Category Archives: Professional Expat

Giving Thanks

Change is hard for most people, some more than others. As an expat for the last 11 years I have been through my fair share of countries and changes. Recently my belly button contemplations have centred around when the change becomes the norm. When things that used to stand out and confuse, surprise, unsettle or just plain irk you, don’t any more.

When using an everyday greeting or words in another language that used to make your tongue twist in circles or make you cringe a little bit on the inside in case you were saying it wrong comes out feeling perfectly normal – to you and to the people you are using it with.  When you stop getting headaches from concentrating so hard from driving on the wrong side of the road and the turns you make across traffic are reflex rather than strategically planned maneuvers. When someone says ‘Wow, you really walk a lot in this city’ as they duck and weave following you along a crowded footpath that you used to find overwhelming and you forgot you ever did, like you also forgot you never used to press the close lift button in the elevator (recognizable by being the only button you are unable to see the symbols for). When checking the local paper for the upcoming power outages (should they feel the need to list them) is as natural as using terms that drive you crazy but you now feel the need to spread the crazy – see use of ‘just now’*. You get the idea.

To me giving thanks on Thanksgiving was always ‘too American’ to contemplate. I certainly was an interested and engaged participant the past two Thanksgivings we have been lived in the US, watching friends post on all forms of social media what they were thankful for, even those Americans (and Canadians who do it a month earlier) living overseas, but I always thought it was ‘for them’. Now on our third Thanksgiving in country while preparing some tasty traditional side dishes for our own Aussie / Austrian (the one with no kangaroos) Thanksgiving feast later in the day, I popped a cork and posted my own spontaneous thanks. It felt quite normal and probably something I will do from now on, wherever we live as we incorporate it into our multi-cultural lives and rituals. A nod to when the change became the norm.

thanksgiving

When was the last time you realised a change had become the norm?

*just now is one of the most used and most difficult terms to define in South Africa. It means, not immediately, but that could be a time between 5 minutes and 8 hours (or lets face it three weeks) . After the initial shock telling me that the repairman would be there ‘just now’  used to drive me crazy, almost as crazy as it drove my children and family when I used it with them.

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Expat ouch AKA the toughest snip

What makes you wince, sends a shiver down your spine and wriggle around a little uncomfortably? Is it fingernails down a blackboard, you know when we had blackboards in classrooms and not just chalkboard paint on my kitchen wall? Is it the sound of paper ripping (yes yes YES Mr 11 screams from his corner of the room)? Or is it what happened to me today at the Australia Post Office in Runaway Bay, the sound and sight of scissors to my passport, cutting off the computer read strip?

The cutting away of the strip means until my new passport arrives in my hot little hands I am country bound, a very uncomfortable feeling in my world. Even though the country I am in is my homeland, it is not my current country of residence or the country where my husband is right now. It just feels weird, and I don’t like it.

Ouch!

Ouch!

After recently consulting my passport I determined if all goes to plan flight wise, I will land back in the US with six months and four days on my existing precious and battered document. Most countries require six months validity to accept you through their immigration queues, so if there is a delayed flight or a change of plans I could be in a very sticky situation. Then there is that I actually have no long term residency rights in the US beyond my visa, valid for another year right now, but I really want to be really sure that I can get on a plane anytime, anywhere and go if I need to.

There are so many stories of passport problems I have heard over the years that you would think I would be more on top of things, but I wasn’t. I am flying next Friday, and a priority passport takes 4 days according to the Post Office guy, 2 days processing time after receipt according to the very friendly and helpful customer service Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade representative I spoke to this morning.

So this afternoon with greasy hair and no make up I rushed around trying to find somewhere to take a passport photo of me that will take me INTO MY 50’s! The current one was taken when I was 33 and living in Hong Kong, where I was obviously doing a lot more work on the maintenance side of my life.  I was wearing make up, had reasonably done hair and appeared very calm in my photo.

Today a lady in the Sanctuary Cove pharmacy took my photo and I nearly cried. Literally (as my kids say all the time and it drives me nuts) tears were welling in my eyes. Although I should have had a clue to the outcome when she was lining up close – ish to my face about a foot below my chin line.

Don’t worry love, they all look like mug shots.

No, no they don’t. My last photo is almost beautiful compared to this.

Well, if you don’t want to take it…..

No, I don’t want to take it, but I have to, my passport interview is in thirty minutes, at a location twenty minutes away.

