The funny thing about living in a strange land and a different culture is that the big things that I thought would be hard, or intimidating, or intense, are often not. Another language, a different political climate, a different bio-region, those are expected and can be adapted to. Ultimately it's the million little things that sometimes push me over the edge and into if not exactly homesickness, then an unnamable longing for that small difference. In flavor, in attitude, in habit...
It can be any old little thing, not in an of itself significant, but ultimately, when added to the stresses of everyday life they compound to my frustrations...
How bad American baked goods continue to taste (Sorry, but my palate can't handle the amount of sugar that's standard here.). The atrocities of a non-decimal measuring system. Antiquated seeming online banking. How drugstores don't have make-up testers…
Life is just moving along at its usual pace and then suddenly some small detail throws me off. Even after all these years.
One of the things that I continue to struggle with year after year here, is the holiday season. Overall, I can't quite put my finger on what bothers me about it, but it's a lot of little things. It's probably an equal mix of our particular lifestyle, cultural differences and circumstances.
I can't remember ever having "holiday stress" back home, but here I can't really remember a year it hasn't happened at some point. Living in Finland I was both indifferent to Christmas, and always involved in it the way you are in a homogenous culture where everyone celebrates it more or less the same way.
Our family was never that into the material side of Christmas, but we have a lot of traditions around food and they're common ones, the same that most everyone in our small county has. Most of the joy of Finnish Christmas is in preparation, from advent calendars, to baking gingerbread all through December, to making all the food and decking out the tree together well before the day of the celebration. It feels handmade, instead of store-bought.
On Christmas Eve everything quiets down and stays so for a couple of days: stores close, freeways quiet down, public transportation stops running. Everyone has time off. Compared to this, the American holiday season seems to me a little harried and slapdash.
There are almost universal rituals to Finnish Christmas, from going to Church, to listening to the president declare Yuletide Peace, to lighting candles at the cemetery, to the Christmas sauna, none of which I miss on their own, but all of which somehow add to that quiet pace, that driving to be somewhere just doesn't do.
Over these last six years, we've been working on cultivating our own traditions. We only drive to see family on Christmas and stay on Island with our other family for Thanksgiving. We participate in the community's Solstice celebration in many ways. We do something with friends on Christmas eve. I've introduced certain foods I make each year from "the old country". We try to make all of our gifts and create all of our own decorations.
To ward off the holiday blues, I've made plans for all kinds of little celebrations and small measures that will hopefully keep reminding about what I really like about this season: the lights amidst the darkness, the giving and reciprocity, good food, handmade things, the chance to turn inward, yet embrace others.
Still, I find myself missing the quiet darkness of the Finnish Christmas season. I miss the cemeteries lit with candles. I miss the good gingerbread and the less-than-chipper Christmas songs. The straw goat decorations. The St. Lucia parades. The weird green marmalade marbles on every coffee table. Yet none of these things would by itself alleviate this feeling. It's the combined absence of hundred small things that makes me a little sad. I guess maybe that's what homesickness is, missing those things you can't quite name.
What are your traditions? Any (realistic) tips for a stress-free holiday? (The just don't give into it-advice is not really helpful.) Anybody out there who doesn't celebrate the (something that as product of a uniform culture is still really hard for me to wrap my brain around.)? Any other expats with the holiday blues?