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02/19/2013 / van berger

Reflecting on a year in America

We are heading back to SA in the next month as our American adventure comes to an end. It has been an amazing year, filled with many ups and downs, but no regrets which is the most important thing. I thought I would close this blog with a reflective piece on some of the things I’ve learnt from living here, about both the USA and SA. Thanks for reading my somewhat-irregular blog posts. I’ve enjoyed keeping myself busy with these little pieces of research and comparison that made my time here more interesting.



America isn’t as bad a place as its painted out to be.

If you had asked me a few years ago whether I would consider moving to the States, my reaction would most likely have been negative. My opinions were based on a very short living experience here in 2001 with my family in the Southern state of North Carolina. I didn’t really have the freedom to travel to other areas like the West Coast, and I had been put off by the naivety of many of the people I’d met. Much of the ‘America’ I knew was superficial, close-minded, and uninteresting. I was 15 at the time, which definitely contributed.

Today I leave having mixed feelings about this country. In many ways I’m so glad I got to experience another side of the States as it really opened up my views. California is such a different place to North Carolina, as is Florida to Washington. Once you live here, you realise just how vast the States is and just how different each state is to each other. In some ways, they almost feel like different countries in themselves. California in general is a much more relaxed and diverse place to live when compared with more conservative states like North Carolina. Living in the Silicon Valley has been a multicultural experience with so many people moving here for the tech industry from places like India, England, Europe, etc. Therefore, it’s much easier for foreigners to adapt to the lifestyle. I love California and specifically San Francisco, and will miss many of things that make living here easy and fun.

People are friendly and helpful in general, although many are uneducated about countries like South Africa.

After spending the majority of my time in California, I can really only express my views on what people are like here.  I’ve found people here to be friendly. Sometimes this friendliness can be observed as fake, but at the same time I have never felt like people were being friendly just to try get something from me. My experience of service in this country has generally been excellent and although I found it strange at first for cashiers to be so open (like asking me what I was doing for the weekend or the day) – in the end I actually enjoyed being smiled at by people and not feeling like they were hating on me for asking for a glass of water at a restaurant. South Africa could learn a lot from the level of service people receive here.

Americans are extremely open people. So many times I have been on buses and trains where complete strangers have entered into 45 minute conversations in a really relaxed environment. They don’t seem to have some of the same boundaries that many of us South Africans seem to put up regarding personal space, etc. They talk with a genuine interest in each other’s lives and although sometimes I don’t feel like telling a complete stranger my whole life story, this openness is quite comforting.

Many people are extremely uneducated about places outside of Europe and North America. The majority who asked where I was from didn’t really have any response to South Africa. In more situations that I can count, they have replied with something like ‘What?! Are you being serious? Cool!” And that was the end of the conversation. Most of the time I knew this was because they were embarrassed to know nothing about SA, and therefore not really have any questions or opinions. Once a guy asked me if SA was near Haiti, and another was surprised to find out it was in the Southern Hemisphere (considering we have opposite seasons). At the beginning, this used to really irritate me, but after a while I just learnt to accept this response, and try to understand that many Americans haven’t even left their state, let alone the country! So now I just nod and smile and try to explain a little about this mythical place that seems so far away! (I guess it really is).

The food in general does not compare to South Africa’s options and quality (in my opinion)

As many of you read from my early post on health and food consumption, this is generally not a healthy place to live. The supermarkets are packed with unhealthy options, and most people consume food in an unhealthy way – usually on the run and in extremely large portions. The freezer sections of the stores take up a large proportion (sometimes half of the store) and organic free range options are A LOT more expensive. It’s no wonder people would rather buy $2 huge freezer pizzas to feed their families than an apple or a bunch of bananas. Usually it makes financial sense to buy bigger sized products than smaller ones (eg. soda). Supposedly ‘healthy’ foods are packed full of sugar and hidden additives which most people are unaware of. High-fructose corn syrup is taking over and it’s extremely hard to find products that don’t contain this really harmful, unhealthy sugar replacement. I miss everything about the food in South Africa and can’t wait to not have to check every label on my groceries to see what I’m going to be consuming.



Living in another country gives you a lot of perspective about your own.

South Africa is a very small country with many problems, but still has a lot to offer
Living in such a massive country like North America gives you perspective about how small South Africa really is. There are at least 50 states of America and it takes about 3-4 days to drive across from one coast to the other. South Africa is tiny in comparison, however, great things come in small packages, and I’ve missed my country very much. Rarely did I ever hear news about South Africa over here, and if I did it was obviously all negative. There have been a lot of sad and negative stories throughout the year we’ve been away. The mine massacre, rhino poaching, the Anene rape tragedy, and now the whole case against Oscar. It’s very hard to not let all this negativity get you down about South Africa, but D and I have really tried to make an effort in remembering all the good things we love. We love the landscape, the diversity of people, our friends and family, Cape Town, game parks, Eastern Cape beaches, the list goes on and on. We love how people seem to really appreciate and celebrate the good things that can often be forgotten about. People work hard in SA, and although they don’t often reap the rewards, work is not the only thing that drives their lives.

• I DO feel unsafe walking the streets in South Africa and it is not normal to feel this way in many other 1st world countries.
I’m sure I’m not the only woman in South Africa to have accumulated the so-called ‘street-sense’ I spoke of in my last post. It is something that we are brought up with, a burden we carry with us at all times, and after a while we seem to forget that most people across the world in first world countries don’t live this way. While I am aware and cautious in the area in America I live, I don’t ever feel threatened or unsafe. I walk through a park by myself to get to our block of apartments and don’t feel like I always have to clutch my handbag or hide my cellphone in public. I walk back from the train station at night-time and take public transport by myself. It is incredibly sad to think I will have to go back to feeling that ‘anxious’ feeling when I’m back in SA. However, this time I will not console myself or make excuses for the safety issues in our country, or accept that they are just a ‘part of life’. It’s really not cool, and I wish these things would change.

• The standard of our wine and food is impeccable
After having lived in the Western Cape for 3+ years, D and I grew to have a huge appreciation for the wine industry in SA. We love wine and all things wine-related. We have been wine tasting in the Napa Valley and Sonoma in California, and honestly have not found the wine to be of the same standard or as much to our liking. I guess the price also has a lot to do with it! In terms of food, I have mentioned the food in relation to America, but our restaurants in SA rock! We can’t wait to go to a restaurant in CT, and pay for the quality of food we expect. So many times I’ve ordered highly priced food here which is just average. Obviously, not all restaurants in SA are the same, but I definitely have had a better experience in general in terms of price and quality of ingredients. Go SA!

• Our accent is better than I thought and Americans dig it 🙂
I definitely have realised just how different our accents are to anything else in the world. We are not from Britain, Australia, New Zealand or Germany, yet to many Americans we sound like a mixture of all of these people! Americans seem to love our accent, and I suppose it’s a nice complement 🙂 In some ways I can’t wait to just blend into the crowd again, but I’ll also miss the confused look on people’s faces over here when I speak and they can’t place my accent or where I’m from. However, I won’t miss having to spell things the American way or use Fahrenheit, inches and miles!


10/04/2012 / van berger

Losing my South African ‘street sense’

Lately I’ve been thinking about the issue of crime in both the USA and South Africa. On a recent trip back home to SA, I surprised myself in observing how my attitude to safety and security has changed since I moved to the States. Instead of holding onto my bag every time I walked down the road in Cape Town, I simply felt oblivious to the fact that someone could snatch and grab my possessions. I didn’t think twice about locking my car door when I got into my rental. I didn’t really think about the possibility that someone could break in to my aunt’s house while I stayed there alone. My friends warned me to hide my bag under the seat while I was visiting Durban. I was fascinated that only 8 months ago I would have had the ‘South African common sense’ to do all these things without a reminder.

Now I’m not saying the States is a safe haven where you can do whatever you like- everywhere you go there is likely to always be some sort of danger and self-awareness that you need to maintain. Yet, in our new temporary home: the sleepy tech town of Mountain View in the Silicon Valley, something feels different. I walk the 15 minute journey back from the train station at night by myself and don’t think twice about crossing over the road when I see a man. The busy coffee shop I often visit is full of people working on their very expensive Macs and other gadgets. There have been so many times where I’ve witnessed people leaving their entire table of possessions (phones, wallets, bags and computers) while they pop outside to get something from their car, chat to a friend or visit the bathroom. I’ve even started to do the same (although I usually take my phone). You never feel like there is the slight chance that your stuff won’t be there when you get back and I don’t think that this even crosses most of the patrons minds.

