An American Expat’s Advice for a COVID Thanksgiving

As an expat, I haven’t been with my extended family at Thanksgiving in almost 10 years.  I get it.  It’s hard.  On this holiday, which is so much about togetherness, being far away is so tough.  But flying home 8 hours for a long weekend that isn’t a holiday where I am currently living … just won’t work.  The kids are in school, we are working, flights are expensive, and travel is unpredictable.  So, we don’t come home for Thanksgiving.  And, it’s not easy.  It isn’t a holiday here, so we have to conjure up all of the festiveness ourselves.  No one else is celebrating, so we have figure out how to make it happen — we have to hunt down supplies (if we want to make dinner ourselves) or figure out how to mark the day (if we choose not to cook).

Over the past nine years, I’ve met many other expat Americans navigating the same challenges. We make different choices, fight different battles, but we’ve sorted out how to make it work for us (more or less).  We celebrate (or we don’t), we honor our traditions (or we make new ones), we share our culture with new friends from other countries (or we gather together with other Americans in order to feel more at home).

Along the way, we’ve tackled a lot of the same challenges that are facing many Americans this year.  Due to COVID, many people are having to cancel or seriously alter their Thanksgiving plans.  You can’t see the people you want to, or celebrate the way you’re used to.  Believe me, I understand.  Here’s what I’ve learned over the years, in case it helps.

  • Accept that it *will* be different.  Don’t try to replicate “normal” Thanksgiving in an abnormal time.  Accept that this year will not be a perfect copy of what you’ve done in the past.  It can’t be — circumstances are different.  You’ll make yourself crazy trying to “get it exactly right.”  So don’t.
  • Allow yourself to miss what you’re missing.  Being away from people you love on a day that is ABOUT being with people you love is really hard.  It’s sad, and it can definitely be lonely.  Let yourself feel sad, lonely, disappointed, or angry at the circumstances.  Don’t try to feel like everything is normal.  It’s ok to be sad about what you’re missing.
  • Figure out what’s really important, and figure out how to do that (or to approximate it).  Is pumpkin pie your favorite?  Make or buy one!  Are mashed potatoes the thing that makes the meal special?  Make some!  Would it not be Thanksgiving without football?  Find a game and watch it (even if it’s old, even if it’s recorded, even if you already know how it turns out).  Whatever feels essential to you that you CAN do, do it.  Don’t judge or criticize yourself, just go with it.  And don’t be afraid to try something that’s not quite right, but might be close enough.  (This is definitely a “close enough is good enough” situation.)
  • Let go of everything else.  All the other “stuff” that you don’t care about (candied yams, or whatever) just drop them.  Don’t waste any of your energy on stuff you think you SHOULD do, but don’t actually want to.  One of the silver linings for this year is permission to abandon anything that doesn’t bring you the joy of the holiday.
  • Remind yourself of why you’re doing this.  Why *aren’t* you doing a normal holiday this year?  As an expat, we think about the job, or the lifestyle, or the relationships that brought us to our new country.  This year, everyone can appreciate that we are spending the holidays apart to PROTECT each other. It’s as important as it can possibly be.  It helps to remember that this is all happening for the greater good.
  • Connect with the people you love.  If it’s at all possible, figure out a way to connect with the people you’re not able to be with.  Call, exchange photos of your day, video chat, arrange to watch a movie or a football game “together”.  Anything to feel as close as possible, while you’re apart.
  • Look forward to the future.  This is temporary.  It’s not for forever.  It’s what’s happening right now … but it’s just one year.  Think ahead to what you will be able to do next year. Make plans!  Having something concrete to look forward to really helps.
  • Appreciate what you created.  However it turns out, whether you ordered pizza and pretended it wasn’t Thanksgiving, or cooked the whole meal from scratch, you made it through.  Give yourself a pat on the back, and give yourself some real credit for getting through what might have been a really tough day.  It isn’t easy, it isn’t what you wanted, but you made it.

Happy Thanksgiving, and good luck, from one American who can’t be with her family, to another.

As American as pumpkin pie

Living here is a constant adventure (as I think I may have mentioned once or twice).  We are trying new things, seeing new places, and challenging ourselves to learn and grow – constantly.  A lot of it is amazing and wonderful.  I’ve crossed a lifetime’s worth of experiences and travel destinations off of my wish list in the four years we’ve been here, and living in Europe is undeniably cool and enriching beyond what I could have imagined.  But, being far from home, away from our loved ones and outside of our familiar communities can also be intensely hard.  It’s usually worst around the holidays … and even more so when those holidays don’t exist here.  Christmas and Easter and beautiful, fun and festive here.  Thanksgiving and July 4th, not so much.  It causes us to bond strongly, and sometimes strangely, with our fellow Americans.

