Home for the Holidays

Home for the holidays. It’s only natural.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years’ – the time of the year when home is where you should be, where you should want to be. Expensive flights, crazy Uncle Chuck who hugs just a little too long and breathes just a little too loud, the never-ending, inescapable family gatherings – these things don’t matter. In the eyes of your parents, who raised you, put up with all your shenanigans, and then watched you move as far away from them as you could possibly get once you turned 18, coming home for the holidays isn’t just an option. It’s mandatory. You will be home, you will sleep on an air mattress and put up with your little cousins drawing on your face with lipstick, and you will love it.

But what about when you’re not home for the holidays? What about when – on one of those few days of the year when you’re obliged to put in some face time with the “fam” – you’re traveling? Suddenly, the idea of trying to shout over the voices of 8 aunts at the Thanksgiving table doesn’t make you want to throw the entire turkey against the wall and run from the room screaming anymore. Suddenly, you…miss your family.

My first time away for the holidays

Italy

Every year, while the airports are teeming with throngs of people trying to get home for the holidays, some are going the opposite direction. More often than not, given the choice, they would rather be home, but opportunity calls and sometimes the chance can’t be missed.  For some, the Thanksgiving holiday provides a reason for travel in itself – free vacation days and crazy flight deals are available, so it’s the perfect time to go on vacation, even if they have to give up the turkey. For others, living abroad longterm or short on cash, the day becomes a sad reminder of what they’re missing at home.

I spent my first Thanksgiving away from home in Italy. I didn’t expect to miss it much – sure, the food is great, but I’m in Italy, for God’s sake. I can just go down the street and get a sandwich, and it will probably be even more amazing than that steaming plate of turkey and mashed potatoes you waited all year for. But as the day drew near, I found a sad, slow feeling growing in the bottom of my stomach.

Homesickness.

It came on fast, in bursts. When I heard my mother’s voice crackling over the long-distance line; when the picture of my nieces taped up over my desk caught my eye; when the rosy-cheeked, laughing Italian families made their way down the street with their groceries, children arguing and smacking each other with bags, mothers and fathers sauntering behind, holding hands, nodding hello to neighbors.

My roommates felt it, too. Suddenly, the ever-present babies in carriages, dogs running off their leashes, and grandmothers waving laundry and yelling out the window took on a new rosy quality. I got the feeling that these Italians would never leave home on the holidays. They seemed to understand how things should be: enveloped in a warm room with family, smells of food cooking, surrounded by all the things that were so important to them. Home. The fact that Italians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving somehow made things lonelier. Thanksgiving had become just another day on the calendar – no celebration, no one to understand how we felt.

Celebrating Thanksgiving Italian style

We decided to band together and create our own Thanksgiving dinner, like so many others who find themselves overseas during the holidays. The fact that turkey appeared not to exist in the grocery store did not deter us. That was out anyway – besides the fact that I do not actually know how to cook a turkey, I was fairly sure that cooking anything in our circa-1910 stove for longer than an hour would cause a massive gas explosion and kill everyone within a mile radius. We decided on chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, pasta (what the hell, it’s Italy), and at the last minute picked up a strange-looking cake we found at the store that looked like a porcupine and had googly eyes on it. We invited friends, who each also decided to bring a dish (obviously, most of these were pasta.)

And then we cooked. We laughed, we talked, we gossiped, and we drank wine. We fought with the medieval stove, whose burners had to be lit with matches and which mysteriously seemed to be either off or completely engulfed in flame, causing pots to overflow left and right.

I talked to girls who called all sorts of different places home – California, South Carolina, Colorado, Vermont – and who had all different feelings on the subject of Thanksgiving. As we traded stories of uncles who didn’t shower nearly enough and aunts who fought over the best recipes for mashed potatoes, it became evident that we all missed somebody special. But then, the stove would overflow, a glass would tip over, or the pasta would need salting, and we would quickly forget.

When we finally sat down to eat our ragtag meal, the food tasted better than any dinner I could remember. We had taken the mismatched ingredients, and we had made something new out of it. We had made a community, made a dinner, made a family.

When I find myself far from home, I think of this dinner and how we came together to create it. If you are far from home, the holiday doesn’t have to become just another day on the calendar. If you are part of a community, band together and make your own traditions. If you are alone, take a walk, drink in the community around you, and remember why you are there.

Just because you are missing the people you normally spend holidays with, or ingredients, or even functional kitchen appliances, doesn’t mean you need to miss out on what the holidays are all about. You are far from home, you are alive, and life is new and exciting. You have never had more to be thankful for. And maybe next year, when you are sitting between your brother and your grandmother as they argue over who the president was in 1972, you’ll remember being far from home, and you’ll smile.

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Photo credits: Friar’s Balsam

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Older comments on Home for the Holidays

Brandy Sullivan
15 November 2010

Great article! I was going to school in hawaii during my first Thanksgiving away from home. I did a turkey trot, laid out at the beach and cozied up with friends for a turkey dinner. It was good but I still remember missing home-just like you said.