The Good (sort of)
We had our first Thanksgiving as expats. I was surprised at how difficult Thanksgiving was abroad. You realize just how big of a holiday it is in the States. We always spend Thanksgiving with our family and friends. Being so far away you really miss the cadence of the holiday – the weather starting to turn cold, work slowing down a bit the week of, a clear mark to transition to the Christmas season. We had none of that here. We are heading into summer so the kids are swimming in the pool. At work, no one has the faintest clue about a holiday in the United States and here in Santiago, there is no real indication that the Christmas season is upon us outside of the malls.
So Thanksgiving here already had challenges, but we were getting together with another American family to make the most of it. Unfortunately, the morning of, our friend’s daughter wasn’t feeling well and they decided to cancel. I freaked out. It was a trigger I could not have anticipated. I heard the news after dropping the kids at school so I immediately drove straight to Jumbo (the big Target-like supermarket) where I tried to assemble the makings of a Thanksgiving feast day-of.
My whole premise was bad. None of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes exist in Chile. They don’t eat sweet pumpkin so no pumpkin pie. They certainly don’t have Campbells Cream of Mushroom soup for green bean casserole. The Turkeys, for some reason, have no arms and legs (really – something I didn’t discover until I unwrapped it at home) and the ready-made pie crusts are intended for a savory items rather than sweet – just a bit off. Oh, and they don’t have anything like chicken stock or broth – only bouillon cubes. But, I gathered a bunch of random items into my cart and took them home.
Thankfully, my “nana” or maid works on Thursdays. I arrived with bags and bags from Jumbo and did my best in my broken spanish to explain she and I were going to spend the day cooking a Thanksgiving meal (by the way, just that first part – “this is a huge holiday in the United States called Thanksgiving” took some incredible effort to explain and stretched my spanish-speaking abilities.). We had many translation issues – Cecilia ended up shredding the 10 carrots I intended to put in the roasting pan. She couldn’t make sense of stuffing – lots of chunks of stale bread stuffed inside the armless, legless Turkey. But, we cooked the odd turkey without arms and legs and it was tasty (side note: for those of you who like all-natural poultry – forget it. These birds are not only stuffed full of hormones, they are injected with salt. It really is a lot to overlook).
In the end, the turkey was delicious (all full of salt) as was my from-scratch green bean casserole. Our pie with the odd crust even turned out ok. And, the fact that we did it all the day-of in another country is something I’m quite proud of. And, the benefit to the opposite seasons, the day was beautiful so we got to enjoy an evening outside in perfect weather.
We opened a really nice bottle of wine and made the most of it. Ended up having a lovely evening as a family. In earnest, whole-heartedly, we could all be thankful for our family and friends and know that we are not likely to take another Thanksgiving for granted.
The Saturday morning after Thanksgivng Jack was excited about his Fútbol practice. I organized a group of english-speaking kids from Nido to get together on Saturdays with the former captain of the Nido fútbol team to help will some skill building. At Nido, the Chilean kids have been playing competitive soccer for a long time. Real competitive soccer. All the American kids come from leagues that focus on “having fun” and “good sportsmanship.” The American kids are getting killed here. The Chileans are so much better that none of them pass to the “Gringos.” I thought getting the Americans together for some extra practice might help level the field a bit.
We live in the suburbs of Santiago: Lo Barnechea, and specifically, Los Trapenses, is like the Marietta of Atlanta. The air is clear, the houses are big and kids run around free from traffic in culdesacs. Santuario De Valle is a particularly lovely subdivisioin with a giant park that runs through the center with kids riding bikes and tons of expat families. We decided it would be a great spot for practice.
This one Saturday, two other moms and I watched the boys practice, sitting on a park bench. When practice had ended I went to grab my stuff (which had been right next to me on the bench the whole time) and I realize my wallet was stolen. Sure enough, I had noticed a man had been sitting on the bench just next to us but little did I know he was scoping us out the whole time. My wallet, with all my American credit cards, my Chilean bank card and credit card, was gone.
John immediately got on the phone to cancel our Chilean debt and credit cards (because everything has to be in his name here). It took quite some time to get the cards canceled. We thought we could manage speaking to the bank representative in Spanish. While our vocabulary is not super extensive, we do know some key words – robar, necesito cancelar debto y credito. No tengo debito y tarjeta de credit. Unfortunately, I just kept hearing John say, “no intiendo.” Then escalating into some very familiar swear words in English. Finally, we got things canceled. And, turns out EVERYTHING was canceled. My account, all of John’s cards as well, so we were without any access to money.
While Santiago is a remarkably safe place, petty crime is a real problem. And, they don’t insure things the way they do in the states. If someone had charged a ton of things on our credit card we would be in bad shape. It also took until Thursday to get replacement cards issued and I had to go to the bank and sign many papers and wait 24 hours for the new cards to be “activated.” What a pain.
Without the clear transition of Thanksgiving, and temperatures hovering around 80 degrees and the Chilean school year ending marking the start of summer vacation, I was not feeling much of the Christmas Spirit. Minus my typical cues I had to really think about what we do in preparation for Christmas. I decided to ask around to understand what Chileans do. The short answer, “not much.”
Not a huge surprise, but no real Christmas trees. I needed to get comfortable with the idea of a fake tree. We went to Easy (the Home Depot of Chile) to check out the offerings. The trees are small, really plastic and rather pathetic. I mean, they look so flameable that the idea of putting a light on it almost seems like putting a flame to bacon grease. They are not big – 5 feet tall at most, scrawny and they smell and look like bad plastic from the 70s. Oh, and they cost about $250 for the most pathetic offering. A more “fancy” option at a department store will set you back $500.
John and I thought maybe we would skip the whole thing. We wouldn’t put up Christmas at all and instead just head to a small beach surf town for a few days. Go completely in the opposite direction. But a friend going back to the States for Christmas kindly offered her tree if we wanted to borrow it. What a wonderful thing. At least now I would just need to come to terms of the fake tree – not the fact that the fake tree cost upwards of $500.
We got the tree home and while trying to put it up I nearly cried. There is so much wrong with looking at a bunch of super plastic parts. No smell of pine, no sticky fingers from the sap, no rush to get the fresh tree in water.
Is this really better than having no tree at all? Giant gaping holes in the plastic allowed me to see straight through to the other side. Isn’t the ONE benefit to the plastic tree the fact that it CAN be perfect? You can actually construct the tree so that it looks really symetrical and lovely. Hmmmmmm.
Don’t get me wrong, we love Chile and feel grateful for this adventure. But, we have learned that the holidays are rough as an expat. I was really surprised to learn that Chileans put much more energy and excitement around Dieciocho, their independence day celebration, than Christmas. We learned most Chileans work Christmas Eve and the days following Christmas. For a country 85% Catholic, wouldn’t Christmas be a bigger deal?
We realize now that we took many of our Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions for granted. We would complain about how many holiday parties we had to attend, how could we find time to get to the mall to shop, all the family we had to make a point to see. My guess is we probably won’t complain about any of that when we return. I’m glad we decided to put up the tree, pathetic and sad as it is likely to be, the kids really were excited and so happy to bring out our Christmas things.
But I do think we will try and find a little beach town for Christmas 🙂