The island mongoose

First 3 days of preschool? Success. 

“Mom, I got a treasure from the treat box!” 

“What kind of bird is it? A flamingo? A baby eagle?” 

“No mom, it’s a mongoose. You get a lot of different types of mongooses. This one is from an island.”

Back to school

We had a Summer filled with great adventures and sad goodbyes. We filled our world traveler cups to the brim. We lived many stories to tell. 

My excuses for not writing at all for a very long time has ranged from not having time to not knowing what to write. A bit of truth and a bit of BS. Either way, sometimes it’s better to not say anything at all.

The start of the school year is a pause to catch my breath. The return to routine is good for everyone. There’s comfort in pressing the restart button on the well oiled machine of life as we know it. 

Second grade and pre-school 3’s are both off to a good start, perhaps highlighted most by the fact that saying goodbye to Mom was last on Ms. Belle’s to do list as she darted into her class this morning.

Summer brings a crazy beautiful freedom. Back to school brings driving through small town America with Rise Against or Foo Fighters or whomever turned up really loud. Doesn’t matter who. As long as it’s not Kids Bop. It brings quiet cups of hot coffee. It brings strolling through Target at leisure. It brings cleaned and tidied things stay that way for longer than 3 minutes. Ha. 

You meet up with friends and neighbors you have not seen for a while and realize just how much everyone’s kids have grown. I wonder how the life we are living will shape my children as they grow older. I wonder how it has shaped me.

In many ways our move to the US has been similar to the process of “growing up”. Moving halfway across the world changes you in ways that you do not expect. It kind of breaks you a little. And then you put yourself back together. But the pieces fit differently. 

xoxo

Afterthought – Memorial Day

When asked which of the American holidays are my favorite, I’m quick to jump to Thanksgiving (food!) or to describe the atmospheric pleasures of a northern hemisphere Christmas. 

However, there is perhaps no other day that fully captures the free spirit of joy than Memorial Day. A day in respectful remembrance of those who sacrificed dearly for the freedom of others. For the privilege of simple pleasures. Like watching children play.

First visit home. Hello Joburg my old friend!

“Well done”, congratulated an older couple as we were getting ready to get off the plane at O.R Tambo International Airport. “Well, let’s just say it’s done”, my husband chuckled, relieved that we were at the end of our very very long journey to the tip of the African continent.

This time round I was mentally prepared that at least one of the children would not sleep for most of the journey. I was armed with sticker books and coloring books and little toys and new apps. I managed Babybelle throwing up mid flight like an old pro. In fact, I am an intercontinental in flight baby vomit ninja. Actually, the flight crew were the real ninjas. Dearest Karabo and the rest of the flight crew on SAA 204 were a great crew. The lines at passport control in SA were short. Our baggage came crawling around as we walked up to the carousel. The Gautrain got us to Sandton in no time at all.

Joburg was happy to see us too. She delivered a spectacular hail and thunderstorm performance. 

My parents’ patio ceiling collapsed shortly after this photo was taken due to the weight of the ice! Here’s another pic of my husband’s office park of the same storm:

 

Each city has it’s own character and having been away for almost 18 months, what strikes me most is how much I love how Joburg smells. It’s in the ground, rich with minerals and the history of mankind.  It’s in the freshly poured concrete and new paint, signs of growth and industry and ingenuity in a developing economy. It’s the sweet summer blooms, echoed in the wafts of expensive perfumes of those who want to see and be seen. Most of all, it’s the smell of summer rain here that is beautiful. It is crisp and earthy. Carried inside by a gentle breeze through an open window, it was the best lullaby on our first night home.

Here are a couple of happy snaps of the (northern suburban) ordinary:

 

The guard house of our security complex

  

The security gate

  

A suburban street. A little brown, because of drought. Note the walls.

  

Migrant laborers, waiting for “piece jobs”. Tilers, painters, gardeners…

  

Entrepeneur, advertising his crew to customers. Spot the chainsaw.

  

African style Christmas trees. Sold on the side of the road.

    

Catching up

   

A season for everything

Remember when our songs were just like prayer
Like gospel hymns that you called in the air
Come down, come down sweet reverence
Unto my simple house and ring… and ring

– Stable song, Gregory Alan Isakov

The magic box

We’ve been trawling estate sales, relocation sales and yard sales with increasing enthusiasm for what we might find. There’s something voyeuristic about walking through the leftovers of someone else’s life. It’s also an amazing treasure hunt. Sometimes you only find dust and ghosts. Other days you get lucky. We’ve bought life vests and a keyboard, a skateboard, a camp coffee maker and several of our kids’ favorite toys, all for about $30 in total – a real bargain. One rainy Sunday the kids found a “box of stuff”.

Initially I didn’t want a big box of little things to step on, but it was $2 and Xman really wanted the pair of kid binoculars that “really works, Mom!” After all, the sign read, in what I like to think of as Southern Charm Font: “do not separate”. Sometimes, where I see coal, my kids see diamonds. So off we went with our $2 box of stuff and a definitely not complete $1 megablocks pirate ship.

