April 30, 2013

You Expect ME to do THAT?

The inevitable happened.

It was early days after our move to Tennessee. My car ran out of gas (after just a week - welcome to the land of gas guzzlers) and I needed to get more. I dropped the kids off at school, consulted my GPS for the closest gas station, and a few minutes later pulled up at the pump in the pouring rain.

And then I sat there, checking emails on my phone, and waiting for something to happen. Except nothing did happen. Then it dawned on me that I am back in a world where I'm expected to do my own dirty work. Beginning with, where the hell is the tank on this car?

In South Africa they always waved me into a spot as soon as I so much as glimpsed the BP garage on the horizon. I never even had to think.

It didn't help that it was freezing and raining the day I first
had to pump my own gas again

Choices, choices. The funny thing is, in South Africa I never
checked the gas prices. Just pulled in and waited.

But perhaps doing your own work is worth it, considering
that a full tank of diesel cost me ZAR 1000, which is twice
as much as a full tank here (although the tank here also
empties a LOT quicker than there. Gas guzzlers, I tell you.

Here in the USA, I was expected to set to work by my very own self. After successfully locating the tank and pulling to the correct pump, I opened the door and gingerly stepped over a gigantic puddle. Faced with the display, long-ago memories came flooding back: swipe the credit card, select the fuel grade, start pumping. Except, how am I supposed to know the fuel grade? Yep, they decided that for me in SA too. And cleaned the windshield, and checked the tire pressure as well as the oil.

At least you get to pay at the pump instead of going into the creepy store like in the olden days.

But still.


I was back at the same gas station some time later, because my car had informed me that the TIRE PRESSURE IS LOW!!!!! It might not have told me with so many explanation marks but it was just as much in my face, lighting up on the display every time I turned on the car and me finding no way to turn it off.

Do you want to know something? I don't like my car talking to me in this way. Handing out jobs to me. I've never had a car before that felt such a need to communicate, and I was just fine, thank you very much. Again, such was the virtue of Africa. It might have lacked in terms of customer service, at government agencies and such, but it never lacked in service, especially where you didn't expect it. It is my firm belief that you can break down with your car pretty much anywhere in Africa, and someone will materialize out of thin air with a smile on their face and ready to set to work to get you out of your predicament.

Anyway, I hated having to add air to my tires after three years of that happening more or less automatically whenever I got gas, without me having to get out of the car at all. I hated the way you have to put in money and then scramble around your car with the air pressure gun, trying not to tangle the hose. I hated how my hands got dirty. I hated how you couldn't see a thing on the fogged up pressure gauge, so that I'm none the wiser if the tires are now at the right pressure or not.

One of my least favorite chores in my repat life

My car seems to think they are, because it has stopped scolding me. So that's progress I guess.

But still.


Moving on to yet another "the buck stops here" kind of moment in my new life, it seems like I'm now expected to clean toilets again. And not only that, due to the incomprehensible architecture of the American plumbing system, I don't just have to clean them, I also have to unclog them. Quite regularly. I always follow this up with long lectures to all concerned parties (who of course deny all wrongdoing) about poop size and wiping techniques but so far with only limited success.

But I digress. The toilets already got their own blog post.



On the plus side, at least I get to say words like gas station and traffic light, and our pizza is topped by pepperoni again.

April 24, 2013

How To Be a (Successful) Expat

I'm not sure the title of this post is quite right.

Because what makes an expat "successful?"

If you set the bar low enough, you could argue that anyone coming back alive from an expat assignment can claim success. Which in our case, if you want to believe all the fearmongers about life in South Africa, was quite the miracle.

I guess what I really mean to discuss is how you can thrive as an expat, way beyond mere survival. Where you enjoy your overseas assignment, go out and make new friends, take in the wonders of the country you live in, and live life to the fullest so that when you leave you have no regrets (other than the fact that you're having to leave).

Because I'm guessing you don't want to be the other kind of expat. The kind that goes to a new country with the idea of basically transposing their old life to the new place, come hell or high water. That is determined to make the new place bend to their will and their idea of how things should be. And that spends most of their days in a miserable and grumpy state of mind when they find out they can't. 

You can transport your stuff to a new place, but not your life.

