Travel Essays

The Act of Thanks

Over the years, my mother had experimented with the turkey for Thanksgiving. One year the bird was massaged with herby butter and stuffed with citrus. The next year she shoved a can of beer up the turkey’s butt, steaming the bird with a mild hoppy flavor. One year my family succumbed to the request of my stuffing-loving cousins and filled the poor turkey with soggy bread. There was talk of trying to smoke a turkey until the skin turned a deep, golden brown and the meat fell off the bone with the prodding of a fork. With the turkey we ate a green salad; endless loaves of buttery, crunchy garlic bread with a dusting of paprika; sweet potatoes baked with raspberries and a touch of orange juice; dark gravy from the giblets; creamy mashed potatoes whipped to fluffy perfection right before the bird hit the table; mom’s homemade cranberry sauce with the recipe she got from her beloved aunt; Uncle Mike’s classic pumpkin pie; cousin Morghan’s Great Pumpkin Dessert comprising yellow cake mix and roasted walnuts layered over pumpkin puree; and roasted squash tossed with garlic, oil, salt, and pepper. There were always endless bottles of good California red wine and my uncle’s latest homebrew beer or craft beer find. Every holiday, my uncle and the husbands of his two daughters would present the malty concoctions, trading recipes and tips while hinting at what they would bottle for the next holiday. My uncle’s oatmeal stout remains my favorite: rich and dark, at least ten percent alcohol volume, creamy foam, and a touch of sweetness from the grains. It was brewed beauty in a bottle, and I still have not founded anything to hold a light to it.

The day before Thanksgiving, I sat in my small room in Barcelona, eating plain corn flakes from the box. Not even funny clips of Ellen Degeneres on YouTube could cheer me up. I thought of my friends making the drive or flight back to the Bay Area in California from their university—a year ago I was doing the same. At that moment in Barcelona, I would have picked the five-hour drive from my home university, UC Santa Barbara, to the Bay Area over the box of cereal in front of me. It was my first Thanksgiving away from home in my 20 years of existence; in my rectangular room, I could hear the ugly, raspy smoker’s voice of the neighbors upstairs as a small, cold draft pushed through my interior window. I had recently asked my roommate for an extra blanket because the apartments in Barcelona were not equipped to handle anything less than 15 degrees Celsius. I curled up in bed to avoid treading on the unforgiving, cold stone floors of my apartment and scrolled down the screen of endless Facebook statuses announcing how exciting it was to go home for Thanksgiving.

That year, I would not be home in California to try my uncle’s latest brew. Moreover, it was odd to be in a place that didn’t recognize such an integral holiday in my life. Barcelona continued on, unfazed by my “Thanksgiving blues.” I had spent the week talking to my roommates—one from Galicia, the northwest region of Spain that capped Portugal, and one from Venezuela—about Thanksgiving, what my family did, and what the holiday meant to me. I described the food in my short vocabulary, mentioning pavo, tarta, y patatas (turkey, pie, and potatoes), and I said it was a day for family and recognizing the blessings that we have in our lives. I could say all that in Spanish, but I couldn’t describe what Thanksgiving really meant to me. It was not about the food, not really. It was about waking up early to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with my sisters, bothering my mother in the kitchen, and sitting quietly with my father in the family room while everyone proceeded to panic. It was about inside jokes related to the Great Pie Massacre of 2007 and seeing how long it took for someone in the family to bring up the ever-occurring topic of shit. Thanksgiving meant steering my grandfather away from the wine and packing up a doggie bag with leftovers for him while everyone was still on their first helping. Thanksgiving held thirty-minute goodbyes and nosey relatives asking if I had found a nice boyfriend yet. I did not have the words to convey all these meaningful actions in Spanish; I felt myself helplessly flailing for words. At the end of this pitifully truncated conversation, I usually fell silent and let my head drop onto one of my roommates’ shoulders. They would quietly remind me that I would be home for Christmas and to not be sad.

By Thanksgiving Day, the nearly empty box of corn flakes was stowed away in its rightful place in the pantry. That evening I got dressed up and took the metro to the Ramblas for the University of California Education Abroad Program Thanksgiving dinner. I navigated through waves of tourists and street performers in my skirt, sweater, and boots until I hung a right off the wide promenade and headed down a narrow street where the restaurant of Hotel España was. There, we were treated to a €46 ($60) dinner and unlimited bottle service.

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That evening, the wine poured out in a steady stream along with the plates of food and our declarations of eternal friendship. An entire golden-brown turkey was brought out for each table of ten students. We American exchange students gave my friend Diego, the only man at our table, the honor of carving the turkey. Meanwhile, the servers delivered bowls of cranberry sauce, stuffing, corn, and mashed potatoes. There was barely enough of the stuffing and corn to go around, and the mashed potatoes were subjected to some scrutiny when we decided that the texture and flavor was slightly off—too thick, too smooth, and where were the copious doses of butter and heavy cream? After awhile, we finally decided that the orange puree was mashed sweet potatoes. We were somewhat disappointed by an apple pie instead of the traditional pumpkin, but all was forgotten when Diego and my friend Ashley made their wishes and broke the wishbone. Diego ended up with the larger piece of the bone, and we all asked him what he wished for. He looked down and shrugged.

“I just hope that we all remember this moment when we are at each others’ weddings.”

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We spent the next half hour nursing a bottle of champagne and discussing all the things we were thankful for: our friends who served as our second family while we were separated from blood family, the beautiful city we lived in, the amazing continent that was breathtakingly easy to travel, and the dinner that was presented to us with such earnest kindness and generosity.

Back on the Ramblas, the champagne bubbles fizzled down and we were all over-dressed and foreign among the late-night street walkers rushing to catch the last metro out before closing at midnight. The group peeled away, each person returning back to the little room in their apartment, Thanksgiving now only a full belly and the buzz of the last bottle of champagne. My roommate asked how the dinner went, and I managed to articulate that it was lovely and there was a lot of wine and a huge turkey.

“Good,” he said. “Now you won’t be sad.”

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