March 30, 2013

Medical Emergencies in Johannesburg

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

At age nine, my daughter has already been to a plastic surgeon three times. And it’s not because she needed a new nose or smaller ears or that she is particularly vain. It’s just that, like most kids, she happens to have a small accident from time to time. And when she does, doctors at the trauma unit of the local private hospital will shake their heads and say: “If she was a boy, I would stitch the wound. But she is a girl and needs a nice scar. Let’s call my colleague the plastic surgeon.” We are fortunate enough to have Life Fourways Hospital within a few kilometres from our home, and as you will see, we make good use of this convenient situation.

The first time I went there was to take my daughter to the trauma unit on a Sunday morning. After just a few hours, including a 45-minute operation by the plastic surgeon, we were on our way home again.

On another occasion I was even happier about the proximity of Life Fourways Hospital, because I had to take my hubby to the trauma section. Suffering from a slipped disc in his back and in terrible pain, he can probably tell you exactly how many pebbles we drove over on that six kilometre drive. But not only was the drive short (at least for me, who was pain free), but also, once he was there, things happened quickly: within less than two hours, he had been thoroughly tested, including an MRI, and the orthopaedic surgeon had been organised. Not too bad, I would say, considering that a friend in Switzerland told me that he had to wait for 2 weeks for an MRI appointment.

Another friend here in South Africa told me about his experience with an emergency at 5am at his house. Because they live in Dainfern, a residential estate, they first alarmed the estate’s security services, who called for an ambulance but also promptly sent a member of staff with a radio to my friend’s house, ready to help with whatever was needed. Security also made sure that the ambulance passed the estate’s entrance without delay and guided it to the proper house. It took them a bit over 20 minutes to arrive there.

Astonishingly, the ambulance service didn’t cost a cent, even though the service was delivered by a private hospital. When it comes to finances, I find the South African emergency units quite uncomplicated. As expats, we are covered by a foreign medical insurance. It works on a pay-and-claim-back-system, so we cannot hand over a medical aid card as a guarantee for payment. But at all the doctors and hospitals we have visited, we have always been admitted and treated, without having to wave our credit card collection at the first person we saw. When my husband found out he’d have to have to be admitted to the hospital for his back op, he called our medical aid, and they faxed a guarantee to the trauma section, which settled it.

But how about the quality of treatment, you might ask?

We’ve found that in terms of quality there is also nothing to complain about. My husband’s back op put an end to 10 years of back pains, for instance. And one of my doctors in Switzerland told me that he’d spent a year in South Africa, training as a surgeon. Apparently, doctors from all over the world are on a long waiting list, patiently awaiting their turn for a coveted internship at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in SOWETO.

As everybody who has ever been in this situation will know, you feel rather vulnerable when you’re lying in a hospital bed. And you are looking for confirmation that you are in good hands. Especially in a foreign country. And one in Africa, of all continents.

My hubby had his moment of doubt when a nurse was filling out the admissions paperwork, asking him questions about his health. At the question “Are you wearing glasses?” he thought that looking at her through his glasses should be enough to answer the question. It wasn’t. But what really got him was the question “What contraception do you take?”

So it may not come as a surprise that it took me a moment to gain confidence in my husband’s surgeon when I first saw him. Because he’s the first and still the only South African man I’ve ever seen wearing tattoos and an earring. And yes, I have to admit, the thought of a surgeon operating while shaking his head wildly to the rhythm of pumping hard rock music came to my mind. But then again, who knows what surgeons DO listen to or talk about while they are busy cutting open and sewing up people?

In any case, doctor hard rocker did a splendid job.

And, like they say in France: all is well that ends well.
Note by editor: I can also attest to the virtues of Life Fourways Hospital, having been there for own share of medical emergencies. Alas, we have a boy, and so the plastic surgeon wasn't offered when we might have wished for a prettier scar. If you can stomach more stories about cutting open and sewing up people in relation to the South African medical system, the following articles might be of interest:

In the Emergency Room
In the Emergency Room - Again!
Back in the Operating Theatre

Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Guide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg.

March 27, 2013

Top 10 Reasons You Should Move to Johannesburg Despite the Crime Rate

I was recently invited to enter another writing contest by Expatsblog. The topic this time around was something along the lines of a top ten list of sorts, or really any number of things you can recommend about your host country. 

