March 28, 2016

Hitting Rock Bottom in a McDonald's Bathroom

Writing my last blog post about expat depression reminded me of a time I felt like I'd reached the low point of my life.

It was in December of 2002. At that time we were living in Raleigh, North Carolina, and an ice storm had struck overnight. I woke up in the morning to this scenery:

As much as service delivery works in the U.S, the time it breaks down without fail is when natural disasters strike, especially in the form of hurricanes and ice storms that take down power lines. I don't know if you can see it in the picture, but the tree at the bottom of the driveway took out a transformer box. The entire neighborhood went dark and would stay so for four days.

This was many years before we would move to South Africa. Before we would complain about yet another power outage wrought on us by Eskom.Yet in all the time living in South Africa, we never had a power outage last this long. As my mother famously said, even in World War II Germany when whole cities were reduced to rubble, the power outages didn't last as long as in modern-era North Carolina.

The driveway blocked by toppled trees was only one of our problems that day. Our kindly neighbor eventually appeared, chainsaw in hand, and cleared our driveway. This is what I love about Americans: There will always be a neighbor showing up with a chainsaw when you need one. 

But our plight was just beginning. Because even with a clear driveway, where would I go with four kids in tow, all under the age of six? And honestly, at first I thought I could make it. It was North Carolina after all, same latitude as Naples or something similar, and it would warm up in due time. I just had to tough it out until the next morning.

Except it didn't warm up. By next morning the house was freezing. All I had was one smoky fireplace that didn't heat didley squat, as a North Carolinian would say. I bundled my youngest into a snowsuit and held her tightly wrapped in a blanket in front of that fireplace, as she wasn't mobile yet and I was worried she'd get cold the quickest. I tried to keep the other kids occupied with games, balls, pushcarts, whatever I could find that would keep them moving.

It worked for a while, but it kept getting colder. The three days I spent in that house were the coldest I've ever been (with the exception of summit night on Mount Kilimanjaro). Noisette, of course, cheerfully left every morning for his perfectly climatized office. He might have even told me to "pull myself together" as he is wont to do.

By the third day, when the temperature dropped to 40 degrees F inside the house, I couldn't take it any longer. I was so desperate for some warmth that I decided I would move our household into my minivan. I had called all my friends, but everyone was either in the same boat or had already left town to live with relatives. My nearest relatives were my former host parents in Mississippi, and if some other option didn't come up that day, that's where I was headed.

But first I had to feed those kiddos. I drove down the road and through a winter wonderland that under different circumstances I would have found beautiful, looking for a store or restaurant that looked open. It took about 20 minutes for me to score: The McDonald's on Falls of the Neuse Road was open for business!

I cannot tell you how happy the sight of the golden arches made me that day. I was fully prepared to camp out till nightfall at that McDonald's and have the kids entertain themselves with Happy Meal toys until Noisette would be off of work. Then HE could figure out what to do next - I'd had enough.

To give you an approximate idea of the ages of our kids that fateful day: From left to right - 
Jabulani, Sunshine, Zax, and Impatience. This was not the day of the ice storm.

We hadn't even had a chance to order yet when Impatience needed to go to the bathroom. It's funny how soon you forget, once you have teenagers who annoy you to no end by staying in their rooms all day not wanting to talk to you. Do you know what teenagers are great at? Going to the bathroom BY THEMSELVES!

Back in 2002, my only option was to take everybody to the bathroom with me. We squeezed into a stall, the five of us in our bulky winter coats, so that Impatience could do her business. Or I should say the six of us. Not wanting to part with the love of her young life, Bibi the Teddy Bear, Impatience was clutching him to her chest instead of leaving him in the car like any reasonable person would have done. Only she wasn't clutching so well at that very moment, and - horrors! - Bibi fell into the toilet, right there in the McDonald's bathroom, landing with a big splash.

We all stood around the bowl, speechless. Everyone knew, even little Sunshine at barely six months old, that something momentous had happened. First there was silence es everyone pondered this development. Then came the scream.

