Wednesday, November 26, 2008

My foreign Thanksgiving

Tom Turkey wishes everyone a happy Thanksgiving
Image Source: National Geographic

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving day here in the United States, one of the biggest holidays of the year. I had never thought too highly of Thanksgiving as a kid: it meant traveling 14 hours through at least three states in heavy traffic, a huge meal in a house full of relatives stuffed to overflowing, and generally getting into trouble because I was in the way. But that changed in 1996, when I was living in Munich, Germany for the school year.

I was studying astronomy at the Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestriche Physik in Garching, Germany as part of the Fulbright program. In Germany, the fourth Thursday of November is a normal work day, not a holiday. So, on that day, I found myself in front of a computer in my cubicle, trying to analyze X-ray pictures from the ROSAT satellite. And, surprisingly, I found myself quite dejected, since nobody knew (or cared) that it was a major holiday. In the early afternoon, I gave up and went home.

The next afternoon, I headed to a southern part of Munich. A German lady there was holding an American Thanksgiving dinner for all of the Munich Fulbright scholars and our host families. We were going to have turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and so on. We (the scholars) were supposed to arrive early to help with the cooking and preparations.

I showed up just a few minutes early. The Germans, and in particular our dinner host, are big on the idea of punctuality, or being exactly on time. (I often joked to my American friends in Munich that Pünktlickheit is fast göttlichkeit , or "punctuality is next to Godliness".) The other scholar didn't show up on time, and our host quickly started to mutter "Americans never come when they say they are going to." And as the time stretched on, our host grew more and more angry that my friend and fellow scholar was late.

In the meantime, I learned that our "American" Thanksgiving dinner was anything but. My host told me that she couldn't find Turkey, so we'd be having pork. And she didn't feel like making mashed potatoes, so we were having sauerkraut. And she didn't want to make a pumpkin pie, so we were having a strudel for dessert. As I helped set the table and tried to help cook these foods, I noticed that it was snowing heavily, and my friend still wasn't there.

Finally, almost two hours late, the doorbell rang. The other scholar had finally arrived. My host opened the door wide, and I saw what looked like a snowman on the front step. My friend had taken the wrong bus, ended up about 4 or 5 miles away, and then found that she had ridden the last bus of the day on that route, so she had to walk the entire distance through the snow. So, cold, wet, shivering, and with a good inch of snow perched on her hood, she was greeted with a stern, "Why don't you Americans ever come when you promise to?" I felt ill. So much for a jolly holiday celebration.

Things did improve about an hour later, when our German host families arrived right on time. Both of these families are very jovial and friendly, and they lightened the mood considerable. So, in spite of having a Thanksgiving meal consisting of pork, sauerkraut, and strudel, it wasn't horrible.

But the best part came that night. Back at my apartment building, there were five American students (counting myself). We decided to have a proper Thanksgiving meal. We only had a small kitchenette (with only a stove and a few pots and utensils), so we couldn't roast a turkey, but we found some canned turkey that we heated. We made some stuffing (that was a little runny) and some mashed potatoes (that were very lumpy).

But in spite of the failings of the food, we all discovered that it was the fellowship that mattered. Sitting around a small table in a strange country with only the barest remnants of a true Thanksgiving feast, we were all truly happy and thankful for the blessing that was our camaraderie. Although we all enjoyed our studies abroad, we'd found that we still needed to cling to each other and those unique cultural traditions that we shared.

So, these days, when Thanksgiving preparations start to get too frustrating, I always think back to that Thanksgiving in Germany. That's where I learned what I am truly most thankful for. Not a giant feast, not a day off of work, nor other ephemeral things. But I am thankful for friends and family, and the support we give each other, even in the roughest of times or the strangest of places.

A happy Thanksgiving to everyone!


  1. I remember your phone calls from Germany. I always felt so helpless cuz I was so far away, and you weren't always having a great time. What a growing year that was. Happy Thanksgiving to you my old friend.