Tag Archives: Christmas

Beating the Holiday Blues

Another holiday spent away from home, another emotional meltdown narrowly averted. Easter has now long passed but I am still reeling from the aftershocks: the desperate calls home to Minnesota, the rapidly vanishing mountain of chocolate eggs, the box of tissues by my side (just in case). And my mental state does not discriminate. Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving – no matter the festive occasion, I can’t help but turn into a sourpuss each and every time. Without fail, I catch a horrible case of the holiday blues.

Upon careful introspection, I have determined that the problem is not the holiday itself. After all, despite my dad’s hopes for my Catholic confirmation in the 10th grade, I never had a thing for Jesus, or any religion for that matter. And the rare times where I have been invited to share one of these important moments with a French family, the doom and gloom is still roughly the same.

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So I know what you’re thinking – it’s an easy one, right? I just miss my family. But it’s not so simple. Take last year, for example, when I went home for Thanksgiving and spent a week guffawing and gorging myself on turkey with my immediate and extended family. It should have scratched the itch, non? Yet when I found myself alone in France just one month later for Christmas, my reaction was similar to that of stopping antibiotics in the middle of treatment – a nasty holiday funk that returns more vicious than ever before and is now even harder to treat.

What makes holidays abroad so tough is our pension as humans for traditions, and what they mean for us individually. Traditions come in the form of religious celebrations – like Passover or Christmas – or in secular, seemingly baseless forms like April Fool’s Day. At each fête, we come to expect certain things, based on what we have learned from our family, our culture and our country. If our tradition doesn’t deliver, a gut-wrenching, highly personal disappointment may ensue. Think, an overworked dad who forgets to play Tooth Fairy to his six-year old daughter, Sally. Sally is waiting for her 50 cents, and if she wakes up and no money’s in sight, there will be tears – guaranteed.

Thus perhaps why celebrating a holiday like Easter without family – your own family, to be precise – can be so excruciatingly difficult. Although you appreciate the invitation from your French friend to join him for Paques, his Oncle Pierre just doesn’t have the same comedic timing as your Uncle Jack, and you sort of miss that awful pink marshmallow and pineapple salad your Aunt Charlene always makes. It’s the little things that make our traditions so strong and without them, we are frankly a little bit lost. Add the fact that we may either be surrounded by French people we barely know or all alone in our apartments, and you’ve got a top-notch recipe for depression.

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The only way to save ourselves is to do what expats around the globe have been doing for years – create new traditions. So, you can’t go home for Christmas? Organize a dinner amongst your international friends and instead of opening presents, sing karaoke and play charades. Or at Thanksgiving, offer your chicken dinner (because let’s be realistic, there’s almost no turkey in France) to the homeless in your community. If you’re scared off by this much change, try to at least recreate your home-country tradition with the same people each year – this way, you’ll all come to know what to expect in future seasons.

With this plan of attack, instead of looking to the holidays with dread, you may even come to enjoy them. Just remember that nothing has to look the way it once did. You’re in France now and you are changed. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go prepare my three-egg omelet, chocolate Nesquik and game of Scrabble for the 4th of July.

Originally published in Brit’Mag – May/June 2010

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Christmas in the Dordogne – For families only. Singles need not apply

Oh, Christmas. Even all the way from here in France, I can see remnants of the American version of the holiday. Panicked last-minute shoppers, the obsession with money, food, wine and gifts. And, the relief of having a few days off work. But never have I ever experienced such exclusivity during the holiday season.

In America, we are taught that Christmas is the time of giving, a chance to help the homeless, reach out to those in need, or make time for people without family. Not so in the Perigord. After ten months in this town, where I have at least a dozen friends, the only invites I have had to Christmas were by my significant other and a friend from Montpellier who I’ve known for two months.

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Families in the Perigord take on a sort of sect mentality during Christmas, asking you often what you will do for the holiday season, but taking no pity when you say you will be spending it alone. There are condolences, however – a coffee before or after the day, maybe even a weekend invite. But it all feels like an afterthought, too little too late.

