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


Trevor Huxham said...

Props to you for taking the usual “this is what I ate…these are my friends” expat Thanksgiving post and making it into something much more thoughtful and reflective. Loved reading this!

Toni said...

God, I am really hungry now!

Hannah said...

I loved this Alissa. Great memories! And you've put words to what I've never been able to explain... why this holiday is just so darn special, and even more so abroad. I'm thankful for you and your thoughtful words and beautiful mind. Besos!