I’ve been a bit slack on the interview front but I wanted to revive my Meet a Mom series, as I like you to hear from other people besides me all the time! I’m also always interested in hearing from South Africans living abroad, so I’m chuffed to introduce you to my friend Amelia De Vaal, who I met when we worked together in book publishing a few years ago and who now lives in Portland. Over to her…
- Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hi! My name is Amelia. I’m 34, addicted to coffee and classical music, mom to Annabelle (17 months), wife to Jaco and a proud working-from-home-multitasker.
I’m a born and bred Pretorian: My parents still live in the same house where I grew up. I saw quite a bit of Europe and the US as a student singing in the Tuks Camerata, and completed part of my Masters at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. From very early on in our relationship, Jaco (an IT project manager) and I had one major thing in common: we wanted to see the world and live abroad.
When Jaco got the opportunity to do an inter-company transfer to Portland, Oregon, five years ago, it was a no-brainer decision to pack up our life in Joburg and move to the other side of the globe. We arrived in Portland with only four suitcases and the vague plan to stay for about three years. Now we have a house, a dog and a little girl with an American passport!
2. What do you do for work?
Because we never intended to stay “forever” (we still don’t), I was lucky to keep my job as an editor and translator for Protea Boekhuis in Pretoria. Working from home was a difficult transition at first (I’m a people’s person and crave interaction!), but now I absolutely love it! Between my extremely busy toddler and her dog-brother Moses, my days are neither glamorous nor quiet – but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m passionate about people and their stories and love nothing more than meeting interesting souls.
3. What are your favourite things about living where you do now?
I am probably one of the most passionate “honorary Portlandians” the city could ask for! Despite all the good-natured flack that comes Portland’s way, the city’s “weirdness” is exactly what makes it so wonderful. Yes, hipsters and hippies abound but the live-and-let-live attitude I experience on a daily basis makes feeling at home here really easy.
Portland has all the makings of a big city – yet you can walk around some neighbourhoods and feel like you’re in Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories, circa 1950. People keep chickens and plant vegetables in their front yards. There is outrage when old buildings are demolished. Urban goats are a thing and there’s an annual soapbox derby. Really.
Make no mistake: It’s America – with all the stereotypes – but there’s something almost European to Portland too. It’s a liberal city with open-minded and well-informed people. They’re environmentally conscious; they support the arts … if it had a little more sunshine, it would be pretty close to the perfect place to live and raise a family. But unfortunately the winters are long and WET (on average 154 days with measurable precipitation per year).
If we were ever to leave here, these would be the things I’d miss most:
- There are so many gorgeous parks here – my favorite is Forest Park – an 8-mile-long expanse (that’s almost 13 km) of urban forest with close to 113 km worth of recreational trails. Even though you can see town from some points, it feels like it’s miles from civilisation. The trees stretch up and up…it’s quiet and green and mossy…nothing restores inner tranquility quite as well as a long walk between Douglas firs, dogwoods and ferns.
- Powell’s City of Books – the largest independent bookstore in the US, specialising in used, rare and out-of-print books – is probably one of the first reasons Portland stole my heart. It is book lovers’ nirvana, with none of the “clinical” elegance of your average chain bookstore. Occupying a full street block and sporting floor-to-ceiling shelves that create an almost maze-like atmosphere, the very smell of Powell’s is intoxicating.
- Weird and wonderful things happening all the time – whether I choose to participate in them or simply stare in quizzical amazement. Singalong movies (yes!), a naked bike ride, turning old airport carpet into a highly sought-after hipster collectable. A Darth Vader-clad, bagpipe-playing unicyclist. A museum for vacuum cleaners. Peanut butter and jam sandwiches being served at schools becoming a heated controversy. That’s Portland in a nutshell.
4. What do you miss about South Africa?
- I really miss my family – although Skype and Facetime are game-changers! It’s not that we don’t have constant contact…it’s more about not being able to be there for Sunday lunch and not having that element of close personal interaction. At the same time, living on a continent this huge, I’ve come to realise that there are millions of Americans on the opposite sides of the country who only see their families once or twice a year. Being “far away” is definitely relative!
- Being constantly surrounded by lush, soft mossy greens is postcard pretty – but sometimes I really miss dusty, yellow landscapes, the smell of Gauteng thunderstorms, the harsh and stark beauty of the Karoo. Oregon can sometimes simply feel…too green.
- Walking barefoot! Even the littlest kids are ALWAYS wearing shoes – and not only the parents but also their offspring look at me very strangely when Annabelle happily toddles along without footwear. “Why isn’t she wearing shoes?” is a question I regularly get at the park.
- Affordable help. This is a loaded issue, I know, because the question certainly needs to be asked whether domestic service in South Africa is compensated well enough – but: A nanny for six hours a week, who will do no household tasks but exclusively look after Annabelle, will cost me more or less the same per month as a live-in domestic worker in South Africa. Care is simply that expensive. My house is therefore a lot messier than I’d ever thought I’d be ok with – but I’ve learned to love ironing!
- This is a crude generalisation, but I do feel like the majority of Americans don’t value “social pretences and niceties” halfway as much as South Africans (or maybe particularly Afrikaans speakers?) do: Walking guests out to their car, for example, is not really a thing. You’re ready to go home? Say goodbye and let yourself out, just like that. When we do the whole walking-out-with-you-waltz, our “politeness” gets commented on. Weird, if you ask me!
Thanks so much Amelia for those insights! If you enjoyed that interview there are lots more Meet a Mom interviews – catch up with other interesting moms around the world here.