Archive for the ‘expat dreams’ Category

The Pros and Cons of Christmas Abroad

December 25, 2010

Anyone who lives a fairly nomadic life will likely spend some major holidays outside their home country eventually. It’s an enlightening, interesting, and yes, even challenging experience that can vary a lot depending on what your own traditions are like, and the traditions of the place you’re spending the holiday. Here’s my thoughts on spending yet another Christmas abroad.

I’ve spent three of the last four Christmases in Buenos Aires, where I’ve discovered some of the pros, as well of the cons, of spending this holiday abroad, and in Buenos Aires in particular. Since Argentina is in the Southern Hemisphere, one of the biggest differences for those from the North is celebrating Christmas in the summer. Those images of Santa Claus that are becoming more predominant here are pretty hard to relate to when it’s 90-plus degrees outside! And it’s a real challenge to get into the Christmas spirit if you grew up associating this time of year with cozy nights spent in front of the fire, getting bundled up to play in the snow, and decorations with winter-themed images.

Over the last month, locals have been preparing for summer vacation, and they waited until December 8, Día de la Virgen, to even think about doing any decorating. Meanwhile, online, I saw articles from U.S. sources describing ways one can avoid the stress of the holidays, and was bombarded with comments about how many shopping days were left until Christmas. I sweat through most of December feeling truly thankful to be away from the world of a million holiday parties and the pressure to buy lots of presents. I suspect that those who, like me, would rather move away from the consumerist traditions that have overtaken Christmas in the States find that spending the holiday season abroad is a great way to shift the focus back to the things that really matter, like spending time with family and friends – and eating plenty of tasty food (but not getting stressed out about preparing it all)!

However, it is exactly this focus on “what matters” that can make holidays abroad difficult. For the first time since I moved to Buenos Aires, none of my family came to visit for Christmas, and I didn’t go back to the U.S. I didn’t think it would be that big a deal – after all, I do have family here now – my fiancé and his family – and I knew we’d spend December 24th, Nochebuena, together. But in Argentina, at least, Nochebuena is celebrated a lot like New Year’s Eve – a big dinner with family as the anticipation builds until midnight, when people set off fireworks in the streets and everyone makes a toast to a Feliz Navidad with sparkling wine or cider and some traditional treats. December 25th is then a lot like January 1 – a day to sleep off the food and alcohol of the day before and just relax – and not much more. I found myself feeling pretty sad yesterday, realizing that being in a place where the traditions are so different made me feel even farther from my family and friends than normal.

As we create independent lives and families apart from the immediate family we grew up with, we all have to create our own traditions, and many of us have to get used to not having all our friends and family together at every important event or holiday. Creating new traditions might be even more important for nomads, who will likely find themselves a long distance from familiar ways of doing things but may be seeking some sense of tradition. Or perhaps the best solution is just to throw yourself completely into whatever traditions you find around you, and give up trying to make it something it’s not. Roberto suggested yesterday that we spend Christmas in a different country every year, sampling different ways of celebrating that we can incorporate as we create traditions that are uniquely ours.

What’s your experience been with spending holidays abroad, or far from friends and family? Wherever you’ve celebrated, have you combined family traditions with new ways of doing things?

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Three years and counting

May 21, 2010

Three years ago tonight, I was heading out to a pub quiz at Sullivan’s bar, on my first night (living) in Buenos Aires. I remember being proud of myself for being out on the town right away, and for finding my way to the bar on the bus (when I called South American Explorers about the event that night, the girl said, “OK, do you have a Guia T?” Not yet wise to this incredibly handy guide to BA’s amazing bus system, I said, “What’s that?”). I probably said over and over again that night as I met new people, “I just got here this morning. I’m not sure how long I’ll be in Buenos Aires; we’ll see.”

I certainly never dreamed I’d still be here three years later, sitting in my very own apartment, waiting for a group of great friends and my awesome boyfriend to come over and help me celebrate my time here. It’s been quite a ride! Here’s to many more years of adventure, friendship, and love, wherever I am.

A Spring Thanksgiving

November 28, 2009

Sometime last week I realized that Thanksgiving was this week, and started thinking maybe I should have some people over to celebrate. I thought back to the big potluck we did last year at my friend Cheryl’s house here in Buenos Aires, and it was a lot of fun and a great mix of expats, travelers, and locals, sharing traditions and food and conversation.