Christmas is sacred in the Perigord. A time for family, not a time for friends. And if you don’t have family? Well, here’s to hoping you live near a church, where you can attend a dinner entitled, “Repas pour des Isoles,” or “Meal for the isolated.” How appealing. Maybe I’ll go eat a meal at Restos des Coeurs, while I’m at it, which offers food to the homeless. It seems that I, a single foreigner without family in France, has only as much clout as this group.

I watched a preacher on Larry King Live today that said we need to stop playing the victim and feeling sorry for ourselves. He’s absolutely right. I’ve recently made a pact with myself that I’ll stop doing that, and that I’ll stop spending my time with those who do. We all have choices and we make them depending on the situations we are in at the time. If we can’t live with our choices, we always have the option of making another one. Self-pity-ers, martyrs and woe-is-me sufferers need not apply.

So on that note, this post is not an attempt to play the blame game or to cry about how bad I’ve got it. I have an amazing family back home in the States, my health, good friends (in times of distress, you really learn who you can count on) and a future that is sure to bring unexpected joys.

But after almost a year in the Perigord, this Christmas debacle is the final nail in the coffin, the last push out of here. I can’t wait to find a new home, where people reach out, sympathize and empathize, and aren’t only there for you when it’s convenient to them. Dordogne folks are satisfied with what they’ve got and won’t take any infringement on their current status. Change – not welcome. New friends, not necessary. Help, don’t ask for it.

The Home of the Candle 2

Despite all this, I am smart enough to know that it’s not a French thing, it’s the little-known “Dordogne disease.” People coming to France always say they’ve disliked their trip because of a rough time in Paris. But I gaurantee, if the Dordogne were the capital of France, there would be no tourism or economic growth in this country whatsoever.

Luckily, I’ll always have Marseille, where I lived three years ago. Those sometimes crazy, always passionnate Meditteraneans showed me what true altruism is, what joys France can offer and how happiness is not what you take for yourself, but what you give to others.

This Christmas, I had a 100%, no holds barred meltdown. And for what? I, like many people around the world, got caught up in exactly what Christmas isn’t – thinking about myself. I will try not to let it happen again. But will you?

Merry Christmas.

When Christmas abroad isn’t so merry

Family, gifts, travel and more – the holidays are always a time of hustle and bustle. But what happens when the stress becomes more than you can handle? Dordogne-based therapist Nikki Galleymore talks about coping with the holidays


Although Christmas is undoubtedly merry, it can wreak havoc on your stress and depression levels. Maybe you’re spending the holidays in France for the first time and are worried about being away from your family. Or perhaps you’ve got the opposite problem: all your loved ones are flying to France to experience the holidays in your new home, meaning you’ve got to play the perfect host or hostess. Either way, the weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s can put a damper on your mood during what should otherwise be a festive time. Do you know how to cope?

Just leave me.

Depression is one of the most widespread mental illnesses in France. According to a survey led by the INPES (Institut National de Prévention et d’Education pour la Santé) in 2005, 8% of French people (or 3 million) aged 15-75 had already experienced depression during the 12 months preceding the survey. Of those 15-75, 19% (or 8 million) of people suffer or will suffer from depression during their lifetimes. It is an illness that seems to affect women more than men – almost twice as often. Equally damaging is stress, which affects most people at some point in their lives, some experiencing it more often or severely than others.

Nikky Galleymore is a Zimbabwaen therapist in Eymet who sees primarily English-speaking clients. She says that the Christmas holidays can exacerbate stress and depression in already sensitive people, especially foreigners living abroad. “It is well known in the psychotherapy world that there is this problem, particularly in France,” says Galleyway. “Expats are separated from their family and social groups… or whole families are visiting France. People get incredibly stressed… There’s already huge stress when moving to a new country and holiday time is absolutely heightened.”

