The Move: An Epic Saga of Familial Perserverance

I should have a fairy tale for you today but that’ll have to wait. I’m going to tell you a different kind of fairy tale instead. It’s officially been one year since we left the US. Time flies. Sometimes it takes coach, like we did.  At the time I dutifully tried to live-blog the experience but now I can’t find the draft.

So here are the highlights of what happened a year ago.

The last few days of September, we sold cars and my apartment was packed up. Here’s a photograph of the entire length of my sidewalk lined with boxes and furniture.

Thank god all my neighbors were at work.

I had to turn in my key before the office closed, which was before they finished loading the truck. My jangled nerves really didn’t need that. Knowing that the next time the door closed would be it didn’t make me happy. But somehow we got everything out.

We had to rent a minivan for the final day. At the time we considered it the shittiest rental ever. (Hahahahaha, naive fools we were.) It drove abysmally, but it held all our luggage and it somehow got us to JFK in one piece. We spent the night in a rather nice airport hotel, by which I mean we slept from maybe 11pm-5am, maybe, and then took the hotel shuttle to the airport.

Now, keep in mind here that my mom had started chemo just a couple of weeks before. She was increasingly exhausted. And there was no way in hell she’d be able to make the looooong walks airports require on her own. When we arrived in JFK it became my job to run inside and find some sort of disability assistance.

Bless the men in the vests who push the wheelchairs, for they shall inherit the Earth. Or they ought to. We experienced three teams of these folks, one at JFK, one at Johannesburg, and one in Cape Town, and they were all amazing. Friendly, knowledgeable, efficient. Each team helped us navigate the airports, security, and onto the next flight. Thank you, everyone.

A word on luggage. Have you ever had to pack for an unknown duration? A duration that could potentially include a change of seasons and, no big deal or anything, a wedding? Because I have. It’s a nightmare. We also got to juggle the airline restrictions for number of bags and weight limits. We had to get canny. In addition to having our own luggage weighing device and using it over and over and over again, we also played the airlines at their own damn game. Every passenger is allowed a purse-like item, and a carry-on bag. (For me, that’s a purse and my backpack.) So that’s two bags times three people. We then packed two full suitcases each. That’s another six.

Twelve pieces of luggage to share between three people, one of whom was not quite mobile. Again, the disability assistants were stars. They found trolleys and got us around when we were exhausted and frazzled and damn near out of our minds.

Also, we ended up with only one bag weighing over the 50lb limit. The cause? My mother’s jewelry. In the hubbub we thought we’d packed it in a carry-on but it wound up inside my pink duffel instead. This is an important detail for later.

Anyway. We made it to our terminal at JFK with plenty of time to spare. We would be seated first, thanks to disability priority. Breakfast already felt like it was a lifetime ago, so my dad sweetly went to get me sushi. Tuna and avo, instead of plain tuna like I prefer, but food was food. Our seats were the last in the center column, the set of four.

Somehow, two miracles happened. One, my dad, who has a hip issue, was found a seat in another row that allowed him to put the seat back and get more room. (He also self-medicated. We weren’t allowed to bring anything in glass bottles on either the moving vans or in our luggage, or he poured the last of a good bottle of tequila into some of those flight-sized shampoo bottles and rationed. It worked.) Then the stranger in our row was also found another seat. So my mom and I got to share the row of four. This meant we had a place to put our stuff and some more space for trying to get comfortable. Whoohoo!

Oh, but only two of the four entertainment consoles “worked.”

Oh, oh, oh, and? Before we even took off, I needed the barf bag.

I’ve never needed a barf bag in my life.

It was probably the sushi, though it had tasted just fine. I’m blaming the avos. (It’s official, I’m the only Millennial to hate avocados.) My internal warning system was solid enough that I was able to grab the bag before anything came out, and emptied all of my stomach directly into it. Then the flight attendant (being in the last row can be good!) helped me into the bathroom, but it was already over. He was very impressed at how neat everything was. No one else knew a thing had happened. So brava, me.

Then when the drinks came around he gave me two little bottles of wine. Score. My own self-medication supplies!

So yeah, I felt wobbly for the next few hours but also immensely better once it was out of my system. I made sure to drink lots of water and ration my wine.

(Why was there wine in coach on your international flight, Bronnie? Because South African Airways, mate, that’s why. There’s always wine.)

