ten

Hello faithful readers! Today is a big day, and I’m excited to share a few milestones.

First and foremost, today marks 10 years as an expat! Ten years ago today I shut the door on my Greenwich Village apartment in New York City for the last time, took a cab to JFK and boarded a flight to London. My plan was to spend the year it would take for me to complete my MA in the UK, and maybe another year if I found a good job, as my degree entitled me to a one-year work visa. I ended up staying for six years before embarking on my second expat adventure: South Africa.

Unlike my solo shift to the UK, I made the jump down to SA with my then-fiance. Since our arrival in 2013 we’ve gotten married, bought a house, and expanded to become a family of three. My two-year-old daughter is definitely the best souvenir from our time here.

Now, a decade after expatriating, I’m taking the first steps toward another milestone: repatriating. My husband’s company has offered him an exciting new job based in Houston, and we’ll be landing there in November.

I have so many mixed emotions when it comes to this move, and they’re all about leaving South Africa – I haven’t even begun to process the Stateside stuff. South Africa is a complex, fraught, wonderful place and I’m torn between relief at leaving the worst bits and abject despair at saying goodbye to the best bits. Overwhelmingly, though, I’m grateful to have had four years in a place unique in the world, at the tail end of a misunderstood continent. My worldview is richer, more nuanced, and forever changed.

DefendingHearts_RebeccaCrowleyAnd in the midst of all of this, tomorrow sees the release of my tenth book! Defending Hearts hits digital bookshelves tomorrow and I hope Kate and Oz will find their way into readers’ hearts with the same stubborn insistence they found their way into mine.

Opposites attract with unparalleled force when Oz – Skyline’s neurotic, intellectual, and incidentally Muslim left-back – meets Kate, a private security contractor who’s recently said goodbye to life as an enlisted Army soldier. This book is about identity as we define it – and as others sometimes insist on defining it for us. Full buy links are on the Books page, and I hope you’ll check this one out!

Huge thanks to you, readers, for propelling me through to this ten-book milestone. I promise there will be many more!

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‘born free’

This morning I had my 32-week appointment with the midwives who’ll be attending the birth of my first baby. They’re in a private practice, which my employer-subsidized medical insurance pays for. My appointment was at the private Genesis Clinic, nicknamed the “birthing hotel” due to its luxurious facilities, however for the birth I’m booked into Park Lane Hospital, which also boasts a private maternity ward that you couldn’t be faulted for mistaking with an upscale hotel.

On my way home from the appointment I stopped into Woolworths, South Africa’s high-end grocery store modeled on Marks & Spencer in the UK. The only necessity I had to buy was toilet paper, the rest was middle-class frivolity: cranberry juice, brie, Diet Coke, a single-serving bag of chips, a bar of Cadbury chocolate.

I was debating whether to buy the 18- (slightly cheaper per roll) or 9-roll pack of toilet paper (easier to carry to the car) when an African man tapped me on the shoulder. He wanted to know whether the box of baby cereal (labelled for babies six months and older) and a bottle of full-cream cow’s milk would be okay for his two-month-old child, because the infant formula was too expensive.

I tried to use, simple, sympathetic language to compare the prices, pointing out that when it came to price per gram, the (age-appropriate) infant formula really wasn’t much more expensive than the (inappropriate) baby cereal. I talked about babies’ sensitive tummies, and how the wrong food might make its tummy sore and cause it to cry even more. I asked if he had any way to get to Makro (South African Costco/Wal-Mart), where there would be more brands available in cheaper, bulk quantities (he didn’t).

Now, why wasn’t his wife breastfeeding? I didn’t ask, but I can guess. Maybe she has HIV/AIDS. Maybe she struggled to make breastfeeding work, and had no guidance on how to do it or support to keep at it. Maybe she had to go back to work, probably as a maid in a private home, shortly after the baby was born, so isn’t available to feed the baby, can’t afford pumping supplies and/or has no education on how to use them.