So if you want to be "successful expat" rather than "grumpy expat," what can you do? Or is it predetermined by your personality?

I think it is a combination of factors. Having an adaptable and adventurous spirit definitely helps, but you can actually develop that by being an expat. Serial expats will tell you that leaving a place and starting over in a new country is hard every single time, no matter how often you've done it. But the experience of having not only survived it but come to love it will go a long way towards making the next assignment easier.

When I think back to our days in Singapore, circa 1998, I have to admit that I often dwelled more on the grumpy side.

That Asian habit of plastering a smile on your face even when bad news was being delivered, and of never being quite able, or willing, to actually make a decision, grated on my nerves. Why couldn't I  have my salad dressing on the side, even if the menu didn't specify it?

Oh, and the infrastructure. Why did the escalator only go up but not down in the shopping center I frequented, forcing me to carry child plus stroller plus bags down several flights of stairs at the end of each outing?

Not to even mention all the taxi drivers who'd slow down when I'd wave from the curb, only to speed up again and leaving me stranded when spotting that bothersome double stroller next to me.

And don't even get me started on that strangest of dialects, Singlish, where every sentence is delivered in a rapid-fire, machine-gun like staccato, words brutally maimed with chopped-off endings, made-up for, perhaps in an effort to deliver the same number of syllables, with an inexplicable '-lah' at the end.

What I should have done back then, I realize now, is start a blog. Except I don't think I'd even heard of such a thing in 1998. Nothing makes you appreciate the quirky experiences of expat life as much as the prospect of taking good notes and writing an entertaining story for your readers.

And nothing contributes towards making you a "successful expat" as much as appreciating the quirky experiences of expat life.

It's not what happens to you. It's the kinds of thoughts you choose to think when something happens to you. Everyone knows that, right?

I admit this resolve will be stretched to its limits when you stand in line at Vodacom for the third time in a week, armed with yet more paperwork and no closer to scoring that elusive cellphone contract than the first day you arrived, oh, months ago.

But that is what happened to me. Seemingly spending my entire life at the Vodashop in Fourways Mall with nothing to do, I allowed myself to be drawn into the cricket match silently flashing past on the TV, and wondering how on Earth anybody could comprehend the rules. A blogpost about cricket began to form in my mind, and some time (and one book) later, Cricket for Expats was born.

And that's just one. I have countless such stories from our time in Joburg.

I think on the whole I did a much better job at being an expat in South Africa than I did in Singapore. Even though many more hurdles seemed to be thrown into my way early on. I had learned to go with the flow and adjust to a different mindset instead of trying to wage battle against it. I remember early on, when I was sitting in the principal's office at Dainfern College, complaining about the fact that our daughters were not allowed to play soccer. "Do as the Romans do," he eventually advised, perhaps somewhat haughtily, and it was exactly the right path to embark on. The girls swam and played netball and field hockey like all the other girls, and our life was perfectly fine without soccer.

This doesn't mean, however, that being a successful expat doesn't come at a cost. Because the more "successful" you are abroad by adopting your new lifestyle, it seems to me, the more frustrated you're bound to feel coming back. Going back to the same old life you had before, with the same kind of people in it, and the same convenience.

Yes, convenience. As much as I dreamed of Amazon.com and efficient customer service while I was gone, I can't quite yet bring myself to appreciate the miracle of someone calling you back just like they told you they would. Your garbage being picked up with mind-boggling regularity. Your phones working, day and night, and weeks on end. A president pushing for meaningful immigration reform rather than being outraged at a picture someone painted of his, ahem, penis. Not a single traffic light out of operation, ever. I see those things and I think that I should be grateful, but instead I miss the excitement of our African life. Of never quite knowing what might happen. Of always finding reason to laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all. And of interesting story material falling into my lap on a daily basis.

When you repatriate back home, all you're left with is the mountain of work that accompanies any move, without that sense of wonder and thrill you feel when everything around you is new.

But again, there is a solution to that. I'm not sure where I read about it, but it might have been on I Was an Expat Wife which has wonderful advice on all things expat, including repatriation: You might "only" be returning home, but if you view it as yet another expat assignment, opening yourself to that same sense of awe and freshness you felt as a newly-minted expat and resolving to undertake as many excursions and meet as many new people as abroad, then it will be so much more rewarding.

