“Yes, you can check the boot” and other things I never used to say

It started early. Our first visitors, my mom and my Mike, commented that our vernacular and inflection was changing. We were adapting to life in South Africa. It was survival.

It was October.

Now, after nearly 11 months living, working and playing in Pretoria, it’s like we speak a whole new language. Just ask Jenny what human-like noise hyenas make.

Every once in a while, we’ll catch ourselves speaking full-on South African, sometimes for good reason (like when naïvely hoping for a smooth customer service transaction), and sometimes not (like when it’s just the two of us in the kitchen). These moments inspired me to make a little list of things I never used to say:

  • Howzit? – One of the first pick-ups upon arrival in SA. It will undoubtedly take me another year to stop saying it. Apologies in advance, Chicago.
  • Izzit? – I do love this one. I’ll most likely keep this one under wraps in the US, except as a private joke. (I’m looking at you, Anna Alcaro.) In case it’s not clear, this phrase is a version of “is it?” but South Africans use it as an interrogative even when the words is and it do not apply to the context. (Example: “We drove to Swaziland this weekend.” “Izzit?”)
  • I’ll come fetch you just now. – OK, there are so many things wrong about this phrase. First, only southerners use fetch, and my four years in Kentucky don’t qualify me. More importantly, though, is the just now part. I know what “just now” means in Africa Time (anywhere between five minutes and five hours) and I still use it. I must stop.
  • Let’s keep an eye on it, hey? – I honestly can’t remember which of us used this one first, but I know Jenny has said it, too. The whole idea of tacking on a “hey?” is unusual … a bit Canadian.
  • It’s hot today, neh? – This is the ebony to hey’s ivory. White people say, “hey?” and black people say, “ne?” Adjust accordingly.
  • Do you stay this side? – I’ve said this a few times, and what I’m asking is where a person lives. This wording is interesting to me because it’s another one that can show differences in language use by different races. I’ve often had black friends or colleagues in the U.S. ask me where I stay. I feel like the use of stay is primarily along racial lines here, as well, but I know it’s a term used by South Africans in general. Same goes for “this side.” Nonverbal gestures are necessary to indicate “sides.”
  • … and what, what, what … – A multi-purpose tool. It can mean “and whatever.” It can mean “and so on.” It can mean “and whatchamacallit.” It can mean “blah, blah, blah.” It can mean “I forgot what I was going to say.” I’m just starting to use this one more, consciously or not, so it might be with me for a while.

The above are the more common, stylistic speech modifications that have crept into our lives. But, simply by virtue of where we live and where I work (most of the time), there are a host of other sentences I’ve uttered this year that I never could have imagined. For example:

  • We had a delegation from South Sudan in the office today. – Working at the Centre for Human Rights provides opportunities to meet people from countries all over the world, including the world’s newest country. Very cool.
  • So, let’s geo-target specific users in Kenya, Tanzania, Mali and Senegal. – Creating Facebook ads may never be the same.
  • The crazy thing was, we had to think about what would happen if the former president died on South African soil. – I can’t even begin to explain…
  • Sorry, can’t play basketball today. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is in town. – I know I’ll never say that again … basketball should always come first.
  • It’s in Tembisa. – I’ve said this many times. It comes up when people learn that I’ve been involved in some projects in the Ivory Park township. People have heard of Ivory Park, but often don’t know where it is, even those from Pretoria or Joburg. It’s in Tembisa.
  • Did you see that guy at the robot with a holographic eagle poster in one hand and a bunch of USB drives in the other? – Variations of this sentence are produced weekly, at minimum. There’s always somethin’ crazy at the traffic lights.
  • Full tank 93, windscreen, and 2 bars in the tyres, please. Oil and water are sharp. – So many things, but it’s just a routine stop at the gas station (aka “garage”). Here it is, translated to American: “Fill ‘er up! 93-octane unleaded. Can you please wash the windshield and fill the tires to 29 psi? The engine oil and windshield wiper fluid are fine.”
  • Yes, you can check the boot. – A daily mantra. Every morning we go to work, and every afternoon the guards at the main campus ask to look inside the trunk of our car (the “boot”) to make sure we’ve not stolen a computer or what, what, what. Like robots (actual robots, not stoplight robots), we say, “Yes, you can check the boot.”

