Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

The expat and the holidays: should I stay or should I go

It’s that time of year again. When trees get trimmed and everyone asks “Are you going home for the holidays?”. By “home” they mean my parents’ house in Toronto, not the home I have created for myself here in Florence, where I’ve been married for 10 years, own property, work, pay taxes and have friends. The answer is no, I am not traveling to Toronto this year. Is this part of a natural assimilation process?

Cork presepe display in Matera, where we visited with family in 2009

Cork presepe display in Matera, where we visited with family in 2009

I think that over many years of living abroad, one creates one’s own home. And thank goodness for that! I love my parents very much and we have a great relationship, but their home is no longer mine. It’s where I grew up, but it’s not where I currently have many people with whom to celebrate. Such is the danger of being an only child of only children. And also of modern mobility and education: only one old and dear friend remains in Toronto.

Tommaso and his brother Gianluca at our home in 2005

Tommaso and his brother Gianluca at our home in 2005

When I moved to Italy, I knew I was joining a pretty large family. When I started dating Tommaso,  it took him just a few weeks to introduce me to his immediate family of 25 aunts, uncles and cousins as well as a wonderful brother. His mom being one of five makes for a large and tightly knit group. I married the man and his family, as one always does. It is quite the opposite of my own very small and in no way lesser family. But there is no question that part of the decision to live here is related to this proximity.

December 27, 2008: playing tombola (Italian bingo) with my brother and sister in law and various couple friends

December 27, 2008: playing tombola (Italian bingo) with my brother and sister in law and various couple friends

For the past 15 years, we’ve found ways to either alternate or combine families. In the beginning we alternated: a year in Florence, a year in Toronto. About 10 years ago, my parents developed a routine of going skiing in mid December and then joining the Italian family for Christmas week, which we have enjoyed for a while. This meant a lot of large meals being cooked by my mother in law, and my mom and I feeling sometimes slightly incapable, since entertaining for 20 is not really part of our vocabulary.

In order to feel like hostesses rather than guests, I tried for a few years to take over at least one of the six or seven major meals between Christmas and New Years. There was the Christmas before we were married in which I attempted to foist Canadian traditions upon the Italian family, cooking a turkey with all the fixings in a vacation rental for both sets of grandparents. And another time, a few years later, when I did a repeat of the turkey event but mixed up pounds and kilos, ending up with a 13 kilo turkey the size of a medium dog that required hosing down in the yard. Incidentally, Italians love turkey.

Turkey dinner with Tommaso's 2 sets of grandparents, and our 2 sets of parents, in a rented vacation apartment, in 2002

Turkey dinner with Tommaso’s 2 sets of grandparents, and our 2 sets of parents, in a rented vacation apartment, in 2002

Christmas is about traditions, and each family has its own. This year my mom reminded me how much she loves our own traditions, especially our Christmas morning of opening small gifts one by one, wrapped with a funny hint on the tag, before proceeding to eating pancakes and Canadian maple syrup (pancakes are just an excuse for syrup, you know).

The highlight of our xmas season in Toronto is my mom's variety of Christmas cookies, here set up on the dining room buffet in 2011

The highlight of our xmas season in Toronto is my mom’s variety of Christmas cookies, here set up on the dining room buffet in 2011

Last year I tried to avoid Christmas altogether by booking a week in the mountains with my parents. Snowboarding and all meals cooked for us seemed like the right solution to being overworked and not wanting to put stress on my mother in law and her cooking for so many of us. But what I hoped might become a new tradition wasn’t really so great. It seems like you can’t get away from Christmas, or from family.

New traditions: the box of pandoro makes a great hat, and its rim makes a halo. Tommy and I in 2002.

New traditions: the box of pandoro makes a great hat, and its rim makes a halo. Tommy and I in 2002.

So what am I doing this year? With the way the holidays fall, there’s an excellent two-week break and I insisted on taking a proper vacation, at the expense perhaps of family and of tradition. This is going to be the first Christmas that I won’t be with either my family or Tommaso’s. I don’t know how it will go. We are going to Hawaii, so my guess is that it will be warm, and involve surfing and tennis. It may not feel much like Christmas.

Find me here: Big Island north side (2008 - aiming for a repeat)

Find me here: Big Island north side (2008 – aiming for a repeat)

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

  • Jenna Francisco

    I love these old photos and stories of your dog-sizes turkey, etc. Holiday traditions are lovely, but it’s important to mix it up when you feel the need to. We went to the Big Island in 2005 or 2006 and loved it. I should have gone back by now since Hawaii is not so far from CA.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Thanks Jenna! We loved big island in 2008, it was the best holiday ever – though it was not over xmas. I was sure i had a photo of us hosing down the turkey in the garden too, but could not find it. It was fun to go through decades of photos to write this post!

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Thanks lynne! I don’t know the appropriate response to that… yet :)

  • http://girlinflorence.com/ Georgette Jupe

    Fantastic post Alex, I really enjoyed this one because A. it was so personal (brava) and that pandoro hat? I might steal your idea – hope that’s ok ;-). I think I am becoming a bit like you, ‘home’ feels like Italy as you said ‘where we pay taxes, where we have friends’ but I think you are fortunate in the fact that your family is willing to travel. For example, I would love to have Christmas here with everyone coming together in the place ‘we’ call him but that ain’t gonna happen for many of my Texas siblings. I am so happy for Tommaso and you actually getting a proper vacation, you will have a blast and perhaps will get the proper rest you need.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Thanks darling Georgette!
    It is trued that it’s easier to move a family when it’s small. My mom and mike come here many times a year, removing all necessity for me to go there. They’re retired and understand that we work ridiculous hours so it’s best for them to come over. They take 3-4 weeks at a time in Europe. Tommaso’s family is already here. In your case, it’d be really hard to bring french and texans all together… and under one roof :)
    Consider that i have lived here my whole adult life, it really does feel like MY HOME!
    baci
    a