Monday, July 19, 2010


Part 4 of my posts about Arlene's life. Read part one here, part two here and part three here:

The American Field Service, or AFS, started as a volunteer ambulance service in World War I. The mission of the mostly American volunteers was to transport wounded French soldiers. After World War I, AFS sponsored 'fellowships', an exchange program between French and American university students. After World War II, the program expanded to include other countries as well as high school students. Today more than 13,000 students, teachers and young adults take part every year in exchanges of varying length in more than 50 countries. The following is Arlene’s experience with the program.

One day in 1984, some people came to Benoni High School and did a talk about the American Field Service. I'd never heard of them before and I didn't even know such things existed. I just remember hearing that there was going to be a talk and I went. The school was packed with like minded students.

The AFS representatives basically said you could go anywhere in the world. They had programs in South America, Europe, and the United States. I don't know what it was about me, but I just knew I had to do this even though no one in my family had left the country before. At first my dad said, 'Absolutely not.' So I worked my mom, who worked my dad, and I proceeded with the selection process. About 400 kids applied for the four slots available. It was very, very competitive.

I remember my mom typing my application on a typewriter. I had to write an essay about why I wanted to be an exchange student and all that. There were rounds of interviews that made up the selection process. With 400 kids applying, my first thought was that I would never make the cut. I was up against wealthier kids and smarter kids so I thought there's no way. Then I realized that AFS was actually looking for someone like me, not wealthy, not well travelled, but super keen for the experience. And with each interview I did, the thought of going overseas became more and more real.

For the last interview, the AFS representatives came to my home to do a family assessment. During this interview, my dad made three stipulations. He said, “I'll let her go if she goes to an English speaking country, the host family has to go to church every Sunday, and there has to be a piano in the house.” It was a bold thing to do on his part but it was the best thing that could have happened because I got just that.

I remember when I was told by the AFS representative that I had been selected, I went silent, almost like I knew this was going to happen. I told my friend Laetitia the good news. My mother, however, called everybody she knew. Both my parents were very proud. No one in my family had been outside of the country, let alone on an airplane. Soon after, I was informed of my placement. My host family, the Ogburns, turned out to be a family in Shelby, North Carolina who went to church every single Sunday. They had a piano in their house and their two daughters were gifted pianists. Just like my dad stipulated! Then I received a letter and a family picture from the Ogburns. I would read the letter and stare at the picture. Before I even met the family, I fell in love with them.

As the reality of the situation began to sink in, I started to get seriously excited. Unlike the US, the school year in South Africa starts in January and ends in December. As a result, I had to attend my first six months of university before my scheduled departure in July. I might have physically been at school but I wasn't at school. I was on the plane. My mid year exams? I failed them hopelessly. I think I got 40% on my psychology exam. I just was not there, I was gone.

The program was a scholarship type of thing. In addition to airfare, we were also provided pocket money so I don't recall having to come up with much. But I had a lot to do. I had to get a passport. I had to pack for an entire year. I didn't even own a suitcase. I got the biggest one I could find. Aside from my clothes, I remember packing a lot of pictures and a South African flag that AFS gave me to present to my host school.

While I couldn't wait for the day to arrive, my extended family's reaction was interesting. I remember them acting like it was strange to go overseas. A lot of people said to me, "I could never do that."  I think they were expressing their own fears of being away from their families. I just couldn't relate to that. I had no fear. I was like, 'Absolutely, bring this on!'

I really didn't know what to expect of my exchange year. Before I left, my AFS host family sent me photographs and letters. In their letters, they would describe the town that I was going to, and I was very excited that it sounded like a small town in the United States. I don't know what I expected, really. I was very into the family. They sent me a family picture and I had it by my bed and I'd stare at them for hours and hours. It was like I couldn't get enough of them.

AFS did their best to prepare us. I remember them asking me in interviews what would I do if the American girls in school told me that I needed to shave my legs or shave my underarms. Arm and leg shaving for girls was common in South Africa, but I think the AFS representatives thought we followed the European model of not shaving. I suppose you could say this was my first exposure to people doing things differently in different countries. I replied that I would do it if I needed to fit in. AFS also explained about culture shock and being home sick. They gave us quite a lot of preparation and education. 