I don’t think I can re-visit the Sanctuary Cove pharmacy, ever. My terrible passport photo is probably on the wall with a big red mark on it, chances are though if I returned to purchase some big earrings or very expensive sunblock that they wouldn’t recognize me, because I didn’t.

It sounds so vain even to me, but it’s not like I put it in a drawer and forget about it for years at a time. As an expat I kind of use it quite a bit. I began to understand why I had make up on in the current shot and had perhaps even blow dried my hair that day.

As I drive onto Runaway Bay for my Post Office interview I thought about my options. If I got there ahead of time I could find another pharmacy and try again, as luck would have it – there was one just around the corner. I rushed in, bought some oversized clips to prop up my hair a bit and asked if they did passport photos.

Yeah, we do, but the camera’s broken.

Of course it was.

Beaten I trudged to the Post Office where the line was lengthy but I kept getting closer to the photo from hell on my passport until I am IN MY 50’s, did I say that already? When I got to the front I asked, in  a very small voice…..

Do you do passport photos?

Yes we do, $14.95.

Sold.

The lighting was better, the man was taller, I have 2-3 less chins in the second shot. It’s not perfect but it’s so much better than what could have been.

1st photo, 2nd photo and the TOTALLY fake passport photo on the front. Smiling is verboten.

1st photo, 2nd photo and the TOTALLY fake passport photo on the front of the envelope. Smiling is verboten in passport photos.

 

So all things going well – next Friday we will be returning to the US, 3 travelers with 5 passports between us. The old elastic band on the second passport for the visa trick, an expat oldie but goodie.

4 of the 5

4 of the 5

Cindy and Njabulo

For some of us just landed and still in confusion, there can be a secret benefit to expat life depending which country you have arrived in. There might be someone who can help you with running your household, ease your acclimatisation just a tiny bit quicker than if you have to clean your bathroom, vacuum the floors or iron your own sheets.*

While you’re trying to work out how to connect the internet, buy the school uniforms and where to find the right ingredients in a plethora of new supermarkets and speciality shops, someone is at home – making it just a little more homely and welcoming for all.

In Hong Kong that someone was Gina, our dearly loved nanny, housekeeper and all around superstar. The third parent in my children’s lives, who ran our house like a machine, which we are forever grateful to her for. Gina was from the Philippines and so lived with us in our apartment in Hong Kong and became a part of our family and our lives over our six years there.

When we moved to South Africa, Gina came with us for three months, to ease the transition.** This was mainly for me as I transitioned from full time working mother to tennis morning, school run and mountain climber in training mother.

In South Africa we met Cindy.  Where Gina was gregarious and outgoing, Cindy was shy and reserved. Where Gina was forthright, Cindy held back. She was initially overwhelmed by the boisterousness and noise of my children, it took quite a few weeks to have a conversation of more than three or four sentences with her. I am an extrovert, Cindy was an introvert. We had to take time to understand the rhythm of each other as with any new relationship. It was OK, we had some of that.

Cindy travelled to us from her home in a township every day in a series of taxis, two or three depending on which route she took and the time of morning. Taxis in South Africa are small mini buses that hurtle along the roadways at alarming speeds and ferry the workforce around over the course of the day. She was proud that she owned her own four room home and could provide for herself and her son Njabulo.

Njabulo was her pride and joy. Many of our conversations over the three years were about our parenting experiences. Regardless of the differences in our nationality, culture and economic situation, parenting has universal themes. Health and education were recurring topics.

Cindy and Njabulo on the day we moved out of our house

Cindy and Njabulo on the day we moved out of our house

At one stage Njabulo had a cough that wouldn’t go away, even after visiting his local clinic and being administered antibiotics. The fear was tuberculosis, prevalent in South Africa and particularly Kwa-Zulu Natal where we lived. We decided to take him to our children’s doctor and have chest x-rays done if needed. Njabulo came to our house with Cindy for the day and when it was time for the doctor’s appointment, she didn’t want to come. On reflection it was such a privilege for her to trust me with her 15 year old son visiting various doctor’s offices over the course of the afternoon.  X-rays and spit tests thankfully revealed the all clear.

Next up was a girlfriend conversation. She thought he had one, what kind of things should she talk to him about? Safe sex obviously – with any teenager anyone in South Africa HIV is an important topic. There are various statistics but African males in Kwa-Zulu Natal are extremely high risk. We worked on various opening gambits and reinforcement statements. I think it went OK, he insisted he didn’t have a girlfriend at the time but at least he got the talk.