What immediately came to my mind was to pick up on the theme of crime. Because that is always the first thing that comes to anybody's mind when the word Johannesburg is mentioned. At least to any outsider's mind. But I also wanted to ridicule that single-minded focus on what we insiders know is only a small sideshow of life in South Africa, and instead highlight some of the good stuff. All this without sounding preachy, so I threw in some fun facts as well. 

I hope you'll enjoy my list, and would love to hear your own contributions. I'm sure I've left a lot off of it.

Top Ten Reasons You Should Move to Johannesburg Despite the Crime Rate

  1. Johannesburg has the best weather in the world. (I've already been called a big fat liar about that one!)
  2. Your kids might spend their lives barefoot. 
  3. You will get to pet lions. 
  4. You will become a more patient person. 
  5. You will live among the world’s friendliest people. 
  6. You will become an expert at changing tires. 
  7. You might become Impala Poop Spitting champion. 
  8. Your toilets will not be clogged. 
  9. Your house (including your unclogged toilets) will always be clean. 
  10. You will get to learn wonderful new words, even if English is already your first language. 

Of course this isn't all of it. To read the details for each of them, you'll have to link to the full article on Expatsblog. When you're there, please do me a favor and scroll to the bottom when you're done and leave a comment. If you're a Joburger yourself, I'm sure you'll have plenty to add. Then go ahead and spread the word by LIKING the page on Facebook or SHARING it, and putting it in a TWEET for good measure (though I still haven't really seen the sense in Twitter, I must admit). 

Oh, and if you can do all this by this Sunday, I'd be much obliged. I've already won the Best Expat Blog in South Africa award last time, but this time I might actually win some money. Although of course it's all about the glory and not the money. Right?

By the way, while you're there, look at some of the other entries on the list and help promote my fellow expat bloggers. Some of the writing you'll find there is excellent and you'll learn all sorts of interesting facts about the most obscure countries. I particularly enjoyed the German entries, but that's probably because I've got Germany in my blood.

March 24, 2013

You Are Proudly South African When...

I cheated a bit with this post by copying it from Hospitality Exec's Facebook page, but I thought some humor would be a nice way to start the week.


# You call a bathing suit a a "kossie".
# You call a traffic light a "robot".
# You call an elevator a "lift"
# You call a car hood a "bonnet"
# You call a car trunk a "boot"
# You call a pickup truck a "bakkie"
# You call a Barbeque a "Braai"
# Employee s dance and sing in front of the building to show how unhappy they are.
# You get cold easily. Anything below 16 degrees Celsius is Arctic weather.
# You know what Rooibos Tea is, even if you've never had any.
#You can sing your national anthem in four languages and you have no idea what it means in any of them.
# You know someone who knows someone who has met Nelson Mandela.
# You go to braais regularly, where you eat boerewors and swim, sometimes simultaneously.
# You produce a R100 note instead of your driver's licence when stopped by a traffic officer.
# You can do your monthly shopping on the pavement!!!!!
# You have to hire a security guard whenever you park your car.
# You know a taxi can move twice its certified number of people in one trip.
#You travel 100's of kilometres to see snow.
# You know the rules of Rugby better than any referee!
# More people vote in a local reality TV show than in a local election.
# People have the most wonderful names: Christmas, Goodwill, Pretty, Wednesday, Blessing, Brilliant, Gift, Precious, Innocence and Given, Patience, Portion, Coronation.
# "Now now" or "just now" can mean anything from a minute to a month.
# You start every sentence with yes/no or ja/nee.
# You continue to wait after a traffic light has turned to green to make way for taxis travelling in the opposite direction.
# Travelling at 120 km/h, you're the slowest vehicle on the freeway.
# A bullet train is being introduced, but potholes can't be fixed.
# The last time you visited the coast you paid more in speeding fines and toll fees than you did for the entire holiday.
# You have to prove that you don't need a loan to get one.
# Prisoners, Doctors and Nurses go on strike.
# You don't stop at red traffic lights, just in case somebody hijacks your car.
# Rwandan refugees start leaving the country because the crime rate is too high.
# You consider a high crime rate as normal.

Also see:

My 43 Favorite South-Africanisms

March 22, 2013

Credit Cards in South Africa

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

Sooner or later comes the moment when you will want to pay for something in South Africa. And then you may ask yourself: What payment options are there, and which are the best?

Well, it depends, I would say. It looks a bit as if it depends on the amount of the bill you’re faced with.