And there you have it. I’m sure there are more as we likely don’t recognize all the changes in our speech patterns. Either they’ll be with us for a while once we move back, or they’ll be washed down with the first swig of Starbucks.

Let’s keep an eye on it, hey?

You Got Questions, We Got Answers

Inquiring minds want to know. In our last post, we asked you to ask us…anything. A few of you did, thank you, and we have some answers.

See below for our responses to questions ranging from what it’s like at our jobs to gender differences to fruits, trees, haircuts, politics, what we will miss the most and more. Hope you enjoy!

What does business attire look like in the downtown area? What are the gender differences in clothing?

Ryan: Honestly, we’re rarely in the Central Business District (CBD), so I can’t answer this question specifically. But, if we’re talking business attire at the university, I’d say it’s more relaxed, but that’s true of most academic environments, I think. Except at the stuffier business schools…

As for gender differences, it seems that, as usual, women dress much better than men. Even the students follow suit: the female students are most often in cute little dresses, or at least well put together; the guys are sportier and wear more denim. And the white guys wear waaaaay shorter shorts. That whole “rugby thing.”

Jenny: I like how work attire for women is more flowing and cool, i.e., appropriate for 80-degree weather, yet still dressy here. There is a bit of a girliness here to women’s styles that I’m not completely down with though—lots of lace, ruffles, and floral fabric. Sometimes I think women seem as though they’re headed to a garden party rather than the office.

What was your experience from a working perspective?

Ryan: Well, though I do spend the majority of my “work” time in the offices of the Centre for Human Rights, I’m really a volunteer, so I don’t know if I can truly capture a “working perspective.” However, I will say that in many ways I find the work culture here more relaxed than in the States. That’s not to say that nothing gets done; it does. The Centre has been a well-respected academic institution and international NGO for 25 years…they’re doing something right. In fact, you should go ahead and Like our Facebook page.

I suppose the biggest difference I’ve noticed in my small work world is that there seem to be fewer meetings here. Or, at least fewer scheduled meetings. There are ad hoc get-togethers, but not the kind of regular, block-your-calendar team or staff meetings to which I’m accustomed. It could just be a difference in how this place is run, though.

Jenny: As far as office climate, people don’t hesitate to make time to be social here. Right away, people made the effort to get to know me, and that felt great. Teatime is a must, both mid-morning and mid-afternoon. My Type-A personality has a hard time with this, but I think I’m getting better at putting the work aside for a few minutes per day. Ryan would say this experience will serve me well back in the States.

How do men treat Jenny?

Ryan: Pass. No, wait! … Sorry, definitely pass.

Jenny: On runs, they are noticeably silent when Indie is with me. (She’s a commanding force!) But when I’m running sans dog, there are more whistles and puzzling comments—more like what sometimes happens in the States.

Describe in great detail all of the trees that you have seen.

Jenny: That’s a tall order. The flora here is a passion of mine. See Ryan’s previous post about the purple jacaranda trees for which Pretoria is famous. I also love the fever trees with their lime green trunks and round, yellow flowers, and the leopard trees with their namesake bark, acacia-like green leaves which turn red in Spring, and spiky yellow flowers.

Babobabs

But maybe my favorite is that decidedly African tree—the baobab. They can live up to 3,000 years (this is true!), and can grow large enough for 40 people to sit beneath one. They look like they’re upside down (their shape looks like their roots are in the air). The story goes that some African tribes believed that, at the beginning of time, the baobabs were upright, and too proud, and that they lorded over the lesser trees. This angered the gods who uprooted them and thrust them back into the ground, but this time with their roots upwards. Now evil spirits haunt the sweet, white baobab flowers, and it’s said that anyone who picks their flowers will be killed by a lion.

Ryan: I don’t see trees; I see forests.

Do you both wear shoes less?

Jenny: Actually, more in the house: Our floors are usually dirty from having the windows open 24/7. But funny you should ask—the Afrikaner children (even some college students) don’t wear shoes, even at the mall, the grocery store, and to class. “No shoes, No service” is not a credo here.

Ryan: Hmmmm…no. About the same. I suppose if I wasn’t going to “work” most days, I would wear shoes less. The weather, since September, has certainly been accommodating enough.

What habits have changed in your daily hygiene?

Jenny: I wash my hair less often.

Ryan: Nothing major. I smell Jenny’s hair less often.

What is Indie afraid of that is strange?

