In search of the 'Great American Thanksgiving Feast' abroad

In search of the 'Great American Thanksgiving Feast' abroad

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American expat Eric Asp does some soul-searching and asks why Thanksgiving is, for him, one of the hardest days of the year to be living in Europe.

When I was a kid growing up in the American midwest, I didn't really care much for Thanksgiving. It was boring:  fancy table settings, visiting relatives, waiting an eternity while Mom stressed in the kitchen. And all for what? A bunch of food, and not even food I would actually order myself in a restaurant. Oh, I liked the pumpkin pie and the mashed potatoes. But honestly, to me turkey was always just an 'ok' meat (better than Spam or tuna – but nowhere near as good as, say, hamburger or pepperoni). And I was disgusted by traditional dishes like turkey stuffing and cranberry sauce. 

No, no, no. The grown-ups could get all happy and misty-eyed about Thanksgiving, loosening their belts and leaning back in their chairs while drinking post-feast cups of coffee – but not me. As far as I was concerned, Thanksgiving drew the short straw in the holiday lottery for seasonal privileges: no presents, no firecrackers, no songs – just cold, grey weather with lame cornucopias and puritan action figures for decorations. Poor Thanksgiving.

Why, then, is Thanksgiving now one of the hardest days of the year to be living in Europe? Why is Thanksgiving suddenly the holiday from my homeland I miss the most? Why is it that ever since my move abroad – to the Netherlands in fact – I've been relentlessly trying to recapture the wonder of the 'Great American Thanksgiving Feast'?

A couple of times, my wife and I invited European friends to share the celebration with us – perhaps trying to channel the original Thanksgiving spirit between the Indians and Pilgrims, or probably more like that year when my brother brought his college Wrigleyville resident-assistant and his über-polite Korean classmate. But inevitably, our non-American guests could not muster the excitement and reverence for our American holiday that we typically bring to the table (excuse the pun). They showed up late for the dinner, cracked jokes about the silliness of some of our traditions, and scorned our videotaped American football games.

It's not to say that these Thanksgivings were complete disasters. Our European guests did their best to enjoy the occasion – taking pictures of the roasted turkey, engaging in interesting conversation and expressing their own forms of celebrations. But it just wasn't the same.

Thanksgiving dinner abroad

On other occasions, we tried to create an impenetrable aura of Americana in our home – shutting the locals out of our lives like Hans Brinker plugging holes in the dike. We cooked only with American ingredients (no substituting!), invited only American guests, used the marvels of modern technology to watch live coverage of the Macy's Parade and the Lions' game (albeit at the wrong time of day). My parents even came over one year, which should have totally completed the illusion. But pretence can never overcome reality – it just wasn't the same.

In the end, for me nothing can take the place of an American Thanksgiving in the American midwest, surrounded by all my relatives. If I've had a hard time re-creating the 'Great American Thanksgiving Feast' abroad, it's only because it's impossible to re-create it abroad!

I once shared this observation with my brother, over the telephone. He was willing to wax sentimental with me to a certain extent, but he also stopped me short: "It doesn't really matter, you know. Even if you had stayed in Ohio all these years – always buying the same groceries, always keeping the same traditions, always inviting the same relatives to join you for the big meal – it still wouldn't be the same, you know. You can't go back, man. That's the way life works."

Of course, he was right. The boring becomes the idealised becomes the obsolete; because such is the nature of memories, of the holidays, of the human condition. Unless we want to turn every holiday into a sort of Memorial Day – mourning, grieving, and pining for the past – we must consciously stop and consider the beauty of the way things are today, or how we can create new traditions in our new environments abroad. We must be mindful of the myriad ways we are blessed and privileged by the unique opportunity to enjoy our families, homes, jobs, and friends for what they are: right here, right now.

And if this is done successfully – regardless of what is on the table, or who is sitting around the table – well, the result is Thanksgiving.

Eric Asp / Expatica

Eric Asp is an American videographer/writer/pastor who lived in Amsterdam for 10 years, together with his wife and three children. His casual and critical observations on life, love, and faith can be found on his website.

Originally published 2007; updated by Expatica 2015. / Photo credit: Satya Murthy (Thanksgiving table).


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2 Comments To This Article

  • c posted:

    on 14th November 2008, 22:01:12 - Reply

    Since the whole thanksgiving story begins with British religious puritans that first fled to Holland and then to America giving thanks to their native hosts, I think that you can say that Thanksgiving is an intrinsically expat holiday. The only Americans that are not expats are the native Americans and I assume you are not refering to them.
  • Lindy posted:

    on 30th October 2008, 23:20:43 - Reply

    I feel absolutely no different about Thanksgiving now that I am living abroad.
    I am not American. Hard for Expatica to understand that not all expats are American I know.