January 31, 2013

And the Award Goes to...

When we first got word sometime last year that we'd be moving back to the U.S.A., I had two immediate concerns: Will I still get to climb Kilimanjaro, and will the kids be yanked out from school mid-year again?

From a transition standpoint, pulling all sorts of strings and making the move within four weeks - that was all the time we had - would have been the best course of action. The kids could have started the American school year in mid-August, which would have been particularly beneficial to our oldest, in that he could have moved straight to the beginning of 11th grade.

And yet on the other side of the equation, not finishing the South African school year seemed like a huge loss. Like depriving them of something. They had worked hard all year, were doing extremely well, and (so I hoped) were on track to collect a few prestigious academic awards.

Some of you will say that this is precisely the reason you chose the American School (AISJ) over a private South African one. To avoid that entire issue with the offset school year and the threat of losing a year by the time you've transitioned twice, not to mention possible academic differences. And there is a lot of validity in that argument. If I think of all the sleepless nights and hemming and hawing I've gone through to arrive at our decision, it might have been nice to avoid it altogether from the onset.

But now that we are here and some time has passed, I am convinced that we made the right choice*.

Because, you see, they did all get their awards. Sunshine and Impatience both received "top academic performance" awards, meaning they were the best students in their classes in 2012. I can't remember a time when when any siblings have achieved that before in the same year. Jabulani shared the "top maths student" award for grade 8 with two other kids, and all four achieved distinctions on their reports, meaning their average was above 80%, which might not mean much on an American scale but does in South Africa.

It seems silly to let a rather big life decision hinge on one minute of glory on a prep school stage. Because that's all it was. But it made them feel extremely good about themselves that moment, and that is worth so much. Who knows - maybe that minute will go a long way in their lives to come.

Oh, and I admit there were a few other perks attached to extending our time in South Africa another five months. We got in another visit to Franschhoek, this time with friends. We got to tour Namibia, and got to sleep under the stars on the banks of the Orange River. I did get to climb Kilimanjaro, together with Zax. Everyone got proper goodbye-parties. Including Noisette and I (ours was a rather tear - and alcohol - soaked affair). I got to hand over the Alexandra Baseball project in a proper fashion, and gained a great friend in the process. I got to develop a passion for cycling by competing in the 94.7 Cycle Challenge. We got to see the Drakensberg for the first time. And did a farewell safari in Madikwe. And hosted a couple more visitors, one set of them when the house was already emptied of all our stuff.

Just one of our many South African good-bye parties

Come to think of it, if you are now suspecting my whole concern about the kids' transition was nothing but a front to have some fun, you may be forgiven.

Finally, before the year was over, there was one other award. This time for me, or rather Joburg Expat, which received the honor of being voted Top Expat Blog in South Africa by the site ExpatsBlog. Thanks to all of you who left comments and helped promote it! You may have noticed I added a self-congratulatory badge to this site. To add to this rather self-congratulatory post. (I really do cringe a little when doing this, believe me).

And, while I was at it, I made the long-overdue change to the header and am now

Yours Truly,
the ex-Joburg-Expat

* Full disclosure: We are letting our kids repeat the second half of the school year, meaning they will eventually graduate one whole year later than they would have without moving to South Africa. This is not based on academics, but rather practical considerations about our older kids getting ready for college. We have found they are not at all behind academically. They might have missed certain pieces of knowledge, like in history, but they are having a very easy time catching up, and in some way are well ahead of their peers, because South African schools do an excellent job fostering independent learning at an early age. See the Schools category on the right side bar for all my observations on South African education.

January 28, 2013

Paper or Plastic, Ma'm?

As I said at the end of Hello America, this place is a Shopper's Paradise.

On our way here from South Africa, we stopped over in Dubai. Some people will say Dubai is a shopper's paradise.

But I totally disagree. Unless, of course, you enjoy rubbing elbows with a bazillion other people all trying to get ahead of you in a race to amass bagfuls of vastly overpriced items and then stand in line for hours to catch a taxi back home.

No, the the good old U.S.A. is the world's true shopper's paradise.

Perhaps that explains why I've been neglecting this blog a little bit. I've been so busy going out shopping every day that I've had no time to write.

Well, also the fact that we just moved to a new place and that I have a bazillion things on my to-do list. There is so much to do, and none of it really enjoyable.

Like, setting up weekly trash service for your house. Or researching doctors, because, well, you managed to get sick your second week in and are now forced to move the find-a-family-doctor item from number 17 to number 1 on your list. In between running to the bathroom every five minutes. Or cleaning out drawers the previous occupants forgot. Or ridding the microwave of a strong bacon smell. Or mopping floors and unclogging ill-designed toilets. Or getting in daily exercises of pressing your foot unsuccessfully onto a non-existent brake from the passenger seat of your car because your son is all of a sudden of driving age and you, of all people, have been selected as the designated driving instructor.

But I was going to write about shopping, instead of complaining. And indeed, shopping has been the one bright spot in all this move-related hassle.