Ryan: Well, she continues to be afraid of thunderstorms, aluminum foil, trash bags, etc., which some may consider strange. The thunderstorms here, by the way, are at a professional level. Chicago thunderstorms are bush league, in comparison. The lightning strikes and thunderclaps are so sharp, so piercing, so percussive that we humans are often jolted.

Jenny: Can I talk about what she’s NOT afraid of? I’m delighted that she’s assertive enough to go after mongooses, cats that wander into the yard, and giant birds with long beaks called hadedas (that are not well-loved here). She’s come into her own in Africa!

Indie is NOT afraid to lie in the bushes outside our flat

What fruit have you had too much of?

Ryan: Ah, this is the beauty and (mild) frustration of SA: It’s difficult to find a fruit when it is not in season. We once asked for limes at a very nice produce shop and they looked at us like we were aliens. “We will have limes in three months, when it is time for limes.” Roger that.

Right now, the mangos, nectarines and Cape peaches are impossibly delicious.

Jenny: Again I want to answer a different question; sorry. I’ve had too many Greek salads. They’re on every (and I mean every; this is not an overstatement) menu.

Ryan: If feta cheese was a fruit, it would always be in season.

What will you miss the most once you return?

Ryan: Everything. The people. The lifestyle. The proximity to outdoorsy activities. The proximity to awesome animals. The weather. The excitement that comes with a young democracy that seems very close to either getting its shit together or falling off a steep cliff.

Jenny: Stella Nkomo, the wonderful woman I work with. Mangoes every night after dinner. 80 degrees every day. Eating dinner outside. The stars in the southern hemisphere. Biking with zebras. Toads hopping around on my kitchen floor. Never having to make my own bed, change the sheets, iron, or do the breakfast dishes. Buildings with hallways that are open to the outside. Our housekeeper cleverly and subtly putting us in our place.

What was the most striking generalization that you had about SA before you left that has changed?

Ryan: We won’t have to sleep in a tree house? There are no lions in the streets?

I suppose that since we had been here before as tourists, we had something of an idea of what we were getting into. Still, I suppose I thought it would be “harder” to live here. I didn’t think we would have as many creature comforts or opportunities to explore as we have had. I think I was naïve, in a sense.

Jenny: That most white people here were in favor of Apartheid.

Do you stay out of politics in conversation?

Ryan: Ha! No. Jenny probably wishes that I would. Early on, I would introduce the topic just because I was still trying to figure out the players and the histories and the positions, etc. Now, it’s interesting to hear where people fall on the spectrum, what they would change, who they support, whether they harken for the “old days” and what what what, as they say here.

Of course, you often can’t talk politics without talking race. That’s where things can get fascinating. What words do people use? Syntax says a lot, even when people are trying to talk politely or in what they think is a PC style.

I like, for example, when a white South African begins a conversation with a statement about his/her own status as an African, someone whose ancestors came to the continent multiple generations ago, then later refers to black people as “Africans.” Wait…just a second ago, weren’t you all Africans?

On the flip side, many black South Africans seem to be holding on to old stereotypes about whites. See how that white person is dressed? He doesn’t like blacks. White people don’t know how to do things. Good times.

Back to politics…I’d say we have enjoyed many good conversations about the state of affairs here, from discussions about the ANC, President Zuma, Julius Malema, opposition parties, elections, service delivery, etc. And, as you may imagine, having an American president by the name of Barack Obama has prompted a number of exchanges, as well. He would certainly win reelection here.

Jenny: No. See Ryan’s comments. He takes the lead on this.

Were the things that you were fearful of, now just common daily occurrences?

Jenny: Driving stick-shift in a right-drive car. Negotiating prices. Getting people to understand my American English. Walking somewhere.

Ryan: Yeah, driving. Sure, I had driven on the left side of the road in a right-drive car before, including on the narrow, windy “roads” in Ireland and Wales, but Pretoria is a the poster child for suburban sprawl. I’m from Grid-System Chicago, dammit! Don’t give me curlicue streets whose names change from robot to robot!

I was also nervous about Jenny traveling to campus alone everyday. Crime is a big concern here, especially gender-based violence. Fortunately, we live on the education campus and there is a shuttle that runs frequently to the main campus. Even if I wasn’t also working on the main campus, I would feel secure knowing that Jenny had safe transport.

Barbershop experiences?

