Upon hearing we were moving to New Jersey I wanted to make a corny joke about how we will need to buy some ‘new jerseys’ (South African for sweaters) for the huge difference in climate we will experience compared to the consistent year long Summers we enjoyed in Ghana. In Accra wearing jeans for me was a novelty when the humidity level permitted, usually in the slightly cooler middle of the year rainy season! But lame jokes aside, we really didn’t know anything about New Jersey upon landing here, and we knew nobody in this state either. So it’s been a month of discovering, learning, exploring and adventuring.
Feelings of nostalgia since moving to New Jersey
America is not totally unfamiliar to us though, so when we heard we were moving to New Jersey we had some idea of what life in the States would be like. Six years ago before moving to Ghana, our family had an amazing holiday in Texas and Montana and although it was 21 years ago that I lived in Seabrook, Texas as a Rotary exchange student for a year, I still remember that experience well. Knowing that we have ‘American family’ in the relationships born during that year, on the same continent however mind-blowingly vast the US is, feels really good! Moving to Texas as a 17 year old was a huge change from the only life I had known in South Africa and the strong impressions that year made on me, linger deep in my being and have brought up a lot of recent nostalgia in me.
Sometimes nostaliga stays tucked into a mundane moment like pulling a fragrant clothes dryer sheet from a cardboard box while doing laundry. A routine domestic act I haven’t repeated in many years (due to us hanging our clothes to dry in the sun in SA and Ghana) and suddenly 18 year old me is standing in the laundry of my then American home, closing the white metal dryer door and choosing a setting on the dial to dry my clothes. It exists is in the cinnamony crunch of what was my favourite breakfast cereal, one that I wished for years Kelloggs would produce in South Africa, and as I bite into a piece of Cracklin Oat Bran I am transported back in time to eating breakfast on the run, walking in the balmy Texas morning air to catch the school bus. Or it lays dormant in the soft padding of a carpeted room and is awoken when my bare foot makes contact with that floor, and I recall my American bedrooms in the lovely coastal town of Seabrook.
House hunting and deciding on a suburb in New Jersey
Last Saturday it was a month since we arrived at JFK airport, stood in the airport passport queue for three hours and made the taxi journey to New Jersey. We initially stayed in temporary accommodation in New Brunswick and Woodbridge for a few weeks, and after seeing five houses in different suburbs (and feeling like we were on an episode of House Hunters International) we found a rental in the charming town of Westfield. Settled in 1720 as the West Fields of Elizabeth town, this then village grew as a stop on the Central Railroad of New Jersey and was later declared a town in 1903. It was also a place of major battles during the American Revolution.
Even though the interior of this rental needed painting and this last Sunday was the fourth Sunday we’ve (David!) spent painting, we are so grateful to have found a nice home so quickly. This meant that our kids could start school in the area and that was a number one urgent priority for us all! The train station is a mere 10 minute walk away, as is downtown and it feels great, as it did in Ghana, to be able to get groceries on foot and to stroll around this picturesque town.
Brand new sounds and scenes
The peep peeping sound of the men honking their rubbber bicycle horns while selling Bofrot (fried dough balls) in Ghana was a sound I loved hearing. It was just so different and happily Ghanaian to me. Here it has been replaced by the lovely low groans of train horns throughout the day and night, and I find those moment of surprise that enter my ears since moving to New Jersey equally appealing, as we have never lived somewhere where trains are commonplace.
Waiting for our things to arrive and some temporary minimalism
We are currently living “camping style” in our rental and there’s definitely some minimalistic freedom I feel owning only four of each cutlery and crockery item, (Thanks Ikea!) and having a kitchen with just enough to cook some good meals in! But when we sit at night on the comfy couch in our lounge that someone in Westfield was kindly giving away on Facebook Marketplace, and look at the freshly painted walls, it is also exciting to imagine our pictures and paintings bringing a homely feel to the space. We look forward to receiving our things that bring South Africa and Ghana into our home and remind us of special times and people. We have partially filled containers coming from Durban and Accra. They are both at sea and every few nights we check to see where in the ocean they are. Our Ghana has been in Hamburg Germany for the last while.
