These are two letters from Serbia I wrote about Thanksgiving from 2010 and 2011.
2010 (Suzi is in Egypt, I am in Belgrade, Serbia)
Thanksgiving morning was the first cold, clear day of the season. Some of the lights in the flat worked, some didn’t work. So I called the landlord. By 9:15 I had an electrician. It appears a trolley bus jumped the lines in front of the building at the wrong moment; there was a brownout and then a spike. It knocked out one phase of my three phase power. Downstairs there’s a spaghetti junction of wires and fuses. The electrician identified my three fuses. The center phase was blown. It was easy enough to fix but I got to work about an hour late. Later, Thanksgiving afternoon, the whole Old Town power grid went down, apparently too many space heaters came on at once. I sent everyone home from work early. That night we were having a Thanksgiving dinner party. Staff members told me that since things come in threes I better bring candles to the restaurant.
Marina (my Deputy Chief of Party) organized Thanksgiving dinner. I think she sensed I was feeling a little down, with Suzi in Egypt and it being a major US holiday. She went on line, found traditional Thanksgiving recipes, called the restaurant that catered her wedding and organized a feast for our staff and many of our Serbian partners. The condition was that I carve the turkey and give a speech explaining Thanksgiving. I said:
I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about Thanksgiving. When I’m an expat I miss it — but in the States I’m almost always disappointed. Thanksgiving should represent two prayers, a prayer of thanks for our harvest and a prayer for survival through the coming winter in a harsh and, at times unforgiving land. Sometimes I think that Thanksgiving has become all about where to line up to get the best “black Friday” deals or to get the best view of giant balloons floating down New York’s 5th Avenue. (Both the Macy Parade and our Black Friday sales were featured on Serbian TV). Our harsh and unforgiving land has become prosperous and indulgent.
Thanksgiving has become a family holiday. But it started as a community gathering. Most of our Thanksgiving dinners in Sitka have been in community, either at our church, or in the Alaska Native Brotherhood hall. A feature of Sitka Thanksgiving used to be the annual blackout as everyone turns on their electric ovens to cook turkeys at the same time. Sitka is “off the grid” and sometimes when our hydro plant can’t take the load the whole system blows. Recently that seems to have improved because more people are smoking turkeys in their salmon smoke sheds. So Thank You Belgrade for having a power outage in honor of Sitka Thanksgivings. Thank you for making me feel at home.
I want to end with a radio story. On Thanksgiving in 1984 a severe storm blew in off the Pacific. The citizens of Tenakee Springs, an isolated town several miles away, were all at the school, on high ground, having a community celebration. A storm surge came in and washed away a quarter of the town, 15 houses. Because everyone was at the school the only apparent casualty was one cat. And a week letter “Friendly the cat” came back, a little bedraggled, but ok. That was cause for a second Thanksgiving in Tenakee.
I went on the air in Sitka that Thanksgiving asking people to bring blankets, sleeping bags and canned food to a local church. The Coast Guard was going to fly it to Tenakee with bedding and food for the people sheltering in the school. In 27 minutes we filled two choppers and I went back on the air to thank folks and tell them we had enough — for now. My Thanksgiving story is a story of the power of radio, the strength of civil society and the best of Thanksgiving. So let’s toast community, people helping people, and give thanks for that.
Marina found the right recipes, the turkey was perfect but the sage stuffing was the highlight of the meal, along with the cranberry sauce, made from scratch because you can’t buy it here. The veggies, the bread, it was all just perfect — almost. The Pumpkin pie was more a pumpkin byrek, (filling wrapped in filo pastry) an appropriate Serbian addition to an American feast.
The next night I was at a party celebrating Radio Naxi’s 16th birthday and I got lots of comments about Thanksgiving, both from those who had been there and those who had heard about it from friends. The best part of AID programs is what we share “off the books,” the cultural exchanges that happen spontaneously and the lessons we learn from each other.
My last four Thanksgivings have been in Belgrade. This year, like last, Marina talked to her friend who runs Djordje restaurant and we had a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner; great turkey, corn bread, candied carrots, cranberry and veggies. The Serbian Pumpkin Pie is still really Pumpkin Byrek, not nearly spicy enough, but the local wine compensates.
I like Thanksgiving better as an expat than I do in the States. In Europe I can give thanks for my friends, for the ability to, perhaps, make a difference, and to give thanks because I was born in the USA. I can share a nice American tradition, as I remember it, not as it really is.
In the States the meaning of Thanksgiving is somehow lost to the twin cultures of armored football (what some Europeans call American football) and combat shopping. All Thanksgiving Day ads for Black Friday dominate American media. News stories lead with the question “will people actually start lining up right after turkey to get the best deals? Will the merchants make enough money?” We’re told the merriness of Christmas depends on the cash registers of Black Friday. The BBC reports that shoppers are using pepper spray to get at the best bargains first. The BBC also reports gunfights in malls, and muggings in parking lots.
But here in Serbia I can mostly ignore all of this and use Thanksgiving to reflect on my life, giving thanks for colleagues and friends, and the joy of sharing. Following Thanksgiving Suzi and went to Budapest for the Advent Market. This is how we’ll observe Black Friday, buying some handicrafts and listening to some fine street music. Thanksgiving always makes me thankful that I was born American AND that I have the ability to escape if it just gets too weird.