundane stuff, but that's how it was. America was otherworldly to me.

Dynasty, Anyone?

Some of my cultural confusion seemed to have arisen from a time lag in my favorite TV series.

August 30, 1983: “Last Wednesday I watched Dynasty for the first time and it was very confusing. Fallon and Jeff are divorced and Jeff remarried. Then there is a baby, I assume it’s Fallon’s, because its name is Blake. A young man named Steven also lives in the house and also has a baby. I’m not sure if he is married to Fallon or not, but he is together with her a lot. You never hear anything about the real Steven. By the way, the other Steven is Alexis’s son, and then there is another son whose name I've forgotten. Alexis is a big opponent of Blake’s now. And the stupid Blaisdel family seems to have actually died off!”

The stuff that filled up my head as a 16-year old... I am having severe culture shock right now just being confronted with my old teenage self. When I now go off to look for a suitable picture of me to add to this blog post, I'll probably have to gag.

Okay I didn't quite gag, but only because that picture of me is
actually from 1986 when I returned for a visit, not from 1983.

The Horror of Hairy Armpits

In typical 16-year old girl fashion, I seem to have simply shared everything with my mother. There was a long sequence in one of the letters where I divulged how I had learned to shave my legs and armpits so as to better blend in “because apparently all the girls in school are doing it”. I think in this instance there must have been culture shock in both directions: Me embarking on a crash-course on how to get rid of all that excess hair without serious injury, and my host mother being confronted with the reality that there existed a species of female humans roaming the Earth with hairy legs and armpits. I’m very grateful to this day that she swallowed what I imagine can only have been alarm, if not disgust, and tackled the problem in her typical practical manner by buying me a Gilette razor (which, if you must know, caused endless consternation after my return to Germany, where it henceforth occupied the shower caddy in our shared family bathroom – “But why must the girl have a razor like a man?”)

I'll spare you the picture of me shaving my legs for the first time.

I went on, once properly groomed and no longer squealing with delight when pulling up to a drive-through window, to have the year of my life. I watched and I copied and I acquired a Southern accent so fast that my parents hardly recognized me when I was returned to them a year later, and like five years older. I survived all subsequent experiences of culture shock, one of which involved a wooden paddle, the high school principal, and my bare bum. Okay, not bare, I give you that, but shocking it was all the same.

How that came to pass, I'll tell you in a future installment of "Dear God Let's Not Go Back to the 80s."

In the meantime, maybe you'll tell me some of your own culture shock?

You might also like: Repatriation.

November 21, 2013

I'm, Like, Famous. Except No One Knows.

Ever since I stumbled across Self-Printed by Catherine Ryan Howard, I have been slavishly following her advice on self-publishing a book.I know, I'm probably already starting to sound like her.

When she said I needed to create an author website (or blogsite, as she likes to call it), I listened. When she said to do it on Wordpress (because 9.8 out of 10 times Wordpress looks better than Blogger, she tells me, which I try not to take personally regarding this blog right here, which of course is on Blogger), I went back to my ancient Wordpress Dashboard which had once hosted (and still hosts) my first blog ever, Desperate Mothers. I clicked on "new blog" and entered an address. And then I came to a dead stop.

"Blog name" was staring at me accusingly, and I had no idea what to call it.

If you're a blogger, you know how hard it is to choose a good name. And if you've been following mine, you know that I don't exactly have a track record of unbridled creativity in the blog naming department. Joburg Expat, you guys? If there has ever been a less creative (though I admit functional) name in the expat blogosphere, I'd like to know about it.

And in any case, if I am to have a "presence" on the web with an author website, I need to reach beyond my expat persona. I somehow need to bring my actual name into it. But which one? I grew up with one nickname, now live under another, and no one can pronounce any of them. There are few people who even know my real name. Why, dear God, couldn't I have a name like Catherine Ryan Howard that makes sense to everyone? Where does my name even come from?

Now you won't believe this, but up until this point it had never occurred to me to Google my own name. Honestly! At least not my full first name. Perhaps this is due to the conflicted relationship I have always had with it. You know, the way kids will make fun of you when you're the only one with that name in the entire school. In the entire country, actually. Or the entire universe, it seems like. And when that name also rhymes with a lot of stuff, you're doomed. It might have been okay if just the other kids had made fun of it, but it was the teachers too. Melusine, in German, rhymes perfectly with limousine, which isn't so bad, and sardine, which is slightly worse, but also Waschmaschine (washing machine) and, my teacher's creation, Quatschmaschine, alluding to my propensity to, ahem, talk a lot during class. I don't think I have ever quite forgiven my parents for sticking that name onto me, in what I can only think must have been a drunken stupor (or, given it was the 60s, a high of a different nature).

