December 31, 2014

Looking Back on 2014

Lots of stuff happens when you're an expat. You see new places, you meet new people, and you have plenty to write about. 

Then you move back home, and that year is kind of busy too. You pack and unpack household goods until they come out your ears, you get settled in new schools and places of work, and once again you have plenty to write about.

Then comes the year AFTER, and nothing much happens in it at all. You go about your back-home business every day. You order stuff from Amazon, which even after a year of such luxury still gives you a little jolt of pleasure every single time. Ditto for Starbucks and working traffic lights aka robots. You spend a lot of your time with the household chores previously done by your maid during your days of glory as an expat sipping-mojitos-by-the-pool wife, and you spend some more of your time arguing with your husband over why you don't feel the house needs to be quite as clean as it was during said glory days.

2014 was that year after for us. Not that much of note happened, and so not that much of note is deserving of mention in this reflection of the past year.

One thing, however, IS, and I'll shamelessly seize the opportunity to put in another plug for it: In March 2014, I published my very first book, Kilimanjaro Diaries. Making up my mind to sit down and finally start writing sometime mid-2013 was actually the biggest biggest hurdle to overcome and doesn't belong in this year at all, but the part where I finally pushed the "publish to Kindle" button so that people could come rushing to buy it does. It came around the end of March, after countless rounds of conferring with my editor, applying corrections, and proof-reading it until I could no longer stand my own story, and I do admit that it was one of my great moments not just in this year but my entire life. And shortly after that, in May, came another, even better moment, when I held an actual paperback copy in my very own hands. For about 11 hours straight before I could bring myself to let go of it. I also count giving a talk about my book and signing copies of it at Parnassus Books right here in Nashville among the other highlights of this year.

And while I'm shamelessly plugging it: No matter which country you are in, Kilimanjaro Diaries (Kindle version) can be purchased by clicking this link. Unless of course you already own a copy, in which case I'd like to say thanks for your business!

Looking toward 2015, I have big plans: Publishing the German translation of Kilimanjaro Diaries in January or February and publishing my second book, the one about a 6-person family traveling through Namibia in a 5-person car (and changing lots and lots of tires) later in the year. I also plan to get started on a third book, the topic of which I won't reveal just yet. But who knows - I'll also have to help get our oldest child out the door and into university, and at the rate that project has been going this year, I might very well spend the entire first half of 2015 nagging and sending out deadline reminders.

Finally I thought I'd end this review of 2014 by listing the most popular posts on Joburg Expat this year:

3rd most read post, somewhat surprisingly, in which I compared South Africa and Brazil through the lens of each country's soccer world cup and and how determined people can achieve great things, even with the deck stacked against them:
  From World Cup to World Cup: Soccer, Poverty, and Determination.

2nd most read post
, in which I reflected on first world problems we encounter here in our sheltered and spoiled life, and hopefully gave you a few good laughs:
Coyote Sightings, Ungainly Outhouses, and other First World Problems

1st most read pos
t, with a very boring title but apparently full of good information for fellow expats navigating the intricacies of South African bureaucracy:
How to Register a Car in South Africa

December 24, 2014

A Very Merry South African Christmas!

Merry Christmas to all my South African readers and friends!

December 19, 2014

'Twas the Night Before Christmas..."

I'm going to be lazy this year and treat you to last year's Christmas poem, which I don't think I ever published here. The sweat and blood (and copious amounts of Chardonnay) I put into all that rhyming warrants a bit more exposure than our list of friends and family who it was sent off to a year ago. Plus, there really isn't much new stuff that has happened to us this year. America will do that to you. So, here goes:

At a House in America in December...

‘Twas some nights before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring but the Microsoft mouse.
The cursor was blinking, the screen was aglow,
And progress, as last year, was painfully slow.

My fingers were tapping on the keyboard with care
In hopes that the Christmas card soon would be there,
When out of the kitchen there arose such a clatter
I sprang from my desk to see what was the matter.

“Could it be?” I was thinking, “Could this be the year,
When Santa and all of his helpers appear?”
For let me speak frankly, I could do with a break,
If only for everyone’s sanity’s sake.

Never mind the big bundle of toys on his back.
What I needed was twenty-one elves in a pack!
Twenty-one elves to do all of my work
Would be ever so lovely a holiday perk.

And right there in the hallway I counted the ways
In which I’d employ an elf army for days:
One to do laundry, one to cook food,
One to scrub sinks, one to lighten the mood.

One to string twinkling chains of light
So our house will pass muster in the dark of the night,
One to check Facebook and one to check Twitter,
And one for the tree to add sparkle and glitter.

I need one who will look at my shopping list
To find all of the presents I might have yet missed.
One rich one to refill my PayPal purse,
And a poet  – for your sake –to help put this in verse.

