August 29, 2016

Reason Number 2 Why You Won't Want to Leave South Africa: Woolworths

I've said it before and I'll say it again: In all my time at Joburg Expat (approaching 7 years), I have yet to come across any expats who look forward to leaving South Africa.

There are many reasons (I've recently found 30 of them) why people don't want to leave South Africa, chief among them the outstanding climate, the friendly people, and the laid-back lifestyle.

But when you talk to anyone who's made their home in Johannesburg or elsewhere in the country and ask them what they'll miss most about South Africa one day, I'll miss Woolies will come up almost immediately.

Woolies, of course, is what South Africans fondly call the grocery chain Woolworths.

My all-time favorite staple at Woolies.

When we first moved to Joburg, I thought that Woolworths was in some way connected to the English department store of the same name, the one I associated with cheap discount goods sold in cramped aisles and large bins to sift through, so I was a bit apprehensive. But there is no connection. Woolworths was founded in 1931 in South Africa (with its first store in Cape Town), and the English chain it actually was, for a time, associated with and modeled after, is Marks and Spencer.

Of all the reasons to be proud of South Africa, Woolies should be at the very top. It is, in my humble opinion, the world's best grocery store. In all my years in Germany, Singapore, and the United States, I haven't found another grocery store I'd rather spend time in and shop at than Woolies.

After we left South Africa, I thought that perhaps my infatuation with Woolies was misplaced. That perhaps I suffered from pure nostalgia, that I bunched Woolworths together with all sorts of irrational loves viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of hindsight that wouldn't withstand the test of time.

But I've just been back to South Africa, and one of my first errands was to go shopping at Woolies to fill my second suitcase brought specifically for that purpose. Immediately I was drawn into its bann again and remembered how much I loved it. It felt like coming home. I was practically giddy pushing my cart through the aisles, and it was super hard not to fill it up with everything in sight.

Biltong selection at Woolworths

Only my husband's valiant efforts kept me from loading up on biltong, on account of the biltong-sniffing dogs at American airports. Same for the little sausage sticks called Cabanossi that I could snack on all day, and have never found in American grocery stores.

Instead, we decided to buy a biltong machine, complete with biltong spices. My excitement to try it out is somewhat dampened by the fact that it's the wrong voltage meaning the built-in fan won't work, and the required light bulb doesn't fit into the socket. It will require so much tinkering that it would have been easier to build it from scratch. I'll report on my biltong-making venture at some future time.

It was also very hard to pass by the yogurt, the cheese selection, and the snack shelf. Yum!

Outstanding deli salads and fresh snacks at Woolies

It's hard to put my finger on exactly why I love Woolies so much. Mostly, it's a combination of two things: quality and convenience. 

The quality of the food you can get at Woolies, particularly the fresh produce, is consistently outstanding. You know how you will get a bad batch of peaches and think to yourself, oh well, they can't all be good, and move on? Not at Woolies. Every single batch of anything I've ever bought there was good, or better than good.

The best low-fat yogurt you'll ever taste.

While shopping at Woolies definitely puts you at the high end of grocery stores in South Africa, it's still not very expensive, particularly when compared to food prices in the United States. Woolworths has a large range of its own branded goods, in fact you won't find many branded goods on its shelves. This might initially be a turnoff to the newly arrived expat looking for Nestle chocolate chips or Honey Nut Cheerios, but trust me, you'll come to love the Woolworths brand so much that you'll cry big tears when you no longer have access to it.

Interestingly, Woolworths doesn't have a deli with cut-to-order cold cuts like so many other grocery stores. You'd think that's a big downside but it never bothered me. They do sell a few packaged hams and cured meats that were always enough for me, and not having to wait in slow deli lines was actually more of a bonus than a drawback.

And it looks like you can now even get German soft pretzels at Woolies, as well as other artisan breads, which used to be the only weakness when making a Woolworths shopping run.

But even more than the excellent quality, it is the convenience of shopping at Woolies that won me over so quickly.

