June 26, 2014

How Much is Enough: Expat Tips on Tipping

One of the first things you always have to learn in a new country is how much to tip.

This is especially true in South Africa. You'll be setting out on your very first errand to buy milk and butter at the Woolworth's around the corner, you'll return to your car with your bags, and as you pull out of your parking space, a guy will materialize at your window with an outstretched hand. What on Earth does he expect?

I've written about the economic calculations for someone working this job in Johannesburg in The Parking Gods, so I won't get into the details again here. But I would like to say this:

No matter how much you give, it's never enough.

I was reminded of this in a book I just started reading. It's called Absolution by Patrick Flanery and I won't review it here, although just 20 pages in I can tell you that I am keenly looking forward to the rest of it as an intriguing peek into South Africa's apartheid past.

In the first chapter, a South African recently returned from a long stint abroad asks his friend how much he should be tipping the car guard.

"It can never be too much because they need it more than you," says his friend. "And if you're a tourist," he goes on to say, "you owe them a little more."

This gave me pause to think. Are expats tourists or not? Of course we like to think that we aren't. That we are so adventurous and culturally sensitive that we quickly adapt to local customs, that we actually live there versus just visiting, that we know so much more about the country.

But in many ways, we are just tourists. Granted, ones that stay about three years versus three weeks, but always with an option to go back where we came from (and also often with a salary paid from abroad).

The character in Absolution then asks his friend, the local, how much he gives. This is where it really gets you thinking. "I give less than I expect you to give because I give every day and haven been giving for years." He then goes on to list all the ways he contributes - to the nanny, to the gardener, to the cleaning lady, not just in terms of wages but by helping put their kids through school, buying school uniforms, paying for medical aid... The list is long. Because of all this giving, so the argument, he gives less to the car guards than a tourist should.

So if you find yourself an expat in South Africa, do give this some thought.

You probably won't be there when your domestic eventually retires and needs someone to help her build a house, as most of my South African friends have done or will do at some point in their lives.

You won't be there long enough to pass on your old car to your domestic's husband, greatly increasing his fortunes because now he doesn't have to give up 40% of his earnings for transport.

You may not be there when your gardener's son is killed in a stabbing and there is no money for the funeral, a big affair in an African township.

You won't be there for a lot of things, so while you are there, give often and give generously.

Whatever we paid and gave our domestic, I'm sure it was
never enough. Sadly I've lost touch with her.

P.S.: I'm sorry if you expected more in terms of actual tips on tipping, as promised in the title of this post. I sort of hijacked the topic for an excursion into social justice, especially since the parking guards became dear to me during our South African years. And frankly, in all other areas of tipping the custom is very much similar to the U.S. - 15-20% in restaurants, and tips for hairdressers (especially the "tea ladies" who will also give you a heavenly head and/or hand massage!) and bellboys and valet parking and such. 

Plus of course you could always find yourself with a flat tire when invariably someone will materialize and change it for you

You should generously tip that person too.

June 21, 2014

Win One of Five FREE Copies of Kilimanjaro Diaries Paperback!

I know you're just dying to find out which might be the most important item to pack in your Kilimanjaro bag - the wet wipes or the hiking poles (hint: It's a close one!).

Or how many Tanzanian shillings you should bring to cover all the alcohol you need to get senselessly drunk at your hotel bar afterwards.

And whether zip-off pants are really such a fashion faux-pas after all.

Can you spot the Kilimanjaro beers?
There you go: hiking poles AND zip-off pants
all at once!

If you've read Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life, of course you'll already know all the answers.

If you haven't yet bought your copy, why don't you enter the Goodreads giveaway ending TOMORROW, June 22. Maybe you'll be the lucky recipient of one of the 5 signed copies I'm giving away for FREE (US and Canada only).

Good luck, and happy reading!

June 16, 2014

An American Rite of Passage: The College Campus Tour

We have a 17-year old in the house.

Who, by the grace of God, will be OUT the house around this time next year. 

A few weeks ago, in order to lay the groundwork for this event, I spent an entire morning looking at university websites, trawling through an ocean of information about admissions guidelines, college majors, deadlines, and financial aid. While I was gathering all this data, I thought it wise to start collecting it in a nifty spreadsheet, and so a new project was born. 

Then I was thinking: Isn't that something my 17-year old should be doing? The one who'll actually get to GO to university? Maybe herein lies the fatal flaw. Maybe it should be ME who gets to go there instead, considering I'm putting in all the work, and considering that I'm way more excited about it than he is. Maybe all this education is wasted on the young, who really have no clue what it is they should be studying, and who can't be bothered to take a long enough break from their all-important games on their iPhones to invest in their own college search.

