A Totally Impractical Expat Interview #8: Heather of 2Summers

Welcome to the 8th instalment in my expat interview series. Today you will meet the lovely and interesting Heather, who is in Jo’burg, South Africa.

It has been an interesting ride so far, both for myself and for the interviewees and casual bystanders, it seems. I’ve received a lot of feedback for this little impromptu project- apparently I’ve made a lot of people think. I had selfishly started this as a way to get my own conflicted feelings in order (i.e. oh, please tell me I’m not the only one with mixed feelings about this whole expat gig!). I’m short sighted that way. Apparently this has been therapeutic for many.  I’m glad.

Today’s interview is close to my heart as it follows a move and a life I very nearly had.

In the middle of the Groot Karoo

In my mid-20s, I thought my future lay in South Africa. I had a three year relationship with a South African that I had met while living in London in the late 1990s, and during our time together in the UK we went back to Cape Town several times for births and weddings, including one final attempt at moving there in early 2000, which lasted half a year before we quietly broke up and I returned to Canada to figure out my next move (which turned out to be 6 years in Turkey).

That was just over a decade ago. I haven’t been back since, though I can still recite dirty poetry in Afrikaans and all the words to My Sarie Marais and I can still vividly recall the bird sounds that woke me every morning.

I can also remember how isolated and lonely I often felt, being fully immersed in someone else’s family, culture, religion and language (everyone around me spoke Afrikaans and were proudly Huegenot or Boer, devoutly Dutch Reformed). I lived with his parents out in the northern suburbs. His brother and one of his sisters were also still living at home, although they were in their late 20s.  They were boisterous and intense.

I couldn’t get a work permit, so in between under-the-table stints working as a sound and lighting technician for my best friend’s theatre company (we did children’s shows by day and satirical cabaret by night), I was stuck out in the leafy white suburbs by myself. White people (though not me) had cars (strangely enough, the cars were generally also white) and public transport was difficult from where we were. Also, the minibus taxis at that time were engaged in some sort of gang warfare against the public buses, with bombs and shootings and whatnot.

I spent a lot of time watching Egoli and Isidingo with Sophie the maid, drinking sweet milky tea, dunked with rusks. I read a lot of magazines in both languages. I took the dog for a lot of walks around the very long, leafy, quiet block. The dog, a lovely border collie called Einstein, was bilingual in English and Afrikaans thanks to my boyfriend’s tutelage, and we got along well.

I could speak passable Afrikaans by the time I moved to South Africa, thanks to the huge numbers of Afrikaaners I knew and lived with in London.  My accent, I was told, was quite good (thanks to growing up bilingual in French- I could roll my Rs appropriately) and my vocabulary and grammar relatively accurate. However, when I spoke Afrikaans, everyone said I sounded angry. Even when I wasn’t angry (and I generally wasn’t angry at all), it came out that way.

During school holidays (my boyfriend was doing his Masters degree), we took road trips around the country, up to Namibia by VW Beetle, camping, and over to Port Elizabeth via the Garden Route (also camping). We were quite broke. His parents insisted we carry a cell phone and a gun in the glove compartment. Just because, well, you know…it’s just not safe. We never once opened the glove compartment during any of our extended road trips.

I loved the Northern Cape. I loved the quiet, dry emptiness of the land. I loved just driving around. I felt surprisingly happy when

A birds nest, on a road trip up to Namibia

we were out there, hours from anywhere, driving on an empty road in the desert. We played impromptu games of cricket in the middle of the road. We posed, poised to leap over unguarded cliffs on blind corners of gravel roads. We drank warm white wine from Paarl from coffee mugs. We ate tins of chakalaka with our cheap instant noodles. My left arm was tanned dark from my open passenger window. I felt healthy and sane on the road. I didn’t feel healthy or sane back in Cape Town.

Which is why, a dozen years later, I’m in China doing other things. Life moves along that way.

Today’s interview is with Heather, who is in Johannesburg. She is doing what I wish I had done when I was living in SA- she’s delving deeply into her city, into what surrounds her.

Her blog has brought back a lot of memories, in particular the memories of how I had hoped my time there could have been.

Where I felt stifled and isolated, she’s participating and interacting. She’s engaged where I had felt detached.