The low end: Cash

At the low end, I will use cash. And when I say low, I mean low, perhaps anything below 40 Rand or so. There doesn't seem to be a minimum charge for credit cards, but this is where I personally draw the line.

This has a certain bonus for me: As it's not often that I have to pay for such a small amount, I usually seize the opportunity to make some change, especially 2-Rand coins, which I can use to tip the friendly park attendant.

All in all, I usually carry about 200 Rand in my wallet, not more, because I hardly ever pay cash. It would be inconvenient to carry more, but most of all it would be unsafe. The part about getting it (withdrawing money from an ATM has a certain risk) as well as carrying it with me (pickpockets).

There are places and situations where you have to pay cash, like when renewing your car’s license disk at the post office, or when a shop is offline and can’t accept credit cards, but otherwise my daily life functions quite well without carrying wads of cash around with me. As far as I’m concerned, cash is not king in South Africa.

The high end: Electronic Transfers (EFT)

Now this is a bit of a vague term again, I have to admit. Where do I draw the line? When I think about it, it is more about how I get the invoice, and if there is a possibility to pay by credit card. If it’s not low enough for cash and there isn't a possibility to use my credit card, then an EFT it is.

Everything in between: Credit Card

So yes, I do use my credit card a lot, for nearly everything. I even have to acknowledge that my signature has become shorter because I’m not patient enough to write it diligently (and slowly) each time I make a purchase. But if you now have visions of me as an alter ego of Carry Bradshaw of Sex and the City, walking elegantly on high heels with a bunch of colourful bags full of designer clothes dangling from my arm – think again. We’re talking expat wife. Who is responsible for getting the groceries, kids' underwear, pool chemicals, and extension cables.

Your foreign credit card will easily be accepted in most places in South Africa. But using one in your daily life can only be a temporary solution because, in the long run, the exchange rate will cost you dearly. Rather, you will want to obtain a South African credit card, which is easier to accomplish than in many other countries. Your South African bank is usually happy to issue a credit card to you if you can prove that you have a regular income.

In our case, they even threw in a card for free: We got an American Express card from Nedbank without having to pay for it. The downside? American Express is not accepted in many shops (for instance not at the Woolworth’s chain). The same goes for Diners Club. Visa and Mastercard are the credit cards of choice in this country.

But credit cards have their limits – and I’m not talking financial caps here. Not long ago, ‘normal’ credit cards were not accepted at petrol stations. Which left you with two choices when paying for your gas: cash (not a great idea, what with the high petrol prices and carrying wads of cash with you) or using a so-called Garage Card. This is a sort of credit card that is issued by your bank and that you can use to pay for petrol, road tolling or other payments in connection with your car. While the situation has changed and the majority of petrol stations these days have no problem accepting your ‘normal’ credit card, most people still carry a Garage Card in their vehicle.

The last card to complete my little collection is the so-called Debit Card. It can be used like a credit card, but from what I have been told at the bank, its security is not as sophisticated as ‘normal’ credit cards (it cannot be frozen as quickly as a credit card, or so I have been told). Personally, I don’t carry my Debit Card with me as I only use it for withdrawing money from an ATM, a transaction that is cheaper via Debit Card. [Note by editor: I paid most of everything via debit card and never had a security problem. Unlike in the U.S., your bank typically does not award any cash-back points for your credit card, so there isn't quite the same incentive to use it].

Now there is just one more thing to add: credit cards have their risks, too. There is especially one risk worth mentioning here, and that’s the duplication of your card. It happens quite frequently (happened to us and to several of our visitors), and this is what it is about: Criminals copy the magnetic information on your card and use it for their shopping afterwards. It happens mainly in restaurants, and you can prevent it by never letting your credit card get out of sight. Just make sure you insist on the waiter bringing the machine to your table.

Good luck with your payments, keep safe, and happy shopping!

Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Guide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg.

March 18, 2013

Honorary White, Apartheid, and Searching for Sugarman

I've been wanting to write about apartheid for ages.

When you live in South Africa, it is a topic that goes through your head pretty much all of the time. Or maybe not yours, but mine anyway. Maybe I'm more sensitive towards it as I come from a country with its own ugly past of racial segregation (and more), or maybe it is just because The Power of One happens to be one of my favorite books.