One I’d dispatch to go drive in the car1)
With Son Two at the wheel, and me very far
Because frankly quite thoroughly up I’m fed
With hours and hours of driver’s ed.

Though thankfully Number One now has license and Leaf
So my time at the wheel’s gone from often to brief
While he transports himself from home to pool
To earn money while whistling from a tall stool.

Celebrity tracking would be one fine job
For a music scene elf whose heart might throb
After Carrie, Nicole, and Keith and Joe Don
Though that last one has sold and since then moved on.2)

That’s thirteen so far, but wait, there is more
To another or two, I offer this chore:
Help sort travel pictures, learn Photoshop,
Which mystifies me, except how to crop.

And one, retroactively, to help us move in
As our patience for moving has worn a bit thin.
Schlepping boxes, hang pictures, fix broken stuff –
The seventh time moving has us yelling “enough!”

Also now that I’ve finally written my book
I need elves to prepare it for Kindle and Nook
One each to edit, draw cover, make website a tease,
That makes three total elves just for Project Book, please!

“But what of last summer,” Saintly Santa might ask,
“Why wasn’t it then that you started your task?”3)
And I would have, except that we answered the lure
Of Amsterdam, Paris, and Winterthur.4)

If you count all these elves, and two more for good measure
You get twenty-one helpers to serve at my pleasure.
And I thought: “That is just the right number I’ll probably need”
As I ran towards the crash in my kitchen with speed.

Alas, ‘twasn’t Santa, not even an elf,
It was Findus the cat who’d pulled cake from the shelf.
“No, Findus!” I yelled and sprayed with Febreeze
And away he scrambled, trailing crumbs and a sneeze.

I’m certain by now you’ve grown bored of this rhyme
Plus not even rhyming elf showed up in time.
So this, folks, concludes Sine’s Poetry Lite
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Findus the cat doing what he does best

1) Speaking of cars, another elf could divide his time between a) driving around town to see if any traffic lights – robots – are out of order or if it is indeed true that they always work, and b) telling all our friends here what a miracle this is to the recent African traveler.

2) Not only did Joe Don Rooney put up his house for sale pretty much the minute we introduced ourselves as the new neighbors, the couple who bought it has since then put it up for sale again. Is something wrong with us?

3) Noisette, who actually sort of shares a name with Santa in his real life, often asks the very same thing.

4) The actual order was the reverse, and more: Frankfurt – Hannover – Heilbronn – Tübingen – Munich – Winterthur – Paris – Amsterdam – Hannover – Frankfurt. I didn’t count the kilometers but we spent nine whole days on a train. And we lived in the crappiest apartment in all of Paris, but guess what: Picasso used to have his studio in the same building! A big thank you to all who hosted us so graciously, too many to name.


To find out more about our past year, visit – there is almost nothing that doesn’t make it onto my blog as a story (sometimes to the embarrassment of our kids). We wish you all a happy holiday season and all the best for 2014.

Brought to you by the creators of Joburg Expat, December 2013

December 15, 2014

Top 10 Must Visit Places in South Africa

"Hi, I have recently moved to Johannesburg and will be here for couple of years. Would it be possible for you to share the top 10 must visit places in SA with me. Thanks in advance!"

When I recently got this question from a future expat, I penned out a quick response without much thought. It wasn't that hard to select 10 must visit places in SA, to be honest, because in our two years there we hadn't really been to any MORE than 10 places. Much of our travels took us OUTSIDE of South Africa - Mozambique, Victoria Falls, Mauritius, Zanzibar, Kilimanjaro, Namibia, Botswana; all of them must-visit places in their own right, I'd say - which left me straining to even come up with ten places we'd seen within the country.

And yet, after some careful thinking and going back to my blog's travel archives, I realized that these ten places were really good candidates for my official list of 10 top travel spots in South Africa, which I hereby present to you:

Top 10 Travel Spots in South Africa


    The Mother City is a must-visit place, if you don't already live there, and likely a place you'll return to many times. What we liked about Cape Town was its affordability. In a country where you will leave a LOT of money at too many pricey luxury safari lodges, Cape Town is a welcome surprise for family travel. There's so much to see and do: The V&A Waterfront, Table Mountain, a tour of Robben Island and Nelson Mandela's prison cell, a day trip around the Cape Peninsula with a stop at Boulders for the penguin colony and culminating in a photo op at the Cape of Good Hope, and too many world-class restaurants to mention. Start by reading Getaway to Cape Town for some travel tips, or if you're traveling with children, read my Cape Town with Kids series. If you have time to venture out farther, add some adventure by going cage diving with great white sharks in Gansbaai, and stop for some whale watching in Hermanus along the way.


