Taking Stock of Our First Six Months in South Africa – Patience, Gratitude, and a Bit of Potty Talk

As the date of our first home leave is drawing close, I feel compelled to reflect on our time here so far. It always amazes me how fast you DO end up settling into a new routine, which, all things considered, isn’t much different from your old routine. It’s just that in-between stage that is so unsettling, where you gather documents like crazy, set up new accounts, find new places to shop at and people to be friends with. So it is not surprising, reading  back over my blog so far, that I seem to have engaged in a disproportionate amount of griping, to put it mildly, about all the things that have gone wrong or inconvenienced me in one way or another. To the uninitiated, it may sound like South Africa has the worst bureaucracy (it does) and that there are power, water, and phone outages every day (there aren’t). But let me now tell you about all the things South Africa has going for it.

Friendliness: You won’t spend a day here where you won’t be greeted by dozens of strangers with a wide and sunny grin. They all seem genuinely happy to see you. Just going in and out of our security gate every day earns me happy waves all around, from people with fairly monotonous jobs who in a different world wouldn’t be happy at all. Just imagine airport security for a moment, staffed by smiling people, inquiring how you’re doing. Impossible, you will say, but that’s how it is here. It is this friendliness that makes up for a lot of things.

I remember feeling the same way when we moved from Germany to the U.S. a lifetime ago. Germans are efficient but unfriendly, and Noisette and I honestly preferred the overall less efficient but friendlier Americans. Going from America to South Africa is the same all over again (how could I ever have thought Americans aren’t efficient?) – you are briefly annoyed by things promised and not happening, but then mollified by reassuring smiles.

The Gift of Patience: Tying in with the above, you can’t help but learn to be more patient. I just took out the to-do list I started when we arrived, and was surprised how many things are still on there, unchecked. But you know what? I’ve hardly thought about any of them lately.

For instance, we’ve been trying to set up bank accounts for the kids (for some reason, paying allowances in multiples of seven just seemed too complicated) but unbelievably this simple issue has been sitting in bureaucratic purgatory forever. More unbelievably, however, the kids have not asked for any money since moving here. I generally seem to have lost my manic urgency with to-do lists. If things don’t get done today, tomorrow is another day. Why put yourself under so much pressure if it really doesn’t matter?

Everyone in America is always busy, and life seems like one big competition of who is the busiest. It’s only possible to get away from that if you physically remove yourself for a while and get plucked into a place where it’s okay to spend three hours drinking coffee and where you will not find a drive-through for the life of you. (I admit this newfound patience of mine was wearing a bit thin today as I went for a manicure appointment where I was greeted by five bowing ladies, only to find out that they had exactly five bottles of nail polish between them – “so sorry, we are buying more tomorrow” – and that three of those colors were navy blue, brown, and clear, and where I then proceeded to be waited on for TWO AND A HALF HOURS, during which time all the idle ladies could have easily gone out for a nail polish shopping spree, and gotten my weekly groceries in the bargain!)

Weather: I regret not recording the exact date, but it has not rained in Johannesburg since early May. And we’ve maybe had one cloudy day since then, two at the very most. By my estimates that makes over 330 days of sunshine a year. And not just sunshine, but clear cool nights and bright warm days, just like a gorgeous Carolina day in October. You can’t ask for much more. Granted, if you’re moving here to start a farm, you’re not going to be thrilled with a half a year completely devoid of rain, but the rest of us are quite happy with this kind of weather. It’ll be getting hotter in summer, and the evenings will be warm again as well, but the temperature rarely climbs over 27C which is somewhere around 80F. It is so NOT humid here that I’ve actually developed some longings for a stifling American summer day.

Humility and Gratitude: Seeing so much poverty amongst such cheerful people all around you will definitely change your perception of what constitutes a problem and what doesn’t, and all the things we can be grateful for in our lives.

Good Food and Travel: The opportunities for both are abundant and we are still working hard at sampling just a fraction of it all so that we can write more about it on this blog.

And now for the promised potty talk. I always thought it was only my 10-year old who is pulled towards conversations of bodily functions like a magnet to the pole, but I’ve noticed that you, the readers of this blog, were more intrigued with “impala-poop-spitting” than most everything else – admittedly quite a compelling topic. Anyway, one problem you absolutely will not encounter in South Africa is a clogged toilet. I realize that I’m talking about a country where a large number of people simply have no toilets, clogged or otherwise, but if  you live in a nice estate where expats typically live, your toilets will never back up. A combination of wide pipes and good water pressure will ensure that all your – need I go into more detail? It’s a good thing too, because I have no idea how I would describe a plunger at the local hardware store.

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