A Global Nomad's Christmas

By Wakanyi Hoffman

‘She was an adventurer at heart, but oh how she loved drinking this tea from this mug in this chair, oh how she loved to be home’ -Unknown

It is always during Christmastime that we begin to take stock of our nomadic lifestyle, in recognition of a homesickness for a place we once lived in. It is also perhaps the only time of the year when in every country that we have lived in, Christmas is acknowledged. With every decorated building or house, specific memories begin to ping, like text messages, each one reminding us of a sacred time shared in December with loved ones, somewhere else on this planet.

It matters little whether our obligatory holiday photo is blurred by snowflakes falling daintily over our heads, or if we stand huddled in matching swim suits under a coconut tree. It is that festive mood that we welcome the most, a kind of global journey towards a joyful experience. 

Wherever in the world that we find ourselves, the Christmas spirit seems to beckon harmless encounters, when strangers smile through the corners of their eyes, revealing a renewed sense of global oneness, maybe over gift wrappers at shop counters or at finding each other recipients of a free street concert of Christmas carols. 

Picking a Christmas tree

This year we had the experience of going to a Christmas tree farm and choosing our own special, freshly-cut tree. There wasn’t the ceremonial muscled ‘dad axing down the tree in one gigantic chop’ like we have seen in Christmas movies. But we delighted in the pleasure of waiting for the precise moment when all our sensations would lead us to The One Tree. 

family christmas pic

Our family at a Christmas tree farm in the Netherlands

Decorating the traveling Christmas tree

The homesickness announces itself with the traditional tree-decorating ceremony, when our children begin to bicker about who put the Christmas star on the tree last year. The mention of ‘last year’, triggers an image of a scene similarly scripted in another setting- in a different home, in a different spot in the living room either behind or in front of our traveling green couch, to decorate our traveling Christmas tree.

This year, having just moved to the Netherlands and still living in a temporary apartment, we could have chosen to travel back to Nairobi, my birth home, or to Ohio, where my husband was born. Direct  flights from Amsterdam would lead us to either direction, in the same amount of travel time, to celebrate Christmas with our extended families.

But for us, this is not an easy choice to make- we must first consider this: Which family should we visit this time- mine or his? Which one did we visit last? Who might be offended? Can we even afford these flights? These questions are deeply examined alongside a long list of pros and cons. This process involves a careful deliberation over a seemingly small matter regarding where in the world we will be serving Christmas pudding. 

We could just go to Thailand for Christmas

In an attempt to solve the holiday puzzle this year, our 8 year old -the third in the birth order of our four children born in different countries- said, “We could just go to Thailand, you know!” We all knew instantly that her simple solution was laced with a personal interest- she was born in Bangkok and identifies as Thai. Her longing to return to her birth country is legendary. I have had visions of her back-packed teenage version, marching into the kitchen in another home in another country and declaring triumphantly, “I am moving to Thailand for good!” Just like that. 

She recently befriended the only Thai boy in her school, two grades below her and declared that the two of them will be best friends forever. On a trip back to Thailand to visit his family, he brought back Thai snacks- dried mango chips doused in coconut nectar- a shared sweetness that solidified a blossoming love affair.

His mother and I discussed a mythical betrothal while analyzing a photo that I took of our two Thai babies chasing each other at a playground. It was the way that their eyes seemed to be reflecting an exact shade of light brown, when I asked them to stop momentarily for a selfie, under a rare flash of blue skies, in the endless gloom that is autumn in the Netherlands.

autumn pic

Autumn season in the Netherlands

Indeed, we could just go to Thailand for Christmas, and escape the bitter cold and ghastly wind chill that simply wipes off the Christmas cheer on our smiling, chapped lips. We could be on a dreamy beach in Kho Pi Pi, or in Phuket or in Kraabi, retracing our steps in all the places we visited as local residents of Thailand. If we still lived there, we would go to Pranburi, a lesser-known beach that is quiet during Christmastime. We would decorate a coconut tree and make a giant ‘sandman’, the tropical version of a snowman.

Our former Thai housekeeper is in on this plan too. Since our tearful goodbye four years ago, we call her at least once a month and she gives us a summarized update of life back in our village on the outskirts of the city. Her pineapple business is booming with a lot more customers than she can cope with. She could use a holiday, she says- a Christmas holiday with us, perhaps? We could all visit her village far from Bangkok, somewhere south, on an isolated beach where tourists don’t frequent. That sounds like the ideal location for a spicy helping of pad see ew noodles at Christmas lunch.

