Most university students anticipate spending quality time with family and old friends in the weeks leading up to the Christmas break. With the winter sapping motivation and spirit from us all, it’s no surprise that people look forward to those two short weeks for rest and rejuvenation.
Surrounded by friends, family, and traditions, students living in Groningen can separate their student life from their home life as they take their train, car or even bike journeys to “thuis thuis” (home home). But for some foreign students, particularly from outside of the EU, there is very little chance of experiencing this level of comfort due to the higher ticket prices from inflation. Those unable to afford the high prices are left with no option but to attempt to reproduce that homey feeling in a new country or even continent – something at which I have not yet succeeded.
In lieu of time spent with family and friends back home, over the course of our years here as students, Groningen becomes like a home away from home, where we make lifelong friends who can at least become surrogate family, or in some cases really come to feel like our own kin. The bustling binnenstad becomes the focal point of our lives until, at Christmas time, the city is slowly drained of its lifeblood: students. Although many students and families also choose the leave the city to go on vacation during the summer, the longer duration allows people to leave for a couple of weeks and still have time to enjoy the pleasant weather and laidback atmosphere in Groningen. On the other hand, winter in Groningen remains cold and bleak despite the Christmas lights strewn across the city, making it infinitely harder to fight the homesickness that creeps in from time to time.
As for me, I have loved the Christmas season my whole life – which holds true for most people around the world. As a child, it was mostly because of the presents under the Christmas tree and the excitement of Santa’s visit. But as I grew older, it meant that I could take time away from the stress of school and really just spend time doing things that I enjoyed. Now having moved across the world, the Christmas break has morphed into something entirely different.
With the brevity of the Christmas break, it is an almost impossible task for me to fly home to my family in Zambia. Additionally, the astronomically high ticket prices and the 14-hour duration of the journey (not including transfers and waiting times) would put anyone out of their cheerful Christmas spirit. So for the past three years, Christmas has been synonymous with a longing for familiarity, and an intense, deeply ingrained homesickness. Living in a strange land where you don’t feel like you belong can also exacerbate feelings of isolation and homesickness.
In my long experience away from home, I have learned that it is so essential to remain connected to your family and friends by phone, but also that you find family in the friends around you. While it is good to remain in touch with your family, getting out of your comfort zone and making a new network where you can feel at home is crucial. I would not have made it through these last three years, especially during the pandemic, without the support of my friends in Groningen.
Having said that, this year, I am determined to avoid the ghost town and to reunite with my family, so I will take an easier, more affordable flight even further away from my motherland to meet my parents in Denmark. While I prefer the sweltering Zambian heat, I don’t much mind the knee-deep snow if it means seeing my family. Home is where the heart is, after all.