    Madikwe is the one game reserve we returned to time and
    time again. First, it's close to Joburg. Second, it's malaria-free. And third, it has some of the world's best safari lodges and game viewing, in my opinion. All of the Big Five are represented, and it is one of the best places to see the resurging but still endangered African wild dogs. To get an idea of what awaits you on a family safari at one of its luxury lodges, start with In Pursuit of the Buffalo, which takes place at Jaci's Tree Lodge. We've also stayed at Mosetlha Bush Camp (a more basic yet very cool eco lodge) and Tau Game Lodge, and all experiences were wonderful. You can't really go wrong at any of Madikwe's lodges, so it might be a good idea to look for special offers any of them might have at any time.


    We didn't get to see the spectacular Drakensberg until the very end of our stay in South Africa. I'm glad we got to fit it in, but would have liked to spend more time there. Our oldest son got to hike in the Drakensberg as part of Dainfern College's Enyuka Challenge, a 10-day hiking tour carrying their own tents and cooking their own food, and I would have liked to do something similar with our family (though I'm sure the girls would have complained every step of the way). The scenery is gorgeous, especially in the summer months when the grass turns green, and the grandeur and ruggedness of the jagged peaks around you doesn't fail to leave a profound impression on your soul. Read Drakensberg for more pictures and a hotel tip.

    The Orange River forms the border between South Africa and Namibia in the far northwestern corner of South Africa (which, I'm always surprised when looking it a map, is actually to the south of Johannesburg) in what's called Namaqualand. One of our most memorable experiences was taking a rafting trip on the Orange River. You can pick any distance from one to five days, during which you and your guide paddle on the river during the day and camp on the banks at night. As always in Africa, you will be pampered with great meals magicked up amidst the wilderness. We did it through Felix Unite, but there are other providers as well. While you're in the vicinity, you might also want to check out the Richtersveld National Park and Fish River Canyon. I haven't blogged about the Orange River yet, as that will be part of my new book coming up, but Road Trip to Namaqualand will give you an impression of the general area.

    Even though Franschhoek is near Cape Town and can easily be combined with #1 on this list, it deserves its own category, because you are guaranteed to want to come back many times once you've seen it. To me, it is an idyll I could easily imagine retiring to. Beautiful mountainous landscapes, secluded yet not remote, nice climate, great restaurants, home to nice art galleries - the list of selling points is long. Number one on that list, of course, is the wine. Franschhoek is the heart of South Africa's wine country (in addition to nearby Stellenbosch, but in my mind Franschhoek is more beautiful) and you can spend days, if not weeks, hopping from one winery to the other, each more beautifully set into the hillside than the last, and taste wine and eat gourmet food to your heart's content. Read the aptly named post I've Fallen in Love to get started.

    I still maintain that Madikwe tops Kruger Park as a safari destination, especially coming from Joburg, but Kruger Park is of course worth its own visit. Some say that leopards are especially abundant there, so if that puzzle piece of the Big Five has still eluded you, then Kruger Park or any of the adjacent private game reserves such as Sabi Sands or Timbavati might be your answer. Along the way, if you get a chance, make a trip through the Blyde River Canyon (image on left) - its beautiful. Just be sure to take appropriate malaria medication depending on the time of year. I admit we never quite made it to Kruger Park proper, but we had a fabulous stay in Klaserie Game Reserve. Start with Stalking the Elusive Leopard in which you get to see pictures of beautiful Kitara Camp before it was swept away in a flood just a few weeks later.


    The Garden Route is the area along South Africa's southern Coast to the east of Cape Town, encompassing the cities of Mossel Bay, George, Plettenberg Bay, and Knysna, all the way to Tsitsikamma National Park and Storms River. There are tons of fun things to do along the Garden Route, and the scenery is beautiful every direction you go. We visited Knysna only briefly but immediately fell in love and would have returned if we had stayed in South Africa longer. It's a picturesque town set against the breathtaking views of the Knysna Heads with lots of things to do, such as whale watching and a plethora of watersports, plus it has great art galleries and restaurants. Also worth exploring are Wilderness near George and Tsitsikamma National Park, where we partook in a Canopy Tour. Plettenberg Bay has a beautiful beach and is a favorite South African summer destination during the Christmas holidays. If you feel adventurous, add bungy jumping off the Bloukrans Bridge to your list. 

    We didn't make it to Durban - South Africa's third-largest city - until 2 years into our stay in South Africa, which sounds a bit weird, but that's Durban for you. It just doesn't get the attention, but is definitely worth a visit. Spend a day at uShaka Marine World if you're into aquariums and water parks, take a stroll along the beach promenade for some colorful people viewing and, not least, the spectacular sand sculptures, and if you can at all manage it, spend a few nights at the nearby Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga Rocks just north of Durban. It's a one-of-a-kind retro-colonial experience, the views of the lighthouse from the Ocean Terrace are stunning, and you might enjoy hanging out on those beautiful sandy beaches and braving the impressive surf. The Indian Ocean is actually warm, welcome news if you've ever dipped so much as a toe into the icy waters off Cape Town.


