A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Don’t Take Your Thanksgiving Turkey For Granted

us army soldier eating with thanksgiving mealFor some Americans living overseas, finding a Thanksgiving turkey can be an ordeal. Not every American eats turkey on Thanksgiving Day, but when you live outside the country, these kinds of cherished American traditions can take on a sense of heightened importance to the point where re-creating an American style Thanksgiving dinner, even if you’re in Dushanbe or Khartoum, becomes an obsession.

My wife was the Community Liaison Officer, a job that some have described as a sort of cruise director, at the U.S. Embassy in Skopje, Macedonia, and finding turkeys there fell under her vague job description since it was considered a “morale issue.” Americans take for granted the ability to walk into any grocery store in the country and get what they need for a Thanksgiving dinner in ten minutes, but in many parts of the world, it can be a serious scavenger hunt to get the items you need.One year, when I was posted in Trinidad, I spent a ridiculous amount of time looking for Karo syrup for a pecan pie recipe. (I had no idea at the time that other recipes don’t require it) I must have visited every store in Port of Spain before I finally found a bottle and felt as though I’d scored a golden ticket for Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and their family members have one luxury that most expats don’t – the ability to order products online and have them shipped to a U.S. address. Those who are at posts with an APO address can get things quickly, but everyone else has to wait anywhere from a week to a few weeks or more to get their mail. But no matter how you slice it, you still can’t order a turkey on Amazon.com.

soldiers eating thanksgiving dinnerAt the time we lived there, it was impossible to find turkeys for sale in Macedonia, and, unlike larger posts, we didn’t have a PX or a commissary that sold them, so my wife had to do some detective work and ultimately found a way to get birds from a military base in Kosovo and have them trucked down to Macedonia. It wasn’t as simple as driving over to the local Safeway but we probably appreciated them more.

With a little effort, expats can usually cobble together some semblance of a Thanksgiving meal but the hardest part of being overseas is having to spend the holiday season away from family and loved ones. I arrived at overseas posts for the first time shortly before Thanksgiving on three occasions: Skopje, Macedonia, Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Budapest, Hungary, and it’s always a little odd to arrive at a new post without any of your household effects or cookware before a holiday like Thanksgiving.

Even if you’re the most repellant jerk in the world, someone will invite you to Thanksgiving dinner. At some posts, the Ambassador will invite singles, newcomers and other strays to dinner and in others, people just informally make sure that no one is home alone without access to turkey meat unless they want to be.

In a way, it’s kind of a remarkable thing the way FSOs host fellow colleagues they barely know for this really important family holiday. Can you imagine having Thanksgiving dinner with a work colleague you barely know in the U.S.? We had kind souls host us in Port of Spain and Budapest and, in our first year in Skopje, I went to a meal hosted by the Ambassador. On other occasions, we introduced local friends to our favorite American holiday.

We were grateful for the invites we got, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it can be a little depressing to spend Thanksgiving with a collection of people you don’t know well. No matter how good the company is, you can’t help but wish you were with your real family, rather than your Foreign Service one, which can feel very much like what I imagine a foster home experience is like. And I never had to serve in a combat zone, where Thanksgiving dinner means waiting in a buffet line with a tray.

There are lots of advantages to the Foreign Service lifestyle but being away from family members during holidays and important occasions is probably the biggest drawback. Those of us who are fortunate to be with family members and near readily available dead turkeys this year should raise a glass and toast members of the Foreign Service, the military and every other American that’s serving their country and dealing with ad-hoc bird meat and improvised company this year.

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[Photo credit: US Army Africa on Flickr]