Monday, January 21, 2013


Last night I arrived home late from a weekend away in the coastal town of Almeria. Hannah (the same American friend who cooked Thanksgiving dinner with me) and I caught the bus from the train station into town, feeling weary after a long, sunny day whizzing around the stunning Cabo de Gata, a wild national park full of desert mountains and crashing waves. It was late, and the bus was empty save for us, the driver, and one other rider, a young guy who looked like he was probably arriving for another week at the technical university here.

The hum of the radio provided a pleasant white noise background for the first few minutes of the ride into town, but then I caught the words 'la casa blanca' in a news report--the White House-- and heard a recording of President Obama taking the oath of office earlier in the day. I turned to Hannah in surprise. "Was that today!?" I exclaimed; "Man, I totally forgot!"

For just a moment, I was transported to the east coast of Australia. Four years ago yesterday, I was just starting my trip around the world. I stopped for a few days in Elliot Heads, a small town huddled around a sandy strip of blue water, famous for its relaxed RV community and nesting sea turtles. The second night I stayed awake late, walking the beach looking for laying mothers under a sky I described in this blog as 'incandescent' with stars. The next day, I went into the town's small general store to buy breakfast and found the front page of the local paper festooned with Obama's face. I remember feeling a strange surge of emotion: pride at my country's step forward, plus the sudden weight of distance, the importance of all those things, large and small, happening while I was asleep.

Yesterday, four years later, I felt that same weight, as well as another pull, one of time. It's hard to believe that four years have elapsed since the beginning of my 2009 trip. And thinking about President Obama and his new beginning has me considering everything I've 'inaugurated' in the last four years: new friendships, new jobs, new apartments, new languages. These four years have taken me to more than 30 countries (just typing that feels momentous.) They've brought me incredible adventures (snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, dancing with Aztecs at the equinox, and visiting Stonehenge just to name a few.) I've produced radio segments that aired on more than 20 radio stations in the USA. I've had articles optioned for translation and international publication. I've grown comfortable speaking another language on a daily basis. Who knows when I'll have another four years likes these?

Even further, who knows where I'll be for the next inauguration? Will I have to be reminded of the news in some other radio broadcast in a language I'm still learning? Will I wake to find the new important face on some strange newspaper's front page? What new adventures will I have faced? What new challenges will I be navigating? What new friends will I have made? It's easy to forget that, really, every day is an inauguration.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The importance of Expat Thanksgiving

I'll admit that even by lax Andalucian standards (with the strange exception of the bus schedule, I've found the southern Spanish stereotype regarding tardiness to be fairly accurate), this entry comes a bit late. It's even later than it might have been, because once we passed the New Year I had serious misgivings about posting at all. But who knows where I might be or what I might be thinking about Thanksgiving next year? I'd like to take a "better late than never, better properly written than slapdash" philosophy to this blog. So: onward!

I've spent a few holidays abroad in my time-- July 4th in China (2007), Greece (2009), or Spain (2012). Christmas in Spain (2009, 2010), England (2011), and Ireland (2012.) My birthday in Italy (2009 and 2012) and Spain/Germany (2011.) Thanksgiving in France (2009) and Spain (2011)-- and again this year. Each celebration abroad mixes the familiar and the new in an exciting way, and I've deeply enjoyed sharing elements of my favorite traditions (whether they be Independence Day s'mores or latkes on Hannukah) with new friends that have already taught me a great deal.

French Thanksgiving in 2009 was a magical affair: it took place in a borrowed apartment in Normandy stocked full of couchsurfers from Cherbourg and stuffed to the gills with instant mashed potatoes, chicken from the village rotisserie, and homemade Norman apple pie (more like a tart by American standards.) Last year's Palentino Thanksgiving was equally full of newness and excitement, as well as a dear friend who came to visit. She brought with her canned cranberry sauce, stuffing mix, and more instant mashed potatoes-- as well as a contagious love for the holiday that added spark to the proceedings.

