I don’t know exactly when, or how it happened, but it turns out I’ve become a heathen. Perhaps I always have been, and it only takes attending a Charity Thanksgiving Sunday dinner for me to realize this.
Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated Down Under. Why would Aussies celebrate a holiday that came about because a group of musket-bearing Quakers diseased the natives, pillaged their land, and ate their turkeys? That’s what I used to tell my British students anyway, much to my mother’s chagrin. (It’s closer to the truth than anything I was ever told as a kid.)
Nevertheless, a charitable cause is a charitable cause, so off I went to the Thanksgiving dinner. I had ventured out on my own, seeking what I assumed would be some nothing-special venue, springing along to whatever folky-happy music my ipod chose. But the place where the dinner was held was so fancy, that I almost missed it.
Walking from the station, I came upon a columned building somewhat set back from the main street. Brightly bopping balloons tied to pillars decorated the curved driveway as ladies in heels and men in suits and sunnies mingled in the open double doors. The International was luxuriously scripted across the front of a large slate grey stone.
“This can’t be it,” I thought, and sauntered past in my flip-flops, sure my destination was the crumbling-down building on the next corner.
Moments later, having walked too far, I turned around and was again in front of The International. This was it.
I walked up the steps of the building and into the lobby, already feeling a little out of place. It was a very nice lobby, walls bedecked with large paintings and hollowed corners filled with sparkly Christmas trees, all being admired by people dressed in their Sunday best. I looked down at my plaid yellow country button-up shirt, my flair jeans, and my flip-flopped feet with chipped toenail polish.
I’ve been told that it’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed. But I just can’t always be bothered to make that kind of effort. So if I am underdressed, it’s better to at least be with other underdressers. When alone, I scan the crowd for people even more embarrassingly underdressed than me. I can almost always find someone of this description, but it’s usually a small dirty child. Today, even the children looked better.
I tucked my ipod away, and went to search for my name on the lists of table assignments posted on a nearby board.
The tables were listed by number. There I was, listed under the very last table at the very bottom of the board, and not only was my table numbered Table 25, but, making me feel more out of place, this particular listing also pointed out the unfortunate location of my table: Table 25 – back of room. See:
None of the other tables had that snubbing addition.
I wandered over to where I was told to go, to a very nicely set, but very empty table and sat down. I looked around the room at the other tables filling up with laughing children and smiling families and chirpy conversation. Some shitty Thanksgiving Day parade was playing on a big screen at the front of the room.
This wasn’t doing too much for my homesickness so far.
Nevermind, I started to pour myself a glass of water from a glass pitcher into the stemmed water glass. My aim was off, and I poured the water straight onto my plate, all splashy and cold. No one was paying attention to the cowgirl in flip-flops at the “back of room”, so I just swapped plates with one on the far side of the table.
I sat for about ten minutes, then, out of boredom, I scanned the menu/agenda. Then I noticed that during the “prayer” time the bar would be temporarily closed. Bar? Where bar?!
A brimming glass of Shiraz later, I sat back down at my empty table.
Then, finally, an old woman and her partner circled towards my table at the back. The old woman was balding. She looked at the chair next to me and politely asked, “Is anyone sitting here?”
“Nope!” I said.
Except, it wasn’t a simple “nope”, but a drawn-out, especially plosive “nope”. Hold the “p” down, and let it go . . . . . like the girls do with “lollipop” in that one song.
I don’t know why I did this, having had only a slurp or two of wine. It was the first conversation I had had with anyone in 45 minutes, and I nearly ruined it. I should have said, “Hey! Yeah, please sit! Go right ahead!” And smiled in my normally bright and friendly way.
But all I had was, “No-pahh!” And then I stared at her.
It seems I stopped trying before the dinner even formally started.
I watched as the old bald lady sat down and started to pour herself a glass of water. Her aim was bad, and cold splashy water puddled up her plate and napkin.
Here was my chance to redeem the “No-pahh”. I handed her a dry napkin from someone else’s seat and told her I had spilled all over too. She smiled.
And then the dinner was served. Turkey. Stuffing. Cornbread. (CORNBREAD!!) Cranberry sauce. It was alright! As I dug in, I realized why I had thought it was perfectly normal to rock up to a Sunday Thanksgiving dinner in jeans and flip-flops and a cowboy shirt.
Not only had I not been home for a decade’s worth of this particular holiday, but my family has always celebrated it differently: off-road style! We (usually a caravan of 4 or 5 families) drive hours out to the desert towing trailers, fifth wheels, jeeps, bajas, quads, dirt bikes, RZRs, and sometimes shotguns to shoot up leftover Halloween pumpkins (not natives). We bring food for Thanksgiving, but we cook it in the ground.
A big ol’ hole is dug in the ground, the bottom lined with stones that usually the kids are sent out to find, and a fire is started. The fire is manned through the night, with campers taking shifts to add the wood and get the fire and the stones oven-hot. Then the turkey is seasoned and wrapped and encased in a pot or something (I am usually playing in the dirt or getting people and myself beers at this point, so I don’t really know what happens between the digging of the hole, and the digging up of the turkey) but the turkey is buried and left to cook in the heat of the stones. Then we ride around on bikes and in jeeps all the next day. Once someone remembers where the turkey was buried, we dig it up and dig in.
And. It. Is. AWESOME. But yeah, we are dirty, sitting in lawn chairs around a fire, beer in hand, turkey on paper plate, and we all sit around feeling fat and grateful like the heathens we are. This is what I remember when I think of a family Thanksgiving.
Those memories are a far cry from the situation I found myself in this year. No family. No off-road bikes. The turkey had been cooked in an oven. And any dirt in the place I am sure was brought in by me. But I felt a little more comfortable than I had when I first arrived. Food and wine will do that.
Feeling conversational, I began to chat with the bald woman. Turns out, she was lovely. And from LA. Thirty years ago, she told me, she was traveling Europe when a rugged Aussie struck up a conversation with her over a cold beer in some 17th century building. She followed him to Melbourne and never looked back. She told a few stories and I, enchanted, listened to every word.
I took another bite of turkey, and then it occurred to me that I too had met an Aussie, who, over a beer in a 17th century building in Colombia, I realized I would be following to Melbourne.
Then I remembered how I had splashed the water all over my plate, as had she. We had both been sent to sit at the “back of room” table. In forty years, I thought, it could be me who was the bald lady sitting at the table telling travel stories to strangers.
I think I will be okay with that.
I just hope there’s a flip-flopped heathen sitting next to me then too.