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:
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
It was my birthday this week. The last birthday of my 30s, a golden decade that in retrospect seems to have passed in the blink of an eye. At the beginning of the decade I was living in Boston, working on my dissertation, teaching undergrads and watching every single Red Sox game. Since then I’ve lived in two different countries, moved back to California for a year, gotten divorced and re-married, had a baby and started working on a second. It’s safe to say my life is different in almost every way.
Yes, everybody hates the Ice Bucket Challenge now. Because it is just a stunt that doesn’t really encourage medical progress, or because it is a stunt that generates too much money for one disease, or because the tide of the internet turns fast and whatever was popular last week doesn’t stand a chance today. But like every American who lives overseas, my today is your yesterday: I am always hopping on the bandwagon a little late and more than a little unfashionably. For example, I finally got comfortable with skinny jeans, which means they have probably been over now for years. This is just the price you pay for the glamorous expat life: always late to the party. It should also be said that no one actually *challenged* me to the Ice Bucket Challenge, making me the girl who shows up late to a party I haven’t even been invited to.
I was pulled over by the police this morning. I was running late to work as usual (Lila’s various peanut butter incidents and unattended water bucket emergencies always expertly timed to coincide with my departures) when I almost whizzed past the police checkpoint strategically placed between Marina Hospital and Gaborone Secondary School. The checkpoint had gotten me once before: two weeks ago I had to pull over, open my trunk and dig around in my purse to show the officer my driver’s license, which gave him enough time to notice that my registration tags were expired. When he said he had to impound the car (“It is like you are stealing the road”), I shamelessly played the pregnant lady card, imploring “How do you want me to get to work then, walk?” while pointing to my already huge belly.
The most African thing about my life every day is my commute home from work. Because of a large concrete road divider on the main road to my house (see photo above), you can’t turn directly from the street to get to my place. Instead, you have to turn off the road 1/2 mile earlier, wend your way through rutted back roads full of children and chickens, and make about three unmarked left turns and four right ones to finally get to my driveway. I realize this makes no sense in print and I really need to draw a diagram. But this forced detour from the slick highway and exposure to a real middle-income African neighborhood reminds me that I’m not living in Phoenix or a downmarket Californian suburb, which is what most of the small capital city of Gaborone looks like. Long ago the town made a conscious choice to implement “mixed housing” in Gaborone rather than class-segregated neighborhoods, so the nicer, bigger houses (of which mine is one, even though the rent is only a $1,800 a month) are just one street over from modest shacks and a few hovels. Gated houses with electric fences are a stone’s throw from dusty compounds with four or five tiny houses on one plot.
In order to work in a foreign country, you generally need the permission of their government. This makes perfect sense but is one of those things you don’t think about until you find yourself in this particular situation. Botswana is a sparsely populated country (at barely over 2 million people), and it is fiercely protective of its own citizens, which translates into being a bit stingy when it comes to handing out work permits for expats. You have to demonstrate clearly that you possess a “special, valuable skill” that is not already readily available in the country, and that your job has already been advertised widely to give citizens a chance to nab it first. No work permit = no job, so the stakes are high, especially when you’ve already moved your whole family to Botswana at great personal expense and exhaustion of energy and you literally have no home to go to if they kick you out.
Photo Credit: J.O. Smith I’ve lived in Botswana for almost two years. What have I been doing all this time instead of getting down to business and starting a blog? Here are the things that have held me back: 1. Aren’t blogs dead? I think you are only allowed to keep a blog now in a completely ironic fashion, composed of video clips of piano-playing kittens or photos of real people from the ’80s wearing horrible Christmas sweaters. That is all too dreadfully hipster for me, and I felt that starting a blog would be like getting out the parchment, dipping my quill in ink, and scratching out a sonnet. Then I remembered I like things that are outdated, nerdy, and vaguely Shakespearean so that reason went by the wayside. 2. Moving to Africa keeps you busy for more than a few months.
So I had my first Botswana hospital experience. I suppose it was only a matter of time. After all, I headed to the Emergency Room in Pakistan only a month after moving there in 2009. This time I made it almost two years in Botswana before being forced to navigate the bureaucracy, fluorescent glare, unknown medical infrastructure and curious medley of bedside manners that compose an ER in a foreign country. I had so many chances to avoid the encounter. TUESDAY: It started as a faint throbbing behind my eyes, as if I had been peering at my laptop too long in the dark (which is almost certainly the case). WEDNESDAY: I made a series of good decisions including calling in sick to work to soothe what I now believe were the beginnings of my first migraine headache. THURSDAY: I got too cocky. With no headache in evidence, I plunged full speed back into my normal work, gym, social and home schedule. I was punished for it around midnight when a wave of the worst pain I have encountered since childbirth hit me and I could do nothing but stumble around the bedroom howling, hoping not to wake Lila.