The flight from New York to Johannesburg is nearly 15 hours. Everything was a little surreal by that point. I had, of course, packed my Kindle with tons of books and podcasts, and brought two back-up power packs. And I tried sleeping a bit. Still not as bad a flight as it very well could have been.

In Johannesburg we got to be the last to leave the plane (disability gets you on first and off last), and we were met by our next team of disability assistants. Without them we would never, ever had made it through that bloody airport or onto our connecting flight. Joburg’s airport is huge and the layout is insane. We had to go through customs because this was our international leg, and then we had to get our luggage only to run it through security and check it back in. On the same airline. I kid you not. We had about an hour between boarding times, and yet somehow we made it. It was like a time warp. It’s the Bermuda Triangle of airports. It’s the Hellmouth. I would take an 8 hour layover in Dubai to avoid flying through it again.

I had a small breakdown somewhere during the mad rush through Joburg. The long flight and the long walking and, did I forget to mention that I stupidly used my last weekend at home to do a long corn maze? My legs weren’t happy. I felt like I was going to collapse. My father is a star. Without him, I doubt I would’ve made it.

But we did make it. We wound up being the last to board (hah) but we made it. And for this tiny hop from Joburg to Cape Town, they gave me a locally made gluten free, eggless, soyless sugar cookie that I could actually eat. My dad didn’t want his so I got to have that, too. I nearly cried.

The flight is a bit over 2 hours, so it was relatively painless. Thanks to my dad’s hip we’d all been put in the front so he could stretch his leg. He didn’t get a seat-back entertainment center, but that’s really a small price to pay when the tequila is nearly gone.

The plan for Cape Town was to get our luggage, get our rental car, and drive to my grandmother’s house for lunch, which is close to the airport and on the way to where we’d be staying for the next couple of months. That all sounds so neat and orderly, doesn’t it?

Getting our luggage there was a miscommunication and we got separated for a short bit. I found my parents with all the luggage but one. That one bag came out last.

And it was open.

We were pretty sure this one had had the jewelry in it.

So, wow. Now my dad had to go file a police report and my mom was incredibly upset and I felt awful because what if I’d forgotten to lock that bag or something? Report filed, we went to get the rental car.

Now this… this was the world’s shittiest rental. It was supposed to be a large car. We had forgotten that outside of America, a large is a medium. (The American large is everyone else’s extra large. America’s extra large is party size. And party size is ‘Holy shit, why do you need so many chips?’) We somehow had to smush 12 bags and ourselves into this thing. That took a while. I don’t think it closed all the way.

Then it drove abysmally. It was a manual like 99% of cars here, and the clutch was… well… it would give and take at different points every time. My father was the only one capable of driving at this point (Mother: incapacitated. Me: can’t drive stick, afraid to use the opposite side of the road.) so he got to curse it as our only transport for the next couple of weeks.

And yet, another minor miracle. Because he was a biker back in the day and drove literally all over Cape Town he actually remembers where to go for almost anything. That’s a thirty year gap in usage and he still knows the city like the back of his hand. Not just the city proper, mind, all the suburbs around, too. He knew how to get us everywhere. He still does. It’s amazing.

We made it to my mom’s mom’s, and the house that is called Fleetwood. There my aunt had a fabulous lunch waiting for us. She’d special ordered a crapton of gluten free boervors (farmer’s sausage) just for us. We collapsed and talked and ate and recovered a bit before our final step.

There is a house on my mom’s side of the family that is now jointly owned by a bunch of cousins. They take turns staying and let family friends rent it out and stuff. So we got to stay there for the next two months. Thank you, thank you, thank you, cousins.

This is the view from that house.

It is stunning. That’s the train line on the other side of the road and a straight drop to the sea.

We saw a pod of dolphins there once. And a school of fish that started a feeding frenzy.

So, yeah, after we made it there we were able to finally rest. And we found the jewelry! In my pink duffel, where it had been hurriedly packed in New York all those many, many hours before.

There was a lot still to happen in the coming weeks–filing for new ID cards, convincing the bank we were us so they’d let us have our money, getting health insurance, buying a car, looking for a house, and on and on.

At the time it was hard to believe that there would be a different kind of future, but I held out for it anyway.

Today I’m sitting in my beautiful room with my astounding view of the mountain and a couple of puppies running around somewhere.

Life is good. Travel is tiring. But one can get you the other.