It turned out to be a box of magic. The kids spent most of the day digging and playing and discovering. It was just perfect for a very wet and windy early Autumn Sunday. We found Belle and Beast, Iron man, a talking chipmunk and an army of hoppy frogs. There was a (toy) scorpion that I threw across the room when it started moving in my hand (one of those wind up/spring-loaded things – it gave me a genuine fright). The kids thought that was hilarious. After they ran away.

Turning into pumpkins

Winter takes all the color out of the landscape and leaves a stark, bleak scene that’s fitting for the set of The Following. The sky is bleached to an almost translucent blue that reminds me of the glare of white hospital walls under clinical hospital light.

The transformation from summer to winter, however, is spectacular. In a reverse alchemy the landscape transforms from shades of green to a kaleidoscope of gold, bronze, red, yellow and orange.


  
America goes pumpkin crazy. The early launch of the PSL (Starbuck’s pumpkin spiced latte) was announced on CNN (for the record, there were more important newsworthy events that day). You can buy pumpkin spiced M&Ms, pumpkin beer and pumpkin spice hand soap. There are a million different ways to get your pumpkin spice fix. There are also fall festivals, BBQ tasting, corn maze exploring, pumpkin picking and hayrides. Oh sweaters and jeans, how I have missed you!

My favorite seasonal pick-your-own activity is apple picking (for Fall, because in winter we get to pick our own Christmas tree and there is nothing that beats that!). We drove up to a little mountain town called Flat Rock, NC to pick our own apples, drink apple slushies and eat freshly made apple cider donuts. So, so good.


Of course we’re back in a comfortable school run / homework / extra mural rhythm. My end of summer road trip memories of the beach and killer whales and Mickey Mouse are becoming vague. Soccer has been replaced with cub scouts. Babybelle started a two-day a week preschool. Xman was promoted to a high white belt in taekwondo. I just turned another year older. We survived the masked mob that is Halloween.


  

On being local

You know you are no longer “new” when you start running into people you know at the grocery store. I usually look my absolute worst at the grocery store. Sometimes the best time to run an errand is in the gap between bootcamp and picking Babybelle up from school. (State: messy appearance, but absolute mental zen.)

I recently met up with a Saffa friend in NYC for a girl’s weekend (best present ever!). She burst out laughing at me in the middle of a not that amusing sentence. What she found so funny was that apparently I’ve started losing my accent, but only certain words and phrases. I hear this is a rather common phenomenon. I did expect to lose some of my accent. Sometimes it’s a necessary survival skill (see: wah-duhR. Also, try buying batteries. At first I was confused at the blind panic on the cashier’s face in the store at my simple request. Until I realized: baDDery. For future reference, I cannot get myself to actually say baDDery, but I may compromise my linguistic values in an emergency.) But I absolutely refuse to compromise on zebra. My tongue baulks at the idea of saying zEEbra. It’s zeh-bra.

Speaking of pronunciation. South Africa, we really have to talk about renaming biltong. I am not suggesting calling it South African jerky. (The word jerky totally lacks any appetite appeal). However, when we (Saffas) say biltong, Americans hear “bull tongue”. And who wants to taste that?!

Home is…

We’re heading to Joburg for Thanksgiving. (Rather unexpectedly. A family matter.) I am really looking forward to our visit. How much has changed? Will Joburg still feel like home? Have people changed? For the better? Will I have to face some personal demons? Probably. Has America changed me? Probably. I believe for the better.

Even if it means my accent is a little funny now.

Remember that time we took two kids and a stroller on the NYC subway at 6pm on a Friday?

It’s summer in the USA. Stars and stripes. Bubble guns and pool noodles. Sunscreen is on sale. 9pm sunsets. Beach weather*. Road trips!

*It’s not really braai weather though. The temperature hovers around (an often muggy) 34-36 degrees (Celsius). We keep the braai fires burning high, nonetheless.

The first half of our second summer in the US has been packed with summer camp, plenty of pool time, fun with friends, 4th of July celebrations and a spur of the moment road trip that covered seven states in one week.

School’s out for a long (long) time, so kids can attend summer camps of all shapes and sizes: there’s dance camp and vacation Bible school and adventure camp and every sports camp you can think of. “Camp” is basically the collective noun for structured supervision for kids over the summer. Mostly there’s no actual camping (as in tents and mosquito repellent) for the younger kids. X-man chose Taekwondo camp. No surprise here – he’s been passionate about martial arts as long as he can remember and our Taekwondo school has been a gift to our lives.

When my husband announced that he had to travel for the 3rd time in a three week period I was a little grumpy. On Thursday he suggested that he could drive to his meetings in DC and NYC instead of fly and we could tag along.

On Friday we did the planning. On Saturday we did the packing. On Sunday we hit the road. By the following Sunday, we had driven through 7 states, including NC, VA, WV, PA, NY, DC, MD.

