Category Archives: friends

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.

Bus stops, ANZAC biscuits and a new friend

When we arrived six months ago our neighbours showered us with gifts.  Giant chocolate chip cookies, homemade brownies, sidewalk chalk, colouring in books and pencils and a book about South Africa that was 20 years old (that gift from a neighbour who was cleaning out her basement and had misheard the part about us being Australian but having moved from South Africa).

This is the actual giant chocolate chip cookie we received

This is the actual giant chocolate chip cookie we received

You name it, they bought it to our door with their best wishes and curiosity about who exactly it was that was now in the house that had lain empty for so long.  In our special new ‘hood there is also an official welcoming committee chairperson; they bought a big hamper overflowing with supermarket items and vouchers for local restaurants.

I had my children write the thank you notes and return the door knocks as I was busy unpacking and arranging and being overwhelmed by a country move that was knocking the polish off my expat princess ways by actually having to do it all myself.

Even so, I was excited by the house for sale a few doors down; when it sold I was determined to be a first responder in the welcome cookie stakes. I didn’t know the current residents, they had not been door knockers at our house, but I didn’t wish them ill – just a speedy sale so I could bake for the new guys.

The house lay empty over the summer and the autumn/fall and some of the winter and then a couple of weeks ago there was moving trucks. Within a week one family had moved out another in.  I was excited, I must make those biscuits I thought. What kind? Should I do brownies? What might they like? Did they have kids? Are they going to be Paleo or GF people? That could be a problem. Then I kind of forgot, filed the thoughts in that place in my brain called ‘do that later’.

One morning last week after we had walked a full five houses to the school bus stop in 2 degrees and icy rain at 7.24am I was trudging home only to see the bus stop outside the new house, RIGHT AT THEIR DRIVEWAY. This did not make me happy. I was cold and wet and wondering why did they get a new bus stop and not us? I tossed the options; perhaps my cookie making would be better served to bring around Miss M the bus driver. Could I get my own bus stop I wondered?

It didn’t look good for their chances to experience my amateur and limited baking skills. First impressions count, forget the part where I hadn’t even met them yet.

The next morning I did meet them at the bus stop. Paula and her two lovely children, one in Kindergarten just like WASYO and one three year old. Turns out they had missed the bus and Miss M was doing them a solid and stopping to pick them up on the way.

We chatted all the way back to our house and then stood at the mail box for forty five minutes exchanging life histories; me in my pj’s (remembering its dark and cold at 7.20am when we leave the house so pj’s with some kind of cover up work well then, not so much at 8.30). They moved from New Jersey, she gave up her job to move with her husband’s work, she was not loving it so far, there had been tears. Relate, relate, relate. The cookies were definitely back on. I could have another friend in the street, a drop in, keep my kids kind of friend.

I was eager to help my new friend Paula immediately, so I shot off an email to our class mother at school to ask about the class parent for her son’s class; she didn’t have any email or phone contacts for other parents and her son wanted to set up play dates.  I copied her on the email to show my speedy action and thoughtfulness. I soon received two replies, our class mom was right on it and included contacts. Paula replied to say her name wasn’t Paula – it was Donna.

Tricky.

It made perfect sense of course because her email address did start with a d.

It was a set back but I wasn’t totally deterred, who doesn’t make a mistake with a name every once in a while? Right? I pushed on to the next project – the biscuits. I thought I could recover if we scored points there. I made ANZAC biscuits for the first time in my life, they weren’t terrible and so were deemed acceptable to pass onto Paula/Donna and family that afternoon after school.

Thank you, lovely, no allergies, no special dietary requirements – all looking good.

Had an email later to say that they were so good the three year old had been found in her closet after being AWOL, finishing a few extra above and beyond the ‘one before dinner’ she had been allowed. This perhaps should have produced a sense of foreboding but somehow did not.

The next morning at the bus stop Donna appeared – exhausted, she hadn’t slept all night because someone who had eaten all the cookies had been up all night vomiting and was now at home sleeping it off.

I am still hopeful, what do you think of my chances? Any tips for what not to do next?