Until now, that is.

Because what does Catherine Ryan Howard also tell me is important for my author website? A unique name. It actually took me a whole night of lying awake and tossing and turning (yes,we bloggers work hard at our craft, besides being vain) and discarding one pithy slogan after the other to realize that I already have just that: A unique name! My first name, all by itself, will likely catch attention, precisely because it is unique. No dressing up needed, plain and simple.


Nevertheless, I went ahead and Googled it to find out more. And what do you know, it has changed my life. Because, it turns out, I am in everyone's face, every day. Or almost everyone. I had to read the entire page on Wikipedia to get to it. On the way there, I learned that:

  • I have a namesake who was christened exactly 300 years before I was born, 1667, and went on to became the mistress of King George I of Great Britain, the first British monarch from the House of Hanover (which, incidentally is Noisette's birthplace, except Germans spell it with two 'n's). 
  • Legend has it that I am a water fairy. I appear in quite the collection of French, English, and German folk tales. 
  • One of those tales has my mother leaving with me and my two sisters to live on the Isle of Avalon (isn't that where Morgan le Fay lived? That practically puts me in the same company as Richard Gere and Sean Connery in First Knight! Oh, the romance!)
  • Another legend has it that the House of Luxembourg is descended from me. In 1997 Luxembourg issued a postage stamp with my image as a water spirit (bare breasted and blond - that's gotta be me, guys!).
  • Evidently, there is also a nightclub in Luxembourg with the name Melusina (I hope it's not the bare breasted type of night club).
  • I appear every 7 years for someone to free me from the Arzette River (all you need to do is buy me a Starbucks Venti Latte, excuse me, take the key I wear around my neck from me, and I'm yours).
  • In The White Queen, Philippa Gregory claims the House of Luxembourg is connected to me through the Duke of Burgundy (I'd still rather be connected to Richard Gere and Sean Connery, but a Duke isn't bad).
  • One day of the week, I am half serpent, or depending on the tale, half mermaid (let's go with mermaid, guys).
  • Martin Luther believed I was a succubus, or female demon, making it my business to seduce men (me? never!).
  • None other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe resurrected my tale when he wrote Die neue Melusine (The new Melusine) in 1807 (seems like all of Germany's greats were somehow connected to me).
  • Felix Mendelssohn wrote a concert ouverture named Zum Märchen der Schönen Melusine (the fair Melusine).
  • A gothic metal band released a song named after me in 2011; I feel like I should be collecting royalties as the only person of that name (but gothic metal, you guys?).
  • Also, and I'm briefly exiting Wikipedia here, if you go to the website of my name, you can source pre-fractioned animal venoms, whatever the hell that is ("Did you ever dream of running a pre-screen on 176 venoms?" Uhm, no, did not).
  • And, yikes, there is even Melusine, the Blog right here on Blogger. There even are a handful of Facebook pages. Someone beat me to the punch! (Though, I am oddly relieved to see, no one seems to actually HAVE that name).
  • In Czech and Slovak, my name stands for a wailing wind (my kids would agree with that analogy, especially when I've just found out that somebody spilled a bottle of nail polish remover onto the sofa table; I won't name any names).

And then, at the bottom of the Wikipedia page, under "other cultural references," there it was, staring me in the face:

"The Starbucks logo features a nude Melusine within a green circle."

Me, me, and  me! (though only two of us in the nude)

My friends, this is Earth shattering news. Starbucks? It is meant to be. A union made in Heaven. If I could have picked any corporate giant of the world to distribute my likeness (in the nude, no less!) to the remotest corners of the Earth and make people happy at the same time (who isn't happy when holding a freshly-made mocha latte in his or her hands?), it would have been Starbucks. Hands down. Especially now that Wikipedia has told me Starbucks is culture.

With all this history and fame, I can't quite believe no one else has ever had an urge to name their female offspring Melusine. It sure would have put me out of my childhood misery if someone had.

Maybe this blogpost will inspire a future generation of parents to follow in the footsteps of mine.

In the meantime, excuse me while I create my author website. Which will have Melusine on it. But not in the nude.

You might also want to read: I May Have Sort of Written a Book.

November 17, 2013

I May Have Sort of Written a Book

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I've written a book.

