In the final entry in my series of posts on the subtle but interesting variations in how European cultures celebrate Christmas, I take a look at one of the finest places to spend the holiday season, England. It’s not just a beautiful country with a joyous approach to the holiday; it’s also the spot where some of the most cherished Christmas traditions originated.
Throughout Europe, the sound of carols spill out from churches great and small, and the youthful choir’s heavenly harmonies are carried to the rafters on the cold air, just as they’ve been every year for centuries. Families cluster together and listen to the joyous sounds as their ancestors did, often in the same place.
But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of England—Wells, Canterbury, Durham, Bath and Salisbury to name just a few—hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight. Outside of the massive churches, colorful Christmas markets buzz with activity.
Once a pagan country with a large Druid population, England is also to thank for the tradition of the Christmas tree. The custom originated with the Druids who would decorate their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.
The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.
As if England didn’t have enough influence on Christmastime rituals, it was also the originator of the “kissing under the mistletoe” tradition. Dating from the medieval period, there was a tradition of hanging a small treetop called a “bough” upside down in one’s home as a blessing upon the occupants. As the years went by this custom lost its popularity, but was resurrected by the Victorians (nineteenth century) as a holiday decoration under which sweethearts would kiss for good luck.
A particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul, because every proper English event involves tea.
Trees, teas, carols, and mistletoe: England is a fine place to enjoy the warmth, food and music of the season. Attend a carol performance at a magnificent old church, decorate the tree, have some pudding and kiss your honey under the mistletoe. It’s the most joyous time of the year and England is a great place to spend it.
Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.
Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.
Once a prosperous medieval port city, Bruges saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The Flemish jewel’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.
My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but my description of a city that offered authentic Gothic architecture, romantic canals and Crusader-era cathedral housing an ancient relic piqued her interest. She also seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the world (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).
Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.
Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300 and the historic Basilica of the Holy Blood (home of a priceless relic brought home to Bruges from the Crusades—the reputed blood of Jesus—and the Gothic artistry of the ancient City Hall.
Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and admired the pointy gilded architecture. After licking our fingers we checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church and then continued wandering along the canals that lace the city. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.
Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night.
The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of delectably pralines, a well-earned hangover, and a few good stories. I relished playing tour guide in Europe, and I still do.
I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.
“Yes, we can just try to do it in about ten days.”
It is a strange feeling dawning on me when I realize I AM the object of the conversation. It has been said quite a few times on Vagabonding before, how the ten days holiday can be a step towards the opening of the third eye of travel but… it just SUCKS when it applies to YOU: an ex long-term traveler bound by a life of travel to live a “normal life”. Well, researching Southeast Asian alienated youth headbanging at the rhythms of noisy, loud music is not so normal, nor it is bad. It is surely quite fun. But being required to stay put because you have to assist the students with tutorials, well, that leaves only the Easter window as a tiny possibility of a much needed foray into some sort of adventure. Because of course, I would not be content on going to Thailand, and relax on the first beach. If I went there, I’d find a more suitable position trying to chase down some Muslim rebels in the jungles around Pattani. But… can you do that in 10 days? I am afraid not. Taking long stretches of travel at a time – in my case, one year periods, more or less – is a serious problem to adjust to when you are planning another foray. Because you always want more. You NEED more. There is nothing you can do, your own cells have mutated and you are now ready to front the group of the X-Men of travel, like Wolverine, your bones are adamantium and won’t rest if not jarred against the rocks of a forgotten camping ground next to some forgotten border.
“Mmmmm….” We look at each other straight in the eyes.
“Maybe we are not going anywhere, are we?”
“No no, check that flight price, c’mon…”
“Wait! Are we going TO FLY??”
Sometimes I wish I were a simpler man, like Lynyrd Skynyrd so poetically put it. But travel, luckily, made me not. That’s why I have adamantium bones. What about you? Can you take it?
After I read this article about motorbike travel in Indonesia, I started thinking of my own experiences: I switched the focus from great memories of incredible biking trips around Southeast Asia and India, and I considered my actual situation. I concluded that I could not lead the same comfortable life if it wasn’t for an old rattler of a motorbike I am driving around Penang Island since 2010.
To be honest, when I tell my foreign friends that I use a motorbike to get around town, I am confronted with skeptical stares: ”Oh man. That is dangerous.” And I do not blame them: the vision of rush hour traffic in most Asian cities may discourage the most hardcore city driver from hitting the road, and inspire safer options such as public transport or taxis. However, I think that by committing to learn how to handle the traffic, the long-term traveler can really increase his chances to blend in with the local city hustle.