Just to show you how inseparable Bibi and Impatience have always been, here is a picture from
a year later when she absolutely refused to go to ski school unless Bibi came with her.
That was the time I cursed the fact that Bibi happened to be white and not brown like any self-respecting Teddy Bear. I still consider it a miracle he wasn't lost forever in a slush pile in Whistler that winter.

I suppose that was the good news when he floated in that toilet bowl. At least he wasn't lost, and all I had to do was fish him out. I can't honestly recall if it was pre- or post-pee. It didn't really matter. No roof over my head, no place to go, four little people relying on me - all that I could take. But no washer and dryer? I almost lost it then. Life seemed to have become unbearably hard that very moment, conspiring against me one too many times. I remember standing there staring down, full of a self-pity I'd never until that point allowed myself to wallow in, and crying big, heaving sobs over the injustice in my life.

Mind you, it had nothing to do with depression. I had simply reached the end of my rope after a long and frustrating day, something that can happen to anybody, and certainly someone with little children. Heck, in those days, every day was a long day that left you utterly exhausted. 

I certainly don't want to make light of or misrepresent a serious medical condition. But in a way it was a perfect example of how, if enough things pile up, you can reach a point where you don't know what else to do, where you just want to sit down, even if it's next to a toilet surrounded by four little children, and cry. 

Fortunately for most of us, we bask in our moment of self-pity and then snap out of it again, wash our hands and walk away.

If only it were that simple for everyone.

Postscript: As so often happen, things picked up after hitting the low point. I tried calling some friends again and got an answering machine I hadn't gotten before, meaning they must have power restored. I reached them on their cell phone (back in the day when people were by no means glued to their cell phones like nowadays) and lo and behold, they were on their way back home with their own four kids. I moved in with them for the next couple of days, kids, sopping bear, and all, Noisette joined us there that night, and we had a blast, all twelve of us. I've always been particularly grateful for these friends of ours and their opening their doors to our rather large family without hesitation. 

To paraphrase what I remember as Scarlett's words from the end of Gone with the Wind, when all is lost: "I will try again tomorrow. Tomorrow will be a better day."

March 21, 2016

How Good is the Care for Depression in South Africa?

A reader asked me the other day if I knew anything about medical care for depression in South Africa. She and her husband were contemplating a move to South Africa and she had dealt with anxiety during previous moves. On top of that, she was expecting a baby and would have an infant to care for, giving her the additional worry of postpartum depression.

I assured her that we had had a good experience with doctors in general and that the private hospitals we frequented - somewhat involuntarily, I can assure you, as is most often the case with hospitals - were of as good a standard as we knew from the United States.

Except I knew nothing about the care for depression, anxiety, and mental illness. So I decided to ask my faithful readers. 

I received a number of helpful answers and wanted to post them here for the benefit of other readers with similar questions.

I chose this picture for this blog post because we often feel depressed on a rainy day. On top of this,
it was the day we delivered our oldest son to his new home at the university, another cause for
sadness. But perhaps I also chose this picture because amidst all  the depressing rain, it shows a
sliver of brightness in the sky. 

First to answer was fellow expat blogger Clara Wiggins, who has written her own series about expat depression and also covers this topic in her book, the Expat Partner Survival Guide, which I've reviewed here before.

I think she will find good therapists and counsellors here but it can be an issue finding someone who understands expat issues. I'm currently running a series on my blog about expat depression. The next one will include links to online counsellors as this is the route more people are taking now.
There followed some disagreement about the counselors:

There are few doctors who specialized in mental illnesses and who can help her. Not sure the counsellors are helpful at all, just 'bla bla'. She needs to go to the doctor who specializes in depressions because it's a sickness and needs to be cured. And it doesn't matter at all if you are expat or not. It's not relevant.

One reader asked to be contacted as she herself had moved to South Africa with a new baby and struggled with postpartum depression, having a very difficult time. Fortunately, she was able to conquer it and is now "strong and able to deal with anything." 

The fact that I'm able to connect people like this through my blog is very rewarding to me.

