Three years ago I wrote a post for the Wall Street Journal expat column about spending Thanksgiving overseas. I called it “10 Reasons I’m Thankful to Be an Expat,” and I’m putting it up here again in honor of the season (and because just about everything at WSJ is behind a paywall now). The biggest surprises three years on (besides how young my daughter looks in the photo they ran!) are numbers 3 and 8: little did we know how the Trump candidacy was going to turn out, and believe it or not, Black Friday has finally come to Botswana. Although they don’t quite get it: in addition to big-screen TVs, the ad flyers for the weekend also announced “Black Friday” deals on milk, bulk rice, and custard. Hey, why not. Happy Thanksgiving everyone! * * * Thanksgiving, 2015 I love my country, and there are many reasons I miss the U.S. and look forward to moving back someday. But in the meantime, in honor of Thanksgiving, as I sit on my patio and listen to exotic birds chirping through an 80-degree afternoon in Gaborone, Botswana, here are 10 reasons I am grateful to be an expat today:
Somehow almost a year has gone by since I last posted in this blog. It happened in a blink, the way my number of kids went from one to two, the way my baby is now in preschool and wearing Spiderman underwear. Slow down, Time. Now is actually a terrible moment to get back onto the blog. I’ve been working 12-hour days for nearly a month and haven’t had time lately to do fairly important things like get my brake light fixed or eat regular meals. (For lunch I had a snack bag of mixed nuts and enormous handfuls of Famous Amos cookies someone unwisely brought back from America and left unattended in my presence.) The reason I’m so busy is I’ve been making a movie! Okay: it’s a documentary film, but “movie” sounds more glamorous so I am sticking to it.
Once upon a time, I worked to get a brand new environmental non-profit off the ground. Our name was Rock ‘n Renew, and we used musicians and bands to highlight climate change and what could be done to help, mostly to an audience of young people and students. I believed the climate science was clear: the earth was warming at unprecedented rates and this would have major detrimental effects on our environment as time progressed. Fast forward a decade and it doesn’t seem much has changed. Mileage standards for cars were raised, but there hasn’t exactly been an explosion of solar panels or people using trash to fuel their cars. (Yes, I watched Back to the Future too many times as a child.) Most people I know still heat and cool their homes with gas or coal-fired electricity. Waste is produced in massive quantities by industry and consumers. Americans eat tons of meat, which requires an enormous amount of energy and water to produce, and the world is increasingly joining them. A decade ago, I felt like I was shouting into the wind most of the time. Individuals could do small things like switch to CFL lightbulbs or take reusable bags to the grocery store or ditch plastic water bottles, but it felt like the tiniest of dents in an enormous pile of rubbish.
I have now been back in the United States for two months. During our family vacation/forced hiatus waiting for my new job in Botswana to start, we have enjoyed all the perks of being American in two different states and half a dozen cities. After eight weeks of excess, I can confidently report that I am over the following: Flavored coffees. How much kids’ meals cost. (I swear before I moved to Africa this was three bucks. Now it seems like it is $7.99.) How much everything costs.
Dear Kids, There’s a story behind the candles on my cake tonight. Lopsided, mismatched, but clearly spelling out my age–41–even though I can barely believe I’m older than 25. Where did the time go? It was your nanny, Patricia, who frosted the chocolate cake today and fished the numbered candles out of the box that holds the birthday stuff: cute gift bags, rumpled tissue paper, a package of smashed bows. I have this box now because I have you two–because you two are invited to a parade of birthday parties that require me to wrap presents at the drop of a hat on any given weekend. Of course I didn’t wrap my own presents today. Your dad did that, with lots of “helping” from you guys. It was fun to see your faces, expectant and waiting, as I ripped into the paper to open my gifts. I never knew if I was going to have children.
Sometimes I think living overseas, especially in a post with lots of American expats, is just one long camp or party or freshman dorm orientation week or whatever the analogy is for a bunch of adults planning specific, orchestrated types of fun that one usually associates with children. Of course I contribute mightily to that event calendar myself with the various holiday-themed and random activities I host for the neighborhood. I don’t really remember what it is like to live in America where you don’t automatically have access to a whole group of the same 40 people who rotate doing fun things on the weekends and you always have two or three invitations each week to a party or barbecue or karaoke night or other super relaxing shindig. I actually participated in a beer pong tournament last month, complete with regulation-size tables, laminated tournament brackets, and a food truck serving bratwurst for the crowd. This isn’t normal, right? It may not be normal but I like it.
