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(Not) Driving Home for Christmas: Nottingham's Expats On Their First Christmas Away from Loved Ones

20 December 20 words: Caroline Barry
illustrations: Kate Sharp

The never-ending merry-go-round of Government lockdowns, tiers and regulation changes mean that, for many of us, it’s beginning to look like Christmas 2020 will be very different. Continuing travel restrictions and limits on the numbers of people who can gather have ensured that, for some Notts residents, Christmas will be spent away from their loved ones for the very first time…

One of the things I’ve always said about Nottingham is that it's my home away from my actual home of West Cork. Since I’ve been here, I’ve met people from around the world who have made the city their home, too. Some come for relationships, others for work, and there are some, like myself, who came to study and never left.

When the pandemic hit I, like a lot of foreign folk away from home, panicked about how I would see my family. As summer came and went, it crossed my mind that this could mean a Christmas on my own. The thought of picking up COVID mid-travel and passing to a family member is unthinkable, so I’m facing the prospect of a solo Yuletide on the couch with my cat. Although Ireland’s numbers are going down, Nottingham’s numbers are still high.

But I know I’m not alone in this predicament, as a scroll through Twitter will show you heart-breaking tweets, posts and stories from other home-away-from-home folks. Just how many people were spending Christmas in Nottingham, away from their families, in this new normal?

Sarina Iwabuchi is from Auckland in New Zealand, and originally came to Nottingham for work. “Until last year I was a neuroscientist at the University of Nottingham. I interviewed and was offered the job before making the move. I'm still here almost eight years later, and had made a complete career change just before the pandemic so now I run Osakana Jewellery. Nottingham definitely feels like home.” 

Sarina adds that, owing to the required two-week quarantine, she won’t be travelling back to New Zealand this Christmas, “The trip itself takes it out of me, and I end up spending the first week back feeling totally dazed and confused. It would have been nice to go home again this year, but the mandatory quarantine in a hotel on arrival would set me back another £1,500.”

It will, however, mean a complete change in the weather for her: “Christmas is in the summer over there, so it's all about going to the beach and having BBQs with family and friends. I have two nephews now too so I'll really miss seeing them. I'm envious of friends going on summer road trips and long weekends at a beach house.”

Filipa Santos is from Viseu in Portugal, and she also worries the trip home could potentially risk the health of her loved ones. “The main reason for not going is that I am worried about it not being safe to visit my family with all the health risks of a long trip, including multiple forms of public transport,” she explains, “This will only be the second time in my life that I haven’t gone home for Christmas. I miss everyone dearly, but the thought of catching COVID on my way there and infecting them is scary enough to stop me.”

As with any move to a new country, cultures blend together. Many I spoke to are determined to take the opportunity to make this Christmas unique.

Filipa and her partner are already planning theirs. “We will probably try to recreate some of our own traditions here. He is from Austria, so we've got quite a lot of ideas to choose from. Some of our traditional Christmas dishes will definitely feature on the menu. And then we will try to organise some kind of virtual get-together with family and friends.”

As news of vaccines for 2021 spread joy as I write, I’m already quietly confident that next year we will all be driving home for Christmas once more

Aleksandera Malecka won’t be returning to her native Poland this Christmas, and as a result will not experience the usual festive traditions: “I will miss the food. Polish people love their Christmas meal! We have pierogi with cabbage, mushroom soup, fish and our traditional salad with mayo. We do have one tradition of keeping a carp alive in a bath for the day, then the oldest person from the family kills and prepares it. When I was a kid, I loved to see the carp swimming in my grandmother’s bath.” She adds that, “I’ll be spending Christmas under lock and key like most other people around here I suppose. I am sure I will make some traditional Polish food and call my parents to wish them Merry Christmas. I will also watch Home Alone which TV stations in Poland stream every year on Christmas Eve.”

Jess Demarchi from Brazil moved to Nottingham to be with her partner who was studying for a PhD: “Besides being with him, I saw the move as an opportunity to improve my English while expanding my screenwriting skills in a second language.” She is also considering mixing the new normal with the old traditions: “Every December 23, my dad brings a natural pine tree home so my family can decorate it with ornaments. We add angels, bows, balls, flowers and cotton balls to imitate snow, so by the end of the day we have a monstrous tree with carnival colours in the living room. This year, we have some new card and board games which look promising, so we will possibly be battling some Lovecraftian adventure over pizza.”

As for myself? While I love nothing more than opening a glass (ahem, okay, two) of Prosecco to celebrate ‘na Nollag’ this year, I’m making my Yuletide even gayer with my first ever rainbow Christmas tree. Ireland has strong traditions of its own, like the Christmas Day swim where hundreds of locals swim in the sea for charity. While I don’t fancy taking a dip at Colwick Park on the big day, I will definitely be attempting to set up Zoom over Christmas dinner and for opening presents. 

As news of vaccines for 2021 spread joy as I write, I’m already quietly confident that next year we will all be driving home for Christmas once more. If not driving, then I’ll see you all in the East Midlands Airport departure lounge.

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