Friday, September 12, 2014

Ten South African expectations demystified

When I landed ZA a week ago, I brought along two full 20-foot containers, 6 big bags and a mind full of false expectations…

1 1-    South Africans do not all look like Charlize Theron… And here I was worrying about my ego and how it would fit in with this long legged community!

2 2-    South Africa.. being in Africa.. is always warm.  I was warned that winter was short but can get quite cold at night. This is not cold. This is brutal icy frigid chill-blain-inducing weather and I can’t manage to get warm inside my house no matter how bright the sun shines through.

4 3- Africaan has nothing to do with English. I listen to people talk for long minutes before I can catch a word I recognize, usually it ‘s something related to Pizza, Coffee, Thank you or Please.

5 4-    Right is not always right. As a matter of fact it feels quite wrong. I’m getting the hang of it, but I still feel like I’m driving where I should be chilling and chilling where I should be steering.

6 5-    South Africans are extremely (as in.. really extremely) polite to the point that I have to remind my kids to stress on the words THANK YOU and PLEASE every time someone talks to them. Appropriate behavior is highly regarded and a wise one would not hesitate to reprimand my kids should she think she needs to. My presence and their shock would not deter a determined disciplinarian at heart.

6- Sexuality is not in the air, just as expected.. However.. The first thing I had to explain to the boys when I landed Sandton was why men need “Penis Enlargement” and why the ads for it are literally on every street corner around our house, all the way to school.  
7-    South African non-whites are not the only ones roaming the streets for a dime or two. The ratio of white beggars is actually much higher than I thought. They are not as witty or sweet smiling as their peers with darker complexions and they don’t inspire you to reach out as much. But they are there; a stark reminder that poverty is color blind does not discriminate. 

8-    In suburban Sandton, the explosive and colorful African cultural realm I eagerly anticipated is actually hard to find.  Whether it is because the area where I live is predominately white or because the architecture and landscape look more like an English countryside – only fenced in - than an African tribal dwelling remains to be discovered.  The first show we attend here was a Canadian Circus that puts Cirque du Soleil to shame. Tickets were quite affordable and yet.. The packed house was predominately white. That is one aspect of Sandton life I totally intend to fully study and observe.

9 9-    They drill you with talk about theft, house attacks, violence, mugging and every petty and un-petty crime you can fathom. You drive into your new residence and you are surrounded by high walls, topped with sharp edges, topped with electric fences and then some.

But then you take a short walk in the streets. You go for a drive around your new hood and there is a false sense of security that is actually quite seductive. You wonder with this great weather (only in the mornings still), why is it that people don’t walk more.  You look at smiling faces all around: gardeners, garbage collectors, housemaids, and you wonder: why all the fencing and the worrying? They can’t be criminals.. or can they???????

1 10- I don’t know where Disney got his inspiration from when he created DUMBO’s stork. Storks are simply not those gracious birds soaring the skies while dropping bundles of babies on whimsical moms. They’re grey and ugly and God they can make a loud screech, something between a long wail and an angry howl.. One week into the house and we still can’t prevent the knee-jerk reaction to jump out of bed and shield our faces from an unseen inevitable danger every morning when they exercise their tonsils.

I I have to confess that only Walid insists those birds are storks.. I'm beginning to doubt his ornithologist claims!!!!!!

As the days pass and we sit back to enjoy our first weekend at home, I look up at my neighbor’s house and a stork is regally standing there, staring down at me. Strangely enough, I’m in awe.. I’m in Africa and I’m greeted by storks every morning. The weather is slowly warming up but I still hold on to my fleece and my furry boots. The joke about body parts enlargement posters never gets old and the kids still find it particularly funny. I can drive without causing too much mental damage to pedestrians or fellow drivers who happen to cross my way.  I pride myself for being neither white nor Indian nor black or anything in between. For once my lack of characteristic features serves me well and I’m accepted everywhere I go.  I will not learn Africaan but I might enjoy a few Zulu lessons when I get the chance.

