My name is Sine Thieme and I am what they call a trailing spouse. Or sometimes dragged-by-her-feet spouse. I’ve had to pack up our household and four kids more times than I can remember, leaving behind places I’d just gotten comfortable in to set out for the next adventure, and reinventing myself in the process. Since 2010 our adventures have taken place in and around Johannesburg, South Africa, where I spend most of my time blogging about our expat life while enjoying the beautiful weather and friendly people.
The first time I moved abroad was at age 16, leaving Germany to become an exchange student in the United States for an entire year. I loved it so much that I returned a few years later for graduate school. After that I got married, had four kids, moved around from North Carolina to Wisconsin to Kansas, lived in Singapore for a couple of years, and became an American citizen, not necessarily in that order.What challenges did you face during the move?
Moving is always challenging but, as I like to joke, often not more challenging than staying in the same place. Keeping up with the Joneses, making sure the kids get on the same baseball team as their friends, and worrying about gifted classes and SAT tests all take their toll, and moving away from all that to a new place with an entirely different set of challenges can be a breath of fresh air. Moving also becomes a lot easier when you’ve done it a couple of times and find out it’s really not that bad. You just have to be prepared to chill and relax about certain things. Or start a blog, so you can vent about everything that’s frustrating in your new life.
What I found most challenging about moving to South Africa was buying a car and getting used to things just not happening when you expect them to. I’m someone who loves making lists and loves even more to check items off lists, and the checking off part is often left to be wanting here in South Africa. You’re better off not making a list and filing to-dos like every other South African under “just now,” which, to be honest, is probably never.
How did you find somewhere to live?
We had a relocation agent at our disposal who showed us several properties, so the finding process was very easy. Most expats in Johannesburg live in a rather small area in the Northern suburbs so it is very easy to narrow down your choices in just one or two neighborhoods. The renting process was what was somewhat more complicated, in that the owners of the first two houses we made bids on changed their minds half-way through the process and we had to start from scratch. I’ve since learned that this is a fairly common occurrence in South Africa. So I would warn future expats to be aware of that possibility and perhaps juggle several offers at the same time rather than focusing on only one house and having to start from square one again if it falls through.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Yes, the proximity to the American International School makes our neighborhood a very sought-after location for expats, even though we made the conscious decision of enrolling our children in a local school instead.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
In South Africa, there is a huge divide between the locals. Our friends are well-to-do South Africans, by virtue of the private school our kids attend, and we couldn’t be any happier with the kinds of friends we’ve made. They are funny, adventure-seeking, and very generous. But the vast part of the population is poor and lives in nearby townships, and some of my best experiences here have come from volunteering in those places in some shape or form.
What do you like about life where you are?
Where to start? South Africa is simply beautiful. There is so much to see and do, and there is so much variety. Where else can you go from a world class city (with, admittedly, a lot of broken traffic lights) to the deepest bush teeming with exotic wildlife in just an hour? And where else can you have this kind of weather? It’s simply perfect – sunny year-round, seldom too hot, and only rarely too cold, little rain most of the time, and spectacular thunderstorms to keep it interesting. I also like, I admit it, the relaxed concept of African time. Life moves at a slower pace here than in the Western world, and it’s nice.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
I absolutely hate the traffic in Joburg, and I miss Amazon.com terribly. Especially here, not having to leave your beautiful house and hunt for those things you would just order online back home would be so convenient. And I sometimes envy the people who know they’ll be in the same place for years and can more easily plan for the future. But then I check myself and realize that that wouldn’t make me any happier. Sometimes, not knowing is actually better. Things usually work out.
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
The biggest culture shock when moving to South Africa occurs when you realize that South Africans employ three different ways of expressing the concept of “now,” none of which actually translate into “now.” As an expat, you will arrive with a long list of items on your settling-in list, and you will pull out your hair because the list will not show any signs of getting shorter. In fact, it will rather get longer, because new hurdles might be thrown in your way, like the water being cut off for a day, and you will feel compelled to “fix” this new problem. Until one dayyou realize that you love this life without hurry or care. And that “just now” is plenty of time to get the leak in the water pipe fixed.
How does shopping (for food/clothes/household items etc.) differ compared to back home?
I might not be the best person to ask because I hate shopping. But I must say that shopping back home, with more online options and one-stop superstores such as Target, is far more convenient than what you have to deal with here. I’ve written extensively about long quests for elusive items such as chocolate chips, and I would say the biggest difference to shopping back home is that here you typically have to hit many more stores for the same outcome. Just to find all the groceries you like will typically take you to three or four different stores and I still have not found a good place for clothes shopping in the two years we’ve lived here. Thank goodness the children wear school uniforms.
What do you think of the food in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?
I absolutely love the quality of the fresh produce, especially fruit. Most everything is seasonal and local and tastes fabulous. I love biltong, a sort of dried cured beef that’s much better than jerky. But please, South Africa, will you come up with a decent hamburger? And where are the Mexican restaurants? Speaking of which, eating out is one of the pleasure of living in South Africa. If you’re not looking for Mexican, that is. It’s very affordable and the food is excellent. Cape Town especially has so many good restaurants, with awesome views to boot, that I’m salivating at the mouth just thinking about it. Don’t even get me started on South African Chardonnay. It counts as food, right?
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
If you have an opportunity to live abroad, whether it is in South Africa or elsewhere, seize it. Even places that don’t sound particularly exciting will surprise you with some aspect or other that’s absolutely wonderful. You will be forced to adapt, open your mind to new experiences and new attitudes, and your kids will learn so much I can’t even begin to name it all. On that note, don’t fret over technicalities. That’s the one advice I would give to expats coming here to South Africa specifically. Most expats fret over the right choice of school to no end, and many send their kids to one of the international schools so as not to lose any time with the change in school year (the Southern hemisphere school year goes from January to December). However, what you’re then missing out on is a whole host of other cultural experiences and learning opportunities that frankly are much more valuable than pure academic content. Forget about the math curriculum, and learn about life instead!
What are your plans for the future?
I honestly have no idea. Our oldest son is approaching college age, and while we’ve always thought he would go to an American university, we have lately started hearing about some great local options. Personally, I will continue writing my blog and perhaps making a book out of it and remain prepared to pack up at a moment’s notice to move wherever fate takes us next.
Sine Thieme moved to Johannesburg , South Africa in 2010 together with her husband and four children, just in time to experience the excitement of the Soccer World Cup. Her blog chronicles life in South Africa in all its beautiful and at times irritating variations. She blogs at www.joburgexpat.com/ and tweets @sthieme.