“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?!)
* * *
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.
If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!
This year, I’m happy to be celebrating Christmas abroad in Istanbul than to be surrounded by the rampant commercialism, family stress and annoying holiday songs 24/7 in the U.S. We survived 3 Thanksgivings here and that’s where my displaced memory comes into play. In order to get a large turkey for Thanksgiving, you basically have to know somebody who knows somebody who can get a turkey for you or befriend a good butcher. In 2010, I asked an expat friend to help get me a turkey; so she asked another long-time expat friend who then asked her Turkish driver and then he asked his farmer friend on the outskirts of Istanbul for one of his turkeys. And that is how we got our farm-raised Turkish turkey for our first Thanksgiving in Istanbul. Maybe in 10 years, I’ll be thinking there’s no place like home for the holidays too.
Hunting down a turkey in Turkey. Just brilliant!
Moved to Melbourne three months ago, so this is my first Christmas in summer. I just got over my hay fever (in November!!) and am trying to feel the jingle bells joy, but at the moment it ain’t happening.
Don’t get me wrong, I am loving Australia, but these upside down seasons take some getting used to. Thinking about moving Christmas either to another time, or another country…
Ulrike, I feel your pain. You’re in upside-down world now! Exchanging seasons definitely takes some adjustment. I hope you have a fantastic Christmas regardless. Lana x
We are US expats spending our third Christmas “at home” on the island of Dominica. We have put up the tree, the presents are on the way via container ship rather then Santa, and we are looking forward to a full slate of holiday parties on the island. We will miss our extended family, but we will be surrounded by friends and each other…..the Christmas spirit will find us no matter where we are 🙂
Dominica! I went there for my honeymoon and LOVED it. But, what is it like to live there? How do people celebrate Christmas — are the traditions closer to British or American? Very curious!
‘The Christmas spirit will find us no matter where we are’. A great quote and perspective.
As an expat in Mexico for eight years I am well aware of the difference in customs and missing family. I remember my first Christmas here, when I was enjoying every minute of my new life but missed my family and our own traditions. I lived in an all-Mexican neighborhood and spoke little Spanish. Imagine my delight and surprise when my neighbors adopted me as the token “gringo” and made sure I was surrounded with love and family on this special time of year. Our neighborhood closed off our busy street and had a posada. It began with two young people dressed as Mary and Joseph who walked up and down the street knocking on doors and being turned away (no room at the inn). Then the decorations came out, the smell of carne asada filled the air and we had a fiesta. It was so much fun – my first time trying to hit a pinata, tasting some traditional dishes, dancing and enjoying the antics of the children. I even won a prize amid much ribbing from my neighbors! The next day, Christmas Day, I was invited next door to my landlady’s home where we had an amazing dinner with new food I had never had (but loved). She had invited other neighbors, family and friends and it was a fun-filled afternoon. As I walked home afterward to a dark house I realized it didn’t matter where I was – Christmas is about family, yes, but you can enjoy it wherever you are by joining in and having the right attitude. I’ve had many wonderful Christmases since then and there is a tiny moment when I miss snow, the scent of a Michigan pine tree and my family gathered around, but I enjoy the memory and go on to have a great day wherever I am. I am blessed!
One detail you mentioned reminded me of my own expat days in Japan — when you said the young people dressed as Mary and Joseph kept getting turned away (no room at the inn). In Japan, they always buy “Christmas cake” to eat on Christmas Eve — and it comes with a set of birthday candles. It took me a while to work out that this is for Jesus’s birthday! But at least Mexico has a Christian culture so the traditions make sense — even if they’re far from our own…
I love that Mary and Joseph thing. At indiscriminate times of year, I’d sometimes turn a corner in Greece to see a whole procession of people marching down the street led by a singing and chanting Orthodox priest (not to be confused with a protest!). I never knew what they were celebrating (my arrival perhaps?) but it’s stuff like that makes expat life unforgettable.
Loved your post… and oh how right you are about so many things! Looks like this year, we will once again be spending Christmas at my in-laws in the south of France. I know, poor little me… yet, I haven’t spent Christmas at home with my family since my daughter was 8 months old; she will be 7 in April. Can we cry now? Every year is an adventure… or misadventure.
Last year, my mother-in-law asked me to make a turkey for the Christmas meal because she loved the one I made on Thanksgiving. I think this is the first compliment I had ever gotten on my cooking from her, so of course I jumped at the chance to make one. I asked her to pick one up for me since we would be arriving the day before. She was happy, and of course that made me happy. Had we found some kind of common ground? Now that would be a nice Christmas present!
Christmas morning arrived, and after opening the gifts I asked her to tell me where the turkey was so I could start preparing it. She arrived with… well, I had no idea what it was, so I asked her if this was a turkey. Her reply was, “Oh, don’t worry it’s the same thing as a turkey?”
“Ummmm… well, it doesn’t look like a turkey.”
“Don’t worry, it’s the same thing.”
