A Must Have for Expats

Back in 2010 when we moved to South Africa with our family of six, our life changed in many ways, both big and small.

We had to adjust to driving on the left (meaning: wrong) side of the road.

We had to get used to the robots not working half the time – after first figuring out what a robot even was.

We had to learn not to jump out of our skin each time a hadeda took flight nearby.

And we had to make peace with the fact that Just Now means nothing of the sort.

But one of the most profound yet overlooked lifestyle changes we were subjected to was the way we consumed books. Back home in the United States,  going to the library had been a regular family ritual. About once a week we would all trek to the library, spend a half hour or hour roaming the shelves, and leave with armloads full of books. Sometimes I would go by myself and choose whatever I thought the kids might like, whether they ended up reading it or not. When it was time to return our books, I simply drove by the book drop at my convenience and turned them back in.

Books were abundant and free, and everyone read to their heart’s content.

Not so in South Africa. Libraries are not nearly as ubiquitous  in Johannesburg, and not nearly as user-friendly. The selection is often limited and the hours more restricted, with an online booking system like I’d come to expect the stuff of dreams, not reality. (Disclaimer: If this has changed since 2012, I apologize.)

At a crucial age when the kids should have been reading as much as possible, all of a sudden they were not getting much new material.

Our school did have a library, even if it was rather small. One of my first acts of rebellion (albeit a very small one) as an expat parent was to fight for “big kid library” privileges for my then 8-year old daughter. Age-wise she was put into second grade (perhaps because size-wise she should have been in Kindergarten, there was no arguing a higher grade than 2nd). But her classmates were barely reading at the time, while she was well into the Harry Potter series. This earned her a spot in a reading group all her own, except there were only a few picture books in her classroom. Junior Prep kids weren’t allowed to go to the library where the actual chapter books resided, but after some prodding she was granted an exception to wander the corridors over to the Senior Prep wing in search of bigger words.

 Skoobs bookstore in Montecasino
Skoobs bookstore in Montecasino

Also, I was underwhelmed by the choice of bookstores that might help me find good children’s books. The selection seemed poor and the prices out of whack. However, I was either not diligent enough at the time, or perhaps some of the bookstores I’m now aware of have only opened since then. In any case, 2Summers has a great list of Jozi’s Five Best Bookstores that you should check out.

South Africa seemed determined to keep my kids from reading in their free time. This is not to say that this was all bad. South Africa also kept my kids from watching much TV in their free time (due to the absence of Netflix) or spend much time on their phones and computers (due to a ridiculous 5 gig initial limit on our internet)*. If they weren’t reading, at least they were outside jumping into the pool and hanging out with friends. I’m glad we experienced South Africa before it caught up to some of the curses of the Western World.

And yet I wanted them to read. So on our first home leave I went on a splurge and bought four Kindles with color-coded covers (my kids have been color-coded from birth – I’ll always associate them with blue, yellow, red and purple, in that order). E-books, I realized, were life savers for people living abroad. Getting my New York Times delivered to my own kindle in time for my morning tea was one of the great joys of my daily life in South Africa.

Since then, my love of the Kindle has been overtaken by a new, even more joyous match made in digital heaven: Audible. The suburban U.S. and South Africa are not that different in one aspect. You spend inordinate amounts of your life sitting in a car, due to a dearth of public transport. In Johannesburg, you get the terrible traffic on top of that. When I think back to all the wonderful stories I could have soaked up while driving up and down William Nicol Dr, I could almost cry about the wasted hours. If you’re moving to South Africa, getting an Audible subscription is an absolute must! If your’e not sure about it, give it a try for free and I’m sure you’ll become a convert. Sure, there are apps that let you connect to your library’s audio and e-book collection for free (such as Overdrive), but you’ll often find you have to wait for the 257 people in line before you before scoring the book you have an eye on, and then you have to hustle to get through it all before it’s back due. Audible is affordable and gives you instant gratification whenever you need listening material for your next trip or commute.

Audible is more than just a book on tape. A good audio book is a production in itself. More and more renowned actors are moving towards audiobook narration. In fact, audio books are such a growth market that some publishers and authors are creating original works, skipping the written book altogether.

Because of all this, I’m beyond excited to share that Kilimanjaro Diaries is now available as an audio book on Audible (and other platforms), narrated by Vanessa Johansson. I hope you’ll go check it out!

Audible for expats. I can highly recommend it. You can take it with you wherever you are in the world, and you can let it take you to yet another world again.


* Among many other improvements, there is now Netflix in South Africa, and internet caps seem to be a thing of the past, as are slow connections, thanks to the installation of fibre in many neighborhoods

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