    Our very first South African safari took us to the Waterberg, only about 2.5 hours from Johannesburg, and that area will always hold a special place in our hearts. Where we stayed that time was not Big Five territory, but we found it lovely all the same. We gazed at zebras, wildebeest, and giraffes to our heart's content, we tracked the two resident rhinos at Yellow Wood Game Lodge numerous times, we swam in a lovely rock pool - okay, my family swam, and I watched, as it was freezing - and we had more than a little excitement getting stuck in the mud on an uncomfortably steep mountain slope. If you do hanker for the Big Five, check out Welgevonden Game Reserve, where I can highly recommend Jamila Lodge. If you take a look at my wildlife photo album from there (scroll to the bottom for the slide show), you'll agree that the sightings were pretty cool!


    We hadn't even quite settled into our new house and gotten acquainted with Johannesburg, when we were already invited to join another family - who would go on to become our best friends - on a scuba diving trip at Sodwana Bay, which is on the Indian Ocean just South of the border to Mozambique and Ponta do Ouro. It's one of the world's top diving destinations and the boys got quite spoiled to experience it right at the start of their diving careers. Sodwana Bay is part of the greater St. Lucia Wetlands, one of South Africa's biggest nature reserves. We also spent some time canoeing among hippos in Hluhluwe Game Reserve about an hour inland from there, where we were also served a glorious 5-star meal in the middle of the bush (which would have been even nicer had it not been absolutely freezing that winter night). (Photo courtesy of Jacky du Plessis).

There we go, that's my Top 10. What's missing, of course, is Johannesburg itself, because for us that was home, not a travel destination. However, Joburg has a ton of things going for it, which you can read all about in What to Do in Joburg.

I'm sure some of you will disagree with the above list, as there are so many more beautiful South African destinations. I'd love to hear about them, so please leave a comment!

December 11, 2014

A Man With a Sack, Some Old Boots, and a Naked Baby: Merry Crazy Christmas!

In my previous post, I argued that expat children don't have such a hard lot, considering they typically get the benefit of every holiday they've encountered in the various cultures they were thrown into, often with the bonus of all the presents that come with that holiday.

Our four children are a good example when it comes to Christmas and all the German traditions we celebrate. As I often get questions as to how these traditions actually work, I thought I'd elaborate in more detail. Also, this gives me a chance to vent just a teensy bit about my Christmas-induced stress levels.

So pour yourself a large cup of coffee and find out how your life right now at this time of year, no doubt hectic on its own merits, could be even crazier.

St. Nicholas with a sack full of presents

On the 6th of December, we Germans celebrate Nikolaustag, St. Nicholas Day. St. Nicholas was an ancient Saint with a bishop's hat who walked around with a big sack full of presents he doled out to kids who'd been good. The ones who'd been bad would get a stick or switch from a pine tree (presumably to be beaten with). Something like that - I was too lazy to look up the exact history. The Dutch celebrate it too - Sinterklaas - except they do it the right way and REPLACE Christmas with it, so that they still end up with ONE holiday. Not so the Germans. We, of course, do both, at twice the amount of work for the behind-the-scenes mothers, excuse me, elves. Although in German tradition there are no elves. We will get to who makes and brings the presents in a little while, just bear with me.

By the way, St. Nicholas morphed into Santa Claus on his way to become the United States' Christmas symbol of choice. They are both related. Except that St. Nicholas lives somewhere in the woods and nowhere near the North Pole. And he heroically carries his own sack, bent over, without additional transport in the form of reindeer. Leave it to the Americans to make Santa Claus travel in style and in an oversized (and probably gas-guzzling) vehicle.

Anyway, this is what happens on the 6th: The kids open the front door, and there are the boots they put out the night before (and presumably also cleaned, though that never happens at our house), neatly lined up, filled with what in the olden days were nuts and raisins and oranges, but nowadays of course is a ton of candy. Tiny chocolate Santa Clauses and such. Plus a present. Not a big one, more like a stocking stuffer, but still, it has to be thought about and purchased and wrapped. By, you guessed it, the person already overloaded with Christmas-themed preparations. Not sure how the boot tradition evolved. Probably just some mother who was pulling her hair out because her kids would never shine their boots, and who finally hit on the winning persuasive technique.

Boots just after the arrival of St. Nicholas. Note the boot full
of cat food on the right - if all presents were so easily picked!

An Advent calendar to count down the days

What German kids also get is an Adventskalender. An Advent calendar where you can open a door every day from December 1 until Christmas, to find a nice surprise behind it. In the olden days (which also includes my childhood), this surprise would be a picture of something. We'd get the same recycled calendar every year, a large panorama of some wintery scene, and behind each little door a picture of, say, a snowman, would be revealed to you. Other kids, even in those days, got one with chocolates behind those doors. You could buy them in every supermarket, but of course my mother never did. She did not believe in spoiling the kids, and she most of all didn't believe in chocolate.

