A winter road trip that revealed who we are as global nomads

By Wakanyi Hoffman

On a cold day in December, we drove from the Netherlands to Austria. We had left the house at 6.30 am with the children still in their pajamas. The plan was to be in our rental cottage before dusk. So I packed thin, Dutch-style pancakes and a jar of strawberry jam, which would be easy to eat in the car.

It wasn’t long before strips of daylight begun peeking through the dark skies above us, signaling breakfast-time. But before I could witness the full colourful display of a rarely seen sunrise, the pancakes vanished, leaving only a trace of sticky red syrup dripping in between my fingers.

A winter sunrise behind a windmill in the Netherlands. Photo credit: Pixabay

An epiphany

The children were playing a game of ‘spot my name’- this involves counting the number of times the first letter of their names appear on a license plate. Whenever a Dutch license plate was spotted, there would be an excited squeal, made simultaneously by all four children.

The familiarity of those NL plates brought a comfortable warmth in between us. It spread out evenly, like the surround system that amplified the Pentatonix Christmas playlist.

As the children’s excited chatter faded into the background, I adjusted my seat a few inches backwards and uncurled my toes to fit snugly beside a wicker basket. It was packed with mandarins, grapes and apples, which would later need to be replenished halfway through the long road trip. I closed my eyes, hoping to take a small nap.

But a few seconds later, a small finger poked my shoulder, beckoning me to turn sideways. “Mommy, look at that mountain!” To the 5 year old, who by now was accustomed to the monotonous, flat landscape in the Netherlands, it was a mountain. He was as sure about that as he was about accurately identifying letter ‘A’ for Austria.

It may not have been Mt. Kenya, or Mt. Kilimanjaro, both of which our little boy who, having spent 4 years in Kenya, could also accurately identify on a map of Africa. But it was a gently, sloping hill that sat above a little postcard German village.

At this point, the playlist had switched to Bing Cosby, belting out ‘Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas’. He was the curtain-raiser for an epiphany that I was about to experience, which happened shortly afterwards, when I overheard my oldest daughter translating German road signs into Dutch.

I realized then, that the Netherlands is finally beginning to feel a lot like home.

A rental bike parked against a canal bridge in Amsterdam. Photo credit: Pixabay

Crossing country borders

Joining a fleet of other Dutch-plated vans with families in search of snow and slopes, we were crossing country borders in a too-small 7-seater. It had taken the precision of a practicing Kon-Mari folding apprentice, to pack our ski gear in the crack between the back bench and the door.

Squeezed into the remaining small spaces between the bags, a sudden vibration shifted our vehicle slightly off-road. It was the powerful engine of a German-plated Lamborghini zooming past at a terrific speed along the autobahn.

My husband remarked, “We look really Dutch here on the far right lane.” I knew that he secretly wished to test the limits of our Peugeot, and maybe he did, when I finally got to take a nap.

A few hours later, the landscape begun changing again. As I passed around ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch, I noticed how the mountains had begun revealing shiny specs of snow that glistened in between tall, evergreen pine trees.

The evening sunset descended beyond the snow-capped mountains, marking our arrival on the Austrian Alps. As fully-fledged Dutch residents, we had just enjoyed one of the key benefits of our new status- the freedom of driving through the EU without needing different visa stamps on our passports.

A winter sunset over the Central Alps in Austria. Photo credit: Wakanyi Hoffman

Traveling through foreign lands

Much like the biblical magi, who are said to have traveled through foreign lands in search of a particular manger, we were also determined to find our rusty rental cottage. But by 4.00 pm, dark clouds had begun descending upon us. We struggled to keep our eyes peeled on the dimly-lit roads, looking out for Zillertal, the sign that would direct us to Stumm, a little village on a valley below the Alps.

I imagined how the magi must’ve kept trudging along a treacherous path through frozen mountain ranges, relying only on their impeccable astrological powers and a bright star on the horizon. It was warm inside the car and I appreciated our trusty GPS, which could accurately lead us to the cottage.

The kindness of strangers

However, we arrived an hour later than scheduled, having made one wrong turn up a steep hill. We found our host standing on the icy car park holding out a bottle of homemade schnapps for the parents, and a berry juice syrup for the children.

In her smiling eyes was a familiar kindness of strangers. She gathered the children into the warm house, while we brought in the luggage. Inside was a freshly trimmed Christmas tree in the middle of the kitchen, a request that had been emailed the day before our trip.

She had painstakingly strung tiny fairy lights that sparkled daintily in between the delicate branches, and hung straw handmade ornaments, which smelled of freshly packed hay.

Having fulfilled one Christmas wish, she would hop unsteadily over language and cultural barriers, to extend us an invitation on her dining table, inside the farm house that she shared with her husband and children.

Taking in the bare details of our lifestyle

Before going to bed, I looked around the cottage, taking in the details of our lives. The naturally-stained and bare wooden walls, the sparsely furnished spaces and the simplicity of the décor was representative of our version of a minimalist, nomadic home.

Interior of our holiday cottage in Austria. Photo credit: Wakanyi Hoffman

I sat at the kitchen bench with my feet tucked under a woolen blanket, its red and black tartan pattern similar to the Maasai shawl that I had packed for the car ride.

