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.


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.


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.

How South Africa Can Win if Obama Loses

An outdated -- but, let's all admit, HILARIOUS -- grid of Republican presidential candidates (courtesy

Nearly every four years in America, it seems that a new crop of even more radically conservative presidential candidates throw their tri-cornered, bald eagle-feathered hats into the ring. Each time, and this year is no exception, there are progressive, liberal and even centrist Americans who threaten to leave the country “if that guy becomes president.”

I must admit, it’s been quite nice to avoid the wall-to-wall coverage of American politics, the microscopic analysis of every syllable of every word (or every long, awkward pause), and the hyperbolic rhetoric of candidates and talking heads. After all, there’s plenty o’ mess to monitor on this side.

However, I did catch an article on the other day about how this year’s menagerie of Republican hopefuls seem hell-bent on both “protecting the Constitution” and completely changing it. Herman Cain wants to end birthright citizenship, but doesn’t “support tampering with the 14th Amendment,” which is where related issues lie. Rick Perry wants to end lifetime appointments for federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, even though the framers carefully crafted the language to avoid adverse political interference in appointments. Bachmann, Santorum and even Romney want Constitutional amendments to outlaw abortion and same-sex marriage.

These ideas raise the hackles of most Democrats – and, truly, of most middle-of-the-road Americans. Progressives, of course, are outraged. And ready for action.

As an American living temporarily in South Africa, this got me thinking. If I was in charge of the Department of Home Affairs here, I would seriously consider saying something to the effect of, “Hello, wealthy, disenchanted, but highly skilled, Americans! Welcome to South Africa! You’ll love the weather. Please, try the boerewors with a nice pinotage!”

To appeal to those Americans who really would choose flight over fight, South Africa should simply take a copy of its incredibly enlightened constitution down to Cape Point, face it in the direction of New York, some 12,500 km west, and let it serve as a beacon for adventurous, diverse and talented American progressives.

Here’s why:

  • The type of Americans likely to be attracted can help fill skills gaps in areas such as medicine, engineering, information technology, etc.
  • They will almost certainly be do-gooders who invest time and resources into projects that can make a difference in local communities.
  • They won’t be here forever…in four (hopefully not eight) years, the political situation in the US will have calmed and the Americans will go home, making room for more South Africans to step up and step in.
  • Without promising a utopia, it’s probable that many skilled, native South Africans may also want to return from places like Australia and Canada to start businesses, etc.
  • Welcoming a flock from the US could be politically shrewd, as well, as it creates a cadre of Americans who will become Mzansi fo’ sho’.
  • There’s a chance it could stave off the kind of overreaching Chinese investment once welcomed but now somewhat lamented elsewhere on the continent.
  • Sports like rugby and cricket (sorry, netball) will reach and win over an expanded audience. (Hey, it’s sorta worked with soccer…)
  • South Africans love malls. Americans love malls. It’s a love connection sweeter than a Cinnabon.

Yes, the election in the US is still a year away – and South Africa will have one of its own in the interim, which will undoubtedly add some funk to this drama – but I say it’s never too early to develop your marketing strategy. To get things started, I’ve come up with a few potential slogans for a South Africa interested in wooing liberal Americans:

  • South Africa: Even the lions in our streets are pro-choice
  • South Africa: Because a young democracy still values its constitution*
  • South Africa: Hey, we could use a few more folks who don’t secretly long for the old days
  • South Africa: Yes, we are a country…no, not near Kilimanjaro…right, at the bottom…well, below what was called Rhodesia, it’s now Zimb…just come here and we’ll show you…
*just don’t ask us about the Protection of Information Bill

Anyway, that’s just something I was thinking about. Those of you who have been to counseling or are shrinks yourselves can probably see that this post was, what, my attempt to rationalize my own return to South Africa should the words “President Bachmann and Vice President Santorum” ever spew from Wolf Blitzer’s bearded lips? Yeah, that’s probably right…

Missent to Jamaica

Most of the stories are the stuff of urban legends. A cache of undelivered letters found in a postman’s home. Bundles of mail burned under a bridge. Birthday cards that never arrived.

Of course, in Chicago, this stuff is not only believable, it is often true. Beyond the annoyances of finding last week’s Time Out in the mailbox or wading through mountains of discarded rubber bands the mail carrier couldn’t be bothered to discard (or reuse?), there are times when it seems like the USPS in Chicago just doesn’t care.

Like it is one giant Dead Letter Office.

Among the myriad logistical details to cover before we left Chicago was what to do about our mail delivery this year. While we canceled every magazine and catalog we could think of, and made sure we could pay all critical bills online, we knew that there would still be important letters coming through. Or, at least that should be coming through.

Though jaded by years of mail fails, we nevertheless made a special trip to the main postal facility, Cardiss Collins, to inquire about international forwarding.

“Hi. We are moving to South Africa for one year. Can we have our mail forwarded there?”


“South Africa.”

“Uh huh.”

“How do we do that?”

Blank stare.

Expectant stare.

“Uh, ya gotta fill out the form.”

“Just one, or one for each of us?”

“Yeah, both.”

We found the forms in a dingy cubby and began to fill them out. They were like mini standardized tests on postcards, with dozens of loose coupons for moving companies, car rental services and storage facilities. We entered our names and the forwarding start/stop dates into the tiny squares. All black. ALL CAPS.

But, wait. There’s no place to enter information about the address in the foreign country. We are not moving to South Carolina or South Dakota, we are moving to South Africa.

We took the forms back to the counter. “There’s nothing here about forwarding to a foreign country,” we said. “And our forwarding address is a bit complicated. How should we do this?”

“Just put the whole address on there. It will be fine,” they said.

So we did.

“OK, it’s all here,” we declared, handing over the completed forms. “Will there be confirmation?”

“Yeah, should be.”

And that, naively, is where we left it.

But you’re smart…you know our transaction sounds too good to be true. And you’re right. Not one piece of mail has been forwarded thus far. Or, at least nothing has arrived.

Now, mail sent from the US directly to Jenny’s university address does trickle through. Among the cards and letters from family, and a bill from our storage company (that we pay electronically anyway), was a notice from Jenny’s doctor in Chicago. Although clearly addressed to Jenny at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, you can see that the piece was initially…



What? How?


Yeah, your guess is as good as ours.

What we know is that the letter left Chicago on or around July 26 and arrived in Pretoria around October 10.

What we don’t know:

  • Whether the letter heard Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock” upon arrival in Jamaica.
  • Whether the letter felt (or smelt) a “Jamaican breeze.”
  • Whether the letter got its groove back.

The letter probably didn’t shoot the sheriff, but it did shoot another hole in the foot of the already ailing US Postal Service. If this letter is any indication of how mail gets routed, it’s no wonder the system is just a cancelled Elvis stamp away from being returned to sender.

If you’re reading this, General Donahoe, please know I wish you nothing but the best of luck. I also wish you would send us our mail.