Without getting into too much detail, apartheid (an Afrikaans word for apart-ness or segregation) officially existed from 1948 until 1990. Much like in the American colonies, slaves had initially been imported into the Cape Colony starting in the late 1500s, but even after the abolition of slavery by the British in 1834 the idea of white supremacy lived on. When the new Afrikaner-dominated government of the National Party came to power in 1948, the existing system was simply cemented into law with intricate rules where people of various colors were allowed to live and work, whom they were allowed to marry, and which schools they could attend. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s several versions of the much-reviled Group Areas Act were enacted to set aside the most developed (and desirable) land for Whites, while the non-Whites were forced to live in their own areas in much more crowded conditions. Together with the tough pass laws regulating passage from one area to the other in order to work, this led to increased resistance against the injustices of apartheid. The massacre of Sharpville in 1960, where 69 people were shot and killed by police during a demonstration, brought the plight of South Africa's disenfranchised population to the world's attention. The international community took note and more or less condemned the violence, United Nations sanctions against the South African government were instituted, and the struggle against apartheid shifted from passive to armed resistance, eventually leading to Nelson Mandela's arrest and imprisonment in 1962. (Please see Liliesleaf Farm and the Rivonia Trial and Day of Reconciliation and In the Footsteps of Paul Kruger and the Voortrekkers  for more South African history).

In hindsight, it seems hard to believe that the system of apartheid could have existed as long as it did (President F.W. de Klerk announced its formal end in 1990 and the last laws were repealed in 1991). Not only because it was grossly unfair, which of course it was, but because in many ways it was so ridiculous. How do you, in fact, segregate people by race when someone's race isn't always obvious? It's easy on either end of the spectrum, I suppose, but in South Africa there was always a wide range in between - people of mixed blood, descendants of Malay slaves, Hottentots, Indians. These were all grouped into the Coloured racial group, and a huge bureaucracy was necessary to  make sure everyone was classified correctly. (I  have often suspected, maybe unjustly, that South Africa's notoriously slow wheels of bureaucracy today - which any regular reader of this blog will know I have found ample opportunity to complain about - are remnants of the apartheid era).

I often think about the absurdities of such a system, and how far South Africa has come in such a relatively short time since it was abolished. Which puts me at odds with some South Africans who think the country should have come a lot farther.

But I also think that most people outside of South Africa probably don't really have a good understanding of apartheid, which is why I've waited for an opportunity to write about it. It is ironic that such an opportunity has presented itself after I have, in fact, left South Africa.

It happened at Panda Express, of all places. You will laugh when I say that of all the things I missed while gone from the United States, it could have been a Panda Express fast food lunch, but there you go. I was waiting in line for my Beijing Beef, and the guy in line behind me said that he wanted some too. So we started talking about our mutual love for Beijing Beef and I commented that I hadn't had it for three years and was totally craving it.

Where had I been for three years, he wanted to know, and I said South Africa.

"Ahhh... South Africa! I almost went there in the 1980s," he said whistfully. "But it wasn't the right time for me."

I understood what he meant. This gentleman, you see, was black.

A powerful and yet entirely insufficient reminder of how it might have felt living in South
Africa in the era of apartheid (this is the entrance ticket for the Apartheid Museum)

His name was Carl Griffin, he went on to tell me, and he worked in the music industry (who doesn't, here in Nashville, I ask you!).

The music industry and apartheid go way back together, actually. You may not know this either, if you didn't live in South Africa at the time, but most performers, musicians included, helped boycott the apartheid regime for may years. Unlike a host of U.N. sanctions and arms embargoes, there weren't so much any laws mandating this as there was a consensus among Western artists that performing in South Africa would be seen as condoning apartheid. So most everybody chose not to perform there.

One notable exception was Paul Simon. He recorded the album Graceland (1986) mostly in South Africa, drawing considerable flak from anti-apartheid voices like the ANC but ultimately helping South African artists like Johnny Clegg onto the world stage.

And then of course there was Sixto Rodriguez, whom you will know if you've seen Searching for Sugarman. Virtually unknown in the U.S., where his album never really took off, he became an icon in apartheid South Africa, where his music proved wildly popular and inspirational for generations. Except he wasn't aware of it. I had never heard of him until last December, when a friend of ours played his songs at a party and every South African present started swooning.