The next reader sounded a very positive note:

In SA GPs are well informed about depression and anxiety. There are also psychiatrists and psychologists. Depression and anxiety are not uncommon. Medication for depression and anxiety is widely available in SA. Therapists/counsellors and self help groups in cities across the country are well educated and very helpful. I think it will be a bit more difficult in the countryside to find a therapist, you might have to travel a bit. Please do not worry. Make sure that if you are on medication, to take enough for a few months in order for you to find a good GP and a good therapist. SA is a developed country so no need to worry at all.

This was seconded by more readers:

[The previous reader] already said what I wanted to say. Excellent care is available. Just bear in mind that if you want to use a South African insurer there will be an exclusion period for pre-existing conditions.
I strongly endorse what [the previous two readers] have said. Our private health care is excellent and if depression issues arise your reader can be confident of first class care - regardless of whether they are rooted in the expat experience, postpartum problems or anything else. I know that moving overseas and having a baby are both scary in their own ways but whatever reservations she may have about taking up an expat assignment, I sincerely believe that her concerns about the quality of mental health care here need absolutely not be among them. Sending love 💕.

I know this sounds cheesy, but I can't help but think that when a South African sends love to a person from another country she hasn't even met and in all likelihood never will meet, this right there shows why there is nothing to worry about. South Africa will take care of our expat with anxiety, I have no doubt about it! 

The final comment provided more helpful information.

There is a organization in South Africa called the South African depression and anxiety group, they have lists with specialists who most probably can offer help. Like others mentioned above, therapists and counselors are very well educated, and especially in larger cities there are plenty of them.

If you have come across this article because you are moving to South Africa and are dealing with anxiety and depression in your own family, then I hope this has helped you feel more at ease about your move, and given you some starting points dor further research.

If you have any additional information or experiences you'd like to contribute, as always please comment below!

March 15, 2016

Reflections on Expat Happiness. Or: Do Germans or Americans Have Better Washers?

This country is so underdeveloped, says the American expat in Germany. Just look at the washing machines: Too small, the cycle takes two hours, and they have way too many confusing buttons!

How can people live in this country, says the German expat in America. Just look at these washing machines: The water can't be heated beyond what comes out of the tap, there are only three program buttons, and my whites never return to white unless I use toxic bleach!

These are just two examples from a recent WSJ article I read that makes a valid point, a point that most expats know intrinsically: How you rate certain aspects of the new country you've just moved to greatly depends on where you're coming from. Your own cultural background determines your priorities, and how you rate a country can be quite different from someone else living in the same country but arriving from elsewhere.

Let's stick with these two countries for a minute: Having lived in both Germany and the U.S., I can certainly appreciate the debate from both sides. I cringe at the poor building quality of my American home. I sit here gazing out the window and can see a gap - a gap a small mouse could easily squeeze through - between frame and window. There is an invasion of ladybugs in my bedroom, and this after our pest control guy sprayed all kinds of poison along the baseboards just last week. Every time it rains there is a patch of wet carpet under my daughter's window, even though we've had a succession of handymen - all of them cheerful and affordable - try to fix the problem. And I don't think you can find a single power outlet in the entire house, should you feel inclined to put a level to each one of them - that can live up to my Germanic sense for straight angles and clean lines.

On the other hand, if I lived in Germany, our family most likely wouldn't even be in a house, especially not a house of this size and convenience, because to build something similar the German way would cost a lot more. Instead, we might live in a cramped apartment sharing one bathroom among 2 adults and 4 teenagers (an apartment which, granted, would have a leak-free roof and walls that could withstand the second invasion of the Mongols) and any extra money left over would have been spent on a designer kitchen and six wardrobes, because in Germany neither of these basic conveniences comes with the house you rent or buy. If I ever did need a handyman, I might have to wait 4 months to score one and have to pay him cash under the table to help him cheat on taxes. My laundry would be sparkling white without the help of any toxic bleach, but I'd have to use the bleach all the same - sprayed into corners where pesky mold grows because the house is insulated so well that there is zilch exchange of air between inside and outside.