“FINALLY!” Some of you might now say. “I've said for ages you should do this.”

The reason I haven’t told anyone until now is that I absolutely hate talking about stuff I’ll do without being absolutely certain I’ll do them. Perfectly. And the best way of being absolutely certain you’ll do something, perfectly, is to already have done it.

But I've come to see that there are a few pitfalls with this strategy:

  1. If you don’t tell anyone you’ll be writing a book, you’ll feel compelled to keep doing everything else you've already been doing on a daily basis just to keep up appearances, i.e. keeping up your blog (not to mention checking homework and cooking dinner,) and the time slot left over for actually writing your book will fall between midnight and two  in the morning, meaning you will have to take a loan on your future book royalties to pay for the Nespresso capsules you need to keep going.
  2. If you don’t tell anyone you’ll be writing a book, the only person who’ll be encouraging you to write your book will be you, and every writer knows that that is possibly the single worst person in the world to give you any positive reinforcement.
  3. If you don’t tell anyone you’ll be writing a book, you won’t have any deadline. Meaning every other thing landing on your desk that has a deadline, like calling the exterminator, folding laundry, buying groceries, and making a dentist appointment for your spouse and children will appear on your to-do list above writing your book, which gets us back to point 1).

Given all this, it seems as if the risks of NOT telling anyone might actually outweigh the risk of spilling the secret. Because what’s so bad about people knowing you’re writing a book?

I’ll tell you what’s bad. Now you actually have to write that (gulp) book!

The good news is that I have, in fact, written it. For the last three months, I have labored away and manufactured a coherent story out of my (and Zax’s) Kilimanjaro climb that I think is halfway readable, devoid of the most glaring typos, and actually adds tons of new material and information not previously found in my blog posts on the same topic. So that even my most loyal readers will get something out of it instead of feeling cheated.

“Great,“ you might say, “where can I get it?”

Well, ahem, you can’t. Not yet. Because “devoid of any typos” of course doesn't even begin to meet my standards (you might call them anal but I like to think of them as professional). If I’m going to write a book, I’ll do it well. Or at least try. So for the last few days, ever since I made the final save on ‘Kilimanjaro Diary’, I have been educating myself about the world of book publishing. Self-publishing, actually, because the idea of sending off my manuscript and then waiting for years for a response, which most likely will be a stack of rejection letters if I am so privileged to even get any at all, does not appeal to me in the least. I've been a blogger with the power to instantly publish for too long to want to go through that. But even self-publishing needs to be professional. More so, actually. I could just go ahead and upload all 68,000 words through Amazon’s Kindle Publishing and voila, you could be reading about sore feet and stunning vistas and toilet tents and perseverance (but really, mostly toilet tents) as early as tonight while sipping a nice glass of wine.

But I won’t. Instead, I've been reading Self-Printed: The Sane Person's Guide to Self-Publishing by Catherine Ryan Howard, which has been as instructive as it has been entertaining. She’s got me running off in twelve different directions on things that need doing before I can even think of uploading anything anywhere. I've learned that if I want to do this professionally, I’ll need an editor. A structural one and then one for copy editing. And proof readers. And a cover designer. And an author website. Preferably on WordPress, which of course my current website isn't on. Not that it is even an actual website. I’ll also need to build a mailing list via MailChimp to keep track of people wanting to be kept abreast of news about my as of yet nonexistent book. Which hopefully includes you.

And mainly, I’ll need to know what the hell to call my book. I need a TITLE. Because, frankly, Kilimanjaro Diary isn't going to get anyone excited. I’d love to use “How to Shit in the Woods” but sadly, that one’s already been taken. It really is, go check it out.

November 12, 2013

Pumpkin Flavored Dog Treats and Other American Obsessions

As Halloween frenzy was approaching a fever pitch - which it seems to me nowadays starts somewhere in the middle of September - a South African friend of mine who lives here was shaking her head.

"I was in my favorite grocery store today," she said, "and I saw pumpkin bread mix, pumpkin toaster pastries, pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin waffles, pumpkin Greek yogurt, pumpkin soup, pumpkin cream cheese muffins, pumpkin body butter, pumpkin flavored dog treats, pumpkin oatmeal, pumpkin bar baking mix, pumpkin ale, pumpkin biscotti, pumpkin spice chai, pumpkin spice rooibos (that should be illegal), pumpkin butter, pumpkin spice coffee, pumpkin pancake mix. So what is this obsession with pumpkin here in the USA?"