25.3 kgs

‘Your bag is overweight, I’m not going to charge you this time, but be more careful next time. It’s 25.3 kgs’
The Delta check-in lady using a stern tone.

‘Did ya do a lot of shopping while you were home?’
The assistant checker-in person joined in. The strong Aussie accent dressed in a Delta uniform somehow seemed out of place even though we were standing in Sydney airport. How quickly I have come to expect an American accent.

Tears welled up – I had no control over them.

‘No, its my Mum’s stuff, I came back for her funeral.’

Murmured apology from Team Delta, awkward moment, both suddenly looking closely at the computer screen. I felt I had to let them off.

‘Doesn’t everyone about to spend 13 hours in economy on a plane with no spare seats cry?’

Ha ha – good one, they could look up at me again and we finished our transaction in a more relaxed fashion.

Of course I didn’t come home for her funeral. I came home to do the unthinkable, to say goodbye. A carefully timed trip, cancelled once, designed to allow time with my mum but also not leaving my husband and kids alone too long in a new country with no support system in place.
Clinical, horrifying.

The kid’s anxiety of their mother leaving indefinitely, knowing when she came home it meant their beloved Mumma would no longer be in the same world where they could talk to her on the phone and  run past the computer when she was on Skype. Photos and memories would be it. Thankfully we have just had two months with her, the memories are fresh, I can’t think about six months or a year from now when they are not.

My husband had to juggle full time work and full time carer responsibility for an unknown quantity of time. His work requires up to fifty percent of his time traveling, on hold indefinitely.  A perhaps uniquely expat moment bringing the family unit under pressures it had not previously faced, not knowing how we were all going to get through, it seemed impossible.

We’ve made it so far, my husband was given a 7/10 and an 8/10 by the kids for his efforts. The six year old (7/10) booked herself into after school care because apparently I said she could before I left, that gave the nine year old (8/10) peace after the school bus trip home to do his homework and have his one hour screen time before the whirlwind returned.

It wasn’t a funeral, it was a ‘Celebration of Life’.  I wore a bright blue dress, there were pinks and blues and reds everywhere. The ‘Celebration’  was held at Glennifer Brae, a special location, the school my mum attended, taught at, where we lived in the cottage on the grounds when we were very little, later after the school shut and it became a venue for public functions we were married there.  Then the property passed to the Conservatorium of Music (Wollongong) and it was closed to public functions. There were special envoys to council, special permission had to be granted to hold a function there. For mum there was no other option, it was Glennifer Brae or bust. It was one of the last days and her close friend Cookie raced up the stairs to the bedroom to sit by her bed and tell her the good news, she smiled so hard, for an hour at least.

It was a beautiful afternoon, the sun shone, it was predicted to be cloudy and possible showers, someone must have had a word. There was no celebrant, our Mistress of Ceremonies was a close friend of mum’s with a perfect background and experience to set the tone and engage the crowd. There was a choir that sang a four part version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and later the Glennifer Brae (SCEGGS Wollongong) school song along with the impressive number of old girls in attendance. My brother and I got through our words without breaking down, my mum’s sister got through her own toast similarly unscathed. We celebrated her life with French champagne, as she wished it to be.

Two days later I was standing at the Delta counter heading back to Atlanta with a suitcase that was 25.3 kgs, 9kgs heavier than when I arrived. The sum total of ‘things’ I bought back that belonged to Mum is 9kgs.

Two nights later I am still awake at 2am trying to work out what actually happened. Today (since it is 2am) is Thanksgiving, our first in the USA, I am thankful to be home again with my family, but it doesn’t feel enough. I am hoping the haziness will pass with the jetlag. We’ll see.

It’s not all beer and skittles

We had not yet moved into our new house in the ‘hood but were making use daily of the community pool, given the scorching Hotlanta summer and the seemingly endless school holidays. The accents used loudly across the pool by brother and sister made us a stand out and the small community targeted us as the ‘new people’.