Back to Carl Griffin and the point of this story. For once I was grateful for the rather slow service at Panda Express, so that I had ample time to chat with him. What happened was this: He had an opportunity to "do business" in South Africa, and not on an insubstantial scale. It was a music contract worth several million dollars, though he didn't divulge the details. As he was getting into the planning stage, however, it soon became obvious that his race would pose a stumbling block. Not in terms of gaining entry. That hurdle was taken earlier by those before him. (Arthur Ashe famously gained entry to South Africa, after several failed attempts, in 1973, resulting in the first-ever integration of the public stands in Ellis Park to allow both black and white spectators to watch him play).

The hurdle in Carl's case was more subtle. It was the words "Honorary White," to be stamped into his passport, that proved too much for him to swallow.

Do you now understand what I mean by ridiculous? How far was that government willing to twist itself to perpetuate and somehow justify such an absurd system, a system where you could declare someone's skin to be white even though it wasn't, just so you could hold up appearances in a world that had already moved on?

"I just couldn't do that," Carl told me. "But I sure would have loved to see South Africa."

I hope he'll get a chance to go now that the words "Honorary" and "White" are no longer being used in the same sentence.

It's a pity he couldn't go in the 1980s.

Who knows, we might have gotten another Graceland.

March 12, 2013

International or Local School?

Choosing the right school for your child when moving to South Africa is one of your top concerns.

I know this because my rather ancient blogpost Private Schools in Johannesburg is among the top five most read on Joburg Expat. I've written many other posts about choosing a school, but now that we have relocated to the United States, I feel like I should give my readers an update on our kids' transition back into the American school system (I already discussed parts of it here)

Hopefully this will help prospective expats (and not just to South Africa) navigate the treacherous waters of school choice.

As I've told you before, we made a decision to enroll our kids in a private South African school, not the American International School of Johannesburg (AISJ), when we first arrived in South Africa in 2010.

I like to think that we had a ton of good reasons and made a very informed choice but, truth be told, it came down to this: 

It was mid-morning on the first day of our look-see trip. We had just driven by Dainfern College for the third time, going in and out of various surrounding neighborhoods to check out potential homes. Out of curiosity, but mainly to pass the time, I idly asked: "Is that a university or a school?" The kids looked awfully small, but the term "college" threw me off. Our relocation consultant assured us it was a private school with grades going from K-12. "Do we have an appointment?" Noisette wanted to know. "No, just at the American School tomorrow," was her answer.

"Let's make an appointment," we sort of threw out. Just to check off all the boxes and making sure we did our due diligence. We were pretty sure we'd pick the American school. It's what everybody did. Except the location of this one was almost too good to be true, considering we were also sure we'd live in one of the adjacent estates.

By the end of the next day the we had reversed ourselves and settled on Dainfern College. We had seen AISJ without being overly impressed (I later learned the admissions office there has a reputation of doing a poor job, not necessarily reflecting the quality of the school), and we had toured Dainfern College and were blown away. Noisette, in particular, absolutely LOVED being addressed with good awfternoon, Sir as we rounded each corner and bumped into a succession of school-uniformed kids who all greeted us in their South African lilt.

My list of pros and cons was born later. The choice, then and there, was made entirely based on good manners and an accent.

Fast-forward three years later to March 2013. Our kids are now back in the fold of the American school system, albeit a year behind where they would have been had we not moved to South Africa and opted for the local school. They are currently repeating the second semester of the school year they just finished at Dainfern College, which together with the half-year they already repeated moving there, makes up for one grade.

Some of you will be concerned to hear this. Perhaps you'll now stop reading and head straight for the AISJ website, not wanting to entertain any thoughts of sacrificing a school year.

However, if you read on, you will learn that we have absolutely no regrets. I don't think the kids do, either. Our decision for the repeat was NOT based on academics. They are finding the work here very easy, in fact easier than there, and not just because of the grade. This is due to the American way of testing - lots of multiple choice, you are told exactly what will be on the test, and there is not much room at the top for improvement (vs the SA system where an 80% average is considered excellent and anything above truly exceptional). Our kids seem to be rather ahead in terms of independent learning, essay writing, and public speaking, as well as the art of looking after their own extracurricular interests.

Neither was a repeat suggested by the schools here. The kids could have just jumped back into the middle of the next grade, based on their age, without anyone raising any flags (there was some paperwork I had to gather for our 10th grader to make sure he was given the proper credits, and I will elaborate on that process at some later date). It was entirely our choice.

A choice that was based on a few factors. We were trying to make the transition easy, put them in a grade where they weren't always the youngest and smallest (as before our move to SA), and give them plenty of time to find new interests without having to focus too much on school work. But mainly we wanted to give our oldest a chance to start 11th grade from the beginning rather than the middle. This will give him a chance to enroll in the oh-so-important AP classes and have more time to immerse himself in the college application process.

