It’s Christmas Eve and my feet are achy from all the walking. My body has fully assimilated to being on a bicycle for 1+ hour each day, but walking in non-sneaker shoes across all the cobblestone is a foreign affair. But we have visitors in town, my mother-in-law and her friend/partner, “Uncle Don.” Oma’s here!!! So we have been tram riding, Dam Square picture taking, lunch at Leidsepleining, Albert Cupyt markt shopping and Museumplein ice skating fools for 2 days now. (To be fair, we are often Museumplein ice skating fools. Emphasis on the fools when you see me on ice.) All by tram and foot. I actually felt the need to explain to my bike, Lucy, that this situation was only temporary and she and I would be back together as usual in due time. It’s Christmas, Lucy. And things are different at Christmas time. (Don’t judge, bikes are a lifeline here and, like house plants, they need confirmations of love. It’s true.)
Expat Christmas is a whole different ballgame from Normal Christmas. If it were Normal Christmas, we would be eating crockpot meals and sledding in 2-3 feet of snow at the park across the street. Aaron would have snow-blowed a trail through our HUGE yard so that Jonah (the dog) could run through the snow to pee and poop (a trail that would, come the springtime melt, be referred to as the Trail of Turds). We would have a big tree that we bought from the nature center and hauled back home by tying it to the roof of our SUV. I would have presents stuffed into the top shelves of closets. (Closets! Can you imagine, expats? Real closets with doors. Not Ikea wardrobes. Oh the glory of it all!) Most importantly, we would be preparing for our journey to Oma’s house for Christmas day. Oma’s, the coziest (gezzelig-est) little wooden, New England style home with a fireplace, big front porch and views of the foothills to the Adirondacks.
Oma’s house is Christmas, in many ways. For 7 years, we lived a couple of hours down the road from Oma’s. She was our major holidays destination. And our weekend getaway spot, Fourth of July camping partner and companion for all those “lesser” events too. Those 7 years were the years we got married, bought our first house and redefined the Christmas experience by having babies and wide-eyed toddlers. The precious Footie Pajamas Years. You know, those years when the magic of Christmas is rediscovered through sparkling excitement and energy of a child, faintly smelling of urine, frantically opening presents.
But here we are, living in a 2 bedroom apartment on the second floor (with no closets), with no motorized form of transport, no crockpot and I haven’t bought a pair of footie pajamas in over 2 years. There is no snow on the ground, only grey skies and the ever-present drizzle of rain. The types of days that feel like morning all day long. So no sledding. No snowboard lessons at the ski resort 5 miles up the road. No snow-mobiles lined up in the parking lots of the local dive bars in Oma’s little redneck mountain town. (BTW – a snow mobile pub crawl should be on everyone’s bucket list!) Our lovely little collection of Christmas ornaments is somewhere in a box in the basement of my brother’s house (Baby’s First Christmas, the hand-blown glass ones we bought in Ithaca and the paper cut-out with picture types made at nursery school, etc.). That box is probably next to our old crockpot.
In Expat Christmas-land, those “heirlooms” and traditions go right out the window. They are not realistic. Remember, we moved here with 8 Army duffle bags and nothing more. Expat Christmas is leaner in that sense, trimmed of the fat of Christmas past. (Maybe it’s all the biking…) There are few traditions and almost no obligations in Expat Christmas. There is no need to bring out the fine China (yes, it’s in storage) and digging up Great Aunt Cecilia’s apple pie recipe (too much converting of measuring units to bother with). Want to go to Spain for Expat Christmas? Sure, pack your bags and enjoy the tapas. Want to house and dog sit for your friends who are going to Spain for Christmas? Why not? You’ll need that extra bedroom and toilet for guests and they already decorated the place! Want to spend Christmas Eve on a boat? That’s how the Dutch roll (or paddle, or however one is propelled through water…what is that word?)
It’s easy to sink into a longing, aching nostalgia for the familiar people, places and things of Normal Christmas. But being away from all the usual trappings of the holidays is freeing too.
It is a strange thing to love and cherish something, while at the same time to feel unburdened by its absence.
Last year, we learned to (mostly) be at peace with those missing pieces and embrace the new, strange world we live in. We recognized this new Normal as just another phase of life, not unlike any other fleeting stage. We bought a tree, but carried it home by bike. (Technically, Aaron carried it home, but we were there.) Then we all went out for bitterballen and warme chocomel. New tradition birthed. We found a second hand shop in our neighborhood and let the girls pick out ornaments. Some old and antique-ey looking, others gaudy and cheap. But who cares – they had fun and our tree looked, well, nevermind that, but it was fun. New tradition birthed. And this year, we will tram our way across town with Oma and Uncle Don to have Christmas dinner with other expats that we have only known for a few months. Yes, in Expat Christmas-land you can get invited to Christmas dinner by friends you didn’t even know on Labor Day. New tradition birthed? It probably depends on how the dogs behave.
So here I sit, drinking coffee with Oma while the girls draw pictures of Rudolph with crayons. We might as well be sitting around her dining room table surrounded by snow drifts and loving cousins. But we’re not. We’re at someone else’s house (apartment, really), house/dog sitting with the pictures of un-related children on the walls and my kids are singing Dutch Sinterklaas songs that I don’t understand. It’s a strange new world. But it’s a lovely one. Warm and gezzelig as ever. Even without the footie pajamas.