Above: Sometimes I honestly feel like I live on the set of The Truman Show in Mountain View. The streets are always perfectly clean, the houses surrounded by white picket fences with a token basketball hoop out the front. Here’s one of the many cute houses in the safe suburb of Mountain View, CA. 

We live in a complex of apartments which are semi-enclosed by gates and doors, but it surprises me every time I come home to walk past my neighbours door only to find a pile of boxes that have been delivered while the owners have been out. Amazon is one of the biggest online retailers here and they have a knock and drop approach, meaning they don’t even wait for you to come to the door. No signature is required and when you come home your untouched package WILL be there waiting for you. It’s pretty amusing for us South Africans to see and I suppose the fact that we find this amusing is quite depressing. When something like your dishwasher in your apartment is not working you simply let the rental office know and come back in the evening to find someone would have been in your house to fix it. This is a quite a change of mind-set for us South Africans as the idea of letting people work in your house unsupervised is preposterous!

I’ve hardly seen any cars with alarm systems, let alone houses in Mountain View. Front doors are often left open and furniture, bicycles and other goods are left on the front lawn with signs saying ‘For sale’. Again, there isn’t even a thought that these items would be taken without someone knocking on the door and offering to pay for them first. Kids (unsupervised) roam the streets on their bicycles.

Cross over to the city of San Francisco (about 100km away) and things are slightly different. Areas here determine where you can and can’t walk alone. The ‘Tenderloin’ is one of the areas that is notoriously known as pretty darn sketchy. It used to be quite a vibrant area, full of well-known popular hotels. However, things over the years have changed and it is now inhabited by a large proportion of the city’s homeless population. Many of whom have taken over the uninhabited hotels (becoming a form of housing and who knows what else). Drug dealers and addicts walk the streets and I wouldn’t recommend walking there by yourself (day or night). I suppose I would equate this to walking around the streets of Hillbrow in Johannesburg or perhaps the Cape Flats area in Cape Town.

According to this post  people have started offering ‘Tenderloin-Lite’ tours in San Francisco: a chance for tourists to experience  the “Ragged, druggy and determinedly dingy”.  To quote from the article: “SF activist Randy Shaw, god bless him, is pushing a Tenderloin museum, hoping tourists will “walk, dine, [and] enjoy” the area this summer. Don’t forget adrenalize and possibly die.” The blogger seems appalled by this idea, and it made me think about tourists going on the many ‘township tours’ offered in Cape Town or Soweto. How are township tours viewed by South Africans? And would this bring money into the area or simply take advantage of the many poor, and often desperate people living there.

Above: Food stamp line in the Tenderloin area of SF (Source: Dave Glass- 

Above: Hillbrow in Johannesburg, an area quite similar to the Tenderloin of SF. (Source:

If you walk over a few streets from the Tenderloin you’ll find yourself in the centre of the downtown area of San Francisco, a busy shopping area, packed with tourists. The ‘high’ street named ‘Market street’ is safe down one half, but walk a little further down and you’ll see the shops and atmosphere change drastically. For example, once D and I were walking down the other side and encountered an extremely racist man making ‘heil Hitler’ gestures and shouting insults at a group of black people across the street. At this point we used our intuition and turned around.

I recently made the mistake of walking back after my class to the train station via a different route. It was only one street down from the one I usually take, but once again a totally different atmosphere where I definitely didn’t feel as safe.

Oakland in the East Bay (where many of the medical marijuana dispensaries are based in my previous post) is definitely a cheaper place to stay than SF, but equally not as safe. We hear of shootings at least once a week there and the police pretty much roam the streets.

I’ve definitely come to grips with the fact that crime is definitely not non-existent in the States and in some areas comparable to South Africa rates (apart from bubble-like-suburbs like Mountain View). However, the types of crime seem to be in some cases radically different to what we recognise and understand. As demonstrated in the past, crime in the US is often completely unexpected and unpredictable. Incidents like the Columbine massacre and the latest shooting at the Dark Knight premiere in a Colorado cinema continue to shock me every time. How can I prepare myself and use the street-sense I was brought up with in South Africa, when I can’t even go to a movie and not know if I’m going to get shot. I believe that this kind of crime is often linked to high levels of mental illnesses in the States- you never really know how people will react and sometimes they can be quite unstable. Taking public transport in the city can sometimes be a daunting task- often the bus will pick up passengers who are clearly unstable/homeless/dodgy and I heard of an incident recently where a woman was groped extremely inappropriately by a crazy looking man while leaving the bus.

The presence of guns in American culture certainly doesn’t help the situation. When people who are clearly mentally unstable are able to buy guns and ammunition online there is a problem! Once again, I never know who is going to get on my bus/train/walk past me and whether that person may or may not have a gun. This makes me nervous and I definitely am becoming more conscious of my surroundings in the city.

Crime in South Africa seems to be on another level. There, I’m not really worried about going to watch a movie where I might be the victim of a freak shooting incident. On the other hand I may be equally afraid of walking back to my car after the movie ends and will usually get a male friend/boyfriend to walk me to my car/house. Rape is an ever-present threat to a female (and male) in South Africa and over here it feels like that is not as much of a concern (although it may be!). Petty crime in the US exists, but mainly in the form of getting your phone/bike stolen. In South Africa this would be the same as getting your house broken into on a regular basis or being hijacked. Both often relate to poverty – but ours is substantially more prevalent.

While researching crime in SF – I came across a website called San Francisco Crime Spotting. It provides visitors with maps displaying data of the latest crime ‘hotspots’ and there is even a more specific section which pinpoints specific criminal incidents (such as possession of illegal drugs) and shows the location of where the police arrested the suspect. You can also sign up to receive email updates about crime in your neighbourhood. There are other websites where you can check out neighbourhoods before deciding on an area to move to. One example is Neighborhood Scout which maps out the safest areas in your city and provides the latest stats for crime, comparing it to the rest of the country.

Above: The San Francisco Crime Spotting website which is run independently of the police.  

Above: Some stats that are displayed on the Neighborhood Scouts website about crime stats in San Francisco. 

South Africa has many neighbourhood watch groups-you see the yellow signs up on street poles in many areas in Cape Town. I recently discovered a site called  ‘Turn it Around’  which gives advice about how to start your own neighbourhood watch group through them. You can join a network, look at crime stats, report a crime, engage in discussions and check out the crime map which I think is a pretty cool initiative. A handy resource to have if you’re thinking of moving areas or country.

Above: South Africa’s version of a crime watch website. Look up crimes in your area, join a network of neighbourhood watch or discuss issues in their forum.

A few random stats about crime in America. In no way are these substantial detailed statistics, there will be many more detailed accounts online.

  • In 2009 America’s crime rate was similar to what it was in 1968 with a slightly lower level of homicide incidents.
  • Crime is most common in areas in US cities which are economically disadvantaged.
  • Crime rates vary across states: the state with the lowest crime rate is New England (for violent and property crimes). Southern states generally have higher crime rates- particularly common in Louisiana which has high rates of unemployment and a much lower income level compared to richer states like Washington or New York.
  • According to this article on the most dangerous cities in the US, two of the worst-off cities in terms of crime are Flint and Detroit, Mich. Oakland, CA (mentioned earlier) is number 4 on the list.

Anyone else moved countries (or cities) and had similar experiences and changes in their attitude to crime (here and back home)?

07/13/2012 / van berger

Gay pride in a ‘free’ nation

In a country that prides itself on freedom and diversity, LGBT rights are both an intriguing and controversial topic to blog about. Not only are there extreme divisions in opinion here, but the issue is also highly topical during an election year when President Obama publicly stated that he supports gay marriage, yet still leaves individual states to decide on the laws for themselves.

