February 23, 2015

Voulez-Vous, You Know, Kiss Me?

A recent post by fellow expat blogger Nikki about the sort of silly questions you get asked as an exchange student reminded me of a long-forgotten story that happened to me as a child. But go on, read Nikki's story first, as I'm sure you'll want to know how blow jobs and vegemite sandwiches can possibly be related to each other, and then get back here for my story.

I was thirteen, perhaps fourteen years old. A few years earlier, my mother, a big believer in exchange programs and learning languages, but also a big believer in doing it on the cheap, had - through some family connections - reached out to this family in Rouen, France, and from then on we were constantly exchanging kids one way or the other. My older brother stayed with them for a summer, their oldest boy came to see us the next break, and so forth, until it was my turn to go.

I was on the train back home after my second summer in France, still flush from the experience of living with other people who are interesting and exciting and, most importantly, never nag you. I was speaking French like a local with only a trace of an accent and was making friends with this French boy in my compartment. I can't remember where he was going or what he looked like, but the memory of meeting him is seared in my brain because he - gasp! - told me that "tu es tres mignonne." No one had ever told me I was cute - I wasn't - and it was probably just a silly pickup line, but nevertheless we had a grand old time on that train, talking about this and that and joking around until he felt the need to ask me a question.

Did I like Itlaire, he wanted to know.

Now, you have to understand that I had a pretty sheltered childhood. Not overprotected, mind you - after all, here I was doing this trip all by myself at such a young age, crossing international borders no less, and this being Europe in the 1970s most parents weren't particularly alarmed about any possible dangers lurking out there. No, what I mean is that despite my travels I was not very worldly, especially in terms of pop culture. Our family didn't possess a TV, and even radios were only introduced into our household when I was well into my teens. My mother disdained what she called hott 'n' tott music and for years my home entertainment was confined to listening to Peter and the Wolf on our old roundtable record player, as well as reading illicit Donald Duck comics under the bedcovers by flashlight.

My son complains that driving a Nissan Leaf to school is not cool at all and that it gives rise to constant teasing. I want to smack him over the head. Aside from telling him that he is saving tons of money on gas and that driving any car must surely beat having to ride the bus, but that he is welcome to resort back to that mode of transport any time if he so pleases, I'd like to tell him about my hardscrabble childhood. About how I walked to school barefoot in the snow for miles... Okay, sorry, wrong line. But does he know how difficult it is to compete with kids who watch every television show out there every single night, who are allowed to have posters of Leif Garrett* on their wall, and who own every ABBA and Pink Floyd album under the sun? I'd like for him to understand how hard it is not to be teased in that environment! I mean, could I ever invite anyone to our house and face the horrors of them seeing my record collection of Peter and the Wolf and Räuber Hotzenplotz?

Like any kid would, I became quite the expert at masking my shortcomings. I quickly learned the names of songs that were popular at the time, even though I'd never heard them, so that I could write Another Brick in the Wall in yearbooks where questions about favorite songs and such were asked. I learned to nod knowingly when hot actors were discussed, and I successfully faked my way through any conversations about groups or movies unknown to me.

Which takes me back to the pretty boy on the Paris-Stuttgart train. I was sure Itlaire must be yet another popstar I didn't know, and of course I couldn't admit my ignorance. I decided to bluff.

"Yeah, he's not too bad," I said, and nodded vaguely. I'm pretty sure I didn't say "I just love Itlaire" because, when you're faking it, you never want to come out too strongly for or against anything. But I do remember giving my approval.

After that, it wasn't the same. I must have said the wrong thing, because the boy faded away, never to be seen again. The train ride wasn't going to last forever, and perhaps at that moment we arrived at our destinations and had to part ways. That's what I told myself for years when recalling that memory of the first stirrings of romance in my life, immediately followed by the first stinging disappointment.

Not until years later did it come to me, I think it must have been when I was watching a French movie with subtitles: Itlaire, you see, is how the French pronounce Hitler. I, a German girl, had confessed to a French boy I was trying to impress that I thought Hitler was pretty cool! I still cringe at the memory 30 plus years later. I probably set back Franco-German relations by a decade with that comment alone.

And it's all my mom's fault for not letting me listen to the Hitparade.

Come to think of it, it's ALWAYS the mom's fault.

My oldest brother and I, with my other brother cut off on the side (who takes pictures like that?).
Anyway, a typical afternoon of home entertainment at our house growing up. No TV, no radio.
Just paper and paintbrushes and the occasional peeled orange for a snack. Of course, now I'm
grateful. I trace my creative streak back to such afternoons:-)

* So I had to go on Wikipedia to figure out how to spell Leif Garrett, and there was a picture of him as he looks today. Yikes! what happened to that pretty boy?