So I did what all mothers with a Facebook account do: I posted this very question - who should do the university application work - for all the world to see, and waited for some advice.

In came in plentiful abundance. 

Some maintained that the kids should do the work ("
Made my boys fill out their own applications"), but those were a minority. The large majority expressed what I mostly feel as well, that you have to do the work you want done, or it simply won't be done. ("Filled in all the applications and sent the necessary certified paperwork! I even chose the degrees that they are doing!" was one such piece of advice.) 

If I were an economist or Malcolm Gladwell, I'd now do a study and monitor these families over the next ten years, to see which kids fared better - those whose mothers left it to them to do the work versus those whose mothers spent late nights pouring over online applications and endless pages of class descriptions. Oh, the luxury of hindsight!

In the meantime, I'm choosing the path of least resistance, which is me doing the work and my son tagging along.

That's how you could recently find me on a campus tour (organized by me!), glued to the side of our guide and peppering her with the questions I knew my son wouldn't ask. 

It was a pretty day and a beautiful campus. Leafy trees, gorgeous brick buildings, winding paths, a bell tower, a library to die for (with a Starbucks inside it; a STARBUCKS, people!), the whole place oozing tradition and privilege.

If I had to pick a place I would have to live out the rest of my
days, I'd pick an American college campus. You can't go wrong.

Chairs awaiting the graduation ceremony - black gowns, pomp
and circumstance, hats in the air, the works!

This one's easy, but can you correctly place the other ones?

All the while, I was taking mental notes (and also furtive real ones on my phone) of the tour group around us. I am a writer, after all, and observing people is my main vocation. 

There was Pretty Girl in tight and very short shorts with super-long eyelashes and bright lipstick, chewing gum and acting bored. I nicknamed her Veruca Salt (as in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). There was a boy in an Alabama football shirt with unkempt hair who looked like he came directly from football practice, and all his questions were about sports. My guess is he'll end up going to the University of Alabama and not this fine institution we were visiting. Then there was the obligatory mother every such group from the beginning of mankind has featured, asking about the size of the bathrooms in the dorms. That was her only question. And then there was Hippie Girl with her arms crossed, awkwardly stepping from one foot to the other, accompanied by what looked like her great-grandfather. All in all, I felt, had they picked students based on presentability and interest alone right then and there, my son would have had a pretty good chance of getting in.

The College Campus Tour may be an American rite of passage, but the way I see it it's one giant boondoggle. A boondoggle for the parents, mind you, considering that at least this family's teenage boy can't be bothered to get excited about going on one. 

Which is fine by me. He can stay home for all I care, while I go off touring American cities with suitable restaurants and nightlife - excuse me, universities. 

Who wants to come along?

June 9, 2014

African Time is Like Dog Years

African time is like dog years.

Or maybe it's the reverse if you really did the math correctly. My point is, everything takes about seven times as long as you're used to if, like most expats, you've grown up on a continent with a more mainstream concept of time. Or maybe I should come right out and say it: A more Western concept of time.

For just about the entire three years we lived in South Africa, I tried diligently to get Woolworths - the South African grocery store chain - to approve my customer member card, so that I could get promotions per email and accumulate loyalty points and such.

Don't get me wrong, I adore Woolworths. It is the best everyday grocery store I've ever shopped at. I love everything about them: the convenient locations, the small stores you can easily navigate in about 10 minutes, the friendly staff, the superior quality of just about everything they stock. I even love the cloth shopping bags I got there and use now when I go to Publix, and every bagger here practically drools over them.

But while Woolworths is probably one of the best-managed South African companies, my quest to register for their customer loyalty program resembled all my other quests to beat the Bureaucracy of Doom. It dragged on and on, parked indefinitely at that oh-so-South-African sweet spot between Just Now and Never.

My first application was denied because of  the usual problem of digits: South African ID numbers have 13 digits, and US (or German, for that matter) passports don't. So it's impossible for your number to match their field, and it takes an act of God or at least the act of an extremely well-qualified and energetic supervisor to reconcile the two.

Lo and behold, I did eventually get the ID sorted out. But that's when my application somehow got lost, and I had to start the whole thing from scratch. Miraculously, I got the ID problem fixed a second time which finally did enable me to get the coveted discount card, but in order to receive emails with weekly discount offers there was yet another application, and I never was able to get that one approved.

Imagine my surprise, then, when just last week, about one and a half years after our departure from South Africa, I received a mouth-watering e-mail from Woolworths.

