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A Belated Merry Advent Letter

*please note! I wrote this last year and then never published it. It felt kind of scary and raw. I have another letter drafted for this year’s Christmas/advent letter. But then I read it again and while parts are not relevant because I’m in the US and the twins graduated, parts were exactly what I needed to be reminded of personally, again. So maybe it will resonate with someone else who needs to choose joy this season. So, I’ll publish it now.

Merry Christmas from Abroad,

Our four-foot tree is up and shedding quite sadly. The Santa costume is being borrowed by a very Saint Nicholas type of fellow. The stockings, for once, are hung on steps and not over the air conditioner with care. The temperature is a chilly 87 degrees. The kitchen smells like ginger snaps and apple cinnamon candles. The grocery store has a horribly skinny Santa, barefoot, with no shirt under his costume, a rather sexy Santa with bright blue eyes. More stripper than Santa.

Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

This is our Christmas letter, the one in which we tell you about our exotic summer vacations (Minnesota is, truly, exotic to desert-dwellers) and about our children’s stellar performances at school (define ‘stellar’), about all the things we are really good at (like forgetting new vocab words in one of the three languages we’ve learned), and then show pictures of things we secretly hope you envy, ala the humble brag (like our incredible, rundown house with rats in the ceiling and roaches in the bathrooms).

What if, instead, I’m totally honest? What if, instead, I told you that this year I’m tired?

A few nights ago as we drove to church, a local boy made the shape of a gun with his fingers and shot at my face through the car window. A few days before that while I was running, a man drove by on a motorcycle and punched my ass. I miss my kids almost the whole year ‘round because all of them are at a boarding school two countries away. My husband and I started up a big new project, thirteen years in the dreaming and our hearts bleeding all over our sleeves, and no one told us that start-ups in Africa take a toll on a marriage.

I would like to go to a movie theater and disappear into the cool darkness and forget about it all. There aren’t any movie theaters in the country. I would like to enjoy a nice evening out with my husband but if we go for a walk we are harassed or are simply just bored of the same, limited, not beautiful route. We’ve tried almost every restaurant in town, there aren’t many cultural events like concerts or plays or dances. Plus, sometimes it takes too much energy to go out the front door.

It can be lonely here. This year, I have a full life, rich with new staff and new friends. People who speak my language, people I enjoy deeply and am coming to love. But I feel lonely creatively, if that’s a thing. Lonely for my people, people who pursue a life of creativity and words and I don’t even know if I have people anymore because I don’t seem to fit anywhere. Lonely spiritually, for a community that speaks my language – both the language of my tongue and of my heart.

What a depressing Christmas letter. At least, that’s what I thought when I reread this. But you know what? This isn’t a Christmas letter after all. Its an advent letter. A letter of longing, of waiting, of seeing the holes in things and the struggle of being alive while being fully convinced that hope is never in vain.

Someone asked me what I want to experience of Jesus this advent season. I want to experience joy. Not happiness, not glibness. Deep, abiding joy that acknowledges there are so many broken things in the world but that chooses to delight in the healing, beautiful things in the world. Joy that says, all is not right in the world. But, “all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” Julian of Norwich

So, I conjure up joy because that is what I want. Joy is what I need. Joy is what my family needs. It feels like the snow falling in a snow globe. The flakes rest on the bottom and then the world is shaken with strenuous effort and a veneer of cheer falls over the scene below. The scene is the same old one, the flakes change nothing, but for a few minutes while they fall, it is Christmas. It is beautiful. And maybe that’s enough for this year.

Merry Advent,

Rachel

Gift Guide for Expatriates, 2018

Not all expatriates are diplomats or educators or in the military. Many are, or start off their expat experience as, immigrants and refugees, students and season employees.

So when you think about gifts for the expatriate in your life, let me challenge you to think about the new refugee kid in your child’s classroom or the new immigrant employee in the office or the foreign exchange student at the college in your town.

If the expat in your life is someone you are physically close to, invite them over for a holiday dinner. Better yet, invite several over and make it a potluck. Global potlucks are the best. If they are a brand new arrival, invite them to do a local holiday highlight event: sledding, Christmas caroling, a holiday parade, a gingerbread extravaganza, the lighting of the city’s tree, a musical concert (loads of colleges and universities have free choir and band concerts at this time of year).

Use the holiday season as an excuse to open up your heart and life to the new arrival in your neighborhood, workplace, school, or church. That gift of relationship, to be cliche, will give back to both of you the whole year through.