Before I used the bike, I had to ask my girlfriend for rides, or use the erratic public transportation: this last option would have been ok if the buses showed up at the expected time. And when borrowing her car, parking was always a problem. One of the occasional perks was to get stuck in traffic at 32 Celsius degrees for longer than I had ever wished for.
I needed to get back my freedom of movements and time, and put both of them to greater use than to improve the art of cursing the next approaching driver. I decided to try to do what the locals did: so many of them were zooming past me blocked in traffic, wedging with dexterity among the oppressing lines of cars. It looked like the perfect solution to speed up my days, and possibly have some fun doing it. (more…)
It was 2010 and I had been working and traveling in Asia for three years filled to the brim with excitement, discoveries and cultural experiences into the ‘Other’. Time was going slow, and it was a good sign: I learnt that when you start feeling that you have more time than you can handle, it means that you are living your life to the fullest. However, after a while we all need a traveling break: so I decided to go deeper in that new tropical relationship I just found, try to slow down and look for a job, and pursue all those kind of things everybody is running away from before he/she starts vagabonding. Life is a circle, after all, and as much as we want to chase away those ghosts, they sporadically come back to pull our feet at night. I needed that pause: the over pollution of random backpackers in Southern Thailand planted the seed of deja-vu, tiredness and however you want to call it deep into my soul.
So I stopped. And for a little while, I thought I was leading the perfect life, having a routine, but being away from my genetic home. Well, as I wrote just a few lines above, life is a circle, and once again I crossed its edge and felt miserably restless in Malaysia. There had to be something else that I did not experience, that I still had overlooked. Something worth staying longer, besides the pleasures and obligations of a not-so-new, already consolidated relationship.
When I got sick of looking straight ahead, I remembered that back home, I used to look underground. How could I have been so limited by just concentrating on the upper layer of things? Brandishing a cultural shovel, I started digging deep underground until I hit a rock. Well, many rocks: hard rock, punk rock, heavy metal, black metal, crustcore, grindcore and God save me how many more rocks!! And they had not been hidden so deeply. I had just overlooked them, not fully concentrating on the place I lived. I learnt that, to be happier when traveling long term, I had to watch the world with the eyes of a fly: multidirectional, spherical vision. The lesson I learnt has been able to keep me here, as I reached a comfortable niche at the bottom of that underground well, propelling serendipitous occasions for the greatest cultural insight.
I am not preaching that in order to be traveling happy you have to play heavy metal or punk rock music with the locals, BUT if I found my particular special niche, and my own way, I argue that everybody can accomplish the same with a bit of multidirectional determination.
Argentina recently enacted new visa rules, according to this post on The Flight Deal. U.S. citizens must pay a “Reciprocity Fee” of $160. More importantly, this must be paid before entry. If you don’t do this, you’ll be denied entry on arrival. The reciprocity refers to how if Country A charges Country B’s citizens a visa fee, then Country B will do the same to Country A’s citizens.
This problem happened to another backpacker I’d met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was having breakfast with some fellow travelers at First Cup Cafe in Bukit Bintang. A British girl talked about how she was excited to go to Vietnam.
I asked, “So have you got your visa yet?”
“I’ll just get one on arrival,” she said.
The rest of us looked at each other, our faces saying, “Who wants to tell her the bad news?”
Clearing my throat, I spoke up. “Vietnam requires you to apply for a visa before arrival. You’ll have to go to a Vietnamese consulate. You might be able to apply for an e-visa on short notice.”
“Oh no! Really?!” she said.
After breakfast, the girl and her friend hurried back to the hostel to get online and check their options. In the end, they skipped Vietnam in favor of Thailand’s beaches. From the happy photos she shared on Facebook, it worked out for the best.
A good resource to check is Project Visa. To be sure, you should always check with the official website of that country’s consulate or embassy.
Have you ever had visa problems? Do citizens from your country enjoy lower visa fees? Please share your stories in the comments.
Usually, vagabonding starts with a separation from our previous existences made up of obligations, 9 to 5 routines and homely surroundings. After the liberation, always generally, someone storms off to a different corner of the globe, makes experiences, meets people, open his perspectives and spends his hard earned money. And always usually, when this hard earned cash gets low, these “someones” have to face a dire decision: find a way to support themselves by staying on the road, or just pack bags, return to their homes, and face a new set of consequences and experiences with a new mindset.