The day we left our house in Durban, Cindy, Njabulo, Zanele (Cindy’s sister), Noluh (Zanele’s daughter) and a friend pulled away in a utility vehicle piled high with household items we weren’t taking with us.  It was a happy parting of ways.

Cindy, Zanele and Noluh with a cameo by WASYO

Cindy, Zanele and Noluh with a cameo by WASYO

In December last year, I got a message from Cindy, she had been diagnosed with cancer and would need to undergo a month of chemotherapy. She was worried about Njabulo, she didn’t feel well.  I kept in sporadic contact, she had the chemo, got very sick from it, there was no feeling any better.

On March 16th I received a message from Zanele, Cindy had passed away.

Njabulo is in his last year of high school. He no longer has his mother to take him to the doctor or to give him talks about safe sex practices, or talk to him at all. He is 17, the same age Cindy was when he was born. His aunt Zanele now has a teenager and a 2 year old to provide for with less than half the household income they had previously when Cindy was working full time.

Cindy wanted Njabulo to graduate from high school and if at all possible attend University. Our family has committed to help him do this. We aim to set up a foundation to provide support for his educational future. I am currently researching organisations or groups that can help provide mentorship and guidance on the ground in Durban.

The starting point is this year’s school fees. These fees need to be paid in order for him to receive his final examination scores and submit them to University for acceptance.

I invite everyone to share this story and help us to Educate Njabulo.

* What, ironed sheets? You’re right, I don’t iron my own sheets, never did, but nearly twelve months on I still miss the luxury of freshly laundered and ironed sheets on a bed I didn’t make myself. The ULTIMATE expat princess perk. Roll your eyes, mock me and then try it for nine years and see how easy it is to give up.

**Super expat princess alert

It’s an honour

The end of 2012 was a bit of  a blur for me – I got back from Australia in mid-November and then can’t remember what I did until the last two weeks of December when I descended into a Christmas decoration frenzy.  Evidently during that hazy period I started this blog post, so today I have finished it and – voila – here it is.

Look, look at me – my blog was nominated for an award and won an honourable mention amongst the thirty six blogs on the list for the USA. Not bad for someone with only six months on the ground in a new country. I may have to admit the local fan base wasn’t perhaps as extensive as others – something about other countries I have lived in before. Lets not quibble though, I will graciously accept the honourable mention as my mother tried to teach me to take a compliment where one was offered, with as little mitigating comment as possible.

That was one gold, one silver, one bronze and two honourable mentions. Top 5.

blog-award-2012-usa-honour

There are literally millions of blogs you can find on the internet. There is even a name for it – the blogosphere. A quick check will give you various figures for how many blogs there actually are. As I tell my kids constantly you can’t believe everything you find online but one number I found was ‘over 164 million’. Reference for this is is a site that popped up in my google search called Blog and retire – obviously I trust their figures implicitly and will be back to read the fine print later.

Another number I found (same site reference) was the number of people that read blogs, over 123 million people. That feels wrong, but hoping it means that there are several people with multiple blogs and that every blog has at least one reader – generally the author.

Given there are over 2 billion internet users, that is a lot more potential bloggers, readers, fans and haters for the blogosphere.

There are blog conferences, blog superstars, blog fans, blog fan pages and even blog haters (as in blogs dedicated to dissing other bloggers).

There are blogs about cats, kids, cancer, cooking, crafting, traveling, technology, finance, fashion, gossip, grammar and even expats. If you can think of a subject there are likely to be at least 75 hundred million blogs about it (not sure if that figure correlates with the ones I have listed above from my viable internet sources but lets just say its a finger in the air figure).

Even if you think you’ve never seen a blog, except this one, you probably have, even read one one a regular basis. Of the world’s 15 most popular blogs listed on ebizmba.com as of January 2013 I would be very surprised if you had not visited at least one of the top five, Huffington Post, TMZ, BusinessInsider, EndGadget or PerezHilton.com.

Given the number of blogs about the gazillion things there are in the world to interest people, it makes sense there are about a billion types of recognition of bloggers, or maybe just a million, or even a few thousand.

No matter how many forms of recognition there are I won a prize badge and I shall display it with pride. 2012 was low on upside for me, I will take what I can get. Thank you to all my readers who stopped by the site to put in a good word for me.

