For the first time, my husband and I did not have turkey for our Thanksgiving meal, choosing instead butter-soft filet mignon for our dinner-for-two this year. However, tradition is much on my mind.
As US embassies, foreign service families, and ex-pats of all kinds celebrate America’s national holiday abroad, the events of the day are inevitably influenced by the overseas environment. Here are some Thanksgiving insider stories drawn from my own experience and from the extensive oral history collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST).
The tastes of home
When you’re far from home, it can be the small private traditions that matter. For example, the 1960 Thanksgiving for the international student body at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies(SAIS) in Bologna almost didn’t happen because celery — the essential ingredient in my mother’s turkey stuffing — could not be found locally, and it took an all-day trip to two American military bases to save the day.
The eight-hour, 400-mile shopping trip resulted in a splendid Thanksgiving dinner that was a hit among the students and faculty who gathered at the Bologna Center on Friday, November 25, although the canned cranberry jelly got more attention than the celery dressing.
Jane Kelly Amerson López, EMBASSY KID (publication pending)
Sometimes, as ADST’s files reveal, Thanksgiving creates an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange and understanding.
Ambassador James F. Creagan, who was Deputy Chief of Mission at the American embassy to Vatican City in the late 1980s, drew on turkey, stuffing, and 100 proof Wild Turkey Bourbon to negotiate a ceasefire between rival parties in Mozambique’s bitter civil war.
They had big headaches the next day, but they signed a ceasefire and applauded Thanksgiving.
Ambassador Joyce E. Leader, who was Consul General in Marseilles, France prior to becoming ambassador to Guinea, was faced with the challenge of fitting in multiple Thanksgiving dinners put on by clubs of Americans who’d stayed on after WWII. There were two clubs in Monaco, more in Nice and Cannes, and three in Marseilles.
Nobody knew how to make a pumpkin pie, but let me tell you there are more ways to service pumpkin than I ever imagined.
And sometimes, history continues to be made despite the American holiday.
Arriving in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, the day before Thanksgiving, Theodore Boyd was quickly thrust in to Congo’s political upheaval.
When I got up on Thanksgiving Day and there was no one on the streets I said, “Oh, that’s okay because it’s a holiday.” Then it dawned on me subsequently that the Congolese didn’t observe Thanksgiving so I went over to the embassy and they said, “Come on in we need you, we’ve just had a coup.”
Wednesday’s opposition rally against Venezuelan President Maduro (and pro American-supported activist Guaidó) marked the 61st anniversary of the overthrow of Venezuelan president Perez Jimenez.
I have recreated the events of that day in the title story of my draft memoir, WHEN THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE & OTHER TRUE STORIES, from which this excerpt is taken. For more insight into the American Embassy’s delicate diplomatic position, I will post portions of Dad’s 1994 historic first-person account of that day, the attack on Vice President Nixon some months later, and the rest of his 1955-59 first post: HOW DEMOCRACY TRIUMPHED OVER DICTATORSHIP. https://www.amazon.com/How-Democracy-Triumphed-Over-Dictatorship/dp/1879383330
PART II. [Perez Jimenez has fled Venezuela. The American Embassy team is watching and listening through the night.]
Dad turned down the radio for a minute and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. He took a deep breath. “We’re to sit tight. Hard to tell what’s going to happen, but better to be here together than get caught up by a crowd in the street.”
He wasn’t sure how much my mother had heard about the deadly chaos of rampaging mobs the last time Venezuelans threw out a tyrant. The Canadian Embassy had approached the office several months ago about consolidating evacuations. That had seemed like a remote possibility. Maybe not anymore. The Embassy was in downtown Caracas, several miles away from the tree-lined residential neighborhood on the western edge of town where we and several other Embassy families lived. Time to touch base with one of those colleagues.
“Let me give Russ a call.” He lifted the receiver and dialed. He spoke quietly into the receiver as Fina arrived with the coffee, her face noticeably more relaxed.
“Algo mas?” Anything else?
My mother forced her lips into a smile.“No, gracias, Fina.”
The maid nodded.“Pues, buenas noches.”
“Buenas noches.” Good night. My mother took a sip of the strong brew. None of that wimpy American coffee down here, and there was so much more they truly loved about this place. She took another sip, allowing the liquid heat to relax her back into the sofa.
Dad hung up the phone and turned the radio back up. Better to know what’s coming. He sat back. “Okay, so maybe there’s something,”
My mother was instantly back on high alert.
“We may want to hide the car,” he said.
“Hide the car?”
“They’re looking for PJ’s head honchos. Russ just had a mob in front of their house thinking his diplomatic plates were Venezuelan issue for the regime. Lucky for them they headed down the block before Russ pulled out his gun.”
“His gun?” Mom sat up straighter. “We don’t have a gun.” She paused. “Do we?”
“No. And, no, I don’t think it’s going to come to that.”
The radio crackled as an enthusiastic voice broke in.
“Periodistas!” he said. Newspaper editors! You are finally free. Tell the public that the dictator is gone!
“Imagine that,” my father said. “An uncensored paper. First time in ten years.”
“The car?” my mother prompted. The diplomatic plates on the Oldsmobile sitting in our driveway a few feet from the street could easily be confused with those issued for the Venezuelan government. “Do you think maybe we should put out the American flag? I mean, we’re the good guys, right?”
My father considered the suggestion. “Well, we know we’re the good guys,” he said, “but I’m not so sure everyone agrees. Better play it safe. Got some Crisco?”
My mother hurried back to the kitchen and returned with the blue tub. Dad dipped out a handful. He opened the front door slowly, paused, and stepped out. The air was still and heavy with the scent of ripe mango. The pop pop pop of fireworks echoed from downtown, or was that gunfire? But nothing closer.
My mother huddled by the doorway as Dad crept across the little yard to the Oldsmobile, dropping down to smear the license plate with grease and dirt. He hurried back inside and my mother shut the door, securing the lock. Dad turned off the radio. They both took a breath.
“Let’s try to get some sleep,” he said.
The words were barely out of his mouth when a car careened around our corner, brakes screeching, horn blaring in defiance of Perez Jimenez’ edict against honking. My mother froze, her eyes wide. Would the Olds camouflage work? They didn’t have the firepower Russ had used to intimidate the crowd at his door. But the driver and his euphoric passengers flew by cheering and continued toward downtown.
“Like winning the big game,” Dad said, downplaying the anxious moment with a shrug of his shoulders. Another car swept loudly by. “I think all the action’s downtown. Nothing more to do except get that rest. I think it’s going to be a long day.”
Mom looked in on us girls again. Susie and I were still fast asleep, untroubled by the noise and innocent of the drama unfolding around us. Mom wondered if she’d be up to the task of keeping to a normal routine in a city that was in chaos. My preschool would be closed so both us kids would be home, and Mom hoped that Dad would stay home as well. She’d need to watch Fina: Susie and I would absorb her mood without understanding it. Everything needed to be normal.
She climbed back into bed.
“Everyone OK?” Dad said.
They lay still, eyes closed and ears open. Another few cars gunned by. In the distance, the bleating of car horns sounded. And gunfire. The night wore on.
As dawn made its tentative advance, they heard a whispered sound like prairie grass in the summer wind. It grew steadily louder. They crept to the living room window and peered through the glass slats and metal bars. Out of the fading night, a parade of men and women shuffled by, their passage marked by the soft whoosh whoosh of the alpargata slippers worn by the people that lived in the shacks up the hill. It was like the Easter processionals, only instead of the statue of a saint, each person carried a chair, or a television, or a file cabinet.
“Looters,” my father said. “They’ve broken into the police station.”
This was way more than my mother had signed up for.