Reflections on Thanksgiving Abroad


It’s difficult not to write an elegy for Thanksgiving. Living abroad is a blessing in that you can discover and enjoy new festivals and traditions. Here in Germany, all of the carnival (Fastnacht / Fasnet) come to mind. But that blessing is also a curse. Participating in other people’s holidays means that inevitably you will miss out on your own. It reminds me of a little joke: How come there isn’t a 4th of July in France? Well, there is. It just isn’t special. The 4th of July in France doesn’t come packaged with parades, songs and general holiday spirit. The same is true of Thanksgiving. Even with its murky origins and the ongoing debate about “Black Friday” creeping into Thursday, it’s hard to imagine Thanksgiving without family, food and, well, more family and food.

Yet it is exactly these two things, namely family and food, that make the expat experience different in so many ways. Even with all the modern communication technologies (especially Skype, how did expats ever survive without it?), relatives just feel farther away. I don’t know what separates expats from their relatives. Maybe it’s the time zones, the language, cultural calendar, infrastructure or housing. It takes hard work, planning and persistence to make sure that distance does not turn into separation. I do, however, know what separates expats from “their food,” supermarket shelves! No cheddar cheese here, no brown sugar there, which store was it again that carried pumpkin paste? It just takes one out of stock ingredient to nix a whole swath of favorite holiday recipes. And in this sense, it’s hard not to write an elegy for Thanksgiving. It’s hard not to reflect (and even mourn) for a brief moment on what’s missing and what can’t be had.

It is a strange feeling to be on the outside of the machinery that surrounds a particular holiday. Holidays tend to create occasions for family trips, family meals or gift exchanges (if like me, you are lucky enough to have a birthday around the end of November). When living outside the U.S., you just don’t see Thanksgiving-related commercials, television shows and subtle reminders at the supermarket.

I tend to write a lot about adventure, particularly the adventure of discovering new places and meeting new people. As an expat, it’s difficult to talk about what you’re doing and where you’ve been as anything else other than an adventure. What I miss most about Thanksgiving is the adventure back toward the places and people you know. What will that quirky relative say or do this year? How exactly are we going to get from A to B in time for turkey? Midwesterners, particularly those like us from the Upper Midwest, also associate Thanksgiving with terrible weather: freak snowstorms, windswept highways and one or more trips into the ditch. Sometimes a simple trip to your aunt’s house can be just as adventurous and over-nighting in a youth hostel in Munich.  

Elegies should also give us pause to celebrate positive things, of lives well-lived and things well-done. In this sense, holidays give expats a reason to find each other, to take on the challenge of cooking a traditional meal in untraditional places with replacement ingredients. It might be that the Thanksgiving spirit—of making do with and giving thanks for what you have—is fundamental to the experience of living somewhere else. Now where again could we order that Truthahn?


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