Finding the Zen in Christmas Abroad

One of the most memorable and at the same time, challenging experiences a traveller can have is celebrating a holiday abroad. It is both exhilarating and eye-opening to enjoy a holiday while overseas, but can also make you miss home and your family more than anything else. Still, there is a certain magic in learning how other people celebrate holidays around the world and is something that all travellers should try at least once in their lives.

In Canada where I am from, without a doubt the biggest holiday we celebrate is Christmas. People fly all over this vast land to be with their loved ones to give gifts, break bread together and enjoy each other’s company. Many memories that I have of Christmas growing up were of lots of snow outside, big meals with extended family, presents under the tree and lots of rushing around. It’s pretty much still the same now, except now I make mulled wine every year, which is a tradition I picked up in France.

Christmas where Christmas is a Big Deal: 

While in high school, I had the opportunity of doing a semester abroad in Mulhouse, France. I left in October, shortly after Thanksgiving and was still there for Christmas and New Years. I was nervous about spending my first Christmas away from my family, but excited to see what it was all about in France. For the most part, I had not been too afflicted by the blues that can come with culture-shock during my time there, but I definitely felt a little down around the holiday season.

My blues were lightened a little by the fact that it had snowed the most in 10 years the year I was there, so everything looked white and lovely, just like home but with a French twist. Another delight of the season, was Christmas Markets. At the time I was told that they were relatively new to that part of Europe, so I considered myself lucky to have the opportunity to take them all in. The town square in Mulhouse where I’d usually eat my lunch, was transformed into a winter wonderland of quaint little market stalls selling artisan crafts and delicious treats. I remember how 17 year old me, revelled in eating melted munster on toasted baguette, warmed crêpes with nutella and mulled wine for lunch while taking in the festive sights.

My thoughtful host family also took me around to see the Christmas markets in some of the neighboring towns and cities, including the superlative Strasbourg, which remains to this day one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.

Strasbourg, the Christmas capital.
Photocredit: www.buzzwok.com

For the holiday itself, my host family and I travelled to Lyon, where we had an even more delicious than usual dinner, and opened presents on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas morning, like English-speaking Canadians usually do. I so enjoyed the experience, but was a little sad that my family wasn’t able to connect with me over the phone like they had planned. In the days before the ubiquitous cell phone, the international phone lines had been jammed, so despite a worthy effort on my parent’s part, they weren’t able to get through. Still, my host family went out of their way to make sure I had a great time during the celebrations and I liked meeting my host family’s extended family.

New Year’s Eve was quite the affair too. A classmate and her family hosted a party at their house that to me seemed to be a castle. There was even a “kids section” and an “adults section.” Close to when the countdown was about to happen, the kids were invited to the adults room where champagne and oysters were distributed. As a 17 year old from Central Alberta, I had never felt so fancy before. After the countdown, everyone gave each other “la bise” (double kiss on the cheeks) while saying happy new year and then the kids were kicked out again. Excepting the countdown fanciness and château locale, the party was very similar to one that could be hosted in Canada. I’ll always remember it though as the time when I received one of my most strange but rewarding compliments. About 3/4 of the way through the night, a person at the party who I had never met before learned that I was Canadian, and Anglophone to boot. He told me that he was surprised to learn that, and had thought that I was French but just a little…slow. So thanks, I think?

Christmas where the Locals don’t Celebrate Christmas:

Christmas in France was magical, but what about Christmas in a place where they don’t really celebrate Christmas?

I also had the tremendous opportunity to experience Christmas in mostly Muslim Mali. Not only is there no snow, it is extremely hot outside and Christmas is not a state-recognized holiday. Thankfully, the director of the organization I worked for was nice enough to give us expats a break from work. While the locals don’t celebrate per se, they definitely recognize the season. Imagine my delight, when one of my favourite lunch spots in Bamako was all decked-out for Christmas?

This proves once and for all, that yes, they know it’s Christmas. 

