Totally Californian… essentially South African

Summer rain. I miss it. The clouds scurry in – gray and heavy. The temperature drops, but only a little. Fat droplets start to fall, one at a time, and within minutes it’s raining loudly. It’s rain with a purpose. Not gentle and misty, not dreary and relentless. Thirst quenching, life-giving, happy and warm. Almost as quickly as it begins, it’s over.

Clear skies and sticky air. The trees are bright, and the birds are loud. Water drips from the leaves onto the tiled walkway. And the intoxicating fragrance of magnolia is suddenly everywhere.

I was disoriented. For a moment I was back in Pretoria, South Africa – where it rains, like this, almost every afternoon in early summer. Growing up, I would stand at the open front door, watching and waiting. Loving the steady sound of the rain on the roof and the windows. Knowing it would stop soon, the sun would come out in moments, the birds would start to call and I would breathe in that heady magnolia. Africa.

But this was Australia!

As the confused clouds blew across my brain, my heart contracted with longing. The smells and sounds coalesced into a blanket of nostalgia, lightly draping my shoulders.

Sydney, Australia is a beautiful, fun, happy city – home to the Sydney Opera House, the Harbor Bridge, magnificent water views wherever you look, cuddly koalas and fierce-looking kangaroos. Absolutely worth the 14-hour flight and crazy time change, kids in tow. It has an incredibly efficient ferry system, an amazing zoo, gorgeous parks and breathtaking beaches.


And a layer of “South African-ness” I was not expecting. Which left me surprisingly homesick.

Of course, I know that many South Africans have made Sydney their home – it made our trip even more special to spend time with old friends from elementary school and college while we were there, reconnecting, reminiscing, introducing our kids to one another.

What took me by surprise was how familiar the city felt to me. In the southern hemisphere. Chanukah in summer. Houses built from brick not sheetrock, and neighborhoods reminiscent of Johannesburg in their layout. Even the ocean felt more Indian than Pacific! Nobody asked where I was from – in California sometimes my accent sounds Australian… or Irish… or British. In Australia it’s clearly South African.

And because there is such a large South African community, typical South African foods are easily available, foods that define many of my childhood memories, and that my American children now love: biltong (puts beef jerky to shame – there is no comparison), boerewors (delicious sausage, the flavor can only be created by South Africans), chocolates, cookies and Joko tea, Nando’s Chicken (a franchise imported all the way from Johannesburg to Sydney, London, Washington DC – but sadly not San Francisco). If you know South Africans living outside of South Africa, you know how much we crave our SA food!

At the “South African shop” in Rose Bay, the owner recognized our last name – he knows my father-in-law – and the manager’s daughter went to high school with my husband. The couple staying in the apartment next door to us felt as familiar to me as my own aunt and uncle – even though I was meeting them for the first time! They hugged me when they met me, and kissed my kids, and for a minute I thought maybe I had known them somewhere before. But it was enough that we were Jewish South Africans for all of us to feel connected. She was making chopped liver for Shabbat dinner, and he cracked the same kind of jokes my dad does, and they used slang South African words we hadn’t heard in so long… and the longing squeezed my heart again. Homesick.

But I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 15 years. We left six weeks after our wedding, and my children are Californian. They have American accents, they like beef jerky and they think a costume is what you wear on Purim or Halloween (it is, but in South Africa it’s also your bathing suit). When I think “home” I see the Bay Bridge, not the telecom tower I rode my bike to as a child in Pretoria.

As we enjoyed our week in Sydney, swimming in waves that felt like those in Durban, having braais (barbecues) with old friends, waiting out the afternoon rain, those confused clouds continued to scurry across my mind.


Back home in the Bay Area, my friends understand when I reply ya instead of yes, I have found the best boerewors from a kosher South African butcher in Atlanta (they ship it next-day on dry ice!), and we have braais as often as we can. It rains in winter – sometimes incessantly – but during spring and summer I can smell magnolia and jasmine all over.

I am South Africa homesick… but in the Bay Area, I am home.

About the Author
Nicki Gilbert, South African by chance and Californian by choice, lives in the California Bay Area with her husband, four kids and Pretzel, the dachshund. She has worked in theater, marketing, and event planning, and is now a full-time barely-at-home mom, writer, avid reader, country music lover and wannabe surf diva.