I’m writing a new column this semester for the Voice, a student newspaper on campus. It’s called Day Tripper – whereas I was writing about food last time with my roommate, I’ll be sharing travel stories and tips over the next few months. Here’s my first article, just in time for the holiday season:
Spending the holidays with family is a blessing, but there is something magical about experiencing celebrations immersed in another culture. Chances are that while traveling, you’ll find yourself celebrating one day or another, whether it’s a holiday you’re familiar with or one you’ve never heard of before.
You’ll probably celebrate holidays that look very much like your own. I traveled to Russia in late 2011. There, on New Year’s Eve, in the minutes leading up to midnight, instead of watching the ball drop in New York, millions of Russians and I tuned in to watch the president lead the countdown to the New Year against a backdrop of fireworks exploding above the Kremlin.
A cozy group of friends, a mix of Russians and Americans visiting the city, sat down for an hours-long feast. No feast in Russia is complete without an endless series of toasts. The six of us spent nearly an hour toasting to everything—the new year, our health, friendship, that we may deliver good toasts, world peace, more snow.
Each of us bundled up in parkas and multiple hats, our small group set out for the streets of St. Petersburg. After admiring the lights lining the city’s bridges and canals, we stopped to watch a laser show in a large square. Bright green and blue lights danced against the façade of a looming building, and people laughed as the lasers moved into shapes of snowflakes and ice skates.
As we came back to the apartment around four in the morning, I couldn’t help but smile at the wonder of the night. In the U.S., I had my fair share of New Year’s escapades, but there was something incredible about having this different spin on the classic holiday.
Traveling might also lead to your encountering holidays you never celebrated before. Two summers ago, while in Sevastpol, Ukraine, I was spending a peaceful afternoon curled up in a chair reading. I heard a strange, faint noise coming from down the road, so I asked Galia, the hostel owner, if she knew what was going on. She rushed to throw open the windows. The sound of bagpipes and drums filled the room.
We ran out of the apartment to the street below where I found myself in a crowd of a few hundred people watching military marching bands from Germany, Turkey, Poland, and Romania parade through the city. Finally, Galia explained that the parade was for Den’ Goroda, or The Day of the City, which commemorates the city’s founding.
The crowd’s enthusiasm exploded when the Ukrainian band came on the scene. People were cheering and screaming. When the band passed the crowd, the crowd joined in the parade.
After ten minutes, Galia and I were among only a few people who did not follow the Ukrainian musicians. She wished me a “Happy Den’ Goroda” before walking back to the hostel. I stayed on the street a while, amazed at what I had just seen and been a part of.
Some of the most difficult holidays spent abroad, though, are those that aren’t celebrated where you’re traveling.
I love my country—but I’m not one for booming, in-your-face patriotism. It was a strange feeling, then, when I came down with a serious case of homesickness while abroad on the Fourth of July one year.
I was in Tbilisi, Georgia—where, incidentally, there is a road called George W. Bush Avenue—and really missing home. The fact that it was the Fourth of July and my friends and family were sporting red, white, and blue while grilling burgers and watching fireworks without me left a knot in my stomach.
After a few hours of moping around the city, I realized that the pouty attitude wouldn’t help me much. I decided to inject some America into my day, which involved a short trek to the giant domed McDonalds in the main square.
I ended up spending the rest of the day with an Iranian at a local Mexican bar. We talked politics, literature, and life stories for hours. Just as we were heading back to the hostel, I heard it:
An American accent.
I’m not embarrassed at all that I ran up to a total stranger and asked him if he was American—the screeches and dancing that followed totally made up for it.
So, this holiday season, no matter where you are—whether it be with family, with friends, or with strangers in a foreign place—remember there’s joy to be found in any celebration. And even when no one else is celebrating, don’t hesitate to cheer about it.