September 12, 2016

When in Rome, Buy a Lacrosse Stick and a Kindle

It was about 3 months into our new life in Johannesburg. I was sitting in the headmaster's office at Dainfern College and laying out carefully curated arguments to convince him that my daughter, and girls in general, should be allowed to play soccer.

He listened to all of it very patiently, said he understood my reasons, and smiled at me not unlike Dumbledore, in a gentle yet stern way. Then he said:

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I didn't like hearing this at all. How unfair, I thought, that my daughter would have to start from scratch playing netball - what the hell even IS netball? - even though she had played, and been fairly good at, soccer for years. What kind of signal did that send to her? Why was South Africa so behind the times? Wouldn't it be good for them to change their ways?

But - as every other expat knows - I was very short on time fighting these kinds of battles, what with a container having arrived with furniture that needed arranging and pictures that needed hanging and an entire new routine that needed establishing. So I didn't dig in.

Since the school team was a no-go, I went and signed her up for a boys' soccer team that allowed girls. I took her there, watched a few badly-run practices, and was not surprised when she wanted to quit a few weeks into it, telling me the boys were silly and were never passing her the ball and anyways she'd rather play whatever sport it was to be with girls. She joined the netball team the next day.

She chose to do as the Romans do. For pre-teens and teenagers, this is often the only sensible solution.

Then we had to start all over again when moving back to the United States, where there was of course no demand for good netball or field hockey players. The old headmaster's words still rang in my head when we scouted out the new schools, and what the Romans were doing best in Brentwood, TN, seemed to be lacrosse. So we we went shopping for a lacrosse stick.

Our oldest son also switched to lacrosse. Here he is practicing "wall ball" at school.

During the course of our moves, we've had to adapt in other extracurricular areas as well. Arriving in South Africa meant out with baseball, basketball, gymnastics, girl scouts, vacation bible school, and in with field hockey, cricket, rugby, scuba diving, and singing.There was plenty on offer - in fact more than before - but a lot of it was new to our family.

In other areas of daily life, it was also out with Starbucks drive-through for a quick coffee on the fly, and in with afternoon braais that segued seamlessly into long evenings in the company of unhurried friends. Out with efficient shopping trips to Target and in with a cobbled-together shopping list featuring Star Butchery for biltong, Woolies for the pure joy of shopping, and a street vendor or two for some clothes hangers or a Springbok rugby shirt.

As I've said before in a blog post titled Expat Joys: Variety and Life Skills, turning expat hassles into expat joys is just a matter of perspective. You can go the path of the "grumpy expat" and try to force your old life into your new environment, meaning you'll most likely be stressed out and miserable, or you can learn how to be a successful expat. A lot of the latter course starts with "Doing as the Romans do."

The cool thing is that you get to dabble in stuff that you've never dabbled in before. In South Africa, we got into scuba diving and horseback riding as a family, activities we'd never have started without the new opportunities presenting themselves. I myself became a hobby photographer, took piano and violin lessons, and began playing tennis, a sport that has stayed with me and has proven to be a wonderful way to meet new people.

But adapting to your new environment isn't always all upside. For example, doing as the (South African) Romans do meant that our kids were hardly reading books anymore. Their peers didn't seem to be reading much, or if they were, the level was quite a bit lower, public libraries were nonexistent, and paperbacks were terribly expensive. So I convinced my husband that the investment in four brand-new Kindles was worth it. Sometimes you have to do as the Romans do with a twist.

Today, our basement is littered with old baseball bats, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks, and more helmets of varying shapes and forms than you might imagine are possible. It is my secret dream that someone would come up with The Universal Helmet that can be worn for every sport there is. Doesn't each helmet have more or less the same functionality? But I guess the Romans had their own helmets too.

And their own lacrosse sticks.

When in Rome, buy a lacrosse stick so your kids can cavort with the little lacrosse-playing Roman bambini, but also get them a Kindle so they can best them in reading!

September 5, 2016

10 Ways Johannesburg and South Africa Have Changed Since 2012

Eish - you leave a place, and in the blink of an eye it changes on you!

In the three and a half years since we left South Africa, so many things have changed. I guess it's normal that things change. But it feels as if nothing much changed at all while we lived in Johannesburg, and then boom! - the minute we are gone, new stuff sprouts up all over the place.

What kind of stuff am I talking about?

Here are my observations during our whirlwind trip of last month of what is new in Johannesburg:

