It’s happening right now. The pre-Christmas fever when everyone is scurrying after presents or making travel plans. Chris Rea’s ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ blasts from every radio station. And being home for Christmas becomes the biggest imperative for this time of the year.
One part of you longs for this cushy family bonding. But the other dreads those few days of being cooped up with people who always push your buttons.
Escaping to the sun-kissed Caribbean seems like an ideal solution. I hear you. Many of my London friends use Christmas break to travel overseas – away from the family.
But if you’re a migrant, an expat or in any way living away from your home country, there is no dilemma. You must travel.
And you must travel home.
Flying, driving, or by any means necessary.
Because those of us who have experienced life abroad don’t take home for granted. Call it an illusion, but that home we left behind, the past we left behind, seems more organic than our current place of residence.
This nostalgia is like a music box that you may have had as a child. Once it opens and starts to play, the sounds of your native language break free. The smells and tastes from your family table rush in. Even your body begins to move as if you’re tracing the lay out of your old home. Straight and left to the kitchen, or up the stairs to your room.
Remember what the door knob feels like in your hand? I bet you do.
Maybe not all Croats living abroad feel this magnetic pull towards home. I know I did. And it was strongest around Christmas time.
This year’s demographic survey reported that around 30,000 Croatian people left the country. Some had to separate from their families to go looking for better-paid jobs. Others packed up together and left for the unknown. Will they be home for Christmas?
And how many millions of global migrants pine, not only for a sense of home, but for a safe home of residence?
I am not writing this to offer out-of-the box solutions for forced migration. Economic or political; Croatian or global. I only have my own migrant story to share.
Because often, shared stories are the strongest pillar of home, real or imaginary.
So here’s the 10 Christmas things I used to do that only Croats living abroad can understand.
1 | I moved heaven and earth to travel home for Christmas.
It defies any logic, because plane tickets cost a bomb then. My job never allowed me to know far enough in advance when I could pack up for the year. So by the time I booked the ticket, my London-Zagreb 2 hour flight could rush me £300.
I could have flown to New York for that price!
2 | I endured the worst traffic and traffic collapses
The year when I submitted my PhD, I had a ticket home booked for 20th December. What a sweet treat to be home early after such a huge accomplishment!
But that December London air traffic collapsed under a few flakes of snow. Most flights got cancelled in the last minute. I travelled to Gatwick three days in a row, hoping to board the next available plane.
I arrived back home at 9pm on 25th December.
3 | I spent all my savings on trips back home
When I moved to London, I got excited by countless cheap options for travelling overseas. 3 days in Morocco, a week in Thailand, backpacking through Latin America.
It wasn’t long until I realised all my money and days off would get spent on trips back to Croatia. With Christmas and summer visits home, there was no space left for travelling far and wide.
I don’t regret it.
4 | I loved England all year round but I hated it for Christmas
The year when I got my permanent UK residency, I was without the passport for Christmas. I could’t travel so I got my Mum to come over.
I was England-bound for most of that year. But I hardly noticed it. Until, of course, it was Christmas. Having my right to free movement restricted by something as banal as paperwork made me angry.
I still hold the grudge.
5 | I stuck to the Croatian Christmas tradition more than when I lived at home
This happens to most migrant communities. They hold close to their customs so not to lose the sense of their identity.
For my first London Christmas, I asked my Mum to bring salted cod in a suitcase. I still don’t know if that was legal or not. Even if it was, my poor Mum got terrified when she saw sniffer dogs patrolling the Heathrow arrivals.
Of course, they weren’t trained to detect the Croatian Christmas cod!
6 | I suspended my curiosity about other people’s Christmas customs
One of the best things about London is its multicultural character. It’s a city where you can hear people speak more than 300 languages. As an anthropologist, and generally a curious person, I loved learning about cultural differences.
But come Christmas, all this diversity would lose its appeal. I glorified whatever was typical Croatian, and scoffed at everything else. From the British more commercial take on Christmas, to their eating brussel sprouts for Christmas dinner.
I got my Mum to cook a ‘proper’ festive meal and bragged with our ways in front of my London friends.
7 | I regressed to living with my parents again
While Croats usually drag their feet when leaving the nest, I left home at the age of 18. I took great pride in building my own home, even as an undergraduate student in Zagreb.
Something weird happened when I lived in London though. I had no physical address in Zagreb and so ‘being home for Christmas’ always meant visiting my parents.
This switch was not only geographical. Because I spent much time in Zagreb with friends too.
The yearning for home – real or imaginary – sent me straight back to childhood. And since my London address didn’t tick all the boxes to be called home, I (re)invented my old/new home back with my parents.
To be back meant to gather around the table with my folks, or to daydream in my old room.
8 | I was never really home at my imaginary home
It’s hard to feel grounded when your home is an imaginary space. A bundle of memories and stories that you rekindle twice a year. Most times, this kind of home has no tangible walls and no whiff of food ever comes from the kitchen.
I’d often catch myself walking the streets of London while, in my mind, I was at my imaginary home. I’d ask myself: where am I? Here or there? Neither answer was right or wrong.
9 | At tough moments, virtual communication with Croatia felt more real
This was especially true in the last months of writing up my PhD. Every morning, I’d have coffee with my Croatian friend over Skype. It felt closer and more real than dipping outside to meet a colleague down the road.
Again, I’d ask myself where I was. And again, there was no right or wrong answer.
10 | I gave up all the grudges and made time with my family as perfect as possible
I’d watch those Christmas comedies where a large family gets together only to end up rowing and annoying each other.
Sure it was funny to watch. But it also made me realise that people often take family bonding for granted.
My Christmases and summers in Croatia were a luxury. A brief moment to bask in familiarity and to remind myself of where I come from.
This is not to say that looking back is more important than looking ahead. But if we lose touch with what made us, how can we ever make something new – now or in the future?
It’s time to pack.
This year, I am not flying.
Au revoir air travel. I am driving home for Christmas.