But my husband had no such mother. HIS mother embroidered elaborate Advent calendars with little pockets in them, and every year she wrapped 24 little gifts she'd stuff into those pockets. Every year Noisette got his calendar with those presents, and of course he grew up to cherish this tradition.

You see where this is going, right? So our first son was born. As you're prone to do with your first child, you overachieve in everything. You decorate the room just so. You record everything in the baby book. You know his weight and height and where he scores on the curve. You puree your own baby food. And you create your first Christmas tradition. Your mother-in-law has helped out by embroidering and sending an Advent calendar to hang on the wall, and you proceed to wrap 24 perfect little presents for your precious baby who doesn't even know what's going on.

I wish somebody had smacked me over the head just then. I wish I had been able to see into the future and perform some simple calculations. 4 kids, 24 days until Christmas Eve - that makes for nearly 100 little presents to think about, buy, and wrap. I run out of tape every single year. And because I'm a procrastinator, I always spend the night before sequestered in my room and hunched over rolls of wrapping paper with a scissors all day, measuring, cutting, wrapping, taping, and generally cursing traditions the world over.

Advent calendars over the years...

...and in different houses.

Yearly Advent calendar wrapping craze

The result looking all pretty and making it all worth it

Don't be tempted to use tape as shortcut: By morning half of
these will be lying on the floor.

At our house, St. Nicholas brings the Advent calendar on the night to the 6th. I don't think this is any cultural tradition anywhere, that is just the story that emerged in our family. So I cheated fate out of 5 days, I suppose. Big deal. 19 days times 4 kids still makes you wrap till your fingers bleed. The embroidered wall calendars with pockets are long gone, because the gifts never seemed to fit into them, so now the presents are hung from the banister of the staircase in whichever house we happen to live in at the moment. Sometimes, St. Nicholas takes shortcuts - no wonder, after all that wrapping, and all the wine that needs to be consumed to complete it without going insane - and tries to affix the presents with tape, which is much quicker than ribbon, but then they start popping off during the night and litter the floor by morning in a very unholy looking mess, and need to be re-affixed with string after all. It's better to do it the right way from the start.

Then you get a breather of barely over two weeks. In which you scramble like crazy buying everyone Christmas presents, the ones you had no time for earlier because every single present-related thought of yours went into suitable Advent calendar gifts.

The (logistical) nightmare on Christmas Eve

Then, on Christmas Eve, when it has just gotten dark, our kids get to open their Christmas presents, all arranged in neat little (or rather big) piles around the living room while a fire crackles in the chimney and Christmas songs play on the stereo (we do not make them sing songs around the tree like I was made to do as a child). We do make them go to church, however, not only as a nod to the birth of Jesus but also for the very practical reason of getting them out the house so that SOMEBODY can arrange the presents they get surprised with after coming back from church.

This is where I take my hat off to the Americans: Ever practical, they fabricated the legend so that Santa Claus drops into the chimney in the middle of the night, meaning parents have all the time in the world arranging presents under the tree while drinking eggnog into the wee hours while the kids are sound asleep. You could even be smoking pot while laying out the goodies, and no one would be the wiser. Whereas German parents have real stress: How to get the presents under the tree in broad daylight without the kids noticing?

My parents solved this problem the way all German parents did in those days: They put the living room off limits and under lock and key for three whole days. Dinners were confined to the kitchen, and the goings-on in the forbidden room were all very mysterious and enticing. We couldn't stand not knowing what was going on. On Christmas Eve, when it was finally time, a bell would ring from that room, and we entered a magical scene in a room transformed: All was dark, except for the (real) candles on the (real) Christmas tree, there were stacks of the Christmas cookies my mom had baked and hidden away over the last three weeks (or I should say what was left of them, because her hiding places were never quite able to withstand the hungry determination of my brother and myself in discovering them), there was a doll house and toy grocery shop that got only put out at Christmas time, and there were the glorious piles of our presents, still very much out of reach because we first had to sing (and play the recorder) around the tree.

I still get delicious shivers 40 years later just recalling the glorious sight.

Alas, American houses are not built in any way conducive to putting an entire room into quarantine in this fashion. Houses have open floor plans with the kitchen at the center of everything, and unless you want to celebrate Christmas in the garage, everyone sees everything that's going on. Which is why it would have been VERY wise for us to just go ahead and adopt Santa, reindeer, chimney and all, and be done with it. Like I said, someone should have smacked me over the head back when our first child was born, and shown me the practical way. Instead, we have spent countless Christmas Eves concocting the most elaborate schemes to lure the kids away while one of us stayed behind to stealthily - and frenetically - drag presents from basement to living room. We've gone on drives to watch the pretty lights, we've had one of us "forget" something on the way to church and have to go back to the house, we've bribed a friend to put out the presents for us. I was very relieved the day the last of our kids caught on to the scheme so that they now happily play along with our shenanigans.