Oodles of space on your typical American parking lot. And, my North
Carolina friends will agree, having Harris Teeter again is awesome.
Lemon poppyseed muffins. South Africans, excuse me, just can't
make them.
The beauty of paper bags fitting perfectly into your trunk (boot)
I'm not saying they are better, but how can American apples be
so ginormous? How is that possible? I  had to temporarily move
the apricots over for a better size comparison. Except the apricots
are ginormous too.
The American cereal aisle. As far as the eye can see.
Nothing but applesauce. Only if you've lived in South Africa will
you appreciate the beauty of this.

Let me count the ways:

  1. To "go to the shops," as they say in South Africa, you don't have to negotiate any traffic, street vendors, or broken robots. And when you get there, you will see a vast parking lot for, oh, a thousand cars with only about five spaces occupied, each wider than even a parking-challenged person like me can ever wish for.
  2. The aisles in the stores will be just as wide as those parking spaces, and they will not be blocked by any restocking activity, because in accommodation of you, the shopper, that has already taken place at night.
  3. You will find simply everything in that store. Even Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, kosher salt, and applesauce. The length of the cereal aisle alone will boggle your mind. There won't be any need to visit three other stores to get everything you need. The only downside is that you will spend hours looking at every box, and you will have to cover vast distances to finish your shopping list.
  4. Speaking of shopping list, the store might even have shopping lists, organized by aisle, available for you to take home to fill in as needed. Or an iPhone app.
  5. As you cruise the aisles with your cart the size of a Humvee, every two minutes a friendly attendant will greet you and ask you if you're finding everything, and personally escort you there if you're not.
  6. You can put your purse on your cart and leave it unattended, or not, without fear of anything disappearing. Indeed, nothing ever disappeared in South Africa either, but I stopped putting my purse in the cart because I was tired of little old ladies admonishing me for being so careless.
  7. The prices on the shelves will be supplemented by per-unit prices, making comparisons very easy. Except of course when one item shows the price per ounce and the one next to it shows the price per pound, and after three years of metric-system bliss you've forgotten to remember how many ounces are in a pound (hint: it's not ten).
  8. When you get to the register, you are relieved of all your shopping duties. You may unload your items onto the belt, or you might just busy yourself with your emails and let the cashier do it instead, without anyone giving you a hard time. The only action required of you at this point will be to answer the all-important question: "Paper or plastic, Ma'm? So that yet another attendant can get on with the business of bagging your stuff. I've found myself with so much time on my hands at the cash register with nothing to do, I could practically start working on my book right there. I think I should dedicate this post to all my long-suffering expat friends in Germany who come out sweat-drenched from the grocery store every week, because not only will no one assist you with any bagging, you will practically be shunned from civil society if you don't remove all your items from the belt post-haste, lest you slow down the next shopper after you.
  9. You won't be charged for any of those bags, paper or plastic. Although in this instance I agree with the bag-levy in other countries, because it does encourage you to bring reusable bags and help the environment. 

I couldn't stop taking pictures of giant apples. The little thing
in the middle is a nectarine. 
This is when I had to stop shopping on my first day here. The cart
was simply overflowing.
My "pile of happiness" after the first grocery trip. I felt like buying
everything I couldn't get for three years.
Harris Teeter bakery bread is simply the best. Outside of an
actual bakery in Germany, of course.
Pie crusts are another item practically impossible to find in SA.

And all of this really just covers groceries.

There is so much more that's so easy to shop for here in the U.S.A. There hasn't been a day since we've been here that I haven't paid a visit to either Home Depot or Lowe's for some home improvement item. The reason that I keep coming back is that my dear husband will tell me to get something, in very general words, refusing to give a more detailed description, but once I return home with it my purchase usually lacks certain key features that of course it needed to have (and that I, naive as I am, think one could have described to me ahead of time). So back to the store I go for a return, and another purchase.

By the way, speaking of returns: It is such a relief to be able to return everything, no questions asked. I remember my first return in South Africa well. It was so complicated and took so long, with so many security checks before even entering the store, that I basically refrained from returning something after that ever again. I suppose it worked from a retailer's perspective.

And of course, last but not least, Amazon.com! Can you believe I wrote so much about shopping before mentioning them?

In a way, that reflects reality. I am so awed by all the shopping that I keep going out to get things.

Okay, perhaps that also has to do with those awesome heated seats in my car, the kind that a German acquaintance of mine calls Arschkocher (ass cooker). I love having my ass cooked, apparently.

Anyway, so I got out to buy something and only realize later that I might as well have stayed home all along, ordering it right from my computer.

You can simply get EVERYTHING from Amazon.

Can't find that plastic clip holding the valance over the window up (which has the annoying habit of falling down at the slightest touch) - order it on Amazon.

Drugstore out of tampons your preferred size - Amazon.

I could go on, but I won't. Let's just say the UPS guy has been very busy coming to our house every single day. If you have a Prime membership (something like $79 per year), you can have most items shipped to you within 2 days, for free. And borrow books on your Kindle. Except I haven't figured that one out yet.

And it's not just the convenience of getting it on Amazon, it's also price. You may find things that are cheaper elsewhere, but not often. Amazon typically gives you the best shopping experience and the best prices.