Same thing? What does that even mean? It is or isn’t a turkey, right? Even though I knew this was unlike any turkey I had ever seen, I tried to prepare it the same way I do my turkeys. As it was cooking, I couldn’t help but notice a foul odor. I opened the oven, and yes, that horrible smell was coming from the oven.
Trying to remain calm, I asked once again, “Ummmm… are you sure it is turkey? It doesn’t smell like one.”
“Yes, stop worrying… it is just like a turkey.”
I thought to myself, okay, just go with the French flow of things, and chill out. I made gravy with the drippings of the so called “turkey” and then tasted it. Oh my! The gravy was horrible! The meat tasted horrible! I’ve been making turkeys perfectly for years using my Mom’s recipe. I couldn’t figure out why this wasn’t working. There was no way I was eating that, let alone feeding it to my kids!
Well, I didn’t have to wait much longer to find out what, “it’s the same thing” meant. While sitting around the table. I just had to say it, “There is no way that this is a turkey? What is it? What is the name of this meat?”
After getting out our smart phones, we googled the French name… and came up with, “castrated rooster.” Okay, so not only did we kill this animal to eat it, it was castrated first???
I guess the polite name for this is called Capons… but Capons are definitely NOT turkeys, so don’t ever cook them like they are. Yuck! The kids and I ate all of the veggies… while I longed for my Mom’s traditional Christmas decorations, dinner, cookies, desserts.
So yes, let’s just say, I will be feeling displaced again this year… without my family traditions, decorations… without my Mom, sister, brothers, niece and nephews. Yet, at least I know we will be eating better this year. Well, I hope we will. At least I know it won’t be Capon! 😉
Years ago, I never would have said this… but I’m hoping for escargot … and my mother-in-laws delicious rabbit dish. A far cry from Mom’s homemade lasagna starter and filet mignon main course, but oh so delicious! The best part is that I will have my very sweet French man by my side and our two wonderful children. Displaced yes, but never unhappy in their presence.
Sorry, it appears my comment has turned into what might perhaps be my next blog post: lol
I really enjoyed this story — reminds me, in a strange kind of way, of my many Christmases in England, another small island where I lived for many years (in addition to Japan). The menu was invariably turkey (cooked well, and much more familiar than capon!) — but as I’m an American, it make me think of Thanksgiving, not Christmas. I adjusted, of course, but it was not the same… (At home, we usually had roast beef.) Still I don’t think I could ever reach the point of longing for rabbit or escargots — that’s a little beyond my ken! 🙂
Thank you. I think I have been living here too long… in 11 years one tends to adjust. lol That said, there are things here I wouldn’t eat if you paid me! 🙂
I very much relate to this. I had a similar experience in Greece when my mother-in-law kept insisting that she’d cooked and fed us lamb, only it tasted entirely different. After many hours of prompting, she finally conceded that it was, in fact, goat! To be fair, it was delicious (apologies to any vegetarians), albeit shrouded in a good deal of mystery!
On another occasion I stumbled into a yard to discover that my father-in-law had tied up a sheep which was seen dangling and bleating from a tree. No prizes for what happened next, but it was next seen on a plate! Of course this is what happens to many creatures that we go on to digest. I’d just never seen it firsthand before.
Oh, my! You can definitely relate! What a story! You might also relate to my, Pardoning ‘Tom the Turkey’ this Thanksgiving in Paris blog post. I’m surprised I can even eat meat today, let alone cook it after that experience! I think I was traumatized as a kid when I learned where Thanksgiving turkeys come from. lol
Thank you for your comments. Nice to be on common ground with other expats. 😉
I have been an expat most of my adult life- a year in Egypt, 4 years in Cameroon, 15 years in Zambia and I have now been in Tanzania for a little over 2 years. What is tricky about this stint in Tanzania is that my husband and daughter remained in Zambia and my son is off in school in the US, so we are a very displaced family. That said, we will all be together for Christmas, on Mount Kilimanjaro! This will be the first time my family will have been together in months, so, despite the fact that we will be very far from anything resembling Christmas (except maybe the Hemmingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro), I may be feeling to most “at home” that I have felt in a long time, since I will be together with my family.
Sometimes I think an exotic Christmas, far away from any of your various “homes,” is the best way to cope with the expat life!
Holy smokes! Now this is a Christmas to remember! What an incredible way to spend the day! Much love to you and your family. Lana x
Thanks Lana, I will let you know if we are all successful!
Hi Lana, So happy to report that we were all successful at summit-ing Mount Kilimanjaro at sunrise on Dec 28- what a day that was!! The whole trek was fabulous- and very memorable to be saying “Merry Christmas” to every fellow trekker and porter that we passed on Dec 25. I did bring a few little stocking stuffers- like hand and toe warmers, packets of Swiss Miss with mini-marshmellows and candy canes, and we had the British tradition of Christmas Crackers at 13,000 feet during our “christmas dinner”- yes, definitely a Christmas to remember!
That really is an unforgettable way to spend Christmas, Elizabeth. You went, saw and conquered – just fantastic!
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