Last year right before Christmas I hauled out my pair of headphones and did an interview with the Expat Chat podcast with host Tony Argyle. Tony lives in Australia, making the most difficult part of our interview trying to find a time that worked with our schedules and the eight hours of time difference. As usually happens when people start asking me about living overseas, our conversation drifted to Pakistan and stayed there for awhile: most people are curious about what it was like to live there and surprised when I say how much I enjoyed it. We also covered Botswana, life with kids overseas, my favorite things to eat in Botswana, and the “Big Five” animals you have to see on safari. Also how great my mother-in-law is (and not just because I knew at some point she would listen.)
The last time I was in the U.S. during a presidential election—2008—I got myself right on the front lines, moving to Ohio to volunteer for the Obama campaign and watching each twist and turn of the campaign with breathless excitement. By the time the 2012 election rolled around, I was living in Botswana with my husband and baby and couldn’t even stay up late enough to watch the returns come in, so I didn’t find out who the winner was until morning. I cared just as much, but living abroad I was too far away to do anything besides cast my vote in the mail. Watching your home country’s elections from overseas can stir up a lot of feelings, especially if your preferred candidate isn’t doing so well. Here are the seven stages of grieving for the expat voter, explained, to get you through that difficult period when you’d like to fly home and beat some sense into your fellow Americans. 1. Shock. Perhaps you were paying too much attention to the internal politics of your new country or were busy watching rugby or cricket or whichever non-American sport you’ve started to follow now that you live overseas. Whatever the case, you looked up one day to discover that the most popular candidates for president weren’t the ones you’d hoped or predicted, and you can’t believe your eyes. Surely America will come to its senses, you think, and pick the leader you believe the country deserves.
After 43 glorious days, 516 daytime hours of splashy fun, six weekends touched with castle magic, and countless moments of almost free entertainment, the Jumpy Castle is gone. In the end it all happened so quickly. A short text message announcing the impending end of the castle’s Reign. The appearance of the delivery man, looking different than I had seen him last, in 2015, when he, like everyone else in town, was lit up from within by the joy of Christmas and his month of holiday bonus pay. Now he looked, as all of us do, like just a normal guy in the drudges of February, that bleak zone without celebration. (Presidents’ Day in Botswana is observed in July, and if you don’t get a day off from work, it doesn’t count as a real holiday, Valentine’s Day.) He quietly set about dismantling the fortress that for so long has stood sentry on our dirt patch of a lawn. My daughter asked him in a plaintive voice why he was taking the Jumpy Castle away while my son shot off a few pre-verbal reproachful glances and tried to stand on the deflated castle while it was being folded into a neat bundle. I’ll admit that it was time.
All the hubbub this month has been about Star Wars, and with good reason. The world has been waiting for a great sequel to the original Star Wars films, and the new movie delivers. It has great pacing, impressive skyfights, a dazzling light saber duel, and a female star who gets to do a lot more than wear a gold bikini. But amid all the excitement over Star Wars these days, I can’t forget my first geeky sci-fi love, one that takes place not in a galaxy far, far away, but in our very own solar system a few hundred years into the future. From the very first time I was allowed to stay up late and watch an episode of the original Star Trek with my dad in syndication on a small TV with a floppy antenna, I was hooked. In the episode, a tall, sinister alien roams underground caves on a faraway planet and kills its victims by sucking all the salt out of their bodies. What nine-year-old kid wouldn’t love that?! As it happens, my first introduction to Star Trek took place at the same time I was being introduced to expat living. In 1984 we were enjoying an “exchange summer” in England made possible by my father’s job as a minister with the United Methodist Church. In a transatlantic switcheroo, my dad exchanged jobs with a minister in England, along with our houses, cars, and even pets. For one summer we were able to live as the locals did, in a small town in southeast England called Chandler’s Ford, while an English minister and his family enjoyed the Arizona desert town […] Read More
The Castle still stands. Its continued presence in our lives defies all logic, makes a mockery of prediction, reminds us each and every day with its rainbow-hued mass of the impossibility of full knowledge and the futility of control. I was sure the delivery man was coming to pick it up today. The reason is simple: today was the first day that I made a plan with the Jumpy Castle in mind. (Please note the capitalization now, out of respect. The Jumpy Castle has become an entity, a fixture: not simply an inflatable vinyl bag shaped like a house but an important, abiding part of our lives.) Until today I didn’t want to make any assumptions. For each of the 22 days of Jumpy Castle Jackpot that we have enjoyed before this one, I counted no chickens and made no playdates. If neighborhood kids caught a glimpse of bobbing on the other side of our fence and wanted to partake, they were welcome to join the party, chosen children blessed by the bouncy house. The gates were opened for a jumpy house free-for-all while my daughter’s wardrobe was tapped to lend out an assortment of old bathing suits and cotton t-shirts to clothe the masses while they splashed. But I made no arrangements.