A few weekends ago D and I spent most of our waking hours walking around San Francisco enjoying the celebratory relaxed atmosphere of SF Pride. SF Pride is an annual event drawing thousands of people from around the country for a weekend of activism, acceptance and celebrating the LGBT community. The event commemorates the rebellion of LGBT patrons in a hotel in New York after a police raid in 1969. The weekend was a great opportunity to see the liberal ‘free’ side of the city (SF is known as the gay capital of the USA) and we got more than our fair share of seeing interesting diverse characters over the two day event. While walking around the ‘Mission’ we stumbled across groups of people- young and old and dressed up in feathers, leather, gay pride rainbow colours, or wearing nothing at all. They were all headed in the same direction and so we decided to follow them (although we felt pretty damn boring in our plain clothes!). They were all headed towards the famous ‘Mission Dolores Park’ which we’d wanted to see anyway. After a walk up another hill, we were met with a hype of activity: DJ’s playing thumping loud music, people sitting under rainbow-coloured umbrella’s and flags, women and men partaking in water wrestling matches, naked people floating around & dancing, the overwhelmingly strong smell of pot, gay/lesbian families eating lunch and bare-breasted woman enjoying the sunshine – all perched on a hill overlooking a un-usually clear San Francisco bay. We found out that the party was the pre-event for the annual ‘Dyke march‘ being held in the area later that day. Later that afternoon we also visited Castro, an area famously known as being the ‘gay suburb” of the city, and where Harvey Milk is commemorated. (read about him further down in this blog post). We passed by a few more old naked men, some very tanned guys wearing only underpants or thongs and restaurants with names like ‘The Sausage Factory’. All in the spirit of the Castro I say!

The full SF Pride parade followed the next day where busy downtown streets were blocked off and thousands of San Franciscans and tourists gathered to watch companies like Facebook, Bank of America, and NGO’s show their support for the cause. It started off with men and woman on motorbikes racing past (some of them wearing nothing-surprise surprise!) and continued for quite a few hours with an array of paraders – drag queens, a whole group of men & women wearing the most amazing balloon costumes (see pic), historic street cars covered in pride coloured ribbons, gay police officers, christians in support of gay people, the military you name it – they were there.

Read more about SF Pride here:

SF Pride

Above: Some shots I got on our busy weekend at SF Pride. Lots of dress up going on! 

San Francisco (like South Africa’s Cape Town) is known as the gay capital of the country and has been for some time. It has one of the largest LGBT populations in the United States. Many believe this popularity dates way back to the Second World War when many gay soldiers were rejected, thrown out and dispatched by the US Navy at various ports of the city. With a collection of tolerant people in the area, many people decided to stay. Others decided it was a ‘safe’ place to be who they really were and moved here.

Harvey Milk is known as ‘The Mayor of Castro Street’ and is celebrated as a hero in SF. He was the first openly gay elected official to win support for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Sadly he was murdered in 1978. However, his legacy continues to  live on in the Castro district and he continues to inspire residents to speak out for gay rights. There is a great movie about him that I can recommend called ‘Milk’. While SF remains gay-friendly, the high price of living in the city is making it harder for families to afford the rent and living expenses that the city demands.


Above: A very interesting interactive info graphic of how the laws are divided in the USA. Source: The Guardian 

Here’s the interactive version which you should definitely open in a new tab now…
The chart shows the laws around gay rights from state to state. On the chart you’ll see opposing states like California and Alabama with contrasting laws around adoption, discrimination policies for gay people. California might appear quite liberal compared to many other places, but gay marriage is still not recognised. There was a period (very short!) where it was legal in 2008, but when Proposition 8 was passed marriage  between gay people was prohibited. Marriages that had licenses granted before Proposition 8 are still recognised by the state. Domestic partnerships are legal which allow for state-level rights, but not on a federal level.

With the election race in full swing now, Obama came out with his support of the gay community perhaps a little too late. His statement included the following phrase:

“At a certain point I just concluded, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

He shared this on a pretty big news channel in an interview that was only a few days after the Vice-President publicly gave his vote of support. While many have seen this as courageous during the election year, others have felt that it was long overdue if he had felt this way during his entire time in office. At the same time, Obama has contributed to improving gay couples’ civil rights and allowed gay people to serve openly in the US military during his time as President. Before 2011 there was a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy which prohibited people in the military from discussing their gay relationships, families or sexual orientation. His choice to come out with this kind of public statement has spurred on many of Romney’s conservative supporters, but at the same time may have reinforced Democratic supporters votes. Whatever the consequences, this certainly is an interesting time to be living in this country!

Above: President of South Africa: Jacob Zuma at an ANC rally event, Obama openly shows his support for gay marriage earlier this year. (Source left:, source right: The Guardian 

I was proud to discover that despite our complicated history, South Africa was the fifth country in the world (and the first in Africa) to legalise same-sex marriage in 2006. It was also one of the first to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. Partners are allowed to adopt, regardless of their sexual orientation. However, during Apartheid, we were right up there with the rest of the world – homosexuality was considered a crime punishable up to 7 years in prison. During the 1970’s the apartheid government even started a system whereby ‘treatments’ were put in place for white gay and lesbian people (including sex changes).

As per usual things on the surface (and paper) may seem a hell of a lot better in SA today compared to areas in the US. However, there are still major issues regarding discrimination and the treatment of LGBT people in South Africa. Many lesbian women in poorer communities are raped in an ‘effort’ to change their sexual orientation in SA. Looking northwards to the rest of Africa, things are even more depressing. Many African countries seem to think that it’s okay for women to be in relationships with other women, but it’s a no-go area for men (Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Seychelles, Zambia).

There’s a really great blog post by an extraordinary South African feminist and my good friend, Jen Thorpe which celebrates gay couples getting married in New York, yet reminds us of how dire the situation is in our beloved continent. It’s definitely worth a read (as are the rest of her blog posts, she’s one smart lady!)

In the words of Jen:
You and I know that when you love someone, there is not much than convince you that you can stop. Love goes beyond the power of law, and beyond the power of dictators, oppressors and fools.”

Let’s just hope some of these idiots in power realise this.

As you will have read in my experience of SF Pride, you will have noticed a common trend: Naked people! Not surprisingly it’s legal in this city. While being ‘without clothes’ here is not considered a crime, engaging in lewd conduct, or being naked while aroused is a different story. Not everyone seems to be happy about the ‘bare all attitude’ and there’s been a proposal discussed that requires naked people to place a garment or barrier between themselves and a seat when in public. They would also need to wear something before entering a restaurant. (To me this makes hygienic sense!) San Francisco is not known as the warmest city in America (even in summer) so it’s pretty interesting how many people opt the no-clothes route. Read more about that here.

Above: A protest in the Castro area promoting nudity. Source:

07/05/2012 / van berger

Speaking another language: American vs South African English

Lately I’ve been noticing that there are so many words and terms that we refer to differently in South Africa. I often get blank stares when I ask for certain items in shops or restaurants and have started to begrudgingly switch from South Africanisms to Americanisms just so people understand me a bit better. There are however some things the patriotic South African in me won’t change: a barbeque will always be a braai!

I’ve started making a list of all these words and thought it would make a fun blog post (and perhaps helpful to both Americans visiting SA and visa versa).

Here’s my dictionary list of terms so far:
(They are in no particular order)

A pot pie is kind of a strange term for us South Africans. After all, is there really ‘pot’ or ‘weed’ in these pies? This is California after all (see my last post on medical marijuana). I presume they added the word ‘pot’ because the dish is cooked in a pot and not a pie dish like their ‘traditional pie’ which is usually sweet (apple pie or sweet potato pie). Think of the diner experience where you order a slice o’ pie which you wash down with horrible coffee.

I got laughed at when I said D and I hired a car. Apparently it sounds quite ‘ bourgeois’ to Americans.

Sweets here means dessert, so anything that’s related to skittles, starbursts, jelly beans (yum!), etc is referred to as candy.

On a recent road trip with friends, they tried to use the word ‘robot’ in every sentence simply because it does sound pretty funny  to hear ‘turn left at the robot’!

I don’t think we have ‘half and half’ in SA. It’s a weird concoction of half milk and half cream (typically you can choose it in a coffee shop or buy it at the super market). They also have full fat and skim milk obviously.

American’s don’t use the word ‘mince’ and I suppose to them it would appear that we were saying ‘mints’.

They laugh when you say  you’re ‘just going to the loo’ as it’s seen as quite a posh term that the British use. Sometimes when I ask where the bathroom is I have to really emphasize the ‘a’ otherwise they look at me blankly. When I pronounce it the way they do, they act like it’s a revelation ‘Oh, the baaaathroom!’ haha.

It’s the same word, but the pronunciation can cause real confusion! I often have to americanise ‘water’ emphasizing the r at the end in order to be understood. (Although I do think it’s cool that you automatically get brought glasses of water in restaurants here- you don’t have to ask. They don’t seem to mind if that’s all you want to drink.)

