October 30, 2014

Moving Day. In Pictures.

I wrote about Moving Day in my last post. Now I thought it would be nice to tell the story again, this time in pictures. It's actually a collection of several moving days, spanning several  years. Enjoy!

Above: Moving out of Kansas on what must have been the coldest day of that year, 2010. Mental note: don't move in winter!

Arrival in Johannesburg, April 2010: The perfect makeshift office!

Three years later, end of 2012, moving back to the USA from Johannesburg. It's already dark, and still more stuff to be squeezed into the container. Including, at the end, a pair of loose screws and bolts.

The South African packers redeemed themselves partially for the loose screws and the rotten potatoes by making me laugh with this cartoon on a wrapped piece of furniture.

Peaceful mayem. It all looks calm, but it's a whirlwind.

Oh to be a kid again and going with the flow like this, without a worry in the world, knowing that Mom will make your stuff reappear on the other side. Even if your lunch box might smell like rotten potatoes.

What to do with all this? The packers have informed us they won't pack it. The obvious solution? Get senselessly drunk.

At this point, still all looking very orderly and planned out.

Moving Day, from the kids' perspective. So much better than Moving Day from the Mom's perspective. Even though this Mom hates Monopoly.

The bed, already disassembled to the point where I won't have a freakin' clue how to put it back together. Plus there will be some key screws missing on the other side, which we don't even know about yet at this point, and they will be screws that won't be available anywhere in the United States. If we can ever even figure out what to call them so as to search for them online.

Now which one of these has the rotten potatoes in it? 

Catching blueberries. With your mouth. Makes for good entertainment for at least 20 minutes. Also has the benefit of removing at least one edible item from the list of potentially hazardous materials making it into a container where they're trapped for 3 months somewhere on the open seas.

See the blueberry? Will it go in or bounce off?

What emerged on the wall from under the kids' desk. I was tempted to compare prints to feet to find out the culprit, but decided against it. One of the hazards of living in South Africa is that your kids walk around barefoot most of the time, and that the soles of their feet are black most of the time, due to all the soot in the dry winter air from the ubiquitous grass fires dotting the countryside. Naturally, some of that rubs off onto the wall under the desk.

What we called the "staging room" in our Johannesburg house in December 2012 where all the stuff was put that was not allowed in the container. Including, apparently, the toilet paper. Although sadly not the rotten potatoes. 

Arrival of container, screws, and rotten potatoes in Brentwood, TN, January 2013.

Time to open up that baby. Let the screws roll out!

Emergence, thank GOD, of the South African wine we succeeded in smuggling with us. We may have parted with the hard liquor we had to leave behind, but we weren't going to give up on the wine. But it was hidden so well we didn't find it until the second to last box we opened.

The kind of mess you have to deal with after moving. Or maybe forever.

I almost want to puke when I remember the mess.

Best to put the person whose bed it is in charge of putting it back together, missing screws notwithstanding.

This concludes my Moving Day in Pictures. Do you have any to share?

October 27, 2014

Moving Day

It is moving day. Soon, the packers will show up in droves and you house will look like a battle zone. You have your last cup of tea in peace, and you think of what is to come.

The doorbell will ring, and you'll welcome the moving crew inside. You'll show them the different rooms, and all seems to be just fine. Since you've moved before, you have thought ahead and equipped yourself with a black Sharpie to help label the boxes, because from experience the packers' labeling isn't exactly helpful when you get to your new place and wonder which "kitchen supplies" box has the knives and which one the spices. And what the hell room they meant with "lounge." Which means as soon as the packers get going - and, while perhaps not hailing from the top of their class, they are extremely fast at what they're doing - you will be running around the house making sure you do all you can to add little notes to your future self.

You'll also want to make sure you give instructions on how to handle the Indonesian rice bed you've babied from Indonesia via Singapore, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, and all the way to South Africa, because the bottom has a tendency to fall out if handled the wrong way, and your husband will kill you if something happens on your watch.

If you have smaller children, you may temporarily lose one of them and work yourself into a minor panic trying to locate him, wondering if it is, in some crazy way, possible for him to have been packed into a box? Because he is gone! You eventually find him again an hour later, sitting with his back to a big carton in the farthest reaches of the house, headphones on and engrossed in a book, oblivious that 4 people have been yelling his name for 30 minutes straight.

