The Rambling American: Holiday Comfort Zone

Craving one of America’s great tradition (a.k.a. gorging on turkey), Locke McKenzie copes with celebrating Thanksgiving on a continent where it doesn’t exist.

On Monday morning I made my class sing a Christmas song to celebrate the opening of the Hamburg Christmas markets. I can hardly believe it, but somehow I have stumbled upon yet another European holiday season.

For the next month, people will wander around overcrowded Christmas markets buying cheap German kitsch, employers can expect their workers to show up with glazed eyes and headaches from the mulled wine, and adults will steal the marzipan balls out of children’s advent calendars. Even as I write, my heart glows with warmth. I am ready. In the last few years I’ve grown to enjoy the European holiday experience.

Unfortunately one major event is missing.

For as long as I can remember, Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday. As an eating enthusiast and stingy bastard, I have always found solace in the heavy portions and strong drinks this holiday provided, and I cherished the fact that these things existed outside of a gift-giving framework.

My move to Vienna in 2005 was to the first time I had ever spent a major U.S. holiday in a land where it didn’t exist. My worries sat as heavily in my stomach as the meal that I wouldn’t be able to eat.

I somehow envisioned myself homesick, crying into a telephone as I sat alone in my apartment with a burnt leg of turkey. I needed turkey. I needed things to be like they always were. These are my traditions.

Before moving to Austria, I had more or less celebrated Thanksgiving the exact same way for over twenty years. I had a very specific understanding of how the holidays should go, and I was not that interested in seeing that change. There was only way to celebrate Thanksgiving: the American Way.

No one wants to change things when they’re comfortable. We can also acknowledge that this mentality stretches well beyond mere holiday celebrations. Fortunately, upon speaking to my students, I found that cultural insularity is not just an American trait. When asked where they would most like to live if they could live anywhere in the world, most of my students answered, “I would stay here in Hamburg.” When I began teaching, I was surprised to learn how many of my students have absolutely no interest in leaving their hometown, let alone for a holiday.

“I grew up here. My family is here. Why would I leave?”

Even when I explain to them that they could go anywhere—Italy, Spain, the Alps—they remain stubbornly convinced that there is no place they would ever rather be.

“My family is here. My friends are here. I grew up here. Why would I move?”

I was happy to hear this from a European. Considering how often Americans are accused of being insular and unknowledgeable about the rest of the world, it was somewhat reassuring to discover that this closed-mindedness exists outside our national borders as well.

We are creatures of habit. We find things that work and then we stick with them. In the words of Garth Algar, “We fear change.” Despite this small poultice for my ever-bruised American ego, the reality of this response paints a depressing picture of the world. This classroom exercise was hypothetical; we were sitting in an office on the 11th floor looking out into the rain, and I wasn’t handing out plane tickets. And still, Hamburg was the only place my students were willing to be.

Could there really be so many people so stuck in their ways that they would not even fantasize about doing something different? Is change really that frightening?

I admit that my reservations about spending Thanksgiving alone in Vienna speak to this fear, but what my European Thanksgiving experiences have shown me since is that, even if something is already good, change can be just as good. It can be interesting. It can be an adventurous. Very often I have found that the change is not at earth shattering as one fears.

Last Thanksgiving, I met up with two friends in Budapest, Hungary. None of us had been living in Europe for more than a couple of months, and therefore the mixture of culture shock and homesickness had made it all the more important for us to have a traditional celebration. In many ways, we succeeded. In other ways, we spent much of the day jumping hurdles. We still cooked with the warm smells of baking bird wafting through the kitchen, but only after we bought our turkey on the Hungarian black market (not a joke). We spent the whole day drinking coffee and wine, although I had to take an hour-long break to meticulously de-bone the bacon for the stuffing. Regardless of our failure to find cranberry sauce in the shape of the can, our table was still set with candles burning.

I guess my point here is that this Thanksgiving also felt very much like home. It was a home-grown American holiday, with a displaced, Hungarian twist.

There are plenty of reasons to be fearful of things changing. We are creatures of habit, but I don’t think that justifies trying something new. This year, I’m spending my Thanksgiving in Poland, and I have to admit that, once again, I am a bit nervous. There will be over ten people sitting around my table, most of whom have never celebrated this holiday, and some of whom cannot speak English. I have no idea what to expect. To be honest, I do have some latent anxiety that it will not be traditional enough. I imagine a table full of turkey-filled perogi and cabbage.

Sure I can have these reservations, but they’re not going to keep me from doing it. Although I am writing this article before Thanksgiving, but I feel pretty confident my Friday morning belly will be just as full, if not fuller, than yours.

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Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.