Financial Services
Exclusively for WRewards Members
More savings this week
Mushrooms buy any 2 save R10
All butter crossaints 8pk - now R40.95 save R8
Potatoes 700 g buy any 2 save R10
Eat in for 4 under R150
All the public holidays might be over, but that doesn't mean that delicious family dinners have to come to an end. Tuck into a homestyle soup, a hearty lasagne, salad or veggies and malva pudding for 4, all for under R150. Supper, sorted.
Our sweet and sticky puddings are just the thing to warm up a cool winter night. So good you'll want them for the main course.
Bold, juicy red wines are a must for winter dinners, and we've put together a collection of our favourites.
Make the most of the winter hibernation with our collection of recipes for soups, curries, roasts, and winter puddings - everything you need for at-home entertaining.
The Cape's ultimate foodie experience is back again, and if you book now you can take advantage of the early bird special: buy any Celebrity Chefs Theatre presented by Woolworths and Robertsons Herbs & Spices ticket and get a free admission ticket. See www.goodfoodandwineshow.co.za for more details.

The idea that this paperwork of mine has somehow survived almost two years on some South African desk where someone just happened to come across it (how?), is preposterous. But that's how it must have played out.

Oh, the irony that I'll now have to be reminded on a regular basis of all the good stuff I can't have anymore, discount be damned! Because you know as well as I do that there is no way in hell that I can be taken off their mailing list again. Once on a South African mailing list you stay there till kingdom come. There might be fires and floods and a seven-year-plague, but the emails shall be rolling forevermore.

Please God give me the strength, from this point forward, to withstand weekly mouth-watering images of my beloved Luxury Muesli, Cape berries, the creamiest-ever-and-still-lowfat Ayrshire yogurt, delicious scones and mangoes, salami sticks and heavenly malva pudding, succulent leg of lamb, and, cruelest of all, a nice selection of the world's best Chardonnay at amazing prices.

I'm thinking: If I request to be taken off their mailing list now, I could nurse a dog from puppy to old age before the sweet torture ends.

On the off-chance that we'll move back to South Africa in the meantime, I'll gladly keep the emails coming.

June 3, 2014

A Real-Life Book to Touch and Feel and Gaze at Adoringly

After months of wading knee-deep in paragraph styles, margins, and those devilish Word section breaks I'll soon tell you more about, it feels almost anticlimactic. It feels more like I want to take a long rest, especially from all things keyboard and word processor. And yet I do want to celebrate this milestone, because that's what it is.

I published my first Paperback!

Every writer toying with the idea of one day writing a book has an image in his or her mind, and it's not of a Kindle screen. It's of an actual, physical book she can hold in her hands, leaf through, and otherwise mostly gaze at adoringly for hours. It's like a shiny new car! It looks good in so many places! Copies of it piled in a stack! Randomly tossed onto the coffee table! Next to a mug of freshly-made cappuccino! In the bookshelf with your favorite authors! In a selfie with your sweaty tennis outfit on!

In a selfie with sweaty tennis outfit

Randomly tossed (ok, arranged carefully) on coffee table

In bookshelf with other books by (more) famous authors

Piled in a big stack

Maybe this is why I'm pretty confident books will never be obsolete.The readers might not care how they're consuming a good story and might opt in ever greater numbers for the electronic convenience. But authors never will give up on publishing their works in a good ole book.

It's too nice to see your own name on the cover of one.

Here's where you can order Kilimanjaro Diaries, the Paperback:
United States: Amazon.com, UK: Amazon.co.uk, Germany: Amazon.de.

If you don't live in any of these countries or prefer the Kindle version, you can order it from these Amazon stores: Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukAmazon.deAmazon.inAmazon.frAmazon.esAmazon.itAmazon.co.jpAmazon.com.brAmazon.caAmazon.com.mx, and Amazon.com.au.

Not sure yet that you'll like it? Perhaps take a look at what others are saying about Kilimanjaro Diaries:
Even though I have no plans to climb Kilimanjaro, I really enjoyed reading Kilimanjaro Diaries. I read many of Sine’s blog posts about her Kili climb back when it actually happened in 2012, and it was great to see how she expanded those posts into a book. I especially loved the early chapters, when Sine describes her preparations (or non-preparations, in some cases) for the climb, and the late chapters when she tells the story of her summit attempt. I don’t want to give away the ending but I’ll just say that I cried... [Excerpt from 2Summers.net. Read more here.]
A funny, wry, and moving account ... Sine devotes a chapter to each day of the 7-day climb, and I have never felt so strongly that I was on a journey I wasn’t actually on. I felt the exhaustion and camaraderie along the way, sharing each day’s challenges and pleasures. I saw the rainforest at the lowest elevation and the “bleak but sunlit alpine desert” as they climbed higher; I always felt the terrain beneath my feet. I felt like I was listening in on their regular topics of conversation... [Excerpt from Bacon on the Bookshelf. Read more here.]