In the end I couldn’t persuade him – and really, maybe it wasn’t a question of persuasion. Maybe there was no way he could afford the R146 ($12) infant formula over the R30 ($2.50) baby cereal and he just wanted assurance that he wouldn’t kill the baby (a question he asked me repeatedly).

South Africans optimistically refer to the ‘born free’ generation, children born after 1994 who’ve never known the oppression of apartheid. Nelson Mandela was a huge advocate for children’s rights, and famously declared, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Yet 20+ years after the first round of ‘born free’ babies came screaming into the world, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and this is especially evident in models of maternity care and childbirth.

A few months ago the Guardian published an article that confirmed what I’d gleaned anecdotally: inequality starts even before the moment of birth, in the very means by which South African babies emerge into the world. Babies born in the private healthcare system (which consumes 60% of total health spend yet serves only 15% of the population) are overwhelmingly more likely to be born by c-section, many of which are elective.

From the moment I found out I was pregnant, I’ve planned for a minimal-intervention birth. My fantastic obstetrician is a renowned champion of natural birth, and I’ve hired the midwives in order to have low-intervention advocates with me during the birthing process. Whether I’ll be able to deliver naturally remains to be seen, but I’ve been amazed by what’s felt like the need to defend my preference, both informally and in terms of literally building a medical team I can trust. The South African (private) obstetric community seems so ready to encourage women to ‘simply book in for a caesar,’ how do you find the line where your doctor’s medical expertise ends and profit-hunting begins?

It’s easy to feel self-righteous and skeptically alert to the ‘business of childbirth’ as I thumb through my imported copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy Edition, or enjoy a workout in my immaculate, brand-new gym, or buy calcium supplements without looking at the price, or tip the Zimbabwean painters who’re doing up the baby’s room (in the house that I own, in an affluent neighborhood, on a quiet street).

The truth is, I’m so privileged. I can choose to have a low-intervention birth. I have access to whatever medical care might be necessary to facilitate that birth. And if it all goes pear-shaped, I can have an epidural and a c-section and a private room to recover in at a moment’s notice, without a thought for how much it’s going to cost.

I’ve spent the whole afternoon thinking about the two-month-old baby who’ll be fed cereal and cow’s milk tonight, and wishing I’d just given the man R100 to buy the infant formula. That baby will have so many more obstacles in its life, I wish I’d had the presence of mind to give it a little bit of a head start.

Instead I’m reminded to check my privilege, to be grateful, to see my house/work/traffic stresses as great luxuries. My baby will be born into the South Africa with world-class medical care, spacious homes and brand-name strollers. I won’t sacrifice to keep it fed, I won’t worry about access to clean water, I won’t have to choose between a tin of formula and taxi fare for a trip to the doctor. I’m on the right side of this hopelessly imbalanced scale, and for that I’m unbelievably, undeservedly lucky.

copa mundial 2014

Ah, the World Cup: full of patriotism and passion, dramas and controversies, the ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat. For one month every four years the world comes together in celebration of this truly global, egalitarian sport.

I’ve been reflecting on the last few World Cups as we approach Sunday’s final, and I realized how perfectly memories of this tournament illustrate different stages of my life. There’s always one standout moment, and these are some of mine:

South Korea 2002: Ireland vs. Spain

I know I’m not the only football fan for whom this was a momentous match. 2002 was the first time I watched the World Cup, having only really gotten into football over the previous 18 months (a fledgling Manchester City fan in the Stuart Pearce era!). I had finished my first year at college in New York City, and was back in Kansas for the summer. It would be the last time I would spend more than a couple of weeks in my hometown, and was my last real goof-off student summer, as the following year I stayed in NYC and worked full-time. Underdog Ireland played with so much heart, and after spending the whole match 1-0 down, Robbie Keane scored in the 90th minute. I remember sitting bolt upright in my little desk chair, pulled right up to the TV in my bedroom, as the match progressed to penalties. Spain defeated Ireland 3-2, and in that instant I understood the tribal, soul-deep love that football seems to inspire in its fans. I was so invested, so devastated, yet so proud of Ireland’s effort. I was hooked.

