A Tradition of Departing and Returning
by Crystal Vagnier
At the end of every December, a week before the real holiday madness begins to unfold, I pack my bags, give out a loud “See ya later, New York!” and hightail it out of America for a month, attempting with all of my might to avoid another frigid winter for as long as possible. The fact that I’ve been able to do this for the last five years is really extraordinary. I guess you can say it’s a tradition now, but my tradition has sustained itself rather unexpectedly. I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in a similar situation every holiday season.
For the 2010–2011 holiday season I found myself in Santa Marta, Colombia with other relatives who also wanted to forego a cold New York winter. It was strange to sit with my feet in the Caribbean with the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range right behind me instead of huddling up indoors with a fleece sweater. I didn’t realize then that I would be starting a tradition of abandoning New York every winter for clear blue waters.
At the beginning of 2011 I moved to the Republic of Georgia to teach English for a year. My work contract ended in December, leaving me with a month to kill before flying back home to America. Flights to Egypt were the cheapest from Georgia so I spent the tail end of 2011 in Cairo and welcomed 2012 by camping out in Nuweiba with my feet in the Red Sea with two strangers that ended up becoming my closest friends.
I started my first year of graduate school in the fall of 2012 and worked as a student advisor for the university. The obvious perk about becoming a student again and being employed by a school is the time off in the summer and winter. My work contract was only valid for when school was in session for full semesters, leaving me with an unexpected month free. I returned to Georgia for the holidays and welcomed 2013 with the host family that I had lived with back in 2011. It was slightly chillier than the last two holidays, but definitely worth it to see my Georgian family again. Before returning to America for another semester of work and school, I returned to Egypt where I reunited with my two close friends in the White Desert where we camped out underneath the stars.
The second year of graduate school provided me with the same employment status with time off in January. I escaped to South Africa for my 2013–2014 winter holidays where I reunited with a dear friend I had made back from my ESL Georgian days. We camped out in St. Lucia with our feet in the Indian Ocean and celebrated three years of long distance friendship.
As for this holiday season I will be returning again to Georgia and to Egypt to see those influential friends and families that I go so long without. Who knows where we’ll end up camping, or what body of water we’ll sink our feet into this time. I never thought in 2011 that by moving to Georgia I would be opening the door to so many opportunities or that I would ever be able to maintain such relationships from so far away, let alone ever return to them. I have learned these last five holiday seasons that life is cyclical and, at least for now, my winters are better spent with the ones who have impacted me the most: the strangers who have opened up their homes and their time to me, who eventually became closer to me than family. I spend the holidays with my new family scattered throughout the globe. I’m fortunate to have a flexible schedule, to be living a low-cost thrifty lifestyle most months out of the year, and to have friends who are just as eager to see me and to host me. Friends in New York no longer ask what I’m doing for the holidays; instead they ask me now where I’m going. What began as a journey to leave New York ended up becoming an act of returning to unrelated family in familiar faraway places.
Crystal Vagnier is an MFA candidate at the City College of New York, where her collection of travel short stories won the The David Dortort Prize in Non-Fiction and The Henry Roth Memorial Scholarship. You may follow her conversations at @CrystalJVagnier.