We had a funny discussion with the same set of road trip friends (see above robot jokes) about how odd both of these terms actually are – a costume here implies ‘Halloween costume’ while a suit for us is…well just that – a ‘suit’ (with a tie usually).

This is a lame one, but as a temporary house-girlfriend  I’m the one doing most of the clothes washing. So I thought it was interesting that they call such a mundane term something else and that actually most of the time it only comes in liquid form.

D and I been confused for over 4 months now over what on earth a ‘entrée’ is in America. In South Africa an entrée would typically refer to a starter, but over here it’s the same thing as a main. A starter in the US is called an appetizer. They often have both mains and entrées (essentially the same thing) on a menu which is very confusing.

Most South Africans know this from US TV shows. However I was surprised to find that there are actually ‘biscuits’ here which aren’t ‘cookies’, but a savoury ‘breakfast meal’ that’s a sort of pastry biscuit often served with gravy.

A jersey over here is a ‘football jersey’ – yes those ugly things with the numbers and surnames of the players that the cool kids wear. They call a jersey a sweater (which I suppose you do sweat in when it’s hot!)

(Pictures sourced from Pinterest

More Americans are starting to use the term ‘bill’ over here, but ‘cheque’ is more popular (i.e when asking for your bill at the end of a meal). On a side note – they really do still use cheques in a big way over here! The internet banking in SA is way better.  Another side note- it’s usually expected that you pay a 15-20% tip on your bill in the USA (compared to 10% in SA).

Americans say they’re off to the store instead of the shop. A subtle difference, but interesting nonetheless.

This is another obvious one to us South Africans. However,  I had never tasted ‘american bbq’ before which is in fact a type of food popular in many restaurants. It’s typically a meat such as ‘pulled pork’ or ‘brisket’ which they slow cook for ages and then serve with a slightly sweet tangy sauce. It’s often served with corn bread and other comfort food on the side (like macaroni & cheese and coleslaw).

Americans call cool drinks ‘soda’. It is common for more Southern states to call it ‘pop’ which I think is cute.

I still find it strange to hear people talk about the price of gas as opposed to petrol. Never mind the fact that you have to fill up your own tank at a gas station. The first time D and I tried we looked like the biggest idiots, not knowing what we were doing and how to pay!

I always assumed napkins were the cloth version of serviettes, but over here they’re all called napkins.

Oh how we miss good old ‘All Gold’ tomato sauce! Most of the ‘ketchup’ here contains high-fructose corn syrup which is incredibly evil. If you had to order tomato sauce in an American restaurant I presume they would bring you some sort of tomato pasta sauce.

I think this is a weakness in South African English – we don’t really have names to show the difference between packet chips and greasy chips except for occasionally putting ‘slap’ in front of it. For the Americans reading this: ‘slap’ isn’t pronounced like a ‘slap in the face’, but rather like ‘slupp’ emphasizing the ‘up’. It’s a slang word and refers to soft chips. The french fries in America don’t have anything French about them, but I guess at least they know the difference when they talk about the two types.

Does anyone have any others they’d like me to add? Let me know in the comments below! 

06/19/2012 / van berger

The highs and lows of medicinal cannabis in California

California is portrayed internationally as the state of sunshine, sandy beaches, surfers, Hollywood (think of the series Californication and Hank Moody!) and marijuana. Yip good old-fashioned weed (pot, ganja, hemp, grass, hash). California grows some of the biggest quantities in the USA and it’s also one of the few states where the use of medicinal marijuana is legal. Over the years the line between using cannabis for medical or recreational use has become kind of sketchy, where it’s common knowledge throughout the state that it’s pretty ‘easy’ to get a prescription (even if your ailment is being too paranoid because of a lack of weed- seriously!). As one of the characteristics that makes California so diverse, I couldn’t help but research a little bit more into this interesting topic.

The smell of weed permeates the liberal San Francisco atmosphere. On an average day in the city you’ll easily smell weed at least 4 or 5 times. Oakland, an area in the East Bay (across from San Francisco) is fondly referred to as Oaksterdam because of the many dispensaries and smokers that reside there. D and I have walked by many dispensaries which you unfortunately can’t see the inside of without an authorisation card. We’ve even seen a kid rolling a joint openly on a busy train in the middle of the day. We were the only people staring intently as if this was a big deal, but it obviously wasn’t. To get the ‘magical’ card you need to be prescribed by a recognized doctor as having one of the many conditions that medical marijuana helps. Once you have the card you may legally possess a small amount of weed or grow your own. However, it’s a bit more complicated than it sounds. State law in America and federal law are two separate entities. So while state law in California allows the use of medical marijuana, federal law still regards it as a criminal offense. There seems to be huge tension between the two conflicting systems, meaning that dispensaries are often raided and large amounts of supposed legal marijuana are confiscated by federal agents.

• While Oregon (California’s neighbouring state) was the first to decriminalize cannabis in 1973, California was the first state to introduce a medical marijuana programme in 1996 according to Proposition 215 and later the Senate Bill in 2003. The Proposition allows people with cancer, AIDS, and other chronic illnesses the right to grow or obtain marijuana for medical purposes when recommended by a doctor.

• In 2010 Arnold Schwarzenegger became Governor of California and introduced the State Senate Bill 1449 which reduced the charge for possession of cannabis from a misdemeanor to a violation (something that could be equated to a traffic violation with a fine). There would be no obligatory court appearance or chance of a criminal record. The law was passed in Jan 2011.

• Other states have introduced similar laws: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

• The complex law system not only makes it hard for card holders, but also for those people working in the industry. Policies such as the IRS Code Sec. 280E means that medical cannabis businesses can’t deduct expenses such as rent, payroll, health insurance, etc. This creates a tax burden that most dispensaries can’t meet.

Through my research I learned that marijuana doesn’t actually seem to treat illnesses like cancer, but rather helps to relieve the negative symptoms that affect those patients. According to the American Cancer Society, the use of weed can treat nausea and vomiting in patients. According to studies published between 1975 and 2005, the chemical agent in the plant (THC) has been seen to reduce pain and nausea, stop vomiting and stimulate appetites in cancer patients. The sense of sedation and calmness that patients feel after using the drug is seen as therapeutic. Marijuana could possibly contain antibacterial characteristics, control seizures and open airways (hence help asthma sufferers). (source)

The prescription drug, dronabional (an active ingredient in weed) is based on marijuana compounds and has been approved in the USA, Canada and Europe. It is given to patients who have undergone chemotherapy and needed to relieve nausea and vomiting. It has also been given to people who have undergone severe weight loss as a result of AIDS. (source)

However the research can be complex as different strains and different crops of marijuana plants have varying amounts of these active compounds that have therapeutic qualities.. Therefore studies that use the whole plant will find varying effects that are based on that strain they have used. The effects on the body are also diverse depending on how the substance is ingested (smoked or eaten). Other mental and physical side effects may occur such as ‘feelings of euphoria, short-term memory loss, difficulty in completing complex tasks, changes in the perception of time and space, sleepiness, anxiety, confusion, and inability to concentrate’. People who are prone to mental illness may have more serious mental and emotional effects from marijuana use. There is also the chance of becoming addicted to the drug which has it’s obvious negative consequences. (source)

According to this website there are only a few easy steps to get your medical marijuana card in California. They are clearly stated as:

Doesn’t seem so hard does it? Well apparently it’s not. There is such a long ‘generalised’ list of conditions that you can be prescribed the use of medical marijuana that most people can find something to justify the need. Here is a list of conditions:

Patients may choose to ingest the medicine by smoking it or consuming it in edible form. Other than avoiding the obvious harmful effects one gets from smoking, there are other benefits to eating rather than smoking weed. When medical marijuana is baked, none of the THC is lost, and more is absorbed into the food meaning that there is a more efficient and less harmful method of delivery. Here are some of the edible forms available at many of the dispensaries:

I was interested to see the statistics for people who hold medical marijuana cards in California, but found that although the number is large, exact figures are hard to come by. This is because of the understandable anxiety around being registered on a system and hence sought out by federal agents who may punish them by law. Hence the local state department of public health doesn’t keep any of the cardholders’ personal information. Instead only a digital photograph is kept, the expiration date of the card, and other basic details. While the threat does exist of being investigated by federal law agents, the general attitude is that officials aren’t likely to use their limited resources in investigating individuals simply because they hold an ID card.

