Monday, November 10, 2014

.com Moms - #Joziexpat chronicles

As far as stereotypes are concerned, I proudly espouse “Your Typical American Suburban Mom” definition.  I carry a history of driving a minivan on the streets of Westchester, a wardrobe dominated by yoga pants and a bathroom drawer that carries all the hues for elastic bands I use to tie that perfect morning ponytail high up.

I did my gym hour with my peers every morning after drop offs and I dragged my sulking face and objecting feet back home for housework and cooking afterwards. Ultimately, I became a social media addict.. I made it social, political, sometimes religious.. Anything to make my excuse for not cleaning.. Yet another bathroom, legit!

But there is this much you can say on Facebook without coming across as an empty headed, emotional fireball, totally bored with her life despite all its blessings.  So I moved to the magical world of .com shopping.. It was perfect: convenient, available, no time restrictions and no one sitting there to judge your every click! Delivery was free on almost everything and if you didn’t like it… you would just return it, also free of charge.. Welcome to American convenience at its finest!

I was explaining to some European friends here how, only last year I was planning for my nephew’s wedding back In Cairo and I simply didn’t feel the urge to go dress hunting. So I ended up buying the dress of my dreams online and with 50% discount from ebay. To make it even sweeter, I ordered 7 pairs of possibly matching sandals from Zappos and zoom, three days later, I was trying them on in my bedroom.. Picked one up and just as easily, returned the remaining 6 with a couple of clicks, a quick trip to the post office and a full refund a few days later. That easy!

From the looks on their faces, I decided not to share my nostalgia for my weekly virtual super market visits to Freshdirect, my secret Santa amazon midnight sprees and the amazing deals I found on Groupon and LivingSocial. Zappos was seismic enough for the fragile state of our newfound friendship here.

And then came that moment all expats dread - or sometimes anticipate depending on your personal experience -  When you are told: WE ARE MOVING… new post.. new life. For me, that meant: more Internet time, legit time, to research my new destination and explore its virtual benefits to give myself something to look forward to.

The thing about searching for info on South Africa online is that it has this dramatic feel that only health sites are notorious for. If you search your symptoms online, you’re sure you’re going to die before you make to the doctor’s office.

But just like health sites, the drama turns out to be nothing more than an exaggerated disclaimer.. Your symptoms are nothing but a stress induced nervous entanglement… The issues with security in South Africa don’t make your daily life a venture into a mine field either.

One thing my .com savyy eyes immediately caught on: shops close at 6 pm on weekdays and are almost all closed on Sundays.. Then to make it worse, I stumbled upon this great blog by an expat in Joburg and on it, she lamented the loss of the way of life…. Ooohhh.. Now I need a legitimate excuse to be online.. fast!

F-forward two months and I proudly sit right now to brag about another misconception about South Africa I’m about to dispel.. 

For all .com buffs like me, who are either living in or about to move to Joburg, here is a list of what I’ve found and already tried J
1- For    there is always
2- For FreshDirect    there is PicknPay
3- For Craigslist    there is
4- for Groupon… well there is also
and it’s just as colorful and vibrant with daily add-ons and quirky stuff
5- for Zappos.. Unfortunately my hunt has not yielded much in that department.. Yet.. but don’t despair.. I’m on it

After all, I’ve only been here two months now!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

the Fourth Breed

When I ask you to give me a Kleenex.. What I really need is a tissue paper.

When I urge you to hand me a Band-Aid.. What I really want is any self-adhesive sterile cover for my wounds.

Think Q Tips, Jet Skis, Tupperware, and Scotch tape… all brand names generically used for all products serving the same purpose.

Now think bigger and profound terms loosely used but actually have deeper meanings that create havoc and induce wars. Think Anti-Semitism, a term Israeli fanatics adopted to point fingers at anyone who dares criticize anything anti Israel and its people.

Now Zoom out even more and think that one word everyone gets itchy when they hear in New York.. That word they told me to watch out for when we moved to South Africa a month ago. A word everyone pretends they are passionately against but can’t concede that we are all guilty of, in one shape or form..

Think Racism!

Living in the US you get bombarded with anti-racism propaganda. Schools work hard to emotionally sensitize kids to be tolerant, accepting and at least in public, non-judgmental!

The thing is, I’ve always had an issue with this culture of tolerance. Acceptance means that YOU DO see a difference, YOU DO feel that people are segregated by color, faith, nationality or social status.

I didn’t want this for my kids! I didn’t want them to see the difference, then learn to curb the urge to point it out.. I didn’t want my kids to be politically correct.. I want them to POLITICALLY BLIND.

And sine I’m neither correct nor blind, this task remains elusive but I’m working on it J

Then we landed South Africa and again, we were told to watch for three distinct breeds here: Africaans aka Whites, Blacks, and colored.

Naturally my kids all wondered and asked: which breed do we belong to then?? Since they caught me clueless, on yet another important subject: their identity, I had to improvise and bring out my deep voice of ‘sagesse’.. You know, that low pitch that only tells them that what I am about to say isn’t just an answer to a simple question, it’s actually a crucial lesson in life!  Any mom would totally get what I’m talking about.

“We actually don’t belong to any of the three categories. We are African by virtue of being Egyptians, but we carry the mixed genes of over three hundred years of colonization.  You can trace them all on the not-so-fine lines on my face.”

I was right.. but then, I was totally wrong!

What I forgot to mention was that we are a very unique and universal breed that belongs to non of the above.


It’s true.. One of the most underrated, almost completely ignored, virtues of being an expat is that you become so unique in your experience that your deep-rooted prejudices suffer some seismic shifts naturally… and you stop seeing the difference.

Every post you live through leaves an imprint on your soul. You see places, you learn languages, you eat food and you hear music. You read books, you explore environments and … you forge friendships.  Then you pack up and you do it again… and again!

You learn to see logic behind actions, circumstances that shape behavior. You adopt bits and pieces and add them to your own character, and you embrace the change in you that only an expat can appreciate, and accept.  Slowly you rise above geographical and mental borders and you break free from the limitations of stereotype.

So it’s not that we are Egyptian and don’t need to subscribe to any local breed we live amongst. We are a global breed that keeps morphing as it roams the earth settling temporary homes.  We open up to difference and we upload some of what we learn.

In 15 years of expatriation, I am still for the most part Egyptian. I mean I speak it, eat it and act it a lot.

But I’m very much a New Yorker.  My new friends here say I speak like one.. I sure act as fast as one. Very much the impatient one and easily frustrated when everything I want is not a quick click away.. Oh how I miss Amazon and

I’m also a very proud Jordanian and if you give me enough time, I might still not say ‘EISH’ or develop a taste for Biltong, but I’m positive I’ll be very much a South African carrying the traits of its three breeds with a typical expat flare.

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.