2 September 2016

Sine Thieme - Expat in South Africa

Sine Thieme - Expat in South Africa

We’ve had the chance to talk to Sine Thieme, 47, a German-American expat who has moved to the South Africa with her family. Mrs Thieme who has lived there for three years now works as a writer.

Read more about her experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you originally from?

A: I’m originally from Germany. Born and raised there until age 16 and then packed my bags for the United States, where I would spend a year in high school in, yes, Vicksburg, Mississippi. When I tell that story to Americans now, they all gape. They sent you there??


Q: What made you move out of Germany?

A: Having had a taste of life in the United States, even though it was in Mississippi, I decided upon my return to Germany that I would work hard at getting back there one day because the people there were a ton friendlier and the weather a lot warmer. I made it happen at the age of 24, lived in and moved around the US several times thereafter (including becoming an American citizen), until the day my husband got a job offer in South Africa. We lived there for three glorious years with our four children and are now back in the U.S. For the purpose of this interview; I’ll refer to South Africa as our host country, and the U.S. as our home (which it is, now).


Q: Where are you living now?

A: Now, as I said, the United States again. Nashville, to be exact.


Q: How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: We didn’t exactly choose South Africa. It got chosen and then offered to us as a new job opportunity. One that some other people, it turned out, had already declined, due to the crime rate. We were either oblivious to it or chose to ignore it, but either way, we were glad, because South Africa turned out to be one of the best places we’ve ever lived.


Q: How long have you been living in South Africa?

A: We lived in South Africa for a total of three years, from 2010 t0 2013.


Q: What has been the most difficult experience you've had when you were new in the South Africa?

A: In hindsight, it was all good. But at the time, the most difficult thing was the lack of urgency in pretty much the entire population. “We’ll do it just now” was the most common thing you’d get to hear, from contractors to clerks at the power company to teachers at school. And you’d expect it “just now,” of course, meaning either this very instant or perhaps within the next 10 minutes. Right? Wrong. “Just now,” in South Africa, means “I really don’t feel like doing this at all, but there is an outside chance I might consider doing it the day after tomorrow.” If you want something more urgently, you might look for a “now now” when people promise delivery of a service, however, I wouldn’t hold my breath even then.


Q: Would you say that formalities like getting visas or work permits and international health insurance were particularly difficult in South Africa? What was your experience with these?

A: Yes, particularly difficult. It is still haunting me now. Not having lived there for two years, I still get emails informing me that I have to renew my TV license and if not will be charged a fine. Nothing I can do or say will convince those people that I have moved away and am no longer watching South African TV. Same with phone services etc. It took forever to set it up, and now I can’t cancel it anymore.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family?

A: As I mentioned, I lived there with my husband and four children, ages 8-14 when we moved there.


Q: How are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?

A: They all adjusted amazingly well. There were a few moments of confusion – as in, “mom, do you have any idea what a ball box might be?” (Answer: It’s an athletic cup, duh!) – and many more moments of amusement (“Mam, we will give you a tinkle as soon as the new collection comes in”) but a life in a beautiful home with swimming pool and ample opportunities to ride on elephants, pet cheetahs, and swim with great white sharks tided everyone over any adjustment period there might have been quite nicely.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialize with other expats in South Africa? How did you manage to find a social circle in South Africa?

A: South Africans are an extremely friendly (and relaxed) bunch. So making friends is very easy. In fact, you can hardly avoid being invited to someone’s house for a glass of wine and possibly an entire dinner off the braai (barbecue) after just having met them for the first time a few minutes earlier. For this reason, more of our friends ended up being South Africans – who doesn’t want to be invited for Boerewors and Chardonnay? Actually, though, what made it so easy to meet the locals was that we ended up sending the kids to a South African private school, not an international one. I can highly recommend this to any future expats going to South Africa. Their schools are excellent, if not better, than the international ones, and it makes for a wonderful social circle – with the added bonus that your friends aren’t in any danger of moving away soon.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Anything to recommend to future expats?

