Thursday, April 03, 2008

FAQs re: Sweet Violet

I often get questions, most of them in person, but occasionally on a blog or forum or even in email. The same questions seem to get asked repeatedly, so I thought I’d publish some of them here. If you have questions that aren’t answered here, feel free to leave a comment and ask. No guarantees that I’ll answer it, but if you don’t ask, you have a 100% probability of never knowing the answer!

“Goeiemôre, tannie!” or, “What do you mean, you don’t speak Afrikaans?”
I am short, round, blonde, and well past the first blush of youth. When I enter an establishment like a dress shop or restaurant, I will inevitably be greeted with “Goeiemôre, tannie!” often followed by some other incomprehensible remark or query.

At first I was a bit disconcerted. Afrikaans is a guttural language like German and can sound harsh to the unaccustomed ear. Could they tell I was an accursed American and they were cursing at me? Were they making a crack about the red dot on my forehead? English is widely spoken here, why aren’t they speaking it to me?

Well, it seems that my short, square stature coupled with my age and colouring fools most people into thinking I am an Afrikaner and they are actually greeting me in the politest of Afrikaans terms! “Tannie” (pronounced “tunny”) means “auntie,” and it is a term of respect for women of generations above your own. And “Goeiemôre” (hooya mora) simply means “good morning.”

Interestingly, among the local black people (Xhosa…pronounced “koh-szah”), that term of polite respect for a woman of an older generation is “Mama” or “mamee,” spoken with the slightest bob of the head. I have been called that frequently as well.

So, despite my quintessential Northern European looks, I don’t speak Afrikaans because I am an American. But I do now understand quite a bit, including why the local Afrikaners open conversations with me in Afrikaans!

Where are you from?
TV has been in South Africa since the mid-70s. There are four broadcast channels (three of them government owned and operated) and there is DSTV…satellite TV…that brings us such wonders as BBC Prime, National Geographic, History, and Discovery channels, among others. Much of our programming…at least half of it…comes from the US. I regularly watch CSI, Las Vegas, Oprah, Dr. Phil, even Days of Our Lives. Lost, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, Boston Legal Smallville…all are available on the small screen here, not to mention a healthy helping of American movies, both new and old (Turner’s Classic Movie Channel also plays here).

You’d think with all that American programming flooding the screens, large and small, people would peg me as an American the moment I open my mouth. I don’t have a regional accent that might throw people off…I’m from California so I sound pretty much like most of the actors on TV and in the movies. It tends to surprise me, then, when people say things like “Where are you from? Australia?” or “I can hear you are from the UK.” I forgive the ones who mistake me for Canadian as the Canadian accent is different from the American in such subtle ways that many Americans can’t tell the difference. But Australia??

So, to answer the question: I am most recently from the San Francisco Bay area (Northern California). I was born in Oregon (which is the state immediately north of California and known for its deep piney woods) and spent my school years in San Diego (Southern California). I have also lived in the Boston area and in Tucson, Arizona. My travels have taken me to at least 30 of the 50 states, perhaps more. I just tell people I’m from San Francisco because few people here seem to have heard of Silicon Valley, my home from 1974 until I moved here in late 2003.

When are you going back?
This question seems to have two meanings: 1) when are you going back for a holiday in your homeland? And 2) when are you moving back to America because what kind of moron would want to live permanently in this godforsaken country?

I am amazed at how many South Africans seem to hate their country! In America it is a really big deal when you take a job overseas and almost unheard of for an American to emigrate to another country. Despite a moron like George Bush driving the economy inexorably towards a second Great Depression, record numbers of home foreclosures, a swiftly shrinking middle class, and a rapidly widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, Americans seem to focus on finding ways to fix (or at least live with) the vagaries of the political and economic scenes.

Not so South Africans. Throwing down their toys like petulant children who can’t have their way in the sand box, white South Africans emigrate in droves…mostly to Australia or the UK…and nobody thinks it is the least bit odd. Maybe it is just my jingoistic American upbringing, but I find South Africans shockingly lacking in patriotism. When confronted with this sentiment, invariably they remark they weren’t that way before the new (read that “black majority”) government came into power. I find that rather scary, since the old (read that “white apartheid”) government was one of the most corrupt on the face of the earth.

These people, then, are surprised when I tell them I do not plan to go back to America except for the occasional family visit (and no, I haven’t done that yet). They cannot imagine leaving a place like what they fantasize America to be...they are shocked when I tell them that middle class Americans don’t routinely have maids and nannies and gardeners (middle class South Africans do), that the average American lives from payday to payday (South Africans tend to have savings) and that in America, unless you have union representation, you can lose your job tomorrow for no more reason that the boss wants you gone (it is difficult to get fired in South Africa…lots of job protection legislation). And then they don’t believe me!

Why am I not planning to move back to America? Because my husband is South African and his job is one that is helping to build the new South Africa and its infrastructure. American business will survive without the presence of one retired secretary.

Why did you move here?
The short answer is, my husband is South African. Yes, I know he was entitled to a green card upon marrying an American citizen, and because he’s a degreed engineer, he probably would not have had much trouble getting a job in Silicon Valley. But we are both people who tend to think things through and weigh our options before making a decision, so we “did the math.” The result was quite shocking.