At least that's what I'm working on these days. So that I can be a successful repat.

Once again, it's just a matter of mindset.

April 18, 2013

The Future of Alexandra Baseball

When I learned, sometime in the middle of last year, that we'd be moving back to the U.S., one of my first concerns was what would happen to Alexandra Baseball, the township baseball team that had become my personal outreach project more or less by accident. (If you're not familiar with it, catch up on my past blog posts about it here and here; if you ARE familiar with it, please become a Facebook fan here so that you can follow their activities.)

Photo courtesy of www.2Summers.net

Not that I was too worried. There were baseballs being thrown in Alexandra long before my arrival, and I'm very confident the glorious thwockkk of ball hitting leather will be heard over its tin roofs for many years to come. I wasn't the one who started it, and it would by no means end with me either. Tedius, who over the years has so ably performed the gritty task of rounding up players for league games and scraping together the pooled cash to eke out the taxi fare, is still there to hold the team together, run practices, and organize the occasional Funfest among the local schools. There is still a field to play on, even if it isn't always mowed, and there is still the Gauteng Baseball Federation, even if it doesn't seem to have any funding of its own.

And yet I fretted. There was so much still to be done, so many improvements to be made, so much more help to give, so many more kids to inspire. What I needed was a successor to hand everything over to. But who?

It just so happened that into my life walked Natalie. Those things usually only happen in movies, but her real-life timing was impeccable. A fellow American expat whose kids had made the switch to South African schools and, as a result, fallen in love with cricket and rugby as their sports of choice, Natalie brought the two things needed for this endeavor: A love of baseball, and the wish to get her family involved in some form of outreach to the underprivileged. And, as a bonus, she came with a husband, Andy, who had coached Little League baseball for years and was yearning to get back onto the sidelines (without having to learn what a Googly is, or silly mid-off, square leg, or slip).

I mean, how much more perfect could this be? To not only have someone to help organize things and make the occasional sandwiches for hungry players, but to actually give these kids a very much needed additional coach, American no less?

The new caretakers of my Alexandra Baseball project:
 Andy, Natalie, Peter, and John

I'm sure Natalie must have felt a little overwhelmed, having just shot me an email to see if there was any way for her to get involved alongside me, thinking of perhaps attending the occasional game. Instead, she was going home after our first meeting owning the entire project, armed with a folder of paperwork and a memory stick full of pictures and fundraising letters.

Nor did she probably envision running those typical errands that can have you crisscrossing through Alexandra for an entire day, being dragged this way and that way by locals that know full well that they may not have access to a car again for another month. Remember Three Cups of Tea? Where Greg raises the funds for a school in a painstaking labor of love, only to arrive at a raging river with the first supplies, realizing that a bridge will have to be built first before the supplies can get to the village? It's the same in Alexandra. You might lend your gardener to go and cut the grass of the baseball field (theoretically this should be done by the municipality in Alexandra, but as anyone knows, "theoretically" doesn't get you very far in Africa), only to find a lawnmower completely out of gas; when you return with the gas, you might then learn that a crucial part isn't working and have to first set out to get the part repaired.

But overwhelmed or not, Natalie and Andy, together with their two sons, have been the best thing that ever could have happened to Alexandra Baseball. Andy has coached the U13 team to a stellar season, falling just short of a league title, and Natalie has done all the things so sorely needed, from helping Tedius get the grass on the field cut (so that Alexandra gets the benefit of home games, just like the other teams, helping bring down the enormous expense of transport) to stocking the bathrooms with toilet paper and negotiating a special deal with her neighborhood grocer for discounted food and spreading peanut butter on forty sandwiches between games. Their son Peter, too old for the team, has taken on the job of first base coach, and their younger son John has joined the team and formed some very special bonds. Most of all, they are there every Sunday supporting and cheering on the team, which may not seem like much coming from our American suburban life where the sidelines at kids' sporting events are always full of clapping parents, but trust me, in Alexandra it makes all the difference in the world.

But not only that. Andy and Natalie were actually able to draw on the support of their previous baseball league in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Dilworth Little League. A brochure outlining their need, complete with wonderful pictures detailing the day-to-day realities in the life of an Alexandra baseball player was put together, a donation drive was organized, collection boxes were put out, and so far they've collected 80 pairs of much-needed baseball pants, 32 belts, 23 pairs of cleats, 42 pairs of socks, 3 helmets, 3 gloves, 5 bats, balls and catcher's equipment, with more still coming in.