Getting on our way 

I’m sitting in a rental minivan, having dropped off the last of our cars with its new owner this morning. My apartment is being disassembled by highly competent movers. My bags are packed. 

Today is Moving Day 1. My apartment gets packed  up and tonight we drive to the airport hotel for a decent night’s sleep before our 11am flight tomorrow morning. 

It’s been a weird final week, with lots of goodbyes to wonderful people. I hope a good number of them will make it down to visit. It’s a long way, and it’s expensive, but it’s also one of the most amazing places to see. So here’s hoping we get to share it firsthand. 

Right now I’m too tired to be nervous. I got a good deal of sleep last night but I could really use a nap. There’s an undercurrent of static behind everything, as there has been for weeks. Adrenaline waiting at the ready. 

It’s hard to believe the big stuff is actually here. Hard to imagine what it will be like to not be here for an indefinite amount of time. I don’t know how long I will stay in South Africa or if I will come back here or go somewhere else entirely. So many possibilities. 

And now, let’s see about a nap in this mediocre minivan. 

Pictured: My movers arrange stuff on the sidewalk before moving it to the truck. Good thing nobody is home yet. 


Departing the Day Job, and Other Preparations

Today is my last day at The Day Job. My coworkers are taking me to lunch–I chose the local BBQ joint, as American barbeque is not something I’ll get a lot of overseas. (It’ll be damn good South African braai, excellent but not the same.)

My desk was full of extra stuff. I’m like a Boy Scout, I’m prepared for freaking everything. Because of my food allergies I have tons of food options–snacks, lunches, tins and a can opener. A blanket for when it got really cold. A heater and a fan, because the office is never the temperature I want. I made the space my own, with decals on the cabinets, a big wall calendar (insta-art!) and a cheap mirror to bounce light around.

For all that I’ve complained, it’s worked for me.

My apartment looks like a bomb went off, as my parents have had to move in with me for the final 10 days. They had not just their luggage with them, but a bunch of stuff that wasn’t ready for the container when their house was packed up, like files that needed to be closed out. And then there was the food. Dear gawd, the food. So much food. Frozen stuff, cold stuff, gluten free stuff that we just can’t bear to part with out of hand.

This weekend, I am having a waffle, damnit.

The flights are booked, the cars are booked, the hotel we’re staying in for our last night is booked. Everything is a go.

And now it’s time for me to… go.


Saying Goodbye to My Writing Group

I love my writing group. I built my writing group, and was tremendously fortunate to have attracted an amazing crew of people.

Maybe the best part is that they’re not worried about the group itself even though I’m leaving. When I was an RA they talked to us about “working your way out of a job” and this is that. These people are motivated, generous to each other, and friendly. I have full confidence that they’re going to keep going.

Last night we had my going away party. A whole bunch of my favorite people came, and we had margaritas and laughter and hugs.

I am going to miss this so much. These people, the routine, the friendly atmosphere, the creativity.

I owe this group a lot. I first got involved because I was a few years out of college, under employed, and realized I wasn’t writing. I needed some motivating factor, some structure, accountability. I found that here. I completed two novels (one query-able, the other not). I found great critique partners. I got insight into corners of the writing world I wouldn’t otherwise have had. I’ve learned so much during these years. I feel really qualified now, in a way I didn’t even coming out of school with a degree in writing. I put a lot of time and effort in, and this group helped keep me on track.

Saying goodbye is painful, but it is not the end. We’re already planning ways to stay in touch on the regular.

I’m proud to have been part of this group. I will miss it, and everyone in it.

Image by waferboardhalf-way to margarita-ville


The Unexpecteds: Unsubscribing

My mom is super organized, so she made her moving checklist before I did, and I got to crib off hers. One of the categories was “subscriptions.” She meant magazine subscriptions. Services like AAA and AARP. That sort of thing. I only subscribe to Writer’s Digest these days, and I get that digitally, so I crossed the whole idea off my list.

I had forgotten that I have a ton of other subscriptions, none of which will be useful to me going forward.

Email newsletter subscriptions. Specifically, the shopping ones.

Goodbye, stores I used to visit in person before you got a website. Goodbye flash sale sites with all your pretty, pretty goodies. Goodbye sites I bought one thing from one time and never bothered to unsubscribe from.

I keep a separate email address for shopping, and the Promotions tab gets about 40 emails a day. And how often do I look at them? Never. Almost never. When I know I need something and I want to see if that shop is having a sale.