Jenny: It’s crazy fun. You have the run-of-the-mill gay men, and the young women who can give you tips on everything fashionable. But here you also get all the free lattes, bottled water, and wine you can drink. And they are quite entertained by our accents and try to imitate them. My stylist works hard to try to teach me Afrikaans, and writes on her mirror with a marker so I can see the words spelled out. It makes for a fun afternoon. I try to go as often as I can.

Ryan: That’s what she said. No, really, she said that. And, I agree.

Does the cape really look like CA? If so, in what way?

Ryan: Um, yes? I can’t claim to have a lot of exposure to the California landscape (I think I’ve been to LA once, San Diego once and the Bay Area twice), so I can’t say for sure. But, the juxtaposition of green, rocky mountains/cliffs and blue, shimmering ocean waters seem quite similar. Some call Cape Town “Africa’s San Francisco” because of shared qualities like fog, relative tolerance, scenery and the island prisons off their coasts.

Cape or Cali?

Do Ryan’s jokes work in SA?

Ryan: Do they work anywhere?

Jenny: Big no.

Are there stray cats, I only recall you mentioning dogs.

Jenny: We have one in particular who likes to come into the yard to taunt Indie. She’s a dirty, matted white Persian who we’ve nicknamed Nasty Tinkerbell. She boldly drinks from Indie’s outside water bowl when the sliding glass door is closed.

Ryan:

What does an average bookstore look like?

Ryan: A lot like US bookstores, except more expensive. Trade paperbacks are easily a time-and-a-half more than US prices. I think we paid almost twice as much as we should have for a Lonely Planet guide to Ethiopia, for example.

The bookstore-with-attached-coffee-shop model is popular, especially in malls. The biggest chain (I think) is Exclusive Books, and they sometimes have a Seattle Coffee Company next door. The biggest differences are that the stores here often will have a significant Afrikaans section (not sure about other official languages) and an insignificant periodicals section. I take that back…the section is big, the selection is not.

What about an art museum, art scene?

Ryan: Yes, there are a couple on campus, but I can’t say that we’ve done a lot of exploring. We have been to some live stage performances in Joburg, at the Market Theatre, and plan to see a production of Phantom of the Opera in the coming weeks.

Purple Rain

Legend has it that if a student passes under a Jacaranda tree and one of the delicate, purple blossoms floats down onto the student’s head, that student is guaranteed to pass all exams. However, given that exams coincide with the end of Jacaranda season – there are so many blossoms falling on campus right now that we are all dancing in purple rain – virtually every student should pass.

Students walk under flowering Jacarandas on the UP campus

From where I sat as I drafted this post (on paper, initially), there was absolutely no chance of any blossom of any kind falling on my head. That’s because I drafted this post in the underground hide near a small watering hole in Pilanesberg National Park. Safari stories and photos coming soon, but for now, let’s talk trees.

While the Jacaranda is not native to Southern Africa – it is originally from South America – you wouldn’t know it by walking around Pretoria in the springtime. Once each of the 70,000-plus Jacarandas popped purple, it appeared as though Pretoria had been the Jacaranda City forever.

Actually, Pretoria is fairly fortunate to still be the Jacaranda City at all. See, beautiful as they are, Jacaranda trees are also extreme water hogs. South Africa is a water-scarce country, particularly in the northern highveld, and many communities in provinces like Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Gauteng – including Johannesburg – were forced to remove the Jacarandas to conserve water. Pretoria (and most parts of Johannesburg, to be honest) was spared, and the city’s treasured trees today survive.

In the older sections of town, such as Brooklyn, Jacarandas line the streets of entire neighborhoods, their dark, twisty branches forming a blocks-long canopy. Early in the morning and again around 4:00pm, these streets become blanketed with a plush, purple carpet, as if the asphalt is not asphalt but a reflecting pool mirroring the arbor above.

Jacarandas line the streets of Brooklyn, Pretoria

For us, and for Jenny in particular, the Jacarandas express more than just the beauty of Mother Nature, they represent the memory of sister Jackie. The flowering, flourishing and fading of the similarly named Jacarandas is a bittersweet parallel to the life of Jenny’s late sister, whose favorite color was, yes, purple.

If Jackie was still with us, I think she would really like to see these photos of Pretoria’s Jacaranda trees. She’d just wonder why the heck we wanted to go all the way to South Africa to see them.