Now, for actual gift items…

A language learning app, like Rosetta Stone.

Carry-on luggage. There are some really cool carry-on bags these days, including smart bags that include USB charging ports or bags with apps that connect with your phone so you’ll never lose it and you’ll know when it arrives at baggage claim. Personally, I’m in favor of expandable bags as we often travel with gifts or return with bags full of produce or other items, so it is nice to be flexible.

Kindle. I love my Kindle. From eliminating half the weight in my luggage due to books to accessing library books and ebooks, Kindles have been one of the absolute best inventions for expatriates. I know a lot of people can read on their phones, but phones are so dang small. I still use my Kindle for most of my reading. It is about 8 years old now…

Travel pillow. I’ve never had a travel pillow. Still don’t. Always wish I did but have never just sucked it up and bought one. I’ve probably spent weeks of my life on planes and nary a neck support. Do your expat one better, gift them a high quality travel pillow.

Portable hard drive. With all of our photos, movies, research, educational materials, etc, on these devices, expats are often in need of a new one.

Scrubba laundry bag. I haven’t personally used one of these, but several friends have brought them on camping trips or on globe-trotting trips from country to country.

Subscriptions like Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Prime…

Photo calendar from your family or of their favorite passport country places. Same goes for personalized mugs or notebooks or coasters…Use a service like Shutterfly.

Food from home. Anything from packaged pumpkin spice (I can’t get it in Djibouti) to the fudge that somehow manages to come to Djibouti year after year (thank you Karen!) to a bag of Starbucks.

An experience, or contribution toward an experience in their host country. Maybe SCUBA diving or whale sharking, maybe a night out an expensive, splurgey restaurant…make the offer and let them choose.

Expats, what have been some of your favorite gifts over the years?

*contains affiliate links

*see this page for 2017 ideas

Gifts for Third Culture Kids, 2018

This site has hilarious gifts for TCKs. T-shirts that say, “Where am I from again?” or “Invisible Immigrant” or “Yes, I speak African. If by ‘African’ you mean one of the 1,500-2,000 languages spoken on the African continent.”

Uncommon Goods has beautiful, fun things, especially search ‘travel’. (I make no commission, just love the site!) I especially love these coloring coffee mugs.

Color Map Mugs

This sticker, from Etsy. “Where am I from? It’s complicated.” Only $3.00

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A world map and push pins. The push pins are for them to mark places they’ve traveled or where people they love live. Or, this map has a scratch off-able cover, so they can scratch off the places they’ve been.

10 Days in Africa game. My kids love this game and of course we made our own pieces to include the countries (ahem, Djibouti) that aren’t included. It has helped our relatives, in particular, to learn geography and gives the kids a chance to talk about the places they’ve been.

Another game, geography of Africa and the Middle East.

Ticket to Ride has an Africa map version but the cover is deeply problematic. Check out these other games instead.

Magnetic poetry, this links to a French version. This is a great way for kids to engage with their new language or to remember and use their old one, if they are no longer in their host country (ala university students)

Food. Always, food. Passport country food, host country food, food you make for them, food you ask them to make in order to celebrate and honor their upbringing…food.

Books

Finding Home, by yours truly.

Between Worlds, by Marilyn Gardner

The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition, by Tina Quick

Misunderstood, by Tanya Crossman

Home, James by Emily Steele

 

*contains affiliate links

*For more ideas, check out the list from 2017

How Travelers Can Prepare for Touring Beyond the Beaten Trail

*sponsored post, Global Journeys

Travel means different things to different people, and for some, it’s all about getting off the beaten trail. It’s about being challenged, it’s about learning, discovering, and expanding horizons. It’s about personal growth and stepping out of that cosy comfort zone.

Taking a guided tour means you have the support to explore the unfamiliar confidently. To do things and go places you may not feel comfortable doing independently. However, while a guided tour facilitates getting off the beaten trail with ease, it can still be daunting and unnerving. Here are some things you can do to best prepare for your exploration beyond the well-trodden path.

Research the Culture

Setting off on a vacation into the unknown is exciting, but it is important to know a little about the culture to avoid making any faux pas and moments of awkwardness. Understanding the cultural etiquette of your destination is a sign of respect and will avoid causing offense. This may be anything from asking permission before taking photos to learning chopstick etiquette, like never spiking your chopsticks upright in your rice. Your tour leader will guide you on what is appropriate along the way, but doing some research beforehand will have you best prepared and at ease on tour.