Of course, expats hailing from Germany and the USA are not alone in this. As a Singaporean, you might be appalled at the inefficiencies and crazy street life when first driving on South African roads, whereas as a South African you might be totally baffled why a Singaporean cab driver will not stop for you and squeeze you in, or why, if  you do find a space, he won't bloody pass the cars in front of you already, illegally on the side of the road if must be, to get you there faster.

What will you choose to see as expat in South Africa? This...

...or rather this?

One man's Expat Joy is the other's Culture Shock.

The trick, of course, is to do as the Romans do. Embrace what's good in the country you're in and don't fuss over what's not. Play cricket in South Africa and lacrosse in America. Drive big cars in the U.S. and take public transport in Germany. Go shopping in Singapore and go visit a coffeeshop in Amsterdam.

Everything is relative, and the beauty of expat life is that it rubs your nose in this truth, whether you're asking for it or not. If you have kids, be happy they have a better than average chance of growing into worldly and understanding human beings instead of insisting that the only lifestyle they've ever seen is superior to everything else.

If you're an expat, I'm sure you've had to deal with (and griped about) your share of expat hassles. But you may have also learned this: The only thing that stands between despair and elation, the one thing that can turn a hassle into a joy, is that small thing called perspective.

And where it takes you is entirely in your hands.

March 7, 2016

Best Africa Quotes by Paul Theroux

When I wrote about the role of charity in Africa, I heavily relied on a treasure trove of quotes out of Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari. But I could barely scratch the surface in either of those blog posts, and wanted to remedy that with a more extensive list of Paul Theroux's best Africa observations.

Dark Star Safari is, in my opinion, as close as you can get to the bible about travel and life in Africa. In it, Paul Theroux certainly does not mince words. He tells it as he sees it, and some might find reason to disagree or be offended, particularly when it comes to the value of foreign aid organizations. But I find that overall his descriptions of Africa, all the way from Cairo to Cape Town, are spot-on.

Just to explain his background: Paul Theroux lived in Africa several decades ago, when as a young and idealistic man he was a teacher for the Peace Corps in Malawi and Uganda. When he now returns to Africa with the idea to traverse it from top to bottom without the use of an airplane, he is often disillusioned by the lack of progress in the countries whose future seemed more promising the first time around, when they were bustling with volunteers just like him ready to change the world. Nevertheless, he thrives on meeting average citizens wherever he goes, the kind of people most of us might never get to know when traveling, and he describes these encounters in exquisite detail on the pages of Dark Star Safari.

I hope that the following whets your appetite to go ahead and buy the book. If you've ever been to Africa, are planning to go, or simply love reading a fascinating memoir, you won't regret it.

Paul Theroux Quotes


“I was reassured that the trucks [we traveled on] were full of cattle and not people, for in these parts cattle were valuable and people’s lives not worth much at all.”
...and here my kids were complaining to be double-buckled 4 in a backseat meant for 3. I can just hear them should I propose transport by cattle truck!


“Scamming is the survival mode in a city [Addis Ababa] where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves.”
I haven't been to Addis Ababa but I know a thing or two about thieving police officers. Although I'd say "thieving" is not a fair label. More like "eternally scheming to take advantage of people not at the top of their game." If you read one of my traffic cop stories, you might agree.


"African cities recapitulate the sort of street life that had vanished from European cities - a motley liveliness that lends color and vitality to old folktales and much of early English literature. An obvious example was Dickens's London, an improvised city populated by hangers-on, hustlers, and newly arrived bumpkins - like Nairobi today."

"A motley liveliness" - what a great phrase to describe the street scene in African cities. Most people who've been to Africa and had to leave for whatever reason will point to that picture of hustle and bustle, of cheerful color, of simply life in all of its forms and variations, as the thing they miss the most.

On first sight you may find African cities a bit overwhelming, perhaps scary, and might wish for a more "normal" morning commute. But you soon get used to the sights and, more often than not, the daily interactions with vendors and beggars and newspaper boys, and only realize how much you enjoyed them when you're back in the Western world where city streets carry all the excitement of a convention of dental drill manufacturers.