The only downside I can see is that you can spend entire days reading every single review for the new shower head you've got your eye on, neglecting all sorts of other things you should be doing. Like most bloggers, I'm already prone to be sidetracked by anything on the internet, and the added lure of Amazon isn't helping.

If there are any hardships about life in America - and I haven't found any yet - the presence of Amazon.com has got to negate all of them. Who knows, one day we  might all be slaves owned by Amazon, the way they're going on and expanding on their way to total market dominance, but for the moment I prefer them wildly over having to go look for a street vendor on a Johannesburg street corner. 

January 25, 2013

Attack in the Twilight

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

We are lucky in that no member of our family has a birthday in October. Because during that month, having an evening party is risky in Johannesburg.

You might be attacked.

No, it’s not what you think. The culprit, in this case, is nature.

Picture yourself on a balmy evening in October, a few days after the first spring rains; the sky is a dark blue, slowly turning to twilight; you are on your patio drinking in the scene (or whatever you like to drink on your patio on a balmy evening). Suddenly, they are all over you: masses of flying insects buzzing around your head, landing in your food, or desperately paddling in your drink. And the ones that make it past you and your dinner and your drink land on the floor, and with horror you have to witness them shedding their wings and starting to crawl everywhere.

Not so great, hey?

Let me introduce you properly: the name is ant, flying ant. Appearance: a body slightly smaller than a wasp, black, with four brown wings attached that are about twice or three times the size of the insect. Hobbies: travelling with friends; finding a new home; preferably yours. Strong point: adaptable – can fly or get rid of its wings and crawl. Weakness: can’t resist bright light.

In my humble opinion, they are disgusting [note by editor: but as disgusting as Parktown Prawns?]. Everything about them makes me shudder: the buzzing, especially the buzzing around my head; the way they arrive in hordes; the fact that they have four wings, not only two, and drop them on your table or in your drink; and last but not least the fact that within mere minutes they surround you with an army of creepy airborne AND crawling insects.

But not everyone thinks like me. My problem is that I’m not a frog. Or a hadeda, one of these screeching ibises living in our garden.

Last week, when we had another attack of the flying ants, I was peeking through the window from the safety of our house. I couldn’t help noticing how two of our resident hadedas were having a real party, staying up way past their normal bedtime, feasting on these insects. Even the frogs forgot about how they are supposed to be only heard but not seen: there they were, frolicking in the middle of the lawn, savouring the home delivered delicacies.

You never know exactly when the flying ants have their night out, but it seems they swarm when a proper rain follows a dry spell in summer.

There is one good quality in the flying ants, though: They unite our family. All our family members are trained to announce ‘code red’ as soon as we see the first of these insects. Because we hate to have them in the house. Or anywhere near us.

We have a procedure in place to avoid these creatures, and it works quite well:
We barricade ourselves in our house. And turn off as many lamps as possible inside, while switching on the ones in the garden. There we sit, huddled together in one room, with closed curtains and dimmed light, under siege.

Thankfully, after about an hour or two, the coast is usually clear. All that reminds you of the attack is a sea of little wings on the patio.

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 Expat-Living.info Guide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg.

January 21, 2013

The Expat Toilet

You might accuse me of having a one-track mind.

And it's true. I can't help but zero in on the potty aspect of a new environment. If you take all the toilet talk out of my Kili Diary, there isn't all that much left to the story.

Perhaps this is so because having a good - excuse me - shit is pretty much the first thing you do when you arrive somewhere new, and you can't help but observe the different functionality.

Or maybe, if your life has just been turned upside down moving from one side of the world to the other, and nothing is in its place, the ONE thing you'd like as a constant in your life is your trusted toilet, and it just pisses you off - no pun intended - that it's not.

Writing and toilets - both obsessions of mine...

Whatever the reason, I don't seem to be the only expat with a toilet obsession.

I recently came across a brilliant article about German "inspection shelf" toilets by Planet Germany and it was very instructive. Having grown up in Germany, I never even knew there was a special term for it. Indeed, I thought toilets the world over must look exactly the same. With a flat, well, shelf that has just a little water sitting in it in which you deposit your droppings and which, yes, lends itself to conducting a closer inspection should you be so inclined.

Come to think of it, I WAS so inclined the one time one of my kids - without naming names - swallowed a penny and the doctor instructed me to inspect his bowel movements for the next week or so to ensure its safe passage. Alas, by then we no longer lived in Germany and the inspection shelf was not at our disposal. I won't go into details, but my search efforts were neither pleasant nor successful. We can just hope that the penny somehow made its way out, eluding inspection.

As a German, I feel like I should say a word here in praise of the inspection shelf. In addition to its usefulness for introspection, if I may use that phrase, it also serves as an excellent splatter guard, completely saving you from that pitfall - see what I'm doing here? - of a soaked ass when water splashes up.

Although of course you can do worse than splashing water.

I remember when I was little and we traveled outside Germany for the first time. Everything seemed very exotic and exciting, until I had to pee and for the first time stood face to face with a French squat toilet, one of those holes in the ground stinking to the high heavens. I can't remember what I did that time, but maybe it explains this picture taken in Avignon, France, ca. 1971:

Yep, that would be me taking aim while my mother is smiling for the camera and my brother
looking on with a disgusted look wishing he could be anywhere else at that moment.

