Three years ago I wrote a post for the Wall Street Journal expat column about spending Thanksgiving overseas. I called it “10 Reasons I’m Thankful to Be an Expat,” and I’m putting it up here again in honor of the season (and because just about everything at WSJ is behind a paywall now). The biggest surprises three years on (besides how young my daughter looks in the photo they ran!) are numbers 3 and 8: little did we know how the Trump candidacy was going to turn out, and believe it or not, Black Friday has finally come to Botswana. Although they don’t quite get it: in addition to big-screen TVs, the ad flyers for the weekend also announced “Black Friday” deals on milk, bulk rice, and custard. Hey, why not. Happy Thanksgiving everyone! * * * Thanksgiving, 2015 I love my country, and there are many reasons I miss the U.S. and look forward to moving back someday. But in the meantime, in honor of Thanksgiving, as I sit on my patio and listen to exotic birds chirping through an 80-degree afternoon in Gaborone, Botswana, here are 10 reasons I am grateful to be an expat today:
Jumpy Castle Watch: Day 14. What can you do to spice up the holidays on a hot, quiet December day before Christmas? Rent a jumpy castle: Gaborone’s answer to all your child-related entertainment needs. I suppose the term is actually “jumping castle” (or jumping house) but in the quick casual Motswana way of speaking, what I always hear is “jumpy castle,” so that’s what I’m going with. In America of course we would call it a “bouncy house.” Two days before Christmas I decided to get my daughter and her five friends who are visiting from Zimbabwe a jumpy castle for the day so they could squirt each other with water, play around on the slide, and work out some good sugar-induced energy in the inevitable sweets-laden week before the holiday.
We are deep in the middle of holiday season now, having blown by Halloween and Thanksgiving to arrive next week at the grandaddy of them all, Christmas. And it won’t be too long before New Year’s, Valentine’s, St. Patty’s and all the rest roll around again. For many expats, leaving home and never again having to show up at your in-laws’ door bearing pie ranks as one of the perks of moving overseas. But for others, any holiday can be a hard time of missing family, country, and traditions left behind. Here are ten ways to enjoy yours holidays as an expat, no matter what time of year:
Today I got out my recipe for Sausage and Fennel Stuffing: a classic fall dish from Epicurious that I first adopted for a Thanksgiving dinner back in Boston in 2004. It uses lots of butter and sausage and fennel in two different forms and it is delicious. It’s not exactly “light” and doesn’t quite go with what is happening outside my window: a hot wind to start off a day in the ’80s which will grow to ’90s before noon and over 100 shortly after that. This is spring in Botswana.
We are back in Botswana after two glorious months in Cape Town, and I will admit that it is a mixed bag. While we were away, I missed: Our friends Our big house (the rental in Cape Town was a bit of a squeeze) How safe and quiet Botswana is (Sure, there are home invasions, but they are rarely violent.) I did not miss:
My long visa saga over, I finally came back to Pakistan, exhausted but happily clutching my stamped passport in hand, just in time to celebrate Christmas. Last year at Christmas I felt very far from home, as the holidays can make you feel when you’re living abroad. I had a lovely dinner with some American friends, but the city seemed a little cold and empty (even though it was 65 degrees) and definitely lacking in the “festive” factor. No presents and no tree: it seemed like any other day. Being stuck in the US for a month changed all of that this year. Trying so hard to get “home” to Islamabad made me love and appreciate my life there all the more. The long journey back was sort of like an international “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” but picture Christmas instead of Thanksgiving, Islamabad instead of Chicago, and recalcitrant government bureaucracy instead of a rental car on fire. My 14-hour layover in the most boring airport in the world (Frankfurt, Germany) intensified the feeling, especially after I walked out of customs in a sleep-deprived haze only to realize I couldn’t get back into the main terminal for another seven hours with only the unwashed masses and a German internet console for entertainment. (Try typing emails without using the letter “y.” Just go ahead and try it.) Just the sheer act of getting back into the country felt festive and put me right into the holiday spirit. A tree (small and fake, but still) and presents followed, as well as peanut butter dog treats for Marlo and Kima. You can see where the tree came from in […] Read More