Maybe if I hadn’t been stuck out in the suburbs, miles from anything, carless, frustrated, I’d have felt better; maybe if my Afrikaans had been better, I’d have felt less frustrated and stupid. Maybe if I had been older, I could have handled it better (I was 25 when I left). I don’t know.

Ladies and gentlemen, the formidable and admirable Heather of 2Summers. *applause*

Success after consuming her first litchi fruit


I live in Johannesburg and have been here for almost eight months. I arrived in August 2010, just after the World Cup ended.

I live in a small house, which I’ve christened “the Lucky 5 Star Commune”,  in a quirky, artsy neighborhood called Melville. I live with my partner, whose online alias is Joe, and Lucky, our gardener/housecleaner/caretaker extraordinaire, who lives in a small apartment separate from our house. We also share the property with Leslee, the cottage tenant, and her cat Fwuffy. We have the most beautiful back garden, filled with wild indigenous plants. It looks out over the Melville Koppies, a nature reserve behind our house.

Standing on the Melville Koppies

Joe is a native of Joburg and has lived in Melville for many years. He is a photojournalist and I’m a writer/editor /journalist /blogger.

With the exception of five months in London when I was 20, I had never lived outside the Baltimore-Washington DC area before I moved here. I’ve always loved to travel and had originally planned to become an expat after college. But somehow it never happened until now. I was as stable and settled as a person can be. On the outside, at least. On the inside I was just living for the next trip.

In January 2010, after months and years of mental agony, I finally came to terms with the fact that I was living the wrong life. I was 35, married, and living in Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of DC. I had a good job with an NGO, a nice house, good friends, and plenty of money. My husband was a wonderful man. Seriously, it was a great life. But I wasn’t happy. I hated living in the suburbs but somehow I was trapped there and couldn’t see a way out. My life was dominated by predictability and routine. I wanted to travel the world and I had the means to do it. But somehow there was never time for anything but an occasional five-day trip.

The only time I felt alive was when I traveled to Africa, which would happen every year or so through my work. My first trip was to Tanzania and Rwanda in 2007. I assumed that would be the trip of a lifetime and I wouldn’t get the chance to go back. At the time, I thought I’d be having children soon and that would mean the end of adventurous work travel. But the babies never came, and the next year I went back to Africa again – this time to Swaziland, South Africa, and Mozambique.

It was after my third trip to Africa, in November 2009, that I knew what I had to do. It was the hardest, most heart-wrenching choice I’ve ever had to make. It was made harder by the fact that Joe was part of my decision. My feelings for Africa and my feelings for Joe are inextricably linked. This wasn’t an easy thing to come to terms with or to explain to others.

I spent the next six months extracting myself from my former life and getting ready to adopt a new one. I temporarily moved to downtown Washington. I sold my house and my car and all my possessions. I arranged to leave my job. I went to lots and lots of therapy sessions. And I started writing a blog.

Before I knew it, I had reduced my life down to three suitcases and I was on a plane to Joburg.

[I had lived abroad before] for five months on a work abroad program called BUNAC. I lived in London and waited tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant. It was great. I was 20 years old and halfway through college at the time. I figured that upon graduation, I’d get a similar work permit in another country and do it all over again, then see what happened. But instead I got a boyfriend and stayed home in Maryland. Funny how life works.

I love living here and I think Melville is where I belong, at least for now. It’s the type of place I’ve always dreamed of living in. Since I’ve been here, I’ve traveled to some beautiful places in Southern Africa and worked on some amazing jobs. I’m living and working with the person who I consider to be the love of my life.

For the first three months, everything here was exciting and new and the transition seemed easy. But the following five months have been harder. Sometimes I feel trapped because I don’t have a car and Joburg is a car-centric culture. Sometimes I worry about making ends meet because I don’t earn a regular salary. And sometimes Joe and I fight – we started this relationship under unusual circumstances and we both have a lot to come to terms with.

Sometimes I think I was crazy to give up a comfortable life for one that’s overflowing with uncertainty. It’s hard to wake up every morning and have no idea what the day will bring, especially when I’m used to the exact opposite. But deep down I know I’ve done the right thing.

