Thanksgiving is a time for family, friends, and gathering together in gratitude. And that doesn’t have to change if you’re an American living overseas.
As the unofficial kickoff of the “holiday season,” Thanksgiving is a celebration of all things American: food, family, football, and colonialism. And the pull of cozy traditions and comfort food can be mighty this time of year — even for those who’ve left the United States behind to live abroad.
I wanted to find out how U.S. expats celebrate the most American holiday of them all, so I connected with a few women who live overseas with their families. They told me about some of the more, well, surprising challenges they’ve faced — including a potato embargo! — along with new customs they couldn’t wait to try.
Whether you’re living abroad or you’re missing someone who is, here are five ways Americans are throwing an expat Thanksgiving in 2017.
1. It’s hard not to get a little sentimental about Thanksgiving foods and flavors — but experimenting with ingredients from a new place is half the fun.
Ashley Lunde moved from Madison, Wisconsin, to her husband’s home country of Oslo, Norway, two and a half years ago. At first, she insisted on bringing the spices and foods she was familiar with to Oslo. But now, she blends the traditions and flavor profiles she’s learned from her Norwegian family into the typical American Thanksgiving dishes.
“The turkey is baked with celery, carrots, and onions (was our tradition at home), but [I] have added grapes, apples, and pears as well to the mix. Food in Norway tends to be sweeter, (mixing meat and berries for example, is very common),” she writes in an interview over Facebook Messenger. “We also use lingonberry instead of cranberry, and rømme (a Norwegian version of sour cream) on ‘grove rundstykker,’ which is whole grain Norwegian bread made into dinner rolls.”
Rachel Watson lives with her husband and daughter on a Marine Corps Base in Iwakuni, Japan. While the base has many comforts of home, there’s an embargo on certain types of American produce including potatoes and apples.
“So, we will be using Satsuma sweet potatoes, which have purple-ish skin and whiter flesh than an American sweet potato,” Watson writes via email. “There are no Granny Smith apples here either, so for apple pies and other apple dishes, I’ll be experimenting with some Japanese apple varieties.”
2. This holiday is all about family — and no matter how you feel about social media in your day-to-day life, it makes it easy to stay in touch with loved ones.
Shelley Strelluf and her husband, Chris, decided to look for opportunities overseas following the presidential election. Her husband accepted a position in Coventry, England, and the couple and their two young children arrived earlier this year from Kansas City, Missouri. Staying connected with friends and family literally an ocean away is challenging but doable.
“We video call via Messenger with my mom about three times a week (same difference as Skype, the app was just slightly easier for her to use),” Strelluf writes via e-mail. “Sometimes we talk, sometimes she just likes to watch the kids play for a little while… So it’s not the same as having her around, but it could be a lot worse. I’m grateful for the technology.”
3. It’s hard to make friends when you’re in a strange country — so play an active role in building your new community.
Making friends as an adult doesn’t come as naturally as it used to. But making friends as an adult in a new country, where there can be different social norms along with a language barrier, is flat out tough.
For Watson, she’s made a concerted effort to seek out new friends — especially important, as her husband is currently deployed with the Navy. He won’t be back in Iwakuni for Thanksgiving, so she’s celebrating with her infant daughter, Maeve, and a new community on-base.
Lunde is part of a group in Oslo called the American Women’s Club, that hosts a traditional Thanksgiving meal. The women were invited to discuss their experiences living abroad as well as some of the traditional foods from their part of the states. The U.S. Ambassador to Norway even addressed the group.
“It was really nice to spend the evening with other Americans, sharing a home cooked meal.”
4. But continuing to celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving is about more than being homesick or missing turkey. It’s about honoring cultural identity and tradition.
Lunde and her husband welcomed a son, Espen, last year. Raising him to know and appreciate the many facets of his heritage is of the utmost importance.
“We really want to bring him up incorporating traditions from both our home countries, regardless of where we may be living at the time,” she writes. “I think weaving a few Norwegian details into Thanksgiving is a creative way to do that. Hopefully celebrating in this way is something he’ll grow to appreciate and enjoy.”
5. No matter where you are in the world, or how much you’ve decided to embrace your new home, nothing beats pumpkin pie. But be prepared to accept substitutes.
In the states, pumpkin pies and canned pumpkin are sold everywhere from gas stations to department stores this time of year, but good luck finding one in other parts of the world.
Says Strelluf, “Something that is NOT a thing is pumpkin pie, so I guess if I want that, I’ll have to figure out how to make it.” Here’s one blogger’s idea for making that happen (with sweet potatoes — as long as they aren’t embargoed, too).