The three main issues that bring people to Galleymore for treatment are anxiety, depression and lack of confidence. Whereas expats may have had successful careers back home, now they are without work or doing a lower level job. Not understanding the French language can make simple tasks like going to the bank or post office stressful and affect one’s self-esteem. And financially, people may not be as viable in France as they were in their home country. “All of these things come together as a lack of confidence,” says Galleymore. So even before holiday stress comes into play, there are often new negative emotions for foreigners to deal with after a move abroad.

Galleyway says that another stressor during the holidays is the intense guilt some may feel from being away from home, especially those who have left elderly parents and aren’t able to return for a visit. “The other problem is financial pressure – to buy presents and airfares, to entertain, or having many people over to stay,” says Galleyway.

Every year she sees a similar scenario in her office: “During Christmas, it’s very quiet. It definitely slows down. Clients try to maintain the situation themselves, then their coping mechanisms shut down and that’s when they seek intervention.” Galleyway says that the depression and stress that come with the holidays won’t necessarily appear for those without previous symptoms and primarily exacerbate existing problems.

So what can you do to cope with holiday stress? Galleyway suggests dealing with negative emotions before they come to a head. “If it’s not possible to return home, I encourage clients to stay in contact in other ways,” she says. “There is also perceived ideas and reality, and the question of how people are perceiving their problems.”

In any case, take time out this Christmas for yourself to relax and reflect. And if you’re receiving therapy, be patient. “A lot of people expect immediate results from therapy,” says Galleymore. “It’s a heavy process. I can’t help anyone who won’t first help themselves.”

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Looking for other ways to beat holiday stress? Try these techniques:

Use essential oils. Drop some lavender oil on a tissue and inhale deeply, or dab a bit on your wrists or even under your nose. Take several full breaths and feel your muscles relax.

Meditate. Pick a quiet spot in the house, light some incense and take 5 or 10 minutes just for yourself. Whether you choose to sit or lie down, the most important thing is to be comfortable – no need to twist and turn into awkward yoga poses. Breathe deeply and repeat a calming word silently while attempting to release all other thoughts from your mind.

Exercise. An oldie but goodie, working out ups your endorphin levels to make you feel happier and more at ease. Run, walk, do yoga or go ice-skating with your kids. Expending a bit of energy will relax your body and soul.

Jam out. Music, whether you play an instrument or listen to CDs, can have tremendous calming effects. Play some slow tunes, preferably something light like classical, slow jazz or chanting music, and lie down on the couch to enjoy.

Golden reflection

Visualise calm. Just like athletes or musicians do before a big game or performance, you too can “act as if”. Imagine yourself at the beach, on the top of a picturesque mountain or any other place that brings you calm. You’ll soon find that your body relaxes into the fantasy along with your mind.

Jump in the bath. When was the last time you opted for a long, hot bubble bath as opposed to your five minute shower before work? Fill up the tub, light some candles and let your mind – and stress – drift away.

Feel the love. Take a moment to give your spouse an extra hug, cuddle with your dog or cat, or have a chat with a friend. If you can’t be around family over the holidays, call them up for an impromptu pre-holiday conversation. Seeking human contact during an otherwise stressful moment will boost endorphins and help you calm down.

Eat well. The holidays are full of rich desserts, highly-caloric meats and cheeses, and the temptation to overeat. After all the big meals, you may be left feeling sluggish not only physically but mentally as well. Take a time out from the holiday food fest and fill up your plate with fresh fruits and veggies, nuts and low-fat yoghurt. Your body and mind will thank you for it.

Laugh. Do whatever you can to get at least one belly laugh per day, even during the stressful holidays. If your friends and family don’t get one out of you, pop in your favourite comedy, tune into a funny radio show host or re-watch family videos. Before you know it, you’ll be enjoying your holidays to the fullest.

Let go. Anxiety and stress can often lead to regrets and mental torture of what should have or could have been. Sometimes you need to accept that things are what they are and cannot be changed, even regarding negative situations. If this is the case, it’s probably time to let it go.

