In December, I’m reminded this expat lifestyle comes with some sacrifices. When I was young, the only more special night than Christmas Eve during the Holiday season was the night we decorated the house, a day chosen with purpose by my mother. She would carefully set aside the year-round knickknacks and replace them with Holiday decorations, and my father would fight and cuss for a couple hours at the tangled tree lights. My sister and I were in charge of decorating the Christmas tree with baubles passed through generations and dilapidated ornaments made in our elementary school classes, as my parents enjoyed a glass of cognac and watched in the glow of the Christmas tree. A draft of cold, clean air would gust into the house when another log was retrieved for the fire, and old carols played from the stereo. They were magical evenings, rituals honoring hearth and home that held a domestic comfort of glow and warmth despite the stinging chill outside.
I’ll be honest- our attempts to recreate this here in Nigeria have been only marginally successful. To make the morning special, Cian and Áine switched between helping Sarah make Holiday French toast and decorating the tree. The multicolored tree lights only flash, and the ornaments are cheap, plastic facsimiles of traditional decorations. Sarah found a collection of carols, but they were renditions we thankfully didn’t recognize. The whole thing was over in a half hour, and afterwards I put on shorts and went for my tennis lesson and the kids went swimming to stave off the African heat. Perhaps it is only self-induced disappointment that my children are not getting an experience similar to the memory I treasure. After all, this is what they know, the kids thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and Áine is very proud of the tree she decorated (but then, eventually so was Charlie Brown). There just seems to be a loss of tradition, a lack of that magic. It’s fleeting, but for a moment I felt a tinge of nostalgia for chopping wood, drinking warm apple cider and watching the fire wafting in the wood stove on a cold winter’s night.
Like my Jewish friends in the States who order Chinese food and hit the movie theater on Christmas Day, the Id Holidays back in September or the one coming up next weekend sends us nonMuslim expats to the ocean. Earlier this year, a group of us were invited to the US Consulate beach hut, a 30 minute boat ride down the lagoon and out of Lagos. Despite the thick line of rubbish marking the high tide line and the dangerous surf that makes swimming prohibited, the kids were still able to get ridiculously sandy, and we enjoyed a day out of the city among the palm trees and ocean air. With coolers of beer and trays of potluck food to accompany the barbecue, we lazed under the thatched pavilion and watched the waves crash onto shore.
Every once in awhile, as we move through this crazy international life that we’ve created, there are moments that remind me how truly extraordinary it all is. They are heart stopping moments, when goosebumps ride up my arms, and they are moments of clarity, when the everyday washes away and I step out of the routine box and realize what we are truly experiencing. At one point on the beach back in September, Cian and his friend Matteo went missing. With riptides strong enough to drown adults, it was a moment of panic. Adrian and I raced onto the beach scouring the horizon for the boys. In the distance were a group of Nigerians chanting, pulling on a thick rope from the sea. There in the middle of the African cluster were Cian and Matteo, their white skin in sharp contrast to their new friends as they tried to help drag in an enormous fishing net. After the wave of relief and anger for going astray without permission, I had one of those moments. As the fishermen tugged on the nets to the beat of their chants, Cian and his friends, trying to help, were pulled along the rope’s length, falling in the sand on a random beach in western Africa, laughing and being helped up by the Nigerians. It is these moments, when we may not be experiencing anything grand, but participating in our adopted culture and people, I’m reminded why we do this. We may not have chestnuts or Jack Frost, but what we do have is also something special.