How American Diplomats Celebrate Thanksgiving

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)

International understanding

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 James F. Creagan, ADST Interview

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.

Ambassador Joyce E. Leader, ADST Interview
Our outdoor Thanksgiving table in South Florida
Our outdoor Thanksgiving table in South Florida

Conflicting events

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.”  

Theodore A. Boyd, ADST Interview

However you celebrated, Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers!

Family Friday: Birthday Breakfast and Anchovy Pizza

My birthday was this month. We all have celebration traditions. Mine are Birthday Breakfast and anchovy pizza.

Birthday Breakfast

Birthday Breakfast is a tradition my mother created 67 years ago to offset likely evening obligations my father’s Foreign Service work required of both my parents. Why wait to celebrate with a post-dinner cake when you can blow out candles and eat (coffee) cake at breakfast while wearing a crown?

My Birthday Breakfast table!

All my life, family birthdays have begun with this celebration, except for the year we forgot Birthday Breakfast on my mother’s special day when my sister and I were selfish teens and our father was up to his eyeballs in diplomatic work.Awful us.

Pizza buon viaggio party on my 9th birthday

Why anchovy pizza is on my birthday menu is another story.

In the fall of 1963, when I had begun fourth grade and my father had begun his second two-year tour as Press Attaché in Rome, the US Information Agency in Washington decided they needed him in Bogotá, Colombia. ASAP. We would not be able to take time to see family in Minnesota, but instead go directly to Bogotá after Dad’s briefings in Washington.

My last day of school at the Overseas School of Rome fell on my ninth birthday. My mother brought personal pizzas to my classroom for a combination farewell-and-birthday party. My pizza came loaded with anchovies, a preference I’d developed during our three years in Italy. As I looked around the room, I understood that leaving was our normal. Packing up just the four of us, on to our next lives.

You might assume that pizza would be associated in my heart with sadness, but instead it became a salty touchstone through which I could always connect with my childhood, especially on my birthday.

Time to go for the gusto again

We’re not fast-food eaters, and the pandemic has only reinforced our home cooking norm. However, pizza entered my consciousness again recently, just in time to join another birthday.

A month ago, I closed the door on a fifth grader selling coupon books for her school. It’s the kind of hustle I participated in when our daughter was little, going door-to-door in our upstate New York neighborhood hustling products for the PTA and the Girl Scouts. In fact, as I said, “No, thank you, we don’t buy anything,” I reminded myself of the old crone who turned our daughter away. “We don’t eat cookies.” I’m still furious at her.

“We don’t buy anything.” Wow, that’s a pandemic phrase. We don’t go anywhere. We don’t buy anything. Unless it’s on Amazon. And even then, if it doesn’t fit into the routine inside our bubble, it isn’t happening. We have become entrapped in our survival routine.

I was shocked at my behavior. There was a quick fix. I called the girl’s mother to ask the youngster to come back, and minutes later shelled out twenty-five bucks for a book advertising discount deals at local vendors that we are unlikely to use. But I at least I’m a better neighbor.

Our daughter flipped through the book when she stopped by. ”The pizza place I like is in here,” she said. My husband stays away from tomatoes and spice. “You know, Dad,” our daughter said, “You could have a little from time to time.” And, I reminded my husband, there’s always white pizza, although that doesn’t really match the standards of my Brooklyn-raised honey.

When my birthday came, our daughter and her fiancé surprised us by having delivered to our home two delicious fresh trattoria-style pizzas: one white, and one tomato and anchovies. What a birthday dinner!

Maybe we’ll even use a pizza coupon next time!

How do you celebrate your birthday?

Breaking Traditions at Christmas

If you’re going to break The Christmas Rules, don’t settle for a misdemeanor: go for a full-out felony.

So said my husband this morning, December 7, as I hung a few ornaments on the fake Christmas tree, thereby breaking at least three of my mother’s Christmas Rules:

  1. The tree must be fresh;
  2. You purchase the tree the Saturday before Christmas so it can soak in water overnight; and,
  3. You decorate the tree the Sunday before Christmas. Amendment One: If the Sunday before Christmas is less than three days before Christmas Eve (I know, it’s new math) then you can do 1-3 the prior weekend.

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Only “ordinary people” do otherwise.

There wasn’t a rule about outdoor decorating because we usually didn’t: Italians, Colombians and Spaniards enjoy vendors’ lights and decorations. I don’t remember what we did during our 5 years in the Maryland suburbs; maybe some lights on the yews?

