For Americans Abroad, Celebrating the Holidays Means Bucking Tradition

This year, take a page from the expat holiday handbook: do whatever the hell you want.

Photo by kavram, Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Photo by kavram, Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Photo by kavram, Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

My first attempt to celebrate an American holiday, shortly after moving to Argentina, left the new neighbors questioning my mental stability. 

Hell-bent on giving my kids the same traditions they’d had in Michigan, Halloween was on. I invited some neighbors I barely knew and gave them lame homemade costumes to wear upon arrival. I could not find pumpkins, so we “carved” oranges. Embarrassing attempts to teach them the “Thriller” dance ensued. Everyone there, born and raised without television in remote Patagonia, was painfully confused.
Later, the kids took off trick-or-treating, even though the nearest house was a literal “over the river and through the woods” situation. No one has door bells, so they just stood outside in full costume yelling. (To their credit, they did get some dulce de leche pancakes cooked up for them on the spot). Cut to an hour later when I’m frantically searching the mountainside dressed like a zombie and knocking on strangers’ doors, asking in terrible Spanish “if they have seen children.”
The following year I gave it another go. I handed out goodie bags in advance and awkwardly explained that my kids would be coming by that evening shouting something in English, and could they please hand them these bags when they did so? (An unexpected surprise was the goodie bags they made for me, some with massive jars of homegrown weed and beer.)
Fast forward ten years and I have officially given up. It’s just not the same as it was in the US and that’s okay. We’ve lost the need to hang on to the old, and with time, have embraced the new. 

In 2020, the pandemic has thwarted travel plans, birthdays, festivals, and traditions the world over. This holiday season will no doubt look radically different for many Americans. But for a little comfort and inspiration, take a page from the expat holiday handbook: Get creative, get resourceful, or get by perfectly fine doing whatever the hell you want.When it comes to celebrating holidays abroad, there are no rules. Some Americans will go to extreme lengths to keep their beloved traditions alive: Helen Sharp, when she lived in Taiwan, would special order Thanksgiving turkey from international luxury hotels because it was near impossible to find one anywhere else.

But most expats I spoke to agreed it’s liberating not to rigidly stick to tradition-or even the calendar. Sharon Nieuwenhuis, who lived for years in Mendoza, Argentina, once tried to do a proper Thanksgiving at a friend’s apartment in November-which, in the southern hemisphere, is unbearably hot. Now she celebrates on the 4thof July instead, which marks the beginning of winter. (Meanwhile at my house in El Bolson, in lieu of fireworks and barbecue, we’ll gather by a roaring bonfire and shovel Pop Rocks in our mouths and call it good.)

“For us, it’s all about embracing the surroundings we’ve found ourselves in, and celebrating all that’s wonderful about it,” says Kristen Gill, a professional photographer who recently moved to Baja California Sur. This Thanksgiving, her goal was to be fully present and embrace local traditions from her adopted home of Mexico

“I am a visitor in a foreign country and I want to learn about the region’s history and culture. Me and some expat women are ditching the turkey and going to indulge in cold ceviche instead, and then hop on a paddle board for a sunset paddle.”There’s something to be said for skipping the whole holiday rigamarole-or settling for a less-than-perfect Holiday Lite. Katka Lapelosova was determined to host a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for friends in Slovakia, but came up against a few logistical deal-breakers: She didn’t have a fridge, so she couldn’t store or pre-prep ingredients, and the walk to the grocery store was over a mile.

“I ended up only making mashed potatoes and mac and cheese. The store didn’t have anything like cranberry sauce or even a chicken I could roast,” recalls Lapelosova. “I mean, it tasted good! But I’m sure I disappointed my Slovak friends after building up American Thanksgiving.”

If you’re scaling back in the kitchen this year, little touches around the house can keep spirits high. Peter Bibler, an expat in China, never bothered to carry on US holiday traditions; his wife had never even celebrated Christmas before. But one year he randomly went all out, decorating their apartment with garlands, pine cones, and a two-foot fake Christmas tree with some cheap ornaments.

“I found all of these decorations tucked away in a shop on the 4th floor of a local flower market,” Bibler told me. “I also draped two stockings over the TV (having no better place to hang them). Very early Christmas morning, I stuffed the stockings with sundry little gifts. My wife awoke to see full stockings for the very first time, and for just a moment, I saw on her face that childlike joy as though Santa had come. It is a precious memory. Especially for a cynic like me.”As for me, I still celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, but they are so scaled down they barely resemble the holidays I used to know. For Thanksgiving, I usually gather whatever stray American backpacker or volunteer I can find and host a picnic potluck out in the garden. Christmas is spent with friends and family at nearby Lago Puelo, relaxing as profoundly as possible. A lamb is thrown on the grill, bottles of fancy malbec are opened, and chocolate-covered strawberries are passed-but gifts are rarely exchanged.

I asked my daughter Stella about her childhood Christmases here in Argentina. “There was never a need to measure love through presents and extravagance,” she offered. “It was always super chill.” Which, after the year we’ve had, is about as close to perfect as you can get.

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Cathy Brown splits her time between traveling the globe writing for Lonely Planet and CNN, working with Indigenous rights in the Brazilian Amazon, and hanging out at home in her garden and hosting permaculture and medicinal plant retreats.


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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