It was almost two years ago when my husband came home one day and said a recruiter had contacted him about a promising job in London.
At the time I quickly put it out of my mind—he’d already considered a few positions outside San Francisco, from Portland to Mexico City, but none had panned out. Plus, we had a comfortable, happy life in the Bay Area with longtime friends, weekends in Sonoma County, and close family nearby. Moving 5,000 miles away just seemed crazy.
But as the next few months passed, we thought about it. We were excited about living in one of the world’s greatest cities, we relished the travel opportunities living at Europe’s doorstep would bring, and, frankly, after more than 30 years in San Francisco between us, we were ready for a change.
So, when his job came through, and I was lucky enough to transfer to CNET’s London office, we grabbed the golden ticket. Before long I boarded a flight to Heathrow, not for a short vacation, but until further notice.
Eight months later, I’ve gone through much less culture shock than I feared. In many ways, our lives aren’t that different from how they were back home. It hasn’t been without bumps—building a social life from scratch when you’re 41 isn’t easy—but I no longer wake every morning with the same question burning in my head: “What the heck am I doing here?”
Yet, as the most American of holidays approaches, a little of my expat unease comes creeping back.
Thanksgiving, that day reserved for stuffing yourself, joking about awkward family moments and braving travel nightmares, is just another workday in the U.K. Even worse, that precious four-day weekend that you savor like sweet pecan pie after the long slog from Labor Day is only a fantasy.
It doesn’t help that my Facebook and Twitter feeds, those tender threads that keep me connected to my other life, are filled with friends bragging about the pies they baked early or comparing their favorite recipes for mashed potatoes.
It doesn’t help that everyone back home is discussing holiday plans when I know I’ll be at work. It doesn’t help that Black Friday is a thing here, a particularly meaningless concept when you have no Thanksgiving Thursday before it.
The Thanksgiving card I got from my parents, something mom faithfully sends every year, actually got me misty-eyed. Suddenly, a day that I had almost taken for granted all these years had tons more meaning.
Thanksgiving is about just being with your real or adopted family, either at your home or your parents’ house that you once inhabited. It’s about a journey, perhaps across the country or just across town. It’s about having some simple down time (not if you’re cooking, of course) during an always hectic season.
It’s been that way forever, but this year would be different. I wouldn’t be at home; I wouldn’t be amongst the family or friends I’ve had for years. It would be just my husband and me, watching it all as spectators from across an ocean.
Yes, we could make our own fun—honestly, that can bring you closer even after 13 years together—but it wouldn’t be the same.
That’s why I was determined not to miss Thanksgiving completely, to re-create what I had always enjoyed. And as the only American on CNET’s U.K. team, I thought it was my duty to represent the best of my nation.
Since I’ve arrived, my lovely colleagues been kind enough to answer my endless questions about life in the U.K. and British politics, translate unfamiliar British slang, explain pop culture references and celebrities I didn’t know, and feed me an array of new snacks I’ve come to crave (McVitite’s Digestive biscuits and Walker’s Cheese and Onion crisps are favorites).
One also included me on his Guy Fawkes Day plans to watch fireworks exploding very low over our heads in a soggy West London cricket club.
In return, I felt I owed them a day as American as I could make it. When I proposed the idea they were heart-warmingly enthusiastic to join. It is, after all, one of the few holidays devoted solely to eating and drinking.
They were even interested in what other traditions the day entailed. Showing that in a country constantly bombarded by American media wouldn’t be easy.
So as Thanksgiving approached, I made my plans. Cooking dinner myself was out—I could muddle through it, but I had people to impress and I was worried about making do with unfamiliar ingredients bought at Tesco.
That meant a restaurant was the next option, which at first seemed like a daunting prospect. I knew I couldn’t be the only person in London looking for a real Thanksgiving dinner, but I wasn’t expecting that many local restaurants would be catering to expat Americans on an ordinary Thursday.
Yet, to my surprise there were quite a few. The most obvious choices were places that bill themselves as “American restaurants.” In past experience, American food abroad usually means hamburgers or neon-lit diners. London, however, goes much deeper with New England-style seafood, barbecue in various styles (even my favorite, Kansas City), and Louisiana soul food.
My menu requirements were simple. I was already craving turkey (a surprisingly scarce ingredient at my local sandwich shops), plus the usual stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry, and pie. A vegetarian option was a must, as well, even if it wasn’t Tofurkey (try it before you judge it).
Most of the menus I checked fit the bill, but others didn’t quite grasp the concept with turkey schnitzel rather than just turkey (and burgers have no business being at the table on Thanksgiving).
After considering the food, the budget and availability, I eventually settled on a place and booked a table for nine after work on Thanksgiving Day.
We’ll be dining at The Breakfast Club, a place I’ve never been but have heard good things about (sadly, there’s no connection to the film). We’ll start with spicy pumpkin soup, followed by roasted Suffolk (all British ingredients, naturally) turkey flavoured with smoked paprika, garlic and sage sweet potato mash and cranberry.
Vegetarians, meanwhile, get baked kale mac n cheese with Ritz cracker breadcrumb topping served in a roasted squash. Both come with pan-fried Brussels sprouts with bacon and chestnuts (you can skip the bacon) and honey-glazed roasted root vegetables. Eating in a restaurant isn’t quite as meaningful as eating at home, but I’m more focused on being with people I enjoy and having fun.
To be really authentic, though, I needed more. I Googled how to stream Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I suggested we watch that Thanksgiving classic, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I warned everyone not to discuss politics at the table.
The idea of watching American football drew little interest, which was fine with me, but a viewing of the Presidential turkey pardon was requested.
A pub quiz could stand in for the usual game of Trivial Pursuit after dinner and no matter what, we were going around the table to say what we’re thankful for, even if you are irreverent about it.
As for me, I’m thankful that London is finally starting to feel like home. In return for not celebrating Thanksgiving, London is giving me a new way to see Christmas.
The decorations don’t go out as early as they do at home, but once they do they’re out in force. The windows at Selfridge’s are a destination, huge light displays form a canopy over the popular West End shopping streets, and there’s a German-style Christmas market setting up just near our house.
No one bothers with saying “Happy Holidays”; it’s a simple “Merry Christmas” instead. That’s actually been the biggest shock so far, followed by trying to explain the Starbucks red cups fiasco to someone at work.
Christmas menus have the pudding I’ve only sung about in Christmas carols, and pigs-in-a-blanket are sausages wrapped in bacon instead of pancakes (seriously, bacon is everywhere here).
Britain is weird, fascinating, and wonderful, and being able to go to Milan for the weekend isn’t a bad trade-off to watching it get dark at 4 p.m. by late October.
That means I can’t wait to visit San Francisco come Christmas, to see the sun melt into the Pacific, to reconnect and to eat more tacos than I can count. Before that, though, it’s my new Turkey Day in my new, adopted home. So, Happy Thanksgiving, America, from ‘over there.’