Christmas in Expat Life: It’s a Small World After All

Through 22 years of marriage, we have always made Christmas a big deal. Typically we travelled to visit extended family or extended family traveled to visit us. We decorated the house – inside and out – to make it seasonally festive. (And, yes, said decorations sometimes stretched from one season to another as we occasionally put up a Christmas tree and took down an Easter tree.). We had big feasts with lots of cooking and pies. We continued family traditions tracing back to our childhoods, and even to previous generations, and built or modified traditions in our own immediate family of Brian, Audrey, Margaret, and Charlotte.

In all families, these things change over time, especially as children grow up and start their own lives. We always expected that. But expat life brought its own changes to our practice of Christmas. First, Margaret stayed in U.S. to get her GED and start college a year early instead of joining us in Morocco for her Senior Year of high school, so we entered our first holiday season abroad making plans to see her in the Pacific Northwest, where we would fly from Morocco and she would fly from Arizona. Second, that trip itself came as fulfillment of a promise Brian made to his mother – who was not keen on our moving overseas – that he would come back in December to see her and spend time joined in extended family revelry. So in December of our first year abroad the three of us – Brian, Audrey, and Charlotte – flew from Casablanca to Charles de Gaul Airport for an overnight that gave Charlotte her first time setting foot in France, then on to SeaTac Airport for grandparents to welcome us when we emerged from Baggage Claim with suitcases stuffed with typical “First Christmas Back From Morocco” presents we bought for the extended family at the Habbous (inlaid boxes, hand-carved trays, and poofs – round camel skin ottomans than Moroccans stuff with old shirts to “poof” then out), Jellabas we had handmade for Brian’s mother and sister that they could wear as nightgowns, and a Casablanca Harley-Davidson t-shirt for Brian’s Harley-riding stepfather. We had traveled farther to get there, we had brought gifts we could not buy in the U.S., and we loved having Margaret join us so we could see her for the first time since June before we left for Morocco. Still, Christmas had not changed all that much from the previous range of scenarios established in our prior two decades of married life.

Last year that changed as we established a new model option that took advantage of the small world in which we live our expat lives. Brian returned again to the Pacific Northwest, as promised to his mother. But Audrey and Charlotte took advantage of Morocco’s proximity for easy travel to Europe and had their own Christmas expedition to Amsterdam, including visits to the Anne Frank House, to a Gouda factory, and to a working windmill in the countryside. Margaret, who was working in Arizona, could not head north to join Brian with the rest of the extended family. We wished we could all be together for Christmas, but we also were happy to be able to have Christmases that met our desires otherwise among the opportunities available to us in this small world.

This year we repeated that option, with just how small this big world is reinforced repeatedly.

Brian again kept his promise to his mother to return in December, the best time to catch as many extended family as possible when three generations of aunts, uncles, and cousins gather for Christmas. It began with both small and not-so-small world experiences. Taking off from Casablanca’s Mohamed V Airport on Saturday, GWA faculty and staff represented a good proportion of passengers on the TAP flight to Lisbon, Portugal. Lisbon served as a stopping point for some, but for most was a gateway to Christmas destinations around Europe – from Prague to England to Scandinavia. When Brian purchased the flights for his trip, he THOUGHT he had set it up to fly a most reasonable route from Casa to Montreal to Vancouver. Yet, after hitting the “purchase tickets” button his itinerary had somehow switched to a first leg from Casa to Lisbon, twiddling thumbs through a 12-hour overnight layover, then departing at 5:00 am for Frankfurt, then having less than an hour to get to go through Passport Control and get to a new gate to depart from Frankfurt for a 10-hour flight to Vancouver, all before trekking through the Peace Arch at the U.S.-Canada border (complete with three-hour wait in a barely-moving line of cars at the border) and heading into Washington State. As small a world as we have, the 36 hours between a mid-afternoon departure from Casablanca to arriving in the Cascade Mountains town of Skykomish emphasized to him how big our small world remains. Still, he enjoyed small world reminders everywhere along the way. As one example, long hours aside, the comfort of traveling from one country to another with confidence and ease stands as a quiet reward of expat life. As another, flying to Lisbon he sat next to seven-year-old Inez, an energetic girl who flipped the window shade up and down 793 times and pushed all the buttons around her 10,285 times in the first five minutes of taking her seat; yet, by the time they landed Inez had become Brian’s new buddy, being silly and having fun together while eating the in-flight meal and taking turns making moves in a wood puzzle game on Brian’s iPad. Her mother asked Brian from across the aisle, “How are you communicating with her? She speaks no English.” Brian responded, “With a little French, less Darija, and lots of gesturing. Besides, I work for a school: I speak Kid.” Indeed, kids are kids across the globe. As one more, switching from Casablanca life to small town Christmas in the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest comes easily, taking in the scenery of snow-covered mountains and snow plows on Highway 2, going to the Skykomish Community Church on Christmas Eve, and popping over to the Whistling Post watering hole to visit with town friends of his parents before heading to the family cabin for this year’s practice of pizza and birthday cake – a Christmas Eve tradition that has continued in his family for 50 years. Finally, technology makes the world flatter and closer. Despite missing Audrey and Charlotte in Europe and Margaret in Arizona, he talked with them all daily, shared/received pictures of Christmas taking place in all three spots on the globe, and wished them all Merry Christmas on Christmas with love sent through WiFi.

Meanwhile, Audrey and a Charlotte took off on Char’s “Last Hurrah” traveling in Europe before she graduates next Spring and returns in eight months to the U.S. for college. As Brian prepared a couple months ago to buy tickets for Christmas in Washington, Charlotte said, “Why would I want to spend Christmas in Washington State when I will be there for the next four years in college, if instead I can hop up to Europe and get a few more stamps in my passport from countries I have not visited yet?” So she and Audrey planned a trip to Munich, Prague, and Budapest – including some travel by train, Char’s favorite mode of transportation. They have packed much into their time – a Christmas Village and a trip to Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany; arriving in Prague on Christmas Eve Day, exploring the historic city as Audrey begins to think it may rival Italy as a prospective retirement palace for us, and Charlotte attending Christmas Day Mass at the big, old, beautiful St. Vitus church; and then on to Hungary to see the Blue Danube and eat Hungarian bread and Dobos Cake. Small world reminders come not only from the simple feasibility of hitting pieces of Germany, Czech Republic, and Hungary in a short period of time, but also from the encounters they have had. One day on the street they ran into a George Washington Academy teacher who had flown with Brian to Lisbon before making a connection to another European Christmas destination. On Christmas Eve they had dinner with friends from our Virginia days whom we had not seen in 15 years, but who now live in Italy and happened also to be in Prague for Christmas. And on Christmas Day they visited Brian’s college friend Lyle – who came to Czech Republic nearly 30 years ago to visit a friend and stayed – and his Czech family who live a short commuter train ride outside Prague, and who we had not seen in more than two decades until they visited us in Casablanca two weeks ago amid their family tour of Morocco.

What a blessing to live in a world where it is all so easy…not without challenge, but very feasible when opening up to the possibilities that abound. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

On your mark…get set…here we go!

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