Other musings about my exchange student days:

Memoirs of an Exchange Student: I'm Leeeeeeeaving, on a Jet Plane...Culture Shock Circa 1983: They Have Phones Without Cords in America!

February 16, 2015

Joburg Expat Hits One Million

I wish it was one million dollars, but it's just pageviews. The number of times people have looked at (and maybe even read) my blog. Joburg Expat has just surpassed a million of those!

A million! (kinda embarrassing, though, to see it listed under last month's stats, which were not great)

When I first started Joburg Expat I didn't have any big readership in mind. I just wanted to share what I knew so that others would have an easier time making their decision to move to South Africa and, once there, settle in and all that. Who knew there'd be so much interest?

I sort of lost track of my pageviews after the excitement of checking them daily wore off. And after we moved back to the U.S., they sort of hit a plateau and have remained more or less steady each month instead of rising further. So I was a bit surprised when glancing at the stats the other day that I was approaching a million views.

To celebrate, I thought it might be nice to tell you a little about me, especially for new readers who are joining us now. Joburg Expat in a nutshell, so to speak. It just so happens that I recently wrote an article about our family for our neighborhood magazine that perfectly suits this purpose. The following is adapted from the original - names and locations have been changed to preserve privacy:

You could call us global nomads. My husband and I were born and raised in Germany, arrived in the United States in the 1990s for graduate school, lived in North Carolina for many years, moved around the country several times, and lived in Singapore for a while. That’s where our second son Jabulani, now sixteen, was born. Our other children are Zax (18 and soon off to college), Impatience (14), and Sunshine (12). We moved to our current home in Tennessee in January of 2013 after relocating to the U.S. from a three-year assignment in South Africa.

The things we were most grateful to rediscover were working traffic lights (including the fact that they are once again called traffic lights and not robots), Amazon, efficient and reliable service (except perhaps on the Comcast front), an abundance of power outlets in each room without the need for any adapters, the Starbucks drive-through, Major League baseball, the public library, water fountains, and yes, the U.S. Postal Service (it is still such a surprise when your mail gets there).

We were also happy to rediscover people who mean “right now” when they say it. South Africans have a rather conflicted relationship with the word “now.” When someone tells you he’ll do it “now,” it almost certainly means “never.” “Just now” means “maybe, but probably not today.” The only thing worth getting your hopes up for is “now now,” and even that is at best translated with “soon.”

And yet we do miss Africa. It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. It is precisely the slower and gentler pace of a life where nothing happens right away that has its charms. We miss the beautiful sunsets; the smiling and generous people who have the world’s best sense of humor; the parking guards calling you Mama; the screeching hadedas (a kind of bird) waking you up every morning; the hawkers at the intersection and the throngs of people milling about; the presence everywhere of Nelson Mandela; and above all, the African bush with all its glorious animals.

We even miss the language, which made for some misunderstandings early on. Ketchup is tomaaahto sauce, cookies are biscuits, biscuits are scones, and there is an entire baked-goods aisle containing rows and rows of rusks, which, frankly, can only be eaten without serious injury to your teeth by dunking them into your Rooibos tea. When you put something on your calendar you diarise it, an athletic cup is a ballbox (imagine my consternation when that first showed up on the school supply list), when someone promises to call they will give you a ring (or worse, a tinkle), things that are yummy are lekker, and when you’re having a bad day it is kak.

Going to a South African school and donning uniforms (yet sometimes no shoes) was quite an adjustment for the kids, but an exciting experience. They had to learn new languages, Afrikaans and Zulu, but perhaps the biggest adjustment came on the sports field. Zax and Impatience took up field hockey, the girls tried themselves at netball – a type of outdoor basketball with neither backboard nor dribbling, a rather sad affair if you ask me – and Jabulani played soccer, rugby, and cricket, the latter a game not unlike baseball but so slow that when the teams break for “tea and biscuits” at halftime it often constitutes the highlight of the match.

When we first moved to Johannesburg in early 2010, just in time for the Soccer World Cup, we had heard the most dire stories of carjackings, break-ins, and worse. Taking kids to such a place and to actually live there seemed quite insane. But, as often is the case, reality was much different from reputation. While Johannesburg is definitely not one of the safest places to live – along with many American cities I can think of – it has changed for the better in recent times, and we count our years there as some of the happiest of our lives.