As you move around the house putting out fires, you will realize, now that you can see everything without furniture, that the walls are a disaster and will need to be painted or your landlord will sue you. On the wall under the kids' desk you will discover a multitude of neat brown footprints, all in different sizes and shapes and not traceable to one particular kid, where they stretched their legs when working on the computer.

For some reason you have dentist appointments for all four children, on this very day of all days. It sounds crazy, but anyone who knows how hard it is to get a dentist appointment, even 6 months ahead of time, knows that you can't just let it go. Plus, who knows how long it will take for you to find and actually call a new dentist wherever you're moving. So today, while the packers are at your house, you will have to shuttle back and forth to the dentist, dropping off kids and picking others up, because you don't want to just stay there the whole time with God knows what the packers might be up to at your place.

Like putting rotten potatoes in a box, for instance.

You'll also have to somehow take pictures of the bed you bought used for one of the kids and which will be disassembled into a thousand pieces, with no re-assembly instructions for when it emerges on the other side. You'll want some kind of documentation of the steps.

What you should be doing is giving this job to one of the children. Because, frankly, your children have nothing to do and are bored out of their minds. They will play monopoly for hours, they will make themselves comfortable between all the boxes, and when there is nothing left to do they will throw blueberries at each others mouths to see who has the best aim.

It will be just as well to have blueberries all over your kitchen floor. Better than having them accidentally packed up in a box. Although they're bound to smell better than rotten potatoes.

You will be so happy when the day is finally over and the last of the crew is out the door that you will, in an unexpected bout of nostalgia, want to go see the container one last time up by the road before it begins its journey. This might not be a good idea, because instead of seeing off your sealed container as you expected, you might come across a scene of disarray where two packers are sitting on the pavement, in the twilight, taking apart shelves that frankly you had told them earlier, without sounding rude, they should take apart but which they insisted would fit into the container whole, but now that they didn't, had to be taken apart, screw by screw, while you settle in with the rest of the packers watching with baited breath. And hallelujah, eventually everything fits, albeit barely, and they throw all the screws into the container and bolt it shut. What?? Did you just see them throw all the screws in like that, loose to knock around as they please?

But as you sit there in the morning sunshine, sipping your tea and thinking of all of this and more in the day ahead of you, you're already too tired to care, should this actually ever come to pass.

You've moved six times already, and if that container, including all the screws (and perhaps some rotten potatoes), sank to the bottom of the sea on its long journey, you might actually be relieved. You are tired to your bones of moving stuff around the world.

I started writing this blog post in December of 2012 as we were about to move from Johannesburg to Nashville, and for reasons now forgotten, I never finished it. It's kind of nice to now look back into the past this way. Stay tuned for some more pictures to go with it.

October 20, 2014

What Expats SHOULDN'T Let the Packers Put in the Container

The other day I posted my Ultimate Expat Moving Checklist on Facebook. A blog post, I must say, that I've worked very hard for, if only to be able to use it myself one day should we ever move again, at which point I'd normally be tearing my hair out that I was so foolish to have thrown away all my other moving checklists of years past. Having it on my own blog, I figured, would ensure that I'd be able to find it again when needed. Even if it's just accidental, by Googling "expat moving checklist" and then being totally surprised to find a link to my very own blog.

Yes, I'm getting that old.

Anyway, the funny thing was that the comment I got in response was not about what else to make sure to remember to pack. It was the opposite. It was all about what not to pack.

What had happened, this reader told me, was this: She and her family were all set to move from the USA to South Africa, and she wanted to bring a San Francisco sourdough starter in her hand luggage. She had carefully cultivated and fed it over years, and anyone who's ever baked sourdough bread with their own starter knows how precious it becomes. Like your own baby. She made sure she kept it next to her personal belongings like passports and flight tickets and all that in her kitchen, until the fatal day when she briefly left the packers alone to pick up her kids from school. When she got back, the sourdough had been packed and none of the packers remembered into which box.