Quite right. Whatever the season, we seem to be obsessed with something. If no major holiday is available, we create a minor one to fill in. That, I think, is the only explanation for Valentine's Day. To fill the drought between Christmas and Easter. And, I think, just to annoy us parents who are finally, finally, breathing a big sigh of relief because by mid-February all the Halloween candy is gone from the pantry, just to see the empty spot immediately usurped by another almost identical trove of carefully labeled goody bags, just changed in hue from orange and rusty colors to pinks and reds.

In fact, I think I may have given my kids leftover Halloween candy to stick onto their Valentine's cards. Please don't judge me too harshly.

Maybe this truly scary pumpkin is enough to cure you of any pumpkin flavored cravings
you might have harbored this harvest season?

The object of our obsession is not really pumpkins. Nor is it holidays in general or even decorating, though I do have to say an urge to decorate seems to be bred into almost every American woman (unfortunately often coupled with the gene for poor taste). No, the real obsession here is money. Good old-fashioned capitalism keeping the American retail industry on a never-ending quest to find new markets. It's Marketing 101 as we learned it from one of my favorite teachers in graduate school, Professor Klompmaker. You either create new products to sell to your existing customers (i.e. pumpkin-flavored EVERYTHING), or you find new customers for your existing products (i.e. dogs). So far so good. You have that in every country. But I think the reason the occasion marketing works so well in the United States is that we have a particularly short attention span. What's the rage today and what absolutely has to be had, instantly, is forgotten tomorrow, because we have moved on to the next fad. This isn't just true for stuff you can buy. Most recently, people here were in a frenzy over IOS 7 and couldn't wait to upgrade, but it almost seems forgotten now. Just different looking icons from before (and perhaps a slower phone). Or remember that Joseph Kony video that got millions of views in just a week? The world was up in arms about it and everyone shared it left and right, and the next week it was all but over. Oh, and does anyone remember sillybandz?

Maybe that's why I liked it so much in South Africa. Less obsession with fads (or maybe they just arrive there later). Definitely less obsession with decorating, and less obsession with holidays in general. Ask the average South African why he is at home on a particular day and not at work, he probably won't even know which holiday it is. And the only decorating he'll be interested in is decorating his braai with a roll of Boerewors.

But just wait, South Africa! Finding new customers overseas is another tenet of Marketing 101. We've successfully brought you Halloween, and the pumpkin flavored Biltong is not far behind.

November 6, 2013

A Small Improvement for Joburg Expat

For some reason I woke up today with the strong urge to give my blog a face lift.

As you may have noticed, I have neglected Joburg Expat just a tad the last few months. It could have to do with, well, not actually BEING a Joburg Expat anymore. Although I still have a long list of topics to write about, it's just not the same as living there and having your car break down in the middle of nowhere and then writing about what happened next. Not that I want my car to break down anytime soon.

I"ve also been working on getting a book published. Or probably rather self-published, the cheesy alternative to real publishing but at least nowadays endowed with the sheen of respectability via Amazon self-publishing. And I promise it won't be in the dinosaur erotica genre as recently seen on the Colbert Report. I can't find the clip right now, but it was funny.

Anyway, despite big plans to crank out entire book chapters today thanks to the rarity of a day entirely spent at home without errands (and possibly without cooking, sorry kids!), I started tinkering with my blog. Or rather, having gotten smart after near-disasters in the past, tinkering with my testing site.

Although I really like my blog header with the Joburg skyline, I felt like it needed a new image. I had some ideas of pictures that might work. So I set out to delve into the depths of my photo folders. There are a TON of photos in there. It can take you all day to just look through them. Which it pretty much did. A few hours later, I had decided that there were too many good pictures to make a choice for a single one. So I wondered whether I shouldn't incorporate a slide show instead. So then I started trying to figure out how to do that. But every slide show gadget I checked yielded either too small a slide show, no option to randomize the pictures, or no clear way to keep people out of my Picasa web albums once they clicked on it. I dabbled in using Dropbox instead but that didn't have an option for captions, which it did in Picasa but I would have had to add them in painstaking labor. So I put the slide show box on hold and turned my attention to menu design.

What I didn't like about my menu bar (right under the image, the one I started out wanting to change) was that there were no sub-menus, and therefore not enough room to put all the tools out there that let my visitors navigate. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, to have something like "Joburg" in my menu bar, and then have a sub-menu with "Joburg with kids" and "Joburg with visitors" and "City of Joburg website" or something similar pop up? Sounds easy enough, but it needed for me to do some HTML programming. Because having the menu in the first place was a major endeavor a couple of  years back, when I learned how to make labels into pages in Blogger.

