Away from Home During the Holidays? How to Deal

Staying Connected — By on November 17, 2010 at 12:00 pm

By Briana Palma
LG Contributor

I have been away from home for 306 days.

In that time span both of my parents have moved to new houses, my sister got engaged and my cousin’s baby girl celebrated her first birthday. Meanwhile, I’ve learned a new language, earned a master’s degree and watched a country win its first ever World Cup.

Like most people who allow their innate curiosity to lead them around the world, I’m extremely proud of my travels and my ability to adapt and open my mind to cultures different than my own. Living in Madrid and Rome has unquestionably changed me, because, as John Steinbeck once said, “we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

Even with the beauty of these experiences, though, a touch of homesickness naturally kicks in every so often, leaving me wishing for the most insignificant details of my American life, like Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, the Sunday Boston Globe and shopping at Target. While that nostalgia usually passes quickly, sometimes it rushes in like a tidal wave, bringing a flood of sadness that lingers for days, like one afternoon when walking around my Madrid neighborhood I came across a restaurant where a laughing family of ten or twelve was lunching under the summer sun. For the rest of the day I couldn’t shake the aching I felt to have loved ones nearby, to give my mom a hug or gossip in a coffee shop with my best girlfriends.

Homesickness usually makes that kind of surprise attack, but on occasion we schedule the encounter, like the battles of centuries past. For weeks I’ve anticipated his next assault, on that fourth Thursday in November, a day when, without fail, he invades my heart and robs me of my sense of adventure and independence.

This year will mark the second Thanksgiving in a row that my family, a group of workaholics who don’t often see each other, sits down without me to fill up on turkey, mashed potatoes and my Auntie Ava’s famous sugar cookies. They’ll split up between two tables, one for the kids and one for the adults, though the distinction has always remained fuzzy. At 24, I still haven’t made my way to the adults’ table, instead opting to talk dance classes and dinosaurs with my cousins’ children while forgetting about my responsibilities as a sort-of-grown-up.

This reality leaves me with a sinking feeling in my stomach for two reasons: missing out on the rare family time and the fact that I, supposedly a fearless world traveler, will have the blues about missing out on the rare family time. Last year, maybe in a bit of denial, my friend Katie and I escaped to London on Black Friday, thus distracting ourselves with trip details and packing on the actual holiday. This year, however, I find myself as a lone American girl among Italian friends, who have already demonstrated their confusion about the significance of Thanksgiving, shooting me a “what’s the big deal?” look whenever it comes up in conversation.

While their ignorance used to frustrate me, I have realized that they couldn’t possibly understand. Italian culture, after all, emphasizes family bonds and here, many children remain in their parents’ homes well into their late 20s and early 30s. To Italians, togetherness is the norm rather than the exception.

Still, living abroad and meeting people with different traditions should give way to an exchange of ideas. So I’ve decided this year I will not give up one of my favorite celebrations nor accept that it can’t exist beyond America’s borders. Instead I will face the holiday (and my homesickness), and try to reinvent it with a little Mediterranean flair.

I began this mission weeks ago by taking time to explain to friends the day’s importance and why I will undoubtedly feel bit melancholy. And then I had a thought. They constantly show me their culture and Thanksgiving could give me the opportunity to return the favor, presenting them with one of America’s most wonderful traditions. Rather than wallowing in my sorrows as I imagine my relatives sitting down together, I will host an unconventional dinner, one without turkey or pumpkin pie, for a different “family” – the small group of friends who have defined my time in Rome.

Because in the end, it’s not the food I miss so much. It’s the company, the laughter and the stories that make Thanksgiving so special. And if I’ve learned anything from my travels, it’s that things rarely unfold as we expect them to, yet if we face the world with an open mind and a little creativity, they often exceed our expectations.

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  • Briana, I love this post! You’ve captured so much of what I also feel in living abroad during the holidays. This Thanksgiving, I’m getting together with a mixture of Korean friends and fellow expats, the closest of whom really feel like a second family to me, and we’re having a dinner and dance party. I think that you (and I) understand the best way to deal with holiday blues is just to continue the celebrations in whatever unconventional way is possible. I hope you have a great Thanksgiving!

  • Briana Palma says:

    Melanie, thanks for your comment! It’s so nice to know there are other travelers having the same emotions and experiences as I am.