A Nowelties Christmas Tale

Marina Gutierrez (ESR11)



Ho ho ho! It’s Christmas time! I am very happy to announce that we have prepared some Christmas stories to share with you.

All ESRs are starting the 3rd year of PhD studies, and I think that this is getting me emotional. I don’t know; maybe the huge Netflix catalogue of Christmas movies also contributes to the mood.

Our lives changed when we got accepted in the respective PhD positions, and we decided to take this pathway. Let’s say the truth. It has not been easy for most of us. There have been emotional, intellectual, and work-related ups and downs.

“Am I going to end on time? How can I find an answer to this phenomenon? Am I forgetting any deadline? Do I have to do something during the weekend?”.

Those are just some questions that have come to my mind during these years. Living abroad, a new language, a new culture, new people, loneliness, hard work, and a pandemic are just some of the words we use when explaining our situation.

Since this PhD started, the way ESRs celebrate Christmas may have been changed, as Nebojša Ilić explains: “Generally speaking, Christmas since the PhD meant to choose either to celebrate solo or travel to see family. Luckily my home is not far like for some people on the project, but Covid has been active for the biggest part of our PhDs, so that was not an option most of the time, at least not comfortably and with a holiday spirit.”

Sabrina De Boer gave me a sincere response I think we can all relate: “The weeks before Christmas are always getting a little stressful, thinking about all the important people in your life who you want to appreciate with good wishes or a present. Anxiety mixed with joy flushed down with mulled wine and Christmas cookies.”

In my case, organizing Christmas before starting the PhD was just about choosing a flight to go back home every year. Now it’s about taking complex decisions. My heart is divided, and my free time is limited, so I am always struggling to choose where I will be during the holidays.

Living abroad during Christmas can be stressful, but still, there are some ESRs that are not scared about spending Christmas by themselves, as Danilo Bertagna says: “The company changed all the time, each Christmas I spend with a different person or sometimes alone walking around and looking at the pretty lights.” Indeed, it may turn out to be a completely new experience, according to Edwin Chingate:

“I’ve been quite far from my family for the last two Christmas. The first time was the most difficult, I was very sad with a friend of mine, and we looked for a Latin party, some people as lonely as us. It ended crazy but amazing! It’s one of my best stories and extremely different from any Christmas for me before. The second time was different, but my ex-girlfriend’s family opened their doors for me, so it was a family environment again. A German family is not the same as a Colombian family, and they were not family! Traditions are different, and the mood is different. At least I got some gifts full of love that warmed up my heart.”

Christmas holidays can even result in very particular situations, like this one from Francis de la Rosa:

“The first time I saw snow was during the Christmas holidays, and I was taking pictures somewhere along my way in Croatia. At that moment, the police approached me and asked for my passport and ID card, which were expired during that time. What I didn’t know is that I was taking pictures in front of the Ministry of Interior of Croatia!”

Indeed, sometimes it is not about how you celebrate Christmas but which mood you decide to have. Some people can stoke the fire wherever they are, and Barbara Kalebić is a good example of this:

“I have not changed the way of celebrating Christmas; I have learned how to deal with it without people close to me and to sheard my Christmas spirit with the ones around me at that moment. I had an old neighbor for whom I prepared Christmas lunch and dinner and kept company during those days. I have also been on a video call with my relatives, so it was almost like I was home, and I spent these two Christmas without tears and sadness”.

Whether returning home or staying, these years have taught us the importance of sharing. While some ESRs realized that family is really relevant for them, others have changed their perception of family reunions, even reconsidering the concept of family. To capture this, I share with you the following testimonies:

Francis de la Rosa. Since PhD started, I am celebrating Christmas away from family. I haven’t been to the Philippines since Sept 2019; it’s a bit lonely. This makes me realize that I need a family in the future since I am the only child (“Unico Iho”). In my case, a simple video call is enough for me to see my parents. Hopefully, next year, 2023, I will be able to go home.”

Barbara Topolovec. “Celebration of Christmas hasn’t changed much (…). What changed for me is that I love and appreciate those moments more than ever. Living abroad, far away from family and friends, at this time not knowing if we will be able to travel at all… I was beyond happy that I was able to see them all.”

Silvana Quitón Tapia. “In 2019, I took a short trip to Sant Gallen, Switzerland, to spend the holidays with one of my best friends of my master and her family. We had Glühwein, baked cookies, and played house games. I see her as more of a sister now, as it was a bonding experience. Her mom and I cried when we said goodbye. Happiness is multiplied when it’s shared.”