It also might explain why I was often constipated on Southern European vacations.

But any toilet is probably better than no toilet. As Marie of Rock the Kasbah fame points out in her so aptly named expat blog post The Shit, 40% of the world doesn't even have access to toilets. I have no idea if that's true but everything else in her story seems very authentic. Go, read it, and judge for yourself. I'll be waiting...

There you go, aren't you glad to be back in my rather sanitized world?

So let's get on with taking a look at the expat toilet situation. South African toilets, I must say, did not stand out in any way to me during our three years there. Which basically means they were absolutely perfect.

For those people in South Africa of course who have the privilege of living in a house with toilets.

I once was given a township tour by the leader of the Kliptown Youth Programme (a place I have yet to write about) and he explained that the port-a-potties such as the below had to be shared by a number of families. I can't remember how many exactly, but it was a big enough number making me appreciate our multiple-toilet home in an entirely new way. He also told us that each family guarded the key to their communal toilet unlike anything else in their possession.

Our life in South Africa might not have been marred by any toilet hardships, but we quite literally lived with shit hanging over our heads, at the very real risk of having it raining down on us some day.

I am talking, of course, of the Joburg sewage pipe spanning in a graceful arch over Dainfern Valley. A beautiful sight, until you first learn what it contains, and then you can't quite bring yourself to ever find it quite as beautiful again as when you thought it was the bridge of a commuter train.

Especially when you read in the local news that thieves have been stealing its aluminum panels again, making the threat of a leak ever so real.

Another very interesting topic for expats in particular is not that of the toilet per se, but what kind of instrument a country prefers for the business of cleaning its collective bums. I could have said wiping, but of course that doesn't nearly cover the whole spectrum. Wiping, it turns out, is an entirely Western habit. For a very illuminating discourse on the debate of water vs toilet paper you should read Maria's essay The Lota Position on I was an Expat Wife.

But getting back to the toilet, at least we never had any drainage issues in South Africa. Which can't be said about our new country of residence. Why in the world American builders insist on equipping houses with waste water pipes that have a diameter of, I don't know, an inch perhaps, if not less, is entirely beyond me. Americans, who from my observations are the most finicky about coming into any possible contact with the slightest contamination, are the ones probably most used to having to wield that dreaded but useful instrument, the plunger.

Because lots of stuff can get stuck in such narrow pipes, trust me. And not just alien objects. All that is needed is for you to have come back from a recent trip to Southern Europe. If you get my drift.

Perhaps the pipes are not solely to blame. It could also be a matter of low water pressure, another uniquely American problem. Maybe you have to make the pipes narrow to increase the travel speed in them given the low pressure? Isn't there some inverse relationship between diameter and speed? I'm embarrassed to admit I have no clue, even though I took a physics major in high school. But you would think some smarter heads would have solved this problem long ago.

While we're talking about American shortcomings in the toilet department: Why are our toilets so low? Last time I checked, Americans weren't all midgets. But when you sit on a toilet here, you do wonder why you've had to lower your backside quite so close to the floor, your knees practically poking into your eyes. Is there any reason for this, I'm asking you?

In any case, we were barely back in the USA for three days when we already had a bowl-overflow emergency. Three years of uneventful flushing in a country further up on the toilet evolutionary ladder, so to speak, had all but erased our collective memories of clogging and its aftermath.

A frantic search for the plunger ensued. Luckily, one had arrived with the recent shipment of furniture we had in storage while overseas. I shudder to think how exactly it was stored in relationship to that furniture in such a tight space. But nevertheless I have rarely been much happier at the sight of a household tool as in that particular instant.

You might have caught me prancing through the house, plunger raised triumphantly.

Some vigorous plunging action (what an apt word) solved the problem. I followed it up with a timely lecture to all (rather unwilling) household members on the merits of flushing in stages. I then got myself into some hot water with my South African friends when I posted about my ordeal on Facebook and insinuated that South Africans probably didn't even know what a plunger was. What I meant to say was that they had such good toilets they probably never needed one, but what came across was that they never used such a lowly tool because they had domestic help.

Quite an uproar ensued. We SO do know what a plunger is, thank you very much, was the collective answer.

So, just to make it clear:

Dear South Africans, in no way do I want to ridicule your prowess with a plunger. I'm sure you're all masters at wielding one, and at cleaning up your own shit.

January 18, 2013

Retiring in South Africa

No, I'm not quite talking about retirement yet. We still have four kids to shepherd through college, so the prospect of us retiring anytime soon is about as unlikely as completing a customer service call with Telkom without being hung up on at least once.

Unless I turn this blog into a book that sells a million copies. I'll call it Fifty Shades of Expat Life and sprinkle in a liberal helping of Holy Crap's.

But if we did have our retirement to plan, we would certainly consider spending at least part of it in South Africa. We already know it's a great place to live. However, there are financial aspects to consider and tax laws to understand, so if you are in a position to plan your retirement, it's a good idea to solicit some expert advice.