It’s good to be in Africa. Despite the many challenges this post brings, it just feels like I’ve made a full circle and I’ve found home. Almost!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

New Post - New School: 1st day mommy blues

That first day of school….

There was no Ursula to share a joke with about how ridiculously pregnant we both looked and how that would affect our little one starting Pre-k. We had our seconds a week apart and our  friendship was sealed thereafter.

There were no Rola, Emanuela and Dania to wait outside the school gates to chat and offer their friendship unreserved.

There was no Alexandra to grab my hand and cheerfully say: YOU.. yes YOU! You look like a fun mom who can totally fit in with us… in four years I basked in Alex’s cheerful smile relishing every incredible friendship I forged thereafter.

 There was no Nathalie Bourrel to greet me as if I was an old friend returning from just-another-summer-holiday, despite the fact that I had only met her two days earlier in a picnic held for new comers.

There was no Isabelle to engulf us all with her warmth and positive energy as she stood at the top of the stairs greeting all new and returning families. The way those kids ran straight into her hug was my first indicator that my kids would be so well taken care of in this little establishment.

There were no Katie, Nathalie Lambert, Nathalie Lonak, Kika and Melanie to set me off on an incredibly crazy adventure.. I still remember that first outing I joined. A biking trip to the city!!! I was too shy to admit to my mediocre biking abilities, especially on someone else’s bike and navigating very sharp bends and crazy slopes. That didn’t stop me from going… or screaming all the way down to the station either J. It sure didn’t stop them from letting me in.

There were no Anna and Jeanna to organize a small weekly get together for all moms with babies and toddlers. My T3 was only 1 at the time. That weekly coffee was my salvation and the seed of a friendship with Estelle who pushed me to conquer my first 5 k run five years later as a last New York adventure before I set off to ZA.

There was no Ranya to offer to come pick us up so we don’t have to venture into that new world alone on the first day of school.

There was no Noha to turn her schedule upside down to accompany me to the Lycée in Maadi and just BE THERE in case I needed anything. She never asked questions, never pretended to assuage my worries for she knew that with a terminally sick father, three kids in a new and temporary environment, there wasn’t much to say.

There were no ready smiles, extended hands or even the small gesture that recognizes that you are new and very welcome here.  There was no animosity either! And the few I went and talked to were quite nice. They did offer their advice and smile readily enough after a few exchanges, but not their ready friendship!

It’s South Africa, I remind myself. Things take time to evolve and materialize here. Preschool is hardly comparison material with middle school, 4th grade and a first grader who still can’t fathom what hit her and brought her to this new world.

In New York with Ursula, we were young, a very small group and well, both pregnant and our boys were cute together. In Jordan, our kids were still babies and we were all non-French. This immediately set us apart for some reason and accelerated the process. Back to New York and Lyceum Kennedy was quite a unique place: Small, homey, very international and no one had the intention to mix with only their kind. Celebrating our diversity was key to the school and it permeated everything we did. We all belonged and we all added spice to the mix.

In Cairo, well, it’s my hometown after all and I have the leverage of pre existing friendships that happen to frequent the same school.

ZA impressions are different. While LK had less than 40 kids last year when we left, Lycée JV here boasts over 1000 + students. The spoken language for the past few days has been decisively French. This makes it impossible to feel the international inclusiveness that I was hoping to tap on.  I’m sure it’s there.  But I’ll need time and social skill to fish it out.

In all three countries friendships were established before the first day of school. Some with parents of fellow Lycéens, others with people from all walks. Not in ZA! The only person I met so far, through Walid’s work, is a very sweet Chilean mom who unfortunately doesn’t drive.  So until I master this skill in my new post, hers would be a friendship patiently waiting to be cultivated.

It will come I remind myself. Hopefully a little faster that the national ADSL internet connection that promises to remain an elusive dream for a few weeks at least.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

1st day of school

  You know that moment when you walk into your new school, the lost, and apprehensive look that you carry with feigned courage?

