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Celebrating Christmas in faraway lands

The Berthoud family in Havana have made their own nativity scene Olivier Berthoud, Kuba

The festive season is in full flow in Switzerland but hundreds of thousands of Swiss will not be here to enjoy it.

Three Swiss expats tell swissinfo how they will be spending the Christmas period a long way from home.

More than 600,000 Swiss nationals live abroad, both near and far. Many have been away for decades and some no longer speak a Swiss language.

Absent friends include 150 Swiss who are employed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) on overseas missions.

Among them is Claudia Rizzo, a humanitarian-affairs coordinator with the SDC, who has been living in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, for around two months.

At the moment, nothing is more surreal to her than the word “Christmas”.

“I associate Christmas with cold, snow, family, a Christmas tree and presents. During the past few weeks, I’ve been living in one of the hottest cities in the world, full of palm trees and surrounded by desert,” remarks Rizzo.

For Rizzo, Christmas is all about spending time together as a family and that’s why she will try her best to assemble her current family: colleagues who are staying behind in Sudan, as well as friends and acquaintances.

There will even be a Christmas tree or sorts – Rizzo plans to decorate a small palm tree in her house with lights.

And as for food, what else but a fondue on Christmas Day to remind her of home – accompanied, of course, by the odd drop of alcohol.

“You cannot serve only water or tea with a good fondue!” she says.


Olivier Berthoud, who has been the SDC’s coordinator in Cuba for many years, will be basking in the warmth of a Caribbean Christmas with his wife and daughters, Sofia and Naya.

The family have put together a homemade nativity crib, constructing the manger out of Lego blocks and the roof from shells, which the children collected from a beach.

A fig tree is serving as a Christmas tree, though Berthoud says it is possible to buy plastic trees in shops that take dollars. But Berthoud says he cannot stand them.

But one thing he is grateful for is that certain items cannot be had in Cuba for love or money.

“[Especially at Christmas] there’s none of that hysterical consumer stress, thank goodness!”

And another silver lining is the weather. While he misses white Christmases, Berthoud says the temperature in Cuba is perfect at this time of year.

“It’s not too hot nor too cold.”


Christmas will also be a less than traditional affair for Paul Rüegg, who has been the agency’s deputy coordinator in the Afghan capital, Kabul, since May.

He says there is not much of a Christmas atmosphere in Kabul, which is hardly surprising in a city where the population of three million is mostly Muslim and there are only 12,000 foreigners.

“I have visited two Christmas markets where I can buy presents,” he says. “One was organised by a German restaurant; the other by a development organisation.”

But things are looking up on the food front, with a Christmas meal at his boss’s home.

“There, we’ll probably get something good to eat,” says Rüegg.

Rüegg says life in war-scarred Afghanistan is hard, the security situation precarious and his movements restricted. And every so often, he gets homesick.

“But it’s getting better because I’ll be spending New Year’s Eve in Switzerland,” he adds.


The SDC employs around 500 staff, 150 of whom are posted abroad.
It had a budget of SFr1.2 billion in 2003.
The SDC supports and runs overseas development projects and also dispenses humanitarian relief.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR