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.