You know that night when you go to bed knowing that early next morning you have to venture into unchartered territories, and navigate through herds of humans who seem to know exactly where they are going? To you it looks like they’re running mad in all directions, casting an intricate web and you are about to walk into it.

You know that early morning when you take your first steps through the school gates, stretch your cheeks into a tentative smile hoping someone would catch it and smile back, maybe even say Hello?

You know that first day when you look into hundreds of faces and wonder how you can feel that you are being both ignored and watched simultaneously, and by the same crowd?

And they think kids have it hard on the first day at school. No one realizes that we moms, expat moms go through it too only with the added disadvantage of middle age insecurities and the dearth of self confidence that they bring along.

Yes, I’m talking about us, roaming moms not our kids as you your mind might have let you wonder because inevitably, first day of school worries are always associated with the little ones.  So if you’re looking for a piece on children and their worries on their first day of school, you’ve certainly come to the wrong blog!

In 11 years of motherhood I’ve done the first-day walk of “fame or shame” over eight times in four countries spanning three continents.  All in all I can claim it has been an arduous but not insurmountable experience.  But as the kids grow older, coming across as that great super mom on the first day of school becomes an illusive quest.

As a roamer you get to reinvent yourself every time you set foot on a new point on the map. You ask yourself: how do I want to be seen and remembered four or five years from now? What do I want to do with my life in the mean time? There is a sense of comfort in short term planning. You don’t have to carve your standards in stone for life’s eternity. You know your life span in any one given space is no longer than 5 years and it’s up to you to make the best of it.

But there are things that you can’t change about yourself no matter how inspiring your new home may be.

You cant change how shy and intimidated you feel on your first day of school. You can’t hold back your yearning for acceptance and easy friendship. You want your kids to be proud of you and you wonder what image you should project first? Intellectual? Nooo nerdish.

Funny?? That’s clownish mom..

Stylish?? Really mom! You think that’s fashionable? 

Kind?? Well, nothing wrong with it, it’s just not cool!

What then?? What impression do I want to give on that walk??

Today I thought I’d try the intellectually funny mom, armed with skinny jeans (thank God I still fit into them), a warm kind smile and a style pair of glasses to mix that kindness with easy style.. I thought I pulled it off quite nicely till I dropped the kids off, and two hours later I made myself a cup of coffee at home and it suddenly hit me.. I didn’t meet a single person today, not one potential friend, or foe for that matter. While my kids will get the whole day to connect with their future friends.. I was given a few minutes in a rushed morning, juggling between three class lists and hurrying through the corridors to deliver teary cheeks and clinging little hands to their new classrooms.

Hmmm.  So much for 1st-day-at-school impressions…I might as well have walked in with my PJs on and it would have been all the same. 

Surviving yet another bad move – Part # 2

10 Bad Move Classics Every Expat Learns to Survive

Just like a long agonizing pregnancy, followed by hours of insufferable labor pain, every move I live through feels like labor day all over again. If you do the math: fifteen years, three children and five moves, that’s quite a toll on any human body, let alone their sanity.

Every mother knows there is no such thing as a good labor experience. So does every expat wife going through a move. There is no such thing as a good moving experience.

In all my moves, the bad ones and the worse, here are a few staples an expat wife suffers through:

1  1-    Wrong size assessment
I have yet to meet a fellow expat wife who hasn’t had her container emptied out at least once in her career as a roamer, because packers made a wrong judgment call on how big her box should be.

I’ve had one container emptied out in the streets of Manhattan and left to weather it overnight. Hanan my friend had hers shipped to a warehouse to be emptied out and reloaded into a bigger one. 

To add to the inventory of horrors, we had one stocked-up container loaded onto a vessel and out to sea, before the second one arrived to load up all of our leftovers. We ended with two small containers, double the costs, double the paper work, and double the pain. Why they never unloaded and waited for a 40 foot is beyond me!