The following is a guest post sponsored by Whichoffshore, a financial consulting firm giving precisely such advice, in this case specifically targeted towards British pensioners.

The Implications of Retiring in South Africa
by Michael Brinksman

Retiring to sunnier climes is a decision made by thousands of British pensioners every year. The beautiful weather, sedate way of life and stunning vistas were powerful enough to attract over 9,000 Brits to South Africa in 2007 alone. However, a decision of this magnitude should not be taken lightly, as there are some significant social and economic implications involved when making such a move. The safety net of the British welfare system will not reach as far as Africa, so it is essential that people have their eyes opened to the financial reality of expatriate tax.

Many pensioners decide to spend their final years in South Africa for a better quality of living; however, they need to be absolutely certain that their pension income will deliver the quality of life they are expecting. It is essential that expats fully understand their tax liabilities before they leave for their retirement. Individuals earning less than 60,000 Rand per year are not required to file income tax returns, but foreigners who wish to live in South Africa must make a full and accurate declaration of their worldwide assets. A tax resident is defined as someone who has lived in South Africa for 550 days within the previous three years, or someone who has spent 92 days a year in the country for the previous three years. Foreign pensions may be liable to income tax in South Africa, but there is a way for pensioners to reduce their liabilities to a minimum - or even remove them completely.

Pensioners who are living in South Africa, or intend to do so, should seriously consider transferring their pension funds to a Qualifying Recognised Overseas Pension Scheme (QROPS). Although there are around twenty QROPS funds in South Africa, advice from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs suggests that expatriates consider a neutral territory for such a transfer. Popular QROPS pension schemes amongst British expatriates include those in the islands of Jersey and Guernsey. The benefits of such a transfer include significant tax savings, a wide choice of investment options and a more flexible arrangement than the QROPS schemes that are available in South Africa.

There are many countries that make pensioners liable for income tax and capital gains tax from the proceeds of a QROPS scheme. However South African legislation states clearly that there is absolutely no tax liability for funds that are repatriated from a QROPS into the country. This means that there are some significant advantages to be gained from choosing South Africa as a country for retiring in. Pensioners setting up a QROPS will be able to transfer funds from previous occupational schemes, superannuation schemes, personal pension schemes and a number of other pension facilities.

Only those people who intend to retire outside of the UK will be able to transfer their pension funds to a QROPS; however, expatriates are allowed to visit the UK for several weeks every year before their British tax liabilities resume. There is no minimum investment required for the setting up of a QROPS, but a minimum amount of £100,000 is required if the tax-savings are to be high enough to cover all of the set-up costs. Retiring abroad is a huge decision for anyone, so those who are considering it should be certain that the income from their pension funds will last. The HMRC provides advice for British citizens on the issue, so pensioners don't need to head off to foreign shores unprepared.

Company Profile:
Whichoffshore provide professional expatriate information on many financial topics in order to help British expatriates make the most of their expat life abroad. For more information, please visit www.whichoffshore.com.

January 16, 2013

America's Got Talent, South Africa's Got Humour

As seen on Africa, this is why I live here's FB Page
The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

Yesterday we finally found out - here in South Africa - who the winner of America’s got Talent Season 7 was. And while there is also a South African equivalent to this show, called SA’s got Talent, you will find one of the most outstanding talents of the South African people not on TV but in real life, in my humble opinion.

I was reminded of this talent as I was leaving a Mr Price store the other day. I was there to return some pants I had bought for my husband a few days previously. As usual, I hadn't been sure of his size and there was only one pair left of the ones I liked, so I just bought them. It turned out that they were two sizes too big, but thankfully my hubby wasn’t upset with me about misjudging his girth in such an unflattering manner. An entirely different story had I been in his shoes, but I digress.

So I took the pants back to the store to ask for a refund. This particular Mr Price store, the one in Fourways Mall, had recently been given a complete makeover. Where before you had to bring a torch to try and see anything in the crammed and dark aisles, there is suddenly space and light. And the tills! What a pleasure. Before there was only a narrow check-out with six sullen employees behind it, four of which invariably chatting on their mobile phones or with each other, but now there is a long counter with modern computerised tills and five employees busy helping clients. And beaming at them.

The wide smile didn’t even fade from the Mr Price employee’s face when I explained I was there for a return. A situation like this always makes me feel a bit awkward; I’m almost expecting to be scolded for being so silly and buying something I can’t use, and causing additional and unnecessary work for the shop and the credit card company and everybody. And if you've ever lived in South Africa, you might know that returning things isn't always one of the easiest exercises.

When he handed me back my credit card, after what seemed to be the end of the procedure, the shop assistant looked at me sternly and asked if I could do him a favour. 

“Eh, yes?” I said cautiously. Did I have to go to customer service now and have to queue for hours? Or did I have to fill out a long form? 

No, none of this, it turned out. 

“Can you please have a lovely day?” he asked me and grinned.

Of course I did, after this. I laughed out loud and kept a wide smile on my face for the rest of the day.

This is one of the many things I love about this country: South Africa’s got humour.

South Africans are always ready to crack a joke. Whether you're in the relaxed atmosphere of a braai at a friend's house, or finding yourself in the seemingly never-ending queue at the local Telkom store, someone is bound to make everyone laugh. 

