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.