Today we welcome Kat Selvocki to The Displaced Nation as a guest blogger. A retired roller derby skater and yogini who has lived in New York City for the past six years, Selvocki is en route to Sydney, Australia, to start a new chapter in her life as a yoga teacher. In this travel yarn, she contemplates being in Europe for the holidays, without any family.
When I left Brooklyn on September 27, I had every intention of arriving in Australia by December 23. That way, even though I was away from my parents and brother for the first time ever on Christmas, I would at least be able to spend the holiday with my cousins on the other side of the globe.
One of the first rules of travel is that things never go exactly as planned. It’s no surprise, then, that I’ve been in Europe for two months with no sign of purchasing a plane ticket to Australia.
By the time I finished the first leg of my travels — two weeks in Iceland volunteering on farms — I had a feeling I’d be in Europe longer than initially expected. My one hesitation was that, after spending thirty some years celebrating Christmas with my family, the idea of spending it alone scared the hell out of me.
I spent a solo New Year’s Eve in my Queens apartment in 2007; I’d decided I didn’t feel like venturing out and about into the craziness of New York that night. Though I don’t especially enjoy that particular holiday, there was something upsetting about wishing myself a happy new year. I didn’t want to repeat that mistake.
Central Europe works its charm
I arrived in Prague the day before Thanksgiving and was greeted by friends who immediately invited me to spend Christmas with them in Austria.
Prague is one of my favorite cities in the world, and the holiday season is one of the best times to be there, its Christkindlmarkts being among the best in Europe. Mugs of glühwein (mulled wine), tubes of bread coated with cinnamon, palačinky (Czech crêpes) dripping with lemon and sugar, the glimmer of fairy lights, handicrafts for sale, Christmas trees, live concerts — what’s not to like?
Though I didn’t have the space in my bags this time around to purchase any gifts at the markets, I was happy to return for some of my favorite Czech treats. As I perused the stands one chilly Saturday, I happily munched on lázeňské oplatky, large round spa wafers served with chocolate filling sandwiched in between.
The flavor brought back memories of Christmas Eve dinners of my youth, spent with my paternal grandparents. Though my grandmother and grandfather were both born in the United States, they continued some traditions passed down from their Polish parents. On December 24, my grandmother would serve a meatless meal at their house: fish that my grandfather had caught that fall, homemade pierogi (the Polish equivalent of ravioli, stuffed with potato and cheese), and vegetables from their friend’s farm.
We began the meal with those wafers, breaking pieces from each other’s opłatek as a symbol of forgiveness and the spirit of Christmas, as well as a reminder of the importance of family.
The ghost of holidays past
Prague was also where I spent my first Thanksgiving away from home, in 2002. I was on a study abroad program with American University, and all of us had gathered to celebrate at one of our favorite pubs, where our program director had reserved several long tables for us, piled with food — mostly Czech versions of traditional Thanksgiving dishes like stuffing, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole. The American ideas were there, but the execution and seasonings were distinctly Czech.
(At least this was an improvement over a Thanksgiving dinner that a friend of mine had during her Parisian semester abroad, where bowls of peanut butter were served alongside the turkey and roasted vegetables.)
At my table, my tall anarchist friend with a mohawk carved the turkey. After we’d feasted, several classmates took over the restaurant’s upright bass and piano as the rest of us cheered and clapped.
Most of us had met only three months earlier, but there was a tight bond between us that day.
I called home later in the evening. My cousin’s husband answered the phone, and at first he couldn’t believe it was me, all the way from Europe. He yelled to the rest of my family to get on the phone. Though I probably used up my phone card, it was worth it.
My mother came to visit me in Prague not long afterwards. She, too, couldn’t resist the siren song of all the beautiful handmade items at the holiday markets. She settled on a blown glass ornament covered with simple stars made out of straw. It still hangs on my parents’ tree today, an annual reminder of when she and I traveled together.
Holidays are all about the 3 Fs: Family, Friends & (especially!) Food
My family and I have always enjoyed the culinary traditions associated with each of the holidays, be it Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter. While Christmas was always tops for me as a kid, over the years my allegiance has shifted, and I now look forward the most to sharing the Thanksgiving meal with my nearest and dearest. (This may have been triggered by extended Christmas vacations in college, which so often seemed to end in ridiculous battles with my parents.)
