Last summer, before we came to Chennai, we were at Target buying consumables (a shipment of goods like food and paper towels that we’re allowed to send if the local economy at post only has a limited selection). When got to the checkout, we noticed that the woman in front of us was wearing traditional west African prints and pushing a cart piled high with many of the same things we were buying. We made eye contact and we asked if she, too, was heading overseas. She laughed and said yes, then jokingly asked us how we could tell. Then she looked at our cart and said she had assumed the same thing about us. After all, why else would we be buying 12 cans of pumpkin in July?
Holidays in the Foreign Service can be hard. Not only are you away from extended family, but you’re also away from many of the small things that make the holidays what they are. That may include Thanksgiving day football games, neighborhood trick-or-treating, and, yes, the availability of canned pumpkin. One of the ways FSOs and their immediate families deal with this is by going all out and celebrating no matter how difficult is might be to recreate the scenes our extended families are enjoying back home.
This is especially true for those celebrations that are more uniquely American than others, like Halloween, Thanksgiving, or July 4th. Our first Halloween in the Foreign Service was spent in Cotonou where the holiday was practically unknown. Trick-or-treating in our neighborhood wouldn’t have yielded any candy for the kids and probably would have resulted in calls to the authorities. Undeterred, all of the parents and kids at post caravanned by car from one embassy house to the next, dressed in full costumes. When we pulled up to a traffic light, a group of gendarmes porting automatic rifles was standing on the sidewalk. I’ll never forget the confused look, then the laughs, as they peered into our cars to see groups of strange people dressed in even stranger costumes, from bananas to mummies. But we carried on. And back in the summer, we made sure to stock on up more pumpkin than I think we’ll ever use, just so we don’t risk missing out on pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. We also paid a hefty premium for real Butterball turkeys when they were on sale from the commissary. It was worth it though. We had turkey and pumpkin pie (and pumpkin bread, and then pumpkin pancakes) for Thanksgiving.
We’re lucky that we’ve managed to spend our last few Thanksgivings at post with good friends. People support each other and come together to make the holidays happen. With turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin everything, it felt like a real Thanksgiving even if it was 88 degrees outside and the kids still had school. I even made an effort to stay up to watch the Lions play (and failed; I was asleep before the 11:00 PM kickoff).
Next year we’ll be celebrating in the US as our next assignments will have us in Washington for two years. I’m sure we’ll still make that trip to Target to buy cans of pumpkin, but I doubt we’ll be thinking about it in July.