The weather, for one, was nearly perfect. No need for air conditioning and bright sunshine year round. The sweeping landscapes, the friendly people, the outdoor lifestyle, and, oh, the wine! Don’t even get me started on domestic help, something I sorely miss (though I suspect the kids miss it even more, seeing as they now have to fold laundry, unload dishes, and prepare their own school lunches).

Maybe what we loved so much about our life there is that, in the words of Paul Theroux, “Africa, for all its perils, represents wilderness and possibility.” It instills in you a sense of adventure. You somehow feel more alive, younger, willing to do crazier things than you’ve ever done before. You know those African airplanes you shake your head about when hearing of another disaster? Or those minibus taxis with threadbare tires and overstuffed with smelly people? We traveled in them. Kissed by elephants and battled bush fires? Been there. Bungy jumping off bridges and diving with great white sharks? Done that. (By the way, it’s not so much the sharks that are scary, but the freakishly cold waters off Cape Town.)

Africa gives you this sense of adventure, but seeing so much poverty around you also fills you with humility and puts many of our modern-day grievances in perspective. And it definitely teaches you patience. Because between Africa and your efficient American can-do-nothing-is-impossible self, Africa usually wins.

When you return from all that to the much more predictable existence in American suburbia, you can't help but feel a sense of loss, even though you're surrounded by beauty, the phones work every day, and you never come across any street signs warning you of “hijacking hotspots.”

But we are very grateful to have found such a wonderful community. From the very first day we were welcomed with open arms, invited into our neighbors’ homes, and included in their activities. The kids have found new music teachers and sports teams (lacrosse replaced field hockey, volleyball took over for netball, while rugby remains rugby), and my husband enjoys the more predictable challenges of his job at a local industrial company.

As for me, I continue to write the blog I started three years ago, which is still called Joburg Expat but nowadays generates fewer stories of incomprehensible government bureaucracy or bribing traffic cops, and more about the wonders of First World living.

Noisette, Jabulani, Impatience, Sunshine, Zax, and Yours Truly, December 2014

February 9, 2015

Top Gear and Why Africa Stays in Your Blood Forever

Do you have a teenage son? If you do, you might be familiar with dinner conversations that start with "In Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson said..."

For a while, EVERYTHING 15-year old Jabulani wanted to tell us started with those words. Jeremy Clarkson and his two sidekicks were like demigods who could do no wrong. We were treated to endless recountings of Top Gear episodes, which cars they entailed, why this or that one was better than the other, how those guys got out of a tight spot and what kind of tricks they played on each other... It just went on and on and on, so I finally did what every good mother does: I decided to watch an episode with him, even though cars are the very last thing that interests me. (Or not the last, as I spend half my life in one, it seems. They just don't interest me as an object of desire. They interest me as an object of convenience and as such I take them for granted.).

Jabulani, to his credit, picked well. He was so thrilled that I would watch his favorite show with him that he chose the episode he thought I was most likely to enjoy: The Africa Special.

And he was right. I was instantly hooked.

(Real quick, if you don't know Top Gear, give it a try. It really is an entertaining show. It's basically all about cars, and about three guys who test different cars in the weirdest competitions they can think of, which always seem to result in the partial dismantling or blowing-up or perhaps even sinking to the bottom of a body of water of said cars. But the best feature of the show is the British humor. You can't watch without laughing out loud at their antics and jokes repeatedly. You can totally have no interest in cars whatsoever and still love this show.)

The Africa Special is the one where Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May set out to find the source of the river Nile. In three cars, of course, each one of them less suited to the task than the other. Their journey takes them through Uganda and Rwanda, and then across Lake Victoria into Tanzania and the Serengeti. They have to rely on pure ingenuity to keep going and adapt their cars to the task at hand, and at times they have to rely on the help of the people around them.

James May, Jeremy Clarkson, and Richard Hammond in Top Gear Africa Special. 

And that gets me to the theme of this post. There is a scene in there where all their cars get stuck in the mud. Almost instantly, it seems, a few barefooted locals materialize and help out by "building" a new road and pushing the cars and generally working hard while making it look as if there is nothing in the world they'd rather be doing at the time.

How often I have witnessed just such a scene while living in Africa! It is, to me, the epitome of that continent. Sure, there is the sweeping savannah; the majestic animals; the stunning sunsets; the smell of the first rain after five months of drought; the mesmerizing colors of red dirt against deep blue sky; the cry of the hadeda; the bustle and the jostling and the vibrancy in its cities; and the stately elegance of the women carrying loads on their heads. All that is Africa, but what has stayed with me the most about our life in Africa is the kindness of its people. The way a crowd forms instantly when there is a problem. The way everyone offers his or her opinion, in a genuine effort to help. The way no one is in a rush to get back to his own issues and problems and seems to have nothing better to do than helping you with yours. The way you are greeted with smiles wherever you go, everyone ready with a joke to lighten the mood. The way you just can't help but feel calmer and more at peace after such interactions. The way everything seems right with the world when you're in Africa, even if so many things are wrong.