Yield from one of our previous donation drives

Me sorting through donations with Tedius and Cedric in 2012. When it comes to clothing,
we'll take any team jerseys, not limited to baseball, and cleats of any sort. The jerseys above
were generously donated by the baseball team of Kettle Moraine High School in Wisconsin.

This is where I need YOUR help (you knew it was coming, didn't you): If you've followed my Alexandra story in the past, you will know that actually getting the stuff to South Africa is the real challenge. Shipping is expensive and involves so much paperwork and bureaucracy that I'd much rather volunteer for a root canal than do that again. And the truth is that the money going towards shipping could be much better used to support the kids directly.

What works best is summoning the help of prospective expats moving to Johannesburg from the United States. All we need is a small corner of your shipping container, if indeed you're shipping your furniture, and we'll handle the rest. If you can help in this way, even at some later time in the year, please comment below or contact me.

There are other ways in which you can help, from contacting your local high school or baseball club for used equipment donations to finding a corporate sponsor. The best way to get started would be to print out the Fundraising Brochure Natalie has put together and take it to a venue that might be prepared to help.

If you'd rather like to make a cash donation, we are always grateful for those as well. They go a long way towards financing food and transport.

I'm glad I can still help the team by continuing to spread the story in this forum. Once again, if you haven't done so yet, please LIKE the Alexandra Baseball Facebook page so that you can be updated about all that's going on.  But most of all I'm glad that the future of Alexandra Baseball is in good hands. 

April 17, 2013

The Expat Worshipper, Part Two (Or: A Christian Owned Business)

In The Expat Worshipper, Part One I told you about the numerous and gigantic churches one can't help but notice here in the U.S. when one has recently arrived from another country.

One of the smaller-size churches in Brentwood

And it's not that there is necessarily a lack of religion elsewhere. Drive around on a Sunday anywhere in South Africa, and you will see huge numbers of people walking along the road in their Sunday finery on their way to attend a sermon.

Or assembled in an open field in their white garments.

Or clogging up the highway in a long line of buses.

The first time we saw such a procession, made up mostly of people in uniforms, we thought it was a military convoy. It was, instead, the annual Easter pilgrimage undertaken by millions of Zion Christian Church  (ZCC) members to Limpopo province, a spectacle I regret  never having witnessed. Our domestic would regale us with colorful stories upon her return from her Easter outing each year, tales of sleeping in the mud - no tents allowed - for four nights and sustained only by more or less nonstop singing.

There are a lot of devout people in South Africa. But they don't have a lot of churches.

When I drive around Middle Tennessee, I can't help but think how awed my domestic would have been at the sight of these huge and well-built churches, each grander than the last. And at the thought of how much wealth they represent.

And how much power.

For a country that established the separation of church and state at its birth, so to speak, daily life in the United States nevertheless rarely seems to stray far from the Christian church.

When I was researching shower door installers the other day (yes - the glamorous life of the repat wife!), I came across one that advised, prominently, on its website: "A Christian Owned Business."

A Christian quote for a Christian shower-door?

I was wondering what that meant. Would I get particularly Christian (i.e. low) prices? Or would the employees be treated in a particularly Christian manner with good salaries and benefits (meaning my prices would probably be rather high)? Or would the installer come to my house not only with tools and the shower doors but also a bible to be pressed into my palm along with the bill?

Because that is in fact what happened when we advertised some old cabinets on Craigslist. We scored fifty bucks and The (New, Illustrated) Great, Controversy, a book that fills me with unease and will probably have the unlikely fate of languishing on our bookshelf forever, unread.

In reality I'm sure the Christian Business thing was just another marketing ploy, in a nifty way capturing both your true believers as well as those of us who might not want to see ourselves as particularly un-Christian. In a churchgoing state like Tennessee, you can attract a lot of customers by proclaiming yourself a Christian, I’m sure of it.

But that is precisely what bugs me (and no, I did not choose that installer).

