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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.
Like any pregnant woman will tell you, the second time around feels different. You’re a little more confident; you do a lot less research. That strange periodic burning sensation under the left ribcage? Had it last time so I know it’s no big deal. Feet feel tingly when you first get out of bed? Been there already. The words Moby, Beco, Baby K’Tan and Ergo? Know ’em all. I am very clear on what baby gear I need and what I don’t (I’m looking at you, Diaper Genie). In short, I feel like a pro. But being pregnant in a different country comes with its own surprises that you can’t predict, and this makes even the second time around feel like a new experience. First of all, I am in a strange and lonely category being pregnant here at 39.
My mother died twenty-eight years ago today, in her sleep peacefully at home, after a three-year struggle with cancer. It was a Monday morning, just like today, and I was eleven years old, having hosted a birthday party with balloons, games and all my grade-school friends less than two weeks earlier. When my mom’s birthday comes around in December I like to get a colorful bouquet of flowers and display it in my house, picking out an assortment that I think she would have liked. Mother’s Day used to be a day I faced with dread, but it was reclaimed when I became a mother myself and it turned into a day of celebration again. But a death anniversary is different. It marks a terrible day: a day you don’t really want to remember.
Labor Day in America was on Monday (Yes, I still had to work. But I do get local Botswana holidays like “Ascension Day” so I shouldn’t complain.) This means midterm election season in the United States has officially kicked into high gear. Barely anyone votes in American presidential elections, let alone midterm ones (relatively speaking) so I don’t imagine this fact will affect too many people. But it will at least result in a slew of cheesy ads and a little mud slinging in tight races. Botswana’s own elections are coming up on October 24, but it’s the big one: the presidential race that only occurs every five years. You know it’s campaign time in Botswana because every ten yards or so on the streets, colorful placards with candidates’ faces on them are stuck on telephone poles. You also know it is election season due to the highly suspicious lack of power cuts the last few months—the government’s way of convincing the people what a good job they are doing providing electricity. I expect the country to be plunged into utter darkness soon after the polls close to make up for it. While waiting at a red light on the way to work this morning, I was able to take a good look at the most popular campaign poster plastered around town.