I can almost feel her despair. But there was nothing to be done, and that was the end of that particular batch of sourdough, which as expected did not survive the three-month journey to Pretoria intact.

Moving day: Once it's in a box, it's gone. Just hope it's not your sourdough starter.

Sourdough should not go into your shipping container. Here are a few more things:

The rental furniture
The passports
Rotten potatoes - duh!
Fresh potatoes - they will become rotten!

Why do I  mention rotten potatoes? Well. We all know that moving day can be crazy. The packers are spread out throughout your house, you're running around like crazy taking care of last-minute business, and everything takes on a life of its own. Including the potatoes in your pantry. Or, well, not a life of their own quite yet. That will only come later, as your container is peacefully moving somewhere along a shipping route on the Atlantic in 40+ degrees heat. Back in Johannesburg, all that is happening is that a packer mindlessly grabs the potatoes and packs them up, together with the kids' lunchboxes and whatever else is in the vicinity.

Boy do I never want to open that particular box again! What wafted out of that box was the foulest breath I've ever taken in, not to mention having to touch slimey and almost-liquified potatoes. I held my nose and fished out the lunchboxes and immediately threw them in the washing machine, but even four cycles of rigorous washing did not remove the rotten potato smell, so we had to get rid of them.

Here is my advice to all those in the midst of an international move: Take all perishable food out of your house before the packers arrive, or employ a guard stationed in your kitchen who will watch it like a hawk.

October 15, 2014

Travel in South Africa in the Age of Apartheid

When I was still a kid, my older brother, who'd been off to university for a few years, decided to travel around South Africa for a few months. 

I remember when he came back and regaled us with his stories. He is a wonderful storyteller, and as an impressionable teenager I'd sit there and hang on his every word. My favorite story was the one he told about the hotels, or perhaps they were more like Bed&Breakfasts, that he stayed in while traversing the country. At the first one - I can't remember where it was, probably somewhere in the Transvaal, just because I love throwing out that ancient-sounding name for what today is Limpopo, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and parts of the Northwest Province - he was baffled as to how to take a shower. There were two distinct spouts, you see, one for scalding hot water, and one for cold. How to get the water into the temperate zone somewhere in between? The solution was a nifty contraption he eventually discovered for sale when asking around, and which he subsequently christened "The Milking Machine." Looking much like an oversize stethoscope, it came with two rubber cups that you fitted over the hot and cold water taps, and then you would stand underneath the dangling spout on the other end where both streams merged. 

He carried the Milking Machine with him everywhere he went after that. It was not without its pitfalls, because those rubber cups had a tendency to pop off just as you'd gotten soap all over yourself, and then you would stand there and try to get those slippery suckers back on again while tap dancing on your feet to avoid receiving first-degree burns on one side and frostbite on the other. You simply didn't have enough hands to hold on to all the loose ends at once, and so most showers resulted in flooded bathrooms. 

He also told us other stories and repeatedly tried to explain his impressions of apartheid to us, and what it meant for everyday life. I remember that it all sounded mind-boggling to me, defying any kind of logic, but I didn't pay close attention. It was the tale of the Milking Machine that stayed with me the longest.

It is this same brother who recently unearthed the ancient travel guide he had used back then. It is called South Africa: On R10 and R20 a day and is dated 1981-82. Looking for a better home for it, he bequeathed - and sent - it to me, which is how I now find myself in the possession of this gem.

Of course, I immediately peeked into the Johannesburg section. Some parts sound just like today, for instance:
There is a vitality and vibrancy in the air, the rush and bustle of a city intent on making the most of every business opportunity and the edge that comes with such keen competition. It is obvious in the traffic that moves with determination, drivers taking the smallest gap given them, always aggressive, intent only on reaching their destination in the shortest possible time.

And that was before the advent of minibus taxis. One can only imagine how slow-moving the rest of South Africa must have been in those days. Because "making the most of every business opportunity" would require, to my Western expectations at least, that people actually call you back the same day when they say "just now." And yet, the words vitality, vibrancy, bustle, and of course traffic are still the ones most often used to describe Johannesburg today.

But then I chuckled when I came across this:
The various attractions and activities in the city are spread between the Carlton Centre in the south and Hillbrow in the north, a distance that can be walked within about a half an hour...

