Friday, November 25, 2011
Thanksgiving in a different language
There's no holiday that more reminds us expats that we're not in Kansas--or Illinois or North Dakota--than Thanksgiving. That's not a bad thing.
Start with the holiday itself. The Thanksgiving story is anchored in American history, real or mythical, and not at all portable to a different country. You can dress Mexican kids as little wizards and pretend to celebrate Halloween. And besides, the Day of the Dead, with its own air of ghoulishness, almost coincides with Halloween.
Christmas and New Year's fall roughly on the same dates worldwide and with some adjustments for local climate and cultures, they are celebrated universally. Of course we have a few awkward moments, like the pathetic sight of those poor Mexican guys at the shopping centers sweating inside a Santa Claus suit, but the general idea is the same.
Thanksgiving on the other hand doesn't travel well. Pilgrims with tall hats and Indians with feathers on their heads gathering around some fairly bland dishes like roast turkey, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie are hard to explain to someone like Rocío our cleaning lady or Félix the gardener.
Let's see. There were some people in Europe who were being persecuted for their religious beliefs and they came over on a boat, and once ashore set up shop in the New World by taking land belonging to the folks already quite settled in Massachusetts. Then one day everyone got together to have a lovefest of a dinner and give thanks for the harvest and everything.
By now I can imagine Félix screwing up his face and asking why the Indians would break bread with a bunch of paleface strangers who'd ripped off their lands and possessions and eventually would either kill them or push them into exile somewhere near Bayonne, New Jersey. Then there's the business the huge inflatable cartoon characters in a parade in New York and the football games, and... nah, forget it, Félix.
American Thanksgiving in Mexico is like Ramadan in Bozeman, Montana--a non-event--except for the few Americans who live here. A few frozen turkeys and spiral hams appear at the Costco for Americans to buy and Mexicans to examine with curiosity, but that's about it.
A few enterprising San Miguel restaurateurs have tried to cash in on the Thanksgiving dinner tradition but generally with disastrous results. A couple of years ago we invited a couple of Australian friends to Thanksgiving dinner at the Sierra Nevada Hotel, one of the fanciest in town. It was one of the most expensive and wretched meals Stew and I have ever had. The guys in the kitchen clearly had no clue.
For many of the expats, Stew and I included, the lack of family here leads us to community dinners organized by churches and other groups. These are really pleasant events, requiring enormous amounts of work by the hapless volunteers. They deserve lots of good karma, papal indulgences and a free pass out of purgatory.
The weather is generally gorgeous. Dress casual. English spoken. Lots of friendly hug-hug, kiss-kiss and chit-chat. But after two hours or so, you drive back into the general population, who is coming back from school, getting their shoes shined and who otherwise has no idea what Turkey Day is all about. C'mon, doesn't anyone know it's Thanksgiving?
It's just as well. Since the holiday doesn't exist, there's no aerial bombardment on TV about sales or projected retail volumes on Black Friday with additional prognostications about how it will impact economic recovery and blather-blather-blather. Retailers in Mexico fired their first Christmas salvos back in mid-October, but these are feeble campaigns compared to the offensives mounted by their American counterparts who for two months assault all your senses, all the time.
If you retain your self-control you can also escape television specials of some ideal Thanksgiving get-together as envisioned by Martha Stewart or Paula Deen, when everything is cooked expertly and there are no drunken uncles to wreck the otherwise perfect family occasion.
So with all that noise missing, expats in San Miguel indeed may be more able to focus on true thanks-giving and gratitude, perhaps one of the most underestimated spiritual exercises in the U.S., where public attention seems to be focused on what people don't have--and ought to buy--and lately on fear: of terrorists, immigrants, Muslims, economic calamity, foreclosures, Democrats, Republicans, Fox News and pretty much life in general.
During a walk-around on Thanksgiving morning, I marveled at our house and the gorgeous landscapes that surround it, thought about our good fortune to be healthy, of life together with Stew for nearly forty years, the numerous friends we've met since we arrived here--just as most of our acquaintances in Chicago inevitably have faded away--and the bumper crop of leaf greens Félix has scared up from the ground in our raised beds.
There are always problems with life . Right now the most annoying is our new dog Domino, who inexplicably has fallen off the housebreaking wagon and decided to pee on all corners of the house as if it were in flames. But even that'll pass.