Expat Thanksgiving. And Pie.

November 27th, 2010

This afternoon we had fifteen people in the house: nine adults and six children with a total of 22 passports, four mother tongues, and seven working languages between us. The kids alone account for twelve passports and four languages – five if you make a distinction between Swiss and German. None of the kids have entered the first grade, when standard German is introduced with the beginning of reading and writing, so they have very little German compared to a German kid but they might know more than their full Swiss kindergarten friends who do not hear their Ausländerin mamas speaking high German out in the world.

I love these expat Thanksgivings, filling the house with people who miss the turkey, the sweet potatoes, the cranberry sauce, the gathering of family and friends together for a celebration of gratitude. It is the holiday when I feel most foreign, most far away, for it is the quintessential American holiday and it is the one I miss the most living abroad. It might be the holiday all Americans living abroad miss the most. It’s the day we know our families back in the States are all getting together, without us. It’s a day full of family traditions that carry over generations more, it seems to me, than on other holidays so even though I wasn’t there I know my brother used our mother’s china and made his pecan pie. Unless they went to his in-laws – then he still brought the pie but they used his mother-in-law’s cut-glass goblets, one of the few things she still has from her childhood in East Prussia. I know these things. I remember that china, I have drunk from those goblets.

Traditions, carrying on without me.

* * *

You have to make your own traditions, living abroad. You have to get your own china, your own goblets. You have to hold on to the holidays that are dear to you and make the effort to celebrate them. You have to roast turkey on Saturday.

* * *

Slicing apples for the pie, for my mother’s apple pie that makes the house smell like childhood and without which no Thanksgiving is complete, I realize I am singing to myself in Mundart (dialect), singing a Swiss pop song that I often hear on the radio and which makes me happy. If that doesn’t sum up this expat life, I don’t know what does.

* * *

When I lived in DC I had a friend who always opened up his apartment to the “strays” on Thanksgiving. Those of us who couldn’t afford to fly home, who worked retail and didn’t get the time off, who were estranged from our families, whose parents had died. His apartment was no bigger than the rest of ours, but his heart was, and we gathered there for pot-luck Thanksgivings and his good Cuban coffee. It was always warm, and welcoming, and I spent a few Thanksgivings there after my mother died, in my rootless years: no parents, no spouse, no children. No past, no future, a twig that had fallen off the family tree. I always brought pie.

* * *

The first year I hosted Thanksgiving in Switzerland, I decided on Wednesday night to do it. We held it on actual Thanksgiving Day – I don’t remember how R and California Husband got the time off on such short notice, but this is Switzerland and they did. We were five, and there was chicken instead of turkey because I had decided at 8pm the night before to invite people over. There was my mother’s pie; one was enough.

Today there were fifteen people in the house, and two pies, and a chocolate cake from the bakery and no left-overs. And much gratitude.

* * *

Australian Friend likes to say, “Bloom where you’re planted.” It’s good advice for anybody, but I think it applies double to expats. Even after ten years, I will have a day when I can’t find what I am looking for in the gardening supply store and I will go home empty-handed rather than ask, in German, where it might be located. And my German is good. Quite good. I read novels in German. But some days I don’t want to deal with it, some days I don’t want to live my life in a foreign language no matter how well I might speak that language. Some days, I don’t want to be the foreign lady. I just want it all to be easy.

But we are here. We are making lives here and so we have to – if we want to be happy, if we want to live genuine lives, lives with opportunities approximating those we might have in the countries of our birth – bloom where we are planted. Live here, live our lives here, embrace our lives here. We integrate and learn the language and go to the local festivals. But we also hold on to who we are and to the things that made us. We sing happy birthday to our kids in English, or Dutch, or Italian. We put out the flag on Australia Day. We wear orange when Netherlands reaches the final of the football world championships. We host Thanksgiving. We make pie.

* * *

We ended up sitting in clusters, the girlfriends all together at one end and the men – who are all Swiss and who are thrown together in these crazy Thanksgiving dinners because their wives are girlfriends – at the other. This led to a language division with the women (who are not all American but are all native English speakers) speaking English and the men speaking Swiss (even though one of them is Swiss-Italian and might have preferred English).