Last month, I was lucky enough to celebrate Thanksgiving twice — each time with a mix of American travelers/expats and international friends.
At the first of these dinners, which took place in Prague, my Belgian friend asked the Americans in the room about the significance of Thanksgiving. While I think he might have meant historically, I replied with the answer that is truest to me: Thanksgiving is about eating lots of food and spending time with people you love.
On that occasion, friends new and old shared their talents in the kitchen. One friend made a traditional Austrian stuffing, while another roasted three Cornish hens and taught us how to make mulled wine. We mashed potatoes together — both white spuds and sweet — and roasted a colorful array of vegetables. I offered my baking talents with a pear-plum pie, inspired by a drink I’d had the night before.
The small kitchen of our rented apartment quickly filled with the mingling scents of cinnamon and cloves, parsley and chives.
I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
The lingering fairy tale of New York
Some of my holiday nostalgia also relates to my recent past — to the six years I’ve just spent living and working as a volunteer manager in New York City. There may be no place more magical than Central Europe, but there’s also something I’ll always miss about being in Manhattan during the holidays.
During each of the six years that I lived in New York, I would have periods of doubt over whether I wanted to stay. But then December would come along and I’d fall in love with the city all over again.
Some of my fondest memories are of walking around late at night gazing at the major Christmas displays in the shop windows. I preferred viewing the windows at that time, with fewer tourists around and the street lamps casting an atmospheric glow.
My favorites were always Bergdorf Goodman’s windows; I could stand and stare at those for hours and never quite take in all of the perfectly arranged details.
And, while my friends are currently lamenting the unseasonably warm weather in New York, I’m cherishing the memories of December nights when I would get off the subway in Brooklyn or Queens and walk home through a fresh layer of snow, surrounded by silent streets.
Volunteerism, burning bright
Still, the náměstís of Prague and plätze of Graz have proved to be a pretty good distraction, as has the volunteer work that I did in Iceland, when I first arrived in Europe.
After visiting Iceland in November of last year, I wanted to go back again and, after a bit of research, learned that there were a few Icelandic farms looking for volunteer labor.
Assisting with the end-of-season harvest — a time of year when farms need all the hands they can get: it seemed like the perfect way to experience one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen, along with learning new skills.
At the organic farm I went to near Egilsstaðir in northeastern Iceland, called Vallanes, there were 11 of us volunteering (4 Americans, 3 Germans, 1 Italian, 1 Tasmanian, 1 Singaporean, and 1 Belgian), plus two paid workers (1 German and 1 Icelander, in case you’re curious).
The friendships we all formed in the turnip fields and the kitchen were an unexpected bonus.
Though it was sad to leave when the season ended, the spirit of Vallanes remains with me as I contemplate the next chapter of my life, the adventure of setting up as a yoga instructor in Sydney.
The saying that your friends are the family you choose becomes more true for me every year. This year, the holidays might not be the same as they were when I was young, and while I miss my family and it’s hard to be away, I’m enjoying the opportunity to soak up — and create — new traditions of my own while sharing the ones with which I was raised. Traveling alone has opened my heart to a variety of new people and experiences.
All of it feels right somehow, at this current crossroads — which led me to leave the familiarity of my old job, New York, and the United States to pursue a new career halfway around the world.
This New Year’s Eve will see me in Vienna. I will not be alone but with a mix of expats and native Austrians, drinking red wine and watching fireworks — concluding a year of transitions and ringing in what I hope will be an exciting new life overseas in 2012.
NOTE: You can read more about Kat Selvocki’s travel adventures on her blog, Pierced Hearts and True Love, and sample some of her gluten-free baking recipes at Kat of All Trades. You can also hire her to give you personalized yoga lessons over Skype; details on KatSelvocki.com
STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, a list of 2011 books for, by, and about expats.
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Images (top to bottom): Staromestske namesti (Old Town Square in Prague) decked out for the holidays; waffle stall at the Christkindlmarkt in Graz; Bergdorf Goodman’s window, 2010; mulled wine in preparation for an Austrian Thanksgiving dinner. All photos by the multi-talented (yes, she does photography, too!) Kat Selvocki.