Bucket list item #5 – Celebrate Thanksgiving with actual Americans who can explain the full meaning of this holiday, and yams, to a clueless Brit like myself.
Christmas is coming and Ellie’s getting fat. This is in a large part thanks to my first ever experience of the great American tradition that is the Thanksgiving dinner. Thanksgiving is a holiday that has baffled me for some time now, ever since I first saw movies featuring quaint little children prancing around a stage dressed as turkeys, Indians and pilgrims – what the hell was this holiday all about? Is it like the American version of Christmas? And what on earth is a yam?
All very valid questions for a young Brit to ask, and so I reserved a place for this mysterious holiday on my bucket list and vowed to get to the bottom of it one day. As it turns out, that day was Thursday November 26th 2015.
This year Thanksgiving fell slap bang in the middle of the PADI instructor training course. Put 5 people in a room for long periods of time and subject them to stress, pressure and occasional public humiliation (ah, the IDC, more to follow readers…) and it’ll either make or break their social spirit. Fortunately, the group of would-be instructors that made up our class were fun, supportive and easy-going, and the confines of the classroom only served to strengthen our bonds of friendship. With two Americans in our midst, we made it our mission to inject some festivity into the rigorous training and, although 12 hour days, mock exams and stuffy classrooms aren’t exactly a recipe for holiday cheer, we did our very best. And so, despite the gruelling day of physics and physiology, three Brits, two Southern Americans and a Spaniard did our best to recreate this most quintessential of American holidays in sunny Costa Rica.
It started with the breaking of bread. To me, this is a ritual that has always held very Christian connotations, but in this instance the act symbolises a more general gesture of sharing and goodwill. With one of the best bakeries in town sitting right next to the dive shop, the bread was fresh, warm and sweet, a great way to start the day.
Once we’d finished up our daily training, we trooped back home and the flurry of activity began in earnest. First item on the agenda? The football. And when I say football, I mean the American variety where big men with 80’s style shoulder-pads charge up and down a pitch with what looks like a rugby ball, stopping every minute or so for no apparent reason. Can you tell, I’m not really a ‘sports’ fan. But ‘the big game’ has slowly crept it’s way into Thanksgiving tradition for many Americans and, as our hosts’ team was playing this year, the hyperactive commentary and roaring crowds became the soundtrack to the chopping, peeling and grating in the kitchen.
With the Panthers winning comfortably and the red wine flowing freely, we felt ourselves relax into the evening. As dinner began crisping in the oven, our American friends took the time to call home. With Christmas just around the corner, I am experiencing first hand the sacrifices of long-term travel: while the majority of the time I am revelling in the new experiences and luxury of seeing the world, there are times when it’s hard to be away. Holidays are perhaps the hardest. Fortunately, the wonders of the internet allow us to close the gap just a little bit, and being able to see your friends and family waving back at you from across the online ether soothes the ache of homesickness somewhat. As our friends were finishing up their goodbyes and well-wishes, we felt honoured to be pulled into their conversation. Not only was it touching to be a part of their loving familial banter, but the online tour of their kitchen and the culinary delights that were stacked in rows upon their table gave me a (virtual) taste of what Thanksgiving looks like in the States.
As the smells escaping from the oven began to become more and more enticing, it was soon time to eat. With the food spread out before us, it took an almighty display of discipline not to simply dive in face-first, but first there was a very important tradition to attend to. Hand in hand around the table, we took it in turns to share what we are thankful for. From friends and family to diving and delicious food, this exercise in honesty was an unusual experience; these things can so easily be awkward, and the sarcastic English girl inside me was biting her lip to avoid dropping in an inappropriate joke or two to break the tension. But I quashed her down, embraced the good old ‘murican way, and just went with it. And it turns out that warm and fuzzy is a great way to start a meal.
Finally, after a spontaneous rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, we tucked in. Turkey and stuffing will always epitomise Christmas for me, but the welcome addition of greens, cranberry, mushroom sauce and – yes – yams, made for a full plate and a belly busting at the seams.
I’m still not sure that I’ve been fully convinced on the finer details of the day; the history seems a little shady from where I’m standing, and a lot of the by-products of the holiday – the football, the commercialism, the money-hungry pandemonium that is Black Friday – cast a sterile shadow over the real reasons to celebrate. But the one thing I did take away from this my first experience of Thanksgiving was its namesake – the chance to take time to gather together and give thanks.
Sitting round a table, holding hands with your neighbour and vocalising personal emotions is something of an alien sensation in British culture. Don’t get me wrong, us English-folk say thank you all the time, too often if anything; me and my friends once got told off by a waiter in Portugal who, after the twentieth ‘you’re welcome’, wearily begged us to save up our thank-you’s for one big one at the end. We can’t help it, we’re raised to say our P’s and Q’s and parrot politeness without batting an eyelid. But with such a dedicated commitment to good manners comes the risk of habit. How many times do you thank the waiter for the bill, thank the taxi driver for the ride, thank your family for calling, without actually processing what the words mean? Usually, those thank-you’s are aimed as more of a token of recognition and less of an expression of true gratitude. In fact, despite the throng of thank you’s that leave my lips on a daily basis, it was novel for me to express those things that I am truly thankful for out loud.
So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m about to get all American thankful up in hurrr…
The ability to travel
Every time I step outside the door and am greeted by views that I would never have seen if I stayed in one place, every time I reminisce over the memories of new places, new faces, new experiences enjoyed, every time I take a moment to remember that I am living out my dream, I am grateful.
I am infinitely grateful for the fact that, no matter where in the world I go, no matter which detour I seem to take, there are always wonderful people willing to become a part of my life. I’ve moved to new cities and left years later with friends for life. I’ve started jobs with the sole purpose of making a bit of extra cash and left with a whole new circle of besties. And now, as I travel further and further afield, I’m delighted to discover that friends are still lying in wait, friends of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities. To every single one of the people I am lucky enough to call a friend, thank you. You are each so special to me, unique in the ways you enrich my life and the ways that you define friendship for me, united in the fact that I love you.
Wherever I go, however I get there, I do so with my best friend. My gratitude for my husband, for the good fortune we share, knows no bounds. I don’t need a holiday to be thankful for this the most special of relationships, I am thankful every day.
Phew, that got pretty deep. After such a rare fit of raw emotional honesty, I went to bed that night with a full belly and an even fuller heart, feeling pleased to have ticked this experience off my bucket list. I can’t say whether I’ll ever celebrate the holiday again, whether I’ll be baking up a dish of candied yams this time next year, but I do vow to take the time to meditate on the things that make me thankful every single year from now on.