Sixteen years ago today, June 9, I arrived in San Francisco with little more than a suitcase, a new husband, and the kind of anticipation that makes one shiver from excitement and pure nerves… although the shivering may have been because of the chilly fog swirling rapidly over the Golden Gate and up and down the hilly streets. I was possibly the furthest I could be in the world from my home of Pretoria, South Africa.
I would come to learn that the fog is the Bay Area’s “own natural air conditioner” and even though it means I never go anywhere without a fleece or a hoodie in summer, not even to the beach on a rare 90-degree day, it’s what makes San Francisco the magical place it is, together with the clanging cable cars, the crookedest street in the world, earthquakes, bridges, and iconic Transamerica building. Welcome to San Francisco!
During my 16-year transformation from shivering, bewildered South African to proud American, I have discovered these invaluable Sixteen Truths You Must Accept to Survive Life in the United States (besides emphasizing the “r” at the end of words like “chair, here, four” in order to be understood):
- It’s easy to make friends if you have an accent – not a week goes by that someone doesn’t tell me they could listen to me talk all day, and they really mean it. If my husband is around, he assures them they actually couldn’t.
- Unless Americans know a South African or have been to South Africa, unless they have actually heard a South African talk, they have no idea what accent this is. I am most definitely from England, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand – but very rarely from South Africa.
- Sushi, tacos and dim sum are as American as any kind of pie (except you will be hard-pressed to find a steak pie, curried lamb pie or Cornish pasty pretty much anywhere in the US).
- A boot is a trunk, a nappy is a diaper, a plaster is a Band Aid, football is soccer, and a lift is an elevator – but also in the US you do not hire a car, only people are for hire. Everything else is rented. In South Africa the only thing you rent is a property – from a letting agent not a rental agent. I know. I’m still confused.
- You can ship anything, anywhere in the continental United States – even raw meat. And live frogs.
- “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” reads an inscription at the General Post Office in New York City (source: Wikipedia). And the US postal system itself is extremely efficient. Our frog arrived within two days of ordering it. But a universal truth is that post offices themselves are inefficient no matter where in the world you are. This is strangely comforting.
- Americans love ice. With everything.
- Bananas, onions, pineapples and toilet paper rolls are four times the size in the US than in any other country in the world. I’m pretty sure this is a fact.
- Woolworths (every ex-South African’s favorite store) is not the only place in the world to buy comfortable underwear and pajamas – it’s only taken me 16 years to figure that out. I’m not sure what to ask my mom and mom-in-law to bring me now. Oh yes, tea!
- Halloween and 4th of July really do happen exactly like on TV in the eighties. And there is no better way to celebrate anything than with a parade.
- Disneyland is “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
- Any establishment can be a drive-thru – even a bank.
- You can return almost anything you don’t want anymore, any time, even if you’ve worn it or used it. I’m not admitting to have done this… okay, maybe once.
- Roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pecan pie are delicious for everyone on Thanksgiving – even if you’re not a born American. Our goal over the next 16 years is to deep-fry the turkey like they do in Arkansas.
- When someone asks where you went to school, they are not expecting you to say Carmel Primary. Elementary school is not school! They want to know where you went to college, university, and did you do a post-grad. My answer to this question used to be fairly long, even though I did not do a post-grad: I went to Rhodes University (blank stare), in Grahamstown (polite smile), in the Eastern Cape (maybe some recognition), in South Africa (oooh, so that’s where you’re from. I thought you were Irish). Now when I’m asked where I went to school, I say, “South Africa.” Kills at least three questions at once.
- Until my sister moved to San Francisco, we had no family around – which was okay in our daily lives, but made Shabbat dinners, weekends, holidays kinda lonely for a while. My very first San Francisco friend taught me that “Friends are the family you make for yourself,” and I am grateful for this every day of the last 16 years.
Thank you to this great country for welcoming me with those open, misty arms so many years ago (almost half my life), for giving us a safe, beautiful place to raise our four Jewish American children, for lighting our lives with 4th of July fireworks and for offering all six of us daily opportunity to be the selves we want to be.
Happy Sweet Sixteen to Us!