(15 days ago) My two-week vacation to Vietnam drawing to an end, I take a slow, bumpy car ride past hoards of motorbikes and market stalls of dragon fruit to the capital city of Hanoi, with the taxi driver honking his horn every 20 to 30 seconds the entire 4 hour trip. Luckily it is a pleasant, jaunty trill that sounds like a little song to wake birds up. I need to get back to the big city so I can… (14 days ago) …Spend the entire day at the Pakistani Embassy in Hanoi. This is just as boring as you would imagine, and does not result in the visa back to Pakistan I was hoping for so I have to… (12 days ago) …Head to Saigon for one last day feverish day of shopping, sightseeing, and a relaxing massage and mud wrap to prepare me to… (11 days ago) …Get on a plane to Doha, Qatar and spend a day in the Middle East just killing time before I… (10 days ago) …Board yet another plane for a 14-hour flight to Washington DC since I have no visa for Pakistan and am not in the mood to be detained at the airport in Islamabad upon arrival. In addition to being extremely bummed by this, I also decide to concentrate on the positives, which include me getting to… (9 days ago) …Spend two days in DC seeing fun people, eating great food, and applying for a new visa before I… (7 days ago) …Hop on a plane to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Palm Springs and… (3 days ago) …Drive up to Santa Barbara […] Read More
What better holiday to celebrate while living in Pakistan than…Persian New Year’s! (Otherwise known as the first day of spring.) I think Persian culture gets it right: starting the “new” year in icy frozen January doesn’t exactly engender the right feelings of growth and beginning. Spring does though, especially here in sunny Pakistan, where my orange tree is already covered in fragrant blossoms and little baby birds have suddenly appeared all over the hills. Friends of mine here in Islamabad celebrated Persian New Year’s in style last weekend, ordering tons of food from the local Persian restaurant (Iran is right next door, so it’s really not that big of a surprise that there’s a good Persian restaurant in town) and having everyone over to stuff our faces and jump over fire. The goodies on the table all represent blessings and wishes for the new year: coins for prosperity, vinegar for wisdom, eggs for fertility, pomegranates for more fertility, an orange suspended in water to signify the earth suspended in the universe, dried sweet fruits for (I think?) love, rosewater for…something good that I can’t remember, a goldfish for something else that I can’t remember (but how cool that you can get goldfish in Pakistan!) A mirror to see yourself clearly, flowers, sumac (if I knew what that was I would tell you), and I’m sure I missed a few more. Anyway, it’s a lovely tradition and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. The best part was jumping over the fire before dinner. Granted, it was really more like a “tray of candles,” but you really got that fire feeling. It is supposed to burn off all the […] Read More
Pakistan is now celebrating the second Eid holiday of the year, which is a little quieter than last time around and has a lot to do with goats. This Eid marks the end of the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and commemorates the sacrifice of an animal that Abraham made instead of his son (thus the goats). The most interesting thing to me about this Eid is the way that old religious traditions adapt to a new, urban environment. The point of the goat is to make it feel like a real sacrifice: you’re supposed to bring it into your home, love, feed, and pet it, let your children grow attached, and then kill it. Letting the butcher do it someplace far away is a no-no. Thus last week, Islamabad was a city of goats. Goats tied up outside apartment buildings, in parking lots, being walked around the neighborhood at dusk by groups of kids. Like a final week of fun before the end. My friends who grew up here talk fondly of Goat Week and how much they enjoyed having their goats as pets before Eid, and how much they cried when the goats were killed. Apparently the system works. Once the deed is done, one-third of the meat goes to the poor, one-third to relatives and neighbors, and one-third to your own family. This ensures that the poor get to eat meat at least once a year. You might say that the goat tradition seems a little sad and cruel, except that it totally reminds me of our own annual festival of turkey sacrifice that occurred just a few days ago. […] Read More
Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. I have an extensive list of favorite recipes I like to use, and I am in full support of a holiday whose sole purpose is gathering together to eat yummy food and feel grateful. Things may be a little different this year. Not because I don’t feel grateful, but because I live in Pakistan where our quaint American Turkey Day ways don’t apply. Here is a short list of things I am most worried about sourcing in time to cook the big Thanksgiving feast I am planning: Cranberries Fennel Sausage (we’re in a pork-free country, remember) Butternut Squash Goat Cheese Apple cider (to brine the turkey) About 100 other essential Thanksgiving items Things I am not worried about: Turkey. Thanks to my friend Jamie who is working at the Embassy, I scored a nice Butterball from the commissary that even now awaits the big day in my freezer. Thanks Jamie! Pomegranate seeds (for my famous goat cheese & pomegranate salad). It is pomegranate season here, and the big, fat pomegranates that lie in heaps on every corner put all of our sad little American versions to shame. I drink fresh pomegranate juice here almost every day when I am traveling. Ginger, oranges, cloves, peppercorns (key ingredients for turkey brine). They do spices well in Pakistan, and we’re coming into citrus season now. Update: I went to a highly-recommended veggie stand in F-10 today and found the following treasures–shallots! arugula! And a large gourd like none I have ever seen that nonetheless should stand in nicely for the butternut squash. We’re in business. […] Read More
