Published on December 23rd, 20154
Is an Expat Christmas “A Wonderful Life”?
It’s that time of year again. “The Holidays” That time of year when we expats inevitably – no matter how happy and content in our new foreign home – wax a tad wistful that we’re so far away from friends and loved ones back in our native lands.
And I’m no different.
Even after more than 4 years (and as many Christmases) of living in various ‘n sundry far-flung countries, I sill feel a good bit sentimental when I remember family holidays past – especially when my parents were alive and we’d all gather ’round the Christmas tree munching on flaky Christmas Rosettes and sipping homemade eggnog.
There were bright red stockings hung on the mantel (or some fake bookcase fashioned into a fireplace facsimile by my ever inventive Mom), and come Christmas morning, the livingroom would be magically transformed into a menagerie of shiny new trucks for my little brother, and a boatload of lovingly stitched (for weeks prior by my Mother) doll clothes for my (high-tech) “Tiny Tears” baby doll.
Likewise as I grew older – there were Christmas kittens (for both my daughter and later, granddaughter) popping out of ribbon-wrapped boxes, along with tables laden with all manner of seafood (still, ever the family Christmas Eve tradition): oysters, shrimp, crab, younameit. Oh I still try to have seafood on Christmas Eve. And I (almost) always manage to put up a small tree with twinkly lights, but…
Clearly it’s not the same when you’re living halfway ’round the globe.
Had I not bought that one-way ticket to Hanoi more than 4 years ago – I’d not have witnessed the sublime mystique of Ayers Rock in Australia, nor gazed at the spectacular landscapes of Ha Long Bay, Angkor Wat, Bagan, and the Gobi in Mongolia. Nor caught a glimpse of Pigmy elephants in the wilds of Borneo. Oh and lest we forget swimming with penguins in the Galapagos, and gaping at those amazing moai on Easter Island.
In short, it’s only by basing myself first in Southeast Asia, and now here on a mountain top in South America – that I’ve been able to see as much of the world as I have.
And even better, not only do I have family and dear old friends scattered all across the U.S. – but I now have friends all over the globe: Flora in Oz, Ching-Hua from Singapore, “Nook” there in Bangkok, Melany and Pablo on Easter Island, Cindy from Hong Kong, Stacy now in Guatemala, Hang in Saigon, and dearest of all, my lovely Vietnamese “sister” Mai in Dalat. And that’s not even counting the many new friends (both Ecuadorian and expats) I’ve made here in Cuenca.
So the holidays for me are definitely more sweet than bitter. And in that spirit, come along with me now as I fondly reminisce on my four expat Christmases past (in as many different countries!):
Christmas 2011: Sumatra, Indonesia
My first Christmas away from “home”. Make that no fewer than 8,000+ miles away from my beloved Seattle. Was I sad? Well, let’s just say lolling in a hammock on a tropical isle in the middle of the Andaman Sea, and gawking, spell-bound at wild orangutans swinging from the trees – uh, wasn’t exactly Bah humbug!
Note the ubiquitous red flannel Christmas stocking (from when I was just a tot), along with a postcard of Seattle, and a Christmas card of a snowy Chicago skyline (signed by my late Mother and Dad) – my most precious treasures that I carry in my backpack and lovingly drag out each Christmas to remind me of “home”.
Christmas 2012: Dalat, Vietnam
Hands-down my fondest expat Christmas yet. Indeed, I still recall daily my idyllic year living amid the bucolic splendor of L’Auberge Ami and sharing garden lunches with Saika and Miki (from Japan) and my dear artist/gardener/cook extraordinaire friend, Mai. They truly were like a “family” to me.
Stringing purple Christmas lights on my apartment with Mai (whilst she teetered oh so precariously on a most dangerously rickety ladder) prompted me to secretly scour the small town of Dalat (with a pic of a proper step ladder on my phone) to drag home her Christmas present: a sturdy 5 ft. aluminum step ladder (and yes, my xeom driver and I carried it home on a motorbike!)
(And uh, yeah – as evidenced by the above pictured bulging childhood Christmas stocking – I freely admit that I’m such a sentimental (pathetic?) schmaltz – I fill my own stocking each year with chocolate and tangerines, just like “Santa” did when I was a kid.)
Christmas 2013: Chiang Mai, Thailand
As mentioned in earlier TL posts – Chiang Mai and I didn’t quite hit it off. No doubt the “expat darling” of Asia for a good many (I dare say far *too many*) backpackers, expats and the new breed of “digital nomads” (a rather hackneyed title boasted by verily any and all twenty-somethings with a laptop that set out to “travel the world” – leastwise until their money runs out). But for me – uh, not so much
Nonetheless, after 2 years of expatting in Vietnam, I felt I needed a change and (naturally) gave Chaing Mai a try. I moved there in November (precisely to witness the legendary splendor of the Yi Peng Lantern Festival), but only lasted 4 months. Nonetheless, thanks to a fine community of couchsurfers, I enjoyed a most festive Christmas dinner at the “Red Lion Pub” (albeit favoring the “Brit” variety of holiday cuisine – but hey, at least it wasn’t phad thai noodles!) complete with crimson santa hats.
Even better, Chaing Mai was where I met my fellow nomadic pal Stacey (from New Zealand) and shared both Christmas and a most spectacular New Year’s Eve with she and her “mum”.
(Note here too, the omnipresent childhood Christmas stocking and “Christmas in Chicago” card dangling from my Chiang Mai tree.)
Christmas 2014: Cuenca, Ecuador
Seriously, I must live under one lucky star (of Bethlehem?) when it comes to this expatting thing. Because for my first Christmas here in drop-dead gorgeous (at any time of year) Cuenca, I was ever so honored to be invited to share a traditional Cuencano Christmas Eve in the home of a local family – Maru, Juan Pablo and 2 adorable tots – my apartment landlord.
Likewise my expat neighbor Melissa (who was missing her own family that had necessarily returned to the U.S. leaving her behind to mend from minor surgery) was invited. Together, we bought a festive piñata filled with candy and trinkets for the kids to whack. The family even gave us each a present (a scarf for Melissa, a crocheted purse for me), and we all (a boatload of sisters, cousins, et al) dined on roasted cuy (guinea pig, a rare Cuencano treat). Heck, I even danced with the “abuelo” (grandfather)!
Equally memorable (and most definitely destined to become my favorite Cuenca Christmas tradition) was a concert held at the Old Cathedral on December 21st. A chorale group composed of both expats and Ecuadorians sang Christmas caroles – one stanza in English, the next in Spanish. And the finale, the most magical of all: each of us carrying a lit candle, we all filed out of the cathedral singing “Silent Night” (Noche Silenciosa).
Christmas 2015: ???
I already have some holiday traditions here in Cuenca (see “Christmas…concert…magical” above – simply too breathtaking to be missed). So I plan to stick around here for both Christmas and especially the amazing New Year’s Eve festivities. I’ve even got my tree up (prudently decorated with unbreakables for the sake of dear Dulce, my bilingual Ecuadorian kitty).
And though I may not be able to send you each a real paper Christmas card (much less hand one to you personally), I’ve leastwise whittled you a special digital message, and wish each and every one of you a most lovely holiday season!
Ho-ho-ho and Feliz Navidad!