LIVES IN BETWEEN

The somewhat different intercultural communication blog

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Going home for Christmas? Last minute expat Christmas survival tips

I am certainly not the first person to write about the expat Christmas experience: that time of year when you buy overpriced flight or train tickets, stand in endless lines of security checks, and don’t find anymore space in the overhead lockers on the plane because they overflow with Christmas presents. And we bravely endure all of this only to go on what a fellow blogger suitably called a “speed-dating frenzy” with family and friends “back home” (which sometimes is not really “home” anymore, but that’s another story and you can read more about it here).

Over the years, I have accumulated quite some experience in trying to get through this season without major dramas or nervous breakdowns, sometimes more successful, sometimes less so. While I can’t say that I have figured it all out, I have gone through a series of “trial and error loops”, adjusting every Christmas based on lessons learned the year before.

So, in the spirit of generosity, I am sharing with you my painfully acquired wisdom in the hope that it may help you to make the most of this festive period and avoid major disasters. My top 4 pieces of advice are…

1 – Plan well ahead & share your agenda

I find that everybody making requests for my time is flattering (they love me after all and want to see me), but it can also be a pressure to try to satisfy everyone. Reach out to people well in advance to ask them about their plans and availability. Then put together your personal Christmas schedule, and share this document (or, if that’s too much transparency, only the “allocated time slots”) with people. This helps to set expectations straight and avoid misunderstandings and disappointments (e.g. mum breaking out in tears because I stay out late for drinks with friends while she expects me home for dinner… I don’t need to mention my age for you to see that something’s wrong here).

I also found it helpful to present my agenda simply as a given fact rather than a basis for negotiations as to how much time I spend with whom.

2 – Schedule 1 on 1 time with people you really care about

As lovely and fun as large family gatherings or Christmas parties can be, there is nothing more precious than spending time with a friend or family member to have a personal, meaningful conversation. In groups the discussions tend to be about things like politics, the weather or upcoming vacations. In a one-on-one meet up on the other hand, you can really focus on the other person and make the most of the little time you have.

3 – Be open about what you want and don’t want for Christmas (and I don’t mean presents)

Your family might plan a large gathering with everybody including your 2nd degree cousins, but you’d much rather have an intimate, cozy dinner. Your grandmother wants to go to Midnight Mass, but you’d rather stay by the fireplace to continue good conversations or more nutmeg. My point here: dare to express (again, ideally with some leeway) how you envision to spend Christmas. Your family and friends are likely to respect your wishes and take them into account, but they need to know about them. Again, it’s about communication and alignment of expectations.

4 – Plan for some R&R (rest and recovery)

It is easy to get carried away with all the people you want to see, and all the people who want to see you during this short week or two. If you are not careful, you might end up feeling as if a truck just ran you over, flattened out from all the social interaction (this is the introvert in me speaking here), needing a holiday after the holiday. People often don’t realize that you are essentially telling the same story over and over to answer questions like “So, what’s new in life?” However tight your agenda is, ensure you take some time out, get some fresh air, some alone time, or whatever it is you need to recharge your batteries. The key is to listen to your needs and respect yourself.

With this, I wish you a relaxed Christmas full of meaningful conversations and valuable time with people you care about.

As always, I’d love to hear about your experience with Christmas as an expat. Have you got any other coping strategies to share?

„The Little Virtues“ – Why you should read Natalia Ginzburg

the-little-virtuesI recently discovered Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. Don’t get me wrong, I knew she existed, I even had some of her books on my Amazon wish list for months (or years?!). Then I came across this article on The New Yorker, which finally made me buy “The Little Virtues”. And I am so glad I did. Instant coup de coeur as the French would say. Her way of writing – plain yet so full of meaning and poetry – went straight to my heart.

The Little Virtues is a collection of short essays published in various magazines and newspapers between 1944 and 1962. Historically, this period covers Fascist Italy and World War II. Experiences of war and oppression, of having to flee in the middle of the night leave a mark in her writing. The topics are as relevant as ever.

In Son of Man she tells the story of war. Of what war does to people. “Those of us who have been fugitives will never be at peace. Once the experience of evil has been endured it is never forgotten”.

In Portrait of a Friend she describes her feelings when she visits her home town she no longer lives in (if you’ve been reading my other posts, you’ll see the red thread here).

“…when we go back, simply passing through the station and walking in the misty avenues is enough to make us feel we have come home; and the sadness with which the city fills us every time we return lies in this feeling that we are at home and, at the same time, that we have no reason to stay here; because here, in our own home, our own city, the city in which we spent our youth, so few things remain alive for us and we are oppressed by a throng of memories and shadows.”

To those of you who live in London, England: Eulogy and Lament is for you: A dry yet funny depiction of London as what Ginzburg perceives a colorless, melancholic city where “they all dress in the same way. The women you see in the streets all have the same beige or transparent plastic raincoats which look like shower-curtains or tablecloths in restaurants.”

Ginzburg also gives parenting advice in The Little Virtues, powerful reflections which I will certainly keep in mind for the day I have children.

And finally, my personal favorite, the story of a lifetime in fast-forward, Human Relationships. A beautifully written journey of a human lifetime, from childhood over adolescence to adulthood, examined through the relationships forged and lost along the way.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts about the writer, the book, the topic, or anything that comes to mind!

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