Germany 2006: England vs. Ecuador

I supported England in the 2006 World Cup, during which I was living and working in New York City, having graduated from college a year earlier. The time difference meant many of the matches were on in the morning or at midday, and England vs. Ecuador started at around 10 AM on a Saturday. I remember this match not for Beckham’s winning goal, but for the venue where I watched it: 11th Street Pub in the East Village, a small, innocuous-looking bar that is in fact the meeting place for a rabid bunch of Liverpool FC fans. They showed the match on a big screen at the back and a half-and-half mix of Brits and Americans gathered around communal tables, making friends, sharing snacks, cheering and booing in unison. The atmosphere was awesome, and illustrated one of the great things about the World Cup: the way the sport brings together complete strangers, who for two hours have nothing more in common than the ferocious desire for a ball to find its way into a net.

South Africa 2010: Spain vs. Netherlands

I know, choosing a final seems like a cop-out, but it’s nonetheless the most memorable match, for me, of 2010. By this time I’d been living in England for almost three years, and experiencing a World Cup in Europe, where everyone lives and breathes football all year long, made a brilliant contrast to the relatively niche fandom one finds in the US. We were in the process of moving from Camden Town to Belsize Park during the tournament, and were lucky to have a slight overlap in our lease because, in typical British fashion, it took ages to get our internet up and running in the new flat. On the Sunday night my now-husband and I trekked back down to our empty Camden Town flat armed with a laptop so we could watch the match. We sat on the floor, cheering on Spain via an occasionally stuttering web broadcast. It was on a couple seconds’ delay so we would hear huge cheers or groans from the pub down the road before we saw the goal/foul/chance that prompted them. The match finished, Spain were the victors, and we took the Tube two stops back up to Belsize Park…where we rode the lift with a handful of depressed-looking Dutchmen in orange jerseys.

Brazil 2014: USA vs. Belgium

usmnt

In the 12 years I’ve been able to truly call myself a soccer fan, I’ve loved watching the sport evolve in my home country. I love seeing more American players in the Premier League, I love the constantly improving quality of MLS games, and I loved all the news reports of the fan support for USMNT this year (and tried to ignore the pang at being 9,000 miles away!). I won’t remember USA vs. Belgium because it’s the game that knocked the US out of the World Cup – I’ll remember it for the unparalleled commitment, ferocity, and determination with which USMNT played. I was emotionally prepared for it being the USA’s last match of the tournament, but I had no idea it would be so hard-won. Every year the USA creeps that little bit further through the stages, and I can’t wait to see them in a quarter-final in 2018.

I’m excited for the 2014 World Cup final on Sunday night, but I’m also a little sad that come Monday, this sporting whirlwind will be over for another four years. I’m going to miss tuning in almost every night and arbitrarily picking a country to root for, and I’m going to miss the morning-after dissection of attempts, chances, and dives. I’m even going to miss the crazy stories, like the Black Stars’ cash-filled plane and Suarez’s bite marks. But I suppose much of the romance of football is down to its fugaciousness: today you’re a champion, but tomorrow someone’ll be doing everything they can to take that title away. Winners and losers, dreams and failures, it really is the beautiful game.

jozi: one month on

Today marks four weeks since I left the UK and the time has absolutely flown. I still feel as green as a new shoot as I navigate my new country of residence, but I’m slowly getting to grips with the commute, the vocabulary, and the way of life down here at the bottom of a continent.

Every day it seems I make a mental note to pass on one or other funny expat observation and then utterly fail to do so, so I’ll try to encapsulate a few of my favorites.

