Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Culturally Mixed-Up Christmas

I am enjoying a winter Christmas after two years of summer Christmases. There's something about warm jerseys , brightly-coloured scarves, cosy fires and drinking hot cocoa after coming in from the cold. Christmas carols make more sense when you live in the Northern Hemisphere, as most of them are about snow and cold winter nights. BUT...

South Africa gets into your blood, and when I close my eyes at night it is not visions of sugarplums that fill my head but visions of the African sun setting over the highveld, of summer thunderstorms and the smell of wors on the braai. It is visions of children playing soccer in dusty fields, of hadedas flying overhead early in the morning, of red bishops and weaver birds and mossies in my garden. It is visions of a resilient people, of joyful smiles, of a country bursting with potential.

I love my family, friends and reconnecting with my home culture. I am so grateful that we could come home for Christmas, but I also can't wait to go home to my Africa.

Am I the Only One Who Doesn't Get It?

I have decided that the Christmas decorations (like most other things American) have become a bit excessive. The fad this year seems to be giant blow-up lawn decorations. For instance, there are people around the corner whose Christmas decorations include an inflatable snowman on a motorbike, an inflatable Santa pumping petrol and an inflatable reindeer on a surfboard up on the roof. In fact, they were so filled with the urge to decorate everything in sight that they decorated the stop sign on the street as well. Every time we turn the corner we have to stop at a sign covered in tinsel with letters outlined in green glitter stuff (that can't be legal, can it?).

I don't mind twinkle lights and decorations, but honestly, what does a giant blow-up Santa pumping petrol have to do with Christmas (I thought his reindeer flew, anyway)? And the fact that people actually pay money for such things is a bit scary.

When I mentioned this to Dan his response was, "If they made a giant inflatable Santa installing Linux on his computer I'd put it on my lawn." So much for my soapbox.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

One Big Sugar High

I am about to share a very unpopular opinion, and since I am not known for my diplomacy skills I shall just shock you all from the start: Disneyland is not the happiest place on earth.

I spent the whole of Thursday and Friday wondering why Disneyland didn't make me giddy and smiley like everyone else in the queue, why I didn't succumb to buying strange-looking hats that you can only wear in Disneyland, and why I wasn't enticed by all the cotton candy (candy floss for you South Africans), churros and ice cream carts that were conveniently stationed throughout the park.

Yesterday I figured it out: going to Disneyland is like getting a 12-hour sugar high. It brings you surface happiness, but none of that "cheer" penetrates deep into your marrow. As with any sugar high, when it wears off, it drops you below "normal", so you're actually worse off.

Which brings me to my next question: What is the "protein" of the happiness world? I don't want to get preachy here, so let me just rephrase this to say that apart from Jesus, what are those moments in life that are truly memorable, those events that make you belly laugh and can still make you laugh years later when you reminisce? ("Remember that time...?")

I don't think you need a $14 parking ticket for them. I think they happen at the unlikeliest of moments (We were so bored on the drive home that we had a contest to see who could "Moo" like a cow the most convincingly. Then we had a contest to see who could sound the most like Dan's security/tech podcasts). I think they involve deep connections with people who know and love us. I think they often follow moments of deep pain or struggle.

Is it safe to assume that one can only feel joy to the degree that one has felt sorrow? If we never acknowledge our pain or deal with it, then can we truly feel joy? It would seem to me that most of America is about "medicating" our pain - if we can entertain ourselves enough, than we won't feel sad anymore. If we just shop enough, buy enough Starbucks, go to enough movies, listen to enough music, than we'll never have to deal with that empty feeling that nags us in the silence.

Disneyland is fun but it just doesn't cut it for me. I think I'd rather laugh my head off over my bad Afrikaans out in the veld sharing a cup of instant coffee (yuck!) with my friends who love me despite my faults (while trying not to scratch my mosquito bites). Interacting with people on a deep level - that's protein.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I Have Fallen Prey... American consumerism. When I walk into a shop here I am greeted by a feast of eye candy that tantalises my brain cells and convinces me that I need at least ten things that aren't on my list ("Ooh... bubbles!"). How on earth do you resist the temptation to buy such cheap, convenient, cute, sparkly, well-marketed... things?

I've decided to limit my outings in order to improve my self-discipline. When I do go into a shop I repeat the phrase, "I don't need it. I don't want it. It won't fit into my suitcase anyway."

Convenience has it's bonuses, but it's also a heavy burden to bear.

First Impressions on Returning to my Home Country

  1. The Customs Officials are nice and helpful. I was impressed.
  2. The freeways are actually free (I keep reaching for toll money).
  3. The Christmas decorations are weird. Sort of a "Las Vegas hangover meets Bethlehem" fusion.
  4. I still like Starbucks. I'm sorry, but I do. Those pumpkin spice lattes are just so good!
  5. The convenience in food packaging is amazing - cheese that's already grated for you, chicken meat prepackaged into little ziploc packs with the fat and bone already removed. I still haven't decided if that's good or bad....
  6. Tumble dryers are nice. So are dishwashers. And central heating.
  7. Christmas trees are great, but they have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus (same thing with Christmas braais, incidentally).
  8. Food portions are WAY too big.
  9. The grey, foggy skies are dreary, but it's what I grew up with. There's something comforting about the familiar, isn't there?
  10. Back to freeways. The roadsides here are ugly. They're much prettier in South Africa.
  11. I really like summer Christmases, but there's something nice about coming in from the cold and smelling Christmas cookies baking, warming your hands by a fire, and bundling up in festive sweaters (jerseys. Uh-oh - which word do I use?).
  12. No matter where you are in the world, there's nothing as wonderful as being with family.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I Learned Something New About the Culture Today

I figured out something today. Apparently, in Afrikaner culture, it's customary to stop by for coffee and greet someone before they leave on a trip. I don't know, but we had so many people phone or stop by for coffee, wanting to greet us before we leave. Consequently I *still* have not packed the suitcases (I haven't even gotten the suitcases down from the cupboard!).