A: The list is too long, but I’ll try. You have to go on a safari while in South Arica, perhaps many of them. Madikwe Game Reserve, Kruger Park, Pilanesberg – all within driving distance from Johannesburg. A canoe ride on the Orange River near Namibia is unforgettable. Namibia itself is, in fact, another great vacation destination, as are Botswana and Zimbabwe. Victoria Falls, Zanzibar, Mauritius, Cape Town, Franschhoek for the wines… In and near Johannesburg, you must see the Apartheid Museum and Gold Reef City, Montecasino bird gardens, balloon safari in the Magaliesberg, Soweto tour, the view from Northcliff Hill, Cradle of Humankind, Lion Park, rooftop craft market at Rosebank on a Sunday, Elephant Sanctuary at Hartebeestpoort, Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre at De Wildt, Liliesleaf Farm Museum. Find descriptions of each on my blog here: Joburg Expat


Q: How does the cost of living in South Africa compared to your home?

  • How much is a cup of coffee?

A: I’d say pretty similar to what I’m used to in the United States. I spent the first year living in South Africa missing Starbucks and then realized there are many other great options. People linger longer over coffee, so no drive-through, but great sit-down coffee shops. Which you might frequent more often than planned when the power or water is off at your house. Again.

  • How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

A: Considerably cheaper than in the United States. In fact, eating out is one of the cheapest (and best) forms of entertainment you can have in South Africa. Great options, great service, good food all around.

  • How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

A: I don’t remember. We’ve had some very expensive meals in 5-star restaurants, but there is a wide range of affordable restaurants which also offer wonderful food.

  • How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

A: No idea about a pack of cigarettes, but you can get a nice bottle of wine in a supermarket starting at ZAR50, which back then was about $7 but now is less than $5.


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: “The locals” are what makes South Africa such a special place to live. As I said, they are incredibly friendly and welcoming, and funny and adventurous to boot. Of course, there are all sorts of people. In fact, no other country has quite such a variety of people, if you pause to consider that it boasts 11 official languages with people of many stripes and backgrounds. You have Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Xhosa, Venda, Ndebele, Tsonga, Afrikaans, and English just in terms of languages, and of course, those come with all sorts of different cultures, celebrations, and customs. Most people speak several languages, and most speak either Afrikaans or English or both, even if neither of them is their mother tongue.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in South Africa?

A: Positives: people, weather, travel opportunities, affordable schooling and healthcare, sports, nature and wildlife. Negatives: crime and corruption. I mean, we never ONCE received the Christmas presents our relatives sent us from overseas. We were lucky, however, in that we never had to content with any violent crime, which unfortunately so many South Africans are exposed to.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes?

A: We honestly never did, not even once.


Q: How do you cope with homesickness?

A: I think it’s hard to make an expat life work if you tend to become homesick. You have to learn to live in the moment and make the best of your current life. We were never homesick, so I have no advice on how to cope with it. Go on a safari, I guess.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: We would have loved to stay much longer if not indefinitely, had circumstances not forced us back to the U.S. after three years. We were surprised how willing we were to stay longer and how much like home it felt.


Q: What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?

A: Knowing that it wouldn’t, and didn’t, last forever.


Q: What tips can you give other expats living in that country?

A: Make the best of it. Get over your type-A “it has to be JUST so” mentality of Western breeding and enjoy the African mentality of live-and-let-live, of Hakuna Matata, and, yes, “just now.” Travel a lot while you are already there, get involved in at least one charity or start one yourself – there are more than enough opportunities to help others, and you will look back, and that may end up being the most rewarding piece of your expat experience.


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about South Africa?

A: Okay, I don’t want to seem smug, but Joburg Expat, the blog that I started for fellow expats, is the first and foremost address for anyone moving to South Africa. It will tell you ALL that you need to know, perhaps more, and it will hopefully make you laugh in the process. In addition, if you’re moving to Johannesburg, I highly recommend the blog 2 Summers.