What a fantastic gift! Because aren't situations like the latter much more bearable, or become even sort of kind of almost enjoyable, when you feel you’re with someone who is in the same boat as you? When you can chuckle about someone’s comment instead of staring blankly into the distance and inwardly tapping impatient  fingers on an imaginary table? You can't avoid being in such situations, but you can choose how to respond to them. Humor, I find, is often the best response. Everyone is much happier to go through lengthy procedures and follow instructions if they are delivered with a smile and a wink.

So the next time you reach the end of a queue, even if your destination is a sullen employee or public servant who seems anything but eager to help you with whatever it is that you need: Remember, she or he is South African. And as such ready to smile at a funny remark in mere nanoseconds. 

Give it a try!

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 Expat-Living.info Guide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg.

January 14, 2013


"Which places in South Africa do you regret not having seen?"

That's the question our friends asked us one day over a glass of wine, after we had learned that we'd be moving soon.

It's not an easy one to answer. There are a million things we would have liked to do before leaving Southern Africa.

Taking the boys to Victoria Falls the right time of year and rafting down the rapids.
Taking pictures of the flowers in Namaqualand in spring.
Driving up that impossibly steep mountain pass in Lesotho.
Canoeing on the Orange River again. This time with friends. And with alcohol.
Going on a houseboat cruise on the Zambezi.
Hiking the Oystercatcher trail along the Garden Route. Or riding it on horses.
Going to Botswana again. This time with kids, so they can have the real life sex ed performance by the lions.
Looking into the Big Hole in Kimberley.
Riding the Blue Train or Premier Classe to Cape Town (guest blog post coming up on that!).
Going to Franschhoek at least five more times for fine dining and stocking up on our Chardonnays.
And taking a road trip to Cairo. At least that one sounded like a good idea after four glasses of the aforementioned Chardonnay.

But the first word that somehow popped into my mind was "Drakensberg." I had heard so much about these fabled mountains. And I just love that word.

Not only the word is beautiful. The view is too.

So it was decided by our friends that we'd all go to the Drakensberg for one last vacation together.

We booked family rooms at Champagne Sports Resort without any problems and at a reasonable price. We weren't disappointed - it is the perfect place for a family vacation. Lots of activities on offer like squash, tennis, table tennis, a teenager room, some live music, good food. The only thing I did not care for was the poolside bingo, which you kind of had to suffer through if you just wanted to sit by the pool and read your book. (Please see my review on Tripadvisor for more on Champagne Sports).

View from Champagne Sports Resort
Pool deck at Champagne Sports Resort. Photo by Jacky d.
At play in the pool. Photo by Jacky d.
Photo by Andy V.

Getting there is a matter of a road trip of about five hours if you factor in a lunch, mostly on the highway (the driving, not the lunch). Unless of course you are traveling with our friends who in typical South African fashion cannot be happy unless some kind of hardship is placed upon you and your car, most often in form of a dirt road. In this case it was actually a tar road, or at least something that had been a tar road perhaps fifty years ago but hadn't been repaved since then, resulting in something far worse than a dirt road. You might remember that after selling our car early we had a little rental Toyota to get around in, which gave us a wee bit of trouble keeping up with our friends and all their off-road prowess. I was just glad we weren't swallowed up entirely by one of those potholes we had to negotiate.

On the way back we were smarter and took the highway detour instead. But what is the other hazard beside potholes lurking (specifically for me, I think) on South African roads? If you're a faithful reader of this blog, you should know. I'll pause quickly so you can search your brain...

Yes, you got it: Cops, of course! Perhaps it was fitting that I should not be allowed to say goodbye to South Africa without one last traffic stop. I was waved over at the top of a fairly steep pass, after we had labored up with our undersized engine, and I am convinced there was no chance we could have topped eighty, but that is precisely what the guy informed us of having happened. And that he could "take me in" for that. It's a good thing I was driving, because Noisette has been known to pay "fines" in such situations, something I am proud of never once having done. I can honestly say I'd rather go to jail.

But alas, jail eluded me once again - how I would have loved blogging about that as a final farewell! - and the cop and I parted ways with him just issuing a warning to me.

"What were you guys talking about?" Noisette wanted to know as soon as I got back in the car. "You and him were both smiling the entire time!"

Well, let's keep that a secret, shall we? I just have a way with those South African traffic cops, don't I.

But back to the Drakensberg: What a spectacular mountain range. When you see its spiky ridges you can easily understand how it got its name. What I wasn't expecting was how green everything was. You could imagine being in Ireland or Scotland or even Hawaii, not somewhere in Africa. During winter of course everything turns brown, but when we were there, daily afternoon thunderstorms ensured the regular watering of those slopes.

And of the tennis courts.

Although we did get some doubles games in. Extending the girls' lead to, I don't know, nine sets to five. Just thought I should mention this here, for no particular reason. Although I should also mention that the guys did win the one set 6-0. Which they couldn't stop mentioning the rest of the day.

Yep, 6-0. Photo by Andy V.