While there is no public health record of users, California does have a state-run medical marijuana patient database and programme. However this registry is voluntary and few patients have signed up because of fears around prosecution. Apparently some medical marijuana advocacy groups have also contributed to confusion around the issue when doctors who specialise in writing marijuana recommendations have issued plastic ID cards that many users mistakenly assume offer the same protections as the county-issued ones until they get into trouble with the law. (source)

Interested in learning how to cultivate your own marijuana to supply dispensaries? Or perhaps how to become involved in changing the laws around the use of the drug? Well there are places in California you can study this. Oaksterdam University in Oakland is a legitimate educational institution offering courses in all sorts of related topics. You can earn a certificate in a 10 week horticulture programme in what they call a ‘responsible and friendly’ way.

Here is an outline of what they teach for those who are interested. It sounds like a pretty comprehensive way to start your career in the field! Find out more about the university here:

Here are some other random cool resources I found in my research around the topic:

This is a magazine that deals with all things weed related (events, activism, news, photos, etc). Some of these events include the HIGH TIMES Medical Cannabis Cup which takes place in San Francisco shortly. The site also sells gear from classic marijuana inspired movies like ‘Cheech and Chong’.

This is a huge music festival that incorporates well music and of course weed. For one day, thousands of ‘patients’ gather from all over California to enjoy ‘safe and responsible’ consumption out in the public without worrying about law or politics. According to an article someone wrote about the festival, people had to be escorted out of the venue that were too stoned to even stand. And quite a few paramedics had to be on call. Most of the security had a very relaxed attitude and were ‘totally cool with allowing young smokers’ their one day in a green paradise’.

• More EDIBLE PRODUCTS from ‘Auntie Do­lores’and what kind of high they lead to.

• A website called WEED MAPS that allows you to find out where your closest dispensary is located.

• An INTERESTING TABLE that shows all the states in America that condone the use of medical marijuana and the limits and laws on the amounts you are allowed. It also states whether you can use your card in another state.

After researching this topic, I can see it is way more complex and controversial than I originally thought. Medical marijuana seems like a legitimate way of helping many chronically ill patients, but at the same time it seems like so many people are taking advantage of the unregulated system (making it unfair on the ‘real’ patients).  There are various activist groups who advocate for the legalisation of the drug and believe that this would eliminate so many of the issues surrounding the abuse of the system. It seems to have worked well in countries like  Holland, but who knows whether this will translate well in the United States. One things for sure- there shouldn’t be such confusion and conflict between two legal systems (state vs federal) and sorting this out would definitely be the beginning of real progress for both the patients and workers in the industry.

05/22/2012 / van berger

The weird and wacky side of the States

One of the bonuses of calling this country home for a while is the opportunity to experience some of the weird and wacky festivals America is famous for. From gadget shows to mashed potato wrestling to dressing up as aliens, the States has it all. So far we’ve only been to the Makers Faire which was awesome, but I’ve looked into a few others which might not be everyone’s cup of tea (including mine) but certainly interesting to read about! Enjoy. 

1. MAKER FAIRE (the traditional spelling based on the French verb: ‘to do/make’)
19 & 20 May. San Mateo, California

If you’re like my lovely partner in crime and are glued to the TV every time Mythbusters is on, or in fact have your TV stuck on the Discovery Channel, then you’d love the Maker Faire. It started many years ago and has grown into one of the biggest DIY festivals in the world (the main events are now in California, Detroit and New York, but there are mini-versions across the country).

Originally when D said he wanted to go, I was envisioning a whole lot of geeky gadgets and robots and things I wouldn’t necessarily understand or appreciate. Ok sure there was a lot of that, but the event caters for so many types of ‘making’ that there’s sure to be something you enjoy. Not only were there amazing creations from robotics and computer pieces, there were also crazy bicycle creations (often made from old scraps of metal, etc), sewing workshops, musical instruments, calligraphy, craft workshops for kids (and adults), soldering lessons and so much more. There’s a really cool emphasis on building raw mechanical stuff using recycled materials (what I learned is called the Steampunk movement) as well as new age robotics stuff. And what would an event be like without the weird and wonderful people who attend – when D was looking at some kind of computer gadget thingy I didn’t understand, I was people watching – interesting characters were everywhere: one girl was wearing an incredible skirt made entirely of ties knotted together while another dude was dressed in only a red body stocking (not sure how he was breathing as it went over his face too!).  

Everyone is encouraged to just build stuff (it doesn’t matter what you use – metal, fabric, circuit boards- the main emphasis is to enjoy yourself) and there were so many kids who seemed to be loving every minute of it. My British friend who joined us made an interesting observation that these kinds of events make science and knowledge ‘cool’ again for kids and take away the traditionally ‘nerdy’ association that many children associate with learning. There were over 600 makers at the event, and even though it ran over two days there was no ways we could see even half of it on the day we went. I would definitely encourage anyone who gets the chance to go to attend. 

maker faire pics

From left to right: Inventions that you could interact with- like this extending seat machine; a cupcake-mobile that festival-goers could ride around in; a set of instruments that was wired up and programmed to play by itself!; awesome robots doing their thing; the product of a 3D printer; amazing lego creations; one of the interesting bicycle creations; the coke and mentos experiment – lots of coke flying upwards and everywhere!

27 & 28 Aug. Barnesville, Minnesota

The website says it all: “Two days of ‘spud’riffic fun during the annual Potato Days Festival”. (such a creative explanation haha)
Who doesn’t love a weekend of carbs? While you guzzle different potato products (I’m sure garlic fries are in there somewhere – they are big over here) you can participate in some of these events:

Mashed potato sculpture contest • Mashed potato wrestling competition • Mashed potato eating contest • Potato Picking Contest • Potato Peeling Contest • Sewing & Stacking Contest • Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head • Potato Sack Fashion Show

Needless to say: If you hate potatoes, don’t go.

potato days festival

Left to right: Participant in the Potato Sack Fashion competition; Mashed potato wrestling; Contestant in the sew and stack potato competition. Source:

4 – 8 Aug. Montana
 (great website name right?!) 

Yip, you’re thinking the same thing as me: why, oh why? Well apparently over 15 000 people enjoy eating deep-fried bull testicles. Here over 2½ tons of deep-fried bull testicles are consumed by attendees. At the same time, according to the delightfully designed website you can enjoy watching or participating in a wet t-shirt contest, hairy chest competition and a bull chip throwing competition. (Word of advice: Whatever you do, stay away from the photo section on the website- unless you want to see a lot of naked old people- I couldn’t stay long enough to find a picture of people eating bull’s testicles!)

Some added information that might make you want to go (or stay very far away) :
“Express yourself! Adults only! Stay over in your tent or RV. Free Wi-Fi.”
One can only imagine the type of people at this event! (Definitely adults only).

testicle festival

2-4 July. Roswell, New Mexico

This is one event that Hollywood has managed to include in quite a few movies, so I had heard of it before (as I am sure a lot of other people have). The town of Roswell is well known for it’s association with aliens after the alleged sighting of a UFO in 1947. Since then, the subject has been one of extreme controversy with the United States Armed Forces saying that the debris was from an experimental surveillance balloon from a classified programme. There are a collection of people (many who attend the festival) who believe that the debris was part of an alien craft and that the military were simply trying to cover the whole situation up. Here is how they describe the incident on the festivals website:

In early July, 1947, a mysterious object crashed on a ranch 30 miles north of Roswell. The Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF) issued a statement claiming to have recovered a crashed “flying disk.”  An article ran on the front page of the Roswell Daily Record and the next day, RAAF changed its statement to say that the object was a weather balloon, not a flying disk as they previously reported.  This revised statement sparked immediate controversy and has continued to be a topic of debate more than 60 years later.”

At the festival, thousands of alien enthusiasts come together dressed in all sorts of costumes and enjoy activities like costume competitions, recreational skateboarding, live music, a museum and lectures. The costume competition is for both humans and pets (best pet wins $50!) and if you’re wearing a costume you’re welcome to partake in the light parade where you ride around on ‘alien spaceships’. 

Roswell pics

Left to right: Alien branding on vending machines at the festival (source:; Pet dress-up competition (pic credit: Yawning dog- Mark Wilson, other dog- Karlitos Lomas); Roswell town (source:; festival-goers in their alien costumes with Miss New Mexico (pic credit: Joan Marie). 

12-15 July. San Diego, California

I first heard about this festival through that excellent American show ‘The OC’ which many of us were addicted to during university days – those who were equally embarrassingly glued to the show will remember how obsessed Seth was with Comic-Con. And scenes of all those people who dressed up to the max for the event. It’s also regularly referred to in the Big Bang Theory. Entourage has quite an entertaining episode with the fictional ‘Viking Quest’ character attending the event. 