She is a part of our extended family- not a blood relative, but she comes fairly close. She was the first person to hold our day old last born baby straight out of the hospital’s bassinet, and the only other person to ever take a keen interest in his bowel movements. She took on the role of aunt to our children and big sister to me, just like many other friends around the world who became members of our extended global family.

When we contemplate where in the world to celebrate Christmas, travel to Thailand, Ethiopia, Philippines or Nepal is a high consideration, alongside travel to The US or to Kenya, where our blood relatives live. These are all the places that we have called home, where we still feel like local residents.

‘Return to old watering holes for more than water – friends and dreams are there to meet you’- An African proverb.

We could also stay put in our new home in the Netherlands, where we have recently acquired local residency. We could celebrate Christmas with new friends who have rearranged their furniture this way and that way to create space for our large family inside their homes and large hearts.

Another Christmas season in another home

As I transported our tree back home in a cargo bike, Dutch-style, there was a strong awareness, registered in each pedaled cycle, that this was a historical moment in which I was an active participant. 

transporting the christmas tree

Transporting the Christmas tree home in the cargo bike

A memory of this precise moment will one day be pulled out, during another Christmas season, in another home. It will spark a longing for this tender moment once experienced as both local and global residents of the Netherlands.

As we continue to contemplate what our nomadic lifestyle means, we revel in this global celebration, when most of the world livens up in colorfully lit-up decorations. It matters little whether greeting cards mailed to our new address read ‘Merry Christmas’, ‘Happy x-mas’, or simply, ‘Happy Holidays’. This particular season seems to bring an extra pinch of love, a connection of strangers and a reminder that we are all citizens of one world. 


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Unpacking our nomadic 'home' in a small town in Europe, for a greener lifestyle.

By Wakanyi Hoffman

Our family enjoying a summer festival in Groningen upon arrival

This past summer, we moved to Groningen, the northernmost province in the Netherlands. It was an intentional move, one that involved questioning everything we believe in and stand for, as self-proclaimed global citizens.

A piece I wrote about the unique features of Groningen city was published here. It may have been partly inspired by the urge to embrace our choice and to own our drastic decision. But mostly, it was a way of saying ‘thank you’ to whatever cosmic energy that led us to the tip of this viking country, in a city that has stood timeless since its formation in the Middle Ages.

Later on, I wrote another piece detailing our answers to the question- ‘Why Groningen?’ We get asked that a lot. Even by Dutch friends that we have made here or elsewhere in our travels. Groningen is not particularly the big city living as Amsterdam, Rotterdam or The Hague, which are more popular with the expatriate community. It is much smaller and exudes a more relaxed atmosphere. The culture here is charmingly representative of a piece of medieval Europe, where children as young as 5 year olds still cycle to school on their own.

Groningen draws a large number of international students at the city’s 400-year-old university. A small number of international families working for multinational companies with offices here, also mingle comfortably with the local folk. The hardened facial features of the heavily-accented Northern Hollanders belie the gentle pride they express, in being the original inventors of a country that impressively sits below sea-level on reclaimed ocean sand.

But we are neither international students working on a PHD thesis, nor transient expats sent here by a large corporation. We decided to put a twist to our international life that has seen us setting homes in 7 countries on 3 continents, a lifestyle that was largely dictated to us by careers in the humanitarian industry.

We moved to the Netherlands as self-sponsored expatriates, on a mission to dictate this lifestyle on our own terms and to establish some of our roots in a place that only we could decide to call home. Our hearts are set on being a part of a small community, while our eyes reflect the global outlook of folk like us, not defined by culture or nationality, but by a global citizenship identity.

What this means is that we had to critically determine what values we embody as global citizens and whether or not we fit the profile. We had come to the conclusion that any citizenship, in its very basic nature can be restricting if not self-examined. It can dictate everything about a person from birth and can often direct every decision that one makes based on where one is from. It is also often the source of one’s internalized biases about other cultures.

We do not fit inside any of the politically-inspired global borderlines. Being an interracial couple means that we are neither American nor Kenyan, and thus embrace an amalgamated version of both our identities. Our children were born in different countries too, where they cannot claim those specific nationalities, but can associate themselves with the values of their individual birth countries. As they exist as Third Culture Kids (TCK), they are free to trace their cultural identity along the world’s country borders.

Our children enjoying discovering toadstools for the first time

We could not call ourselves citizens of any particular country, but we could very easily identify with the citizenship of a shared planet as global citizens.