We were bending the rules before this year, purchasing the tree on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and decorating the outside of the house a week later, but we’ve gone whole “ordinary people” with a fake tree this year. It’s the little lit one we’ve had outside by the door, where this year we’ve moved other plants to make thing merry. I tucked it into a corner of the family room where it has gradually gained ornaments, family cards, the tree skirt and presents. It’s great. I feel OK about shattering tradition.

However, we’re breaking the Super Christmas Rule this year by celebrating Christmas early. On December 25th, our daughter will be in New York City with her boyfriend.  I was sad about that for about 5 minutes and then realized that my husband and I were free to do as we pleased that day.  On December 25, and for a few days before and after that, we will be on a Caribbean cruise.

Before that, we are celebrating what our daughter is calling Fakemas. On December 15 my community is doing caroling and cookie exchange, so we are making the 15th our Fakemas Eve and the 16th Fakemas Day.IMG_8106

 

IMG_8104All other traditions are intact. Using Mom’s spritz press and cookie cutters, I’m baking cookies and giving them away to friends — and to the hard working volunteers who serve on our Home Owner Association Board, a thankless and necessary job! I’m draping lights around the house, covering table tops with red, green and gold. I’m assembling the The Christmas Crèche  ,
IMG_5439around which Catholic countries base their traditions. Some of the figurines are as old as I am.  My Norwegian nisser have resumed cheery holiday oversight role on a cabinet in the living room.

It all starts to feel a whole lot like Christmas — until the air conditioning clicks on and I look out to the lanai and the palm trees that frame it. South Florida has colored my decorating: a mango sits in the “apple tree;” real ponsettias stand by the front door.

 

I think Mom would completely understand. She did what she could to keep herMidwestern traditions going through all our moves, such as carefully picking tinsel that her parents sent us off the tree and packing it away for next year, but evolved our habits as we went. Our Christmas Eve meal — tacos, before this was “a thing” — devolved from the Venezuelan hallacas that marked the first four Christmases in the Foreign Service. We’ll be downing tacos on Fakemas Eve.

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It’s a festive time of year no matter what your traditions. Enjoy lighting candles against these dark days. We’ll be turning the corner toward longer days on December 22, and at least two of us will be celebrating that truth at sea!

Cheers! IMG_8043

Cultural Surprises in Caracas

My mother, Nancy Amerson, was part of a group of friends on Cape Cod that met each month under the moniker of “Stitch and Bitch.” Some of these women also were part of Mom’s book group, which operated a little differently than the “Oprah bookclub” model: rather than all reading the same book, each participant contributed a synopsis of the books she’d read over the prior four weeks, a great way of expanding everyone’s reading universe. Her recommendations, which inform my library searches, will fill a future post.

But today, here are her thoughts as she stitched and bitched in October of 2004:

“Sometimes our group of six friends – five of whom were born overseas – hits on a topic to talk about over tea. This one was my suggestion: incidents that took us by surprise as we moved into other cultures. What I will mention are three episodes from Caracas, our very first post:

  • A lesson on family names from the registration official in Caracas when I was trying to register Susie’s birth. [My sister, now Susan Robb Amerson Hartnett, was born in Caracas when I was two.] The official did not understand, nor would he accept, that the baby’s middle name was not Maria or another first name but my maiden name, Robb. The Venezuelan naming custom  would have been to name her Susan Amerson (father) Robb (mother). We tried to tell him that, to be culturally correct, she was Susan Robb Amerson Robb. He disagreed and won the argument. Susan Amerson Robb is in the registry for December 31, 1956. Happy New Year!
  • A lesson on telling girls from boys from the man who gave pony rides in our Palos Grandes neighborhood.  He assumed that two year-old Janie, with her short hair and pants, was a boy. When I corrected him, saying she was a girl, he asked where her earring were. I responded that we did not put earrings on children.  To which he said, “Señora, you are not living in your country now.”
  • And a lesson on not pushing the boundaries too quickly. Bob’s Venezuelan staff at the Embassy had been talking about what kinds of food were typical from our home in the Midwest, and I mentioned growing up with things like waffles for dinner. People were interested in trying them and I had Bisquick in the pantry so I about broke the bank finding syrup and sausages and even blueberries. As the waffles were passed around the table, each person took one section and then waited for the real food. I was mortified.”

Mom was only two years into what turned out to be a twenty year Foreign Service adventure. She more than held her own!IMG_5187