2  2-    Not enough wrapping material
Movers arrived at my house four hours late and fifty boxes short...50!  I’ve heard of two, five even ten boxes short, but fifty? Really??

Beware of packers who come up with such lame excuses, as “my car battery went dead and strangely enough, my phone battery too.” Chances are, they got another quick job for the morning and will try to blame you for the shortage of material that they have incurred. 

My not-so-decent mover blatantly accused me of over-shopping between the time of assessment and packing day. To his bad luck, I was so busy with move logistics that I forgot to shop for over three weeks. When threatened to prove him wrong, he gave up the argument and focused on loudly cursing” that crazy bitch” aka me to all his colleagues instead.

3  3-    Over-charging for “special requests”
Decent movers would give you a proper assessment from day one, including required crates for glass frames, paintings and other delicate needs. Most movers however, would come to you on packing day and try to oversell.

This last mover wanted to charge me $400 for four closet boxes. When I asked him how he originally intended to pack dresses and coats, he gave me that (are you seriously packing long dresses and coats?) look and said that custom dictates they would be packed in medium sized boxes just like kitchenware and utensils! 

When every question you pose becomes a “special packing request”, know that you’re in for a really bad packing job.

4  4-    Over-packing
A novice expat can be fooled into thinking that the more bubble and crushed paper, the safer her things would be.  A practiced roamer knows that over-stuffing = more boxes = more volume = bigger space required = added costs

There is no formula for proper use of packing material. I can tell you to use your judgment but in reality, there is no telling if a packing job is well done until you start unpacking at your destination.  If 95% of your stuff makes it safe than you can start writing that Thank You note to your movers and go online to give them a good rating.

5  5-    Under-packing
Unlike over-packing, under-packing is easy to detect. Anyone can see when table corners are stacked uncovered; when chair legs pop out ready to dig through the closest available box. Better pray it’s not your china box.

Your biggest challenge is  NOT to identify under-packed objects. It is to convince an arrogant mover that that specific item needs further protection! Be ready to hear some condescending “who are you to interfere with my job” and “I’ve been doing this all my life and I’m the best at it” remarks.

6  6-    Bad stacking Strategy – How does an elephant fit into a Coca-Cola bottle again?
Your furniture is wrapped. Your canvas is crated. Your memories and whole life are boxed. Now you wonder: How does an elephant fit into a Coca Cola bottle again?

Watching your life-long belongings fit like 3D puzzle pieces into a container is quite the show.  But when one piece turns out to be a misfit; and when your packers have no clue which piece exactly has caused this imbalance, you know you’re in for more than you bargained for.  Unloading and repacking a container is the lamest and longest show that puts an expat’s patience to the test.. More often than not, your character fails you. But unlike a bad show at the theater. You can’t just walk out and leave.

77-    Step away lady.. We know what we’re doing
Another classic some of us humbly take on.  In many cases that man is right. He knows what he’s doing and you are just in his way. In most cases, there is no way you can stretch yourself to cover five or six packers, working simultaneously to kick the Energizer bunny out of business.

I’d say in that case, sit back and chill. You can’t tell a packer how to pack without stepping on a few big ugly toes. And believe me, you really don’t want to do that. So let them pack and focus your energy on praying that everything would be all right at the end.

8  8-    If I can’t stack it.. I’ll buy it.. at 5% of its original cost!!!!!!
That one did happen to me in Jordan. He walked away with a brand new 8 velvet seat dining table because it wouldn’t fit.  I was alone, with three kids and so eager to push that baby out.. Oops I mean to see that container gates sealed, that I was ready to accept anything.

When a mover offers to buy your left-overs, know that there will be left-overs; that he has an eye on a few; that he will get them in the end; that he will package the deal as if he were doing you a favor in the end.

