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Thanksgiving has a way of sneaking up on you abroad. It’s incredible to me that something so hotly anticipated at home – what with the cooking, the stressful travel, the football matchups, the family gatherings, the Black Friday shopping sprees – just doesn’t exist outside the U.S. From the time Americans start school Wednesday afternoon is a half-day, followed by Thursday and Friday totally off, as if it were our birthright.

On our first Thanksgiving outside the U.S. two years ago we actually found ourselves in Singapore, and dined on chilli crab. More on that in my next post, but suffice it to say last year was a lot more “traditional”: we had dinner with a group of Americans at a friend’s apartment in Sydney. He roasted a turkey and we all brought a dish to contribute (mine, as ever, was cranberry sauce, though I had a hell of a time – and ultimately failed – sourcing fresh cranberries in Australia). Of course it was a great opportunity to eat familiar foods, get together with friends, and think about all that we have to be thankful for, but it’s not quite the same having a potluck dinner on a balmy Saturday afternoon (November is late spring in the Southern Hemisphere, after all) because everyone had to work on Thursday and Friday.

This year the hubs and I are essentially forgoing Thanksgiving once again (we’re heading to Thailand for some much-needed R&R), though when I booked these dates months ago I didn’t realize they’d coincide with Thanksgiving. In honor of the holiday, and to reflect upon how much my life has changed in the last five years, I wanted to share an essay I wrote during my first year of j-school in the fall of 2006. It was my first Thanksgiving both away from my family and the East Coast; to me at that time celebrating Thanksgiving in Los Angeles was as alien as, well, a Thanksgiving dinner of chili crab or summer-like weather with football on in the middle of the night. I couldn’t have imagined that a few years later I’d be living on the other side of the world, where Thanksgiving would barely be acknowledged, let alone celebrated. In a way, though, I think that was the first time I realized that time and place don’t matter nearly as much as who you’re with and how you’re feeling.

I spent the holiday that year in LA with my college roommate, Katie, who’s now in New York. Her roommate at the time, Jaclyn, is now married and living in Dubai (where she writes a fascinating blog about life in the Middle East). Certainly none of us could have predicted where we’d be five years down the road; I suppose that’s what makes life so interesting and exciting.

So to all my fellow Americans out there (and anyone else feeling thankful), I wish you a wonderful holiday no matter how you choose to spend it. I’m thankful for my wonderful family and friends, and I’m certainly thankful to be on this crazy adventure.

November 28, 2006

This Thanksgiving was just the second that I spent away from home and without my parents. I grew up about half an hour away from Plymouth, the original scene of the crime, as it were, and always sort of felt like Thanksgiving was our holiday (ours in the sense of New Englanders, not my family specifically). Nobody did it better than us.  I smiled to myself every time I drove past a cranberry bog, or when a turkey wandered across my driveway, or when the cold, gray November wind chilled me to my core just as it had the Pilgrims.

This year I was not only without my parents, but I spent the holiday in a place as opposite from Massachusetts as can be: Los Angeles. Though my feelings about Thanksgiving itself have evolved over the years, my New England roots are such a major part of my identity that I worried I would feel lost and homesick celebrating the holiday in such a bizarrely alien locale.

And so, being the cynical Northeastern elitist that I am, I was convinced that this year would at best be Thanksigiving-lite: a low-cal, Hollywoodized cardboard cutout version of the authentic full-fat, nosh-on-mashed potatoes-and-pie-to-insulate-yourself-for-the-winter New England holiday that Thanksgiving was meant to be. Fortunately, I was wrong. Except for the valets.

L.A., to a New Englander, embodies all that is artificial, materialistic, and shallow. Our perception comes mainly from television shows and movies, though a plethora of real-life celebrity hi-jinx serve to reinforce these stereotypes. People in L.A. drive fancy cars that often get caught in heavy traffic or car-jacked, they don’t eat carbs but devour soy lattes, they have both their personal trainers and plastic surgeons on speed dial, and they’re absolute babies when the temperature drops below 65 degrees.

Having now lived in California for a few months, I can’t say that I’ve changed my mind much about its weirdness. Moreover, on this trip I would be staying with my college roommate Katie. She happens to work at the Roosevelt Hotel, a Hollywood hotspot that most recently played host to Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan dancing on a bar without their undies. I’d be going to the belly of the beast. Perhaps you understand why my expectations for a wholesome, authentic holiday were low.

I arrived at LAX on Tuesday night. I left the airport at around 7:45, yet didn’t get to Katie’s apartment – located just eleven miles away, in the tony Brentwood neighborhood – until close to 9:00 because the traffic was so bad on the highway. Who has traffic at 8:30 at night? Already, L.A. was living up to its ridiculous reputation.