First stop: Washington DC

The best word to describe downtown DC is impressive. There’s so much “United States” to take in. It’s the nation’s capital and one of the most powerful places in the world. You get a sense of bravery, sacrifice, triumph and a scale of achievement that is rather aspirational considering the time it was achieved in (compared to Germany or Britain). There’s something about DC that makes you want to be American…

Taking the kids to Washington DC was definitely on the USA bucket list for me. There is so much to do and see. It’s walkable, child friendly and most of the attractions and museums are completely free!

The National Museum of Natural History was a four hour adventure. My kids loved the dinosaurs, bones, rocks and gems. Xman the science guy loved playing geologist, studying rock formations under a microscope and was very happy to hear that he could become a geologist when he grows up! A fun side-effect of looking at a lot of diamonds and gemstones meant that for the rest of the week, Xman counted everything in “carrots” (carats)! Little Babybelle loved the animals and shrieked with joy when she spotted a hippo 🙂

The Spy Museum (not free) was a huge treat for Xman, whose other obsession is anything to do with “agents”. We may or may not have driven** past the CIA’s offices. (Did you know they have a Facebook check-in?) We also took a nervous family selfie outside the FBI.

We spent a lot of time just walking, chasing squirrels, drinking all the water from the fountains and people watching on park benches under huge leafy trees.

We spotted “agents” and tried to find the entrance to the “secret underground tunnels”, counting security cameras as we walked. We walked from the museum to see The Lincoln memorial, the WW2 memorial, and almost reached the Washington memorial, but by that time the kids were tired. While waiting for hubby to pick us up***, we hung out with the mama duck and her ducklings swimming in the Reflecting Pool. Kudos to DC tourism: my daughter spotted the ducks on the map and insisted on visiting them. The ducks were exactly where the map said they’d be! (Haha) We spotted the White House in the distance and waved** (too close to dinner time and driving by** the White House isn’t possible).

**Drive-by’s and spot-and-waves became a signature of this trip. Sometime it is just a lot more pleasant and less stressful to see the sights from the comfort of our air conditioned car!

***Poor guy had to endure a number of horrible traffic scenes to pick up his family in fun and exciting places on his way back from the office.

Next stop: Long Island

The timing of Counting Crows’ “It’s raining in Baltimore” was perfect and also a little prophetic, as 15 minutes out, it started raining. Warnings of a big storm somewhere close to New Jersey on Twitter and ominous clouds looming on the horizon didn’t worry us. Saffas don’t melt in the rain. It was when the radio started crackling in a War of the Worlds style message urging us to “Take Shelter Now” that we realized we could be heading for trouble. We were on a bridge at the time.

The wind, rain and lightning was scary. It was so crazy that the kids built a fort in the back seat. Nevertheless, we soldiered on. There weren’t a lot of cars on our side of the highway.  We thought that was pretty lucky. We didn’t realize how lucky we were until we saw trees uprooted and strewn on the side of the road for miles and miles and the other side of the interstate closed because of too much debris and a fallen tree. We were chasing a tornado all along! We had a second lucky escape on the way home out of NYC when we took the wrong turn-off and ended up driving home via Pennsylvania, missing another tornado 🙂

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The fort. The kids are hiding under a big green blanket.

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Twitter confirms it!

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The other side of the interstate blocked by a tree.

NYC greeted us with a beautiful sunset to make up for the weather.
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After the crazy walking we did in DC and our eventful drive, I decided the weather was perfect for 2 days hanging out at the hotel pool. (So much interesting people watching here! Some parts of Long Island is the 90s frozen in time, complete with guys who look like Joey Tribbiani and girls with scrunchies).
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The City

My first experience of NYC was love at first sight. You can read about that trip here. Seeing the city with two kids in tow means you get to see a whole different side of New York. We walked and walked. We discovered some amazing playgrounds. We drank incredible coffee. We ate dodgy Chinese food and a dirty water hot dog. We walked some more. We made New York smile by buying our 2,5 year old an ice cream as big as her head and letting her enjoy it as we strolled.

We also tried to get on the subway at Grand Central Station at 6pm on a Friday with two kids and a stroller. Rookie mistake. Not recommended. The terminals at Grand Central Station are nuts at rush hour. Next time we’re taking taxis. Thank goodness we had a car. On our last day in the city we drove through Times Square, Downtown and Chinatown.

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Times Square traffic

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Baby girl having an epic wobbly on a New York sidewalk. Don’t think anyone noticed.

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Awful traffic leaving New York

NYC as a series of drive-by’s in an air-conditioned car? Winning. Also: my husband would do well as a New York taxi driver!

But in all seriousness, New Yorkians, I really need to know:

1. How on earth do bike messengers survive if they try to fly their bikes over the cars?

2. What is up with the grumpy little Asian ladies? They are tremendously intimidating. Even if they are 90 years old. They walk incredibly fast in the tiniest of steps. Arms folded. Often mumbling. Carrying huge bags. I got the impression that if you do not get out of their way on the sidewalk, you’ll get knocked out. Please explain.

TTFN.