9  9-    He said.. She said
Many expat wives like me never see their husbands’ back until the container is sealed. In Egypt, Walid was in Israel. In Jordan, he was in New York. This time in New York, he was in South Africa.

Packers rarely see the husband’s physical absence as a source of concern. Why do you ask? Because this provides the best alibi for a job badly done, with full pre-meditated intent. “But your husband said over the phone.”… “Your wife is the one who made those request, know get your cheque book ready.” And the creative list of he saids - she saids list goes on..

1  10- Split packing… Where are my nails?
Here’s a novel one that can seriously bring out the worse demons you never thought existed in you.

They pack your bed frame in one box; the nails to put it back together in another. They attach a bunch of screws and nails to a desk, only to discover that those nails probably belong to that bed frame they forced you to leave behind because “there is no room for it, sorry.”

You have that show rack missing a connecting piece; storage boxes missing a corner; your own master bed missing its nails!

Nothing I can say would help you should you face that predicament. Hopefully you have a personal toolbox, -a legacy of a UN husband who once thought he would have time to cultivate a Bob The Builder hobby. And with some look, you might find just the right nails to fix your immediate problems. I struck Nickel.. Which in that case was more valuable to me than gold.

One last thought before I go dig into some still-unopened boxes in the hope to find that shoe rack corner piece…  just like a mother’s memory of a long and arduous pregnancy, a roamer tends to somehow forget all about this trauma a few months after it’s over.  You curse and you scream and you swear you will never ever do this again.  I cannot recall how many times I promised to be out of home and out of country before the movers circle in. So far, I don’t see myself doing a good job keeping that one.

You get through it somehow. A piece of you breaks however: a kind of trust, a sense of fake security. I don’t know what it is but it does break. Miraculously, you learn to carry the damage with a lot of dignity and pride. You flaunt your misadventures on social media desperately seeking moral support, even if virtual. People tell you, you are doing a fantastic job. ..You are a hero.  And you truly are… Every roamer is a hero in my view. Every time we survive a bad move we come out more resilient.  You arm yourself with good friends and a supportive family and you go into it the same way you conquer a Mud Run.. You know it will be crazy, painful, humiliating at times. But you also know there is a finish line in sight and all you have to do is find a way to get there.  You’ll get a good hot shower after and get to brag about how incredibly brave you were for weeks to follow J

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Moving out - How to Compress Five years of your Life in a Container Box - Part 1

Four closet boxes, check… Boys winter clothes, check… Shoes, check… China and silverware, check… Camping gear, check…….

Why does it look like the more I pack, the more clutter spills and takes over my floor space?

The system is quite clear in my head. In fact, I have fleeting moments of sheer pride in my planning and organization skills. But if you pop in for a stroll around my house, you’ll probably think, poor Laila, what a mess she has to deal with. No one seems to be able to read the system behind the Labyrinth of cardboard and plastic I have created. At times, I think I can’t navigate it either. Put I quickly push any doubts aside. The one secret to a smooth move is CONTROL.

This is my sixth move and by far the most chaotic. My last was five years ago and the eldest of my children was only four. All I had to do to make him happy was make sure his Blue Lightning McQueen would make it safe to the other side of the ocean. It never did, but by the time our container was opened, He had lost all consciousness of the 15$ toy. The lure of a trip to Target to replenish the toy closet in his new room had all but wiped away all shreds of memory he carried along from his previous life. That simple!

Now,11, 8 and 6; my kids are very conscious of the move and have been yo-yoing between dumping their fears and insecurities on me, and shooting three pointers filled with anger and frustration straight at my head. They always score!

Generally speaking, they are handling the process much better than I thought. But they are THREE, and I am ONE. It doesn’t take a genius to quickly do the math and conclude that I’m officially outnumbered!

If there are any skills I have gained from this move, here is a list I have been using as my default setting to smoothly ride this avalanche of emotions, logistics and details.

1-    Be Positive. The UN alone employs thousands of internationally designated staff. Add the private sector, foreign ministries across the globe and I immediately feel less alone.