Camilo Sánchez Tobón. “Christmas has not changed in its form but in its meaning. Before the PhD I related Christmas to presents and festivities. Still, I didn’t internalize the idea of sharing within my family. Since I started the PhD, my perspective changed, and now I enjoy more every moment: a conversation, a cuddle, or seating all together around the table. In the first year of PhD, my wife visited me, and we spent our Christmas holidays with some friends in Germany. The second-year was even more striking. After a year of being abroad, I had the opportunity to travel to Colombia. Meeting my family was very emotional, especially with my grandfather. I started to feel grateful for my life, and Christmas started to have a new meaning for me, a spiritual one.”

Christmas time is also a good moment for evading stress and daily-based routines. Coming back home may become an annual ritual to rest, recharge our batteries and prepare ourselves for the new year, or at least is the vibe I get from these ESRs:

Nikoletta Tsiarta. “I haven’t changed my way of celebrating Christmas since I was already for four years abroad. However, I would always go home for Christmas since I think it´s a season where the family needs to spend time together and, of course, to enjoy all the good yummies my mom prepares!”

Sabrina de Boer. “Regarding the celebrations, I had the big luck to be able to reunite with my parents. So conversely to the rest of the year, for me, Christmas is not the time to experience something new but to calm down after the pre-Christmas stress, make peace with the year which lays behind you and regain forces for the one to come.”

Barbara T. “My holidays were the perfect time to reunite with my loved ones, spending time with them and, of course, take some time for me to rest and prepare for the next round of experiments in the laboratory.”

Anyway, even if you are planning to stay home and relax for a bit, life can change unexpectedly at any moment, as Nikoletta explains below:

I like going home on Christmas. Family, good friends, good atmosphere, and of course good food! And no need to worry about yourself; mom does everything for you!  It was a bit unfortunate last year, and I did not celebrate Christmas as usual. My house was hit by a tornado where the whole roof flew away, causing a lot of damages and making it unlivable. As soon as I heard it, I took the first plane and went to Cyprus to help and support my family. A week later, my parents and my twin sister tested positive for COVID with some mild symptoms, but the quarantine was necessary. Therefore, my younger sister and I moved to a different place and spent two weeks (including New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day) separately from the rest of the family. The misfortune we had, however, did not stop us from celebrating Christmas through a screen with positive vibes and smiles!”

But don’t worry! I asked to check if everything was fine now at her home, and her answer was yes. Fortunately, during this Christmas, I have only heard about some good news that I am delighted to share: some of the ESRs are finally reuniting with their relatives after such a long wait (I am so happy for you Barbara K.!). Here are some important declarations:

Edwin. “I was far from my family for two years and three months, until now. I’m still missing Christmas, but the vibe in Colombia is different. Streets are full of music and colors. Even with the pandemic, people work hard and live their lives very intensely. My family is different, and I’m not the same. I learned to enjoy traveling, and I wanted to take the chance to enjoy my country by myself, so this time is a mixture of quality time with my family and getting connected with my roots.

Silvana Quinton. “I am travelling next week, and I can hardly wait. I’m so excited to meet my family, friends, my dog, even walking on the streets of MY city is a yearning!”

Ana Paulina López Gordillo. “I finally could return home during fall this year after almost four years of no stepping on Mexican territory. It was energizing, and of course, the time was short. I fully enjoyed it! I wish to go back soon.”

Nebojša. This year, my girlfriend and I moved in together and planned to celebrate it for ourselves in our new flat without pressuring ourselves to travel anywhere. So, we will use it for much-needed mental rest. This is the biggest value from it for us currently, slowing down the pandemic-driven constant delay in PhD plans and try to enjoy a bit of holiday spirit.”

Since Europe is full of well-preserved local traditions, I wanted to ask ESRs if they have experienced any new Christmas tradition they didn’t know. I received two main answers: The orthodox Christmas in Serbia and the so-called Caga Tió in Catalonia, being this last one something that personally changed my perception of this region when I lived there.

