This year I'm breaking with tradition. I'm making a special effort to be more thankful for all that I do NOT have. In celebration of all that I want but do not have, and all that many people want or need but do not have, I've decided to do things in a very opposite way: with nothing, just emptiness. No huge meal, no decorations, no long list of guests.
Today I'm going to be quiet. I'm going to look around me and pay quiet attention to all that is lacking in our world and I'm going to quietly set my mind on making a difference. I'm going to enjoy not having and not wanting. Then I'm going to give thanks for that.
It's Thanksgiving again and once more I'm in a country that doesn't celebrate this holiday. This time it's Norway. Although I'm here for work I've already made plans to carry on the yearly tradition of sharing thanksgiving with people who don't know much about it. This afternoon I'll be explaining a bit about Thanksgiving to a group of Norwegians, Bolivians, Ecuadorians and Nicaraguans - all here in a conference in Norway - and we'll be carrying on the tradition of writing down and sharing what we are thankful for.
Thanksgiving is a U.S. holiday so Bolivians don't celebrate it, but I do! Celebrating a non-traditional holiday here can take some creativity and extra effort in the kitchen. When dinner is over and I've had the chance to see that my guests actually did enjoy my haphazard attempt at a Thanksgiving meal, I feel a sense of relief and satisfaction. Sort of reminds me of the little pig in the movie "Babe". When he does a good job the farmer pats him on the head and says "That'll do Pig, that'll do".
I actually got to share my Thanksgiving with three very special gringos I met them through BoliviaBella! It made my Thanksgiving more authentic to hear a little English on this date ;-) Rewind to the day before when I got a call from a high school classmate I hadn’t seen in 7 or 8 years – of course he was instantly invited! At about 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day I got a message from a local media source who wanted to film Thanksgiving for a new TV show about foreigners in Bolivia. Had we known about it sooner we’d have been happy to oblige. He actually suggested we recreate our entire Thanksgiving feast again the next day! But spending another full day cooking and baking in 95-degree weather just seemed too exhausting to me. Maybe next year.
Throughout the day, which was not a holiday here, hours of cooking and baking (90 degrees outside and air conditioners on full blast) were mixed in with a normal day's work (no day off here) and constant phone calls – it was pretty wild!
Cultural differences were apparent right away: the Americans all arrived right on time (7:00 pm) and the Bolivians all arrived politely late (7:30-8:30 pm) To see why this absolutely didn’t bother anyone at all, read my page on dining etiquette in Bolivia here.
Our original group of 7 eventually swelled to 16, so kids ate first while I recounted the reason we celebrate by sharing the history of Thanksgiving - in Spanish. Meanwhile, in the background grown-up conversation centered on residency and visa issues in various degrees of English, Spanish, and Spanglish - good thing there was an official translator in the house. I did my best with all the typical dishes using local ingredients: candied yams (not canned, pink marshmallows, yams aren’t really orange), pumpkin pie (made from squash, tastes identical), maple cheesecake (made with my one and only under 3-ounce bottle of maple essence “imported” by my dad during a visit in July), and the one and only can of cranberry sauce I was able to find in Santa Cruz. Turkey was out this year and ham was in (baked with fresh tropical pineapple and real brown sugar made from sugarcane (not beets). Cornbread was accompanied by fresh guayaba (guava) jam. It was an interesting mix of traditional and local sort of like my interesting mix of guests.
Over dessert we dimmed the lights, lit up a bunch of candles, (maxed out the air conditioners - forgive me Mother Nature) and took part in a tradition I’ve been carrying on in Bolivia: each guest anonymously writes down what they’re thankful for on pieces of paper and puts them in a basket. We then pass the basket around and everyone reads aloud what someone else has written. We thanked, we laughed, it was all good! I made it a point this year to encourage my guests to give thanks at all times – both for what we have and for what we HAVE NOT!
Because of this, our responses got very interesting and ranged from I’m thankful for my mom, son, daughters, etc. to I’m thankful for my ex-husband’s second wife (wow, that’s admirable!) to I’m thankful God invented me (invented? LOL) to I’m thankful for the Magnificas (Bolivia’s famous fashion models) to I’m thankful for vegetables (this from a kid!) We had a blast finding reasons to be thankful and came up with many others as the basket made its rounds. I’m thankful to all my guests who came to my home and all my faraway friends, family and website visitors who wrote in.
This, my friends, is why keeping up with traditions, creating your own traditions, and learning to enjoy the local culture and traditions are really important when you’re living overseas. Holidays can be sad when you’re in a foreign country and you miss your family. Many expatriates go through what has been coined as “relocation depression”.
As a special thanks to all of you I asked Culture Transition Specialist Heather Markel to write in and she instantly obliged. She normally writes for my expat website www.gosouthexpat.com but here’s the message she sent in exclusively for the BoliviaBella community. There is a fairly large American community here in Bolivia and most families celebrate in a big way even though we have to make some strange compromises. Take her words and apply them to any holiday you're not at home:
"Hi, Heather Markel here. With Thanksgiving, and the holiday season upon us, I know many expats will be far from home. I know very well what it's like to be faraway during a time of year you're used to being with friends and family. It can be even harder if you're in a place that doesn't even celebrate the same holiday - such as Thanksgiving, which is uniquely American. This is a time that could lead to bouts of depression if you focus on not being home.
However, you also have the choice to see this as a time of discovery, and welcoming in new traditions. One of my favorite Christmases was spent in Normandie, France, with wonderful friends in their home. Instead of the traditional meat or potatoes I'm accustomed to, we ate fresh oysters, and stayed up to the wee hours drinking and celebrating. I got to know my hosts even better and share tons of laughter. Read my article for some additional tips on how to avoid holiday depression!"
Her article: It's important for expatriates to continue their family traditions!
Thanksgiving is catching on in Bolivia too. A few days ago a friend appeared at my house to tell me her entire company (about 70 employees, all Bolivians) had decided they have a lot to be thankful for and are planning to celebrate Thanksgiving as Americans do. She wanted the history, recipes, and all the details to be sure they do it right, although they plan to adapt it to their own reasons for giving thanks! This is so inspiring! So no matter what country you're from, no matter what your history is, there's always something to be thankful for. Take a moment, set aside some planned time, and make a list of things you can give thanks for. It's truly uplifting!