The thing with HTML code - which you do have to at least somehow understand when you want to customize your blog - is that you can totally get into a topic and think you totally understand it, but then once you've incorporated that snippet into your webpage you totally forget about it and have absolutely no recollection of what you did. It works, thankfully, but making any changes would involve having to find out what you changed before and where you changed it, and with something like 3000 lines of code, that is a major pain.

After delving into dozens of blogs promising how to teach me sub-menu design, and after opening about 20 new tabs on my browser - several of which then had to be dedicated to Googling "my browser has become unresponsive" - I gave up on the sub-menu project as well.

In the end, I made a minor change, but one that I think is the best compromise between me wading knee-deep through HTML code for weeks and you getting more usability out of my blog. I took the "Labels" widget, which I had previously half-hidden under a tab in the "About me" box, and put it at the very top right corner of my blog, as a drop-down box called "Joburg Expat Topics". Using a drop-down box saves space so that I don't push all the other stuff way down to the bottom of my blog, and still gives you the ability to quickly find blog posts by topic. Oh, and I took the "Blog Archive" from way down below and tucked it into the "About me" box to replace the topics/categories that now stand on their own. Seeing as I'm the only one who will likely ever have the urge to look at my archives, and even that is a stretch, I could probably have done without that change.

So as not to inundate you with all the labels I've tagged my blog posts with, I made a selection of labels I think are going to be most useful to you (Blogger doesn't give you categories, so you have to work around it using labels which you then "categorize").

Below is a list of those categories. An entire day later, one small improvement. I really should just focus on that book.

  • Alexandra Baseball
  • Around Joburg
  • Book Reviews
  • Bureaucracy
  • Cape Town
  • Charity
  • Crime & Security
  • Culture Shock
  • Dainfern College
  • Domestic Help
  • Expat Life
  • Expat Tips
  • Funny
  • Health
  • Hiking
  • History
  • Joburg with Kids
  • Language
  • Mount Kilimanjaro
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Photography
  • Safari
  • Schools
  • Shopping
  • Sports
  • Transportation
  • Travel
  • Weather
  • Welcome to Africa
  • Wildlife

PS: Of course I couldn't let tinkering with Photoshop go. So I did produce one new image, which now graces the top of my Facebook page. Curious? Take a look here, and while you're there, go ahead and LIKE it.

October 31, 2013

Put Your Zebra Lederhosen On!

Once again, when October rolled around this year, we found ourselves in new surroundings, meaning we’d have to create yet another guest list for our annual Oktoberfest. 

I don’t know exactly when we started this tradition, but I remember where. It was when we lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, and had little kids, probably around ten years ago. Noisette had come across a mini keg of his favorite beer, Wahrsteiner, when visiting the grocery store, and accosted me with the idea of hosting an Oktoberfest.

The spread at our Oktoberfest, perfected over the last ten years.
Our Oktoberfest invitations over the years. We've only needed three designs because
we always moved before it was time to come up with a new one.

“It can’t be that hard,” he said. “All you have to do is make some Sauerkraut and sausages, and we’ll be in business."

Never mind that I had never made Sauerkraut in my life. In fact, I had spent the better half of the first part of it hating Sauerkraut with a passion and giving it a wide berth whenever I could. It was the one food my brothers and I were allowed to skip at mealtimes. It wasn't even the smell of cabbage or the sour taste we objected to so much. It was all the other stuff that was floating around in it, one piece more fatty than the other. It was something my mother, having come of age in the years of deprivation - you might call it starvation - in postwar Germany, indulged in periodically, allowing her to reminiscence about all the foods she so powerfully craved when she couldn't have them. 

That is my only explanation. No other sane person would crave a solid hunk of fat, or a soggy slice of blood sausage.

But, I figured, it didn't have to be the authentic Sauerkraut of my youth if we were to cook it for the intended audience. In fact, I was probably well advised not to even utter the words blood and sausage anywhere near each other lest I offend the delicate American ears of our friends. Putting the menu together proved easier than I expected. I thought really long and hard if there were any other foods I hated as a kid, and came up with potato salad. Rounded out with a selection of Knockwurst and Bratwurst, or rather whatever passed for them on the shelves at our local Harris Teeter store, and Zwiebelkuchen (onion tart, which I DO like), our dinner spread looked respectable. Finding the right kind of mustard proved a bit of a mission, as well as the right kind of beer. As my Southern German family will tell you, Wahrsteiner, from the North, is completely misplaced at the Oktoberfest, which is entirely a Southern German institution. As are Bretzeln, distant and noble ancestors of the mundane American Pretzel. Paulaner or Weihenstephan (the one that’s brewed by monks), both wheat beers, are acceptable choices for an Oktoberfest, so even though the keg remained, for its pure novelty, we supplemented it with the real Hefeweizen, if only to appease our relatives back home.