"Tanzania was a tourist destination. The comrades, the Maoists, the ideologues, the revolutionaries, the sloganeering Fidelistas, were now hustling for jobs in hotels and taking tourists for game drives. And if as a Tanzanian your village was not near any lions or elephants - and Tabora wasn't - you were out of luck, and had to put up with crummy schools and bad roads and this amazingly casual railway, once called the Central Line, which had been built almost a hundred years ago by the Germans."
"The routine [of the minibus taxi] was: the driver speeded, swerved, stopped, dropped one person, picked up two, sped away leaning on his horn. Whenever he stopped there was a petty quarrel, someone with no money, someone asking him to wait, some yelling in Swahili 'Hey, I'm walking here!'"

Aaaah, minibus taxis. Who doesn't have a story or two about a run-in with one? My take is this: As much as they're reviled by other motorists, you can't really judge them until you've used one for your own transport. In which case you might resent them even more, because they often are unsafe and yet cost a fortune when measured against your monthly income. And yet without one you couldn't keep any kind of regular job at all.

As a German by birth, I cannot help but smile about the German railway line. I know in my heart about the many evils of colonialism, which Germany is lesser-known for than its European neighbors but participated in nonetheless. But the fact that the railway built by the Germans a hundred years ago still functions today - without, I'm sure, any meaningful upgrades - fills me with a sense of pride, as in "we Germans sure know how to build things that last."


"These [foreign aid projects in Uganda like flour mills, schools, and hospitals] were like inspired Christmas presents, the sort that stop running when the batteries die or that break and aren't fixed."
"The projects would become wrecks, every one of them, because they carried with them the seeds of their destruction. And when they stopped running, no one would be sorry. That's what happened in Africa: things fell apart."
This is a recurring refrain in his book, and perhaps the most controversial one. It sounds so hopeless, perhaps precisely because we all know or have left behind just such a project. And yet my guess is that this won't stop such projects from being taken on again and again. Maybe because those of us who "help" enjoy it too much while we are doing it, without that much thought about what happens afterwards. Maybe we give these inspired Christmas presents for our own sake more than the sake of those we seek to help?

South Africa

"No other place I had seen on my trip was so well lit at night as this introduction to South Africa. No other country had been so electrified. The light was interruptive and disturbing, for it gave bright, not quite right glimpses of prosperity - tall power lines and large houses and used-car lots with shiny vehicles and the sinister order of urban life."
" 'Don't go to a squatter camp. Don't go to a black township You'll get robbed, or worse.' The next day I went to a squatter camp."
If you've only seen South Africa and no other African country, you often forget how "un-African" it is in many ways. We experienced that same sense of surprise about the electrification and modernity of South Africa, both when arriving the very first time and expecting anything but 8-lane highways, and when returning from trips to other, less-advanced African countries like Mozambique.

The quote about squatter camps is my favorite sentence in the entire book. It's as if Paul Theroux was a little devil on my shoulder egging me on that first time I ventured into Alexandra.

Anywhere in Africa

Paul Theroux has such a way with words. I found myself nodding particularly wildly at the passages below, knowing that I shared these thoughts but wouldn't have been able to put them into such eloquent prose. Maybe like me you'll find your feelings reflected in what I've shared here with you, or maybe you see the world differently.

In any case, I hope that you pick up a copy of Dark Star Safari.

"But African time was not the same as American time... As African time passed, I surmised that the pace of Western countries was insane, that the speed of modern technology accomplished nothing, and that because Africa was going its own way at its own pace for its own reasons, it was a refuge and a resting place, the last territory to light out for. I surmised this, yet I did not always feel it; I am impatient by nature."
"I had learned what many others had discovered before me - that Africa, for all its perils, represented wilderness and possibility. Not only did I have the freedom to write in Africa, I had something new to write about."
"The best travel is a leap in the dark. If the destination were familiar and friendly, what would be the point of going there?”