And so this is Christmas…

In case you haven’t (over) heard about it, Christmas is coming. When you are an expat, this period can be tricky. In a warm climate country, even more. You are far from your family and all you can see in the (very fake) advertisements is a happy reunited family laughing in the snow. Then a choice comes to you. Do you spend a fortune, flights are crazy expensive in this period, to go back “home” for those exhausting carb overloaded family reunions? Or do you choose to stay and spend Christmas at your new home with your new friendmily? (it’s not a mistake, it’s actually a term that the young people use now, google it, stay cool)

Last year I have to admit staying in Abu Dhabi wasn’t fun. We were here since the end of September and in less than 3 months we hadn’t met that many friends. We weren’t settled in our house yet either. But there is a basic rule when you expatriate: “If you want to settle quickly in your new country, do not go back home the first 6 months”. So, we didn’t. Last year, the Christmas feeling never came to me and I thought it was because of the warm climate. Moreover, your family starts to forget about you. I mean not really forget, but you’re not included in any plans now, you are “the one who left” (and “on purpose” on top of it…) So, chew on that lonely Christmas, you’re in the sun anyway so why would you complain?

But this year is different. First, I have that cold winter Christmas feeling. You are going to laugh but I’m actually cold. It’s only 26 degrees during the day and 19 at night. I’m super cold. I can wear a jacket and a warm Christmas PJ. I’m drinking hot chocolate or tea while sitting outside by the pool with a blanket. I’m not wearing boots yet, but I guess we are acclimated by now and anything below 30 feels freezing. My daughter told me the other morning “Mom it’s so cold, I’m pretty sure it’s going to snow”. It was 19 degrees. Don’t laugh, I thought it was not going to happen to ME, the girl from cold cold Belgium, but it did. Here, another reason why I can never go back to my country now, I’m hypersensitive to cold. If we are posted in Russia in 2,5 years, we will die. 

Second, we have friends here. Real friendmily. You know the kind of friend that takes care of you. Bring you mac and cheese when you are sick and pick up your kid at school if you have a problem. Basically, what your family (should) do for you at home. Most of them chose to stay in the UAE for Christmas, enjoy the perfect Abu Dhabi weather in this period and avoid their own dramatic dysfunctional families (or maybe I am projecting myself on this last one). We decided to spend the holidays together. Like my neighbor told me “A Christmas for the Christmas orphans” or something like that. We decorated our Christmas trees together. Kids had a blast. I had to buy a new one by the way. My Belgian Christmas tree was 1.2-meter-tall, in my house with high ceilings it looked like a bonsai tree. We bought a 3 meters high one which is the perfect incarnation of Emirati extravaganza. I guess I’ll sell it in 3 years and go back to my bonsai. Or I’ll be in a country where I can actually buy and smell a REAL Christmas tree under 200 euros.

Even if we can now gather in the desert to sing Christmas carols (google map : “Carols in the deserts”, they actually did a special location in the middle of the desert just for that, they are amazingly organized and the organizational freak that I am loves that) it’s not going to be the same Christmas as back home! It’ll be a mix of traditions. We are not going to eat what we are used to in Belgium (I can’t find grey shrimps here anyway). But sharing a Christmas dinner with Hungarians, Americans, Syrians, Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, Belgians, Dutch, Filipinos, it’s pretty awesome from my perspective. Isn’t that the whole idea of Christmas? Celebrating together, sharing, be open and tolerant? 

2019 was the year of tolerance in the UAE. This Muslim country opened its doors to Pope Francis, allowing him to officiate an open-air mass for 150.000 people (including lucky me). They are building new churches, synagogues, Hindu temples right next to mosques. Have your own faith and believe (or don’t) but let your neighbors have theirs too and try not to judge. Try to learn from them. What comes first to the eye is the difference but try to take a look instead on what we have in common. More than we think! And all along the year of tolerance, the UAE opened my eyes on my own values. How I thought I knew the world. How I never really thought about the concept of tolerance. How I thought I was well travelled. But how little I knew about half of the world! It made me humble. And I think I needed it. Living in the center of Europe, the heart of Europe, Brussels, you’re raised to think you are part of the center of the world. Guess what? You’re not. 

In my opinion Europe is gliding towards the opposite concept of the UAE’s year of tolerance. Closing borders, trying to isolate themselves, all these independence movements, judging our neighbors, sometimes even those very close to us. I’ve never seen so many posts on social media that judge and label others. And most often not in a positive way! “Those migrants are the problem” “Brexit asap” “People shopping on Black Friday are stupid and ignorant” “How can you live with yourself using non-reusable diapers” not even talking about religion… 

Live and let live. Share. Learn. Smile. 

That is going to be my Christmas moto (Eat pray love is so 2010). I don’t say it’s always easy, I judge people too, more often that I should. But the older I get, the less I do it. I’ve learned that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Some people never travelled a day in their lives but know all about foreign cultures, while some very well-travelled people know nothing because they just stayed in their 5 star hotels and didn’t go out and meet the locals. These parents using non-reusable diapers might have a compost, buy all their stuff in small local stores, have their roof full of solar panels and no car at all, while the parents with reusable diapers have 2 huge 10 year old SUVs, a stack of low-cost clothes and take 6 flights a year. So live and let live. Share. Learn. Smile. (And smack me in the face – figuratively speaking please – when I’m judging someone again.)

All of this to say, we wish you a lovely Christmas holiday time! We hope for peace and safety. We pray for good health and some fun. We hope your Christmas celebration will be full of what makes YOU happy. For me, I’ll be watching, with some hot chocolate full of marshmallows, Home Alone, especially the second one, with my family. Agnès loves the idea of taking another flight than us, with a bag full of money to spend by herself in NYC. She is my daughter after all.

Much love from the UAE, Cécile.