Amit Kumar explained that Christmas in Serbia is aligned to the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian one, which means Christmas is celebrated on 7th January rather than 25th December. Mismatching dates of holidays in travel restricted times can be difficult. It may somehow contribute to losing weight as vacations, according to Nebojša. However, from the other side, Barbara K. had the perception in Belgrade that the Christmas period lasted longer than usual during her two years of PhD. She said to me she experienced a new vibe where there was no standard rush, “hustle and bustle”, or endless search for presents a couple of days before 25th December. Barbara K., as well as Amit, experienced for the first time Christmas in Belgrade, and they learned a lot about it, as Amit explains below:

“I have lived in Belgrade (the capital city of Serbia) for almost two years (…). I went to Sant Sava Temple (located in Belgrade), a massive orthodox church in the world. The temple is constructed with a very magnificent architectural style. The interior of the church is also very luxuriously decorated with golden champagne. I was fascinated by the beauty of the temple. During Christmas time, Serbians like to decorate the outsides of their houses, churches, shops with amazing lights, and sometimes even statues of Santa Claus. I have visited several places and tried a lot of Serbian dishes. It was a different experience than India.”

Regarding the Caga Tió, Barbara T. and Nikoletta explain that:

It’s a character from Catalan mythology, can be found in many Catalan homes and on the streets. (…) The Tió is a piece of wood with a smiling face that is usually placed on a small table, and it’s covered with a blanket, preferably red (…). Tradition is that one gives the Tió a little bit to “eat” every night and usually covers him with a blanket so that he will not be cold. The story goes that children must take good care of the log in the days preceding Christmas, keeping it warm and feeding it (…).  Underneath the Tió, people place some gifts and sweets (…). Participants should hit the Tió with a stick while singing a typical song for him to poop out the sweets and gifts on Christmas Eve.

Many ESRs have been experiencing Christmas from the northern hemisphere for a while. It seems that festivities during winter are a whole new experience, such as seeing the snow for the first time in the case of Edwin, Francis, and Amit. While some ESRs as Danilo and Ana Paulina, liked a lot the advent traditions for the countdown to Christmas, other ESRs had quite a revelation regarding the change in the Christmas mood:

Silvana. Christmas for me was a big meal, all my family talking loudly and most important Christmas was SUMMER until, of course, you come to the northern hemisphere and all those Santa Claus and snow begin to make full sense. I was aware that baking cookies was a winter tradition, but now I relate it also to Christmas time as I had the chance to experience it first-hand.”

Edwin. Winter in Germany is COLD! You go to a Christmas market and drink warm wine to get warm. I could enjoy that just in 2019, then 2020 was very sad. I’m coming from pretty much the south. We don’t have seasons, and my first time with snow was in Munich. Then I loved to see and walk through the mountains full of snow; this kind of beauty is still new for me. I’m not used to low temperature or light either, and sometimes it was just too much for me. You just turn sad in your room.”

Christmas can also be an opportunity to try something new and improve your cooking skills.

Silvana and Ana Paulina learnt to bake Christmas cookies. Moreover, Ana Paulina has learnt how to prepare seasonal Romanian bread that we would be delighted to try. On the other side, Sabrina de Boer has been determined to bring their culinary Christmas traditions where she goes. Barbara K. tried her best to prepare all her favorite Christmas recipes while staying alone in Belgrade.

When ESRs don’t want to spend time at home, travelling during the Christmas holidays has become a suitable option given our situation abroad. But what about this year? Let’s see what some ESRs have to tell us:

Nikoletta. This year I am planning to visit Amsterdam and spend Christmas there. I have heard they are throwing a lot of fireworks on the sky, and the sky is becoming colorful! It will be my first time spending Christmas abroad, and I would like to see how other people celebrate this time of the year. The good thing is that my twin sister is coming too. At least I will be feeling like home, even not being home!”

Edwin Chingate. “The main thing for me in holidays is that I’m earning Euros, so holidays in Colombia are super cheap for me! I’ve been exploring the Amazonas river because I love rivers. Since I’m doing a PhD in water research, this love just got stronger. Of course, I had to visit the strongest river in the world. I’m also exploring other parts of Amazonas. Since I don’t know how long it would survive, no one is taking proper care of that vast paradise. You wouldn’t find anything like that in Europe. Most places I’ve been in are farms or belong to someone. A wild place is something unique and priceless.”

And that’s pretty much of it. As you can see, two years of PhD offer quite good experiences to share. Anyway, we still have a new year ahead, and thus we have time to learn, share and care. I hope you liked the last blog of the year and Merry Christmas from Nowelties!