Jumpy Castle Watch: Day 14. What can you do to spice up the holidays on a hot, quiet December day before Christmas? Rent a jumpy castle: Gaborone’s answer to all your child-related entertainment needs. I suppose the term is actually “jumping castle” (or jumping house) but in the quick casual Motswana way of speaking, what I always hear is “jumpy castle,” so that’s what I’m going with. In America of course we would call it a “bouncy house.” Two days before Christmas I decided to get my daughter and her five friends who are visiting from Zimbabwe a jumpy castle for the day so they could squirt each other with water, play around on the slide, and work out some good sugar-induced energy in the inevitable sweets-laden week before the holiday.
We are deep in the middle of holiday season now, having blown by Halloween and Thanksgiving to arrive next week at the grandaddy of them all, Christmas. And it won’t be too long before New Year’s, Valentine’s, St. Patty’s and all the rest roll around again. For many expats, leaving home and never again having to show up at your in-laws’ door bearing pie ranks as one of the perks of moving overseas. But for others, any holiday can be a hard time of missing family, country, and traditions left behind. Here are ten ways to enjoy yours holidays as an expat, no matter what time of year:
Today I got out my recipe for Sausage and Fennel Stuffing: a classic fall dish from Epicurious that I first adopted for a Thanksgiving dinner back in Boston in 2004. It uses lots of butter and sausage and fennel in two different forms and it is delicious. It’s not exactly “light” and doesn’t quite go with what is happening outside my window: a hot wind to start off a day in the ’80s which will grow to ’90s before noon and over 100 shortly after that. This is spring in Botswana.
If you live abroad with your family, there’s almost no way to avoid one of the most exhausting expat experiences: long international flights with children. Even adults find these hauls grueling, so attempting them with small, smelly, stir-crazy little kids requires another level of stamina and some good preparation. First of all, if you are making that kind of journey with children for the first time, make sure you get advice from the right people. The experiences of your friends and co-workers who have traveled long flights without kids or who have taken their kids on short hops are useless to you. That is like taking advice about how to survive prison from someone who was stuck in driving school for an afternoon. Don’t worry: I am no such rookie. Some parents teach their kids to floss and tie their shoes. I teach my kids how to pack a tight carry-on and smile at the passport control officer. I have flown three of the top 10 longest flights in the world with children and have lived (sometimes barely) to tell the tale. I’ve had good flights and bad flights, and one flight from Johannesburg to Dubai with my toddler that was so terrible I turned around and went back to Africa rather than continue on any farther. So here are my top 10 tips to help you learn from my mistakes and survive the flight with your kids and your sanity intact:
Okay, I’ll say it: I’ve gotten lazy. After I was asked in May to be a contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s expat blog (I’m doing a “Ten Things” about living overseas feature for them), I let my normal blogging here at Outlandish slip. My full time job, 10-month-old baby, preschooler, life maintenance, and travel schedule of four countries in the last three months may also have had something to do with it but no excuses, dear readers! So here I am, back after a whirlwind winter of travel in both hemispheres, relieved that I have no plans to be on an airplane until 2016 and have nothing but the normal business of making a life for myself and my family in Botswana to take up my time. To say hello again, I’m plunging right in with a questionnaire given to me by Tara over at Mama Mgeni, who kindly nominated me for a Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award.