Yet another dude with a red coat, or a naked baby

Why all this mystery, you might ask? WHO brings those presents that it has to be so secretive? Having already used up St. Nicholas earlier in the month on December 6th, this is where it gets tricky. In Northern Germany - where there are more Protestants - it is the Weihnachtsmann, the guy they call Father Christmas in England and who looks suspiciously similar to St. Nicholas. Presumably he comes again two weeks later in the same costume but under a different name and brings presents all over again. Weird. So the Southern Germans - who are more heavily Catholic - came up with their own idea: Let's have the Christkind - Baby Jesus - bring the presents! That's right, little Baby Jesus flying around the world carrying armloads full of presents and delivering them to deserving children. Or wait, not just deserving, ANY children. As far as I can remember there were no strings attached. Apparently little Baby Jesus showers the world's children with presents indiscriminately.

Incidentally, Chris Kringle (whom I'm not sure who worships - is it the English? Americans in some parts?) is derived from that same Christkind - Christkindl in Bavarian German - which got butchered into Chris Kringle. I'm curious: What does Chris Kringle wear? I honestly don't think the world can support yet another bearded guy clad in red with a sleigh full of presents.

In my childhood room, there were mounted on the wall two fat rosy-cheeked cherubs blowing into trumpets. Why my parents thoughts this was the proper decoration of a little girl's room, I have no idea. They probably just needed a place to put them. In any case, because I was staring at those angels most of the year when I couldn't go to sleep, I always imagined Baby Jesus looking just like them: Happy, plump, and bare-bottomed. I never once reflected on how he could possibly carry any presents like that, or whether he mightn't be a wee bit cold, what with it being winter and him naked and all. I didn't care about any of that, I just loved him for bringing me the magic of Christmas.

This gives me comfort in that I hope my kids were equally unquestioning and faithful in their belief when they were younger. Because God - or, in the event, Baby Jesus - knows our traditions made no real sense. In fact, they were downright creepy. I mean, a man with a sack who might go around beating kids, and a naked baby? My Catholic Southern German self had won out and we had settled on Baby Jesus versus Father Christmas, but by virtue of our kids spending most of their lives in the U.S., they also believed in Santa Claus. What happened was that we'd talk about the Christkind in our German conversations, and about Santa Claus when we were speaking English. I'm a logical person, and all this back and forth, with St. Nicholas and the Advent calendars thrown in on top, made me cringe every year at the outrageous improbability of it all. It doesn't make sense!, I wanted to scream. Just like there shouldn't exist different voltages and different TV broadcasting standards and anything but the metric system for measurements the world over, there shouldn't be different and conflicting Christmas legends. It should all be standardized!

But the thing is, when you're a kid and you're getting presents, you don't give a sh*t who's the one bringing them.

December 8, 2014

An Expat Kind of Holiday

There is a lot of literature out there about the expat child. How to make the transition easier for him or her, how to ease the pressures, how to make sure they don't lose their identity with all those international moves. There are psychologists employed by companies who consult expat families, and soon-to-be expat ones, who design workshops where kids get to role-play to know how to deal with new cultural situations, who generally make sure that the poor expat child does not suffer too much from the hardships visited upon him with yet another move.

But has anyone ever stopped to look at the other side of the coin? Because being an expat child has one HUGE upside: They get to celebrate every holiday tradition they've ever come in contact with on all their travels. I know this, because I'm one of the elves (also known as mothers) working tirelessly behind the scenes to make it all come together.

Take our kids. Having two full-blooded German parents, they get all the German Christmas traditions. Which are elaborate, let me tell you. We Germans never do anything half-assed.

On the 6th of December, they get their boots filled with candy and presents by St. Nicholas, the dude who later went on to become Santa Claus in the United States and by extension the world, yet still lingers in parts of the old world to surprise kids in early December.

Normally outside, but this time inside due to rain.
Note the boot for the cat!
On the 6th of December, our kids also get their own Advent calendar each. Individually wrapped little presents for each day until Christmas, to help pass the time and count down the days, because of course they have nothing to do and are bored out of their minds, while SOMEONE, presumably St. Nicholas, labors away on their behalf.

On Christmas Eve, our kids get to open their Christmas presents, just like their American counterparts get to do the morning after. So that's more or less the same.

But since we live in the United States, we also have to do all the other stuff Americans do at Christmas time. Which seems to mainly involve decorating everything to death. Americans LOVE decorating. And my girls pestered me long enough about everyone else's pretty Christmas lights that I caved and now spend a whole day perched on ladders, the wind whistling around me, nudging chains of white and green lights over uncooperative branches with a converted broom handle I manufactured just for that purpose. Every year half the lights from last year no longer work, no matter how lovingly you wound them up, and so this involves yet another shopping trip to the mall dodging all the other millions of people who are out shopping.