If you choose the first one – as I did -, the road ahead of you may be a bumpy one: the shadow of failure, regret and difficulty will always lurk at your side. And it will make a few things that most likely you would have thus far confined into an extra-travel dimension spring back into the game as a new set of open possibilities. I am referring in particular to one, possibly the most extreme: going back to school. Exactly, you read right: books, assignments, education, supervisors, thesis and blah blah blah. Sounds awful, isn’t it? Possibly. But most likely, I am almost sure that not many of you know that it is exactly by studying that a traveler may start funding his own life abroad. I bring you my own humble example: faced with the opportunity of losing a new important relationship or moving on to a teaching job somewhere else, I decided to look for employment opportunities locally, and they were hard to find for me. One day I met a friend who talked me into getting back to university and pursue an MA. “They give good scholarships” he said, giving me hope to solve my problematic economic situation.
So, I choose a suitable course and went back to school: I applied, waited, had to translate many documents in the local lingo – and this was an adventure itself, I assure you – and finally got accepted: as things usually do not always turn out for the best, I did not get a scholarship, but a smaller source of funding to trade off with some casual employment at the university. I was therefore back on my feet with something to do, some money to pay my bills, and especially, a way to enter the local life like I never experienced before.
I also recently discovered that the same concept of ethnographic fieldwork is, indeed, to travel meaningfully. Why? Simple: it brings a social scientist to research deeply a community/place/subculture with a lengthy, focused involvement. It may reflect the same essence of travelling slowly as you would soak into a culture, experience is subtle meanings, compare the differences, and making it less “other” than what it felt like at first contact. Because after all – and even if I am a culprit as well – it is quite hard to establish deep connections by taking 2 week long trips…
Has anyone else been studying abroad for long periods of time? Did you get funded? How would you describe your experiences, overall? May you compare it to a different form of slow travel? Please comment below.
Here’s the deal: free housing, living in a beautiful island and some fun work. Oh, and the boss is far away and can’t micromanage you. Sound too good to be true? That’s what Meg and Tony of the Landing Standing blog experienced in their post titled Housesitting in Thailand: live for free in paradise.
Meg described the setup here:
For 4 weeks, we were housesitting on the beautiful Thai island of Koh Samui. The house itself was a luxury villa/mansion perched on top of a peninsula on the Northeast side of the island that boasted panoramic views of the Gulf of Thailand from every room in the house.
. . . Not one but TWO swimming pools, a jacuzzi, a full gym, a media room, a Snooker room, a pool-side bar and entertainment system…. The list goes on! This place was over the top and we were so excited to be spending the month there!
Sounds like something out of the TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
By now you’re wondering how to get in on this. Meg helpfully explains what website she used and the process of connecting with the house owners. She also stressed that this type of luxury situation might not be the typical housesitting experience.
A Canadian girl I knew had a ninja tip to share: read up on your competition. Check out the profiles of other prospective housesitters. Pick up tricks on how to write a warm, personable profile that attracts house owners. Learn the right things to say that build up trust and rapport that gets people to give you the keys.
Have you ever done housesitting? Please share your stories in the comments.
To your friends and family back home, it might seem like you’re living an endless vacation. Especially if you only share cool photos on Facebook (I’ve been guilty of that). But long-term expats know better. The challenges of residing in a foreign country are very real. There was a discussion thread on Quora titled, What is the hardest thing about living abroad?
Looking back on that made me reflect. Here are some things from my list:
Career/Personal Stagnation — There’s nothing wrong with drifting for a while; I have friends who are still happily directionless up to now. But for me, at around the 5-year mark I felt like I’d hit the limit of living in Asia. My biggest fear was that I’d end up still being an ESL English teacher in Taiwan at age 50. At a certain point, that kind of expat life felt like less of an escape and more like a trap.
Disconnect – Although I made loads of acquaintances among the locals in China and Taiwan, there were only a few I truly considered friends. I noticed that many locals would meet me separately from their same-race friends. This kind of segregation saddened me. Meanwhile, foreign friends I grew close to would leave, and it was hard to maintain the bond once they were gone. On the flip side, I felt disconnected from family and friends back home.
Immigration problems — There is not enough time or space for me to rant properly on how much I hated dealing with visas. Worrying about my legal status and getting deported was a humbling experience. Always the foreigner, never the citizen.
On a related note, there was an article in The Economist titled, Foreigners in China: To flee or not to flee? The burden is multiplied if you living in a country with murky legal environment and non-democratic government.
None of this should take away from the experience. Getting to live outside my own culture had an overall positive effect on my life.
What were your biggest obstacles when living abroad? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
“What do I bring?” is a vexing question that most first-time expats face. You don’t want to bring something and carry it when you could just buy it on the ground. On the flip side, you don’t want to be stuck without an item you really need.
Nick and Tim from The Elevator Life, a video blog for young Western expat entrepreneurs in China, made this video:
Some of the advice, especially dealing with banks and smartphones, were very useful. These are the kinds of things that can cause a lot of hassle if you don’t know about them ahead of time.
Have you lived in Asia? What did you wish you had brought when you first moved there?