2-    Investigate the new destination. Many roamers have to deal with pit of the earth destinations. That alone can be cause of serious mental stress, and in many cases, a separation of the family for more child-friendly shores. But if like me, you have been blessed with a destination you are actually looking forward to explore, do just that. Virtually explore and plan your first series of adventures ahead of time. I already have a list of Tree House hotels I want to take the kids to. Silly, yes.. Trivial, definitely yes.. Crucial for my mental health.. YES YES YES

3-    Engage the kids in the process. New beginnings always bring new toys and new spaces in tow. My boys helped choose the car. We debated for days the merits of another 7-seater versus a sporty looking Sedan. My eldest two are boys, talking cars with them is always surprisingly very enlightening.

4-    Be flexible. Two weeks before departure, I was boxing my house up, planning the dates for the container to ship when Walid zoomed in on a great house very close to school – my one and only big condition. The house is furnished! My mind went into loops and hoops.. What do I unpack? How do I separate what goes into storage and what I have to absolutely take along? Do I really have to take anything along? I need to create three separate spaces: stuff that goes to storage, stuff that we take along and the packing for our summer in Egypt. I have two weeks to go. I CAN DO IT! The house is worth it.. Keep repeating that.. The house is worth it. Even if has no kitchen per say and non-existent closet space… the house is worth it.

- -  You are a Butterfly in the making.. It seems that my kids have made a secret pact to keep me on my toes. We are one family, they are all the offspring of one drained body, we are moving together to the same destination and YET.. they can't seem to agree on how to collectively deal. Accordingly, their needs and expectations from me are just as incoherently varied. As I said, I find myself constantly morphing in response to each of them. I can't remember how I personally feel anymore because my mind has been overtaken by three young but oh-so-capable armies of sorrow, eagerness, sadness, can't-wait-to-go excitement and then some.. I'm expected to embrace and understand. I do, at least I think I do. And every time I stop to think: where am I in all this? I pull hard on my mental brakes. It Matters naught... For I'm in a Morphing stage and soon I'll emerge more beautiful and free. (Unrealistic and totally untrue, and you're probably lollll-ing right now. But hey.. it works)

5-    If you absolutely have to whine about the misery of it all, make sure you do it with an energizing spin. I chose to whine and hike. Poor Hanan, a dear friend who has been quite accommodating. As we tread unchartered trails and gasp at every wild animal sighting failing miserably to capture the moment with an IPhone Selfie, she listens patiently and offers what I need the most, JOKES! We laugh so hard as we share the various anecdotes that have marked each and every move we both endured as career Roamers. Believe , we all go through it and we have loads to tell.

6-    Stay in CONTROL.. That’s key.. Boxes are cluttering your home… Kids are testing your ability to morph into mood soother,., anger bouncing ball, beacon of hope, anxiety catcher net, all in one afternoon… cooking, cleaning and driving to activities remains unchanged despite the added cardboard load… Stay in CONTROL.. Please don’t ask me how, I’m still figuring that one out!

7-    Don’t ignore your own personal sadness. If you are too eager to leave then you haven’t really lived this last post. The more you live a destination, the deeper and more intricately twined your root system becomes. Letting go isn’t easy. Better deal with it while you are still at it. Because if you are like me, you bottle up and compress till the moment is gone; it will be so hard on the other side, you won’t know what has suddenly gripped and crushed your essence. But newly established and still rootless in your new destination, you won’t have the support system to lift you up when you whither and fall. I know that’s exactly what I should be doing. But I’m still stupidly bottling up.

I’d like and keep this list flowing, but I’m running out of excusable time off of boxes. More purging awaits in the kitchen.. By the end of today, I intend to claim victory with seven more Checks next to my to-pack list. But before all, Taymour forgot his homework at home and I need to rush to school to save the day.. aka shield myself from the torrents of emotions should I decide to let it go.