Introductions were made and stories shared, friendly folks who oohed and ahhhed at the countries we have lived in, shared their love for all things Aussie (a welcome change to our last country of residence) and admitted to having always wanted to live in another country.

‘But we couldn’t do it, our parents are here, they’re getting older, they could get sick and we wouldn’t take their grandchildren away from them’

Stab, stab, stab.

Unintentional stabbing of course, but it hurts all the same.

A quick chat with any expat will reveal many reasons why they love the life they lead with its swings and roundabouts, ups and downs, opportunities and experiences they and often their third culture kids would never have had if they stayed ‘at home’.

By extension this often also applies to family and friends who visit the expat adventurers in a new and different country, one they may have never been to with no good reason to visit, or just needed an excuse to return to a favourite destination. These are special and cherished times, when the visitors get an insight into the life of their hosts, sharing experiences they may never have otherwise had. We as hosts push the boundaries of our day to day to make sure everyone has a most memorable trip and send them home to sing the gospel and  spread the word to make sure our calendars with penciled in possibilities become concrete conversions into visitors bearing jars of Vegemite and Strawberry Freddos.

There are so many special memories from the visitors we have had in our time away, friends who honeymooned with us in Hong Kong – delaying their trip so we had time to return to our flat from their wedding in the Blue Mountains, my cousin who swore to never live anywhere else but her home town became a regular visitor for ‘the shopping’ and since then has moved twice overseas with her husband and kids. To this day she remains the only person I know who shopped Stanley Markets from opening until closing.

Then there was the travel pack who visited and required a mini van to ferry around. My cousin (of course), her two kids and another of their cousins, her husband, his aunt, her parents and my grandmother, 88 at the time. It was a special day shopping over the border in Shenzhen introducing her to all our regular shopping haunts and telling all the shopkeepers about her very auspicious age. I think we got actual real discounts that day in deference to her age and agility and gracious charm with the locals.

The best man from our wedding and his wife and baby – discovering en route that the baby had inherited his father’s peanut allergy, my brother and his then partner, her terrified of bird flu every time we stepped out of the house, my husband’s sister and brother-in-law came and we popped off for a blissful grown ups only trip to Kota Kinabalu.

My Dad and his wife on more than one occasion – once sailing through the harbour on the Queen Mary and of course my Mum.

South Africa was lighter on the visitors but again my brother and Mum put in appearances. I am pretty sure my brother will never forget the elephant that just wanted to say hello, his first lion spotting or sidling up to the penguins in the Cape for the best photo opportunity.

My mum was the first visitor we had here in the USA, arriving the same day as the container full of boxes. Our first two months in the new house was experienced together. The drama of the pre-school vaccinations and medical checks, the first day of school, the slight changing of WASYO’s accent to move to a short ‘a’ sound and a rolling of the ‘r’s, drop offs and pick ups at a real yellow school bus, weekly drinks on the street corner, WASYO learning to read, Mr 9 saying he quite liked the new school (relief), introducing the local kids to fairy bread at the event where WAFYO became WASYO, she experienced it all at the same time we did. She arrived armed with my childhood set of Winnie the Pooh books and read them to her eldest grandchildren each night before bed, she did jigsaw puzzles with WASYO and talked to Mr 9 about his views on life and video games and became our personal laundry lady – daily collecting the clothes from various baskets around the house and returning them later washed and folded – apparently I have to get used to no ironing (that’s a story for another time).  After proclaiming to get lost in the house on the first few days, as we pulled away last Monday on the way to the airport she said she’d come to like our home. It has been a lonely week since she has left.

Regardless of what happens next, the choices to be made about visits, before or after operations, when, where, how and who with, all five of us will have that special time in our memories. Two months where she was part of our everyday life. Daily this week more than one resident has said ‘When Mumma was here…’

It is hard to be away from family in another country, especially when every phone call or text message could be news that puts everything on hold while you plot a course home, but if we lived in Australia, an hour and a half away by car it is unlikely we would ever have spent so much time together or that our kids would have kissed their Mumma goodnight every night for two months (except for those two pesky hospital visits).