It is in fact the fourth largest comic festival in the world, with the biggest being Comiket in Japan. In 2010 the event had over 130 000 people attending, filling the San Diego Convention Centre to it’s capacity. The Comic-Con organisation has been going since 1970, and originally began as a way to display new (and old) comic books, science fiction, fantasy and television. However it has expanded enormously and now includes other genres like horror, animation, anime, manga, toys, collectible card games, video games and web comics.

Comic fans can meet their favourite authors, get autographed versions of comics and books, visit exhibition stands, find rare collectible toys, and watch the annual masquerade which features many amazingly designed costumes. According to the website, it is called a masquerade and not simply a costume competition because: 

“…It’s more than just posing on stage: it’s about portraying characters too, a show full of spectacle, beauty, awe, comedy, light-saber battles, and song and dance, an event where you never know what’s going to happen next.”

Sounds like something worth seeing!

comic-con pictures

Left to right: Some of the many costumes you may see at the event (source:; the official logo of the festival; celebrities often attend the event in interesting outfits like this! (source:; more awesome outfits based on super heroes (pic credit: Pamela Schreckengost); funny merchandise on sale (source:; the convention centre in San Diego (source:

Although we do have quite a few festivals in South Africa (art, wine, food, home expos, etc), I haven’t heard of any that are similar to these kinds of wacky events- have you? I think this is probably because the size of SA is so small in proportion to the States that we don’t have a broad or big enough audience to attend them. A lot of events over here have been running for so many years meaning that they’re very well organised and seem to make big profits.

Okay – so I’m pretty sure no one would voluntarily go to an event like the testicle festival in South Africa (I wouldn’t!). However, I think events like the Makers Faire could work in South Africa as a way to inspire great entrepreneurial ideas that could contribute to employment and the economy. 

Anyone want to dress up as an alien and join me in Roswell? 🙂


05/08/2012 / van berger

‘I’ll have a decaf grande skinny low-fat mocha with whipped cream on the side’

coffee beans

Coffee: that irresistibly creamy caffeinated, miracle liquid that gets millions of Americans through the day. From what I’ve observed in the last two months, America seems to be driven by coffee culture. It’s the one place where carrying a huge cup of coffee is like an accessory to the clothes you choose to wear everyday. When you’re not wearing a cup of coffee- you’re sure to feel like a part of you is missing instantly. But never fear – all you have to do is run to the nearest Starbucks (there’s one on EVERY SINGLE corner) and you’re socially acceptable. Don’t assume that a normal sized coffee cup is enough to get you through the morning though- you should ideally grab a 20oz (+_600ml) cup and you’ll be wired (until your next hit later). Make sure you ask for the skinny milk option though (because you’re ‘healthy’).

I enjoy coffee in moderate amounts, but I don’t like drinking average coffee just for the sake of something to keep me busy or to look cool. That’s why I find it interesting that because coffee is so ingrained in the culture here,  it’s normal for so many people to flock to places like Starbucks for pretty average coffee. In our two months here I’ve noticed that the ritual of drinking coffee in America seems to be quite different to South Africa. The large majority of coffee shops in the States have a wifi-network which is one of the main reasons why so many people head out the house to get their fix. Many people visit coffee shops for hours by themselves, drinking coffee while playing on their laptops (or pretending to work). In South Africa I’ve found the experience to be quite different. Even though you do see people working in coffee shops in bigger cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, the social emphasis of meeting up with someone in a coffee shop takes preference over the professional one.

After first arriving in this coffee-driven land, I struggled to order a normal cup of filter coffee at many of the chain stores. The options were either cappuccino, latte, mocha or what is known as drip coffee. Drip coffee (in my opinion) is pretty gross as it usually stands for hours in a coffee jugs on a hot plate meaning it usually tastes burnt or old. Eventually I landed up ordering an Americano (which is essentially expresso with added hot water, but tastes way better and fresher than drip coffee). The options you can choose from are endless (as seen in the title of this blog post)- I always get asked if I want cream in my coffee and there are loads of toppings and syrups you can usually add. You can also choose from about four different milk options (full fat, cream, half and half and no-fat). The times I have ordered coffee in Starbucks- I’ve felt ripped off. The coffee was average tasting, yet cost more than other cafes charged. After many unsatisfying cups of coffee, D and I eventually found our favourite coffee spot in Mountain View called ‘Dana Roasting Company’ which not only charges way less, but just seems less mass-produced and commercial. They grind their own beans in the store and have live bands performing on most evenings. Also how can you not trust a coffee shop with this kind of anti-Starbucks sign?

Dana Roasting Company

These stats say it all…Sourced from

Coffee drinking stats

Today work hours aren’t always 9 to 5 and in big cities like New York people are always on the go and work all hours of the day. Coffee is a handy stimulant that gets the day started (or a night shift) and gets the worker through their work hours. Office coffee machines are everywhere and mutually beneficial to both employees and employers- productivity is boosted for employers who want their workers to start work right away and at the same time it’s more convenient for the employer who doesn’t have to leave their desk for a coffee break. Think about it- what’s the one thing your place of employment usually provides in the office kitchen? Not nutritious snacks like fruit or even margarine for your measly lunch sandwich- It’s coffee.

Think of your favourite American TV shows- Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld? What do they all have in common? Coffee! They all use coffee as a main character and as a prop in the background for socialising. This is where we start to relate to coffee as almost a friend, which gets you through almost anything (especially when served in those awesome cups in the Friends coffee shop). Everyone in movies seems to either walk past a Starbucks or have a Starbucks coffee in hand. Think about the Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep always drinks Starbucks – an easy association can be made here with living a powerful lifestyle and drinking Starbucks (and getting exactly the individualised coffee style you want).

Frazier and Central Perk coffee shops

Left: Many episodes of the popular sitcom Frasier are based around this coffee shop- source: . Right: Everyone knows ‘Central Perk’, where our favourite ‘Friends’ hang out- source:

Although the first coffeehouse was opened in Venice in 1683, the beverage has been around since around 1608 and was mainly consumed by the elite during those days. During the French revolution, revolutionists began discussions over the bourgeoisie in Parisian coffeehouses. In 1960’s America, coffee was branded to appeal to an older audience, while soft-drinks were popular amongst the younger generation (anyone who has watched Mad Men will see this referenced). Starbucks, which originated in Seattle in 1971 has had a large hand in changing that perception. Three friends took their hard-earned cash and started a coffee shop, but in 1981 the company was sold to investors and that’s when the huge corporation took hold. Statistics vary across the internet, but it seems that they now have over 19 000 stores in over 50 countries worldwide. Their partnering with brands like Barnes and Noble (bookshop)  and Safeway (grocery store) have meant they have expanded even further and have begun to represent a place where ‘people can network, relax and enjoy the simple pleasures of a cup of coffee.’

This expansion hasn’t been all smooth-sailing as many people have bashed the brand for their questionable sourcing of coffee beans and labour practices. Some of the ways they have expanded have included buying out competitors’ leases, operating at a loss on purpose and saturating the market with chains so close to each other. There is also talk of them starting their own coffee plantation in China to help satisfy the emerging demand for coffee there (and hence satisfy many of the Chinese who look to Starbucks as a way of living the Western lifestyle). Critics have also questioned the companies decision to move away from sourcing quality beans from more expensive farmers in regions like Costa Rica because of the sheer volume they need to source. This means that they will start using cheaper beans from larger farms in Brazil and other places (more information). If Starbucks starts to change the way they source their supply, many other coffee chains may follow.

The anti-Starbucks following has spread across the interwebs with many parodies and imitations of their logo popping up all over the show. There are websites like which up until 2004 actually owned the domain name (until Starbucks managed to buy it off them). The website is pretty entertaining and shows how people have ripped off the logo (see below). They state that they have even received quite a few CV’s from people trying to apply for a job at Starbucks through their site. Their main reason for hating Starbucks: “Take McDonalds and make it into a coffee house, bingo you’ve got Starbucks!” – which is pretty self-explanatory.


