Our travelling Advent Calendar

Anyone who knows Cass knows that he’s not that into Christmas. Before we had kids, we just took it as time to spend with family and ignored the rest of it. Since the kids have been born, he’s had to relinquish some of his grinchyness, and I’ve taken it upon myself to keep some fun and magic alive for the kids at Christmas time.

While we have no religious connection to Christmas, for me it’s still a special time at the end of the year where you can take some time out from normality to enjoy the company of loved ones and reflect on what the year has meant to us. In Australia our Christmas fun usually means a tree made from the branch of a eucalypt with handmade decorations and lots of social gatherings. The kids always beg me for a chocolate advent calendar (and I always cave in).

This year we are travelling. It’s now 21 days until Christmas and we still don’t know exactly where we’ll be. (How exciting?!) I’ve been thinking a lot about how to incorporate some Christmas fun into our travelling. Without descending into materialism or sugar-induced peaks and troughs, I wanted to have an advent calendar of sorts that would fit in my suitcase and wouldn’t be about more plastic crap.

Some of my friends and family over the years have created the most beautiful advent calendars, crafted with care and thought – some sewn, some painted. I love to make things as much as anyone, but I needed something compact and portable.

So this is what I’ve come up with.

The kids each have a small envelope. Each morning when they wake up, there’s a new note inside. The notes are like vouchers. They can use them whenever they are ready (even after Christmas) and they have written on them some of the things the kids love to do, but they don’t always get the chance. They are both different so they can also trade them with each other if they want to. The aim is to give them things that bring us together, don’t involve buying a toy, and aren’t all about poor-quality compound chocolate.

Some of the things that have been on the notes so far:

  • Play a game of cards – the idea is that I’ll drop whatever I’m doing to play instead of telling them I’m too busy.
  • Choose what to have for dinner tonight – this is a good one in our family as dinner is a constant source of argument.
  • The parents will cook a fancy breakfast of your choice – they haven’t cashed this one in yet – I’m pretty sure they’ll ask for French Toast.
  • Choose a movie to rent on iTunes for us all to watch together
  • Choose a treat for us all to share at a pastelería

I’m still brainstorming what to put on the rest of them, but I like thinking of the ideas as much as the kids love opening them in the morning.

Yesterday, La Chica said to me, ‘Mum, why haven’t we done this sort of Advent Calendar in Australia? It’s so much better!’

It looks like this might become a tradition that sticks.

An introvert’s guide to meeting people while travelling

So we’ve been in Spain for two months now, and all of us are increasing in language confidence, discovering many new places, and investigating the ins and outs of life in a foreign country.

We’ve slowed down our travel, allowing us to immerse ourselves in each place and really delve into new experiences. This has led to some incredible moments, from a farmer asking us to come and see his baby goats (which the kids got to hold), to the kids being invited to an English Language school for an end of year class party.

All of these experiences have been invaluable. The kids have made some very close friends and it has been hard for them to leave them when we do. Last night ended up in a pile of tears as we left some of their favourite new friends.

What we have found, however, is that we were constantly pushing the kids to step past their comfort limits, when Cass and I were not. ‘Go on, say hello to those kids on the playground’ we urged, however when faced with another adult, we would say ‘hello’ and then just go about our transaction without pushing any further.

It dawned on us one day that we were pushing the kids, and they were having some genuinely profound interactions, while Cass and I were missing out.

At home Cass and I truly value our strong friendships with a few close friends, however we have never needed a lot of social interaction. Both of us always got what we needed socially from work and those close friendships. We are naturally introverts who like the company of a small dedicated group. This doesn’t work when travelling, when expanding horizons is what it is all about.

We’re not new to travel, we’ve both travelled before, but as solo backpackers, where it is easy to make conversation with a similar vagabonding type over a meal in a hostel or a drink in a bar. Now we travel as a pack of four, stay in Airbnb type accomodation, and interact with each other in our own little bubble – it is so easy to get by without meeting anyone at all.

Cass and I have had to develop strategies and games to really push ourselves to have more meaningful interactions with people around us and it has really paid off; Cass met a fellow surfer taxi driver who told him all about the local conditions and explained some new Spanish surfing terms; we met a shop owner whose best friend is a coach with the Adelaide Soccer team; and we’ve made friends with the owners of a local tapas bar, who gave us an impromptu round of free Spanish liqueurs to try. These strategies have extended our experience to be so much more rewarding than before we tried them.

Here’s some little games and strategies we use daily:

1. Say something unnecessary

Every time you have an interaction with someone (buying something, riding in a taxi, asking for something) you try to say something that is completely unnecessary to the transaction. For example; when buying bread, ask if there’s been much rain lately, when at the bar, ask who is playing the football on the television, when in a taxi ask for a good place to eat. It’s amazing how often such a simple statement or question can lead to a larger conversation about something very interesting.

2. Go to the same place regularly

If you find somewhere good, go there often. We found a tapería where we really loved the food. It was cheap, near our accommodation and is owned by two brothers that were very friendly. We went back three times and by our third visit we were chatting about all sorts of things (they were the ones that gave us the free selection of Spanish liqueurs and even put some non-alcoholic colourful ones in similar glasses for the kids).

3. Say where you are from

If you tell people early on where you are from, it will often launch a conversation. It’s easier to drop in than you might think. If you don’t understand what someone says you can easily say in the local language, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand, I’m Australian’. If you are feeling a bit more confident you can say ‘I’m sorry, can you please say that again, I’m Australian but would like to practice my Spanish’. Usually this turns into a further conversation, perhaps they will ask where in Australia you are from, or tell you that they’ve been there, or know someone from there. It’s a good starting point.

4. Ask for help

This seems obvious but I’m not very good at this. It works in so many situations. I don’t eat much meat and we used to walk around looking at menus hoping that we would find something herbivorous. Recently we’ve learned to ask the waiter if there are any vegetarian options. This has led to finding better options for all of us, as the waiters often recommend something that is especially good on the menu, or offer a suggestion for what the kids might like. This can then give you a chance to ask more, such as what ingredients are in it, where does the fish come from, how is it cooked, for example.

5. Say yes (when you can).

It can be scary, especially when you are always thinking about the safety of the kids, to say yes to things. I was terrified of letting the kids go to an English Language school party without us in a foreign country, but it turned out to be an excellent experience for them. Of course sometimes you have to listen to your instinct and say no to something that isn’t a good idea, but generally, saying yes is going to find you in some unexpected places.

Have you got any other fun strategies or games for getting more our of your experience in a new country? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.