A lot of people have asked me how we could spend so much time away from home, especially over the holidays. Like everything else about our new nomadic travel lifestyle, the answer is complicated. This year, we’ve been in Melbourne Australia for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and in a few days, New Year’s Day. And yet, we’ve been welcomed into the homes of friends and made to feel like family. And, although certain things are not the same (86F sunny weather on Christmas, for example), we share a lot of cultural touchpoints with people here. It has truly felt like a holiday season.
When I was a child, I learned the Kookaburra song. You know, the one that starts,
Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry, merry king of the bush is he,
Laugh, kookaburra, laugh, kookaburra,
Gay your life must be.
The song was written in 1932 by a music teacher in Melbourne. Her name was Marion Sinclair, and she lived to be 88 years old. She entered the song in a girl guide (related to girl scouts) song competition and it won. The song quickly became well known in English-speaking countries, including the United States. I was so young when I learned the song I don’t remember learning it. I do remember singing it with many members of my family, including my Grandmother, mother, and three aunts. I taught the song to my children. When our daughter joined Paul and me on our first trip to Australia, in 2017, she and I were thrilled to see a real kookaburra. Native to Australia and Guinea, the kookaburra is an iconic Australian animal. Its call resembles a human laugh. Its look is so distinctive that even I can immediately identify it. Like many songs from my childhood, this one instantly evokes warm memories of family, fun, and belonging.
After we had guests over to our flat in Melbourne for an American-style Thanksgiving, we were invited to the home of one of the couples who visited with us. Paul and Cecilia live on the Mornington Peninsula, in a town called Langwarrin. Their beautiful home looks suburban, but they and their neighbors are surrounded by bush, and receive frequent visitations by native birds as well as the occasional snake. Across the road, they have seen echidna and wallabies, and not too far away koalas have been spotted. An Australian paradise.
The city of Melbourne prepared for Christmas for weeks. The Central Business District streets were full of decorations. Parents with children lined up to see holiday shop windows and have photos taken with Santa – in the warm weather, the queues were outdoors. At night, light shows displayed patterns on the buildings. The downtown was bustling.
In our flat, I hung the one ornament we have, made by a friend last year to honor our time overseas (Southern Cross Santa), and I brought out the family recipes. If we were going to visit friends over the holidays, family recipes had to represent! From my Grandmother, I made a red velvet cake, using the famous family icing recipe. From our Italian in-laws, the lemon cookie recipe. I found baking a bit of a challenge: I went to four different stores without finding any lemon extract, finally finding it at a natural foods store in the South Melbourne Market. I had to convert English measurements to metric, Fahrenheit to Celsius. I didn’t have all the kitchen tools – and bought some inexpensive ones to gift to the Airbnb, and borrowed an electric mixer after realizing the rotary beater I bought wouldn’t whip the butter for the icing. But I managed to complete the cookies and the cake, ready to roll. We bought some gifts for the children in our lives and mailed some overseas. We sent a very limited number of Christmas cards, hunting down one with an Australian bandicoot on the front.
The thing is, we’ve rarely lived near our extended family anyway. Moving around, we were at least a day’s drive from anyone other than our own children. One year, our daughter lived in Latvia, another year, in New York. She and her fiancé live in Michigan now, but our son and his wife live in California. When I was six, I remember getting a big package from my Grandparents for Christmas because we lived two states away. Many holidays I have been passed around the room on telephone while I talk to various relatives. Our family are gracious about the physical distance. They know we are living our dream, and they are happy for us, the same way we are happy when our family have pursued their dreams.
Christmas with our Australian friends felt remarkably familiar. In part, this was because the family who welcomed us were so warm. On Christmas Eve, we look at Christmas lights - similar except for the giant Kangaroo! Our hosts’ children are the same age as our children. The grandchildren reminded us of our own littles that run around in extended family gatherings. Christmas dinner was a feast of too much delicious food and too many sweets, just like home. In addition to my cake and cookies, there was a trifle (an English layered dessert) and a much-prized chocolate pudding.
Unlike Christmas back home, our lunch was outdoors in the sun. Each of us had a traditional Christmas “cracker” at our plate, and we popped them for the toys, cheesy jokes (How do the elves take photos on their phone? They take elfies)”, and the paper crowns, which everyone wears for hours. Children are excited and parents are a bit exhausted, and everyone laughs. Just like home.
Our host proclaims that we are King and Queen of Christmas! Christmas fun!
When we returned to Melbourne, we visited with other friends, Mish, Joel, Mish' mom who was visiting from Mauritius, and their dog, Barkley. There, we were met with an inviting aroma of curry, home-made in a Mauritian style. Joel mixed us some drinks, we toasted to the new year, and enjoyed each other's company. Joel even lined up a Michigan trivia game, along with quizzes about general USA and Australian knowledge. We capped off the evening with a stunning view of the city from their porch. Good times, good food, good friends.
I have told a few people, including my children, that when we were overseas before (in 2016, -17, and -18) every day was such a full experience that I never missed anyone. Now that we’re away most of the time, I do miss people. When we landed back in home base last June, it was fantastic to visit with family and friends. When our son and his wife visited us in Lisbon and London, it was wonderful. There is something different about in-person visits versus Zoom. And we will touch back to home base again, although probably not until December, 2023. In the meantime, we will keep in touch by video-chat, Facebook, and this travel blog.
While we are traveling, we will continue to learn from the people we meet. We had so many great conversations with Paul and Cecilia, and learned a lot about what it was like to grow up in Australia during the same years we were growing up back home. There were a lot of differences, but a lot of similarities. And, while we made slightly different choices, our sense of adventure in making those choices was felt by each of us and each of them. Ours was a generation where we still held on to some traditions, but realized we could let go of others. We were moved and privileged to go with our host to visit his parents’ graves Christmas morning, and learn about their lives. My aunt and uncle visit our family graves around Christmas, and I had just received a photo of a wreath they had placed on those gravesites the day before. Same tradition, different continent.
On both Christmas Eve and Christmas day, our hosts were visited by a pair of kookaburras. These birds are even more impressive up close than they are from a distance. This pair is a mother and a daughter, we are told, and visit almost every day. Our hosts are well-versed in native Australian fauna, and tell us all about the kookaburras. I ask if they know the song and one of them sings, “Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree, merry merry king of the bush is he…” And just like that, I’m back in the heart of my family at Christmas.
As we get in the car, I tell my hosts that I have learned a new joke. It goes like this:
A couple get married, and one of them says to the other, "I’ll make you breakfast in bed for Christmas." She goes to the kitchen and whips up a perfect eggs benedict. When she presents it the other one says, “Wow! What a presentation! Is that plate made of chrome?” She replies, “Why yes, because there’s no plate like chrome for the Hollandaise!” My hosts appropriately groan from the pun, and laugh, and it is clear they know the song (There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays), and get the joke. I had read the joke the day before from a friend who is from Palestine and lives in Canada. The world is indeed connected by laughter, and fun, and the need to groan when you hear a good pun.
I wanted to sing the Kookaburra song with my ukelele, but part of the experience is singing in a round with family. My son, James, not only agreed to sing in a round with me, but to figure out how to make that happen given we were on different continents. On the video, I sing it through with my ukelele, then James and I sing the round.