* * *

We moved the kitchen table into the living room, pulled in the table from the balcony. Dusted the snow off it. We set up two tables for the kids. We ate turkey with stuffing – made by Australian Friend and may I say, you’d  think she’d grown up eating Thanksgiving stuffing her whole life – and mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes and scalloped potatoes and green beans and salad and cranberry sauce. We went back for seconds. We drank sparkling wine, and white wine, and red wine and finished off with apple pie and pumpkin pie and chocolate cake and coffee and port and grappa. The kids stayed up way past bedtime, and ate too much dessert, and got over-excited. I snuck some extra apple pie. Outside, the snow fell all evening.

Thanksgiving, in other words. Even in Switzerland, Thanksgiving. Grateful for the lives we have made here, the friends we have found, the new country we have come to love even as we miss our old ones. Stuffed with food and drink and fellowship. Fifteen people, twenty-two passports, seven languages. One turkey. Pie. Thanksgiving.

* * *

The secret to a good pie crust is this: the water you add to your flour mixture should be iced. And you have to add it gradually. A tablespoon at a time. Add, mix, check. Add again. Mix. Patience. The real secret is patience.

9 Responses to “Expat Thanksgiving. And Pie.”

  1. Trish on November 28, 2010 2:39 am

    This is really beautiful, thank you for telling this story. As a wanna-be expat I am planning for our life overseas, far from here, and am thinking about what we can take from here to remind us about home. I used to get excited about all the different things that we would get to experience in another country, but you and other expat bloggers have reminded me that it is so important to hang onto some things that are familiar.

  2. Claudia on November 28, 2010 8:07 am

    Nailed it, totally. If I hadn’t had my own Thanksgiving celebration yesterday (and we did!), I would be beyond sadness reading this. Even so, I am a bit sad. And that, despite the fact that I would have celebrated in a very hodgepodge manner if I still lived in the U.S. I haven’t had a set Thanksgiving group since I was a kid.

    The bit about not wanting to live in this foreign language, no matter how fluent you are, is so true. It was powerful to read that. I’m coming on 8 years, and some days I’m still of a ‘them and me’ mind set.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

  3. kristen spina on November 29, 2010 12:07 am

    Happy Thanksgiving, my friend. I’m so glad you had a lovely day. Beautiful post!

  4. Betsy on November 29, 2010 12:41 pm

    This was beautiful! You managed to capture that expat feeling perfectly! 🙂

  5. Julia@kolo on November 29, 2010 2:15 pm

    Beautiful post, and I agree, it is the holiday I miss most from the States (though I don’t, in any way, miss Thanksgiving travel :-). I’m so glad you had a super day, it sounds really lovely!

  6. Jennifer on December 1, 2010 2:10 pm

    @ Trish – the expat thing is definitely a pro/con thing depending on the situation or day. I think people who go into it knowing there will be homesickness, massive language blocks, and days of What Have I Done are better prepared than the All A Grand Adventure types, but I’m a hope for the best but prepare for the worst sort of person.

    @ Claudia – glad you were able to have your celebration!

    @ Kristen thanks

    @ Betsy – always good to hear from other expats that I’m not the only one with all these crazy mixed emotions

    @ Julia – I used to travel in and out of Chicago O’Hare to get home for Thanksgiving. I definitely don’t miss that!

  7. Bethany on December 14, 2010 5:43 pm

    I’m sorry I’m a bit late to this, but you summarized an expat Thanksgiving so perfectly. So, so perfectly.

  8. jkdavies on December 16, 2010 6:24 am

    I love the line “Some days, I don’t want to be the foreign lady. I just want it all to be easy.” Those are the days when I speak only to my ex-pat cat 😉

  9. sherry o'keefe on December 16, 2010 11:36 pm

    i like the dots that connect each of these moments together. yes, “somedays i don’t want to be the foreign lady”. well done.

    and regarding pastry: patience, yes. and also, something you’ve demonstrated in your writing: the lightest touch. no forcing.

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