A Thanksgiving Abroad

Thanksgiving week and the American expat

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

It’s the fourth year that there’ll be an empty place setting at my spot of the dining room table. The fourth year I’ll go through a normal day of work and try to ignore the stories and posts calling out to me from my phone. It’s the one day I force myself to avoid logging on until long after my daily responsibilities have passed. I watch, like a sniper in a distant window, as family and friends in the US decorate for Christmas, spend time with their people, and enjoy their well-deserved time off.

Meanwhile, I’m dragging myself through another dark, cold, routine week in Madrid.

Back home, my extended family is together and playing cards. They’re telling exaggerated stories. They’re tearing open early Christmas presents. They’re gossiping and laughing and eating spiced pumpkin rolls. I comment on their photos and write love-you messages. It’s been four years abroad, and my cousins still take months to respond.

At first those unanswered how-are-yous and I-miss-yous sat in my inbox like a forgotten houseplant, the leaves browning at the edges and silently begging for attention. It’s hard work to water a long distance relationship day after day. It felt as if I had been abandoned by the people who I loved the most, even though it was technically me who did the abandoning. I don’t take the silence and the long periods of unanswered inquiries personally anymore. We’re all busy. We have our own families to take care of now. My self-chosen absence was more difficult to endure during the first year abroad.

These days, I keep a part of myself in a shoebox under the bed.

The part that has FOMO. The part that aches to be closer to my family and friends. The part that has missed out on bachelorette parties and weddings and the births of beautiful babies. I’ll wince when I see the family Christmas card this year and I’m not in it, grinning from within the middle of the group. There’ll be a nod to my existence in the corner — a photo of me posing in front of some foreign landmark and a line that reads: Amy Jo is still living in and traveling around Europe.

On Thursday I’ll eat dinner at an Indian restaurant with some American friends. A tradition we’ve upheld for the past four years. I’ll Facetime my parents and hold back loud tears, so as not to upset them on a holiday they spend wishing we could all be together. This weekend I’ll make honey-glazed brussel sprouts with bacon and a Basque-style pumpkin pie. I’ll carry it on the metro for a “Friendsgiving” feast, where a group of expats and our partners from around the world will come together. To celebrate tradition. To find a sense of normalcy. To connect and give thanks to all we have in spite of the fact that we are so far away from the places in which we came from. From the people who we love, the people who still don’t understand why we choose to live in a place where we will always be outsiders.

Despite the small, tight hole in my chest during this holiday week, it’s one of my favorite times of the year to teach. It’s a week when I can share my culture with students. We talk about what it means to be a pilgrim. What it actually meant to be a Native American. Why it’s important to give thanks for even the smallest things in our lives. They ask questions about how long it takes for a turkey to cook in the oven. They cringe and shout out when I explain the traditional dish of mashed sweet potatoes with burnt marshmallows on top.

I show them Kid President’s video, “25 Reasons To Be Thankful.” It’s innocent and sweet and a reminder to stop and appreciate paw pads, dancing, and pants. Plus, they go batshit when the beat drops at the end. Even after four years, it still never gets old.

We imitate his video and make our own lists of all that we’re thankful for. Last year our reports consisted of things such as: Shared Netflix accounts; Burritos; Dogs; Play Station; Pizza; Toys

But this year… our lists are much different.

The word health sits proudly at the top of the page, its meaning more weighted than ever before. We’re thankful for our well-being. We’re thankful for school. We’re thankful for technology, which has allowed us to interact with our peers and our families and our therapists when there was no other way. We’re thankful for our safety. For our community.

Spanish student. Age 8.

I’m thankful that my grandma’s retirement center in Seattle was one of the first to lockdown back in April. I’m thankful for my Kindle library account. That I didn’t have to attend a Zoom funeral for a loved one. That I didn’t lose my job, though it was uncertain and dangling just out of my reach for months. To have had a cozy home with a windowsill during those four months of living in limbo.

I’m thankful that I’m one of the lucky ones… I fell in love during the lockdown.

This year, I’m thankful for my partner, who is more than I ever could have written for myself. I’m thankful to have received human touch during a period when we weren’t permitted to go outside, let alone hug a friend on a secret grocery store rendezvous. I’m thankful to have been able to bake bread and play card games and read for hours on end. I am thankful that I am alive. That I am awake again. I’m thankful for long walks and tall trees in the city.

It’s easy to wallow in the alienation of being far away from home on a beloved holiday. I can allow that tight hole in my chest to grow and swallow me whole. There is a lot to mourn this year. There is a lot of healing and repairing and rebuilding to be done. I’m anxious about what will come next. I’m worried about what’s hiding around the corner…

But, I am alive.

I am healthy.

I know that I am not alone.

And I am truly thankful for that.

Ran away to Spain and disguised it as following my dreams. https://amyjnelson90.wixsite.com/jolene

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