So I sent out a bilingual invitation on Monday of Thanksgiving week to about 20 people, assuming many of them wouldn’t be able to come. I wasn’t picky about getting people to bring any of the traditional turkey-day foods, but I did ask people to bring something homemade if possible.

The more I got thinking about it, and as I explained Thanksgiving and my family’s traditions to Argentine friends, I decided I really wanted mashed potatoes (and even called a family friend to get her recipe). And I wanted to replicate my mom’s pecan pie (ended up making pecan pie bars, a little easier, and super tasty). An American friend got really excited and decided she’d make stuffing. And cornbread. Another friend set out to find a turkey – and dug up two cans of cranberries (a really special treat!) that she’d gotten from an expat leaving town a while back. Even some of my disorganized Argentine friends, from whom I honestly didn’t expect very much, rose to the challenge and made some great salads, sides, and dessert.

I also invited a couple Couchsurfers who’d contacted me but who I couldn’t host (I had a German couple arriving the next day), and suddenly the guest list had at least 20 people on it! I tried not to panic about having not really thought all this through, and on Thursday morning I went out to buy more plates and cups, called a friend to bring a ton of extra silverware, and thankfully found all of the ingredients to make the pecan pie bars. My friend Cate came over to help with the turkey and potatoes and everything else, and we sweated it out in the kitchen all afternoon and early evening (all that heavy, baked food is really not meant for hot-weather consumption, but we made it happen!).

So I think we had 21 people here total, some of whom had never celebrated Thanksgiving. Nations represented: US, Canada, Argentina, Italy, Ecuador, England, France, Spain… In true Argentine fashion, I said we’d start “around 9 pm” and I think we finally ate around 10:30 or so. It was a great night, with a beautiful clear sky so we could enjoy the terrace, and just enough space for everyone. It was wonderful to have a house full of people – it made it much less difficult to be away from home. I can’t wait to do it again sometime!

A Pain in the Neck

June 18, 2009

So much for that writing every day thing… But here’s a slice of my life today.

I was up late last night researching things I want to buy while I’m back in the States this summer, and had trouble getting to sleep thinking about new toys and the impending arrival of a new (to me) couch! I was up early too, and headed out to a friend’s second-floor apartment to watch two guys (who arrived EARLY – shocking) lower said couch over the balcony and onto the sidewalk below. They kept telling me how complicated the job was because of this sign that was attached to the front of the building, but it all looked pretty smooth to me! Their clunky truck carried the couch and us 22 blocks to my place, where they (thankfully!) determined it would most likely make it in the front door of my apartment, and proceeded to carry it up 10 flights of stairs. The older guy, sweating on arrival, declared the stairs “mortal.” And mentioned again that they had done such a good job, and, you know, no obligation, but a tip might be nice. I was already paying a pretty penny for the move, but took pity and threw in a little extra “para los chicos.”

Then I had lunch and enjoyed a nice nap on the new couch.

Then I went to a personal training session with my yoga teacher to work on some things to improve my yoga practice. Afterwards I stopped at a store, and while the guy was wrapping up my purchases I was rolling my starting-to-be-sore neck and shoulders. He asked me if I’d been here long (“here” meaning BA, of course), and when I told him I’d been here two years he said, “That’s why your neck hurts. Buenos Aires is a nice place to be for just a little while.” This sums up the sentiments of a lot of people I’ve talked to here, who can’t really understand why so many foreigners would want to come live in Buenos Aires, when they’d all just love to get out. Argentine-American singer Kevin Johansen has a song about that, actually; this is the chorus: “And all the people that aren’t from here would like to come and stay / And all the people that are from here just want to get away.”