I love youse all.*

* the former catch cry of an Aussie boxer that became part of our culture, we do generally understand it has spelling / grammatical difficulties but use it anyway

Tips from a multi country mover

Today I reached the bottom of the boxes labelled ‘Kitchen’, ‘Kit’ or tick box picture of an oven. Lets be clear there are still many many many boxes in all other areas of the house – ‘Mstr Bed’ for instance is filled with them and ‘Playrm’ gets interest from a wide variety of parties and strewn a bit further round the house each day. ‘Dining Rm’ or picture of a knife, fork and plate are stacked on the table in that room because I can’t bear to get too close due to the terrible light fitting adorning that particular location.

There is much left to be done.

It is four days since the big rig pulled up outside our new location and I had a discussion with the movers about how long it took to unload a 40 foot container. On the day they told me 6-8 hours, I think the real answer might be forever.

Even though this is officially our fourth country of residence I am still making rookie errors and so I am going to write them down and share them with you, that way I can refer to them next time we move. I can’t write that last bit without wincing as today I declared I never want to move again.

Anyway – while its still fresh in my mind, traps for young players and things you may expect someone on their fourth country move may NOT do.

– Do NOT move into a new house during school holidays, any unpacking continuity at all is lost in the various requirements of small people who would be much better served being in a classroom. (this tip of course only applies to those with school age children)

– It is worth the extra effort of supervising packers if you can before you move, if you are lucky enough to have packers that is, if you don’t move on to next tip. While I am pleased to report none of our boxes had any ants in them after four weeks at sea and fumigation by the USA Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, we probably did not need to pack every one of our ant traps from Durban (hint – they leak when not placed on a flat surface, only of course if they were in use in your previous location)

– The crap drawer in the kitchen is full of crap, I suggest binning the whole thing if you aren’t a super organised labeller who has everything in ziploc bags.

– Related to tips above, don’t pack a huge ziploc bag labelled ‘Used Batteries’

– 3/4 burned down candles can probably also be left behind

– If you don’t know what something is for, perhaps don’t pack it ‘just in case’

– Try not to move with a husband who is working from home and pops his head up every now and then to check on the progress and look slightly disappointed that the whole thing is not yet completed after he last checked an hour ago

– If you’ve moved something from one country to the next and didn’t use it, its very likely you shouldn’t take it to a third country where it won’t be used – unless of course it is part of your extensive collection of powerboards and plug devices. A sub-tip here for those moving from South Africa – there are no plugs anywhere else in the world that convert ‘from SA to …’

– Related to above, you don’t need Take Away menus from any country you don’t live in anymore.

– The things you want to break and replace will not. Yes, I am speaking of the dip’n’chip bowl that Sam K and Anthony S gifted me for my 21st birthday and I am still moving with me. The things that you don’t want to break / chip / become damaged will be broken – such as a wedding gift from your bridesmaid’s father/husband’s godfather.

– Related to everything above, you may not find out you are a hoarder until you move countries, again and then again.

Just the kitchen boxes – tomorrow’s job to empty them and fold to make way for the rest

That’s it for tonight’s wisdom I have to dash off and catch the delayed Olympic coverage that NBC is sharing with the US public six hours after the events – and I thought I was moving to a first world country.

Adult swim time – not what you might think

I recently read that becoming an expat can make you automatically entertaining and amusing to your friends abroad, describing the things that are everyday and accepted by the place you have moved to but fill your world with wonder and sometimes a giggle or two.

While the things that the locals in your new location would find ordinary and boring are interesting and often humorous to those you left behind, do not fear, the reverse is true for the natives in your new place of residence, so mundane items from a previous country can offer the same excitement to your new friends.

So depending on where you’re from the following items may or may not be new information / interesting / amusing.

In the USA the light switches turn on by flicking them up, not down.

The toilet bowl comes already full of water – rather than filling and emptying after flushing – prompting WAFYO to announce she reckoned she had done the world’s biggest wee, until American toilets were explained to her.

You don’t have to sign at some places for a credit card purchase less than $25.

You drive on the wrong side of the road – while sitting in the wrong side of the car. You can turn right on red after stopping, while that part technically makes sense since you are doing everything in reverse the whole thing just feels so wrong.

Drive through ATM’s are the norm, rather than the exception and everyone uses them, taking great offence if there is a ‘walk-up’.  Even though there are a few drive through ATM’s in Australia I am sure I don’t have to go into the possible scenarios around a drive-through ATM in South Africa.