I'm not entirely sold on the merits of AP classes. In fact, some universities have found that students who have taken them do not show any more proficiency in college than the ones who have not. But I figure while we're participants in the rat race of college applications, we will have to play that game, and racking up AP classes is a part of it, like it or not.

The problem with kids transitioning from abroad during high school is that you cannot start AP classes mid-year. At least not at our school here. This would have made Zax lose the entire 11th grade year in terms of AP classes and possibly lessened his chances with universities who look favorably on kids who have six or more. He would also have had to take the SAT and ACT tests right away, and started visiting college campuses, all while learning how to drive. There is also a two-year language requirement that he would have had a hard time fulfilling, though I guess we could have somehow had him test out of that given his German background.

The other problem is your GPA. American schools insist on counting every bit of work during high school towards the average you graduate with, putting an emphasis on completion instead of proficiency. While they gave him a lot of credits for his South African courses (enough, in fact, to almost graduate), they counted only as pass grades. While this is good if you have bad grades, it doesn't give you a chance to beef up your GPA by taking  honors level classes and achieving high marks in them.

So, to get to the all-important question:

If you have children in high school, and particularly in the later years of high school, I would agree there is a strong argument for sending your kids to an American school - first of all, to keep the school year in line with home so you don't get that half-year shift, and to make sure you have access to those AP classes or an IB curriculum. It will make the transfer much easier, and there won't be any risk of "losing" a year.

Especially if your posting in South Africa is limited to a specific time and you already know your return date ahead of time, as well as where you might return to, staying in the same school system will be the easiest (and quickest) path.

None of this applied to us. We might as well have stayed for two more years and our eldest could have finished his schooling with a South African Matric, and then decided whether to take that to an American or South African (or European) university. Or our next posting might have been to Timbuktu. Although, in that case, I'm sure schooling would have been the least of our worries.

The thing is, expats often don't know when or where the next posting is coming, so why not take the scenic route and make sure you immerse yourself fully into whatever is on offer at the moment, and trust that it will make you into a well-rounded person, no matter what the actual "curriculum" says?

Life does not follow a curriculum. There is no set career path to happiness and fulfillment. There is no course in Curiosity and Lifelong Learning, there is no Master of Cultural Awareness (at least that I'm aware of). Degrees and exams are only a part of your education. What happens all around you and what you make of it has the biggest impact on your life. If you're determined not to veer from a chosen path when taking on an expat assignment, you might as well not take it at all.

So our kids "lost" a schoolyear, but we've come to the realization that "losing" is relative. What harm is there in extending your school career by a year? When measured against all the experience you gain in a foreign country (which might be more "exotic" if you go the local route - just think of the language element in countries where you have that), I say it's worth it. Our kids seem to be doing just fine the way everything turned out.

Of course the jury is still out on what will eventually become of them. Come and check back with me in ten years for an update.

For further reading on a "global" education and the benefits of stepping out of the American system (and perhaps even saving money that way), I highly recommend "The New Global Student" by Maya Frost.

March 7, 2013

The Rose-Tinted Glasses of Hindsight

The other day I had to cancel a bunch of services. Electricity, gas, water, that kind of thing.

And no, not in South Africa, but right here in the USA. We had - finally - sold our old house in Kansas, and Noisette gave me a list of places to call to cancel all the utilities.

I groaned. I do not like calling places, let alone the type of places that in the past three years have made me want to pull my hair out, like Eskom and Telkom and the City of Joburg. And I had just gone through having to cancel all of those.

But, those were South African services. And not American services. American services, I learned in about 12 minutes last week, are absolutely AWESOME to cancel.

If you live in South Africa, you might want to stop reading right here, or you might suffer a severe case of customer service envy and want to throw up in disgust.

Because this is what happened. I dialed the first number, got a real person on the line, was asked for my address, and was informed that a person would be sent there the next day for a final reading, after which a final bill would be sent (to the new address I provided right then and there) to close out the account.


I mean, was this for real? No endless voice mail loop playing the same song over and over again, and making me enter my account number countless times, only to be thrown out and disconnected as I had finally approached the holy grail of a real person? No reference number for me to note down and call back sometime next week? No "so sorry but to cancel you will have to dial this other number?" No "we need a thirty day cancellation notice?" And, most important of all, no "sorry, you are only the spouse, please have the account holder call back."