Inmigraciones

April 28, 2009

Yesterday I went to renew my visa at the immigration office, giving me a first-hand look at how it all unfolds. These processes make me appreciate so much more the struggles that people from other countries go through to be able to come to/stay/live in the U.S., and the relative ease of my experience with it here thus far is not something I take for granted. The 2 1/2 hours I spent waiting for various pieces to fall into place made for great people-watching (something I would have missed out on if I’d remembered to bring a book with me!). It is quite humbling to be one of just a handful of European-looking folks in a massive crowd of people filing various papers, paying fees, and trying to handle a foreign bureaucracy. For many of them, though, at least they have the added benefit of speaking the language – I don’t have any hard facts but suspect that the majority of immigrants are coming from Paraguay and Bolivia, and others from further afield in Latin America. I also saw some Brazilians, but the next biggest group after Spanish-speakers seemed to be Asians. The only real problem I encountered personally was discovering that the last stamp in my passport was placed on top of a strip of clear tape (apparently used when I had pages added to my passport), and some of the ink was rubbing off – making it hard to tell how long a stay I was granted and what date I entered. I had to go to another area where they verify and repair stamps, to get a printout and have someone notarize my entry stamp, basically, before I could get the renewal. No big deal, it just added about 30 minutes to the process. And, unfortunately, just a week ago the price to renew TRIPLED, so this was no longer a cheap endeavor (well, it’s all relative – still less than US$100). It would have been cheaper to go to Uruguay, if only I’d thought I had the time to do that this week.

Typical Post

February 24, 2009

I have about a million things to say, and no time to say them. The long, dreamy post I’ve been writing in my head about this nomad having a home base again will just have to wait, but it’s time to spill the beans (to the possibly one or two readers of this blog who aren’t on facebook or haven’t already been told about all this in person!). For now, let this suffice: I’m at a WiFi cafe because I don’t have Internet at home, and I have to leave to go buy some lights and outlet covers and get home in time for my new fridge to be delivered tonight. To MY apartment. That I bought. In Buenos Aires! More soon – and pictures!

Back in Buenos Aires

February 3, 2009

After another great whirlwind of a trip back to the States, I landed in Buenos Aires yesterday afternoon. I have to say, I did a phenomenal job packing (helped along by putting all the heavy stuff in my carry-on). For the first time I didn’t have to pay any overweight fees – my suitcase was EXACTLY 50 pounds on Delta’s scale! And no hassles at immigration – in fact, Argentina hasn’t even put into effect the visa fee that I was expecting, so without all those fees I spent nearly $300 less to get here than I had anticipated. Just had to get my carry-on inspected by hand (apparently the xray machines can’t see through steel cooking pots) and I was on my way – except for a pesky four-hour layover at JFK, which seemed tailor made for watching the Super Bowl, though having to board my next flight meant I missed the most exciting part of the game, apparently.

This week I’m staying in a friend’s apartment (while she’s out of town) in a different part of town, and it’s a nice change of pace. I showed up yesterday with my bags and the doorman (who had the keys) told me to wait an hour for reasons unknown (or at least unintelligible via intercom, with mildly rusty Spanish on one end). I sat down to wait – and a delivery guy who was also at the door said, “You’re just going to stay here? Why don’t you go to a café or something?” I said I didn’t want to carry my bags, etc. and he offered to help (and said he’d help bring my bags back later, too). Score one for everyone – I didn’t have to carry my bags and his ice cream shop got another customer for an hour! He was gone later, so I headed back on my own and the doorman was in place, as promised. Later I headed out to the grocery store and passed the same guy outside the ice cream shop, and he apologized for not being around to help on my return. It’s nice to be able to trust in a stranger’s random act of kindness now and then.

It feels good to be back. As I whizzed across town in a taxi yesterday many of my adopted home’s idiosyncrasies came rushing back to me, and I smiled knowingly at the crazy traffic and pedestrians, dog-walkers, delivery people, etc., feeling thankful that I get to live in such a vibrant, fascinating city.

Re-creating the Holidays

December 20, 2007

It’s December 20th, and I hardly notice that there are, as they say in the US, “just four shopping days left until Christmas.” Sure, there are random decorations around town, including trees made of lights in the parks, shooting star–type light sculptures on lampposts, and a menorah in the plaza down the street, but it’s also 80-some degrees outside. But this isn’t just some freakish Florida-style warm-weather holiday season, it’s not even winter—there are flowers and trees full of lush leaves everywhere, sunset is just after 8 p.m., and the snowmen and totally overdressed santas I’ve seen for sale here and there are complete anomalies. I’ve been cracking up thinking about cutting up and hanging in the window some of those paper snowflakes we used to make in school. This weekend, maybe.

