We met Jonathan and Bethany while living in Vancouver. I remember celebrating several holidays together there, our first holidays spent outside of our home culture.
Since that time, they’ve been living in Portugal. When I asked Bethany to share a story, she replied with one from their first Christmas in their new European home.
Expat life is always an adventure as we learn when to ditch old traditions, how to keep others, how to add some from our new host culture and how to mesh the two together. This is never more true than at holidays, like Christmas.
As expats we make a lot of cultural goof ups as we learn to navigate our new host culture. We’re from small towns in the southern region of the U.S. where it’s normal to bake cookies and other treats and take them to your neighbors during the Christmas season. We decided to do this our first Christmas in Portugal. At the time we lived in an apartment building with 14 floors and four apartments on each floor. We baked a lot of cookies, bought some chocolates and candy canes and made a little bookmark for each neighbor. Then we walked from door to door with our daughter who was just a small baby at the time. We knocked on doors and handed out our goody bags to people who answered and left them on the door steps of people who didn’t.
Our neighbors looked at us a little strangely but were gracious to us as we explained the reason for this was that we wanted our daughter to understand the values of generosity and community and that this was a tradition where we were from. This is NOT a Portuguese tradition. But what is Portuguese is to value other cultures, to be hospitable and to give a gift in return when someone gives you something.
We knew about the first two but we did not know that by doing this everyone felt obligated to give us gifts as well. For the next several days, our door bell was ringing nonstop as neighbors brought lots and lots of desserts, wines, ornaments and small toys for our daughter. We practically ate nothing but desserts for the next week and called friends to come share them with us. All of this for a few homemade cookies and a few pieces of chocolate!
We felt guilty at the time, but it really built community in our building. For the next four years we lived in that building, our neighbors greeted us daily and had long chats with us. Many invited us in. They knew us all by name—not just the people on our floor, the entire building. The next year at Christmas we knew better than to deliver goodies, but several of our neighbors still brought us things and we scrambled last minute to come up with a little surprise for them.
We still laugh about this first Christmas and how some of our best moments and friendships have come from these early cultural missteps.