Whoever is in charge of Woolworth real estate and store locations is a genius. If you like it just five minutes from home, go to the little Woolies with just four aisles that you can be in and out of in ten minutes. If you like a wider selection, go to the large shopping center you do most of your errands at, and there will be a large Woolies there as well. But even there, you won't be overwhelmed by miles and miles of aisles with too many choices. By actually limiting choice and instead focusing on good quality products, Woolies makes grocery shopping so much more enjoyable. I remember my first shopping run after we returned to the U.S. and how exhausted I was after comparing a bazillion brands in vast superstores. Turns out, unlimited choice is not nearly as great as it's made out to be.

Woolworths somehow manages to bring back the little mom and pop store experience of old, but with modern-day quality and selection. I also like who they are as a company, as described in their Good Business Journey initiative.

Note: This post was written without any incentives or sponsorship by Woolworths

August 22, 2016


Coming back to South Africa was almost exactly as I'd imagined it. 

The red sunset over a dusty city. 

The smell of wood fires in the air. 

The smiling faces around me. 

The feel of a Zulu handshake. 

Ordering a whole bottle of Chardonnay with dinner for ZAR 80 which is less than $7. 

Waking up to the cry of a hadeda. 

But since then we've entered a new dimension of bliss: the Wild Coast. I won't bore you with a lot of writing and instead just go ahead and post the first pictures from our Meander starting at Kob Inn going westward. 

This last picture is the view I have this very moment soaking my feet in the hot tub at our inn, sipping a freshly-brewed cappuccino and waiting for a massage. (Which is well-needed after 22 km against the strongest nonstop wind I've ever had blowing in my face.)

Can life get any better than this?

August 15, 2016

Africa, Here We Come!

I'm so excited, I don't even know how to start this blog post.

The reason I'm excited is that after 3 years and 7 months, I'll be treading on African soil once again. Tomorrow I'll be embarking on the first leg of a long flight to Johannesburg.

Johannesburg, people! I can hardly wait. I have a hard time imagining how it'll feel. Will everything look as new and intriguing as it did when I first arrived in September 2009? Or will it seem familiar?

The very first picture I ever took in South Africa: the entrance of Dainfern estate in Johannesburg

Either way, I plan to soak it all up like the thirsty African soil after a long dry winter. I can't wait for any of these firsts:

  • Hearing the first "Eish!" being spoken.
  • Glimpsing the Johannesburg skyline for the first time when driving in from OR Tambo
  • Driving by a phalanx of street vendors and taking in what they're hawking these days
  • Having a salesperson return change to me by extending one arm and touching their other hand to that forearm in that most graceful African gesture
  • A minibus squeezing into the impossibly small gap in front of us
  • Catching a glimpse of the glorious Magaliesberg to the North of Johannesburg in the wintry haze
  • Hearing the first screech of a hadeda
  • A parking guard smiling into my window
  • Touching the first Cape berry in the produce section of Woolies
  • Even - gasp! - a broken robot.

Seriously, it's true. Even the tiniest memory of  our Joburg days makes me nostalgic. It's the power of The Rose-Tinted Glasses of Hindsight. We Americans like to grumble about our crumbling infrastructure, but it was 3 years and 6.5 months that I went without seeing a single broken traffic light after moving back to the U.S. Just two weeks ago, I came upon a busy intersection where the light was blinking red. Everyone was confused and very gingerly made attempts to get across. I was elated. I was overjoyed. "A broken robot!" I shouted, much to my daughter's consternation whose friend gave me a very puzzled look.

You'll agree that I'm dire need of my Africa fix.

But what, my dear friends, should I make of my one full day in Johannesburg?

I doubt that I'll be sleeping for a single second. I'll be running around with a notepad all day making sure nothing, absolutely NOTHING escapes me that I might blog about, and I'll be up every night jotting it all down and sorting pictures. Maybe this will be a good opportunity to sample all of Joburg's new coffee shops I've been reading about.

I wonder if it'll feel like picking up exactly where we left it off in December of 2012 when we said Goodbye Africa.

I cannot wait for any of it.

Oh, and what will I be doing in Africa? More on that in upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned!

Nelson Mandela towering over me, September 2009,
Mandela Square, Sandton, Johannesburg

August 8, 2016

Top 5 Places for History Lovers in Johannesburg

I've written about so many different things to do in and around Joburg that I decided I needed to bring these to my readers again, this time in a slightly more structured fashion. So I've decided to pick different themes and summarize my Top 5 recommendations for each.