Nothing is the same price when you get to the register to pay as it is advertised for, tax is added at checkout. So why oh why do they bother to make anything $9.99, when at the checkout it will become $10.16 or something equally over $10? Make any argument you like about Australia’s GST – at least its all already included in the advertised price.

And then there is

Adult Swim Time.

We were the only family at the pool, my kids were the only ones swimming, the life guard blows the whistle – beep – adult swim time.

But there were no adults there to swim!?!?

We learnt quite quickly that small people must vacate the pool for ten minutes while the life guard tests the pool water, does a bit of vacuuming or uses the bathroom. At the end of this ten minutes – the whistle blows again – beep – kids swim time.

The reactions when I mentioned this foreign (to me) concept on facebook could be considered country and culturally appropriate. All the US citizens had grown up with it and found it situation normal but remembered not liking it as kids, or their own kids not liking it, the Aussies thought it was strange – why not do what ‘we do’ and rope a couple of lanes off for adults to do laps and swim without the chance of being ‘bombed’ by an under 12 along with the adult innuendo comments you would expect from those who live Down Under, the Dutch smiled and asked what is an outdoor pool, the South Africans are relatively still frontier living – manage without life guards altogether and the Hong Kong contingent chuckled at the thought of the life guards being awake enough to blow a whistle every fifty minutes.

So if the mundane made magical is your thing – stick around, I think there’ll be more. Every day brings new wonders in East Cobb 😉

The East Cobb Expat

Our welcome to the ‘hood pack says they think this will be the best place we’ve ever lived.

Of course I use the term ‘hood without a prefix because I don’t want to get into a fight with my new neighbors as they choose to refer to themselves. Arguing about ‘proper english’ vs North American english reminds me of when I was sixteen and had a thirty minute argument with my twelve year old cousin about aluminium vs aluminum, when I was living as a guest in his house and his country. I couldn’t be the bigger person and let it go then, I’m not sure twenty five years or so has changed me much. So best not to start down that road this early in my relationship with our new country of domicile and its residents.

In the interests of anonymity for my new neighbours – much in the same vein as Wendy Wax’s character Vivien wrote her Postcards from Suburbia column about her East Cobb experiences in Magnolia Wednesdays (an apparent must read for new arrivals) under the pseudonym  Scarlett Leigh, I will just say we have moved into a ‘sought after swim/tennis community’ somewhere in East Cobb county, Atlanta, Georgia.  There are many to choose from so I don’t fear giving away my exact location.


A swim/tennis community is exactly what it sounds like. A small group of conjoined streets and cul-de-sacs with a central clubhouse, swimming pool with life guard and heart starting equipment alongside tennis courts on which I imagine many a ‘domestic goddess’ in appropriate dress, more old school Wimbledon than Serena Williams, glistens (never sweats) in the early morning or late afternoon to improve her tennis game and engage in social chit-chat.

I have more than once described our South African golf estate living  as a mix between Pleasantville, the Truman Show and Wisteria Lane. While admitting its very early days yet, I fear it may fall far short in the long run in comparison to our time as East Cobb Expats.

Included in the welcome pack along with our own set of registration forms to complete is a comprehensive list of those who live in the community, their addresses (physical and email), names and occupations, schools and pets. There is a separate attached list that specifically identifies those who are happy to help out as Babysitters, Mother’s Helpers (no definition of this but I am wondering if it includes ironing sheets), Pet sitters, House sitters and Yard workers.

It seems we are on the same block as two ‘Domestic Goddesses’ and one ‘Household manager’ and a Ballroom Dance Instructor. I have to pause here and wonder if Magnolia Wednesdays was in fact fiction – what are the odds of a Ballroom Dance Instructor?  Around the corner there is a bearded dragon called Malisa Bob and a little along from there a Guinea Pig called Lightning. Also residing in our community are a wide assortment of cats, cock-a-poos, a gecko and plenty of regular old-school ‘dogs’. I don’t know about you but I am excited as all get-out to meet my new neighbours/bors .  Just struggling with my own directory title as I am not at all domestic after nine years as a pampered expat princess living in countries with excessive amounts of household help and a goddess in no way at all. I was thinking Queen of some description – probably drama, social media addict and serial expat. Do you think that moniker would have the domestic goddesses baking cookies and pies to drop round in welcome just to see who the new crazy family were in the street?

In closing I would like to leave you with a thought that we are presented with every time we drive out of our beautifully manicured suburban residential location – Y’all go and Make a Great Day!