  1. William Nicol is now 6 lanes wide from Fourways to Dainfern (and I assume all the way to Diepsloot), meaning where you previously had to compete with a thousand minibus taxis to squeeze into one single lane coming home during afternoon rush hour is now a thing of the past. Construction on this had actually started in the months before we left, giving us the entire inconvenience of closed lanes without any of the future benefit.
  2. New Retailers have sprung up like mushrooms after a wet summer, giving South Africa the same shopping-crazed hype that we experienced in Singapore in the late 90s. It's as if shopping has become South Africa's new pastime. New franchises have poured into the country at an ever increasing stream, such as Burger King, Domino's Pizza, Forever 21, H&M, Krispy Creme, and Starbucks
  3. In equal measure, new shopping centres continue to be opened. The new Dainfern Square Shopping Centre next to Dainfern Valley is oh so convenient, with such nice stores as Vida e Cafe, Yume Sushi, a Virgin Active gym, Exclusive Books, and of course the fabulous Woolies. Right across is a new garden center I would have loved to have there when doing all my gardening. If you live in my old neighborhood, Dainfern Valley, and if you're so inclined, you can now shop and eat to your heart's content on foot or via golf cart without ever having to get your car out of the garage. 
  4. New houses in secure estates keep being built. Nashville, where we live now, is one of the new boom cities in the U.S., but I'd be darned if there weren't even more home construction projects going on in Northern Joburg. Take the legendary Steyn City, for instance. Developed by billionaire Douw Steyn, this new neighborhood right next to Dainfern Golf is either a crazy enterprise or absolutely brilliant, depending on how you look at it. It's a city within a city with schools, shopping, and even an equestrian center built right into it, so you presumably don't even have to go to the new Dainfern Square anymore, since everything will be available within the walled city. Strikes you a bit medieval, doesn't it? Just check out Steyn's own 3000 square meter mansion. Eish!
  5. Vodacom fibre (and other providers). One of the curses of living in the developed world is that you routinely get leapfrogged by developing countries with the emergence of new technology. This is how we're still handwriting checks for our kids' class fees and the plumber who comes to unclog our toilet, whereas South Africans have used EFT banking for years if not decades. And this is how our internet speeds have become very sad affairs compared to what some of my friends now get in South Africa. From the few conversations I've had, it sounds like Afrihost is still the way to go in terms of your internet provider, with great pricing for uncapped data and excellent customer service, without a contract.
  6. There is now Netflix in South Africa. I was informed of this from several sides, practically before I'd had a chance to say hello, that's how excited this news was first received. No more need to set up complicated constructs to change your DNS address, or employ a VPN. You'll still need a Roku, Google Chromecast,  Apple TV, or even a Smart TV, but you can connect those directly to Netflix and watch all your favorite shows. Or, rather, most of them - not all the shows Netflix streams to South Africa are the same, apparently. If you do want the same as in the U.S, you WILL need a VPN, but be careful - Netflix is able to detect and block the more commonly known ones. 
  7. Most U.S. TV shows are now available for South African viewing on MNet DSTV within 1-24 hours of airing in the U.S. It's called Express from the U.S. If you consider that while we lived there only 3 years ago, we were 2 or more seasons behind on everything, this is a startling development. Sadly, however, this also means that my beloved Chaplin's, a cute little DVD rental shop in the Valley Shopping Center, is now out of business. No need to watch actual DVDs if  you can get any show from the U.S. almost instantly. I have such fond memories of Chalin's! You'd almost always run into an acquaintance there, and you'd have to be fast on a Friday night or all the good movies would already be taken.
  8. I already wrote about this in a previous post, but Amazon now ships to South Africa. It's done this for a while, but the shipping rates seem to have come down drastically, making it a very affordable option. A friend of mine had a $95 textbook - not light by any means - shipped for $13 from and received it in 10 days. That is definitely no longer prohibitive, and it opens up a whole new world for South Africans and expats alike.
  9. This is a minor change that won't affect most expats, but there are now actual minibus taxi bus stops sprinkled along the most popular routes, little shelters with a bench and a roof over them. They immediately caught my eye. In a city that has such low coverage of public transport, this stood out to me. I also saw them in the Eastern Cape, so it's not just a Gauteng phenomenon.
  10. I saved the best for last: Uber cars. This, more than anything else, has changed the world for most of our South African and expat friends. Where teenagers were bound to the house or neighborhood, or had to rely on parents to cart them around, they are now much more flexible to safely and inexpensively get around with Uber. Adults use it too. We used it to get to and from the airport, for about $30 each way. It's as if a whole new world of public transport has been opened up that didn't exist before. Joburg is teeming with Uber cars these days, meaning you won't have to wait even 3 minutes for one of them no matter where you are (okay, I didn't test that one; I didn't try to haul one from within Alexandra - that might have been the true test). And, as I said, they're very affordable, more so than in the U.S. Which is actually amazing since gas (petrol) prices are quite a bit higher in South Africa.

our Uber driver at OR Tambo International Airport

This concludes my list. Did I forget anything?

But I'm not quite done yet. This blogpost wouldn't be complete if I didn't also mention some of the things that HAVEN'T CHANGED since I've left South Africa.

The highveld is as dusty as ever in winter, and the air has that same smell of woodfires.

You can still get an excellent meal at very affordable prices in a great selection of restaurants

The wine seems to have gotten even cheaper, or perhaps it has gotten more expensive in the U.S. For the price we pay at restaurants here for just one glass, in South Africa you can get an entire bottle of a very decent vintage.

Jacob Zuma's antics are as shameful as ever

Shopping at Woolworths is as wonderful as ever 

You still encounter a few random road blocks every day, and have to hope that your car doesn't scream "expat" at the cops pulling you over to ask, have you brought anything for them today?

The broken robot at Cedar Rd and Witkoppen is still out since the last time I drove by in 2012.

Joburg traffic is still Joburg traffic

You still get your drugs in those funny little cages

You still get your cappuccino artistically enhanced