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The Surprises We Find: Giraffes and Biltong

Posted by on July 10, 2013


The Surprises We Find is a series of guest posts written by friends in intercultural marriages. Over the summer, they will share the hilarity, confusion, shocks and romance of being in intercultural relationships. For some, the shocker is how similar they are, despite differing backgrounds. For others, the shockers include new types of food, in-law relations and scintillating trips to home countries.

Giraffes and Biltong is submitted by Gillian and Leon, friends of ours from Church. Gill is Canadian and Leon is Afrikaans; they’re adventurous, easy going and more than happy to engage our desire to hear stories about South Africa.


Leon and I met at work. We were both working for a big engineering consulting company. I was in Vancouver and he was in Johannesburg. Some South African colleagues visited my office and I learned that they were very eager to have more young engineers in their wastewater treatment division. I jumped at the opportunity. The company flew me to Johannesburg for a week to meet the team and discuss my contract. Concerned that I would only see the inside of the guesthouse and office during my week visit, both of which were behind high walls, electric fences and guarded gates, the head of HR asked Leon, a gregarious, fun, yet responsible and organized Afrikaans geohydrologist, to round up some other young colleagues and take me out on a few excursions.


I’ll always remember the first time I met Leon in the office hallway. I was immediately attracted to him (yep, love at first sight!). However he seemed very formal and serious. Part of this I suppose was because we were AT WORK. But the other big part was because he is (actually I should say “was” – more on this later) a very polite, chivalrous Afrikaans man.

The first event Leon arranged was a braai, a South African pot-luck BBQ, my very first. Everyone was super friendly and very curious to get to know me. I quickly learned that, unlike in Canada, it is uncommon for a young 20-something to move TO South Africa, especially on her own. And so, rather than being “just another immigrant” (as Leon often feels since we’ve moved to Canada), I felt unique and special and interesting. I have to admit it was pretty awesome! The braai itself was a bit of a shock though. A braai is an open wood-fired grill on which only the choicest selection of animal carcasses are laid with care.

You see, at that time I was a pesco-ovo-vegetarian of 5 years, living in Kitsilano (Vancouver), doing Bikram’s yoga and pedaling my bicycle everywhere. Much to everyone’s pleasure, however, I did try some of the braaivleis (meat)… and much to my surprise it was delicious!

Leon and another colleague also brought me to a game reserve for a game drive (translation: safari, although no South African actually calls it a safari). It was amazing! Like stepping into The Lion King, complete with baobab and flat top trees, big sky and hot, dry weather.

Picture 038

Before that week was up, I had decided I would sign the contract and work in Johannesburg for 2 years. Now, at the time, you see, I convinced myself that my reasons were purely professional. I was certainly not thinking about that cute guy Leon. I mean, I’d only just met him and didn’t know much about him! (Although I had managed to ascertain that he did not have a girlfriend. Okay, give me a break, I did say it was love at first sight).

I moved to South Africa two months later. Within a month of my arrival, Leon and I started dating. Leon had never had an English-speaking meisie (girlfriend) before me and had only really spoken English at work. So he was uncertain how to say lovie-dovie things on our dates. It came out very formal and awkward, although very endearing just the same. After a few months, we both knew it was serious. We got engaged a year later and married eight months after that, in March 2009.

Here are some interesting things we’ve discovered so far in our intercultural marriage:

•    Although I abandoned my vegetarian ways upon moving to South Africa, Leon and his family still think of me as a herbivore even though I’ve eaten many a lamb chop or boerewors (sausage) in front of them. You see, I prefer to tackle a small serving of one type of animal and I usually eat it last, after I’ve devoured the scrumptious slaai (salad), pap (cornmeal) and roasted veggies. The Burgers, however, prefer to eat all their meat first, and will only consider other foods once the braaivleis cools and if they still have room. South Africans in general eat a LOT of meat, like I’m talking every meal – including breakfast. And I mean serious red meat, still on the bone. Leon’s cousins, who are sheep farmers in the Karoo, consider chicken to be a vegetable. Seriously. Since moving to Canada, Leon has built a meat dryer in the basement for his biltong (translation, dried animal flesh). He goes to the butcher, buys an enormous chunk of meat, cuts it into strips and lets it marinate for a day in our biggest Tupperware box, then hangs it in the basement. Then it’s ready to enjoy a week later. I cannot handle the stuff (no surprise there), although I’ve tried it several times. I’ve never met a South African who doesn’t LOVE biltong. They make it out of almost any type of game (ostrich, springbok, blesbok, kudu, buffalo, you name it! – poor little fellers)

•    And another thing about game – my favourite animal in the game reserve has and always will be the giraffe. Leon and his family think this a silly choice. They, along with many South Africans, see the giraffe as a common, weak herbivore, a cousin of the cow whose purpose is to feed the lions. When asked what is their favourite animal, they always reply with one of the big five (buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros). Bleh, so predictable!

•    Still on the subject of food, Leon’s family, along with many Afrikaans families from Pretoria, has a tradition of making panekoek (sounds kinda like pancakes but they are actually crepes) as comfort food whenever it’s cloudy and raining. Since it doesn’t rain too often and certainly not for very long, this is an easily-managed custom. However, upon moving to Canada, my poor husband realized it would be impossible to keep up with the bad-weather days! He still makes panekoek occasionally though, whenever he is suffering from home sickness.

•    As previously mentioned, Leon can be very polite and chivalrous. When Leon and I first started dating, he opened doors, paid for everything, poured my drink, etc. Amazing, right!!??! One of the best things about Afrikaners is their excellent manners and gallantry.

Unfortunately, Leon seems to have lost many of these practices since adapting to life in Canada. I’m happy he’s fitting in and making friends with Canadian dudes, but can’t I have it both ways!?!?

However, one thing Leon has not lost and probably never will is his langarm (long-arming) skills. No matter what age, no matter the tempo of the music, all Afrikaners dance long-arm. It is considered plain weird and upsetting to want to dance unattached to a male partner. Although Leon is a great dancer, I was simply unaccustomed to following a partner and so endured several bloody toes at the first few weddings we attended. I have since adapted and am proud to say we long-armed the pants off everyone at the last few weddings we’ve attended, including our own!

Long-Arm Dancing

Thoughts? I love hearing from you!