The next morning, while Katie was at work, I walked up the street to find some breakfast. As I approached Whole Foods (and yes, there seemed to be one of those BoBo emporiums on every other corner), I noticed a steady stream of SUV’s, convertibles, and hybrids entering and exiting the parking lot. I also spied a valet stand – outside the supermarket! – and was reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies, Clueless, in which the main character, a spoiled Beverly Hills teenager, refuses to learn parallel parking. “What’s the point?” she asks, “Everywhere you go has valet.” I guess that wasn’t an exaggeration.

And yet my cynicism dwindled once I entered the store. Whereas a supermarket at home the day before Thanksgiving usually resembles the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, with people running, pushing, and perspiring, the Angelenos here were relaxed and happy. True, I’ve noticed that Californians generally take their time, whereas we East Coasters walk quickly with our heads down and rarely look up to greet our neighbors, but I thought the pre-Thanksgiving panic might have changed things.

Yet there I was in the checkout line, holding a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau, when the man behind me, middle-aged, tan, and wearing gym clothes, out of nowhere struck up a conversation about my wine and how years ago he attended special dinners in Berkeley to celebrate its arrival.

At home if the person behind you in line deigns to not only make eye contact, but comment on your purchases, you politely smile and then turn away. But in L.A., I allowed myself to get swept up in the wave of friendliness, and actually had a five minute conversation with the man. I exited the store just as I’d entered it – perplexed and shaking my head – yet for an entirely different reason. Was it possible that people in L.A., land of fake tans and plastic surgery, were more capable of genuine conversation than New Englanders?

Thanksgiving Day itself was fairly uneventful, though I was less sad and homesick than I’d expected to be. I caught the Macy’s Day Parade for the first time in years (at home I’d been sleeping through it since high school) because it was on tape delay. I also got to watch football, though it was very odd that it came on at 9:30 in the morning, rather than during the time when my family would normally be sitting down to dinner, dressed up (even though it was just the three of us) and using the good china.

Katie spent the day cooking the food, and I did my best to stay out of her way (the reason I bought the wine: I’m a useless cook). We ate at her sister’s apartment in another L.A. neighborhood, and were joined by a co-worker of Katie’s and two of her sister’s friends. It felt a little odd to not eat with my family, but was somewhat comforting eating among peers who were also away from home. Not to mention, Katie’s a fabulous cook, so it was one of the most satisfying meals that I’d eaten in a long time, even if it wasn’t on the good china. Under normal circumstances Katie’s a vegan and 98% of what she consumes is green, but on this day she made a special effort to cook a traditional meal that included everyone’s favorite dish (mine is whole cranberry sauce, natch).

Katie’s sister said grace, and almost made us go around the table to say what we were thankful for, then changed her mind. I was sure that no matter what I said it would have sounded cheesy, yet in my mind, I realized that I do have much to be thankful for. A year ago I was stuck in a miserable job, depressed and living at home. Now here I was, sitting at a table with one of my best friends, on my own kind of California adventure. I’m the happiest I’ve been since college, maybe more so, even though I’m alone in a new and unfamiliar place.

The next couple days featured more California strangeness (like the fake snow at the outdoor shopping mall), and more pleasantness as well. At home, I think of “Black Friday” as a day for pushing through crowds at the mall while sweating in heavy overcoats. There’s really not much else to do, since the weather’s so crappy. Here, I spent the morning hiking in Runyon Canyon above Hollywood (not that I could see the view below, what with all the smog), then strolled along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills (which was also crowded, albeit mainly with tourists, and featured Christmas music piped through special speakers along the sidewalk. The lack of sweaty overcoats was nice, though).

Saturday afternoon we met another college friend for lunch in Santa Monica. As I sat on the patio under a trellis covered in flowers, the 75-degree breeze gently sweeping over me while I sipped a margarita and enjoyed tasty Mexican food, I couldn’t help but think, Wow, this is pretty nice. I could never do something like that home; the sleet and cold temperatures would be mighty foul, after all.

The lovely lunch in Santa Monica pretty much brought everything into focus for me. I realized that there are many different ways to do Thanksgiving, and one is not necessarily better than another. Family and football and fires in the antique wood-burning stove are great, but so are friends, and being outdoors, and makeshift meals. L.A. is a strange place for certain, but it also has its merits. I knew that this Thanksgiving would represent a break from tradition, and I’m glad I ventured to the least traditional place I could find, because I learned that it’s ok to take risks and try new things.

All I retained from years past was my sense of Thanksgiving and its purpose – being with friends and family, taking a moment to catch our breaths before the onslaught of the more commercial winter holidays, counting our blessings – and it turns out, that was all I needed.