We found that we could have a better quality of life in South Africa than in California…and his job prospects weren’t that keen outside of Silicon Valley. We discovered that we could live a more affluent lifestyle on his income alone than we could in California with both of us working. In California I owned a house in a working class neighbourhood and drove a 14-year-old mini-truck. I worked 40 hours per week, commuted 2+ hours per day, did all my own housework, laundry, and gardening.

In South Africa, we live on my husband’s income alone. We live in what the real estate agents call a “very sought-after area,” on a beautifully landscaped 1/3 acre lot with a large, gracious house on it. I have a maid twice a week (who also does laundry and irons), a gardener once a week (who spends the whole day working on the garden), and I drive a Mercedes ML…the SUV. The proceeds from the sale of my house in California was invested in rental property, among other things.

So, I moved here to have an improved quality of life and to support my husband’s desire to work at his career where he felt it would make a difference to his countrymen.

And to have a maid.

How do you like it here?
I love it here. Cape Town is remarkably like the Bay Area in climate and topography. I grow many familiar plants in my garden here, from pepper trees to blue plumbago to hibiscus to bougainvillea. The area is similar to the Bay Area in other ways…politically liberal, upwardly mobile, and affluent. Cape Town is a beach and port city, and I live close enough to the beach to get the sea smell in the morning…but far enough away not to have to endure the immediate brunt of the winter storms.

Most everyone I encounter speaks English and most of the goods and services I need are available at costs we, in America, would consider ridiculously cheap. It isn’t paradise…we have our problems here, but on balance, there is nothing I have experienced in Cape Town that would send me scurrying back to the States.

Did your family come with you?
No, my children are grown and have families, careers, and lives of their own. Perhaps when things stabilize with the US economy and the cost of international travel doesn’t bite so deeply into the pocket, they’ll make a trip across the pond to visit. But their lives are in America and I expect they will opt to remain there.

Americans tend not to emigrate, remember?

Why do you wear that dot?
Ah, the dot. From the stares and double-takes I get, one would think seeing a plump little blonde woman wearing a red dot on her forehead was unusual or something!

Seriously, though, I do get stares and double-takes from people when they see my dot. Some looks are positively hostile, some just rude (extended stares), but most just convey curiosity about something unusual. So why do I wear the dot.

The short answer? My husband is Hindu and the red dot signifies, in the Hindu culture that I am married ( notwithstanding). He wears a wedding ring out of respect for my culture, and I wear the red dot in public out of respect to his. Yes, I also have a wedding ring, a beautiful wide gold band channel set with eight brilliant cut diamonds alternating with nine baguettes.

My mother-in-law favours a rather pinkish red dot with a slightly nappy surface, preferably quite small. I prefer a larger dark red dot with a circle of black around it, but there are as many styles (and colours) of dots (also known as “bindi” or “kum kum”) as there are grains of sand on a beach. Unmarried women may wear dots as a fashion accessory, but the red ones are considered to be reserved for married women.

A common question is how the dot is affixed to the forehead. Modern dots are commercially produced and are sold in packets. “Fancy dots,” dots with crystals and pearls and other decoration, generally come in small packets, perhaps no more than six dots to a packet. Plain dots can be found in packets containing 50 or more. They all have one thing in common: they are stuck onto a card with a tacky adhesive. You peel the dot off the card and stick it to your forehead. Particularly costly (or favourite) dots may be used over and over again with the application of a dab of surgical or eyelash glue. My favourite dots come in packets of 45 and cost about $1.25 a packet; my mother-in-law’s dots cost half that.

So, there you have it...the questions I most often field here in South Africa. Is there something you might want to know? Leave a comment with your question and I'll get back to you!


  1. Hi, I can't agree more! We lived in Saudi Arabia and have seen everything you mentioned in your blog. But South Africans don't want to hear this type of thoughts. Go girl go. Sue

  2. I like your responses. So, have you formed new friendships in SA, as a woman and with your husband as a couple? Are there community events that you attend. That is something we tend to establish in the US when we have school age children, so how do you do this in your new country?


  3. Yes, we have formed new friendships here. Hubby is originally from Durban, so we were both strangers here in the beginning. I don't work and have no kids at home, so making friends is a different process here. Hubby is typically an engineer and not very social, at least not independently, so I make most of the friends, whom I then share.

    Tomorrow night we are having dinner with a couple who were originally our real estate agents...they actually found this house for us. My friend Sally has a home business I patronize, which is how I met her. A couple of friends I met on the internet, and at least two friends started out as my maids!

    We sometimes go to the theatre...we saw a credible production of Phantom and a not-so-terrific production of Chicago at the ArtScape Theatre, for example. The Convention Centre regularly hosts interesting shows and exhibits...we went to Decorex recently, a home decorating and improvement show. There is a Wedding Faire coming up and Hubby wants to go because he likes buying me fine jewellery and we have not had much luck finding a solitaire band to go with my wedding ring. He expects a lot of jewellers in one place at this shindig.

    There is a wine fair at one of the upscale shopping centres this week and we'll probably attend as he is "into" red wine (we live in the biggest wine region in Southern Africa).

    There is a lot to do and see in Cape Town and we seem to make our way to a good portion of it!


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