I couldn't find an image of the mud scene, but this was another one I enjoyed. Africa teaches
you ingenuity. Photo www.TopGear.co.za

Its people, more than anything else, make Africa special to me, and why I can't seem to get it out of my blood. Have I wished, while living there, that things were more efficient? That people would focus on the task at hand? That they would do what they said they'd do so that I could check stuff off my list neat and tidy, like my American efficient Type A personality demanded it? You bet I have. Many times. But I also know this: All the people who've ever helped me in Africa - the many times I had a flat tire, for instance - might have been dropping some other task they were working on and without a moment's hesitation lent me a helping hand.

Top Gear might not be the best example to showcase African kindness. Who knows, maybe they staged the whole thing to make it a good production. They probably often do. But I don't care. Watching the Africa Special made me long for Africa.

Watch it, and tell me what you think!

While we're showing pictures of trucks being shipped on a river, I couldn't resist sticking in
this one I found on Africa, this is why I live here's Facebook page

February 2, 2015

Another Foray into South Africa's Past: Absolution by Patrick Flanery

It's not actually easy to describe this book. Is it a mystery? A literary novel? Or historical fiction? I suppose the answer is: a little bit of all.

Most of all, it's a book about South Africa, both present and past, interweaving the story of what might have happened to Laura, a young South African anti-apartheid activist 20 years ago, with how much of that story her mother, Clare, remembers and is willing to share with her biographer, Sam. Clare is a well-known and aging novelist, who I think is drawn to resemble Nadine Gordimer. She has almost completely withdrawn from public life and battles with her past and how she might have been complicit in certain events. She has suffered not only the loss of Laura but also her own sister who was brutally murdered together with her husband. Sam - who has spent many years in the United States and has only recently returned to South Africa - has the task of writing her life story, and for this purpose he questions her about the past in a series of interviews conducted at her secluded house. But it turns out that Sam himself played a part in Clare's past as well, and neither of them is sure of the other's motives during their repeated interviews. Did Clare hire Sam precisely because she knew who he was, or was it only Sam who sought out the assignment to find closure about the horrific events of his childhood? Does Clare truly not know what happened to Laura, or is she deliberately distorting the past so as to feel less guilty?

I liked the book, the many layers of different stories or rather versions of the same story, the reflection on truth and lies and the tricky way memory cannot always distinguish between the two. You are immediately roped in with the setting, the characters, and a few versions of the mystery. The narrative style reminds me a little of that South American magic realism, in that you're sometimes not sure as a reader whether something actually happened or not, whether it is just imagined, or the memory of someone. It makes you feel as if there's a veil over the story, a certain mist, that keeps you from seeing everything fully.

I have to say, however, that I liked the beginning of the book better than the end. We are plunged into the story with the arrival of Sam in the present time in or near Cape Town to set out on his biography project. Seeing South Africa through his eyes, someone who hasn't lived there many years, was a pleasure to me, as it reminded me of the ways I first saw it upon arrival. We are then introduced to Clare and her secluded life, partly a result of her having been robbed at her former residence and reluctantly moving to a secure estate behind layers of walls and security. From Clare we also get a first glimpse at the story of Laura - her daughter - and what might have happened to her, or what Clare remembers or speculates has happened to her. The rest of the book, however, dragged on a bit for me. I feel like most of the plot is actually revealed in the first part of the book, and the rest just delves deeper into it but doesn't tell you anything new. I know what the author is trying to do - illuminate what a tricky beast memory can be, and how the same event sounds very different as remembered by different people (and also different as the same person finally confronts his or her memories of it) but I still couldn't help but feel that I was let down towards the end, as there wasn't anything new I learned, yet was sort of waiting for throughout.

Still, Absolution is a good read about apartheid South Africa and the ongoing struggles of coming to terms with it. It delves into the issue of censorship and self-censorship in the writing community, the pros and cons of outright rebellion or quiet, behind-the-scenes work within the system. There is also one passage with a transcript of several fictional interviews conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which I found very powerful. Since I didn't live in South Africa during those times, I was never aware of the exact nature of the work of that commission, and it is very revealing to glimpse how it was conducted and why it was (and has been) so difficult to come to terms with the past.