Life goes on here, next week is my husband’s birthday, the following week my Dad and his wife are visiting, Halloween is shaping up to be bigger than Ben Hur and there’s some marathon in New York on November 4th I’m running in, but family near and far are always top of mind. You take the good with the bad and hope the decisions you make, when you make them, are the right ones and that holds true no matter what country you live in.

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 😉

Hotlanta eventually…

We made it!

All the way from the African continent to the one in the north of the Americas. (grimly holding onto the A theme)

It wasn’t without its challenges, traveling solo with my two TCK’s,  expert flyers though they are and truly thrilled with Emirates business class (as was their mother) they are still after all – kids. One of whom has anger management issues, our own little World’s Angriest Five Year Old (WAFYO), still learning to read and so has some justifiable issues operating the media equipment in that case, after all each airline has its own system idiosyncrasies and the last time she flew business class was three years ago, she was two and slept the whole time – for which her mother was very grateful.

The other junior traveller was somewhat anxious – not about flying but about the whole moving countries thing.  He was having his whole world tossed in the air to settle again somewhere he had never been, to make new friends he is not yet sure exist and after a detailed study of American television on offer in South Africa is concerned about whether or not he may get a date for the Prom. Did I mention he is nine years old?

The night before we left he had been bought home from a sleepover by his South African bff’s mother after he decided he was too anxious to stay, only to have the babysitter who was minding the other kids while their parents were at a lunchtime braai that was heading to a very late finish, not to hear the door, so a 10pm round trip return to the sleepover. Not my finest parenting moment – although I picked up the call at 10.15pm after all was resolved and well.

So it was with a slight sense of guilt and not at all thinking about the twenty three flying hours ahead that I allowed the kids to purchase some kind of giant chocolate bars at the airport in Durban after it took forty-five minutes to check in while they were playing trolley wars with several other juniors who had come to bid them farewell.

Note to self – don’t do that again.

Another item to note about Mr Nine is his absolute conviction that he doesn’t eat or drink at all while inside a flying device that takes you from one destination to another. This includes water, although after this trip we’re in negotiation for new guidelines on aircraft travel and won’t be boarding again until we have at least a water truce.

Anyway no points for guessing what happened next, apart from WAFYO watching Up six times in the next nine hours. There was also a crying baby in business class and the guy sitting between that and the vomiting nine year old must be wishing he’d missed that particular flight.

There was a vomiting lull in Dubai – as well as three hours to kill in transit so stupidly again I allowed eating and some drinking.  I should have focussed on less eating and more sensible hydration. Call me distracted, exhausted or just trying to get there.

The next leg to New York was fourteen hours. The vomiting started after ten or so and by hour thirteen the poor kid was practically passed out refusing water from his desperate mother.

We limped through the JFK wheelchair line with an almost passed out, definitely dehydrated, paler than paper kid whose father asked as he greeted us ‘Was he just a bit tired?’

Yes sure, they give out wheelchairs to all parents who suggest their kids are a bit tired and wouldn’t like to walk from the plane.

Happily as we were out of the aircraft and away from customs liquids were now an option and fifteen hours later after a few litres of the stuff and a good night’s sleep No 1 son was ready for a day of adventure in Central Park and at the Museum of Natural History – where the first exhibit in the Large African Mammals room was a Tiger, but I am sure there is a perfectly good explanation for that.

Three child tourism oriented days in New York and memories of the horror flight had faded somewhat, the Atlanta hop was only three hours and blissfully vomit free, even if we were in economy.

We landed in ‘Hotlanta’ as they call it on the steamiest weekend of the year so far, the day before the hottest day ever recorded in the history of the city 42 degrees celsius or around 106 degrees in the new terminology we will be learning – it was here that WAFYO picked up the mantle and produced one of the world’s biggest vomits  on the trip from the airport to the apartment in her father’s two week old car.

To use an American expression – Awesome!

How many degrees of Kevin Bacon?

Do you remember six degrees of Kevin Bacon? If you can that means you can remember back to 1994 which according to that impressive reference site Wikipedia, is when the ‘small world experiment’ game first came into being.