Anytime I meet an American here — tourist, ex-pat or immigrant — I feel immediately connected to them.  From the first moment, we have so much in common — language, social cues, cultural framework.  It’s just so easy to interact with another American.  We instantly “get” each other (in a way I always took for granted before).  When it’s someone I get to know a bit better, over time, the person is likely to feel like a friend, even if I only know them professionally.

With our pediatrician, who is not only American (and Austrian), but also roughly my age (she’s younger) and the mom to two small kids (her twins are nearly exactly between my boys in age), I have a particular tendency to accidentally sometimes treat her friend-ish, rather than doctor-ish.

But it’s not just down to me and my tendency to treat everyone I see a lot as a friend (which I do).  The nature of living abroad can sometimes change the situation and increase the blurriness between friends and professional acquaintances.  Which is how our pediatrician helped me make pumpkin cheesecake for Thanksgiving this year.

The boys and I were in her office in mid-November, because B had been having some asthma-like reactions to a nasty head cold that just wouldn’t go away (everything turned out fine, ultimately).  While I was paying the bill at the end of our visit (which, here, happens directly to the doctor, because most of them do not have receptionists, nurses, or office staff) we chatted about Thanksgiving, and lamented the difficulty of finding good Thanksgiving supplies so far from home.  Thanksgiving is so very American, and so many of the foods we eat for it are uncommon in Europe.  Sweet potatoes?  Good luck.  Turkey?  No way — besides, it won’t fit in the oven.  Graham cracker crust?  Better start smashing some graham crackers!  Pumpkin pie spice?  Ha ha ha ha — make your own.  And, in the course of chatting, I told her how I’d learned to roast my own pumpkin in order to make my own pumpkin purée for a pumpkin cheesecake I made for Halloween, but that it was kind of a pain, and that I was just going to skip it for Thanksgiving.  We both agreed (surprisingly enough, for Americans) that we weren’t really huge fans of pumpkin pie.  And then she remembered that she had, sitting on a shelf in her pantry, a can of pumpkin pie filling that she was not going to use.

And that’s how I ended up, the following Sunday evening, texting her to remember to bring it to the office, which she did, and B & I picked it up the next morning at his follow up appointment.  And so, our pediatrician helped us have the stuff to make pumpkin cheesecake for Thanksgiving — an Austrian Thanksgiving surprise.

Breaking with tradition

Well, that didn’t go how we expected.

I love Dan.  Really, I do.  But, if he had a middle name (which he doesn’t) it might well be “flaky”.  He had one job.  His parents were visiting, it was Thanksgiving, and the only thing he had to do was to make a dinner reservation.  The first time I brought it up was Halloween.  (I remember because I’d had it on my mind for weeks even before that and I thought that bringing it up more than 4 weeks ahead might be counterproductive — he might not be able to make the reservation that far ahead, and I imagined that if he tried and wasn’t successful, he might forget to call back.)

Halloween.  In October.  4 weeks ago.

I reminded him, several times.  I tried not to harp on it, but I’d ask, once a week or so, if he’d gotten the reservation.  No luck.  He kept telling me he’d do it, that we had plenty of time, and that we didn’t need to make the reservation so far ahead.

But, as happens with these kinds of things, we suddenly went from “having plenty of time” to having almost no time.  He didn’t get around to emailing the restaurant until the night before, and when he didn’t hear back, he finally called around lunchtime on Thanksgiving.  But then it was too late — they didn’t have room for us.  We tried a few of the other restaurants around here.  They couldn’t find a spot for us, either.

057So.  There we were, with Dan’s parents visiting, with no plans for dinner on Thanksgiving.  Yikes.

So, we made a plan B.  Dan went to the store, bought some food and made a very nice dinner.  We had roast pork with sweet potatoes and pears.  It was great, and really very Thanksgiving-y.  After dinner, we still did go out for our “traditional” evening trip to a Christmas market.  We had a lovely, festive meal, and a nice day.  It wasn’t what we had planned, it wasn’t quite what we’d expected, but it was still a good day.

Österreichisch Danke Tag

Thanksgiving is an odd day, and sometimes a tough one, for an expat.  To everyone else here, tomorrow is nothing special — a busy work day early in the Christmas season.  Sunday is the first day of Advent, and for Austrians that’s the focus at the moment.

But for an American family living abroad, tomorrow is an important day.  A day for being together with friends and family, a day to take time out to be together, a day to enjoy and relax and be festive.  Except that here, it isn’t.  It would feel wrong to ignore Thanksgiving, but it feels weird (for me) to try to create an American Thanksgiving in our Austrian home (I know others who do exactly that, though, and love it).