Above left: Starbucks are on every corner in big cities in America -source: Above right: Two images from the website which encourages users to send in spoof Starbucks logos- source:

Yay – something positive! This growing movement aims to enhance the way coffee is not only seen in the community, but produced. These days coffee is seen more of a commodity in the US – on equal level with something like wheat. Instead third wave coffee is trying to make it be seen as a ‘artisanal foodstuff’ like wine. This means better bean growing, harvesting and processing to produce a more quality product. A better relationship between coffee growers, traders and roasters needs to be promoted. I’ve seen this in a way more successful level in South Africa- maybe because the smaller places stand out more because we don’t have huge corporations like Starbucks taking over everywhere. When I think about the coffee at places like Truth Coffee and Espresso Lab Microroasters in Cape Town I feel homesick!

The farmers markets are one of the few places I’ve seen micro roasters selling their coffee here. That along with an emphasis on organic fresh produce seems like a great way of starting to convert Americans to go for quality over quantity and convenience.  The irony of the situation is that I often see people buying loads of organic veggies, but then they’re carrying the standard Starbucks cup of coffee, when they have access to better quality stuff at the market! I don’t get it. I guess I’m just glad that although McDonalds has spread to South Africa, Starbucks hasn’t gained access there yet. I hope it stays that way. In the meantime I’ll probably be sticking to my Bialetti coffee at home. 

04/26/2012 / van berger

San Francisco: “the homeless capital” of America


Coming from a country like South Africa, and more specifically a city like Cape Town, I am used to seeing homeless people everyday. You see them at traffic lights, under bridges and on the side of the road. After a while as a middle class person you seem to just unintentionally take it for granted that you aren’t in their position. So when I came to the US it wasn’t surprising for me to see homeless people, but it was more interesting to see just how many  homeless people there are and compare the situation with South Africa. San Francisco is known across the US as being the “homeless capital of America”, along with Los Angeles. The first time we took a train into the city, I was shocked to see how many people were going about their daily business while many others (mainly older males) were looking in rubbish bins and pushing their ‘mobile homes’ (trolley’s) around. The trolleys were all filled to the brim with a mixture of personal belongings and trash for recycling. A large proportion of the people we saw were talking to themselves or acting in some kind of unusual behaviour. On that day we were only asked by one person for spare change. And when we politely refused, they just said “Have a nice day” and moved on. This was intriguing to me as I think a lot of people in South Africa automatically equate “beggars” to “homeless people”. In the USA it seems to be slightly different as many of the homeless people don’t really stay on the streets to beg, but simply because they don’t have any other place to be (or choose not to be).

Back in the Silicon Valley (where D and I stay), I take the bus quite often. There are such a mix of characters on the bus, some who definitely have some mental health problems and some who just seem to stay on the bus forever. When I asked local people about this they explained that a lot of homeless people take the bus during winter because they just have to pay for a day pass and being on the bus provides warmth and protection for the day. There seems to be no problem with this and many of the bus drivers seem to know and recognize the “locals” on their routes, making friendly conversation with many of them. One bus incident stands out for me since I’ve arrived. D and I were on the bus and minding our own business. The notorious 22 bus was quite empty with an American woman talking loudly on her phone infront of us (not unusual here). A homeless looking man across the bus was half passed out or sleeping- we weren’t sure. As the woman continued with her conversation, the man started to shout and slur “Shut up, just shut up ” to her and then kind of pass out again.  The woman was having none of this, and a full childish argument followed with her saying “No, you shut up” and him replying “No, you shut up” for literally I’m not kidding about 10 minutes! It was only when the bus driver got involved that they stopped. These sorts of incidents happen all the time and I think a lot of it has to do with some seriously mentally-ill people in the Unites States. Or maybe it’s just because I don’t take much public transport in Cape Town, so I’m not as exposed to these kinds of scenarios. When I thought about the homeless situation here and compared it to back home it got me questioning as to why San Francisco has such a big problem and what some of the causes could be. So I did some research…

Obviously it would be impossible to go into all the reasons in a single blog post so I’ll leave that up to the sociologists and their in-depth thesis’s. However here are some interesting reasons I’ve found as to why it is such a problem in this area.

  • San Francisco has a mild climate all year round which means that being on the street all night isn’t as bad as it would be in colder cities elsewhere in the US.
  • The city used to have a programme where homeless individuals were given cash payments, but after 2007 they began to scale back on this system and introduce a “Care not cash plan”.
  • Historically it looks like many mentally-ill homeless people came onto the streets because of the “Deinstitutionalization movement” in the 1950’s. Instead of state mental health systems taking care of mentally-ill patients on a long-term basis, there was a movement towards “community-based treatment”. Many of these patients had no support from families, and were therefore forced onto the street.
  • Through redevelopment, many low-income neighbourhoods were demolished for projects that brought about higher-property taxes. This created a shortage of houses for these working class families, the elderly and the disabled.
  • There are many Veterans (mainly from the Vietnam war) who have not been provided with sufficient mental-health care by the government or job training.
  • Many foster children land up on the streets after they have been released by foster care.
  • San Francisco is no stranger to earthquakes as many people know. These natural disasters (and others) destroy homes and often leave people with nothing.
  • San Francisco is built around a bay with many ports for shipping,etc. However the industrial crises of the 1970’s and 80’s led to the main port collapsing, meaning a lot of people lost their jobs.
  • Being the hub of the IT industry, the Silicon Valley and San Francisco has driven up house-prices enormously making it an extremely expensive place to rent or buy. Even our one-bedroom apartment outside of the city is very expensive in comparison to other parts of the country. This has caused many people to leave the city and head to cheaper areas like Oakland (across the bay) or be stuck in the city without low-cost housing.

Left: An area in SF named ‘Homeless Island” Source: Chronicle. Pic by Brant Ward. Right: Street scene in SF. Source:  Zimbio. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America

Teresa Gowan is the author of Hobos, Hustlers and Backsliders- homeless in San Francisco, a really interesting book I would recommend reading (there’s a preview online if you’re interested in the topic). She’s an assistant sociology professor at the University of Minnesota and spent a long time studying and interviewing many of the city’s homeless community. Throughout her studies she says that she met a variety of different ‘types’ of homeless people, and can roughly divide them into “sin vs system”. There are those that accept that this is their fate because of their involvement in drug abuse, etc, while there are others that are simply mentally-ill, unable to gain unemployment or disabled (screwed by the system).

One of her informants said this about the city:

Some of the reasons she was given as to why the subjects said they prefer to live in the city:

  • They can collect appliances and old clothes from dumpsters and are able to sell them on busy street-corners (called it dumpster diving). They also take large amounts of recycling goods to centres where they get a small amount of money. (sure this is standard across big cities).
  • They don’t feel they need to hide as much, seeing there is such a large community of them.
  • The city is seen as a refuge for nonconformists, artists, activists and gay people. Therefore it generally appears more ‘liberal’ than other US cities and people flock here for those reasons.
  • The streets in the centre of the city are so dense and diverse that they feel safer in San Francisco.

According to Gowan, there are many different reactions to homeless people which she encountered during her studies. Many social workers were said to treat the individuals like “chaotic addicts”, while doctors saw them as “depressives” and police treated them as a nuisance and interference to the lifestyle of residents of the city. This obviously brings up questions about the attitude of Americans to the homeless problem. There are mixed reactions it seems. Through my research online I came across the Coalition on Homelessness which is a website dedicated to informing citizens about various protests around homeless people in San Francisco. The main frustration the group seems to have is that city laws aren’t helping. A Californian prohibition was passed in 2010 against people sitting and lying down on public sidewalks from 7am to 11pm. Failure to follow this can result in a $1000 fine, 6 months in jail or both. Some small headway has been made in the form of getting government to change budget priorities which have kept some of the shelters and emergency resource centres open. The numbers of people on the street have still only decreased slightly over the years.


There are quite a large number of homeless shelters around the city and bay area, but for some reason a lot of people choose not to use them. In this article I found out some of the reasons why. Unlike South Africa, many homeless people here have jobs and the shelter check-in and check-out times are very rigid, meaning they can’t have access during the times they need. Many of the shelters seem to not cater for disabled people which is a huge obstacle to many of the Veterans in the city. Some of the shelters are seen as unsafe, and often a place for rapists to target vulnerable homeless women. Apparently police don’t often take complaints from homeless people as seriously as they should which means these crimes continue. According to the article many of these shelters are filled with parasites because of the bedding that is shared amongst homeless people. At the same time there are a lot of ill people around the shelters, which means that homeless people with lower immune systems can easily pick up diseases. Many families get separated from each other once they check-in at shelters, and most of them are separated into male and female shelters. Most of the time male shelters won’t accept children and therefore single fathers don’t have any choice, but to sleep on the street.