The potato salad is a favorite every year. Even I like it now.
The right kind of beer!
Bretzeln from the Schwabenbutcher in Johannesburg. Read that story here.

Ever since that first one, we've tried to host an Oktoberfest each year. We've had a total of seven or eight since that fateful kickoff event in 2003 or 2004, which actually happened in November, if I recall correctly.

They've taken place in five different cities and on two different continents.

We've had guests who drank half a beer each and rushed home to their babysitters at 9:30 pm, and we've had ones who raided our entire liquor cabinet and then passed out on our sofa.

We had ones who didn't eat pork or gluten (don't move to Germany, guys!), and we had ones who licked the potato salad bowl and then took home some more.

We had people proudly arrive with their own German beer steins, and we had ones arrive in full Lederhosen regalia.

And every single time, we've had people at our Fest who we hadn't even met before, because it seems to be our fate to have to start over in a new place every few years (the good news is, you get to recycle last year's invitation design). What better way to meet your neighbors than having them over for some Jagermeister.

Especially when you encourage them to wear your country’s garb.

I'd like to say this was us, the hosts, dressed up so perfectly, but these are our neighbors
who deserve big kudos for being the life of this year's party!

What really warms my heart is how well received each and every one of our Oktoberfests has been. There's good food, to be sure, as I've fine-tuned and improved the recipes over the last decade. Even our kids can't wait for the annual cooking extravaganza to begin, though I suspect it's less the sausages and more the assortment of cakes that attracts them like flies. And there's good beer (for those who, unlike me, actually like beer), brewed according to the ancient German Reinheitsgebot handed down over the centuries. But I think the main attraction is something more. It's the promise of good companionship bridging all sorts of cultural divides, it's reaching out to your neighbors who actually might not even have met each other, it's seeing tradition transported across oceans and generations, though sometimes with an exotic twist.

My favorite exotic Oktoberfest twist is Lederhosen made from zebra skin. I'm not kidding you, they have them in Namibia. Along with the best Schweinebraten outside of Munich, I might add. If you don't believe me regarding the striped Lederhosen, read this recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Last year's Oktoberfest in Johannesburg. I don't know what they're all looking at. I really
hope it's not the dead rat our cat Maus left on the patio right before the first guests arrived.

My apple cake when the kids get to it before the party. (Actually, I think it was Noisette).
Our  Oktoberfests are often international affairs. Represented here: United States, Great
Britain, and Belgium. Not shown Singapore, Germany, The Netherlands, Egypt, South Africa.
There you go, Zebra Lederhosen! See Wall Street Journal Article here.

At this year's Oktoberfest, our next-door neighbors shamed us by arriving in perfectly matched Lederhosen and Dirndl outfits. I think it’s about high time we got ourselves some Lederhosen and a Dirndl of our own. But have you ever seen their prices? They are sinful, and that's not even counting the boob job I'd have to have before I could proudly show off a Dirndl. Maybe we should just make our own.

Come to think of it, I've got just the right material upstairs. I’ll begin sewing right away.

October 27, 2013

Relocating your Pet to South Africa

I recently saw the following question on an expat forum:
"Hello all! I've been in South Africa for 3 weeks and expect to work here for approximately 18 months on assignment. My husband will be joining me from the US in 1 month. The most difficult decision regards our we bring her or not? Has anyone heard of issues with customs? How is the process returning to the States?"
We don't have a dog. If I ever sneaked a dog into the house, under cover of night like I've practically done with the succession of cats we've had, Noisette would probably kill me. And the dog.