So, what to do?  We want to mark the day, but we don’t want to force it to be something it isn’t.  So, we’ve come up with our own Austrian-Thanksgiving traditions.

Dan takes the day off of work, and the boys don’t go to school, so we make it into a real holiday.  Actually, in order to help us all feel properly festive, they take off Thursday and Friday, too, so we can all enjoy a good, long weekend.  We sleep in (as best we can) spend a quiet morning, and then go out to celebrate.

I’m not much of a cook.  I can make a few things pretty well, but it’s not a strength or a passion of mine.  Attempting to assemble a big meal using our tiny Austrian oven would be a chore for me, not a joy, so it’s no surprise that our Austrian Thanksgiving means going out, not staying in.  We go to one of our favorite Viennese restaurants, and have turkey, potatoes and cranberry sauce — turkey schnitzel, potato salad and cranberry sauce, actually.  It’s our Austrian Thanksgiving feast.

After our meal, we head out to a Christmas market for treats, rides (for the kids) and general festivity.

And, to end our day in the true spirit of the holiday, we finish up with a Skype with family back home.  We get to say hello, chat a bit with everyone and be, just a little, part of Thanksgiving at home.

We love our Austrian Thanksgiving traditions.  They’ve served us well, and it’s become a fun celebration of the holiday.  I feel like we honor the day, but do it in a way that works in our current surroundings.  I’m looking forward to another great Austrian Thanksgiving Day tomorrow.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, here and at home.


I never really appreciated Thanksgiving.  I’ve always been a bigger fan of Christmas and Halloween.  Thanksgiving has always been nice, but I don’t think I ever figured it out.

Thanksgiving, in my mind, has always mostly been the unofficial gateway to Christmas — the time to break out the Christmas sweaters and holiday music.  The time to start decorating and counting down the days until Christmas.  It’s the first day that it’s socially acceptable to wish someone a happy holiday, the first day Christmas lights would start popping up all around.  For that, I’ve always loved Thanksgiving.

Other than that, my favorite thing about Thanksgiving was spending the day with my family.  The bountiful feast is fun, but it was the company of my family I enjoyed most of all.  In a family whose members rarely worked typical business hours, a shared day off for all of us was a very rare thing, and that was what I always liked best — spending the day together.  No matter how crazy all of our schedules were, we would all have at least some part of Thanksgiving off from work, and we would get to be together.

This will be my third year not being home for Thanksgiving, and (like so many other things) being away from it for so long has finally helped me realize how important it is.  I miss the traditions — the cooking, the favorite dishes, the football game.  But mostly, I miss the together time.  I miss the time with my family.  I miss the shared decision to take a collective pause in our over busy lives to spend the day together.  To cook together, to pass down traditions, to visit, to share, just to be together.

That is what I hadn’t really figured out about it before.  I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about it, but, other than as is stated in the name (a day to reflect and be thankful for what we have), I hadn’t ever really figured out what the day is all supposed to be about.  But, now I know.  It isn’t about the meal.  I don’t think it’s even about being thankful for WHAT we have.  It is about being together — about being thankful for WHO we have.

Christmas shares that purpose, a little.  We take time to be together on Christmas, too.  But while Christmas is also about being together, our attention is divided — shopping, gifts, decorating AND cooking.  Thanksgiving, having less fanfare, lets us spend our energy appreciating our company, allows us to be grateful that we are together.  Whatever meal we share, however grand or simple, we share it together, with the people we love the most.

I miss it.  I miss planning the meal with my mom.  I miss Thanksgiving breakfast with my dad.  I miss sitting with my brothers while they watch football.  I miss “helping” with the cooking with my mom and sister (and always suspecting I was causing more trouble than anything).  I miss the conversations and the debates we’d all get into during or after the meal.  I miss it all.  I didn’t get it before.  I didn’t appreciate any of those things enough.  Spending the past 3 years without a Thanksgiving has, surprisingly, transformed into one of my favorite holidays.

A too-busy weekend

Thursday being Thanksgiving, Dan took Thursday and Friday off (like we used to do at home) so that we could take a long holiday weekend and enjoy the beginning of the Christmas season (even here in Vienna, today is the first Sunday of Advent, so Thanksgiving or no, it’s Christmastime now).  It was a great idea, but, as often happens with these lofty and overly rosy images I have of time off as a family, we’re at the end of the weekend, exhausted, off our schedule and a little grumpy.

018We had a great time this weekend (really).  We visited some Christmas markets, we all got to take naps (on at least a few of the days), we went out to eat for Thanksgiving, we got some chores done around the house (not as many as I’d hoped), some of us got to sleep in a little (Dan and Liam did — I’m not bitter) and even went to the zoo today (and saw the pandas for the first time, which was amazing).  It was a fun, packed weekend.  The boys rode on rides at the markets, I did a little Christmas shopping, and we got to spend a lot of time together as a family, which was wonderful.