Maybe it was a fluke. So I dialed the second number. After all, I had set aside all morning for this task.

But, lo and behold, the second service was just as easy to cancel and followed the same procedure. Same thing with the third and fourth, and after said 12 minutes I was all done, wondering what to do with the rest of the day.

I felt like I immediately had to share this unbelievable story. So I called up Noisette to report my success.

You know what he said?

"I kind of miss all those South African inefficiencies."

Hmmm. Really?

The rest of that day, I was pondering my feelings vis-a-vis South African inefficiencies. After all, it was I and not Noisette who had to endure most of them over the course of our life there. But, surprisingly, I found that I had to agree with him. From the safe quarters of hindsight, it all really seemed very quaint and endearing and not at all as annoying as I made it out to be at the time.

My rose-tinted glasses of hindsight - like my artwork?

Nothing like an email of utter frustration from a friend in South Africa to tear me out of my rose-tinted reverie.

Without going into too much detail, this friend was trying to purchase a phone plan for her child from MTN, who she already had a contract with, and spent the better half of a week going through the motions we all know so well. Going there in response to an ad and finding that the phone in question was out of stock. Ordering it and going back a week later with the required paperwork, only to be told that more paperwork was needed. Including a brand new visa from her husband valid for two years and not "only" 6 months. (I now admit that I may be the culprit of that - maybe word got out around Joburg that I bailed and left the country without paying the remaining contract fee to Vodacom; though I could have done that with or without visa, to be honest).

I must admit I was feeling very smug after reading this. I instantly felt a whole lot better about living in the U.S. again.

Because do you know how long it took for me to get phones for the entire family?

A half an hour. At the AT&T store. We settled on a plan (which wasn't hard because there is pretty much only one plan*), selected the phones, showed a driver's license (which wasn't even an in-state one), gave our social security number, and bingo, we had ourselves our phones. We even got some credit for trading in our old ones. No contracts to fill out, just one signature, and that was it.

Had we needed the in-state driver's license, that would not have been much of an issue either. THAT errand took me about 45 minutes. Got there, filled out a form, looked through the eye thing, smiled for the picture, forked over a bit of money, and bingo, had my Tennessee license. And not only that, Zax took is test at the same time and got his limited permit as well. If I think back to my early efforts in South Africa to obtain a driver's license, I can only laugh.

I realize that having a social security number makes things easier. Back in the day when we didn't have one of those, some things were more complicated. But it's very easy to get something called a tax identification  number here (they DO want your taxes, after all), which has the same exact format as a social security number and works like a charm. Just thought I'd mention that as gratuitous advice to all prospective expats in America.

Oh, and then we had an issue with AT&T regarding our bill. One of our kids, it turns out, had called a friend in South Africa as soon as the new phone was in hand, and chatted for 39 minutes. 39 minutes, guys! Do you have any idea what kind of money that costs?

One hundred eleven dollars. That's about nine hundred South African Rand! Which I had almost resigned myself into paying and then making the errant kid pay back over time.

But it just so happens that here in the U.S., you get customer service for that kind of thing too.

I called them up, just to ensure that international calling would be taken off the kids' phone plans, with just a hint of annoyance in my voice over the fact that the option was even ON their plans, when the customer service rep I spoke to detected my annoyance and offered to wipe the entire charge off our bill.

The entire charge!

There wasn't even any supervisor involved. Just some call center lady was able to make that decision right then and there.

I almost cried. Not so much with relief, but over the fact that in three years I had not been able to get my unjustified ZAR 495 reconnection fee back from Eskom, though God knows I valiantly tried. And here, without any effort, they gave me something I hadn't even asked for.

By the way, do you want to know what else my South African friend had to deal with that same day MTN was throwing her for loops with additional paperwork?

She was trying to pay the fine for a speeding ticket incurred in a rental car. But the website in question wanted a SA ID number, as is so often the case, and if you didn't have one of those, you needed to scan a copy of your passport. Except when the copy was scanned and duly sent, she was informed that now her "application" needed to first be approved before the fine could be paid.

An application process for the right to pay your speeding fines.

Only South Africa could think that one up.