Then, in what seemed like a blink, November came around again, bringing with it my third Thanksgiving outside US borders. For 2012, I arranged an elaborate meal with Hannah, a new American friend in Linares. We invited several Spanish (and two Polish) friends, who in turn invited their friends, and in the end we had a total of 12 people sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner! It was a little bit of an overwhelming prospect, but with determination and a dollop of team work we were able to produce a menu that included: an apple pie, two pumpkin pies, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, stuffing, graving, salad, and cranberry sauce (my pride and joy, concocted using reconstituted dried cranberries and--incredibly deliciously--an entire pomegranate.)

The results of a great deal of hard work! (Mostly Hannah's)

The day itself was full of happy, crowded chaos, exactly as a Thanksgiving should be. The invited throng trickled in starting around 3 PM--for once Spanish dining times coincided with American traditions-- just as Hannah and I were putting the finishing touches on the menu. The pies, which we had baked the previous night, were set to cool on the porch; the chickens were just coming out of the oven. We enlisted the cheerfully-complaining help of Maria and Jose to carve them and Polish Zeb to put some elbow grease into the mashed potatoes. Drinks were poured, places were set, the menu was translated among three languages, and we all sat down to a lip-smacking, multilingual, multicultural feast. (Of course, beforehand, Hannah and I insisted on following the time-honored tradition of saying something you're thankful for.)

The assembled Thanksgiving crew, before the meal

A complete Thanksgiving plate--even with cranberry sauce!

The meal was a total success. The conversation was peppered with compliments on the food (most of which our friends had never tried before) and a butchered/simplified version of the Thanksgiving story; the pumpkin pie, gravy, and cranberry sauce were particular hits. After a solid afternoon of eating and cleaning up, I even had a chance to take the customary post-Thanksgiving nap (here again Spanish and American traditions intersected.) I drowsed happily, thinking of people at home doing the same.

And here's the thing: it wasn't just people at home. In the coming days I saw pictures of expat friends all over the world celebrating. One in Beijing posted photos of a complicated Western-style spread; an acquaintance working for an NGO in Sudan took to his blog to describe in detail the effort of procuring a scrawny African chicken, getting it butchered, and preparing it for his feast. The next day, another NGO-worker, this one on the island of East Timor, posted pictures on Facebook of herself sharing a cooked, honeyed squash with a neighbor. There were no turkeys to be found, she said-- this was the closest she could approximate. Other friends throughout Spain sent anecdotes about the best way to make cranberry sauce (that's where I got the tip about using dried cranberries) or adventures adapting to Basque palates. It seemed like every expat I knew was going to extraordinary lengths to celebrate Thanksgiving, and it got me thinking--why are we so compelled to bring these American customs abroad, and what so is so specifically powerful about Thanksgiving?

I believe our expat Thanksgiving celebrations reflect our experiences living abroad as a whole. We spend most of the year immersed in otherness, a constant newness I personally find exciting and fresh,  exotic and educational. Over time, we adopt some of that newness as our own. Before my experience living in Spain, I couldn't imagine eating dinner outside of my family's customary 6:15-7:30 window. Now the thought of life without a mid-day siesta, eating dinner before 9 (or, God forbid, the senior citizen early bird special), forgoing tapas or tortilla (Spanish omelette) is horrifying; the idea of being able to go grocery shopping or do other normal errands on a Sunday seems absurd. I don't know how long it will take me to stop saying "hasta luego" at the end of every conversation or "perdona" when I bump into someone in the street. All of these very Spanish things have become an important part of me, Alissa-in-2013.

I think Thanksgiving maintains its power even over slowly-adapting expat lives because of its near universality within the US. American Indians apart, every family has a Thanksgiving ritual (even if, as in some cases, it's a lack of ritual). The holiday follows the powerful narrative of "becoming American"-- anyone can take part, regardless of religion, creed, or race; whether there's quinoa in the stuffing, curry on the turkey, or no turkey at all. Our memories of these days each year-whether they include elaborate cooking or family squabbles or beer and football or long drives or quiet time on the couch-- are something we can use as a marker, to remind us of who we were before we became our expat selves. And that makes Thanksgiving something that we can share back with the people who make our new lives abroad so rich. Thanksgiving means that we can say, if only for one day-- here, you've taught me so much about new music, new traditions, new tastes. Let me show you a little about where I'm from. Let me remind myself.

The glorious pies, against their very Spanish tiled "azulejo" background: maybe the epitome of what Expat Thanksgiving can mean

Evidence of a successful day