It didn’t hit me until the week before that this would be my first Thanksgiving away from my family and friends in America. Thanksgiving has always had a special meaning for me, so much so that I wrote my college admissions essay about it. When I was young and lived in Brooklyn, my family used to host the celebration at our home. My father is an artist and musician, and my family is Quaker, and so we’re very welcoming and friendly, inviting musicians, artists, close friends, and ex-pats that might have felt misplaced on that special day. I remember our table stretching from our living room through the dining room and kitchen of our Brooklyn/Bed-Stuy brownstone, holding up to thirty people most times. Folks from everywhere brought their favorite homemade dishes of food that reminded them of their homes. Our Thanksgiving always featured a massive turkey, which my vegetarian parents would somehow bake to perfection, with vegetarian soul food on the side. Guests brought everything from their home countries; Egyptian baba ganoush, Japanese sushi, Italian cannelloni, and other African, Asian, and European dishes and desserts; it was truly amazing!
For a moment, I felt a deep, empty feeling. There it was; my homesickness had caught up to me. To my rescue came my mother’s call. She had found a woman online that baked homemade sweet potato pies (my favorite!), and she had ordered a couple for me. Nadia, the baker, is a Chinese American actress and dancer who has relocated to Rome. Unfortunately, the day I was supposed to pick up the pies, she was stuck at work, but I hope to meet her before I leave Rome. I decided to take one pie to my job and share it with my Mercedes Benz colleagues. It was an instant hit. Everyone loved its sweet and creamy texture. It felt great sharing a piece of my family traditions.
On Thanksgiving, I was invited to join a friend of a friend for lunch. Marichel is an Evangelical missionary and runs a Christian school for refugee children in the outskirts of Rome. Marichel led us in prayers, and I learned hymns while sharing stories over delicious American-inspired food with the other students and teachers. It was exciting to meet students from different parts of the world, from Syria to Ghana, but all so connected through their religion. Their shared love of Christianity and their knowledge of the Bible were evident in all our conversations. When Shawn, one of the missionaries, stood up to recite a verse from the testament, most of the students knew what verse he was referring to, and they all listened attentively to his message about God and his love for his sheep and also for those that are not his sheep yet. While he was reciting the verse with fervor, all the students nodded in agreement.
I attended a Quaker school in Pennsylvania. The difference in my experience was that students belonged to different religions. The only school requirement was the observance of shared values such as integrity, peace, community, and stewardship. A core teaching was that “the Light of God is within each of us,” which makes us all equal and deserve the same love and respect. Equality was a core message at my school. We also shared a common worship moment once a week, called “meeting for worship,” where we would gather together and sit in silence for 45 minutes; only if moved from within we would stand up and share a message with the rest of the community. No preacher was leading us into prayers and no book of prayers to recite. Nevertheless, messages about unconditional love were shared during our worship meetings too.
I realized at that moment, in that school in the outskirts of Rome, how much I missed those Quaker spiritual gatherings of my youth. Sitting in silence, together with your friends and classmates, you learn to tune out the busy world around you and focus on your deep self. You stop thinking about the “me & now” and focus on the big picture. The message the missionary was sharing was about God’s unconditional love. I paused and thought about all those I love and am thankful for.
When I asked Marichel about the origin of her celebration at her school, she shared that she had spent time abroad studying in the U.S. She was so thankful to those families that took her in during those holidays that she had decided to start her tradition of giving back in Rome for Thanksgiving. I paused and thought about how I could pay it forward once back in the U.S.
Lunch at Marichel’s was a meaningful moment in my experience abroad.
When three o’clock hit and people had to go back to work, I returned to my apartment. I had decided with my roommates to split the jobs & cook our own Thanksgiving meal, and it was time to pull up my sleeves and help. Together with another roommate, we started preparing mac and cheese. After looking at different recipes and a trip to the store, we started cooking. The heavy cream was sold out, so we went with “latte evaporato.” Little did we know how sweet the evaporated milk was. A disaster! We tried to patch up our mistake by adding extra sharp cheddar cheese and paprika but let’s just say that ours wasn’t the most successful dish that night. Thankfully I had the second pie that Nadia had made at my mother’s request. And it was delicious. Our roommate Nate had bought a massive turkey, which turns out to be very precious meat in Italy and quite expensive. It was huge and tasted amazing!! We invited the other Temple students from the floor above and below us to join, so there were around twenty of us in total. We had a fantastic time! We ate, played games, and shared stories all night. Somehow it felt like home again, with a makeshift table stretching through rooms and people from everywhere spending a meal together. One of the most memorable experiences in Rome for all of us!
This Thanksgiving, I learned how sharing a meal can genuinely connect people coming from different paths and different cultures. I learned about the magic of starting your own traditions as you move through life and become more independent with the intention and the beauty of paying it forward.