Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

‘This was my first Christmas in Ireland since 2009′

I panicked the first time I had to spend Christmas in New York. But having lived there my entire adult life, this year I’ve finally come to accept it as home, writes Johanna Lane

Johanna Lane: ‘I can never quite shake the feeling of indignation that the whole place hasn’t ground to a halt’

Fri, Dec 27, 2013, 00:00


This Christmas was my first at home since 2009. And by home, I do mean Ireland. I went to the US in 2001, two weeks before September 11th, to do a creative writing course at Columbia University in northern Manhattan.

I woke that morning to my Chinese flatmate telling me an aircraft had flown into the World Trade Centre. Her English wasn’t great, so I got ready for class with the assumption that it was a little plane; sad, but not earth-shattering.

But when I left my apartment an hour or so later, the sidewalks were filled with people drifting along slowly, silently, the absolute opposite of the norm. It was clear something was wrong, but I hadn’t yet connected it to my flatmate’s news. It was only when I got to the college library that I found out the full extent of what had happened.

Much to my embarrassment now, I didn’t phone my parents for hours and hours. When I did, my mum reassured me that they hadn’t been worried; they knew I was at the opposite end of the island. But it can’t have been easy for them, as they watched what unfolded in the days and weeks after that: the threats of war, the anthrax scares (one in our student union), the general unrest that had gripped not only the US but the world.

And just as my parents must have worried about me then, I worry about them now, more than I would if I’d stayed and built a life in Dublin. I didn’t mean to move to New York, but here I am a dozen years later, an “expat”, a label I still have a hard time associating with myself.

For me, the hardest part of being away is the obsession that something will go wrong when I’m not in Ireland. Many a weekly phone call ends with my asking, “So you’re all right? Nothing I should be concerned about?” and my parents rushing to reassure me that they’re fine.

Christmas in Ireland is such an event that it never occurred to me in my first four years away that I wouldn’t come home, despite rising flight costs, or the fact that I’d begun teaching at the college in which I was a graduate student.

I’d arrive at Dublin Airport a few days before Christmas, exhausted after a gruelling semester, struggling to learn how to teach those confident American kids who were paying a fortune for their education.

In my bag was a big stack of essays to mark, and final grades to tally, which preoccupied me and guaranteed that I wasn’t always the best company at the Christmas dinner table.

My New York panic

My first Christmas in New York was in 2005, when I was changing from a student visa to a work visa. I wasn’t allowed to leave the US during the process, and I was surprised how panicked I was at the prospect.

“Don’t you understand? I can’t leave!” I sobbed to my American fiance, Mike. So my parents and brothers flew over and we made them Christmas dinner in our Brooklyn apartment. They went out to watch a film around the corner while we cooked.

I overcompensated for taking them away from the Christmas they knew; there was enough food to feed an army. And Mike, it has to be said, did a great job of the turkey.

The next year, I had successfully changed visas and we were free to come back to Ireland for Christmas again. But by 2009, when the full whack of the economic crisis hit, Mike had changed jobs and was given only a few days off for Christmas. We had no choice but to stay in Brooklyn. When the day itself rolled around, though we had planned brunch in the city and a special dinner with friends, I couldn’t help but feel desolate.

I’ve got a bit more used to not coming home in the years since, but it never feels quite right not being in Ireland.

It’s partly because in the States, Christmas is just one holiday for one group of people. A decent chunk of New York ignores it completely. I’ve been teaching at a Jewish university for the past few years and the students have exams scheduled on December 25th. Last year, one of them asked if he could see me for office hours on December 24th. “That’s Christmas Eve!” I nearly shouted.

Thanksgiving indignation

And, for my Jewish friends, the Christmas day tradition is a Chinese takeaway and a film. Thanksgiving is the big holiday there, which is right and fitting and inclusive of everyone, but I can never quite shake the feeling of indignation that the whole place hasn’t ground to a halt, as Ireland does.

This year was different though. Mike and I, in need of a break after writing our first novels around our full-time jobs, took some time away from New York to go travelling in Asia.

Our trip began in Malaysia, and wound through Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and ended up at the poet Richard Murphy’s gorgeous house in the hills of Sri Lanka, the country in which he spent his early childhood.

It got stranger, the closer and closer we got to Christmas, seeing the decorations going up all over Asia, in places that had a Buddhist majority. I wondered who the decorations were for: us, the tourists? Or, more likely, the consumers, the newly rich in those fast-changing countries, who just need another excuse to buy.

I became an American citizen this spring. It drove me bananas when people congratulated me, as if I’d achieved something. I’d answer, rudely, “Actually, I’m just doing it so I can leave”, as I’d heard they could take away your residency if you’re gone for more than six months.

But as we stood on the roof of our Brooklyn apartment building on the last night of June, our place emptied of all its furniture and two lonely-looking backpacks on the floor in the middle of the sitting room, we looked out over downtown Manhattan, where they’d just officially pronounced the new World Trade Centre finished, and I realised that I’ve been fighting an idea for the past decade. I’ve spent my whole adult life in America, which means it is home.

That said, as we travelled this autumn, I often mentioned “home”, and Mike would have to ask, “Do you mean New York or Ireland?”

It turned out that sometimes I meant New York and sometimes I meant Ireland. So I suppose this Christmas is the first time I’ve taken on board that both are true. Ireland is home, but America is home too, and I’ve finally made my peace with that.

I think.

Johanna Lane’s first novel, Black Lake, will be published in May 2014