Today's theme: History in and around Johannesburg. It wasn't an easy pick as there are many other worthwhile attractions, but here we go:

1. Apartheid Museum 

Any tour of Johannesburg's and South Africa's history has to start with the Apartheid Museum. You can't help but be touched by the weight of history when issued your entrance ticket classifying you as "white" or "non-white", letting you experience the violent days when armored trucks roamed township streets and trials were held to convict freedom fighters for treason against the state as if you had been there yourself.

And while you're in Soweto, continue on to the Hector Pieterson Memorial about 20 minutes away, which is the jelly equivalent to the Apartheid Museum's peanut butter, to learn about Hector Pieterson, the 12-year old boy who was killed during the Soweto Uprising of 1976. On your way you might also stop at Nelson Mandela House on Vilakazi Street where the great man once lived (and within walking distance of another great man's house, that of Archbishop Desmund Tutu), Walter Sisulu Square where the Freedom Charter is on display, and Regina Mundi Church where you can see bullet holes next to beautiful stained glass windows. Don't worry if you can't fit it all into one trip, because for sure the giant bustling township of Soweto will lure you back in with its siren call, having become quite the tourist hotspot with many attractions like wine tastings, music festivals, and bike tours.

Read A Trip Back into South Africa's History and Soweto for more information.

2. Liliesleaf Farm

Liliesleaf Farm, while also inextricably linked with South Africa's Apartheid era, makes for a very different experience than the Apartheid Museum and is best tackled on another day. But it is no less fascinating. Located nowhere near Soweto but rather in what's now the Northern Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia, Liliesleaf Farm today looks like a peaceful country retreat, belying its part in the violence that tore South Africa apart in the days when Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed faction of the African National Congress, embarked on a campaign of sabotage and bombing to draw attention to the civil rights struggle. Here you will learn all about the Rivonia Trial and how Nelson Mandela came to be captured the second time and locked away on Robben Island. With South African municipal elections just completed, a visit to Liliesleaf Farm is a great way to go back in time and learn how the ANC came of age, who its major players were, and why it still holds such political (if waning) power today.

Read Liliesleaf Farm and the Rivonia Trial and Nelson Mandela for more information.

3. Maropeng Visitor Center and Sterkfontein Caves

This might strike you as an odd selection for this blog post, but then again the Cradle of Humankind is one of South Africa's oldest historic sites. It's located about an hour to the Northwest of Johannesburg surrounded by beautiful hilly country, worth the trip in its own right. Learn about the earliest hominids at Maropeng, which admittedly is a bit of a Disney-like attraction, though much smaller in scale, with a boat ride through evolution and a series of educational displays. Combine it with a visit at Sterkfontein Caves where 2 million years old "Mrs. Ples," was discovered.

With Professor Lee Berger recently in the news with the Homo Naledi discovery, the Cradle of Humankind should be on your shortlist if you're at all interested in archaeology or anthropology, but it also makes for a fun and educational outing for the entire family. You could top it off with a balloon safari and a dinner at nearby must-experience Carnivore Restaurant (or the equally unique Leafy Greens Cafe if you're a vegetarian).

Read Back to the Cradle for more information.

4. The Rand Club

For some reason, my previous blog post about the Rand Club created quite the controversy, which may be the only reason why I'm including it again here. I had gotten an invitation for two at some event there, I've long forgotten what for, and so my husband and I decided to try it out. I took many pictures and went home to blog about it, with special mention of the food, which we found mediocre, and the "faded glory" look of the place, which I described as having lived past its heyday from when gold was discovered near Johannesburg until well into the Apartheid years.

You wouldn't believe the outpouring of venom I received as a result, from people who take great pride in the Rand Club and its selective admissions policy. To them it must have seemed like I attacked the very symbol of their pride and nationalism.

Whatever you may think of it, it's worth a visit. If you go, I'd love to hear about it, as it has recently been renovated and reopened to the public (or only to members and their important friends, for all I know). You can't help but think back to Cecil Rhodes and his grand African ambition when you sit in the wood-paneled bar or look up into its magnificent glass dome.

Read The Rand Club: Truly a Bygone Era for more information.

