Rewriting Tradition for the First (Expat) Thanksgiving

It is difficult to maintain old routines when you’ve just moved to a new country, and even more challenging to follow the many traditions behind holidays and celebrations back home. Since we moved to Zurich in autumn, we had to face Halloween and American Thanksgiving almost immediately. While Halloween decorations were slowly making inroads into Swiss stores, the only signs of Thanksgiving were “Black Friday” sales (apparently, many people are happy to participate without knowing the reason for a “Black Friday”). After sprinting to Coop on Halloween to buy candy when our jack-o-lantern attracted unexpected trick-or-treaters, I was determined to ensure that Thanksgiving both respected American traditions and managed to succeed without too many issues.

Hosting a Thanksgiving back in California was relatively easy. We could speak English on the phone while we reserved our organic, free-range, multilingual-PhD turkey weeks in advance. We had the day off, giving us time to arrange the store-bought mashed yams in a serving dish before family arrived. Stores were open on the holiday itself, and for 24 hours the day before, which now seemed like an impossible luxury.

Hosting Thanksgiving in Zurich really distilled many of the lessons we learned as expats. Maintaining traditions was a way for us to preserve a sliver of our old lives and connect with friends and family back home, even if most of the celebrations took place on computer screens. It also required what I later came to see as the essential recipe for successful life abroad – namely, determination, a willingness to adjust expectations and the ability to improvise.

Determination and the ability to ignore naysayers were critical to our first expat Thanksgiving and to many aspects of our lives abroad. There were a few people eager to tell me that it would be difficult to find a turkey or fit one in the oven to roast, just as I heard other pieces of expat “advice” that sounded more like doomsday prophecies. Our life in Switzerland would certainly present a few challenges on a food-centric holiday like Thanksgiving, but the hunt for the proper ingredients also provided more of an introduction to Zurich and plenty of new German food words.

Due to haphazard unpacking, cooking was a never-ending scavenger hunt – for example, we could easily use the hammer at any time since it was now located in the silverware drawer, but the potato masher had vanished. The American russet potatoes we would normally use had also disappeared from stores, although they were happy to provide many, many varieties of raclette potatoes. A journey to locate pie ingredients ended with a tragic attempt to mime the concept of “condensed milk” to a confused store employee. This willingness to improvise and throw ourselves into new situations would later be useful when we also had to mime “flu shot,” “pizza to go” and “stolen nameplate.”

Fortunately, there were forums and websites with information about the best stores and tips for locating or substituting ingredients. If we were prepared to pay a 500% markup for fried onions, there were expat-centric online stores that would happily sell us overpriced foods we used to take for granted.

We also learned that there was one advantage to recreating traditions abroad: we could re-evaluate what was most important to us and let go of the things we didn’t like. A bit of distance helped to provide more perspective on the holidays themselves and the aspects that truly mattered. Along those lines, I was especially thankful for a Thanksgiving free from futile attempts to remove jellied cranberry sauce from the can while ensuring it retained a perfect cylindrical shape for slicing.

Although we were far from home, there were still aspects of our Thanksgiving that reflected American history. A store in France was able to ship us the brands of stuffing and pumpkin pie filling we needed, upholding a grand tradition of Franco-American alliance dating to the Revolutionary War. America’s westward expansion was driven by the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” famously stated with “Go West, young man.” When we ran out of counter space, my husband heeded this advice in his own way and travelled westward into our living room for turkey carving. While, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, we held certain truths to be self-evident, we discovered that not all store-bought piecrusts were created equal. We ended up with a ready-made pastry for savory dishes and improvised a pumpkin pie-quiche hybrid.

Ultimately, our first expat Thanksgiving was a success, upholding some American traditions while incorporating new Swiss ones like Glühwein (mulled wine). The turkey was fully cooked, the pumpkin pie-quiche was tolerable and we even managed to fit the leftovers into an undersized European fridge. We also adhered to another classic American tradition with our serving sizes. As my brother remarked when I sent him a photo, “That’s a full plate there, you American.” Despite the distance and the mashed raclette potatoes, for a moment it almost felt like being home.

By Tracy Wellons

Tracy lives in Zurich with her husband. Originally from California, she currently serves as a board member and treasurer for Zharity and assists with social media for Family Matters Switzerland. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, skiing and collecting Swiss-German vocabulary words.

Illustration by Lara Friedrich

Lara has been a freelance illustrator for Family Matters since early 2013, and she has also contributed recipes. She is in her fourth year of University (majoring in Psychology). Lara is also an assistant translator from German to English for various fiction books, and works as a demo singer for the songwriter Kate Northrop. Lara works part-time as a therapist and journalist and posts occasional food pics and illustrations to Instagram.

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