Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanksgiving with strangers

We were preparing to host our own small Thanksgiving gathering this year. A couple of Kate's vet school residents had suggested we cook them some turkey for the holiday, and we were happy to oblige.

But then one of our neighbors, Rachel, a fifth-year vet student (she and her friend, Justine, are the only non-family members we've ever had babysit Jackson) invited us to her two Thanksgiving parties. Rachel's a Canadian, but with an American father she tends to celebrate the American holiday instead of the earlier Canadian holiday. Last year, she rented a house just for Thanksgiving and had quite a crowd and party. So when Rachel said she was renting a large tent for her backyard with space heaters and lights and decorations, we had high hopes for a good gathering. She was also inviting Kate's vet school residents, as well as some of the other faculty members, so we were off the hook for our own hosting duties.

The parties, on Thursday and Friday, turned out . . . okay.

They were pleasant enough. It was nice to celebrate the holiday with a bigger group than just me, Kate, and Jackson at home. If we had been on our own we might not have cooked an entire turkey but instead just done portions, and may not have made a whole lot of sides. With these parties, we enjoyed full turkeys and a multitude of sides. In other words, we had too much food -- as is only appropriate on Thanksgiving.

Kate carving the turkey on Thursday.
It also felt like a nice cultural outreach to share the Thanksgiving celebrations with a group that was primarily not Americans. The smaller Thursday gathering was a group of a few Canadians, one other American besides us, and several Scots. The larger Friday gathering was several Canadians, a few other Americans, one or two English girls, and 10-12 Scots. Most of the Scots I talked to (at the party and otherwise) had heard of Thanksgiving but had no clear idea of what it was about. I was able to field a few questions about holiday traditions from some curious folks. We had pleasant conversations and a few hours of sociability.

But these were not family gatherings. We knew only Rachel and Justine, and we're not yet close enough to them to be true friends. We had met a few of the other guests. Kate knew one of the faculty members who attended on Friday. Other than that, the folks were strangers. Friendly strangers, but it's not quite the same atmosphere as a typical Thanksgiving.

Instead, these were student dinners, with turkey and potluck sides. No family traditions. No football on the television. No board games to be played, no planning for Black Friday shopping (thankfully), no prayers or toasts, no family stories to be told. No daylong cooking in the kitchen.

Our gathering on Thursday was the better of the two. It was a group of eleven, eating at a long table in the tent in Rachel's backyard. We had a reasonably convivial time. Jackson was well amused by Rachel and Justine, who keep him entertained and, somehow, always supply him with lipstick to put on.

Why is Jackson sitting on Justine's lap, putting on lipstick, and looking into a mirror during Thanksgiving dinner? I don't know.
But the tent, while a nice idea in theory, wasn't great in execution. The bumpy ground was covered with plastic tarps, making it more treacherous than otherwise. The seating was correspondingly wobbly. The ceiling was low. The light was dim. The air was brisk; some folks wore coats. The skinny table was crowded.

Overnight, strong winds blew the tent over and bent/broke some of the poles. So, at the last minute, Rachel shifted the Friday gathering to a student room at the vet school. While that allowed the gathering to happen, it might've been better not to have had the party. The large room -- too large for our group of 20ish -- was grungy and in some disrepair. We ate while seated at multiple long desks that weren't designed to have people seated on opposite sides. A few random strangers wandered in and out. Old and partially broken foosball and ping pong tables dominated the middle of the room. It was, truthfully, kind of pathetic. I felt bad for Rachel, who had put forth a lot of effort, only to have both events not really work out right. Overall, I felt a little pity for the gathering, which isn't quite the emotion I'm aiming for during Thanksgiving. I couldn't even bring myself to take a picture because I thought it would be, rightfully, understood as taking a picture to share in a "can you believe this?" manner. I doubt any of the non-North Americans left with a better understanding of the holiday or any desire to participate again.

Kate, being the sweet one, would probably paint a gentler or sunnier picture of these gatherings. But they aren't the kind of Thanksgivings that I want Jackson to remember. Which, since he's a toddler, isn't a worry right now.

This is simply one of the (minor) challenges of being an expat in a country that doesn't recognize your holidays or traditions. Without a day off for all of us, much less two days off, it's tough to get motivated for the endeavor. We have no family around for a holiday that is geared toward family gatherings. There's no nursery or school or playgroup making crafts or teaching the rudiments of the day. The Macy's parade isn't on television in the morning, the Lions and Cowboys aren't playing in the afternoon, and neither Charlie Brown nor the Muppets nor any other kid programming is showing at night. If we didn't feel obligated for Jackson, I'm not sure we would have much noticed Thanksgiving passing us by.

As Jackson gets older, I'd like for him to keep connected to U.S. culture, particularly if/when we return from living abroad. Next year I'll likely shoulder the Thanksgiving responsibility and make a bigger deal of it than we did this year, if only to practice for future holidays. I count this as a lesson learned, improvements to be made in the future.

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