Tuesday, February 04, 2014


We've been a hive of activity since October when Brigid learned she had been accepted for a semester study abroad at the University of Cape Town.  If this were someone else's kid, I'd be all over it.  When it's your own child, it's pretty scary to send her halfway around the world and know you will not see her for nearly five months.

University of Cape Town

But let's not focus on the scary part.  My brother reminded me that our mother was barely two years older than Brigid when she went off to Quito, Ecuador in 1965, for nine months on a Fulbright Fellowship. Even back then, my grandparents were able to communicate with her live via the miracle of HAM RADIO.  My mother traveled in Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela, and once fled a demonstration in Quito only a whisper ahead of the tear gas. And everybody survived.

We've spent the last couple of months plowing through red tape, and the journey wasn't assured until she was granted her student visa, which arrived two weeks before departure.  In order to get the visa, it was necessary to gather more paperwork than we have ever needed for any undertaking: notarized letters, bank statements, birth certificates, health certificates, proof of insurance, proof of enrollment at VCU, official acceptance letter from UCT, flight itinerary (plus $1500 "repatriation fee" if you were foolish enough to buy a one-way ticket, which luckily we were not) her actual physical passport, and an official background check all had to be sent off to the South African embassy.  The background check was the most difficult, and the state of Virginia might want to consider rewording their website, since the form they identify as the one you need for study abroad turned out to be wrong.  It was scary to purchase the plane tickets without knowing for sure that she'd be allowed into the country.

Meanwhile, I've been grappling with the world of international banking.  When we sent the housing deposit, via international wire, we were flummoxed by Cape Town addresses, which had too many words to fit neatly into the bank's computerized form.  I had to email the housing director.  What was meant by "Clareinch," "Rondebosch," and "Observatory?"  Were these neighborhoods?  Suburbs? Mountain ranges? Extraterrestrial satellites?  And the heavy sigh was audible all the way from Cape Town.  They are neighborhoods.  Then, because of my own abysmal handwriting, the bank officer entered the province as Western "Cake" rather than Western Cape. If you make even a tiny mistake, you have to delete the entire form and start from scratch.  Once the form is all filled in, it's submitted and you are not allowed to leave until a confirmation call comes.  So you wait and wait and wait, wondering if your money has gone off into the void, jumping out of your skin every time a phone rings, until finally it is your call and you are free to go.

The second wire, of the tuition, went smoothly, but the payment was flagged by Homeland Security and I got a stern phone call late the following afternoon:  "Your money will not be released from the United States until you tell us what 'SSA' means. " SSA is what I had been instructed to put in the reference and I had no idea what it meant.  "Maybe it means "student services accounts" the stern lady said helpfully, after I'd stammered out an explanation about Brigid and UCT and the internship she'll have taking little school children on tours of the art museum.  "Yes!  Can you use that?"  No, they needed the exact meaning.  So, another email to Cape Town and another heavy sigh.  It means Semester Study Abroad.  But of course.  They sign their emails, "kind regards" which is lovely.  I'd like to use it myself, but it might sound affected here.

Speaking of red tape, it was so lucky that Brigid renewed her passport over the summer, before we even knew she'd be going to Cape Town.  It expired in October, precisely at the time of the government shut down.  If she hadn't taken care of it early, she would probably not have been able to go.

UCT's program seems well organized and established but Cape Town is SO far away--a total of eighteen and a half hours of flight--very turbulent over Africa we now know-- not including layovers.  Communication will be sporadic until Brigid can buy and activate a sim card for her phone.  We have had some emails and facebook messages and I know she is settled into her house which she shares with six other international students.  On departure day, I gave Brigid a bracelet that had been my mother's--the only other person in our family to travel so far all by herself -- and I know my mother is watching out for her.


  1. How wonderful for your daughter. Studying abroad is such a clever thing to do. A new culture, new ideas, new friends and experiences: I am sure she will have an amazing growth experience.

  2. let's see, it is SUMMER there now...and maybe warm most of the time? NICE :)

  3. Great adventure for her! But great mountains of red tape and bureaucracy for YOU, eh?

  4. Wow. I wonder how my parents felt when I went to east Africa for three months --I never really thought about whether they were worried, and that was pre-cell phone time. I think the university handled all the paperwork too, because the only thing I remember is having to get a lot of vaccinations. Adventures are good things to have when you're young, because you don't worry about anything, really.

    I hope your daughter has a fabulous time --that would be an awesome place to visit.