Really, we had a good weekend.  Really.  But we did too much (and we didn’t even do all of the things we had planned — we do a pretty good job of sticking to a schedule unless it’s labelled “vacation” or “holiday”, in which case everything goes out the window).  So, here we are, trying to get ready for our upcoming week and it’s an hour past the kids’ bedtime and they’re just getting out of the bath.  We got home from the zoo this afternoon completely exhausted and frozen (never trust a Viennese weather report) and by 8:00 we had two kids (who refused to nap earlier) passed out on the couch — too late to be a nap, too early for bedtime.  Benjamin and Liam are still hanging on to the colds they had last week, and now I think Dan & I are getting sick, too.

I’m really glad we had some time off, got to spend so much time together, and took a break from our normal routine to explore and do some fun out-of-the-ordinary things.  But this was not the recipe for a restful holiday.  I think I need a vacation to recover from my long, holiday weekend.



I am so thankful for my darling children — I love that I get to be their mom.  I am thankful for all of my wonderful family.  I am thankful for my friends, old and new, here and at home.  I am thankful for technology — for being able to stay in touch so easily with everyone at home.  I am thankful that we have a warm, safe place to bring our kids home to, food to feed them, and enough money to have all the things that we need, and many, many things that we want.  I am thankful for modern medicine and its practitioners, especially those who helped Liam get through his first difficult days.  I am thankful for all of the people in my life:  past, present and future — for everyone who has been in my life at just the right moment so that I could learn or see something that I needed to (even if it wasn’t a pleasant experience at the time).  I am thankful for my own growth, for learning to let go of things, to enjoy life more, to be more flexible.  I am thankful for this opportunity to be abroad, to experience so many new things and gain so much appreciation for the “old” things.  I am thankful for the kindness I experience in the world — this journey is made so much easier with it.  I am thankful for naps, either when my kids take them or when I get to.  I am thankful for flannel sheets.  I am thankful for our sturdy old stroller that served us faithfully for over 3 years and which chose to fail tonight, in relative safety, outside of a restaurant, instead of in the middle of a busy street, getting off of a train or riding on an escalator.  I am so grateful for my wonderful, abundant life, and for how truly fortunate I am.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Contemplating Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one week from today — in the US.  Austria doesn’t have Thanksgiving, so far as I know, and it certainly doesn’t have it next week.  Next Thursday is just a normal day here.

The most important thing to me about Thanksgiving has always been getting together with my family.  The food is good, and football is always fun, but the real reason to celebrate is that everyone is off of work and able to be together.  This year, we won’t be there.

So, if Austria doesn’t mark Thanksgiving, and the reason we care about Thanksgiving is entirely on the other side of the Atlantic, what does that mean for us?  We’ve debated.  We were going to take a long weekend and travel away from Vienna — go and see another part of Austria, maybe Salzburg, maybe the mountains.  I thought it would be a good chance to take advantage of it being a festive time for us, but without any additional “holiday” charges at the hotels, and without having to worry about what would be open or not.  Good idea, but I didn’t get it together to actually make any plans.

Our next plan was to do nothing — just have Dan go to work as usual, have B go to school as usual, maybe do dinner out somewhere on Thursday, but otherwise, not really do anything and save our vacation time for another time (maybe when I actually *did* get it together to plan an excursion).

But that didn’t really feel right.  The thought of basically ignoring Thanksgiving, although it made some logical sense, was just a bummer.  So, we’re going with “plan C”.  Dan’s going to take Thursday and Friday off, and we’re going to do some fun things around Vienna as a family — go to dinner (we’ll look for turkey, but everyone is serving goose here now, and that’s probably close enough), explore some Christmas markets, try and sleep in, maybe go to the zoo, and see if we can find some Christmas movies, or maybe even the Macy’s parade, on TV or online.  And we’re definitely going to try to Skype our family at home so that we can be a part of Thanksgiving there, too.

It’s certainly not our usual Thanksgiving itinerary, but I’m looking forward to it.  I think it’ll be fun, festive and relaxing, which sounds perfect.

It’s also going to give us a little taste of what Christmas will be like.  Of course, Christmas is enthusiastically celebrated here, so it won’t be a “non-event”.  But, it’s going to be really strange to be away from home, and away from our family’s celebration, for Christmas.  I’m really glad we’ve decided not to ignore Thanksgiving — it’s a chance for us to take what’s familiar from home and tweak it to fit our current surroundings.  At Christmas, in particular, it’s going to be so important for us to do that — to mix the familiar and the new — so I’m glad we’re going to practice a little.