The small world theory meaning you should be able to prove that there are six degrees or less of separation between you and everyone in the world, as well as six degrees or less between Kevin Bacon and everyone in Hollywood.  There were some studies – based on people’s ‘social networks’ – in a time before what we commonly currently use the term social networks for. It was before Myspace,  Facebook, Twitter and even before the first blog which was apparently circa 1997 (using the same solid reference point I found the term ‘web log’ was apparently coined then so lets say the practice wasn’t widely spread prior to that point.)

Recent events have made me think about the Kevin Bacon game – who by the way, the whole world can now follow on Twitter (@kevinbacon has the magic tick) so if he replies or RT’s you does that count as being one degree from Kevin Bacon?

Last week I reposted a photo on facebook – it was this one.

I know, I know you’ve seen it before, but it is still gold (and so true, my 9 year old asked me what was that thing above the pencil).

A friend of mine from Hong Kong commented that they still had all their car mixed tapes from 1995 but nothing to play them on, then another friend admittedly another Australian in Durban (I know I said I’m the only one, its a long story and you really need to hear her accent – if they did a spoken test I worry about her ability to renew her passport, she has been here a VERY long time)  asked how many blasts from the past was I supplying in one day? Turns out the previous commenter was her neighbour from the 80’s and a suburb in Melbourne I have never visited.

One in Hong Kong and one in Durban – both many miles and many years from home, reconnected, through my facebook page. It gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside.

Remember my first blog stalker who prompted me to put an email contact on the blog? I am happy to say I have corresponded since via email with several people who were seeking information about moving to the Durban area, some making comparisons, some thinking about it and some actually doing it.  One of those doing it – was living in Kenya at the time and wanted the feedback of someone who had gone before in dealing with a whole range of things, schools, neighbourhoods, internet connections etc. I was happy to provide any info I could, after all I had found it very tricky in the beginning for a number of reasons.  I followed her progress with interest, maintaining a semi-regular email contact about plans, schools, suburbs etc. Then I found out she had moved, turns out into the same suburb as we live and the same street.  Our street has FOUR houses! What a coincidence – no really it was, well, I have no proof she previously knew where we lived… Maybe one day, now we know each other in real life, because I always take my new neighbours wine and chocolates, she might become my facebook friend and when I am living in another country she may find I have met a friend of hers and so the connections will continue. Or not – who knows?

The world is a small place and ‘social networks’ are making it smaller. Over Easter I met someone who wasn’t on Facebook (or Twitter before you ask), a girlfriend of a very good friend of mine, someone I would normally probably  pop a facebook friend request to after spending the amount of time together that we did over the term of her visit coupled with the fact she might end up with my friend forever more. If she accepted – then I would get to keep up with her news – even if she chose to mute my news stream (I’m sure it happens to the over-sharers amongst us), if not – well, I may never see or hear from her again. It occurs to me I didn’t even get her email address to send the photos that I took of our kids on their Easter egg hunts. Note to self – sort that.

I know some people are nodding their head and saying, yes – thats right, that’s how the world should work. Who would jump into someone else’s life so quickly and start sharing pictures of their kids, dentist visits and what they had for dinner? These people may not have heard of variable privacy settings, or they might not have friends and family on just about every continent there is.

I can’t remember why I joined facebook, perhaps it was because I wanted to see what it was all about, but once in I was hooked. For someone like me who has lived in several different places at different times of my life and has grandchildren separated by an ocean or two from their grandparents and extended family – its a good place for me to be. I have at times prefaced photos or posts as ‘Grandparents only need read / see’, these kind of things include ballet recital videos and judo belt presentations ceremony photos. I didn’t opt out like some of the cool kids who decided to ditch it in preference for Twitter only. Its a place I keep for my friends and family, pretty much people I know in real life .  Now I know two people, in real life, who live on two different continents, who knew each other long ago – I think that’s a nice thing, not a freaky one. I’m not sure where that leaves Kevin Bacon but it may leave me just where Mark Zuckerberg wants me.