This being partially the same group making up our Kili climb, it was decided we would go hiking on our first day. The kids were entirely opposed to any walking whatsoever, and only with a lot of prodding and pleading and promising an easy walk just up to the rock pool did we talk them into coming along. Which after about five minutes of walking uphill led to quick accusations being lobbed at us for totally lying about the easy walk. I won't name any names, but maybe you can read the body language to figure out the culprit(s).

It took a little while, but in the end the rock pool made up for all the grudges held against lying parents. Or more likely it was the stack of chocolate bars a thoughtful parent had brought along. And no, I was not that parent. Although I have been known to pay bribes. To the kids, not the cops.

It was as spectacular as it was cold. What I wouldn't have given for one of those waterfalls with such delicious spring water on Kilimanjaro!

It wasn't nearly as warm as Jabulani is making it look. Freezing, rather.

Photo by Jacky d. I totally love this shot!

After the rock pool, some of us went back, taking the walking-challenged kids with them, while some of us pushed further up the mountain.

The views were incredibly beautiful. Just seeing these pictures now makes me want to go back and try that multi-day hike some of us were already busy scheming about. A hike just like the Dainfern College kids get to do in their 10th grade year. Which makes me realize how much I miss Dainfern College, where a new school year is starting in just a few days.

See for yourself the views you are treated to in the Drakensberg by scrolling through the remaining pictures. I can highly recommend Champagne Sports Resort as a good family destination, though the one drawback is that none of the hiking trails start there. If you want to hike straight from your room, Champagne Castle is a better option.

Photo by Jacky d.
Photo by Jacky d.
Photo by Jacky d.
Good to be hiking with the Fat Controller again! Photo by Jacky d.

I dubbed him "Sitting Bull."
The view looking up...
...and the view looking back down
I just loved the irony of that sign. "No Entry" with a helpful arrow and perfect path should
one wish to do the forbidden thing and enter anyway. What could be more tempting?
View from the potholed road we took from the highway to the hotel
Whether in the Drakensberg or elsewhere in the world, we can't wait to vacation with this
crowd again!

January 10, 2013

Hello America

If you are an expat blogger, it is all about first impressions. Your best assessment of a new country comes right in those first few weeks of moving there, when everything you encounter strikes you as new or quirky or bizarre, if not completely alien. You look at the world around you in wonder, mouth agape, and notice a slew of cultural differences which a few months down the road will have all but disappeared to your eye.

At those times your writing is best, and most genuine. Which is totally unfair because, at those times, if your husband catches you writing a blog post instead of calling the plumber, getting the sprinkler system winterized, organizing trash removal, vacuuming the house, or at least making some kind of progress towards the thirty-one items on your moving-in checklist, he won't be real happy with you.

So please try to ignore my unbearably messy house, all twelve suitcases in various states of unpacking, cleaning supplies and vacuum cleaner strewn about, kitchen counter laden with stuff.

Because I want to tell you about my first impressions of America, now that I've said Goodbye to Africa.

Please forgive me for calling it America. I know Americans don't do that. But everyone else does, and I'm writing this from the perspective of an outsider. Even though I'm an American.

So my first impressions are these:

America is BIG: Yes, everyone knows it's a big country, but that's not quite what I mean. There is just so much space here. Lots and lots of personal space for everyone. Wide roads, very neat and tidy. Huge parking lots. Supermarket aisles so wide you can barely see the other side. And all of it mostly empty. The only crowded places I could find so far were all the Starbucks I stepped into that first day I was in need of Wifi but couldn't find an empty seat to park my computer and venti latte.

Big parking spaces you could comfortably squeeze two bakkies into.

America is FRIENDLY: People from Europe often complain that Americans are superficial and fake, because no grumpy European can imagine in their wildest dreams that this over-the-top friendliness is actually genuine. On my first run through the local supermarket, a day into our stay here, I was constantly stopped in my tracks by a succession of beaming store clerks, asking  me how I was doing. What Americans don't expect, however, is for you to ask them back how they are doing. My automatic South African reply of "good-'n-you?" was always met with a look of surprise and some hesitation while the proper response was frantically grasped for.  When I call someone up for service and begin the conversation by asking how everyone is, I am usually met with the same hesitation. I really have to stop myself from doing this, but it's become a hard habit to shed.

It's not that South Africans aren't friendly, on the contrary. I am already homesick for all the beaming smiles I was greeted with all day long, the easy laughs, and of course our friends who bent over backwards opening their homes to us and offering their help.

But Americans have got to top any international comparison in friendliness. I haven't been here a week and I already had one neighbor set up a carpool and research music lessons for me, another one taking me out for a spin around the neighborhood, and a half-dozen play date requests for the kids. Plus an invitation to join a local "friends of Southern Africa" group with the promise of regular teas and the occasional braai (accompanied, I hope, with good Chardonnay from the Cape).

America is ORGANIZED: Wherever you go, whatever you do, someone has already set up a nice and convenient procedure to follow, typically accompanied by a form to fill out. Got new kids riding the school bus? Just put them on and they will come home with the driver's business card and a form to fill out. Want to join the library? Register online. Security access for the neighborhood? Already waiting for you at the gate. Need a plumber? Find a business card and coupon in your "welcome to the neighborhood" packet. Things practically  happen before you've even thought about them, which is SO the opposite of "just now" it's not even funny.

