To give thanks….
It’s very easy for expats to feel lonely, especially over the holidays. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until it happens to you. I remember thinking, how hard can it possibly be to be an immigrant on the day to day? How different can Czech and Ukranian grocery stores be? Do we really need both of them in the same neighborhood? Sure, there’s the paperwork and the language, and the everyday isolation. But it’s the big, important things that make you feel better, right? Surely it’s not important to have all the snacks and brands you had while growing up, surely you can adapt to a slightly different way of doing things, and just accept that things will be different.
Then decided to make pumpkin pie.
First I had to buy a pie pan. I think I spent 20 minutes staring disparingly at the baking section of Clas Ohlson, bewildered and feeling very foreign. I could not find a simple, regular pie pan. There were tart pans galore, casserole glassware in adorable grey and white polka dots with handles (I bought one), baking dishes in clear and white, oval and round and square, ramekins that matched the casserole dishes (I am the new proud owner of a pair), springform pans for cheesecakes, and silicone cake pans, and even muffin tins, which was a little weird because muffins are not as popular in Europe, despite their undeniable deliciousness. But no pie pans. Knowing Finnish stores are often organized oddly to my sense of how things should be laid out, I wandered around the store for a while before resolving myself to making pumpkin pie in a tart pan. It was such a small thing, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to find a pie pan. Of course, I should have know that pies are a bit different in the land of karjalanpiirakka.
Thanksgiving of course must include the classic Ohioan green bean casserole, so I ventured to Behnford’s, an American and British expat shop, looking for French’s Fried Onions. I hadn’t been there before and was a bit skeptical. I think my default is to try too hard to distance myself from all things American, but lately I’ve been embracing my foreignness. I think it’s okay to be proud of where I came from. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything that happens there, but it gives me a history and a homeland, and I think it’s okay to want that.
I stepped into the shop, shivering from the cold, just in time to hear “and have a cup of cheer… have a holly jolly Christmas” belted out over a tinny PA in the warm nostalgic tenor of the one and only Burl Ives. I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry, so I squeaked out a couple of strange throaty noises, looked around briefly for the onions, and left. It was a weird feeling, a lot of weird feelings, in fact, all at once, that sort of reminded me how foreign I am here. I tend to feel that acutely around the holidays–the combination of not being with my family, and being surrounded by something that is very different from how I grew up. It’s easy to start feeling lonely and out of place.
Thanksgiving is a very important holiday for Americans. I think part of it is that it’s not as commercialized as Christmas or Valentine’s Day or Easter (although Black Friday, which I am wholeheartedly against, serves as a striking contrast), and it’s not a religious holiday. It’s not explicitly patriotic like the Fourth of July, but it has an element of history to it. There’s a lot of political and historical tension associated with the story of the first Thanksgiving, and I’m not sure how much of it is even remotely true.
The story I was told as a child was that the Pilgrims were struggling. Winter was coming, they couldn’t figure out how to farm this new land that was different from what they had back in England, and they weren’t having much luck hunting game. The Native Americans saw their plight and stepped in to help, teaching the Pilgrims how to plant maize, squashes and pumpkins, and beans–the “Three Sisters” of vegetables that grow well with each other and provide a lot of sustenance. They taught the Pilgrims to hunt deer and game birds, and that knowledge helped them prepare for the winter. To show their gratitude the Pilgrims invited the Native Americans to a big feast, featuring the game and vegetables that the Native Americans had shown them how to grow and hunt. This is why on Thanksgiving, we gather together with people we care about, make a feast of turkey and green beans, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, corn pudding, mashed potatoes. These are the foods that saved our ancestors, and by feasting, we remember a time when our ancestors nearly did not survive. We give thanks for the blessings that we have, remember the people we have lost over the past year, and wish each other another year full of plenty.
On an intellectual level, I know this story is not true. The real story is full of exploitation, violent clashes of culture, and xenophobia, and is probably nothing to be proud of. But the child in me likes the legend. True or not, it’s a good story, and it’s a good reason to be thankful.
As the days get shorter and colder, sunrises getting later and lazier each morning and the sunsets creeping ever closer to high noon, I’ve been thinking. I think there are two ways to go about dealing with the loneliness. The first is to simulate the holidays as perfectly as possible, try to insulate myself in a bubble of nostalgia and americanness. To some extent it helps, until you have to go back out into the cold. The problem I see with this is the mindset. I think it sets you up to fail, as even in such a wonderful country as Finland, with all its civilized charms and graces and access to imports from all over the world… I still could not find 90% of the products I would usually use to make a Thanksgiving dinner. Canned green beans, Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, French’s Fried Onions, Libby’s Pumpkin with the traditional pie recipe on the back, Nestle evaporated milk, chicken stock, even a plain, regular, classic old pie pan. I think planning every last detail and expecting it all to go off without a hitch is asking for a National Lampoon level disaster.
But I do think it’s healthy to be nostalgic. So I try to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends I care about, bringing as much authenticity and tradition to the table, but keeping in mind that new traditions can always be made, and that often the new traditions become new stories, which in time become old stories. That’s how to make a life.
This Thanksgiving I made a point of baking a pumpkin pie for my colleagues which was vegan as well, and I explained that the spirit of Thanksgiving is one of sharing and inclusion, so it’s important to me this year to give thanks to my colleagues who have been so welcoming to me over the 6 months that I have been here. I spent the week preparing, and on Saturday got to help host a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings, with some friends I’ve met here, and made some new friends. It seems like a simple thing to have dinner with people, but sometimes, spending time with people can mean everything in the face of what can otherwise be a very sad, lonely time of year.
It seems too simple to miss, but I think we need to remind ourselves that the point is not the stuff that makes up the holiday environment. It’s the people. And the feeling. I think we can’t take anything or anyone for granted, and we shouldn’t be afraid to make new traditions. Some of them will last, and some of them will be just a funny memory, but you always remember the people who make you feel at home. And that’s true whether your cup of cheer holds eggnog or glögi.