5. Kruger House Museum

More captivating than even the house was the railroad car in
which Paul Kruger left South Africa to go into exile
Technically not in Johannesburg but rather Pretoria, so I hope you'll forgive me for misleading you a bit. The thing is, you absolutely should go to Pretoria when visiting Johannesburg, as much of the nation's history lives on in the nation's capital (or one of its capitals, to be exact). There are many other places to visit there (Voortrekker Monument, Church Square with the Palace of Justice, where the Rivonia Trial mentioned above took place, and Union Buildings, to name a few), but for our family the most memorable was Paul Kruger's former home. It's not nearly as grand as you'd expect the house of a former president, especially a president so universally beloved as "Ohm Kruger," and that exactly is its appeal. It reminded me of my grandparents' home in Southern Germany, down to the musty smell of old furniture.  

If you don't know much about South Africa's history, a visit of Kruger House Museum will pique your interest enough to delve into it deeper and go beyond what you know about what came later during Apartheid and after its fall the transformation into a democracy.


This article is part of the Joburg Expat Top Five series. You might also like:

August 1, 2016

What's in YOUR (Expat) Suitcase?

Remember those credit card ads that ask: "what's in YOUR wallet?"

I was recently reminded of that line when I saw this picture:


It made me want to ask,

What's in YOUR suitcase?

Even though most Brits (and also Australians) I know are VERY loyal to their Marmite, apparently it can become too much of a good thing when well-meaning visitors arrive with armfuls of the stuff for their expat host's pantry. 

Of course not all expats are cut from the same cloth. Even a single ONE of those jars would be one too many in our household. But it's hard to imagine that our family would ever complain about having too many of these:

6.6 lbs of pure joy. Bring it on, people who are visiting us!

It occurred to me that whatever you pack in your suitcase is a dead giveaway of your nationality, more so than anything else. You might adapt to your host country in many ways that allow you to blend in, adopting customs and lifestyles, perhaps becoming fluent in their language. You might be able to pass for a local if you truly love a place, but if forced to open your suitcase after a trip abroad, your true identity would be revealed by its contents.

So, what's in YOUR (expat) suitcase?

Is it five packs of tampons to last you the next two years, because you are extremely loyal to the brand you've used ever since you can remember (only to discover, when those five packs do run out eventually, that the local brand you've been avoiding for years is actually far superior)?

If you're a South African living abroad, I would bet my right arm that I'd find a bottle of Mrs. Balls Chutney nestled between your socks. That and some clandestine biltong - if you can get past what I've heard are biltong-sniffing dogs at certain American airports. As much as I love biltong, my choice of South African import is Woolworth's luxury muesli. If I could, I'd import a year's supply of Cape gooseberries to go with it for my daily breakfast:

Asian expats seem to be particularly partial to their spices. Which is totally understandable because you can't produce such heavenly flavors with just salt and pepper. Just be sure when smuggling your herbs they don't look like a sh*tload of weed.

Personally, what I always put on special order from my Singaporean friend is Chinese sausage or Lap Cheong. No fried rice recipe is truly complete without this delicacy if you've ever had it.

If ginormous jars of artery-clogging Nutella weren't enough, German expats also like to import their oversized Milka and Ritter Sport chocolate bars. If you've ever had it, you'll know why.

I can't remember the purpose of the cucumber. To somehow negate the calories?

How about you? What do you nestle between YOUR shoes and toiletry kit, wrapped in some dirty underwear to serve the dual purpose of extra padding as well as warding off prying customs officials? 

Or perhaps you don't do any of these things. That's the good thing about globalization, Donald Trump's shouting notwithstanding: In this day and age, you can pretty much get anything anywhere in the world without paying a huge premium.

But in a way that's also a sad development, as it makes the world less interesting. Part of the fun of living abroad is discovering new delicacies and merchandise, and then scheming the rest of your days how to get your hands on it when you're no longer there.

Something gets lost when there is no more scheming. I wonder if people from communist countries ever reminisce about the old days when they had to stand in line days on end whenever rumors flew that a rare batch of hand soap had arrived?

So, even if nowadays you can find it on any shelf in the far corners of the Earth, I will never stop packing jars of Nutella in my suitcase.

A beautiful sight in the Godforsaken town of Helmeringhausen in Namibia, just
South of the Tropic of Capricorn. Although an even more beautiful sight that day
was the lone garage. Find out why in Travel in Namibia.


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