You won't find many South African travel guides, especially those geared towards foreign visitors, promoting taking a walk anywhere near Hillbrow. Most South Africans I got to know haven't been there in decades and likely never will go again. To be fair, things have changed dramatically since the late nineties when Hillbrow was known as one of the most dangerous places on earth, where you'd only set foot if you were heavily armed and certainly never after dark. Even Johannesburg hasn't escaped the modern trend of urban revitalization, and many of its formerly taboo inner-city areas are once again hip and quirky and, yes, vibrant, drawing especially the younger artsy crowds. Walking is making a comeback too, something I got a glimpse of when joining the Joburg Photowalkers during jacaranda season (for which it is just now the time of year again!) and when going on a graffiti tour with Past Experiences. If you'd like to find out more about this newly-emerging trendy side of Joburg, read Heather Mason's blog 2Summers (see all links below).

Graffiti walking tour in Braamfontein with Past Experiences

Jacaranda tour in Rosebank with Joburg Photowalkers

My shock, even though it shouldn't have been unexpected, came when I turned the page. The following subheading was staring me in the face:
Accommodation for Non-Whites

Then came a short list of men's and women's hostels in Alexandra and Orlando und below that, curiously, a list of international hotels. In the equivalent section for Cape Town, this was explained with "All International Hotels in the city cater for all races." I guess it makes sense that those, in 1981, would not officially condone apartheid and therefore open their doors to everyone. But not so fast - when you then scrolled through the Johannesburg listings, you found that all rates are for "bed only." Apparently, you were allowed to sleep there, but couldn't be seen mingling with the whites in the dining room.

I'm glad that South African travel guides have changed in this regard.


More information on walking tours and today's "quirky" and trendy places in Johannesburg:

Joburg Photowalkers on Facebook
Past Experiences on Facebook
The best blog about exploring Joburg and beyond: 2Summers

I'm sure no one would really want to buy this travel guide, but I was impressed that it was listed on Amazon:

October 10, 2014

South African School Awards vs American School Awards

I've written about the South African House vs the American House, and the South African Teenager vs the American Teenager. I've also compared schools quite extensively, but today I'd like to talk more specifically about award ceremonies at school.

On the surface, there is not that much to complain about those we've had here in the United States. They are always very well planned out, they last exactly as long as advertised, and you might even get someone to direct the parking.Organization is the name of the game.

But that is where the love stops. Because they are unforgivably boring. Since our school here is much bigger than Dainfern College, they also last much longer. Thank god we don't have them very often, or I'd probably be caught out for using my cellphone in school. It's already so tempting to text a friend I see sitting across the gym, up in the bleachers, and tell her how very bored I am. The speeches drone on in the background, except they are no real speeches, they are just lists of kids being called to the front to receive some kind of recognition. And everybody and their brother deserves recognition. Especially for distinguishing themselves for never missing a day of school the entire year. Of course however many germs they might have spread around by dragging their bodies to school with green goo streaming out of their noses neither gets recorded nor recognized. 

About that gym, here is what I wrote about it in an earlier blog post on the same subject:
What was very different this time lay in the amount of pomp and solemnity, or rather lack thereof. I suppose it's hard to extract much pomp and solemnity from a vast gym where you're sitting on hemorrhoid-breeding bleachers and surrounded by banners of athletic awards hung from the rafters, bright neon lights above and squeaky sounds of rubber sole on gym floor drifting up from below. It was much easier to achieve in a posh auditorium with cushy seats and stage lighting.
To be fair, this is a public school, versus a private one in South Africa. No school fees, just tax money. Which, judging by the size of the houses we are surrounded with, can't be all that bad. Nevertheless, we are stuck with this gym, and each year I carefully read one sports championship banner after the other to pass the time, wondering why it is that our school hasn't achieved any glory on the sports field since 2006, or whether perhaps it was just that the money for the banners ran out.