Moving your Pet to South Africa? This is what you need to know:

  • Import Permits are available at the Department of Agriculture  for a fee of ZAR120 
  • Veterinary Health Certificate must be signed and stamped by a government approved veterinarian in the exporting country.
  • Cats are generally quarantine free
  • Dogs from some countries are subject to a 14-day quarantine
  • Dogs subject to quarantine need a signed indemnity form
  • Dogs are also subject to a series of tests for certain diseases
  • Dogs and cats need to have a rabies vaccination
  • Dogs and cats need to be microchipped
  • Any animal imported into South Africa must arrive via one of the major airport's cargo terminals; animals subject to quarantine can only arrive via OR Tambo or Cape Town International
Check Moving to South Africa with your Pet for more details!
What we did have, prior to moving to South Africa, was a bunny by name of Oreo. Huge and black and white and also pretty dumb, if you ask me. Since I could only find information about dog and cat relocation but nothing about rabbits, it was decided that he was best left behind with another loving family. Or wait - he actually might have gotten left behind because he had the nasty habit of peeing all over the carpet when he was excited, which he was every time he spotted one of us, even if we kept him in his cage. I might not have mentioned that tidbit of information to the loving family. Maybe they are not quite so loving anymore.

So I'm not the best person to ask when it comes to the very important question on how to best get your pet from the United States - or pretty much anywhere else - to South Africa. And yet it crops up every so often on my blog and elsewhere, so that I wanted to provide some answers.

I decided to ask a few friends and fellow expats their advice.

I got a lot of responses. A ton of responses! I think I got more responses than on any other topic combined in the history of my blog. Pets, it seems, are dear to the expat's heart, possibly dearer than her children. Every expat I know seems to have brought a pet with them. And every one of them has a story to tell. (And, I might add, every one of them seems to have jeopardized their retirement nest egg by paying for Fido's travels.)

I decided to go ahead and collect the relevant excerpts from all these stories and print them here for you. Maybe hearing personal accounts (and hopefully some success stories) is what people appreciate most. Or maybe I just didn't feel like wading through all the information and shortening it into a reasonably sized blog post.

Darlene wrote:
"We brought our two dachshunds in March when we moved to Joburg from NJ. We hired a pet relocation company to help with all the paperwork and processes. It is a very expensive proposition. It went very smoothly but I do not know if it would be worth it for a short term move." 

Also check out Darlene's entertaining blog post about her dogs Lou and Serge's experience.

Beth said:
"$5k EACH direction....and then inevitably when they travel, they must pay to kennel. Most relocation services fly them through Amsterdam. For an added fee, you can have them groomed and cleaned before arriving to your home. I love a spa day right after that trip, so I'm sure dogs do too."
Hmmm. If I did survive getting a dog without Noisette killing me and I did convince him that the dog must now be relocated for a small fortune, I know for certain that he would belatedly kill me when finding out I had splurged for a dog spa day to make little Fufu feel better after his flight.

"It's complicated! And expensive. It cost more for us to bring our dog than our three kids combined. The required tests cost about $1200, the flight from MIA to DC was $300, then DC to Joburg was about $800. Also, you have to send or take paperwork to a USDA Office. SAA is the only carrier allowed to bring dogs in and the dog has to be examined by a state vet so you have to watch the timing of the flight arrival -- if its after 4:00, SARS wont be open to sign off nor will the vet be able to see the dog. It's also traumatic -- our dog has never quite been the same. Personally, if its only for 18 months, I'd try to find a nice friend or relative to take care of their dog."

"I agree with Stephanie, very expensive for a short term assignment and preferable to find someone to take care of your pet. If you do decide to bring your pet, our research found that if your pet arrived in Joburg by Tuesday, goes straight to quarantine, the state vet only takes blood for tests on Wednesday and if all clear they can be out of quarantine by Friday or you have to wait for the next Wednesday. To return to USA, there are a few pet relocators in Joburg. The one we liked the best was Aeropets. Mikki and her colleagues were very helpful and gave us lots of information."

"We brought our West Highland Terrier, Chipper, to Johannesburg in 2010. We used Animal Land Pet Movers. They have 6 offices worldwide - Atlanta, Los Angeles, Sydney, London, Hong Kong and Johannesburg! Chipper flew from Charlotte to Atlanta (where he was met by an employee of Animal Land Pet Movers). He played in the office that day before his evening flight to Amsterdam (where there is a dog hotel) and then he made his way to Johannesburg. I loved working with Animal Land Pet Movers. I handled the shots and some paperwork but they booked the flight and sent me all of the necessary documents that Chipper needed. They walked me through everything. I would not attempt to move a pet to South Africa without the use of a company. Animal Land Pet Movers was able to secure all of the paperwork from the Dept. of Agriculture on the SA side. I can't even imagine trying to do that from the US. You definitely need someone on the ground in SA helping you. It was the best decision we ever made to bring him along. He was great company for the boys when we first got here. No funny story or harrowing experience - other than my dog has been to Amsterdam and we still have not made it there!

