It was about 3 months into our new life in Johannesburg. I was sitting in the headmaster’s office at Dainfern College and laying out carefully curated arguments to convince him that my daughter, and girls in general, should be allowed to play soccer.
He listened to all of it very patiently, said he understood my reasons, and smiled at me not unlike Dumbledore, in a gentle yet stern way. Then he said:
When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
I didn’t like hearing this at all. How unfair, I thought, that my daughter would have to start from scratch playing netball – what the hell even IS netball? – even though she had played, and been fairly good at, soccer for years. What kind of signal did that send to her? Why was South Africa so behind the times? Wouldn’t it be good for them to change their ways?
But – as every other expat knows – I was very short on time fighting these kinds of battles, what with a container having arrived with furniture that needed arranging and pictures that needed hanging and an entire new routine that needed establishing. So I didn’t dig in.
Since the school team was a no-go, I went and signed her up for a boys’ soccer team that allowed girls. I took her there, watched a few badly-run practices, and was not surprised when she wanted to quit a few weeks into it, telling me the boys were silly and were never passing her the ball and anyways she’d rather play whatever sport it was to be with girls. She joined the netball team the next day.
She chose to do as the Romans do. For pre-teens and teenagers, this is often the only sensible solution.
Then we had to start all over again when moving back to the United States, where there was of course no demand for good netball or field hockey players. The old headmaster’s words still rang in my head when we scouted out the new schools, and what the Romans were doing best in Brentwood, TN, seemed to be lacrosse. So we we went shopping for a lacrosse stick.
During the course of our moves, we’ve had to adapt in other extracurricular areas as well. Arriving in South Africa meant out with baseball, basketball, gymnastics, girl scouts, vacation bible school, and in with field hockey, cricket, rugby, scuba diving, and singing.There was plenty on offer – in fact more than before – but a lot of it was new to our family.
In other areas of daily life, it was also out with Starbucks drive-through for a quick coffee on the fly, and in with afternoon braais that segued seamlessly into long evenings in the company of unhurried friends. Out with efficient shopping trips to Target and in with a cobbled-together shopping list featuring Star Butchery for biltong, Woolies for the pure joy of shopping, and a street vendor or two for some clothes hangers or a Springbok rugby shirt.
As I’ve said before in a blog post titled Expat Joys: Variety and Life Skills, turning expat hassles into expat joys is just a matter of perspective. You can go the path of the “grumpy expat” and try to force your old life into your new environment, meaning you’ll most likely be stressed out and miserable, or you can learn how to be a successful expat. A lot of the latter course starts with “Doing as the Romans do.”
The cool thing is that you get to dabble in stuff that you’ve never dabbled in before. In South Africa, we got into scuba diving and horseback riding as a family, activities we’d never have started without the new opportunities presenting themselves. I myself became a hobby photographer, took piano and violin lessons, and began playing tennis, a sport that has stayed with me and has proven to be a wonderful way to meet new people.
But adapting to your new environment isn’t always all upside. For example, doing as the (South African) Romans do meant that our kids were hardly reading books anymore. Their peers didn’t seem to be reading much, or if they were, the level was quite a bit lower, public libraries were nonexistent, and paperbacks were terribly expensive. So I convinced my husband that the investment in four brand-new Kindles was worth it. Sometimes you have to do as the Romans do with a twist.
Today, our basement is littered with old baseball bats, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks, and more helmets of varying shapes and forms than you might imagine are possible. It is my secret dream that someone would come up with The Universal Helmet that can be worn for every sport there is. Doesn’t each helmet have more or less the same functionality? But I guess the Romans had their own helmets too.
And their own lacrosse sticks.
When in Rome, buy a lacrosse stick so your kids can cavort with the little lacrosse-playing Roman bambini, but also get them a Kindle so they can best them in reading!