–       This may be a side effect of living without a television for six years in the UK, but our new house came with a satellite subscription and 200+ channels of pure awesome. We get TLC from the US, BBC from the UK, and selectively-bought series from HBO and Showtime like True Blood and Ray Donovan. The airing schedule is a couple of weeks behind the US, but who cares? I can finally watch Eric Northman in flat-screen HD glory rather than a fuzzy download from a Chinese website!

–       Joburg natives are some of the nicest people you could hope to meet… until they get in their cars. I’m losing track of how many social events we’ve been invited to by people we barely know (including the woman who completed the insurance survey and suggested we go out with her friends about five minutes after we opened the front door). In the shops and on the streets people smile and joke and look you in the eye and apologize if they bump into you. But if you need someone to let you into a lane during rush hour? Forget it! Even though very little seems to start on time here, every driver seems to be in an urgent hurry and is unafraid of using the horn to let you know. I still find it hard not to get stressed by the impatience of other drivers, but I’m gradually learning to attribute it to ubiquitous haste and not a reflection on my driving abilities. Check back in three months when I’m bitching about slow drivers hogging the fast lane!

–       Living in an upscale neighborhood, going to nice restaurants and a brand-new gym, and mingling almost exclusively with fellow high-achieving professionals in what is arguably Africa’s most developed city makes it easy to forget that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. I’ve never been comfortable with the humiliating spectacle X-Factor and American Idol make of poorly auditioning contestants (to quote Extras, “we wheel out the bewildered to be sniggered at by multi-millionaires”), but Idols SA – the local incarnation of the franchise – brings a new severity. In the US we laugh at fat contestants with no self-awareness, in the UK we laugh at immigrant contestants singing in broken English, and in Idols SA we laugh even when the contestant’s hometown displayed on the bottom of the screen reveals they’re from an incredibly deprived, crime-ridden, opportunity-barren township. Yeah, maybe they suck at singing, but there’s something pretty sinister about people tucked cozily in front of their TVs ridiculing someone who may very well be headed home to sleep on a packed-dirt floor.

–       Yesterday I saw a city bus that pretty much summed up my experience thus far. The digital readout on the front of the bus, meant to display the destination, instead repeated in scrolling neon: “??????????????” And after four weeks in Joburg, that’s how I feel most of the time – not really sure where I’m going, but happily strapping in for a wild ride.

In non-expat news, it’s less than two weeks until The Striker’s Chance releases from Carina Press! It’s already gotten its first review and I couldn’t be more chuffed. I’ve added pre-order links for ARe and Barnes & Noble so feel free to buy multiple copies for multiple devices. 😉 I’ve got a lot of guest posts all around the blogosphere in the pipeline, so keep your eyes peeled!

going native

I was moments away from drafting a post about the horrific weather we’ve been having in the UK this spring, when I noticed a massive article about it on the Guardian’s homepage. Not only have the few weeks of wet, cold, and windy weather merited several inches of column space, it has attracted loads of commenters making completely unironic statements about signs of spring (or lack thereof) in their local areas.

The British preoccupation with discussions of the weather is something I’ve noticed in my five-and-a-half years here. And to be fair, the fact that the weather is generally pretty miserable probably makes it worth remarking on – either to bemoan your wet shoes or lack of umbrella or, on very rare occasions, to express astonishment at the sight of a strange, glowing and warmth-emanating orb in the middle of the sky. I suppose if you lived somewhere like Arizona, Nairobi, or Singapore, you’d have fairly fixed expectations about what precipitation may or may not descend that day and find some other fodder for small talk. But in the UK – where last week we had a day that alternated between bright, sunny spells and diagonally slanting hail – the weather is the default topic for those awkward, stuck-in-a-lift-with-a-colleague-I-barely-know situations.

My point being, it occurred to me that writing a post complaining about always talking about weather would be somewhat hypocritical. So best that I end it here, and not dare to point out that on the first in several rainy days that I’ve remembered to carry an umbrella, there isn’t the faintest sign of a drop…