A collage of vivid memories of the four years that we had spent living next to a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya, appeared in full colour.

The end of our expat lifestyle

It had only been five months ago when a 40-foot container had arrived at our home, signaling the end of our expat lifestyle.

Within hours, the shippers would skillfully dismantle our household and pack our down-scaled belongings into labeled cardboard boxes. They fit compactly in half of the truck, which was a lot less than what we had originally arrived with from Thailand, four years prior.

In the days that followed, we would give up the privilege of witnessing a glorious African sunrise over the Nairobi National Park, which beckoned the start of each morning through our bedroom windows. Or the resident warthogs that greeted us along the driveway and a family of tree hyraxes that signaled bedtime with their nocturnal high-pitched call every night.

We would need to find new homes for the menagerie of farm animals that frolicked the 3-acre wilderness, in which stood our rustic A-framed house that overlooked Karen Blixen’s famed Ngong Hills.

All 17 chickens, 2 cats, 2 rabbits, a dog, and a small tortoise that we had rescued days before our departure, had become essential members of our family.

Chickens frolicking in our wild garden in Kenya. Photo credit: Wakanyi Hoffman

We would also be walking away from a handful of deep friendships and a close-knit community, a village that had helped to raise our children. Weekend family barbecues and children’s birthday parties had all become colorfully pin-tucked onto the kitchen board to mark our day-to-day activities.

When family members escorted us to the airport for a final goodbye, the children had all bravely concealed their tears, preoccupied with our rescue dog. He too would have to say goodbye to the only life that he had known, and travel for 7 hours nonstop from Nairobi to Schiphol, in a cage inside the aircraft’s underbelly.

We would arrive in the Netherlands on a sunny July morning, just in time for Noorderzon, Groningen’s famous summer festival.

A tribe of global nomads

There is a term spared for this extraordinary phenomenon by expats around the world. It is known as the ‘Summer Exodus‘. It occurs at the end of the last school term when most expatriate families relocate to new postings, or repatriate back to their home countries.

We have experienced both- the familiarity of being new expats and the uncertainties of going back home as repats. But this move signaled a whole new path.

To the Dutch government, we were labeled as ‘highly skilled migrants’. But I felt strongly that this new profile excluded major aspects of our perpetual nomadic lifestyle.

Somewhere across the ocean on that night flight, I battled with a list of descriptions to find a less ambiguous way of defining our mission. By the time we exited the aircraft, I had pledged my multicultural clan allegiance, to a tribe of global nomads.

The ability to embrace difference

Looking back, we have always been nomads. We do not have a permanent address and our tribe includes different folk scattered in countries all around the world.

This global village does not require its citizens to present a specific passport or to speak a common language. It also does not discriminate against age, colour, gender identification, or social, intellectual and financial mobility.

But the ability to embrace difference is the invisible code, written underneath the varied skin tones of its global citizens. This requires an intentional desire to read your world by challenging individualized norms and values and the source of any internalized biases.

This mysterious, symbiotic nature of our coexistence with difference is better clarified in a quote by John Hume when he says that,

‘All conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion or nationality. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace- Respect for diversity’.

Like tulips in a flower pot

I finally opened up the discussion with our children about why we are global nomads and not migrants, immigrants or expats. I said, “We are explorers of a world filled with beautiful discoveries.” Pointing to a flower vase by the window, our 8 year old daughter said, “Like those tulips in the flower pot!”

Tulips blooming in a flower pot on a windowsill. Photo credit: Wakanyi Hoffman

She is right about that. The world is a gigantic vessel filled with beautiful experiences- in language, in food, in cultural traditions, in song, in art, in technology and in all the stories that we tell.

As self-proclaimed global nomads, we like to expand our experiences by exploring new geographical landscapes that remind us of just how much bigger our global home really is. And even more humbling is the discovery of just how small we are as its inhabitants.

So far, our journey has revealed self-evident proof that no matter where in the world one was born, the human experience is tied to a common goal. We are all members of a rare species with the peculiar habit of continual self-improvement and adaptation, in the audacious hope of improving our survival rate on this planet.

Who we are as global nomads

On our last night in the cottage in Austria, I sat on the balcony overlooking a lit-up ski slope. It was my first time to see a night skier. I turned to my husband and asked, “Can you really ski at night?” He replied, “That’s how I learnt to ski.”

I could picture him as a fearless, young boy, whizzing down a slippery and icy Appalachian hill in the darkness. “Were you scared?” I asked. He couldn’t remember. But his blue eyes dazzled with vivid memories detailing the joy of gliding down without experiencing a major fall, all the way to the bottom, where his friends waited to trade their own versions of the same story.

This is who we are as global nomads. We trade versions of the same human adventure stories with those whose paths we cross. Some of these stories can sound frightening, like uprooting our four children’s lives out of 7 countries so far.

But as citizens of a culturally-diverse and global world, we relentlessly reject the toxic fear of ‘the other’ by accepting, and adapting to different ways of living at peace with everyone.

Categories: Uncategorized

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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