And they told us we had to come back. I think they knew that a lot of kids at the end would not want to return to their home country so a stipulation of the program was that you had to fly home at the end of the year. Most of all, I remember my dad saying, “Just come back South African.”  It seemed strange to think I wouldn’t come back or that I would cease being South African. But then again, I had no idea of the experience I was in for.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Budding Photographer

My eldest, Princess Buttercup, got a camera for Christmas 2009, and she's been shooting pictures ever since. Good thing we live in the digital age or girlfriend would be going broke paying for all that film. It's a safe bet that she's fired off about 2,000 pictures since Christmas. That's an average of 9 pictures a day, every day.
Besides the usual daily pictures of the cat (whom she loves ) and Gummi (whom she adores), she likes to look for more unusual subjects or compositions. Here are some of my favorites:

These are chives in her garden. Her garden is one of her favorite subjects (besides Gummi and the cat).

This one she took because of the tornado shape of the cloud.

I like the dark/light thing going on here. And the plant peeking out from around the door.

I just thought this was funny. This is my friend's twins falling off some big bouncy balls.

Again, an interesting composition. Instead of shooting the hydrant straight on, she put it off to the side against a large field of green grass.

This one she calls "The Reluctant Hero." I love Gummi's expression.

In her garden again. She likes to run outside after it rains to see if there is anything interesting to shoot.

I don't know if it's my culinary sensibilities that likes this one so much. It's whipped egg whites at just the right point for folding into batter.

Another interesting composition where she doesn't just shoot the flower but shoots it against the rusty fence for a contrast.

This picture she took purposefully contrasting the marigold color to the blue sky. Clever girl, eh?

Her camera has some special effects that she likes to play with.

This was from our trip strawberry picking. We let Gummi out of the stroller and he went screaming and running down the path. You'd think we never let the kid out.

Well, thank you for letting me brag on my kid for a bit. If you want a print of any of the above, send a large iced latte and I'll see what I can do.

Friday, July 02, 2010

How Do You Do It?

When I roll with my posse*, the second most frequently asked question after, “Are they all yours?” is “How do you do it?”

In the interest of public service, I shall now answer that question. I’m not entirely sure what people mean when they ask this question, so I’m going to define it as meaning how do I feed, clothe and nurture all six children, keep the house clean and presentable, stay on top of the laundry and have my pantry fully stocked.

The answer to the question is...

I don’t.

I don’t do it all.

My house is far from perfect.
My children are wearing clean and presentable clothing only by the grace of God.
I’m perpetually four loads behind in laundry and will be until shortly before I die.
I run to the store for forgotten groceries so often that if I owned stock in Stop n Shop, I’d be fabulously wealthy by now (Real House Wives of Rhode Island? Anyone? Anyone?)

Here’s what I do to keep the authorities from knocking on my door.

1. Relax the standards
I’m not in a season of life where I can have lit candles gracing my glass coffee table. I do not have potted plants. Instead, there are toys on the floor. Two minutes after having the kids pick up the house, there are still toys on the floor. One day I will be able to walk through my living room and not step on toys; but not any time in the next few years. I’m ok with that. If you visit my house, you will have to be, too.

2. Delegate!
One of the best pieces of parenting advice I got from a fellow mom is, “If the child can take it out, then he can put it back!” If your four year old can figure out how to climb up on a dresser, find the baby powder and dump it all over his clothes, then he can do a load of wash. Seriously. I’ve had my four year old vacuum the kitchen. And you know what? Since it involves power tools, he loves it. The kids have chores that include taking out the garbage, doing the laundry, cleaning the bathroom, changing the baby, doing the dishes and cooking. So I don’t do it all. Literally. The added bonus is that these kids are learning skills and gaining self confidence that will keep them from living with me when they’re 30.

3. Say No
There’s lots of things that clamor for your attention. Volunteer opportunities, work related stuff, crafts, hobbies, activities and extracurricular stuff for the kids. The list is endless of what you can fill your time with. But we have a limited amount of hours in a day and if I fill my day with hobbies, volunteer work or lots of activities for the kids, then something else in my family life will lose out. I’m not saying to totally sacrifice your life on the altar of mothering, but some sacrifice at this time is required. So right now I blog, I bake and I knit BUT I’m not quilting, I’m not doing book clubs, I’m not involved in this ministry or that and I’m careful of how much I volunteer for.

4. Teamwork
Look at your spouse and say, “You are not the enemy.” If you invest time in your marriage, you will work as a team and many hands make light work. I treat my husband with respect and dignity and in return I get a man who does more than his fair share round these parts before and after putting in a full day at the office.

So that’s the long, preachy answer to the question, “How do you do it?”
Any others? Ask now while I still know it all....

*appear anywhere with my six kids