* I remember spending weeks in South Africa trying to analyze all the different phone plans and associated costs, agonizing over which one to pick, and reading all the fine print (because you can't downgrade once you've settled on something, you better start low and then up your minutes versus the other way around). It drove me absolutely crazy, but in hindsight I do admit there was one major bonus of that approach: You got to pick exactly how many minutes you actually used in a month. Or you could even do a complete pay-as-you-go, topping up your airtime whenever needed. Here in the U.S., that is no longer an option. You are more or less forced to pay an ungodly sum for a plan that gives you more data than you can ever use, plus unlimited nationwide minutes and texting. No option whatsoever for the kid who just needs a phone for emergencies and could probably get by with ten minutes a month. In that respect, my hindsight is indeed correctly rose-tinted.

March 4, 2013

Your Child Will Need to Purchase Valentines

This post is a bit behind the times, seeing as we're already heading full-steam towards Easter, but I thought I'd post it anyway in the category of cultural differences.

We've been back in the U.S. for less than a month, and already that dreaded oh-so-American letter has come home from school:

Dear Parents,
Our Valentine Party will be Feb. 14 at 2:00-3:00. The class will be exchanging valentines. Your child will need to decorate a box and bring it to school on the 14th. They will also need to purchase valentines for the class. They will be passing them out on Thursday. Please make sure you have a valentine for everyone in the class. I will be sending the names home today in their pink folders.
The Fourth Grade Teachers

I don't know about you, but I was SO done with having to make sure EVERY kid gets a valentine.

Come to think of it, I was done with all those commercial holidays encroaching on the peaceful life of a mother who frankly has her hands full between birthday cakes and Christmas.

Maybe I'm not your typical Mom. But when we first moved to South Africa, I had secret hopes that trick-or-treating and having to supply new costumes every year would be a thing of the past. In fact, I fully expected it, and gasped in horror when a notice appeared on the neighborhood message boards where residents were asked to sign up their houses for Halloween. Of course it was voluntary, but of course my kids also can read and were overjoyed at the prospect of getting free candy. And new costumes of course, preferably handmade in the space of three days.

Call me unrealistic - ok, deluded - for thinking it's possible to keep holidays from being exported worldwide that involve candy in any way, shape, or form.

But what bugs me in particular about Valentine's Day is the forced nature of it. You are supposed to express your affection to someone by giving them a card or a gift, right? And that will make them happy? And what better way to make sure everyone is happy than to force everyone to give a card to everyone else, so that the affection gets spread equally.

This in the land with an outspoken disdain for any form of socialism.

Well, just today I came across a thought-provoking blog post about America's obsession with happiness. And the pursuit thereof. And how illusory happiness is. Because it's not something you can achieve with a quick fix, some kind of easy pill. It often takes a lifetime to find true happiness. Because it takes that long for most of us to figure out that we've found it. And that it was there all along. If we just realized that we could choose to be happy whenever we wanted, just by changing our world view.

What I'm getting at is this: Making sure that every kid in the class gets a Valentine's card might leave those kids happier in the short term. They'll proudly come home with a box-full of cards that their moms will only be too happy to recycle at the first opportunity. While confiscating all the attached lollipops. Or maybe that is just me, your non-typical and cruel Mom.

No one will feel slighted that they didn't get a card.

But on the other hand, what about the anticipation wondering who might find you nice enough to give you a card? The thrill when that boy you've had your eyes on slips you a note in passing, pretending not to care?

That's how it was at our South African school. Valentine's Day was entirely voluntary. Some kids came home with cards and candy, and some didn't. Some blushed when they brought home an entire teddy bear.

And it was like that in other ways too. No teachers on the playground telling the kids to include little Jane in the game of rounders. In fact, not even teachers around the tuck shop telling boys to stop kicking soccer balls at passing mothers (I would know!). The school made sure bullying was addressed, quite forcefully, but in general terms of social life, the kids were left to fend for themselves.

And prepare for the big world out there.

I'm not saying it was easy. When we first arrived, one of our girls had a tough time. She'd arrive at school and stand in front of the classroom with a hopeful look on her face, waiting for some girl to ask her to join in their group, and when no one did those first few weeks, it was tough to keep the tears at bay. It just about broke my heart.

But you know what? She did end up making great friends. And on some level, the fact that no one forced them to be nice, that she earned their affection all by herself, made our daughter a stronger person. Better equipped to be the new girl yet again on another continent.

Where she is now busy making 25 Valentine's cards together with her sister.

The good news is she's not a boy.

Because then I'd be the one having to make 25 cards.