But even in this gym, you could shake up the party. What's missing here is the spirit, the heart, the desire to teach not just ABCs and fractions but how to grow into the person you want to be. What's missing here is that there is no singing of hymns; there is no Mrs van der Ploeg hammering on the keys of the piano and leading the charge with her soprano; there are no soaring speeches by the headmaster and captains of industry and sports; there are no frisbees flying into the audience to encourage participation; there are no robes with colors; and, most regrettably, there is no Mr Webb lighting a fire in a wheelbarrow on the stage, nor is there Mr West leading his entire staff dancing to Gangnam Style.

All we get here is the monotone ramblings of our ancient and wizened principal. You'll thank me for not having captured her on video.

What we need here is a little South African spirit. The kind of spirit shown by the award-winning Team Vuvuzela during this year's annual Cumberland River Dragonboat Race. 

By the way, while we're comparing things, do read up on South African toilets vs American toilets, to round out the picture.

October 6, 2014

Only in Africa

Most of you have probably come across a Facebook page called Africa, this is why I live here. If you haven't, go check it out, you'll like it.

The postings there perfectly capture the spirit of its name. And, in a way, the spirit of my blog. When I still lived in Africa it was a wonderful remedy on days when I felt despondent about getting nowhere with my phone calls. And now it is a wonderful reminder of what it was that we so loved about living there - the humor, the naivete, the blunt telling it like it is.

The owner of the page put it in even better words, on the occasion of reaching 100,000 Likes (we can all only dream about that):

AFRICA IS IN US, NO MATTER WHERE WE FIND OURSELVES. When all is said and done, no matter who we are, what language we speak, where we originate from, what colour our skin or where we find ourselves in the world – the interactions between us, on this page, show how much in common we have, how we share that unique African sense of humour, we are able to laugh at ourselves like no other people.We CHOOSE to see the fun/quirky/crazy/ This Is Africa’ness of it all…and THAT is what makes me love my continent and my people as much as I do – I thank you, from the bottom of my heart for participating with your comments, your in boxes, your emails…all your wonderful contributions from all over our magnificent continent.It is YOU who make living here the amazing, memorable, rich and full to the brim life we live – I thank you.
That paragraph almost made me cry. But mostly, when I go there, I laugh out loud.

A recent look at Africa, this is why I live here made me remember that I have my own collection of "Only in Africa" pictures I've collected over the years. I've uploaded some of these to my Facebook page as "Humor of the Day" shots, but now thought I might put them together in a collection. I can't give credit to the photographers in this case - most of these were sent to me via long email chains that make tracking down the photographer impossible (and some have appeared on Africa, this is why I live here as well).

So let the show begin. Sit back and enjoy!

There are more of these houses in South Africa than you might think. There are also less road signs.

No words.

If you live in a neighborhood called "The Governor's Club," thinking about your basement while looking at this picture leaves you slightly ashamed. Or envious that you overspent on that home theater, depending how you want to look at it.

I can't quite see this in American skies...

...nor this on American fence posts (except for the part about shooting).

Found on Peter Nyaga's Facebook page 
Very funny until you've been on one of those roads. 

"We circumcise... In heven you will be in a good way" is already a classic. But combined with the "tree cutters" and image of the giant chainsaw - shudder!

Lost in translation.

Keeping the precious cargo safe...

...while the not so precious cargo is put on the roof.

Perfect logic. If not perfect English.

Hello, Telkom? I haven't had phone service in over three weeks...

Just make sure you use your blinker.

Friday afternoon - time to open the bar!

Maybe the concept of the 24 hr kiosk needs to be explained? Then again, if you count in African time, 9-6 is probably right around 24 hours. Because African Time is like dog years.

This makes perfect sense.

Great product placement. Toyotas are indeed the vehicle of choice in Africa.

Pastors get their own toilet. AND it is bigger.

...Or, if you need to touch yourself, use the pastor's toilet from above. There is extra space in there.

Someone with a sense of humor. Or someone who had a lot of their doors accidentally smashed in.

No mincing words, telling it like it is.

Uhm... Maybe it was just that there wasn't enough money for two sign posts? 

This is my all-time favorite. You have to read the whole letter.

If you can spare some of "your" nuts...

No relation to your nuts from the previous sign.

Maybe it's a good thing you've already had an erection and your nuts turned into peanut butter.

If you manage to electrocute more than your "Willy" this is where you go next.