Thanksgiving overseas

It’s that time of year again, and without the change of seasons to herald the holiday, Thanksgiving just kind of sneaks up on you in sunny Cairo. During my two autumns abroad, I have found that I am especially homesick around Thanksgiving, a holiday that, despite its commercialism, has come to symbolize family and gratitude and all things heartwarming. It’s a simple event, really, and becomes quite predictable over the years.

If you live in the United States, you will frequent your local pubs on the night before Thanksgiving. Even the shoddiest of dive bars is impossible to enter, with lines of local alums winding down the streets. You’ll spend the night drinking with friends and feigning excitement upon seeing old high school chums who have all dutifully returned home for the holiday. (At this point, it is helpful to remember that you have done the same.)

On Thanksgiving morning, you will wake up to the smell of onions and turnips. Dad will have painstakingly dissembled the turkey and basted it, readying the bird for its ten-hour stint in the oven. You will assist with the stuffing before heading off to your old high school to watch the annual homecoming football game. Your team will lose, as it has for the past eleven years. Usually there will be a streaker at half time.

At home, the table is prepared with all the works: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, cranberry sauce, gravy, biscuits, corn, string beans. It’s a feast that could feed a few small, malnourished families for the better portion of two weeks, but on Thanksgiving, it is your nuclear family of four that is grateful for it. (And your mother doesn’t eat carbs. Is it me, or does the turkey taste a bit like guilt?) You eat until you literally can’t swallow anything anymore, do the dishes, and then sit down to some pie. Pumpkin, apple, cherry, or pecan. Or all of them. You can have as much as you like, because Mom still doesn’t eat carbs and Dad is asleep in front of the television at this point.

It is this simple routine that has become a tradition at home, and being detached from it here in Egypt just renders it all the more poignant and miss-able. But celebrating a distinctly American holiday in Egypt can be both touching and mildly humorous. For starters, most people (Americans included) don’t know where the holiday comes from. For Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to eat, watch the Macy’s parade, and indulge in Starbucks seasonal lattes. The day after Thanksgiving is a time to shop and turn your radios up, because it’s now acceptable to listen to Christmas music (and your local radio station has made the switch to 24-hour holiday tunes for the rest of the month). For non-Americans, Thanksgiving has something to do with turkey.

This year, Thanksgiving coincided with Egypt’s president announcing that he was pretty much a dictator and anyone who opposed his decisions could kindly just shut up. An ironic little lens through which to view a holiday that commemorates one of the first successful years of Americans sticking it out in a rough new world in an attempt to be liberated from restrictions on their freedom. Hmm.

My 8th graders asked me last week what Thanksgiving was about. One girl volunteered to explain.

“It has something to do with pilgrims and Columbus, right?”

During the morning lines on Thanksgiving – we had to work, of course -, the school’s director asked students to come up and tell the others what Thanksgiving was about. One of my 6th graders was called to the front and he delightfully exclaimed, “It’s when the Americans gave the Indians food!” Everyone applauded.

What I do love about Thanksgiving abroad is that everyone seems keen to celebrate it. This year, Chantelle and Loraine invited me to a quaint Thanksgiving at theirs. With limited time, I was able to cook up some creamed corn that tasted very similar to the corn my grandparents used to make for us back when we were little. When I arrived with the corn, Chantelle took it from me questioningly.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“Corn,” I told her.

“Just corn?”

“Yeah…”

“Like a casserole?”

“No, just corn.”

“Oh. Is this American? How do you serve it?”

I should have stuck to the sweet potatoes. Instead, I told her to put the corn on the table and people could help themselves. In the living room, my friend Matt and his girlfriend Claire were asking what Thanksgiving was actually about, so I told them briefly about the first Thanksgiving and how the tradition of being thankful had evolved over the years.

“So are there any holidays honoring any Native Americans?” Matt asked when I was done.

“No,” I replied after some thought.

“Are there any Native Americans that are celebrated in your country?”

“Well…there’s Tecumseh, and Chief Joseph, and…Squanto.”

“How do you celebrate them?”

“We don’t, really. They’re just mentioned in the history books.”

I wasn’t exactly sure that the message of Thanksgiving was translating, but the food aspect certainly did. In lieu of turkey, Chantelle had served roasted chickens, and everyone had brought something along. Simon brought fried fish, and there was amazing stuffing, yams, mashed potatoes, mushrooms, and gravy. Rachel, a very resourceful American, had purchased cranberry sauce back in August and saved it for the occasion.

Being a lovely host, Chantelle kept our glasses full and entertained us with a playlist of songs that included “Gangnam Style,” which came on as we began to eat.

“Well this is great music. What do you listen to on Thanksgiving?” Matt asked. “Are there any Thanksgiving songs?”

We told him there weren’t, and instead were treated to a rather vulgar Christmas song by The Pogues at Simon’s request. Mid-meal, someone asked if there was a tradition that most people did in the States at Thanksgiving, and Chete and I told them about going around the table and mentioning something you’re thankful for. Of course, most people dread this little tradition, myself included, and I would’ve been happy enough not to partake.

But as it turned out, in a sentimental little twist, it was the one major moment of the evening where I truly felt like I was at home. Some people were sweet and grateful for the opportunity to travel, for the invitation, for the nice dinner. Others were thankful for the long weekend, the chicken, the leftovers. I have loads to be thankful for, including the company, my health and the health of my family, and the joys of celebrating Thanksgiving with British, Scottish, and Irish guests. But Simon mentioned something about the hurricane, and so I went with gratitude that my family and our house were okay.

The rest of the dinner continued in true holiday fashion: a lively gal from Coventry educated us all on male psychology before launching into a mini-diatribe about sexual harassment in Egypt, which upset both Claire and myself; Simon removed himself from the conversation after trying to convince everyone that all boys are gay until age fourteen; Chantelle, Rachel, and Matt discussed American dialects; and all of us engaged in a long chat that lasted no less than forty minutes about the differences between words in each of the different variations of English we each speak. (Did you know that a fanny pack and a bum bag are the same things? And that fanny in proper English has a very different meaning than fanny in American English?)

The night ended with Chantelle escorting her somewhat drunk Coventry friend out the door while Simon staved off sleep on the couch and Kanye West rapped about inferior women ordering fish filets from McDonalds. In all, I couldn’t imagine a more pleasant Thanksgiving.

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