An Expat Holiday

by Rebecca Slaven

In December, it’s easy, as an expat, to forget that Kazakhstan is a predominantly Muslim country. Christmas decorations festoon the capital city, the unofficial holiday’s opulence a perfect complement to the white marble, glass, and gold towers. Year-round, Astana is enamored with flashing night-time lights and the seasonal plastic fir trees are ready for a rave. All is bright in the steppe.

The week before Christmas, Kazakhstan celebrates its independence with two public holidays and I celebrate the ability to take unpaid leave for the remaining three weekdays by visiting extended family in Denmark. It’s my first time leaving Kazakhstan since moving in August and the brace of salty sea air has never tasted so sweet. The same goes for the taste of kale, fresh fish, non-instant coffee, and restaurant meals served altogether within an hour after ordering.

I don’t mind that I’ll be working on Christmas Day. My mom often shifted the day of celebration because of travel, work, the personal turmoils that made it difficult to accommodate any sort of constant, or because my brother and I were visiting my dad that year. I’m also okay without the Christmas Day rituals. By the time I broke the last loose threads with my dad, my mom was financially comfortable and Christmas became a marathon of gift after individually opened gift. Even as a teenager, I felt the embarrassment of these riches. The last time I opened a present from my mom, I stared at the Birks silver-plated pig-shaped placeholders until they oinked, “forgive her, her parental sins!”

The following two Christmases, I borrowed a car and drove to a small town in British Columbia where my then-boyfriend’s family enveloped me in kindness, meat pies, and rabbit stews. Baggage-free Christmas felt great! But I also felt as if I’d ditched my friends for a party — a lovely, delicious party where I turned to make a joke, but all the humor was lost in having to explain the meaning to shiny new faces. The end of the year is a time of taking stock, and I felt hollow by spending it fully immersed in the present with no reminder of my past.

The next year I bought a ticket to visit a close friend in Toronto before my boyfriend and I even broke up. My friend had moved for his husband’s career and neither of them could make it home to Vancouver for the holidays and so the three of us banded together. I had figured Christmas out: long-standing familiarity without the burden. Then I moved to a very expensive, two-day flight away place, for a job that doesn’t allow me to take vacation until after a six-month probation period, and doesn’t pay me enough to take more than few days’ unpaid leave. Thank goodness Denmark is (relatively) close.

I first asked my mom to get in touch with our extended family in Denmark before going on a year-long university exchange to Europe. She hadn’t spoken to these relatives since she was a kid. I could’ve asked my grandfather since he keeps close ties and visits once a year, but the viking stature and manner that lead his siblings to affectionately call him “the troll” intimidated me as a child and ours is a relationship of distant respect. In recent years, he sent me a card saying, “Happy birthday! I hardly know you.”

It’s easy to romanticize family you didn’t grow up with, even more so as a North American about European ties, but they so warmly embrace me each time I visit. I see myself in them and feel the connection that I need to move on with a new year and I get the relaxation that comes with distance from the motherland. Because the motherland is exhausting.

Kazakhstan is like a mom trying to be cool. Her showy expenditures shout, “Hey girlfriends! Check out my sweet new opera house! You can’t see the stage from any of the seats. But the chandeliers look ah-mazing, right? Like, we are totally making the top 30 developed world countries list now. Do you want any snacks? I’ve got this rolled up meat in a martini glass. I’m not really into you guys drinking, but you can do it here because it’s world-classy. Service takes forever so you’ll have to shoot your glass of wine. OMG, wine shots, so fun! You guys like me, right? Oh, and watch out for the open manhole on the way in.”

Bureaucracy without the infrastructure. It’s easy to lose perspective when you’re immersed in such isolated frenetic energy. And living, working, and socializing in the same place, you don’t get any outsider perspective. We expats talk all the time about this experience and then talk about how we talk about it all the time. My Kazakhstan motto has always been, “keep your expectations low” and now I would add, “take as many breaks as possible.” I phone my best friend once a week, I run more than I ever have before to clear my head (and minimize the heavy effects of the diet here), and the rest of my employment contract is dotted with trips.

But for all the communication issues and required patience, I admire Kazakhstan’s flair and earnest spirit. There is so much to appreciate when you can’t do anything right. It’s both humbling and hysterical to have a document refused because you didn’t use blue ink. Or to be yelled at by a taxi driver for 10 minutes even after you’ve gotten your coat unstuck from the door.

Christmas Day, I’ll be counting books for the library’s annual inventory. During this time, faculty and students will be away for the winter break that is not granted to librarians and administrative staff. You need an ID card just to go in and out of campus, so there will be no one here but us and the few professors who chose not to go home. I’ll be regaining the weight I’m currently losing here in Copenhagen by eating foods other than bread and meat. I’ll phone my friends back home after drinking too much wine with my friends in Kazakhstan. And for the first time in four years, I’ll open a present from my mom that she mailed overseas. I take stock and realize that I’m doing the best I can, and so is she.

Rebecca Slaven is a librarian and a writer. Her subject specialties include law, beauty, and croquet. Her format specialty is the how-to guide. She writes most regularly at

Photo: Ken and Nyetta

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