Friday, November 23, 2012

A Thanksgving Cornucopia of Cultures

The nature, meaning and importance of Thanksgiving have begun to change for me over the years. It began as a few days off from school where I got to pretend I was Pocahontas or Sacajawea (two of my childhood aspirations for when I grew up), eat lots of food and be doted on by my grandparents. As I got older, I began to understand the reality of the “pilgrims and Indians” and tried to erase that aspect of the holiday from my mind, focusing on the food and my new-found ability to drive to my cousin’s house and have two dinners.

It has further evolved now that I have spent three consecutive Thanksgivings abroad. Here are my reflections on my Thanksgivings and Christmases since, including this latest Thanksgiving, and how meanings have changed for me. I have to say, the best part of the story and my inspiration for writing is in the last paragraph or so, so definitely read that if you're short on time or perhaps attention span (as I often am). 

I spent my first Thanksgiving away from home in Rabat, Morocco in 2010, celebrating with the four other students in my program plus one student’s Moroccan girlfriend at a Syrian restaurant, freezing but delighting in my first courtship of hummus and falafel and the company of my friends. I still have a video of all of us sharing in a circle what we're thankful for, despite all of us wishing we were home. It was exceptionally hard at the time, as I was experiencing a new form of loneliness that came from my first time fully immersing myself in a totally different culture for an extended period of time. But I had the hope and excitement of knowing I would be home for Christmas to see all my friends and family, soak up pumpkin spice lattes, jingle bells, lights and the intoxicating smell of pine. I learned a lot from that immersion experience, and the strength I gleaned from it was worth every moment of discomfort—but my plane ticket home in December, that thought, that assurance is what got me through the next few weeks ending the semester. I remember sitting in the Paris airport for a layover, and watching the screen lighting up with delays and cancellations, hoping, praying that I would make my flight before the impending blizzard imprisoned me in Charles de Gaulle for who knows how long. I was on the last flight to JFK before they stopped the planes. The fact that they had lost my luggage paled in comparison to my extreme joy that I had made it home. My mom and cousin Jesse had driven and waited hours to be able to meet me and take me directly home, and I couldn't have been more overjoyed to see them. My mom had packed a hot thermos full of chocolate and French vanilla flavored coffee, with creamer and sugar all ready to go. I treasured every sip of the luscious joe, a taste I had been deprived of for an entire three months! I remember the culture shock of walking into Target for the first time after being away from such a concentrated amount of consumerism for what seemed at that time in my life to be such a long time.

 I remember going to church that Sunday (I believe a day or two after I got back) and looking around anxiously for my best friend, my Abby. Her family had come a few moments late, after the songs had begun, but we spotted each other and made eye contact. Moments later the pastor announced the time to greet one another and we both immediately speed walked down the aisles to the back of the room and then collided into one of those laugh-cry hugs you see in the movies, my one ever . I felt like Lassie or Shadow from Homeward Bound in that moment, and I cannot imagine feeling a stronger level of joy than I felt in that embrace. I never appreciated my family, friends or the few days of Christmas season I had left before Christmas so intensely before, and my memories from that winter vacation will have a home in my mind forever.

Last Thanksgiving marked my second Thanksgiving away from home. I started thinking about “pilgrims and Indians” again, but only in relation to settlers and Palestinians—the nuanced similarities of the situation of my new home—the first home away from home I had ever truly had. My friends and coworkers gathered together potluck style, with a big Turkey and all the fixings, quite like the spread I would have had at home, with oddly shaped pots and pans and missing the nice china and silverware my mom always broke out. And it was a lovely evening, shared with friends. There was still a small ache of wishing I could be home to see friends and family, but I was also with friends and family in a way, so the ache transformed more into a fondness of memories for the past and appreciation for the incredible relationships I had developed in my new home. I look back and smile at the sisterhood I formed with my flatmates Lindsey and Amy in Palestine, and am so happy I got to spend such an important holiday with them.

The only pang that never left was knowing I wouldn't be home for Christmas thattime. Unlike the year before, I knew I would be spending my Christmas in my new home as well. I tried not to think about how hard that would be—to miss Christmas at home for the first time in my life—as my flatmates, or sisters rather, and I got a small evergreen tree for our flat and decorated it with bulbs and tinsel we had acquired from the arts and crafts store downtown. We sang Christmas carols and prepared for the challenges of being away from home on that day by making plans to spend Christmas Eve in Bethlehem and Christmas day in Ramallah. We had a wonderful time, walking through Bethlehem, bundled up from the chill. We crashed an Indian/ Korean Christmas Eve service in Shepherd’s field and then drove back to a friend’s house in Ramallah in the rain to watch It’s a Wonderful Life (at Lindsey and my insistence) and eat chocolate chip cookies, freshly baked from a package. Everyone went to bed before it finished, except for Lindsey and I who were struggling to stay awake to finish our shared tradition. The next morning we exchanged stockings which Lindsey had made, filled with candies and little gifts, followed by an entire day preparing for a huge Christmas dinner potluck with a mix of religions, faiths and nationalities from all over the world. It was a touching moment of connecting our past experiences with family to our present family there in Palestine and sharing it with many who had never experienced it before. Despite the excitement and revelry of a new form of celebration, I missed my family, friends from home and quiet little house on Loch Hill Road with our eclectically decorated Christmas tree towering over an impressive home-made train garden. I missed Central’s tradition Christmas Eve service, Maryland crab soup for dinner and going to bed knowing my Dad had prepared some elaborate way of presenting my brother's and my gifts (despite the fact that I was now an adult). However, I also reflected on the previous few months and knew I was in the right place, growing up and experiencing the challenges of adulthood which required letting go of certain aspects of my youth so heavily tied to my heart. And it was good.

This past Thanksgiving marked another treasured moment of sharing  traditions with people from other countries. I realized that Thanksgiving for me really has become meeting with friends, sharing food, and outwardly expressing what we’re all thankful for. This year one of my fellow legal adviser interns invited everyone in the office, including our interpreters over for a very traditional dinner with a big Turkey, candied yams, mashed potatoes, homemade sourdough bread, green beans, pumpkin pie and much more. We had people from the States, Canada, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Germany, France and Holland--a cornucopia of cultures. It was a wonderful night of sharing our holiday with everyone and experiencing the true reasons for being thankful. Before eating, we stood in a circle and went around saying what we were thankful for. Most were thankful for being there, for each other, for family and friends, etc. The quote of the night, however, came from the Darfuri interpreter who said he was thankful for all those working for peace in the world, so that we may all have peace someday. Thank you, brother, for that beautiful reminder of our calling to always pursue peace. May we never give up our pursuit of the idealist’s impossible dream, the beauty queen’s pledge, the small child’s prayer, the seemingly unattainable—for despite knowing the futility of our quest we know also the unrivaled worth of what we pursue, and that not persevering in our pursuance is accepting defeat which is and always will be unacceptable.

 “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."  Oscar Wilde. How true this statement is.