Just imagine, for a moment, how the tagline "A Muslim Owned Business" would work out for anyone brave enough to put that on their banner. Not all that well, I imagine, all professed religious tolerance aside. Or, worse perhaps, “Atheist Owned.”

You can be anything in this country, but you’ll have to be Christian if you want to be it proudly.

I suspect on some level it’s not even a matter of religion. It might just as well have to do with our love of easy labels. Americans love labels. Preferably sanitized ones. It used to be embarrassing to have a difficult child, or a naughty one. Thank goodness we can now just call them ADHD and wash our hands of any responsibility we might have felt a tingling of in the days when bad behavior was at least partially a reflection of parenting style. But I digress – America’s willingness to drug its children into conformity to pursue a world driven by standardized testing is a topic for another day.

What I mean to say is that calling themselves “Christian” allows people to think themselves as part of this wholesome group with all sorts of feel-good attributes, without having to wonder too much about what it actually means.

In all truth, I’d love to claim a simple label like that.

Calling myself a “Respect for others and nature, golden-rule driven, don’t think I have all the answers and always curious about other people’s beliefs, suspicious of all religious dogma but love some rituals nonetheless, a heavy dose of doubt about the so-called word of god, all with a sprinkling of Buddhism” person just won’t do.

I wish “Christian” could encompass all this, but it doesn’t. Not in Middle Tennessee.

By the way, my shower doors turned out just fine, un-Christianly as they are.

April 12, 2013

Zulu Potty Talk

Teach Yourself Zulu, available from Amazon
I've written about one of South Africa's eleven official languages, Afrikaans. And how my favorite words are lekker aka yummy and meaning all things great, and kak aka crap and meaning all things, well, crap. 

But I haven't said much about isiZulu, arguably much more widespread than Afrikaans, at least in terms of native speakers (in some areas of the country, Afrikaans replaces English as the common language). So when I saw this recent Facebook post by another expat with kids in a South African school, I felt like I had to share it with you:

kid "In our Zulu class, Mr. Zulu now says that we have to ask to go to the bathroom in Zulu."
me "How do you say it?"
kid "I just never go to the bathroom during Zulu class."
PS - really, the Zulu teacher's name is Mr. Zulu.

Zulu, you have to understand, is a complicated language, which might explain the urge to rather hold it in when what you really want to do is go potty. 

At least complicated in some ways. Like when you have to click your tongue while saying a word. 

Now I can click my tongue with the best of them, but not while talking at the same time. It seems like a physical impossibility. Try it, like in the word Xhosa, where the X is the click sound. I will wait for you to sufficiently unfold your tongue so you can continue reading. 

The good news is that Zulu isn't Xhosa, which has infinitely more click sounds, the variations of which you can get an idea of by watching this guy:

Listening to a Xhosa talk is always slightly disorienting to me. Like if there are several invisible people in the room making sounds from different directions. Or as if they are accompanied by an army of tree frogs. 

But back to Zulu. The other difficulty about Zulu is that there are a bunch of different noun classes, and depending on which class it's in, the noun has a different prefix. Which changes for plural. Thus, the prefix umu becomes aba, u becomes o, i becomes ama, isi becomes izi, and so forth. So while a singular person is umuntu, having several folks milling about makes them abantu. On top of that, the noun class determines the prefixes of the verbs and adjectives in that sentence as well. So depending on who is pretty, the girl or the flower, the word pretty gets saddled with a different prefix. And then the verbs can go off in yet another direction by having various suffixes added to them depending on tense and other modifiers.

It all makes Latin sound like a walk in the park in comparison, and my head is swimming just after this brief foray into Zulu grammar.

On the bright side, there aren't that many nouns to go around. You'll find good coverage for everyday items like cow and chicken and water and will just have to bite the bullet and memorize them, but a good many "foreign" objects associated with the more modern or Western world are often derived from English and fairly easy to remember if you sound them out. Like December = uDisemba bible = iBhayibheli, factory = ifektri, or car = imoto.

Then there are those that aren't derived from English but are so wonderfully descriptive that it's easy to remember them, like motorcycle = isithuthuthu.