I am feeling a little apprehensive about receiving all of our Durban stuff that we haven’t seen for the last few years since living in Accra, and finding a home for those forgotten items in our average size house. But I’m also very much looking forward to being reunited with sentimental items like my mom’s childhood piano that the kids and I can now play, and old photo albums. It will be nice to be able to show them pictures of David and I and our family and friends when we were much younger, and reminisce on the good old days through those memories. It will also be fun to show them some of my experience living in Texas in 2000 through the scrapbooks that I made and it is hard to believe that Emma is only five years younger than the Lauren we will see in those immotalised moments! See my blog post on some reminiscing I did about our children a few months ago.
What has moving to New Jersey been like so far?
So what’s the last month been like for us? If I had to sum it up I would say that moving to New Jersey has been wonderfully pleasant. From simple things like seeing more sunrises in the last few weeks than in the last few years (our Ridge home in Accra was surrounded by beautiful tall trees and I was also never up early enough to be out and about that early) to seeing Dave every morning for a cup of coffee and a chat, as he is no longer leaving home crazy early to start work at 6am, while the kids are I were still fast asleep. Another big change that feels like a big blessing is that we see him on Saturdays again, with the more regular hours this position came with. Emma and Jack have real ‘springs in their steps’ and seem to have ‘come to life’ in these last weeks. The change of scene after being at home for eighteen months has done them good. They love being back in normal daily circumstances of school with others again and feeling life around them.
I never ever found life in Ghana hard so I know that these positive feelings about moving to New Jersey are not rooted in comparing expat life in Accra with life here, but the ease with which things have flowed lately, and the rhythm and routine that we are establishing and settling into with each week that goes by, have felt comfortable and welcome. I think this has to do with the fact that general Covid stress aside, we had quite an insane year before moving here with dealing with terrifying cases of Covid in our families, cancelled life plans, the prolonged home school months, a fractured ankle, and a whole lot of Limbo. In the face of all that, we almost became so accustomed to weeks never really panning out as we expected they might. I started wondering whether our nonchalance when we needed to repeatedly and regularly adjust our ship sails was deep resilience or jadedness and I think it was likely a combination of both!
We feel very welcomed by the US from lovely coincidences like the last 4 digits of my cell number being the day and month of my birthday, to the warmth of people around us with everyone telling us to “have a great day”. There is much joy in the small things – recycling again – yay! and the kids delighting in listening to the car radio and being au fait with the current hit songs while we cruise along the New Jersey highways. (But I’ll miss hearing Celine everywhere I go – my Ghana friends can relate to that one). I like the fact that on the New York radio 102.7 these popular songs are interspersed with all the music I loved when I started to love listening to music! When those ones come on our kids refer to them as the ‘oldies’!
All the glorious trees and flowers in The Garden State
Yesterday Dave asked me what my favourite thing about moving to New Jersey is so far is, and I’d have to say the nature that abounds. I can see why this state is affectionately known as The Garden State, and to those who follow my page on Instagram or Facebook you have already seen how colourful flowers and gorgeous trees fill up my feed! Trees so tall that you need a wide angle lens on the camera to capture the tips of their branches!
As I loved walking around our neighbourhood in Accra instead of catching Ubers or taxis, I love walking here and saying hi to some of my fellow regulars enjoying the fresh air, like an old bent over man with his walking stick who stops at the Portuguese coffee shop every morning, who was counting out his dollar notes on a park bench earlier. And the lady who stands in her nightie greeting whoever may be passing by on the school run. ”Nice leggings Honey” she called to me last week, “I saw them for sale for 9,99 on TV in three different colours!” And I am grateful for small morning chats with Maddie and Sheila who are two of the ladies we see every day who hold up their stop signs to ensure the kids get safely to and from school. I’ve always known them as ‘lollipop men/ladies’ but I don’t think this term is used anymore!
The wood-like feel of suburbs dotted with oaks, pines, willows and dozens of trees I don’t know the names of is lovely, and seeing squirrels with their wagging bushy tails, acorns in their mouths darting around and sometimes almost hopping across the road makes me happy! There are also wild bunnies and deer about and just the other morning Dave had to make a sudden stop for a deer crossing the road and I was reminded of the times in Ghana when traffic ground to a halt for a herd of cows making their way across Ghana’s streets!
American houses remind me of the ones we learn to draw as children – triangle roof with a rectangle body and it is a change for us to see no walls or fences around houses. I love the character and charm the neighbourhoods have with different coloured shutters or doors and the attention given to making your front porch pretty with fall coloured wreaths and pumpkins. The plump, round yellow, red, orange and pink bunches of Mums (Crysanthymums) look like brightly coloured pom poms dotted around the town.