No, it totally does not. But that’s the best I can do at an American equivalent. In fact, Eid is actually more like Christmas and Easter rolled up into one. Most significantly (for a hungry expat such as myself), Eid signals the end of Ramadan, a month of religious observation that includes fasting during daylight hours. Ramadan is a little rough–Muslims don’t eat or drink during the day, but then stay up late into the night breaking the fast with an iftar dinner. You can imagine the effect this has on worker productivity. My team was in fact a little groggy all month, but were still so cheerful I could not believe it. Anyone who has seen me delay breakfast by even 30 minutes knows what a grumpy, rotten mess I would be if I had to fast for a whole month. As it was, what Ramadan meant for me was feeling guilty mowing down Chinese noodles in the hallway every day at lunch so my staff couldn’t see or smell them. So that’s all over now, and all the restaurants are open again for lunch. (yay!) Since there are only about 7 restaurants in Islamabad that I go to on a regular basis, having most of those cut out of the mix during Ramadan really hurt. Maybe it is the month of fasting beforehand that makes Eid seem especially joyous and welcome. It lasts for two days, has something to do with a new moon sighting, and is a general time of religious celebration and eating and gifts and spending time with family. (See? Sounds like Christmas.) Women decorate their hands with henna like […] Read More
So, it’s the Fourth of July! Well, almost. Though if all the buzz on Facebook is to be believed, everyone in the U.S. got a healthy head start celebrating the holiday weekend. Here in Pakistan, things are a little less festive, seeing how they’re not celebrating anything here. It’s not that Pakistanis don’t recognize the significance of a group of people shaking off the chains of colonial oppression from Great Britan and becoming their own country. It’s just that they did it themselves 60 years ago, and they’re understandably a little more excited about that. Let’s see what that super reliable source Wikipedia has to say about it: Pakistan’s independence day (also known as Yom-e-Istiqlal or یوم استقلال ) is observed on August 14, the day on which Pakistan became independent from British rule within what was then known as the British Raj in 1947. The day is a national holiday in Pakistan, celebrated all over the country with flag raising ceremonies, tributes to the national heroes and fireworks taking place in the capital, Islamabad. (oooh, goody!) The main celebrations take place in Islamabad, where the President and Prime Minister raise the national flag at the Presidential and Parliament buildings and deliver speeches that are televised live. In the speech, the leaders highlight the achievements of the government, goals set for the future and in the words of the father of the nation, Quaid-e-Azam, bring “Unity, Faith and Discipline” to its people. So I have that to look forward to.
Nothing is weirder than a Peep. I’m ready to eat a lot of new, strange food, starting in less than two weeks when I move to Pakistan. Twelve different kinds of mangoes and three different kinds of pomegranates, I’m told. Goat curries, bitter gourd, mutton in tomato sauce, and chicken. (Well, chicken’s not weird, but the fact that you can buy it live off the street in front of your house is.) I love curry and flatbread and samosas, but I’m sure my visits to my favorite Indian restaurant down the street in Boston will not have prepared me for full immersion into the daily food culture of the subcontinent. But back to Peeps, the weird food of my own country. You know ’em: fluorescent little marshmallowy chicks and bunnies that appear suddenly in every drugstore and supermarket this time of year in an array of colors found nowhere in nature. They’re weird, they’re highly beloved, and they’re very American: add them to the list of things I won’t be seeing in Islamabad. I’ve had some time to think about Peeps a lot today as I scraped smashed Peep out of the carpet and pried dried Peep off the sides of empty martini glasses. (Peeps figured prominently in my spring-themed going-away party last night.) What are Peeps? Marshmallow, obviously, and a crapload of toxic food coloring, but oh so much more. Peep is an industry onto itself. You would think that, much like a Cadbury egg, they would be cursed with the problem of seasonality. They are chicks and bunnies in lurid approximations of pastel colors after all, trotted out at Easter for candy baskets and the […] Read More