An Expat Family Christmas?

Just a few weeks ago, we had reconciled ourselves to having just the four of us for Christmas where we live on the Costa del Sol. With my family in London and my husband’s in Essex, Newcastle and elsewhere in Spain, it looked just logistically too difficult, expensive and we obviously also didn’t want to put our parents at risk.

We talked about delaying our family Christmas celebrations until Easter, and then until Summer once we realised things might take a bit longer than we initially thought. The challenges of living far away from family and friends, especially at Christmas.

christmas lights and tree with face masks on the ground covid

With having the four of us in mind (and a particularly sad daughter), I found myself buying things that I would never normally consider to make this Christmas a bit more special (and being very grateful that we could afford to).  Goose fat for the roast potatoes, extra chocolate selection boxes and, shock horror, Christmas jumpers for us all – I have resisted such hideousness for several years.  Anything to cheer us all up and make this festive season, more memorable – although I am not sure many of us will forget this ‘Covid Christmas’.

Then, it all changes.

My sister-in-law calls to let us know that she is considering coming with her two kids to visit us.  We didn’t indulge the idea too much as we were in a semi-lockdown at the time, no travel out of our town, curfews and everything shut at 6pm.  That PLUS anyone coming from the UK has to have a negative PCR within 72 hours and then 10 days quarantine on return.  It all seemed too much, so we talked about it a bit but almost dismissed it as a pipe dream.  Then my other sister-in-law who lives in Valencia, another region in Spain, looked into flying to us as all of Andalucia’s (our region) land borders were shut.   Miraculously they both went ahead and booked flights!

We didn’t want to get excited, particularly as there were so many moving parts and possibilities and we felt it would be unlikely that they would make it, certainly not both.

Regardless we prepared, always with that caveat, particularly when talking with the kids who already had a countdown in place having not seen any relatives for a year.  I ordered the meat, (just in time!) and fortunately, our rules between each town were relaxed so we could do a shop at the British supermarket (no, we haven’t become fully Spanish – yet!) so they wouldn’t have to travel laden down with cake and mince pies. That said, I was always fearful that we might end up with a LOT of food to eat up between the four of us!

Then the UK contingent had trouble organising a PCR plus results to come over a weekend in time for their Monday flight. It all started to look like it might not happen, but they then decided it was easier to bring the flights forward a few days so they could get it sorted.

I have to admit, a mad panic ensued.   Now we had to get everything ready – house sorted (hadn’t thought we would have any guests for a while), more present and food shopping, swift organising of Christmas cards/newsletters/teacher’s presents, etc etc plus all the normal activities we had already planned thinking that we did not have that much on in December.  Then I lost a couple of days as I grieved my 101 year old grandma’s passing which really knocked me a little sideways.

christmas planning with pen and paper and star organise

I very nearly delayed launching this blog as I had so much to do, but I decided not to following a friend’s advice.  In the past I certainly would have done, but then be frustrated that one of my projects got delayed and I had put others’ needs above my own.  This time I ploughed ahead and worked around it, prioritising what I needed to do and not just everyone else (a major change for me), it did mean some late nights and some short cuts, but we got there (thanks particularly to help from the husband!).  

I tried desperately not to get stressed out (and failed some of the time) – as a recovering control freak and perfectionist – it is not easy for me.   I started a spreadsheet and tried to not plan the whole of the festive season around food.  I even started to delegate meals to different people, something that I am usually terrible at doing. We also had a couple of conference calls with our visitors to organise what needed to be bought and brought (I did say I am a recovering control freak) and planning for scenario b, c and d, for whatever reason it all fell apart.  In the meantime the kids continued their countdown, which we always included a proviso that it might not happen.

All we needed was:

PCR tests within 72 hours of the flights

Negative results

Flights to go ahead

For sister-in-law one and kids to arrive

Borders to be open in Spain for her to arrive from Valencia to Malaga, Andalucia

Flights to run

For sister two to arrive

Sister one managed to get tests sorted and the results came back in time and were all negative – result!

It looked like we were set to go.

Then the other half of my daughter’s class was sent home due to a positive covid test – one of whom may have been in her bubble (still don’t quite understand that) – we decided not to worry anyone with that news.  We heard nothing more about it.

The plane was still coming.

They arrived!

That evening as sister 1 boarded the plane I heard on the radio that Valencia region was shutting all its borders – what??????

More info came later and apparently flights could still run – phew.

gratitude journal and pen with leaf decoration focus positive

A day later sister 2 arrived (2 days later and she would have been unable to come).

So, after much running around and changes – we have ended up with a totally different last-minute family Christmas.  We are now 8 – my husband with his two sisters and 4 of the cousins together.  

Seeing the cousins together walking and sharing our dog, cuddling on the sofa watching a film, laughing and chatting away (usually about Among Us or Minecraft).  It brings back wonderful Christmas memories when we visited my grandparents and cousins in Wales.  And it makes me think, this is what it is all about, not spreadsheets!  I try and relax and enjoy it and not stress about the house and the food and what we are doing next.  It is not easy for me, but it is a work in progress!  It really helped to explain to my sister-in-law that I was trying to do things differently.

And then, I find myself feeling quite guilty that we are altogether.  My parents-in-law are ‘home alone’ in Essex as we try to protect them.   Thankfully they are very pleased that we are all together and are living vicariously through us.   My parents and my sister in London managed to navigate a way to safely see each other over the festive period.  Unfortunately as my parents wrapped the last Christmas present for their grandchildren, the announcement came that London was moving to tier 4 so all plans were shelved.  What can you do?  

I am not sure why women in particular seem so good at feeling guilty, but I do a great job of it.  But it doesn’t really help anyone.  Everyone seems genuinely happy that we are together and have a Christmas that no one else I know seems to be having.  We have had several comments of:

 “Wow, you are the only people we know with guests this year!” 

But with genuine delight, not tinged with anything else.  And that does make me feel very grateful, still a bit guilty, but also the recognition of the reality that we have been even more fortunate than we could have hoped for this year.

Then, the announcements started rolling in about all flights from the UK being cancelled due to the new more-contagious strain of Covid.  And also that Valencia region has closed its’ borders.

Uh oh.  

Looks like this recovering control freak and perfectionist might be getting a bit more practise than she anticipated!

Here are some ideas of how to connect at Christmas when far apart from family and friends.

As always, we would love to hear how you are managing with Christmas this year, big or small or somewhere in between. Please comment below and above all, hope you and your loved ones have special times together whether near or far.

Photos – Lights and mask – by Martin Vysoudil, Plan – by Jess Bailey, Grateful – by Gabrielle Henderson

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