Experiencing our first Fall in America
Since the beginning of October the leaves have started to change colour here, and it is a brand new experience for us to be in the thick of a celebration of the Fall season. Pumpkin spice Everything is Everywhere! From the usual suspects like waffles and coffee to the more surprising Trader Joe’s offerings of Pumpkin spice hummus, Pumpkin spice pretzels, Pumpkin samoosas and Pumpkin Spice Cream Liqueur! This fun celebratory spirit around the different seasons of the year feels cheerful and festive!
Watching the leaves change colour reminds me of admiring a spectacular sunrise or sunset but with the added bonus that it is a prolonged landscape show with daily changes, sometimes subtle and other times more obvious. On the way to and from dropping and fetching Dave at work everyday I notice colour changes in the same trees from one day to the next. I imagine a team of gnomes who come out at night with cans of red and yellow spray and playfully spray a puff of paint here and there, often in unpredictable interesting spots on a whole tree full of foliage like a wild head of hair with a flick of brilliant red hair spray. Or it has me thinking of these bushes and trees that glow with bright red as women applying their rouge for a night on the town.
Some of the previously green leaves are now daffodil yellow, others the colour of golden delicious apples and sugar beginning to caramelise in a pot. Some trees gleam with a bold pomegranate blush, while others radiate with the deep red of a delicious merlot. I’ve noticed that some leaves turn colour slowly from the outside in and this reminds me of the thrill of burning the edges of paper as a child in an attempt to make ancient looking treasure maps. I also discovered that there is such a thing as an official Fall Folliage Report with a map indicating the different stages of leaf changes week by week!
Moving is boggling on the heart and head
It still feels unreal that we are actually really and truly here in this place setting up a new home and new daily lives. That the night street view from our lounge windows with doll-house-looking lit up windows and the orange glow of Halloween lights is not on a TV screen but actual reality.
It is hard to get my head around at times because as Emma commented last week ín some ways it feels like we got here so recently and in others it feels like we’ve been here for ages. It feels surreal that Dave has been working hard at his new job for a month already and the kids walk home from busy school days in the afternoons, and then we sit in the evenings having dinner and chatting about the life that fillled the hours since we all saw each other.
Adjusting to our new life after moving to New Jersey
Since moving to New Jersey we’ve gotten used to some new ways of doing things surprisingly quickly like driving on the other side of the road, ordering Starbucks coffee on an app and self check-outs at stores. In fact I have gotten so used to checking out my own purchases that the other day I found myself standing at the till about to tell the shopping assistant of Home Depot who was walking towards me that somebody had left their cell phone at the check out, only to discover that this was in fact his spot and he was a cashier waiting to help me! I had such a laugh at myself! So I shifted over and gave him some space to do his work! Other tasks like cleaning the house and doing our own ironing we are still adjusting to, and funnily New Jersey is one of the states where it is illegal to pump your own gas so we haven’t had to learn to do that!
Overall the last month feels like a big general life exhale and I’m very very thankful for that. (Thinking of others who may still be in the thick of things). Admittedly there are of course huge changes to living in Ghana, which quite frankly seems like another universe at times, and when I see friend’s photos like this one taken by my friend Anahita who produces documentaries about Ghana life on Youtube I feel something akin to a deep hunger pain in my belly and I yearn to be on that very street in Ghana again, greeting the locals, smiling back at warm smiles and smelling the whiffs of street food.
But I also am enjoying luxuries like smooth roads, pavements and not sweating all the time! We are missing our friends who were like family terribly, and for all of us there have been tougher days and tears. Having also spent several recent months in Durban we miss our family and friends in our South African home so much too. In those difficult moments I have a desire to retreat to a really comfortable loving space of friendship or family and to just relish in a big familiar hug.
A recent quote by author Mariam Ottimofiore of the blog And Then We Moved To @andthenwemovedto speaks right to me; “Moving quite simply means a dismantling of places, comforts, people and routines. And then creating these all over again.” Such big things have recently been dismantled for us and just as I remind my kids that areas of life take time to re-build when they get impatient, I have to remind myself of this regularly too! We have been in typical “doing” mode trying to sort out a lot since moving to New Jersey. When the dust settles I know that we will require time and space to process this huge move and that vast Atlantic Ocean distance between the two African countries we’ve called home and our new home in the States. Thanks for joining us for the ride!
To read of my impressions of life in Ghana when I first visited Accra see my post Being expats in Accra Ghana – my first impressions five years ago