I knew this wouldn’t be easy.


You know you want the bunny chow

I’ve been here for 8 months. I’m planning to stay for the foreseeable future, but who knows?  It was an active choice.  I’m okay with it but I’m still scared shit-less sometimes.

Luckily everyone speaks English here. I would love to learn Afrikaans and one or more of the African languages spoken here. Most black Africans in Joburg speak 7 languages and whites speak at least two. I’m embarrassed to be essentially uni-lingual. Every now and then, someone addresses me in Afrikaans and I feel a little sheepish that I can’t respond accordingly.

Every week or two, I have what I would consider to be a minor mental breakdown. But hopefully that’s ‘normal’ for a person in my circumstances. I don’t think I’m experiencing clinical depression or anything like that. I am an innately happy, adaptable person, so I guess that helps.

I have made a few good friends since moving here and I suppose it hasn’t been too difficult to find support. It helps that I moved here to be with someone who was already my best friend. And it helps to be living in one of the few areas in Joburg where there is a walkable community. I can go out on my own and meet people and socialize, even though I don’t have a car.

I do feel lonely sometimes but I wouldn’t say I have culture shock. It helps that I’ve moved to an English-speaking country, and that I’ve always loved getting to know different cultures. (I do miss my favorite American breakfast cereal though.) And thank god for video skype, which I used to talk to my parents and friends back home. What did we ever do without skype?

Blogging also helps. I’ve actually met some good friends through my blog – people who live in Melville and contacted me through the blog. Blogging gives me an outlet for expressing myself, and motivates me to go out and do fun things so I have stuff to blog about.

I don’t have the same hunky-dory view of things that I had when I got here. Sometimes I’m frustrated by the fact that crime is a big problem in Joburg and I always have to be conscious of that when I go out alone. I can’t march out the back door and go prancing around in the Koppies on my own. And I’m frustrated that I can’t get around easily without a car.

Also, the longer I live here, the more I start to see how scarred everyone is by the legacy of apartheid. It hasn’t even been 20 years since apartheid ended, and the people of South Africa have a long way to go before they’re healed. Having lived through the hell of this transition, Joe sometimes has a very jaded view of this country. There’s so much suffering and it makes me feel angry and frustrated.

But I still love it here. I love the amazing cultural diversity of South Africa – it’s actually more of a melting pot than the U.S. I love the creativity that oozes from every corner of this city. I love the fact that there are parks inside the Joburg city limits that have wild zebras and wildebeest in them. I love the fact that this city is half in the modern world and half in the developing world. It’s a city that is still finding itself. And I love the edgy, completely unique feel of Melville.

Maintaining Stability

I think I’m living proof that this is not a linear process, at least not for me. I’m almost doing things “backwards,” I guess.

Interviewing an expectant mother during an assignment in Lesotho

I have gained and lost so much. I’ve gained the life I’ve always dreamed of having. I’ve gained the love of my life. I’ve gained the opportunity to do work that makes me feel alive. I’ve found creative talents inside myself that I never would have discovered if I hadn’t come to Africa. And I’ve gained the knowledge that I can do anything I set my mind to.

But I lost many people close to me. There are some people who will never understand my decision and never forgive me for what I’ve done, and I have to live with that for the rest of my life. I gave up a safe, secure life. I gave up my two cats, which was really, really hard. I still feel sad about that on a daily basis.

I’m happy with the choices I’ve made, but I will always regret the pain and suffering I caused to others in making those choices.

I feel very much at home here but I’m not totally sure yet if this is the place where I’ll spend the rest of my life. I don’t think I’ve been here long enough to decide.

The Future

So hard to say. I need to make some decisions about where I want to go professionally, and so does Joe. I’m a writer and Joe is a photographer, and we’re passionate about working together to tell meaningful stories. We’re trying to find a way to do that and also earn enough to see the world and stay alive.

Maybe we’ll eventually move somewhere else in South Africa (Cape Town?), or to another part of Africa. Joe has dual British and South African citizenship and I’m American. There are lots of possibilities. Or maybe we’ll stay here. Who knows? Right now we’re just taking it one day at a time, and continuing to get to know each other and figure out how to make a life both together and as individuals.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.