Have a Merry Green Christmas – in France

As the holidays approach, it’s easy to throw away your conscience and indulge freely in the festivities. But this Christmas, remember that we’ve got not only an economy to save, but an environment too. If you’re living in Aquitaine, France this holiday season, read these tips for ways you can help preserve our planet while still getting in on the fun.

1) Cut back on Christmas lights. In the last ten years, light pollution has become a growing problem and France has seen a 30% increase in the general use of lights, according to the Agir Pour L’Environnement association. In 2007, towns in France spent more than one million euros to light up their streets during the winter.

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This Christmas, remember that a little goes a long way. Instead of decking out your house with plastic Santas and twenty strings of multi-colored light, go for fewer and more subtle strands to get the same effect or seek out LED (Light Emitting Diode) bulbs, which are more energy efficient than regular bulbs and can last for years without burning out. Whatever you choose, be sure to turn off lights during the day and when you go to bed to save even more energy.

2) Stop the present wrapping madness. Besides all the retail packaging involved in many toys, kitchenware and electronics, there’s also the issue of gift-wrapping. Wrapping paper, bows and cards can accumulate quickly if you’ve got a big family or are feeling generous this year. The Syndicat Départemental des Déchets de la Dordogne says that in 2007, Périgord residents created 645 kilos of waste per person for a total of about 240,260 tons – the equivalent in kilos of 431 AIRBUS A380 planes.

With the season of giving comes a marked increase in the amount of waste we produce. It’s not to say you can’t get in on the fun of opening presents, but instead use fabric, newspaper or recyclable paper, use as little as possible and make sure to recycle afterwards. You can also forego the paper completely by hiding gifts around the house and sending family members on a treasure hunt to find them.

3) When giving gifts, think about eco-friendly items. If it’s sweets you’re after, go for organic products that respect the environment like Alter Eco, Kaoka or Cemoi Chocolatier. Consider organic beauty products from Weleda or Emma Noël. Or look for items that aren’t smothered in plastic packaging. When considering battery-operated gifts, look for those with rechargeable batteries or powered by solar energy.Present

Send e-cards instead of paper ones, make gifts instead of buying, and above all, re-use bags when out shopping – each year in France, 70,000 tons of plastic bags are consumed. You can also think about donating money to a charity organization in honor of your friend or family member, generating very little waste at all. Heifer International gives money to impoverished communities around the world to buy local animals, which provide them with valuable and continuing resources like food and income.

4) Think about how much gas you’re using over the holiday season. The holidays mean lots of driving around going shopping and to parties, and staying up into the wee hours trying to get everything done by Christmas Eve. Try to carpool as much as possible to avoid spending extra money on gas, and consider walking places before immediately jumping in the car. To reduce heating costs at home, grab a cozy sweater, turn off the heat and light up the fireplace instead.

5) Just say no to fake trees. Although it can take a little extra work and be a bit of a mess, consider buying a live tree to decorate for Christmas instead of a fake one. Besides reducing waste, a single tree can absorb more than a ton of CO2 over its lifetime. Christmas trees are specially planted for the season, meaning their removal doesn’t contribute to greater deforestation. But don’t just throw it away at the end of the season – it will go into the already exploding landfills. Instead, contact your mairie to find out if they provide a service for picking up or dropping off Christmas trees.

IKEA has partnered up with the ONF (Office National des Forêts) once again to provide vouchers for those who bring their trees into the store between January 2 and 19. Customers will get 19 euros to spend in the store, the tree will be transformed into compost and 1 euro will go towards the ONF and its diverse nature preservation projects. You can also use ‘un sac à sapin de Noël’, a specially designated, biodegradable plastic bag to use when tossing your tree in with other recyclables. Part of the proceeds goes to Handicap International, an association that helps handicapped citizens. Or, if you have the means, you can chop, chip, mulch or compost your tree yourself for use in the garden or fireplace.