This picture was taken right before we handed him over in the US.  Inside his crate were 2 water bowls attached to the front gate with frozen water in them, a blanket that he slept on every night, a t-shirt of one of the boys and a Dry Fur Pad to absorb anything. When Chipper got to Amsterdam anything that was soiled was thrown out and replaced with dry newspaper. Chipper came through all the way to Johannesburg with flying colors and was delivered straight to our house!

Kathryn (who still had the paperwork from her move in 2011) wrote:
"YIKES - Was it ever expensive! Two years ago it cost US$3,250 with Air Animal Pet Movers. I recall having to get a vet to examine and fill out a bunch of forms but the Air Animal people supplied all that. The vet in our area was very familiar with the process because a lot of people move overseas with our employer. I can recommend asking for a vet with some knowledge of the process."

"Not sure if you have already discovered this one, but the size of the dog crate vs the size of the airplane cargo hatch is a potential gotcha that was a surprise to me. My bigger dog was only around 65 lbs, and for the crate that met the airline requirements there was only one Delta airlines flight per week from Kansas City to Atlanta that had a big enough door. I am not making this up. Delta Airlines was very helpful at providing the information when I was working out the booking arrangements, but it did change my overall plan by a couple of days. For people that live in a smaller city with fewer flights or only smaller flights this could be a problem."

Andy (who is a South African veterinarian) had good advice on relocating pets to other countries from South Africa:
"In general the most important thing when traveling with pets is to make sure all vaccinations are up to date. Especially rabies. All animals must also be microchipped. Health certificates are usually issued by the vet at least 10 days before travelling (each country has different times) and then the forms are issued to the state vet who has to sign it off.

Going to most of the EU countries requires an up to date rabies, microchip and then rabies antibody titre blood tests. If this is all in order they have to wait 3 months and then can travel. No quarantining is needed. If vaccines are not up to date then they have to be given the rabies vaccine and then wait one month and then bloods drawn and then the 3 month wait as normal. If no microchip is done or their bloods are below required levels, the whole process has to be repeated.

Going to Australia requires 7 months quarantine. There are 3 quarantine stations in JHB. Keringa Kennels and Paws Resort are the two best although the latter is much friendlier with no bookings for visiting hours. At least 30 days of the quarantine needs to be done in Australia. Their facilities are small and quite poor. They have stations in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. VERY EXPENSIVE too. The flight to Melbourne is long and via Dubai and the pets are left in crates for up to two days. The quarantine stations in SA are amazing and will do all the paperwork for you, including permits, making correct size crates for pets, etc. There quotes are competitive but as you can imagine the overall cost can become prohibitive. All sorts of blood work is done at the stations and microchipping is also needed. If your pet is older than 8 years of age, some blood and urine work is needed before kenneling.

Going to New Zealand requires only 3 months quarantine, also at the above kennels. Their blood work is more extensive but will be covered by staff.

Going to USA or Canada is the simplest. I think it is just a matter of getting on a plane with valid vaccines and microchip.

All in all the valid rabies vaccine and the microchip are the most important things to have at hand to make the movement speedy."

I also contacted several pet relocation services to see if they could quote me a price for the purposes of this blogpost. Only one of them answered - Aeropets - and quoted me ZAR3,675 for my fictitious dog.

Here is what Vernon from Aeropets had to say:

Please find attached herewith our quotation to “import” your dog into South Africa, as well as the South African Health Clearance Certificate which must be completed by your local vet and endorsed by the state vet. Please note that the Health Certificate is only valid for 10 days. Unfortunately this does not include ticket and freight costs. The quote I have sent you is just to bring your pet into South Africa. With pets the ticket bookings and freight arrangements have to be originated at source. I would suggest you contact to assist you with the export part.

No quarantine for pets from the USA
Vaccination booklet showing that the last rabies inoculation is not older than 1 year but not less than 30 days at time of travel
Health Clearance Certificate
State vet endorsement
Import permit

I hope all of this has been helpful. As you can see, moving your pet to South Africa (and elsewhere) is not really a problem, but it requires a good amount of legwork, not to mention a stately amount of cash. The better you're prepared and do your research, the better you can keep your costs down. Make sure you study the insert above right and read Moving to South Africa with your Pet if you want to do it on your own. But hiring a pet relocation agency might give you more peace of mind.

Pet relocation agencies:

Thanks again to all my friends who so graciously contributed to this article!