America is ANTIQUATED: I'm pretty sure in the three years that we lived in Africa, I didn't write a single check. Here, I've already been asked for several, and the memory of whole stacks of them to balance at month-end came rushing back to me. In what other country are checks still used, I ask you? Oh, and the school buses. Good grief! You can't honestly tell me that the best way to transport kids to and from school is by what looks like a covered wagon with a truck engine? Don't even get me started on washers and dryers. They've added a few more buttons to make them look modern, but the basic functionality has not changed since 1950.

America is MODERN: Yes I know, I"m contradicting myself. But that's exactly it. The same country that still produces Thomas buses is giving me a car that automatically recognizes my phone and lets me call anyone from my phone book using voice activation without a glitch. While my car key is somewhere in my handbag, because it is no longer required in the ignition. Which I personally find is going a bit far. I am forever hunting for my car key, because it is never where it should be. On our first day I dropped Noisette off at his office and drove away, until a few miles down the road a message on the dashboard caught my attention: "The key has left the vehicle." And yet I was still driving. Weird.

America is CASHLESS: You may need a checkbook, but you certainly don't need any cash. I'm well into the second week here, and I have yet to carry a single dollar with me in my wallet. I actually did  make an effort to get cash when I spotted a drive-through bank yesterday, another one of those American marvels of convenience, but when I opened my wallet I realized that my ATM card is somewhere on the ocean between Durban and Rotterdam, or perhaps already a bit farther along.

It's a bit surprising there aren't any drive-through
schools and doctor's offices yet...

But not a problem, because anything can be paid for by credit card. No amount seems to be too small for a swipe. The only person who so far drew a line was the guy at the UPS store when I had him print out one single page for Impatience's homework assignment. He forgave me the 7 cents without paying.

You'd really struggle to get through a day in South Africa without cash. At least you'd be very uncomfortable as soon as the first Parking God stretched out his hand and came up empty. I wonder why the U.S. treasury still bothers to print actual dollars. They are not needed in America. Where they are needed are countries like Zimbabwe. I'm sure Robert Mugabe is secretly rubbing his hands with glee at having fooled the Americans into printing currency for him for free.

Lastly, America is a SHOPPER'S PARADISE. But more on that in another blog post.

Please excuse me now while I rearrange some furniture so that it looks as if I've been busy.

January 7, 2013

Goodbye Africa

This is it.

The end of the road. And what a glorious road it's been.

Last week we left the African continent and are now settling into our lives back home (except - where is home?).

We ended it like we began - keeping busy. A last road trip here. A final safari there. A flurry of goodbye parties and farewell dinners. Until we simply ran out of days and our flights had to be boarded.

Saying goodbye is never easy. And there is so much we will miss.

Most of all we will miss our friends.

Like Mr. and Mrs. Fat Controller, who got oh so close to making us into bush adventurers. Given a little more time, we might have bought that Fortuner and driven it through rivers and cracked its axles. We've already gotten good at changing tires, and even better at embellishing our stories afterwards.

And Mr. and Mrs. Prof. Calculus, our loyal tennis partners. We may not have gotten any better at tennis, but we've certainly become experts at trash talking. And complaining about all our ailing middle-aged elbows and knees. When our paths cross again, we will pick it up at best out of twenty-five, giving the guys another chance at that elusive win over the girls.

It's hard to say goodbye to good friends

There are too many to name, but we will miss all the other wonderful people who've come into our lives here in South Africa.

We will also miss all those little joys that have made our life here special, from the street vendor who sold us our USA world cup flag in 2010 to the cry of the hadeda every morning and the sunset over the you-know-what pipe in Dainfern Valley.

Sundowners in the bush. Smiling kids in Diepsloot. The rugged peaks of the Drakensberg. The assemblies at Dainfern College. Cape Town. Bougainvilleas, bottlebrush bushes, the jacaranda trees in spring.

I bought my first World Cup flag from this guy and he is
still roaming the same corner of William Nicol Dr today.

I didn't think I'd ever say I miss his cry, but I do!

When I first arrived I thought this was a high-speed train.
Turns out it's something else entirely, and it's questionable
whether it moves at high speeds.

Nothing spells Africa like sundowners in the bush. Thank God
we bought those two bottles of Amarula in duty free to tide us
over but it will never be the same as on African soil.

Kids in Diepsloot on a cold winter's morning
Beautiful Drakensberg

Founder's Day assembly at Dainfern College

Cape Town and Table Mountain

Jacarandas in spring

There is only one thing we truly won't miss, and that is the traffic on William Nicol.

They say you only cry two times in Africa. Once when you arrive, and the second time when you leave, but the second time much harder and longer. Thanks to Mike Rost who supplied this quote some time back in a comment on my essay on ExpatsBlog.

We have definitely done our share of crying, even though we are incredibly happy to have had the privilege of living here.

And, as Mike also commented, we will be back one day, for once you drank the water of Africa it stays with you and in your blood.

But for now there is only one thing left to say.

Goodbye Africa!