Most South African kids have to take two languages in school, depending on what area they live in. In Johannesburg, it's Zulu and Afrikaans, which is how our kids had the opportunity to add those two rather exotic languages to their repertoire. When I saw the above post, I was curious and decided to do my own mini survey to find out how you ask to go to the bathroom in Zulu. Just to see if they had learned anything in almost three years. Here is the result of my research:

Jabulani: I'd ask Mama Mncube, and she'd tell me to ask in Zulu, and I'd say I didn't know how to say it, and she'd let me go anyway (as you can probably tell, Jabulani is my charmer;  and yes, that was her name, complete with tongue click).

Impatience: I'd hold up my hand for 10 minutes while she was scribbling things in her notes and looking up every so often ignoring me, and she'd finally ask 'what is it' and I'd ask 'can I go to the bathroom' and she'd say 'no, you just had lunch break' and get back to her work. (As you can tell, Impatience is not my charmer).

Zax: our teacher didn't care how we asked (Zax is my one child who managed not to retain a single word of Zulu. Or Afrikaans.)

Sunshine: doesn't have any recollection of going to the bathroom during class (as you can tell, she is my goody two shoes and would never think of even asking that question). 

I am slightly disappointed not to have gotten to the bottom of this rather important question. Especially since it has to do with toilets, a topic I've been rather obsessed with on this blog. The question remains: what is Zulu for going potty? 

I wonder if its not utoleti. Or maybe iwiwi. Please do enlighten me if you know the answer!

If you're up for more tongue clicking action, watch what's commonly known as the Xhosa Tongue Clicking Song.

April 6, 2013

The Expat Worshipper

If you're arriving on America's shores and settling in a place like New York City, a melting pot of cultures if there ever was one, you might be forgiven for not noticing. But if your destination is a place like Tennessee, you will know at once: The USA is Christian country.

There are more churches here per square foot than any other institution. You cannot drive for more than a few hundred yards before rounding on a church. Before I get from our house to Starbucks, another ubiquitous franchise in this country (and, to be honest, the place I mainly worship at) I will have passed at least five churches on the way.

The little one right outside our neighborhood usually makes me laugh. They've always got some funny message up on the board. This morning it was "honk if you love Jesus; text if you want to meet him." I suppose it's an old joke, but it took me a while to figure it out. Nothing like starting your day with a smile of dawning recognition on your face. I fleetingly thought of taking a picture while driving by, but then Jabulani correctly pointed out that picture-taking must rank in the same category as texting, and I wasn't that anxious to meet Jesus quite yet.

The little church on our way to school

This one didn't make me laugh but I found it inspirational
nonetheless, which is what I love about this little church

I had kids to drop off at school first.

The feeling that typically takes hold of me when coming across yet another church in God's own country is a sense of awe. They are, most of them, simply gigantic. Resembling more an airport than a house of the Lord, complete with a terminal-like entrance hall, cafe, and gift shop.

When we were relatively new in Overland Park, Kansas, and it came time for our annual Christmas church visit - yes, you may call me a hypocrite - we picked the church closest at hand: Church of the Resurrection right across the street from us. We have, after all, a very tight Teutonic-bred schedule on Christmas Eve, opening presents right after church and the obligatory singing around the tree. Therefore, proximity is a definite virtue in a church vying for our attention. The denomination is secondary (our family is a mix of Catholics and Lutherans) as long as they don't tell me we're all sinners.

I hate being told that I'm a sinner.

But even that can be made up with lots of good singing.

So we drive up to the church, park our car, and follow the throng of people filing into the well-lit and well-heated building from all sides. We follow the ceremony from our perch upstairs, along with thousands of other worshipers (membership there is 16,000 and weekly attendance over 8,000), not sure whether to view everything on the stadium-size TV screen on the left side of the stage or the equally large one on the right. We are in awe when the minister informs us that should we have missed any of the sermon - I DO have a preponderance for nodding off in church, this guy has seen right through me - we can get it at home as a podcast. Or maybe even connect to it right here, via Wifi. The culmination is the lighting of two thousand candles - small kids have been supplied with battery-operated ones - starting with complete darkness until the sanctuary is as bright as day.

This church is a well-oiled machine.

Except when we step out afterwards into a beautiful scene of freshly-fallen snow, still aglow with a goodwill toward all men, we cannot find our car. Shivering, we trudge up and down long rows of cars, dodging masses of patrons already arriving for the next service, but without success. Eventually the kids and I huddle back in the foyer, thawing our frozen fingers, while Noisette sets out on a lonely and courageous quest to deliver us from the evil of a lack of transport.