6) Reduce your carbon footprint by sending direct. If you’re living abroad, you’re probably buying gifts online. Instead of sending the gift to yourself to hand wrap and send again, send the gift directly to your receiver. You’ll not only save money, but reduce the transportation costs of getting your present to its destination.

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7) When decorating your tree, minimize costs and waste by reusing decorations year after year. Make your own from recyclable materials or buy from second-hand stores. Keep your tinsel and garlands to be reused as well. You can also knit your own Christmas stocking instead of buying new. Browse the internet for a list of patterns.

Happy planet-friendly holidays!

Turn off my Christmas light pollution

Ahh, Christmas. Who doesn’t love it? The lights, the trees, the presents… the lights. Wait, the lights? Those lights, that are fogging my vision with their intense brightness, hindering my sense of time and daylight, all in an effort to put me in the Christmas spirit?

Yes, those lights.

The Christmas lights of Perigueux went on tonight to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season. In a grandioseness that can only be found in small towns hoping to prove themselves, these lights are extravagent. I’ve been around – Tokyo, Seoul, New Delhi, New York. But never have I seen lights like these.

In every street, in every alleyway is a string of iridescent bulbs, pumping their yellow glow onto the creamy stone buildings of this old French town. Dark green trees, orange stockings, yellow stars and laces of holly. It’s quite glorious, I must say. Especially for someone who’s admittedly not much in the Christmas spirit these days, having just lost her job and not yet received her November salary.

But even still, a girl has to wonder. How much is this costing us? And has anyone in France ever discussed the issue of light pollution? In America, we are obsessed wtih the idea of an environmentally friendly Christmas, even if we don’t engage in one ourselves. But here in France, the topic doesn’t come up, either in conversation or in print.

It’s not that the French don’t care about saving the earth, but they just don’t seem to be “au courant” about the negatives of Christmas. Or maybe, like so many of the rest of us, they want to put their cares away for a few weeks and just be unforgivingly merry.

In any case, the figures are shocking. In the last ten years, light pollution has become a growing problem and France has seen a 30% increase in the general use of lights, according to the Agir pour l’environnement association. In 2007, towns in France spent more than one million euros to light up their streets during the winter. While figures for Christmas vary by town, one can venture to guess that most of those millions are spent on glittering Santas than on corner street lamps.

So what is a Christmas fan to do about the energy conundrum? Do we all just cry “bo-hum-bug” and shut off the lights? Perhaps there is a better way.

LED bulbs have become all the rage in the States, so why not spend the extra bucks in using them around town here as well. Instead of lighting the streets until the break of dawn, we must turn off the plastic Santas at some point in the night. Drunk partyers and other nocturnal beings surely won’t mind. And, in these times of economic crisis, we’ve got to employ the theory of “less is more.” One string of lights every four blocks instead of one every two will not matter to the average Perigourdin.

As I walked home tonight at 9 pm, at a time that would otherwise be night, I was again flabbergasted by the amount of light in the street. But as much of a cynic as I wanted to be, as much money as I felt was being flushed down the drain with every second, I took the moment to walk the empty, bright streets alone, and savor the Christmas spirit.

First Lady: one Dordogne Anglican priest is changing things up

America voted an African-American to be president for the first time ever at the beginning of November. The world is feeling the shift. Men and women of all races and backgrounds, from all across the globe, will surely find new hope in their possibilities for the future. But a female priest? Are we ready for that?

Well at least she’s not Catholic. Over the last few years, assistant chaplain Caroline Gordon-Walker of Saint-Germain-de-Belvès in the Dordogne region of France has become a local female leader in the Anglican community. In a religious world where men continue to claim the majority of high-level positions, this assistant chaplain has broken the religious boundaries of what is considered socially acceptable for priests in France.

