Today is Thanksgiving, our third since moving to Europe but the first which I will work. Without family or friends, football games or turkey; today is just the fourth Thursday in November – a Hungarian workday like any other. Burning vacation so Pat and I can roast a chicken and eat sachertorte seems silly.
My local friends try, and generally fail, to grasp the essence of Thanksgiving. Most of them demonstrate a text book understanding of the holiday, “It’s big, right? A celebration of the corn harvest?” I describe the history of Thanksgiving and our family traditions: pilgrims and Indians sharing a first bountiful harvest; character balloons as large as buildings floating down Fifth Avenue tethered to a team of strong armed handlers; and, of course, the feast which invariably ends with me lying on the floor, my pants unbuttoned, while promising, swearing, I will never eat again. Sports fans gather in front of the television while the competitive shoppers rifle through a stack of sales fliers advertising “Black Friday” specials. During my Thanksgiving lecture, I digress to define “door buster sales”. Smiles become quizzical. I begin to confuse myself.
The more I talk, the more the holiday sounds like a smorgasbord of American stereotypes: stainless steel appliance filled kitchens adequate to roast a flock of turkeys; polished cherry tables set with bone china and fine crystal in our super sized houses; a penchant for pant busting gluttony all topped with our love of American football and compulsive need to shop. As I listen to myself, I start to believe Thanksgiving is nothing more than a 22 pound turkey stuffed with an assortment of deadly sins. How can I possible articulate this holiday, foster empathy of what it means to me, what it means to most Americans?
Hungary is a country where the majority live within a few hours of their birthplace. Can I expect a Hungarian to understand the childhood joy of playing with far flung cousins who return home just once a year? Or the pleasure of eating all our traditional Thanksgiving foods served only on this one day: my great-grandmother’s mincemeat pie and my grandmother’s oyster stuffing and creamed onions? And the pride I feel for my ancestors who settled in New Jersey before the Revolutionary War – staking their future on a new land with little apparent promise and no obvious future. Rich and poor table tops across the United States are decorated simply with brown paper turkeys adorned with multi-colored, finger shaped tail feathers – the proud creation of elementary school children everywhere. I have eaten Thanksgiving dinner from the fanciest of tableware, and I have eaten it perched on a stair riser as my husband’s too large family crammed into his parent’s too small home to celebrate this day together. How do I convey the core of a holiday which, to me, is the antithesis of the American stereotype?
I go to work and largely forget Thanksgiving. The city will operate as if this is just another day, because here, it is. Trams and buses and trains will run to their normal schedule. People will rush to work in the morning and later in the day rush home. No where will I find a mountain of frozen butterball turkeys or a pile of pumpkin pies – on this day or any other. Hungarians did their flocking home on November first, Remembrance Day. During that time they visited the graves of their departed family. We strolled the cemeteries with them – one of my new favorite holidays – a holiday which feels like Thanksgiving to me.
This is expat life, the ability to accept new traditions and holidays and relinquish the old – at least for the moment. Thanksgiving will come again, and when it does, I will embrace it. But for now, it must suffice to wish all our American family and friends the happiest of Thanksgivings . It is a holiday which, for me, needs no explanation.