Everyone can handle the expat lifestyle when it’s all famous international landmarks, breathtaking cultural experiences, and charming local children giving you presents. But what to do when your day hits the skids and you’re far from home? Last month I had the chance to find out (not once, but four times), which inspired me to come up with today’s list: the Top 10 Troubles you will face overseas and how to deal with them. I’ve faced every single one of them myself. 1. Car accidents I used to consider myself a good driver. Then I moved to Africa and promptly crashed my car into inanimate objects four different times in two years. My most recent crash involved a tree, a hungry preschooler in the backseat crying for pizza, and my least favorite gear: reverse. The quote to repair the bashed rear of the car seemed enough to cover the entire cost of a new car, but everything car-related is more expensive in Botswana and there aren’t many budget repair options.
It’s been a busy month here in Botswana as summer turns the corner toward winter and we get ready for the two weeks or so of “fall” that Gaborone usually enjoys. The kids continue to shoot up in size and abilities (the baby is crawling!), and we are busy preparing for a full winter of traveling to Cape Town, the U.S., and Mauritius. But before the trips start, I was interviewed by Mariza Taillefer for the podcast “A Broad, Abroad,” which profiles expat women from around the world.
I’m usually a few years late to the party when it comes to pop culture. I’d like to blame this on living overseas, but the truth is I didn’t start watching “Lost” until Season 4, and I still haven’t seen Avatar, Crash, or Million Dollar Baby, even though I was living stateside when they all hit it big. So it is no surprise I hopped on “The Americans” bandwagon just a few weeks ago. But as soon as I did, I rode it hard. I was hooked from the pilot and binge-watched my way straight through dozens of episodes, enjoying the finale of Season Three when it aired a few days ago. I love the premise: an average American husband and wife with two kids and a home in the burbs are actually badass Russian spies gathering intel on the U.S. and trying to weaken capitalism from within. I also love the 1980s, so the kitsch from the era strewn through every scene is a happy bonus. (My family had that exact same yellow smiley face cookie jar.) And sure, they’re communist spies: but first and foremost, Elizabeth and Philip are expats.
At four months and change, our new little guy is going strong. He likes to smile at strangers, grab for toys, roll over from back to tummy, and remind mommy to turn on the hot water geyser before bathtime since we normally leave it off to save electricity. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do this last one. But he really should. When is he going to start pulling his own weight around here? I slipped into the babycare routine like you would an old shoe: the rhythm of interrupted sleep and constant breastfeeding came right back as if the last three years hadn’t passed. But of course I was far from home this time. When my daughter was born in 2011, I was living in crunchy Santa Barbara, California: land of organic food, hemp overalls, and a baby psychology clinic. if you didn’t tote your baby to the farmers’ market in a sling, you were the oddball. Things in South Africa are a little different. There are plenty of health food stores, and I was surprised how easy it was to find almond flour for my homemade nursing cookies or witch-y dried herbs for my after birth soothing bath. But there was one area where I immediately felt like the hippie outlier: nursing in public.
A few days ago the doorbell rang. I was in the middle of a particularly deep and delicious nap of the variety that only the sleep-deprived can understand. I hauled myself out of bed anyway and picked up the intercom phone to see who it was. The voice on the other end mumbled “Rubbish,” which meant the garbage men had arrived. I pressed the button to open our electric gate to let them in and got back into bed. A few minutes later I thought “That’s weird: the garbage cans are outside the gate: why did they ring the bell?” It was only after I went outside and saw the cans of garbage still there, full and fermenting over with weeks’ worth of trash, that I realized the trash guys were ringing the doorbell for their “tip.” When one wasn’t forthcoming, they drove away. Welcome to Botswana: tipping at restaurants is optional, but if you don’t tip the trashmen, your garbage stays on your curb indefinitely. I am on principle opposed to paying for this service. But it seems this is the custom in my neighborhood and if we don’t pay, our trash will likely fester there forever. So now we are at an impasse, albeit one that damages me far more than the garbagemen, since I am the one living with a putrid mess literally pilling up on the doorstep.