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In the Anglican church, women are allowed to lead as well as to be married with a family, but in some circles, it is still rather unorthodox. Apart from some lingering apprehension, Caroline, who came to the Dordogne in 1992, says she has always felt accepted as a female priest by the French. “I’ve been very welcomed here,” she says, from her gorgeous stone house with stunning views onto the Dordogne countryside. “It’s been heart warming.”

There are about 125 Anglican chaplaincies in the Diocese of Europe, which is the 44th Diocese of the Church of England headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Anglican chaplaincy of Aquitaine was first created in 1825 in Bordeaux and is home to the chaplain, the only paid member of the chaplaincy. When Caroline first arrived in the Dordogne, there were just four centers – now there are eleven. With the help of the incoming chaplain Paul Vrolijk (who will be based in Bergerac starting in January), Curate Gill Strachan, plus 10 clergy and readers, Caroline moves around the centers offering her services, usually hosted in unused or shared Catholic churches. “It’s very generous on the parts of the Catholics,” she adds.

The former London think-tank economist says she originally came to the Dordogne to retire. But soon, she started working as a lay assistant in Limeuil and eventually realized that she wanted to take her religious convictions further. Before she knew it, she was renting out her house to finish up religious courses at the Theological College in Durham, England and sharing an apartment with four others like a university student. “We’d all go out to the pub together,” she says. “It was lovely.”

Caroline was then ordained as a deacon in Bern, Switzerland and moved to Poitou-Charente to work as a curate for three years. In 2003, she was ordained as a priest by the Archbishop in Canterbury before returning to the Dordogne in 2005 to claim her current position as assistant chaplain.

Back home in the Dordogne, Caroline says that her primary mission is to provide services in English. “The whole idea is that people should be able to worship in their mother tongue,” says Caroline. “We’re doing something Pentecostal by allowing people to understand their religion.” Caroline says that most of her members are retired but that a new batch of younger people are joining the church. Most have a limited amount of French or find understanding French religious terminology difficult.

While most members are actually Anglican, many come from other branches of Christianity in order to participate in an English service. Regardless of the type of member, the numbers have grown enormously since she started – from 24 to 106 in the Limeuil centre, plus 323 total members in the department, 500 during Easter services and 1500 at Christmas.

“People come to us with different expectations,” Caroline says. “Different centers have slightly different flavors. The interesting mixture is working to meet the spiritual needs of the people here.”

If all are welcome at Caroline’s services, does this also include gay and lesbians, who have faced complications when entering into certain Christian circles? “I don’t think we understand enough about homosexuality. But there does seem to be a lot of research that shows that a genetic component is involved,” says Caroline, adding that in ancient Greece, it was considered strange if a man didn’t have a boyfriend along with his wife.

“There are many worse sins than sexual ones… Greed, cruelty, pride, violence, envy, prejudice and hatred are far more damaging sins, but are often not given as much prominence.” Still, she says, “As a leader, we wouldn’t necessarily think it was appropriate… just like it wouldn’t be if a married man left his wife, remarried and then reappeared to try to lead services.”

The Anglican community does more than meet for prayer and communion. You can join a ladies club or hiking group at the Dronne Valley Church, or take part in one of the fellowship groups at Dordogne Valley. If you need help with a marriage or funeral in English, the chaplaincy can work with you and your family. During Christmas, there will be plenty of services, plus markets, bazaars and fairs. A newsletter comes out of the Chaplaincy of Aquitaine every month to keep members up to date.

As Christmas approaches, Caroline beckons English speakers to visit her services no matter where they are in the Dordogne and hopes most of all that they will learn the lesson of acceptance. “My Christmas wish?” she thinks for a minute, “I’d like everyone to love their neighbors as themselves.”

Anglican Chaplaincy of Aquitaine Worship centers:
-Bordeaux
-Envals
-Bertric Burée
-Dondas
-Monteton
-Chancelade
-Sorges
-Limeuil
-Sainte Nathalene
-Doudrac
-Allez

For more information on upcoming services and special Christmas programs, contact http://www.chapaq.org.