Pack Appropriately

Researching the culture and climate of your destination will help determine what makes it into your luggage. It is important to pack clothing that is culturally sensitive and appropriate for the places you are visiting and reading your tour itinerary in detail will help inform what you pack. You may need longer and loose fitting clothes to visit places of worship and throwing in a light scarf for the ladies is always handy to cover up if necessary. You may need layers and weatherproof gear to suit the climate, and comfortable shoes are a must. There may also be limited access to laundry facilities, so a travel clothesline often comes in handy. Being prepared to wash along the way also means you can pack lighter which will make your trip easier overall. If you have a long haul flight pack your carry-on luggage just as thoughtfully.

Plan Ahead

Tours that take you off the beaten trail often go hand in hand with remote destinations where access to shops and services may be limited. It is important to be equipped with everything that you need before leaving the well-trodden path into less tourist dense areas. Be sure to pack enough of any required medication (just check it is permitted in the country you are traveling to and accompany with a letter from your doctor) and toiletries. It is also important to consider money matters for your tour, so you don’t get stuck without funds along the way. Check with your bank the best way to access your money overseas and be mindful to carry cash where ATMs may be limited or non-existent. If you are walking a lot or hiking, wear in your shoes or hiking boots before you leave home.

Learn Some Language

Learning some turns of phrase is a great way to break down barriers and show respect to the people welcoming you into their country, and often their homes. Using the local language, or at least trying to, will not only open more opportunities for unique experiences, but can also circumvent awkwardness and misunderstandings. There are some great language translation apps around, or if you prefer, you can pick yourself up a phrase book before heading off on your vacation. Greetings and expressing gratitude are a great place to start.

Keep an Open Mind

The best way to truly experience a place and a culture is to immerse yourself in it. Sometimes things will catch you off guard and there may be opportunities that present themselves that you may not have previously considered. Keep an open mind and try new things. Your tour leader and local guides have all the insights to keep you safe, so you can boldly throw yourself into your adventure and get the most out of your holiday. Try the local specialties. Chat to the locals. Surround yourself with different languages. Say yes to new experiences and enjoy everything your destination has to offer. Adventure awaits off the beaten trail.

*sponsored post

When Health Issues Interrupt a Life Overseas

Quick link: 6 Good Things about a Cancerous Life Overseas

I forgot to let you know that last week I wrote about what I am learning to be thankful for as I walk through cancer for A Life Overseas. It is similar to what I shared on the blog yesterday, about gratitude, sorry for the repetitive nature of the two posts!

But it is also different, because there are some specific things I’ve learned about living overseas through this experience. Like how meaningful it is that people from a variety of faith backgrounds love me and are praying for me, or that people literally pray around the clock because of the time change and knowing people all over the world.

Not gonna lie, doing this while we maintain our life abroad sucks. It is not awesome and I do not recommend it. It certainly makes a lot of things harder.

But, it also makes me intensely more grateful, helps me take less for granted, reminds me tangibly of the power of community, makes me thankful for my diverse friendships.

And apparently, God had a plan for my life. That plan included the superb timing of me getting cancer while living in a country that has the medical prowess to detect and treat it. #miracles

But, ahem, God? What about my husband? One big perk of marriage is having a companion for life’s junk. I don’t like that part of this plan, that part that has him in Djibouti and me in Minnesota, and there is a poor telephone and internet connection and so instead of beating around the bush with something like, “The doctor found papillary thyroid carcinoma,” or, “the test results aren’t exactly awesome,” or even, “They found cancer,” which would imply it was not exactly me, or mine, or inside my body, I had to shout, to be very clear and to make sure he got the message before the internet shut off, “I HAVE CANCER!!!!!” (again, those darn exclamation points).

Anyway. My point is that this international life is hard and beautiful and amazing and sometimes, it really really stinks. Sometimes it means periods of unwanted and un-chosen separation. It means money spent changing plane tickets at the last minute. It means feeling divided. It means lonely grief. Work and team and home on one side of the ocean. Sick wife or worried husband on the other side.

But there are good things, too, about a cancerous life overseas. #learninggratitude #perspective

There are incredible aspects of the life overseas that truly manifest, to my surprise to be honest, during times of pain, grief, confusion, and sorrow…

Click here to read the rest of 6 Good Things about a Cancerous Life Overseas