We are trying  hard to cling to the last shreds of goodwill.

I mean, it's Christmas Eve, our kids are hungry, and the only obstacle between them and a pile of long-awaited Christmas presents is the damn car. Looking back, I still consider it a miracle that the night didn't end in a complete meltdown. Not just the kids, mind you. The temptation of Noisette and me blaming each other for the lost car was overpowering.

A Christmas miracle, if there ever was one, that we didn't descend into a yelling match.

We eventually found the car, helped by one of the many friendly parking attendants employed by the church, who took our key into his own vehicle and drove across the entire parking lot beeping at everything until he got a response. Let me just say here that this is not typical. For me, yes - I will park my car and immediately forget where it is or what it even looks like. But Noisette is very organized and has a good sense of direction (which is why I totally would have lost the blaming game). The culprit in this case? There was not just one but something like five vast parking lots and three main entrances. We'd never been to a church before with more than one entrance, so it simply didn't occur to us that we were searching our car in Terminal A when in fact it was at Terminal B. Perhaps a train link might have helped. Which I'm sure would be easy to build using a portion of the $10 million they raised in donations just that year.

One of those gigantic churches in the U.S., Brentwood Baptist Church.
You can seriously get lost in there for three days. Except scores of
friendly ushers will gladly show you the way.

Fast-forward a few years and we find ourselves in Johannesburg, South Africa, looking once again for a church to satisfy our Christian longing that predictably appeared on the morning of December 24th. Where, we wonder, do South Africans go for their Christmas Eve service?

Well. Most likely church isn't where they're going. Unless of course you can call a braai a form of worship. Which it totally is.

And I don't blame them. The church we ended up going to, based on vague recommendations from some local friends we called, and again selected for its unique virtue of proximity to our house, was so surreal that I often wonder if I didn't imagine the whole incident.

The parking lot was the first thing that should have tipped us off. There was only one, and it was small, and ours was the very first car in it. We were wondering whether we'd gotten the time wrong. Where were all the masses arriving early to secure a good seat?

There were no masses.

When everyone had shuffled in and taken their seat, I counted twenty-eight people. Or rather more like eight adults and twenty kids. Although it was extremely hard to count, because most of the kids were wandering around aimlessly. Together with the peacocks that were pecking away right outside the open windows. Two of the kids, it turned out, were the minister's and his wife's kids and at times toddled up to their parents, who'd be forced to interject the occasional "yes, Johnny, you can have a cracker but you'll have to share it with your sister" into the sermon. Which was greeted with relief by the few adults trying to follow the proceedings, because the rest of it made no sense whatsoever. Some type of Woodstock-meets-Celtic-druid ritual with people holding hands and humming strange words. There was also a candy apple someone was holding up at some point. The whole thing ended unceremoniously when the one kid yelled "ewwww, he stepped into the bird poooh" from the outside.

Everyone was grateful to the peacocks. By the way, the singing was terrible.

We tried again the next year, that time at a Catholic church in Bryanston, but the priest was from Ireland I think and mumbled so badly that no one could hear him over the constant din of the background conversation. About rugby, I'm sure. Or whether someone at home had remembered to put the boerewors on the braai. No one could see him either, for that matter, as he was also rather short. He might as well not have been there at all. That was also the year Sunshine informed me she was about to throw up, right as the Our Father was intoned, so if any Celtic rituals or candy apples made an appearance, I wasn't there to witness them.

The year after that, we went on a safari for Christmas.

It's only April now, so thankfully we have plenty of time left before the big decision is upon us again, but I can already tell it will be a real chore to decide, because there is so much choice within just a two-mile radius from us. Maybe I should start going to church now, just to complete all my research before Christmas.

If only the Starbucks were closer. I could sit through any sermon with a Grande Latte. I'm sure of it.

(And here I find myself again at the end of a blog post without actually having written about what I set out to at the start, so once again this topic will have TO BE CONTINUED...)

April 1, 2013

The Balanced (Expat) Family

Have you read Bringing Up Bebe?

Me neither. I thought I'd mention that before you get all impressed with me reading and reviewing a book while in the midst of an international move.