Although there are support groups like Coalition on Homelessness there are also many negative reactions where blame is placed on the homeless people for getting themselves into their circumstances. In an article on Inside Scoop SF, a journalist poses the question about whether residents would be happy paying an extra 1% tax at restaurants to fund homeless people . This idea has apparently worked in other US cities like Miami, Florida. I was really interested to see the mix of comments that followed the article (mainly negative):

Another very interesting article I read is called  People to Avoid, San Francisco where readers have provided ‘advice’ on who to talk to and who to avoid in San Francisco. It obviously is seen as a bit of a scarier place compared to the rest of America with headings like ‘Watch out for Obnoxious Vagrants on Public Trans’ and comments like these about the homeless community:

It seems that homelessness is a global problem, but while our apartheid history is a large influencing factor in South Africa, there seem to be quite different reasons for so many people living on the streets out here. San Francisco is not an extremely dangerous place from what I’ve seen, but there are definitely a large amount of homeless people who have mental-health issues. I wonder if there are any solutions that South Africa has come across that could work here, or visa versa?

04/16/2012 / van berger

“We don’t eat to survive..we just eat and eat and eat”

Considering my blog title is “Deep Fried USA” I thought it was only appropriate to start with a topic that is pretty much notorious when dealing with America and Americans: Food and obesity.

When I was 15 I came to the states with my family for a few months while my dad was on sabbatical. We lived in North Carolina in a small university town and it was here that I was first introduced to the ‘American diet’. I attended a high school where one of my classes was School store. You would think that this kind of class would teach students entrepreneurial skills like managing money, being creative with ideas, etc. Not true. Guess what we did during class? We made cookies from cookie dough which we then sold in the store to other students- Yes really. My family and I visited American fairs where we were introduced to foods like the blooming onion (basically deep fried onion that’s been made to look like a flower), dinosaur sized turkey legs, and lots of other deep fried stuff like butter. Then there was halloween where I was given more free candy and chocolates that I usually get in a whole year. Not surprisingly I landed up picking up a fair amount of weight during that time.

Left: Blooming onion (deep fried onion in the shape of a flower) – source Right: Deep fried butter (omg) -source Pinterest.

So when I knew I would be returning to this deep-fried loving country, I was a bit anxious about falling into the same trap as I did in my teenage years. Being a pretty health-conscious individual back in SA, I have found it incredibly difficult to understand why there are such highly processed, chemically-enhanced foods here. And why so many people consume them- especially when they have the highest rate of obesity in the world. If you don’t believe me here is a website dedicated to obesity in America:

According to some of their statistics from various websites, 35.7% of Americans are obese. Apparently the South has the highest obesity rate (29.4%) followed by the Midwest (28.7%), Northeast (24.9%) and the West (24.1%). Along with this information, they also state that obesity is more likely in lower-income homes. Now this doesn’t surprise me. In the fair amount of supermarkets I have been to you can buy about 5 bags of nacho chips for the price of one bag of grapes. All the special deals are usually for the cheaper, fattier foods and there are no cards (that i’ve seen) that offer benefits in store for buying healthier items. Apart from that, the frozen food isles take up about a 1/3 of the actual shop itself. Another thing I’ve come to realise is that Americans don’t have the same approach to ‘enjoying’ food that South Africans do. The majority of restaurants don’t seem to make a huge effort in making the ‘experience’ of eating out pleasurable. It seems like Americans eat out because they can, not because they want to. The quantity of food is almost always more important than the quality which is really disappointing.

Here are a few of the common foods I’ve seen in shops here which I’ve never seen in South Africa (ever). Every time I see these items- I just get confused while many Americans pop them into their trolleys and move on.


Here are a few foods that this website says “only America could have invented” It’s pretty entertaining

The list includes:

• corn dogs (popular at baseball games)
• Philly cheesesteak (apparently made with the cheapest fattiest cuts of meat and cheese wizz – which isn’t real cheese)
• american imitation of chinese food (more deep fried stuff)
• s’mores (graham crackers and marshmallows)
• reuben sandwich (a ton of meat, with fake swiss cheese on bread)
• cobb salad (you would think this would be healthy, but believe me it’s not- cheese, chicken, bacon, eggs and whatever else you can find that’s not lettuce)
• baked alaska (basically a pie baked with ice cream inside it)
• buffalo wings (really burnt chicken meat served with cheese)
• turducken (okay we have this in SA, but think it must have originated here. Way too much meat together for me to handle)
• chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream (self-explanatory)

None of these foods sound particularly enticing to me. And so I started to think about why so many people want to stuff them in their mouths everyday! In an article written by Doctor Mark Hyman, he suggests that these industrial processed, sugar, fat, and salt-laden foods are biologically addictive. He actually compares food addiction to drug addiction.

For instance he explains:
“Sugar stimulates the brain’s reward centers through the neurotransmitter dopamine exactly like other addictive drugs. Foods high in fat and sweets stimulate the release of the body’s own opioids (chemicals like morphine) in the brain. People (and rats) develop a tolerance to sugar—they need more and more of the substance to satisfy themselves—just like they do for drugs of abuse like alcohol or heroin.” 

So does this mean Americans are simply the most “addicted” to food and why aren’t South Africans having the same problem? I was curious and so read on to see what could be blamed for this food addiction. It seems that one of the main problems in the food industry is that government seems to promote the idea of personal choice and responsibility, but this doesn’t seem to help when people don’t even know what they are always eating! People are simply told to exercise to burn off calories, but not warned about the dangers some of these foods. Hyman also says that 50% of meals in America are eaten out, and the rest consist of microwavable food. School cafetaria’s are supplied with endless supplies of highly processed foods and ‘sports drinks’ which lead kids and teenagers to form bad eating habits. America is run on capitalism and if many of these food companies decided to help promote healthy eating, they would of course lose a lot of money. So nothing is done.

Hyman suggests some changes that could help the American obesity problem:

  • Changing the costs of these industrial foods so that they include the ‘real cost’ of  the impact on health care and lost productivity.
  • The government should subsidize fruit and vegetable production. Most of the government funds seem to go to subsidizing soy and corn which form the basis of many of these unhealthy foods (I will be writing another post on high-fructose corn syrup- another entity in itself).
  • Encouraging supermarkets to open in poorer communities so they have access to high-quality foods.
  • Stopping food marketing to kids (apparently 50 other countries worldwide have done this- has South Africa?)
  • Changing school lunch rooms with better nutrition education.
  • Start community support programmes with community health workers to educate people about making better food choices.
There is no clear answer as to why things have gotten so incredibly bad in terms of obesity and unhealthy eating in America, but I’m thankful that in South Africa I at least feel like I can trust the food items and their ingredients a bit more. D and I have been so careful as to what we buy here (checking most of the labels to check sugar content, etc). I would highly recommend that people travelling to America be aware of the ‘secret ingredients’ put into products here and always check sugar content, and whether products contain high-fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners like Splenda (which I will go into in another post).
Anyone else had similar experiences over here?
UPDATE: After a friend read this post they sent me some awesome links for more “awesome” american food.
Check out these websites for a laugh (some of the stuff is pretty scary looking):
I was also sent this TED talk by an American friend which is really interesting. It’s about how America passed laws to use ingredients that the rest of the world doesn’t.

04/16/2012 / van berger

Greetings from the USA, land of cookie dough and deep fried stuff

Our first week exploring the city of San Francisco, including the Golden Gate Bridge

Hey there and welcome

As some of you may know I recently moved to the San Francisco Bay area with my lovely geeky boyfriend (D) who was lucky enough to be offered a great job in the Silicon Valley (the IT haven of the world if you don’t already know). Leaving my life in South Africa has been hard, but I’ve been lucky enough to be given the opportunity to live somewhere else which comes with many pros and cons. I’ve lived in both Australia and London in previous years (both first world countries that aren’t that unlike South Africa in many ways). Hence when I moved to the States I was under the impression that things couldn’t be that culturally different in another english speaking first world country…but  boy was I wrong! There have been so many differences (small and large) that have blown our minds! These (and a lack of employment) have motivated me to start Deep Fried USA, where I will hopefully try to share these for prospective future “South Africans in America”. At the same I time I also hope to try to investigate why things are the way they are here for a better understanding of American culture.

My first real post shall be up shortly…

p.s yes there will be a few pictures of gross deep-fried american food on here for all those hopefuls!