I celebrated Christmas with my expatriate friends. who were mostly from Québec, so we had a big dinner and opened presents on Christmas Eve, rather than in the morning. In the lead-up, we shopped for chickens from the “chicken guy” and picked up gifts for others at the outside artisan’s market. It was a unique experience for sure, but we had a blast and some of our Muslim friends joined us too. We achieved what matters the most, which is getting everyone together and having a good time. 
Bamako’s Artisan’s Market, beats the mall. 
For New Years Eve, I asked my host mom, Fatamatou, what we would do and she told me emphatically “We eat.” So I spent the day with her helping prepare the meal, but when it came time to eat, we still did it the Malian way: men and women eat separately out of communal bowls, and I was given my own serving in a pot to eat by myself. Visits happened throughout the day, rather than cumulating at meal time and cultural practices around dividing up food remained intact. I expected a bit more of a celebration considering how much work I had seen Fatamatou put into cooking the meal, but that’s the learning of spending the holidays abroad. Not everyone in the world does it like you. 
After eating, I headed out to meet up with some of my expat friends staying across the river. We hung out in their NGO compound, dancing and drinking until the countdown and then went to dance at a bar that looked like a house. We were all having a blast when to our surprise, the DJ cut the music off around 2 in the morning and told us to clear out. While we had been dancing up a storm, bar staff had set up dozens of tables with locals patiently waiting for their late night meal. As we were leaving, we saw people being served tasty-looking fish platters and I wished that I could join them. We went back to the NGO compound before deciding to go to a club in my neighbourhood. I used the trip across the river as an excuse to go home and sleep since dancing in night clubs until 6am is not really my thing. 
The front door was locked so I banged on it a few times until groggy-looking Fatamatou came and opened the door. She said nothing to me and looked thoroughly unimpressed that I had woken her up. The next morning, she told me that if I woke her up like that again she would pile my stuff up in front of the door and leave a mattress out for me. She was only half-joking. 
On New Years Day, I sat alone in my room and cracked open my journal. I read through all the entries from the last few years as well as what I had written since arriving in Mali a few months prior and reflected on how much I had seen, learned, experienced and changed since that first trip to France. It was the most unconventional Christmas holiday I have experienced to date, but it provided a tremendous opportunity for reflection and I am grateful for that to this day. 
In short, holidaying abroad can be both magical and challenging. It also provides an opportunity to learn about other cultures, see beautiful sights, participate in local traditions, and most importantly, to reflect on what you value the most back home. 
“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent in the ideas of living.” – Mary Ritter Beard

Travel for You and No One Else

As someone who recently returned to work from an awesome vacation, this article called “Your colleagues don’t want to hear about your awesome vacation” caught my attention. It featured a study that was published in Science Daily where the study author says:

“The participants in our study mistakenly thought that having an extraordinary experience would make them the star of the conversation,” (…). “But they were wrong, because to be extraordinary is to be different than other people, and social interaction is grounded in similarities.” In other words, being extraordinary is isolating and could lead to negative, rather than positive feelings. 

The article author then goes on to say the takeaway of the study is: If you expect your super-awesome vacation to lead to great conversations with friends and colleagues when you get home, think again—and hide the photos.”

I have so many issues with this statement, and my experiences have been very different. I know that nobody wants to be around the person who won’t stop talking about the places they’ve been, and doing so can actually be a symptom of reverse culture shock, but every time I have returned from somewhere, people have asked me a lot of questions about the place and stated that they want to see my pictures. 

I experienced a bit of reverse culture shock myself when I returned to Canada after living in Mali for 5 months. For me what was alienating was not that I wasn’t the centre of attention, but that it was so hard to explain to everyone just how truly life changing that experience was. No I wasn’t just backpacking around Africa for 6 months, I had made a home and learned to live within a new culture. I had made friends and learned to love my host family. I experienced things, good and bad, that I know most people I know will never experience. I was different and changed but people treated me the same. Just like when I had moved to Bamako, I had to learn to live a new normal when I returned to Canada. One where my friends and family may not always understand what I had experienced and eventually I learned that there was no point trying to explain it. People asking about my time there wanted the highlight reel, rather than the whole, complex and gritty truth.  In the end, I think that it is enough to be eternally grateful that I had the opportunity to experience something that was so epic, to me

Looking for something to do during a weekend in Bamako? Get your fortune told to you.


3 years after returning from Mali, I met up with one of my friends I made there in Montreal. We wandered from dive bar to dive bar and stayed out until the wee hours of the morning drinking cheap draught beer and sharing stories and memories of our time there, as well as our experiences when we got home. “It was just so….epic, for reasons I can’t really explain” my friend would say multiple times throughout the evening, and I understood her. The night was cathartic, and I left feeling like I wasn’t alone in having a hard time readjusting. 

I doubt most of my Canadian friends will ever experience fish head on plantains…

More recently, since returning from a 5 week adventure travel excursion to East Africa, my coworkers, friends and family have all emphatically asked to see my pictures and quizzed me on what were my highlights to the point that their interest surprised me. I was expecting the nonchalance that the study participants experienced, but instead received genuine, earnest interest. That being said, I don’t bring it up in every conversation even though it’s the most exciting thing that’s happened in my life recently, and I always make sure to ask questions about what is new and exciting in the person’s life who I may be talking to. 

Finally, while it might be true that if you’re travelling so that you can be the most exciting, adventurous, and cultured person around, you may be disappointed if you don’t get an enormous amount of attention once you return home. But if you’re travelling for the many other reasons there are, and never mind that it is downright good for you, then whether or not your colleagues think you’re a rockstar, should not influence your decision to travel. The takeaway here is: travel is for you, and no one else.