We are back in Botswana after two glorious months in Cape Town, and I will admit that it is a mixed bag. While we were away, I missed: Our friends Our big house (the rental in Cape Town was a bit of a squeeze) How safe and quiet Botswana is (Sure, there are home invasions, but they are rarely violent.) I did not miss:
I think the low point was me in the courtyard of the mall trying to wrestle Denton under the nursing blanket when he peed out of his diaper, soaking both of our laps, while it simultaneously started raining and Lila darted out of the drugstore alone brandishing a roll of stolen Christmas wrapping paper like a triumphant warrior. (She’s been watching too much Mulan.) It is true what they say: the adjustment from one kid to two kids is nowhere near as earth shattering as the adjustment from zero kids to one. However, let’s be honest: it’s still an adjustment. Based on today I would say it’s one we’re still getting used to. The scene went down this afternoon in the open air courtyard of the Woolworths shopping mall in upscale Hout Bay, South Africa.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve slapped up a post here, but I will use that age-old, tired excuse: I just had a baby! And although a newborn in the house DOES grant you hours of isolation shut away from the rest of the world and its distractions, those hours are largely spent shushing, pacing, nursing, and theorizing as to the possible reasons why your infant is not sleeping. (“Is he allergic to the dog?” “Is the fan too blowy?” “Does he hate us?”) I’m mostly kidding: Denton has been a fairly decent sleeper but even if he wasn’t we would still love him to pieces. In the end all the hard work paid off.
The last time I was pregnant I was planning on a homebirth, so I never bothered to pack a hospital bag. That’s why, when I ended up in an ambulance speeding towards the hospital anyway in the last hour of labor, I didn’t even have a pair of shoes with me. This time around there is a different plan, involving a hospital room, midwives, and a back-up doctor just in case, and this plan requires the packing of a bag. What do you really need in a hospital bag?
Next time you find yourself pregnant and unable to easily return to your home country to have the baby (yeah, okay, not super likely), I highly recommend Cape Town as an alternate destination. The very air here has a pleasing and soothing effect: and the fact that every time you look out of any window you see either the sea or a gorgeous green mountain doesn’t hurt. It’s also a great place to indulge pregnancy cravings.
4 days, 3 guest houses, 1500 kilometers, 12 energy drinks, 10 episodes of Daniel Tiger, 6 gas stations, 4 Magnum ice cream bars, 2 toddler meltdowns, many bags of trash, car songs, tickles, and one big hole in the ground: all in all I will declare our roadtrip a success. It is amazing how much the landscape changed in less than 20 total hours of driving: from the barren flat dry tumbleweed zone of Botswana (no actual tumbleweeds but you get the idea) to striking green gorgeous mountains like something you would imagine after the evil witch’s winter spell in the Chronicles of Narnia is broken. The best thing about arriving in Cape Town (besides the dark blue ocean, the amazing restaurants, and the gorgeous cool sunny weather) is that we are now safely ensconced in the city where we will have our baby. No longer do I have to stress over every twinge, thinking pre-term labor is upon me while picturing being airlifted out of Gaborone by emergency helicopter.
What’s the last thing you want to do four weeks before your due date in the heat of an African summer when you are slow and lumbering as a beached whale and only want to lie on the couch under a fan eating squares of cooling dark chocolate? Get in the car and drive for 20 hours across the desert! Too bad: we don’t have a choice. And so today begins the grand adventure, a roadtrip from land-locked Botswana to the salty beaches of Cape Town, South Africa, 1,500 kilometers away, so we can usher Baby #2 into the world with style.
It is spring in Gaborone, so the animals are out on the streets. During the winter, you could be fooled into thinking you were in a normal suburban town or small city in the United States: clear wide roads, shiny office buildings, commuters in Toyotas and Nissans making their way through red lights to work. But the blossoms and new green growth of spring have brought the animals out of the woodwork. Driving to lunch you’ll need to slow down while a herd of cows lumbers across the highway in front of you. On the way to the gym you’ll have to pick you way through a dozen lazy goats sleeping in the grass. And little armies of chickens strut without fear in front of your car as you make your way home. Inevitably I am thinking about what’s on the dinner menu for the evening when I pass them.
The first time I got pregnant, I was living in Pakistan. This time I’m living in Botswana. The difference with baby #2 is that we’re not hightailing it back to America to have our child. We’re packing up the car with our toddler, our nanny and our dog, and driving 18 hours across the border to Cape Town in South Africa to have our son there instead (sadly, the pet tortoise doesn’t get to come). We’ll get there with a month to spare in case the little man decides to come early. Some Americans might say that the United States has the best healthcare in the world and that they would only feel comfortable going back home for such an event. I am not one of those people.