It’s a mass email exodus, you guys.

And there’s only one mass change I’m dreading more. …the credit card. The auto payments. All of those will have to be changed over at some unknown point in the future. I can’t do it yet because I don’t have a new address to provide. My hell is limbo.

I’m also not sure how to tell all these catalogs that I no longer want them. I’ll be forwarding my mail to a family member, but why should she have to deal with the junk mail?

I went looking for ways to stop catalogs and found two services. (Both of which required creating new accounts. Irony.) CatalogChoice lets you select specific companies and then CC sends them the order to stop sending. So for the next month I’ll be making a pile of catalogs and then entering them here. DMA Choice is a service from the Direct Marketing Association, allowing you to take yourself off the lists that new advertisers purchase.

Hopefully that will stem the tide. And if not, I’ll be doing a fair bit of Skyping to subscription hotlines. “NOT IN THE COUNTRY. TAKE ME OFF YOUR LIST, KTHXBAI.”

MY mailing list remains open for business.

Image by Svarta Baskern

New York  NY to Cape Town  South Africa   Google Maps

So I’m going to be a #rexpat

Here’s how my bio now begins:

Bronwen Fleetwood was born in South Africa, raised in New Jersey, and is now returning to South Africa, making her some kind of doubling-back expat. A #rexpat? Something like that.

Everything’s finalizing now–the move is official. It’s happening. I’m leaving the country where I grew up for the country I was born in.

I’m just a little bit terrified.

Here’s the background story.

My family settled in South Africa from various countries in Europe in the 1800s. (We’re not Dutch/Afrikaans.) My parents are both from Cape Town. A year after they had me, my dad joined a consulting firm that sent him halfway around the world to work. They were only supposed to stay in New Jersey for about 18 months.

Twenty-nine and a half years later…

I have no memories of my first year as an infant in South Africa (durr). New Jersey has been my home for the bulk of my life. I even attended the same school system from kindergarten through senior year. After that one massive move, we pretty much stayed put. I live only half an hour from the home my parents bought when I was ten.

But something in me has never been satisfied with the idea of never going anywhere. It just sits wrong. The fact that, certainly until the last century or two, the majority of humanity lived, loved, and died within a few miles of where they were born makes my hair stand on end.

Maybe I have my great-great-great grandmother to thank. She left England at the age of 18 (a lot of 18s in this story, did you notice?) to be a missionary in Africa. Now that is a Big, Scary Move. She was a pretty tremendous woman, and spent time in several African territories before the family settled in South Africa. One of the things I want to accomplish via this move is to get to know more family stories better.

So, when envisioning my future, I’ve always felt I would go somewhere. I’ve sent out job applications to all sorts of places in the US, always figuring that if the offer is right, a move is by no means a bad thing.

Why am I going now? Because my parents are retiring to Cape Town. The town where I grew up is expensive, and finding work is hard. Thanks to the exchange rate, they can do what a lot of US expats do and live well on what would be a pittance in this country. When my parents told me they were going, they asked if I wanted to come with them.

This was an incredibly hard decision to mull over, but I think I’ve made the right choice, for me. There are times when opportunity knocks and you have to seize it. There is another world, another life, that I’ve never known and always wanted to. I have family that I’ve barely met. In February I’ll be at my cousin’s wedding. Hell, I’ve never really known what it is to have lots of family around, period. (Those of you surrounded by family are trying to tell me not to go through that door, I know. Sorry!)

So, what can you expect from this blog in the coming months?

First off, The Move itself. Today I made some checklists for all the many things that have to be done. I’ll be documenting a lot of it. Especially fun (read: taxing) will be the 20 hours in the air between New York and Cape Town.

Then, you’ll get to watch and make fun of my profound culture shock as I no doubt question all my life decisions. I plan to take lots of photos, and write up all those little things that one never thinks about until you’re there. There will, at some point, be penguins. I promise you penguins. It’s gonna be a good time.

I’ll still be very much engaged in my writing, have no doubt of that.

Gundam Wing updates will have to slow down until I get my PC set up in the new house, which could take a few months. Maybe I’ll have a Christmas Day Marathon. I’d hope for Thanksgiving but I’ll be the only one sadly making pumpkin pies in the middle of spring.

So that’s the State of the Blog, folks. I’m going to be a returning expat, but I’ll feel like an actual expat and it’s all going to be very strange. Call me the #rexpat. Cheers.