We have to also do cookie exchanges. In which you never get back the same quality of cookies you've baked yourself, so that your husband gets mad that none of the good cookies are left and that he now has to eat a Rolo topped with a peanut posing for a Christmas cookie.

Christmas baking. I love it, I do, but it would be more fun without
all the other Christmas stress around it.

And we have to give the teachers Christmas presents, which might involve more cookie baking or some other elaborate and thoughtful gift like a personalized bookmark or notepad.

We also have to make sure to give presents i.e. cash-stuffed envelopes to the bus driver, newspaper delivery man or woman, the trash people, the mailman, and all the staff at school. All these are extras I would not have to do in Germany. Germans don't seem to value their teachers and bus drivers in quite the same way. Perhaps this is ok because teachers and bus drivers certainly make a lot more money over there.

Of course our kids also get to do Halloween. Which over the years has involved a lot of sewing and crafting and pumpkin carving on my part. When we moved to South Africa, I harbored hopes of escaping Halloween for a couple of years, but no, the custom seemed to have moved overseas ahead of us and I was stuck sewing costumes there too.

This year's pumpkins. The kids are now old enough to carve their own.

The only thing I was able to escape in South Africa was Thanksgiving. Since the kids didn't have off from school for it, they plumb forgot about it. I did my best not to bring it up, and I was giddy with relief over having dodged all that cooking. Which of course I really didn't because South Africans braai around the clock. There is always some meat to prepare for grilling in a South African kitchen. There were a ton of new holidays to be celebrated, none of which I understood, except that they involved yet another braai with friends over and beer and a stash of biltong so large it could have nourished a whole clan of Voortrekkers discovering another continent.

Of course now we are back in the U.S. and the gigantic turkey plus 18 side dishes is back on the menu. The only holiday tradition we've so far seemed to evade is Elf on a Shelf, by virtue of our kids being too old for the children's book when it came out.

One of the 18 Thanksgiving side dishes, acorn squash.

I doubt our kids are the only ones with double and triple whammies for holiday traditions. I'm sure there are a lot of other expat kids out there gleefully rubbing their hands at all the bonus stuff they get. And I bet they are accompanied by a lot of very exhausted expat mothers just like me.

By the way, this is the short form of our Holiday traditions. You'll be able to read all about St. Nicholas and the Advent calendars and Christmas at our house in my next post. Just pour yourself a coffee as it will be a long one.

Are you an expat? Share your traditions!

Other Christmas-related posts on Joburg Expat:
Christmas in Joburg and Where to Find a Tree
A Proper Fake Christmas Tree
The Spirit of Christmas

December 3, 2014

How Can I Get a Job as an Expat in South Africa?

I always get a lot of questions from future expats, i.e. the people sitting in England and Bulgaria and Ghana and China and the Ukraine with a moving date to Johannesburg lined up in 5 months. Or the ones where the company has just broached the possibility of a South African assignment, leaving them in a panic about all the crime there. These people always have tons of questions and I love that they all come to me with them. That's what I started my blog for in the first place.

Most find all their questions answered after carefully reading my blog for a few days. Of course, there are always those lazy ones who shoot me an email with the first question that pops into their heads, not bothering to even search for the topic on my blog where most likely there is a perfectly fine article I've written on that very subject. Needless to say, I don't usually have time to answer those.

But the one glaring hole a diligent researcher will find on my blog is how to find a job. (Still, please don't send me an email, as happens more than you think, with "I need a job, please give me one" - I won't answer those either.)

The reason I haven't written about how to find a job is that I haven't done it. My job was to just get us there, battle with Eskom and Vodacom and the City of Joburg for a few years, and be a travel agent for a family of six. More than full-time employment, let me tell you. But not paid very well.

When just a few days ago I was asked once again how to find a job, I realized that while I can't speak from first-hand experience, I do have some thoughts on the topic worth sharing. Here they are:

  1. South Africa is among the countries with very high unemployment, but skilled workers are scarce and therefore sought after. Finding work as a foreigner is possible, especially in the right professions, but it isn't easy.
  2. South Africa, since 1994, has had an affirmative action policy in place trying to address the glaring inequality. It is called BEE for Black Economic Empowerment and has the goal to give previously disadvantaged groups of South Africans (like Blacks, Coloureds, Indians, and Chinese who arrived before 1994) economic privileges. It is a complicated system awarding companies points in a number of ways, but the gist of it is that it makes finding employment hard for anyone not belonging to these groups. Small businesses are exempted, but they might face pressure from their larger business clients who are intent on improving their own scoring by subcontracting to BEE compliant companies, so in the end it applies across the board. I don't mean to judge this system - others have done that - but wanted to offer a little background on which difficulties expats face when finding a job, beyond the normal difficulties you typicall find as a foreigner in any country. Technically, you are subject to visa regulations that affect everyone coming to South Africa equally without regard to race, but our experience has been that this is not always the case. 
  3. Work visa: In order to work in South Africa you will need a work permit (now also called work visa). I've written extensively about all the various types of residence permits including work permits in Applying for a Visa for South Africa, so check that out first. What makes obtaining a work permit difficult is this requirement: "Work permits are issued only to foreigners where South African citizens with the relevant skills are not available for appointment."  Knowing South African bureaucracy (ha!), this is highly dependent on the person that actually gets to approve your case, and how many humiliating trips you've made to their office. My guess is, if the company you are wanting to work for is interested enough in you, they will help you get it done. But since I didn't know anything about this process, I recently asked someone who's done it, and this is their take: The best way to get a work permit is to find a company who is willing to hire you and sponsor you for a permit, just like I said. The rules are always changing, but in general it's not that difficult. What you do is create a job description that suits you perfectly and that no one else can fulfill. Say you speak Mongolian and Finnish, and are skilled in building yurts out of reindeer hide, and let's say you seek employment with a manufacturer of outdoor goods. What you do is have your employer advertise a job for someone who speaks Mongolian and Finnish to communicate with the suppliers of reindeer pelts in their country of origin (if, indeed, there are such suppliers - you can't totally make it up) and is able to supervise the manufacturing process locally. You collect the resumes that come in after a day of advertising and document why you are more qualified than any of them, which shouldn't be too hard, considering there probably aren't any South Africans who speak Finnish and Mongolian (there probably aren't any people who do, but bear with me and my example). This should get you approved with Home Affairs, and all that remains is collecting all the paperwork such as police reports, health certificates, and so forth. All in all this could be done in 2-3 months.
  4. Critical skills: If you have a skill critical to the Republic of South Africa, you can apply for a critical skills visa. Meaning they'll give you the work visa regardless of whether you have a job offer, because they need you and have trouble finding people doing that job. It's actually a very extensive list. If you have a skill ranging from sheep shearer, millwright, and architect all the way to doctor and geophysicist, if you work in cosmology and dark energy or cosmic magnetism, or if you're an engineer of pretty much any stripe or flavor, you qualify. Also, speaking a foreign language more or less automatically puts you on that list, so many expats will have one leg up in this regard. 
  5. Don't work in South Africa without a valid visa or permanent residence status. Doing so may result in your being placed on the undesirable persons list, which means you can be denied entry in the future. One exception: teachers at international schools are apparently allowed to work on visitor visas. But I'd still make sure this is the case before you begin any employment.
  6. Finding a job in South Africa, if you're not being transferred there, will entail hard work, just like anywhere else. You'll have to research companies, send resumes, call, cajole, beg, and generally be a total pain in someone's ass, if you want to get ahead. But my take on it is this: Expats are expensive, and more and more global companies are moving away from expat employment towards local contracts. If you are already a local and a company won't have to pay for your relocation and your kids' schooling, you are much more attractive to them than someone in the home country. So in my mind your best bet is to start with multinational companies with headquarters in your home country and offices in South Africa (of course your spouse's company being the first option), like banks and insurance etc. It's hard to find people with good skills in South Africa, since education is still so far behind, and a lot of companies want people with special skills or even general office skills, which you likely possess. It's just a matter of them wanting you badly enough that they jump through the visa hoops for you.
  7. One option is to check with the embassy of your home country. They often have jobs available that go to their own citizens. I'm not sure if you'd still need a South African work visa to work there but it can't be quite so difficult to obtain one, given that you're not taking a potential job from a local. If your embassy doesn't have job openings, it might still be able to provide information for your job search or be of assistance in some way.
  8. Another avenue for job opportunities are aid organizations like USAID or the Clinton Global Initiative. You might find an outright job with one of them, or if you're a photographer or writer, they might give out occasional freelance assignments. There are a ton of aid organizations based in South Africa (and again, your embassy might have a list of your particular country's efforts in this regard).
  9. Volunteering is always an option, either at one of those aid organizations or the many other charitable institutions, orphanages, schools, sports for the underprivileged - the list is endless. Of course this may not be what you're looking for since you're probably interested in making money, but while you're searching for a job and/or waiting for a visa, this may be a good way to stay occupied and connect with people. Read Volunteer Opportunities in  South Africa for more info. 
  10. If all else fails, retiring in South Africa is also an option. Of course it won't be cheap, but neither is it cheap anywhere in the world, so you might as well consider South Africa when that time comes. It's got some great things going for it - great weather, affordable domestic help, reasonable cost of living - and obtaining a retired persons' permit/visa is doable. The reason I list it here in this blog post about jobs is that if you apply for permanent resident status on the basis of a retired persons' permit, you are allowed to work.
That's all I have, please share your own experiences!