“I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams” — Bing Crosby’s closing line has special meaning for best-selling Australian author Lana Penrose. As reported below, she will never forget spending the holidays in Europe during her decade-long stint as an expat, beginning in Greece — highlights from which are chronicled in two memoirs: To Hellas and Back and Kickstart My Heart. NOTE: As a special gift to Displaced Nation readers, Lana is giving away a print copy of To Hellas and Back! See details below.
— ML Awanohara
It’s that time again: Christmas, where the cynical amongst us are found warbling, “‘Tis the season to be melancholy.” For the displaced expat, this period really can be an odd time. If you’re remaining in your adopted country, you may catch yourself yearning for your friends, family and homeland. Somehow drunken Uncle Ernie who likes to lick your neck vanishes from memory.
Yes, there’s no place like home, particularly on Christmas Day. I know this because (a) I lived as an expat in Athens for 5 years; (b) I also lived as an expat in London for 5 years; and (c) I’ve written books about it, one a bestseller titled To Hellas and Back (see what I did there?).
So I get it. I truly do.
And I’m no stranger to grappling with the unfamiliar during the festive season. Actually, make that most celebratory occasions.
I believe it all started when I was encouraged to join “The Circle.” No, it wasn’t a cult (arguably), although there was a noticeable absence of Kool-Aid and Nike trainers.
I was attending a Greek boyfriend’s cousin’s engagement party in my native country of Australia. It was to be my first head-on collision with Hellenic culture. I distinctly recall being led by the hand towards my beau’s extended family. And as Greek folk music wailed from tinny speakers, I watched relatives dance around and around connected by tightly clutched handkerchiefs.
The leg-scissoring madness was mesmerizing — and there was nothing else for it but to clap along as though attending a barn dance, get hitched and relinquish my country for at least half a decade.
As the years passed, I swallowed more foreign tradition than I did dolmades. I was now living in Greece. And as I’d done so many times before, come Easter I was straddling yet more unfamiliar customs. There I was ingesting mageiritsa soup, traditionally made from lambs’ tongue, lungs, liver and intestines.
It seemed all about innards as my own sighed dejectedly.
A misplaced gift
I also remember a Christmas where I was presented with a gift from a bone fide Athenian native. I excitedly opened a grey velvet box — and there, inside, was a flashy faux gold necklace of the type preferred by gangland hos.
It kind of made sense considering he’d once also given me a birthday present in the form of a pair of black and gold shoes and a fluffy white vest.
At the end of the day, the gesture was beautiful and I couldn’t wait to try everything on as an ensemble … and submit a job application to the Black Eyed Peas.
Food — a substitute for love?
But that stuff’s plain amusing. The toughest part about spending auspicious occasions away from home is missing the people you love most, which thankfully at Christmas usually means the perfect excuse for unprecedented weight gain (if you’re in a country that celebrates such things).
In contrast to Easter, for me Greek Christmases meant hoovering up* delicious fare — including egg and lemon chicken, rice soup, roast pork, turkey stuffed with ground beef, spinach and cheese pies, stuffed cabbage leaves and salads of every description, followed by sesame baklava and cinnamon melomakarona.
My standout memory of a Christmas abroad, however, is the time that an older Greek couple lamented how sorry they were that I wasn’t able to spend the festive season with my family. They “got” it. Because they’d lived as expats, too.
That couple promised to do all in their power to make my day happy, and they succeeded simply by being mindful, considerate and absolutely lovely.
The sentiment was so touching that it will stay with me forever.
So, yeah, the pros and cons of celebrating Christmas abroad. The anomalies are hardly going to kill you, but sometimes you just want to click your shiny red shoes and declare, “There’s no place like home.”
*Canadian slang for “eat very fast and too much.” (Lana, where and when did you pick that up?!)
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And now to that giveaway! Readers, Lana Penrose has offered to send a copy of her best-selling memoir, To Hellas and Back, to the person who leaves the best comment in answer to the question: Where are you spending the holidays this year, and will you feel at home or displaced? To tempt you even more, consider the fact that To Hellas and Back, which was first published by Penguin, has been described as an “Eat, Pray, Love face-ploughing into a steaming pile of moussaka.” Its dedication coincidentally reads: “For the displaced.” So if you’re tired of reading about the joys of successfully renovating Tuscan homes and the like, this book might be for you!
Sydney-based (and no longer displaced!) author Lana Penrose has had various incarnations, including music journalist, record company promotions gal, music television producer and personal assistant to an iconic pop sensation whose name shall never be revealed unless she’s subjected to Chinese water torture. She also once worked with the now-infamous Simon Cowell, which she today finds really odd. You can read more about her and her works on her author blog and/or follow her on Twitter: @LanaPenrose
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when we’ll be checking in on some of our Random Nomads from earlier in the year and find out what they’re up to for the holidays and beyond.
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