Bicultural Urbanite Luke Two Homes Are Better Than One: Christmas as an Expat in Berlin

Getting into the Christmas spirit.
Getting into the Christmas spirit. | © Isabelle Beyer

One of the major drawbacks of being an Australian expat in Berlin is the egregious distance between yourself and your loved ones—and the even more egregious cost of flights to get back home to see them.

And then there’s the flights themselves. Suffice to say, I truly admire the jet-setter who can conquer the grueling Berlin-Melbourne transit without the blessed assistance of a tasty sedative treat and a glass of wine (or three). And while this may be the epitome of a First World Problem, such knowledge does little to mitigate the delirious feeling that hits you around the final leg of this journey, when your head is simultaneously imploding and exploding with the traversing of an ungodly number of time zones, your feet have swollen up into tender meaty balloons, and the snotty screaming kid behind you has designed and mastered a brand new sport of kicking the back of your seat at the most indelicate of times for twenty hours straight.

Me, psyching myself up pre-Berlin-Melbourne transit. Me, psyching myself up pre-Berlin-Melbourne transit. | © Isabelle Beyer All this likely explains the twinge of envy I feel whenever my European friends tell me they’re casually popping home for quick a visit. And as December rolls around each year, and the popping home to Italy or England or France or Sweden starts unfolding as casually as ever, the twinge becomes a protracted spasm. For if the flight prices to Melbourne are egregious at the best of times, there is a much less literary term for the kind of extortion played out by the airlines over the holiday season. And so it goes—much to the horror of my mother—that over the past seven years of living abroad, I’ve spent a grand total of one Christmas back in Australia.

The lost privilege of ancient family obligation

Now we all love to carry on about what a tremendous hassle it is to be cooped up for days on end with the relatives, overcooking large birds and overdoing it with the sherry until someone accidentally pushes somebody else’s buttons a little too pointedly. But after losing the privilege of suffering through this ancient ritual of familial obligation, you actually begin to yearn for the sibling squabbles, the awkward tipsy rehashing of bygone dramas—even the never-ending stories from mum about the son of a friend of a neighbour you never met (and whatever it is that happened to his dog). In short, you come to appreciate just how grounding it is to reconnect with your bloodline to bicker and break bread together as the year is drawing to a close.

Berlin, very briefly, becomes a deserted winter wonderland over Christmas. Berlin, very briefly, becomes a deserted winter wonderland over Christmas. | © Isabelle Beyer Being stranded in Berlin in December is far from all bad, though. In fact, it’s hard not to be enamoured by the Disney-esque charm of a traditional German Christmas: all rosy-cheeked in a cozy cocoon of flickering Advent candles and steaming cups of Glühwein with snowflakes swirling outside the window. As my fellow bicultural urbanite so eloquently detailed in her own Christmas post, the festive customs in Germany—the impossibly quaint markets, the seasonal culinary delights, the bizarre baby Jesus-themed activities—are steeped in such rich and cherished heritage, that getting caught up in the Christmas spirit here feels entirely natural. It’s certainly a far cry from sweatily prodding a barbecue in the sweltering heat of late December in Melbourne and preparing for the commercial chaos of Boxing Day sales.

An expat's Christmas feast - only a little burned. An expat's Christmas feast - only a little burned. | © Isabelle Beyer But for me the best part of being an expat in Berlin over Christmas is not the satisfyingly kitsch European setting; it’s the authenticity of the sentimental realisations the occasion engenders. For as Germany’s bustling capital of relentless energy suddenly empties out into an eerily serene hush, those left behind to wander the vacant streets band together. And once gathered with your favourite playmates from all around the world, it doesn’t really matter if you end up cooking a wholesome Christmas feast in homage to your absent families or less wholesomely sweating out the coming of Christ in Panorama Bar. Either way, it’s a pretty special feeling to find yourself in a land a million miles from your own surrounded by people you love and trust—a sensation that transcends all bounds of custom and tradition, and one that reminds you how lucky you are to have not one home, but two.