HOW TO KEEP TRADITIONS ALIVE WHEN LIVING ABROAD
We had been in Italy for two months. It was our first Thanksgiving away from home. We were all homesick. Everything is difficult to accomplish when you don’t speak the language. Even the simplest of tasks is difficult. We were all emotionally exhausted.
In addition to adjusting to a new home, country and language, our 13 year old son was taking classes in English, French and Italian while trying to simultaneously learn French and Italian. We were all pretty beaten down. I was determined to celebrate Thanksgiving and have a day from home in Italy.
ROUND 1 | PREPARATIONS
Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorites holidays. I like that it is a day of reflection. There is no emphasis on gifts, just food, family and friends. One of Aleksander’s new friends asked him what Thanksgiving was. After Aleks explained it to him he said, “That sounds great. Can I come?” A friend for dinner – thank you Jesus, yes! Maybe we would see a glimpse of our former son. That would be something to be grateful for. Aleks’ friend inspired me. I invited some new friends to join us – two American families and one family that is a mix of English and American. I envisioned a day conducted entirely in English for our tired minds and spirits – yay!
So, how to pull it off? Turkey is not as popular here. I wondered where I would find a whole turkey. I figured the rest of the meal would be easy as the ingredients are all common items, but a whole turkey was going to be a problem. At school one day an Italian mom happened to tell me about a poultry farm that her family had used for decades. I got our neighbor to call and order me a whole turkey. “7 kilos? Are you sure? That is quite large.” “Yes, I am sure.” A 7 kilo/15 pound turkey is not big by American standards, but it is huge by Italian standards. We measured the inside of the “Easy Bake” sized oven. We prayed it would fit.
Since Thanksgiving is not a holiday here, we decided to celebrate it on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. That Friday, Joe went to pick up the turkey on his way home from work. He called ahead and got directions. He input the information into the GPS. He drove around for an hour in fog twice as think as San Francisco fog searching for the farm. He couldn’t find it. He called for directions again. He couldn’t find it. After the third phone call, the poultry farmer told Joe to stay put. He would come and get him and take him to the farm. Joe arrived at the farm and asked for our turkey. “Your wife already picked it up.” “That is impossible. I have the car.” “An American woman came and picked it up this afternoon.” Gee, do ya’ think that maybe you could have told Joe that it had been picked up one of the three times he called you? You know, before he drove around for an hour in fog thicker than pea soup looking for you?
What had happened is another American woman had decided that she wanted to have Thanksgiving too. She had asked me where I was going to get my turkey. I gave her the number to the turkey farm and explained that she needed to call and order her turkey well in advance. She needed to order the turkey because the farm didn’t normally keep turkeys but could get them if ordered. I ordered mine two weeks in advance. I don’t know where the mix up happened along the way, but, the other American woman got our turkey. There was no second turkey at the farm for us. Our first Thanksgiving in Italy, three families coming over and no turkey.
ROUND 2 | FRANKENTURKEY
We had Friday afternoon and Saturday morning to try to figure it out as stores are closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday, Lena had an Italian friend over that Friday afternoon. I dragged that poor girl to every store I could think of asking if they had any turkey. The butcher across the street had a few pieces. Joe got a few pieces from the farm and thus, Frankenturkey, was built.
Next, we had a house to clean and a feast to prep. Lo and behold, I woke up Saturday morning sick. Like in bed with a fever kind of sick.
Oh, and all those ingredients that I thought would be so easy to find. Not so much. Cranberries were no where to be found in the normal supermarkets. I asked in the fruit and vegetable stores. No. I asked in the frozen foods store (yes, there is an entire store devoted to frozen foods). No. On my quest I stopped in a Russian store hoping to find some things for our Polish Christmas celebration. Low and behold, sitting there in the freezer section there was a pack of what looked like whole cranberries. I took a risk and bought them figuring I’d look up what they were when I got home. At home the package title translated as mooseberries – also known as the high bush cranberry! Hallelujah!
Cranberries, check. Now pumpkin pie. I went to all the same stores asking for pumpkin (zucca). The Parma region serves quite a bit of pumpkin filled pasta in the fall so this should have been an easy task to find pumpkin. Yeah, again, not so much. I went to the supermarket armed with my very limited Italian and Google Translate. I found a commessa and tried to explain what I needed for una grande tradizionale festa americana. “Oh, si, la festa di ringraziamento! mi piace molta la festa di ringraziamento.” Great, she has heard of Thanksgiving and she really liked it! Certainly she would help me. I told her that I need pumpkin for a pie. “Per una dolce?? Per una torta?” She looked very confused and a bit disgusted. Yes I told her it is a very important part of the meal. “Per torta? hum?” She told me that the pumpkins were last month. They were all gone. OK. I asked if they had pumpkin in a can? At this point her look tells me that she is not only disgusted, but angry at the thought of pumpkin in a can. “No!” She turned and walked away.
The other families had offered to bring dishes. I decided to punt the pumpkin pie to someone else who had been living in Italy longer.
ROUND 3 | SOMETHING TO BE THANKFUL FOR
Sunday arrived. I was still sick, but Joe rose to the occasion. He slaved away in the kitchen all morning. The house wasn’t as clean as I would have liked, but it is a small space and when filled with people, it was passable.
Our friends Jan and Steve brought some excellent Italian wines. Julie and Don brought the pumpkin pies and Lisa and John brought the green bean casserole. I am pretty sure everyone had a good time. I know my family did.
At the end of the day, after all the running around, me getting sick, and, presenting Frankenturkey instead of a whole bird, it was worth it. We had a fun day filled with the company of new friends and a traditional Thanksgiving feast. The thing I was most grateful for that day though, was this – the kids were smiling again.