But it’s not just having my seasons turned upside down that’s making this year different than most. Since my parents and brother have gone to considerable expense and effort to be here, we’ve decided not to exchange presents this year (something I think we’ve been slowly moving towards for a while now)—each other’s presence is the present, and we’re all really looking forward to the time together. I certainly don’t miss braving the crowds at the mall, nor the mindless checking off of lists or the pressure of coming up with gifts just because it’s expected. And in the absence of that pressure has actually come inspiration, and I’ve happened upon some fun “just because” gifts. Being in a country with an unreliable mail system and expensive postage also leaves me feeling free to not send many holiday cards this year. So while I wouldn’t exactly say I’m not busy, little of my time is being spent on stressful holiday stuff, which is nice. Of course, trying to come up with food and activities to supplant our usual traditions is a unique challenge, and it’s the first time in many, many years that we won’t be relaxing in front of my parents’ big-ass tree on Christmas, listening to Garrison Keillor or whatever new CDs we’ve received. I have a feeling this won’t be the last Christmas we spend in a new location, so I hope we can start to create some portable traditions—there’s certainly no space in a suitcase or backpack for a live 12-foot tree and Grandma’s hand-knit stockings.

Three years ago today…

September 10, 2007

I love anniversaries! I don’t mean the relationship type, but the kind marked by dates of momentous events and activities in my life. Kind of like birthdays and New Year’s, I guess they offer an interesting opportunity to think back on that same date in other years, and especially the event that made it a notable day in the first place. In this case, I’m talking about the beginning of my round-the-world trip—I left San Francisco for Peru on this day in 2004. My, how time flies! I love to think of all the unpredictable turns my life has taken since then. I certainly could not have predicted on that day that I would actually be living in South America three years later! Pretty cool.

Buenos Aires FAQ

May 2, 2007

It feels like I’m having the same conversation constantly these days, and I remembered yesterday how it was the same way before I left on my RTW trip. It’s nice that people are interested, and are bothering to ask questions, but sometimes I’d rather talk about something else! Unfortunately most of those people probably don’t read my blog, but here’s the rundown, in case I haven’t already had this conversation with you.

Q: Where are you going? Do you have a place to stay? A: I’m planning to be based in Buenos Aires, but there are a lot of places in Argentina and the rest of South America I want to visit/return to. I’ll need to leave the country every three months to renew my visa, so that will give me some built-in travel time. I have a room reserved for the first month in an apartment in San Telmo, the “bohemian” neighborhood of the city—I stayed in San Telmo last time and loved it—which will give me time to find my own place. I’m excited to finally be headed somewhere I can afford to live alone, and I understand there’s usually a good market of furnished, short-term sublets available.

Q: Why Argentina/Buenos Aires? A: My RTW trip provided a great overview of lots of places—many that I loved—but also left me wanting to stay longer in one place abroad, which I’ve never done before. I knew I wanted to go back to a Spanish-speaking country, so I could continue studying the language. I also considered Arequipa, Peru, and Valparaiso, Chile, but for now, Buenos Aires has won out. The city seems to have the best combination of affordability and a rather familiar standard of living (you can drink the water, Internet is readily available, etc.). Plus, how can you turn down great steak, wonderful wine, and the tango?

Q: How long will you be gone? A: I’m not sure. I bought a one-way ticket, and I’m excited to not have a definite plan at this point. I do know I’ll probably be there at least seven months, because my parents are talking about coming down for Christmas.

Q: Do you have a job lined up down there? A: Nope. I’m planning to continue freelancing with the same clients I have now—the beauty of my work is that I can truly work anywhere I have an Internet connection (which shouldn’t be a problem; my first place has WiFi!). I’d love to also do some volunteer work in the city, but I’ll figure that out once I get settled in.

Q: Do you know people there? A: I know a few Argentines I met while traveling, and also have phone numbers of friends of friends, etc. The Internet has helped a lot—through Couchsurfing and BootsnAll I’ve made some contacts that have led to a few messages along the lines of “Let’s have a drink when you get here!”

Q: Do you speak Spanish? A: Well enough. I’m reviewing/remembering a lot of what I learned during my time in South America (and from Spanish classes in San Francisco), and am sure I’ll pick up more every day. I’ll probably seek out some more formal lessons to work on some of my weak spots.

Q: What are you taking with you? A: Good question! I’m definitely not taking any furniture or shipping anything significant, but am certainly not packing as light as I have in the past. I’m hoping to fit everything in two huge suitcases (up to 50 pounds each, as allowed by Delta) and two carry-ons. My computer, plus other books and gadgets and ergonomic stuff for work, will take up more space/weight than I’d like them to, but that just means I’ll have to buy clothes there—which should be fine, since I remember them being cheap and cute!

Did I miss anything? This is your chance to ask those burning questions…