Once a global citizenship identity was fully accepted, we then strapped our backs with the responsibility that comes with being the custodian of an individual’s chosen ‘home’. But our ‘home’ is not a physical place. It is a virtual culmination of the places that we have been to and the cultures that we have interacted with, something we carry with us inside our hearts. Our values evolve constantly to reflect those that we have adapted to in addition to what we carry with us as a mixed-heritage family.

The biggest responsibility of a global citizen is to find impact in a world that has many unresolved challenges. Every country that we have lived in has had its share of social, political and environmental issues. But our transient existence in these places meant that we could not commit fully to being part of the solutions of local problems. This often left us feeling inept and slightly selfish- we would take what we needed to survive in these homes around the world, but questioned what we really gave back to our hosts.

The challenge of living a sustainable lifestyle that lessens our carbon footprint and showcases our efforts in finding solutions to local and global problems then became our focus. In this piece, I discuss more about how we begun questioning the impact that our chosen lifestyle might be having on the environment. That discussion led to us taking bold steps towards becoming a greener, nomadic home.

We stumbled upon Groningen through friends who were working at the university. They would speak of this little, quaint city set idyllically below the Wadden sea. This UNESCO World Heritage site attracts visitors and researchers to enjoy mud-flat walks to the centre of the ocean. But it wasn’t the sea that was calling. It was the possibility of starting afresh, of finding our spiritual home, where we could begin to reset our hearts and find our impact in a troubled world.

We do not take lightly the discussions on climate change and how that is rapidly jeopardizing the future of our children. We discuss these issues with our own children too, who are largely aware of this global crisis, thanks to environmental activists like Greta Thunberg.

The little ones exploring the changing season in the forest

We feel obligated to do something about the state of our own home by taking small measures such as reducing our plastic waste, eating less meat and living a minimalist lifestyle devoid of unnecessary purchases. We hope that these individual choices will inspire those we welcome for supper to think differently about their role too. That as fellow world citizens, we can all show commitment to restoring balance in the way that we coexist with nature.

An encounter with Jane Goodall at an airport also helped cement our desire to be part of the change that is needed. Jane challenged us to take one small step towards helping to save the planet. She did not dictate what that step needed to be and left it entirely up to us to decide the cause that felt most personal.

In order to take that one small step towards change, we needed to start afresh in a place where our values were aligned with our chosen lifestyle. We begun our research with a list of countries around the world that we could live in.

A flashback to a time when we got married would keep recurring. Of when my husband once jokingly said to me, “Someday we will need to live in Europe, in a country that has direct flights to both our home countries”. Every time we would transit through Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, one of us was bound to mention how perfectly situated the Netherlands was, being equidistant in terms of flying time to both Nairobi and to any major airport in the US.

Then something incredible happened. A job offer came up that had the possibility of not only working from home, but of also being based in the Netherlands. We took this as the cosmic sign that we had been anticipating and begun making the practical arrangements of a potential move.

We visited Groningen, Leiden and The Hague to determine where we felt most at home in this tiny country. There was a long list of pros and cons, an excel worksheet with entries comparing the expense of living in any of the cities. We would eventually settle on Groningen after a second visit.

The decision to move to groningen was at first based on finding places for our children at one international school. This was something difficult to achieve in both The Hague and Leiden. We were also drawn to a greener environment. The big city streets devoid of much greenery in The Hague and Leiden were in conflict with the lifestyle that we were subscribing to.

Jane’s words would echo on repeat, reminding us to take one small step, that which we knew we could make towards a realistic change. It would have been so much easier to move to a bigger city filled with other expats. But that would have only replicated the same lifestyle and continued to question our contribution towards the sustainability of our planet. We chose to take the road least taken. Or, at least, a road that would not lead to a ready-made home, or ready-made friends, but one that could challenge us to begin practicing what we were preaching.

We have had to think very consciously about every choice that we make in our life here in Groningen. We have chosen to not buy a car and embrace the biking culture that is what this city is famed for. We have also decided to take time in purchasing a home, and consider having green energy as a top priority when bidding on a home listing.

Size matters too. According to the engineering toolbox, the average person needs about 100-400 square feet of space to feel comfortable in an apartment. If we set our median at 300 (to include potential house guests), it translates to roughly 30 square metres per person in our family of six. It means finding a house with not more than a total of 180 square metres of living space. This figure will also determine our energy intake as well as the measures that we need to take to realistically reduce our carbon footprint.

We are not yet fully at home in Groningen. It is a lot like being in an airport transit, from where we can choose the next flight towards our destination. But we are determined to keep our eyes peeled on the right gate, taking one single step forward- one tiny, tick-able, target, towards becoming environmentally conscious global citizens.

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