But I did read an editorial about it in the New York Times a while back. Bringing Up Bebe is a book written by Pamela Druckerman, an expat-returned-to-the-US mother, about what she calls "discovering the wisdom of French parenting." What particularly caught my eye in the article was where she describes a fundamental difference in how French and American parents regard the role of children in the family. In France, she observed, kids who came running up to their parents to talk to them about something or other were typically told to wait until the adults were finished talking. She also reminisced, after having returned to the U.S. and resumed her hectic after-school-sports-and-activities life, about the times she'd sit in a park somewhere in Paris sipping her wine with friends while idly watching the kids play at a playground.

I cannot help but feel a certain kinship with her. After only a few weeks back in the U.S., I am also reminiscing about what now seems an impossibly leisurely life in South Africa, versus what is shaping up to be a crazy schedule.

And I'm also reminiscing about sipping my wine while the kids were playing nearby. Or, come to think of it, mainly about sipping my wine, with or without kids.

Granted, there we lived within walking distance of our school, and here we don't. If my kids could get to all their activities on foot, my life here would be a hell of a lot less harried.

And I had domestic help in South Africa. Which, as you all know, means that I sat by the pool with my feet up all day and rang for service with a little bell every once in a while when I needed a refill for my drink.

But that's not all of it. Here, I noticed, the sidelines at any sporting event are always packed. Even if it's close to freezing and getting dark, you will find whole families camped out watching their child play in what, let's be honest, can only be a very minor regular season game. Entire households are moved to the sidelines of such games. The baby, the baby stroller, the family dog, grandma and grandpa, an assortment of chairs and toys, an ice chest with food and drink to last for three days.

A rare view of me camped out on the sidelines in South Africa, at an Alexandra Baseball game.
Photo courtesy of Natalie Irwin.

In South Africa, mind you, sports are just as big as here in the U.S. Kids are recruited heavily for their sporting prowess, even as young as twelve years old, and entire school dynasties are built around rugby or cricket programs.

However, there is a difference. And I think that difference comes down to balance.

Just like the French parents in Mrs. Druckerman's stories, South Africans seem less obsessive about their kids. They're involved in their kids' lives, but not pushy or ultra-competitive. A sideline brawl in the country where there is tea break in the midst of a cricket match is simply unimaginable. You will hear polite clapping and shouts of "well done" when things go well or "unlucky" when they don't. Parents don't overschedule their kids, and often play down their successes. They may attend a match, or they might not.

Most of all, they seem to have the ability to retain a life of their own (which, you might have guessed, more often than not seems to involve sipping wine).

The life of your typical American family, in contrast, seems to completely revolve around the kids' sporting schedule. Not only that, it is often held up as a perverse badge of honor how busy you are on your kids' behalf. A friend of mine confessed to feeling inadequate after talking to another parent who took extreme pride in the fact that the family never had any weekday meals together because every evening had to be divided and conquered by both parents running themselves ragged.

Some of that is not only an American phenomenon, I give you that. It's part of a worldwide trend of uber-zealous parenting focused on giving our offspring an edge over what we perceive as the fiercest competition since the beginning of man.

When I think back to my own childhood, I almost laugh at the contrast. When it came to sports, I was pretty much left to my own devices. I was about twelve or thirteen when I started scouting out my own sports teams in various clubs, rode to practices on my bike, and hung out with kids my parents had never met and no desire to meet. I eventually settled on basketball and will never forget how my mother once asked, a few years into my career, whether basketball was the sport with the net in the middle or the hoops at the end. She had never watched a single match.

Of course I was hoping for parents who had more of an interest in my life. But in hindsight I cannot help but admire how little my busy life affected theirs. I chose to hang out in all these gyms, but why should they?

I've said it before - four children, one sport each, you do the math. In a country without public transport, that's a hell of a lot of chauffeuring right there.

Maybe it's my need for quiet time and reflection. Or maybe it's the bonus of having lived as an expat and seen the virtues of other parenting styles, whether French or South African. But I am determined not to let supporter-in-chief to my children crowd out every other aspect of my life.

Come on, say it with me: It's okay to have your kids tough it out on the sports field in the freezing rain while you and your spouse sit at home enjoying a relaxed cup of cappuccino over the New York Times crossword puzzle.