At first I thought, I'm busy and have so many things to do. Don't they know that? Having to play the hostess and serve coffee keeps me from getting my last-minute errands done. But as the day progressed, I realised something important: packing can wait. People can't.

I have to say, I felt SO loved that so many people stopped by to wish us well. Who am I that so many people care? It's a bit mind-boggling. I decided to let the packing go. We went to Mader's (a truly bizarre cultural experience if you're ever in Pretoria) and bought a kilo of biltong. Every time someone came over for coffee, we shared a "Last Supper" of biltong with them (I guess South Africa has gotten into our blood as we have been eating a lot of "lasts" this week -wors and pap, vetkoek, biltong, chicken livers, and even pannekoeke).

So now it's way past bedtime, the laundry still isn't done, the suitcases aren't packed, I'm stuffed with food, but I am basking in the love and care of South African friends. South Africans truly know how to put people before tasks. And that is worth every bit of last-minute packing that will occur tomorrow!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Restaurant Review

Tonight I went on a date with my husband. I love dressing up and feeling like we're kids again. We went to Lekgotla in Johannesburg, my favourite restaurant.

I have often thought that being a food critic would be a great job, but then, I don't think I could find much to criticise. I just love trying new foods.

Lekgotla is in Nelson Mandela Square next to Sandton City, and if you've never been, you are missing out on some amazing African cuisine. Dan had springbok medallions encrusted in Ethiopian coffee. I had crocodile meat in a creamy mango curry. And for dessert, amarula parfait.

It was a perfect summer evening in the highveld - light breeze, warm, beautiful sunset - and I was wearing my cute black dress. Dan dressed up Jo'burg-style in his smart clothes, and I must say it felt like we were lovebirds that had just started dating.

Oh, to be in love in South Africa... it was an absolutely magical evening.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I Have Two New Oumas

This morning our choir sang at a retirement village. We did our entire Christmas programme, and I have to say, we put as much energy into it this time as we did for the whole community last week. These precious people are so wonderful.

I think it must be difficult to grow old, to feel as if the world has passed you by, forgotten you, or worse, discarded you as no longer relevant or valuable. If the only thing you have to look forward to are craft lessons and water aerobics, that would be a lonely existence indeed. But I know - I KNOW - that as long as we still have life and breath, God still has a plan and purpose for us.

So today I was honoured to sing for some wonderful people, and afterwards I spent time talking to several of them. The trouble is... they were Afrikaans-speaking Oumas, so I had to work really hard to say the simplest of sentences. They were so sweet and understanding, and two of them even adopted me. One of them was sure to repeat several times that she stays in "kamer nommer agt op die derde vloer," so I won't forget to "kom kuier." I told her I would be in the States for Christmas, maar wanneer ek terugkom sal ek kom kuier. And I meant it, too.

I think we need to slow down more often and listen to the wealth of wisdom and experience older people possess. A cup of tea, an hour or two, and time stands still, mesmerised by the most amazing life stories.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Something to Think About

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." - Albert Einstein


Prize-giving is that time of year when school children are awarded for their hard work. They dress up in their best school uniform, sing a few songs, and receive awards for their achievements.

All I have ever asked is that my children do their best, so whether or not they attend prize-giving is, on the one hand, irrelevant. On the other hand, if your daughters both get acadamic colours and your one daughter is made head media prefect for the following year and your other daughter was the top academic achiever for the entire Grade 4 and your son read the most books in Grade 2, then yes, ek is baie trots op hulle.

But that is where my love for prize-giving ends. The rest becomes a cultural anthropologist's/sociologists dream-come-true.....

For starters the parents are crammed into a school hall so tightly that there is no hope of escaping in a quick or orderly fashion. You have less room than an economy class aeroplane seat, and there is no climate control. So it's hot. And you are inevitably sitting next to some beautiful but big African momma who is taking up her seat and 3/4 of yours. And did I mention that it's hot?

Next, all parents must listen to the headmaster give an address on some would-be interesting topic (I say would-be, because when it's hot and cramped, nothing is interesting except water slides and cooldrink). The first year we were here, we listened to a fascinating speech on the brain. Last year it was the pygmy elephants of Borneo (I kid you not). This year it was on Imperial measurements vs. the Metric System, spanners, and how the Chinese do twice as much homework as Americans.

Thirdly, when the thunderstorms finally come to cool the air, you can't hear anything anyway, the biscuits get soaking wet, and you are left wondering how to get to your car which is parked way out in the farthest corner of the rugby field.

However, because it is highly important to my children, we put on our best faces and behaviour and try to enjoy every moment (but if we keep scorecards on how many times the headmaster says, "I read another interesting fact about the fruit bats of Northern Mexico..." can you blame us?)

I leave you with this word of advice: should you ever find yourself in a similar position, it really helps if you pretend you're a cultural anthropologist and you're doing research for your doctoral thesis. Trust me.