[Away from] Home for the Holidays: Reflections on Christmases Spent Across Oceans

Some memories, in pictures and words, from Christmases spent in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France; Fez, Morocco; and Kisumu, Kenya. One month past Christmas isn’t too late for a Christmas post, is it? 🙂

As countless Christmas songs and Hallmark movies remind us, home is the place to be for the holidays. “For the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home.” And yeah, you kind of can’t. Without baking Christmas cookies with my grandmother at her house, without hanging stockings over my parents’ fireplace, and without my mother’s Christmas Eve beef wellington feast or our annual Christmas morning family brunch after transforming the living room into a sea of wrapping paper, Christmas just doesn’t feel quite like Christmas. But we all grow up, and maybe we live overseas for a time, or we get married and have a whole new second family to split holiday time with. I’ve spent three out of the past nine Christmases far, far away from my home town. Something felt a little off about those three Christmases… and yet, not in a bad way, for they have remained my most memorable Christmases. There’s no place like home for the holidays, and there’s also no place like not home for the holidays.

Christmas 2009 in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France

There was a frosty train ride north from Paris. There was a buche de Noel cake, log shaped and hiding tiny treasures, and festive table settings made by my host family’s kids. Their grandmother cooked all day and we ate like kings, and the kids put their shoes out at night to be filled with candy and gifts by morning. We made a snowman and came inside and the grandmother made us the most amazing hot chocolate I have ever had. It tasted like a scrumptious Swiss chocolate bar melted straight into a cup of hot cream, and maybe that’s what it was. There was a walk through a grove of snow-decked pine trees to midnight mass at a tiny old stone church. And there were World War I monuments rising out of fields still pockmarked with the craters of century-old shells.

Christmas 2014 in Fez, Morocco

There were twinkling strings of lights on orange trees across the border in Ceuta, Spain. There was a university strike in Tetouan, doors barricaded and guarded by students, classes cancelled, and a sudden day off on December 25th. There was a bus ride through rolling mountains, through blue Chefchaouen, to Fez, where the air was icy cold but indoors it was toasty warm and we cooked pasta and exchanged gifts while Handel’s Messiah played in the background. There’s no Christmas in Morocco, but there was for the six or seven of us in that dar in the Fez Medina. There were roof terrace views, mountains in the distance, walks through winding medina paths dodging donkey carts and tea kettles and leather goods, and a cozy fire in the Ruined Garden Cafe.

Christmas 2017 in Kisumu, Kenya

There was a road trip from Eldoret to Kericho to Kisumu, big family piled into two cars, stopping for tea and mandazi and scenic overlooks along the way. Family outings are a common way of celebrating Christmas in Kenya. “Like the first Christmas,” my grandfather, a pastor, said. “Think about it. Everyone was on the road.” The national park was full to capacity, with lines stretching far out the gate, so we skipped it. We took a boat ride on Lake Victoria and ate whole grilled tilapia with ugali and sukumawiki on a hilltop overlooking the lake. It was eighty plus degrees and felt like July. On the drive home, everyone was out, happy people walking along the side of the road, kids in fancy new Christmas outfits, young men who’d done a little too much partying, and families like ours heading home. Everyone outside on the road under the moon on that warm, warm Christmas night.

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Road Tripping Kenya: Kisumu & Lake Victoria

Eldoret is a five hour drive west of Nairobi. Another two hours will get you to Kisumu, a city bordering Lake Victoria.

We stocked up on some road trip provisions: Stoney (like ginger beer but better… we may or may not have smuggled four bottles back to the States with us), Krest (like 7 Up but better… Hubby says it contains quinine which helps protect against malaria), and fresh roasted corn on the cob, purchased through the front passenger window from a roadside stand.

If you drive in Kenya, you have to learn how to drive on the left side of the road and how to drive over the most massive speed bumps you’ve ever seen in your life. Hubby is a champ!

We met up with an American friend at Java Coffee, then drove to the lake shore for a lunch to end all lunches: Giant fish- one whole fish per person- with veggies and ugali. Here’s where we ate. I recommend it. The food was delish!

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And here… da da da da.. is my plate!

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I haven’t quite mastered the art of eating with ugali, but I developed my skills a lot during this particular meal. Take some ugali in one hand (that’s the white stuff on the plate to the right), use it to pull off a piece of fish and grab some greens and tomatoes, and pop it in your mouth!

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I don’t think any of us were able to finish our fish, but we made a valiant effort.

A few more glimpses of Lake Victoria:

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