On Thanksgiving last year, my friends arrived for dinner just past 9 p.m. They filed into my cramped apartment carrying bottles of wine, braised green beans, mashed potatoes made with olive oil, and tapas of jamón iberico and manchego cheese. I had made an apple crisp masquerading as pie and cranberry sauce from re-invigorated Craisins; a rotisserie chicken stood in for a turkey. Two large tortilla de patatas (a quiche-like dish thick with eggs, potatoes, and olive oil) stood in for nothing but were there nonetheless, staples of nearly every Castilian meal. Before we ate, I told a simplified version of the Thanksgiving story in my halting, uneven Spanish, and we went around the little table and each said something we were thankful for.
My list of things to be thankful for was long, and my life in Spain was at the top. I lived in various small towns around the country from 2011 to 2014, three years out of a nomadic period that lasted most of my twenties. I was wildly grateful to be living abroad: I relished the constant newness and loved the challenges and little puzzles that every day brought. I ate lunch at 2:30 p.m., got in the habit of taking a mid-day siesta, and became addicted to tiny cups of café con leche. Mondays and Thursdays I took flamenco lessons at a local studio. The plaza where I lived faced the ruins of an 8th-century palace.
But Thanksgiving remained a tether connecting me to my life in America. My memories of the holiday each year—whether they included elaborate cooking, family squabbles, beer and football, or quiet time on the couch—were something I used as a marker, to bring me back to who and where I had been before. Celebrating the holiday in Spain meant it was possible to fool my taste buds into believing I was back on my own turf, if only for a day. It meant an opportunity to say to my friends and co-workers: Here, you've taught me so much about new music, new traditions, new tastes. Let me show you a little about where I'm from. Let me remind myself.
After those three happy years, I followed a long-incubating dream and moved back to the United States to go to journalism school at the University of California-Berkeley. While I mourned my last tapas and destined-to-turn-rusty Spanish, I had to admit I was looking forward to a return to the familiar: living as the proverbial fish out of water takes a great deal of extra energy and effort. I had traveled to more than 40 countries during my nomadic years, and in my mind the places I had visited, including Spain, were grouped into a distinct, foreign category known as "far." Conversely, anywhere in the U.S. was "near." I hoped that re-immersing myself in that nearness, returning to my "native habitat," would mean that daily life that would come more naturally. Just by virtue of coming back to my own country, I thought, I would feel at ease and at home.
I arrived in the U.S. in time for autumn. As a New England native, fall was always my favorite times of year, but the temperature in Spain had rarely dipped below 50 degrees. I was looking forward to a return to the beloved fall activities of my childhood: watching my breath pool in the air early in the morning, rubbing the condensation from frost-covered windows, exploring pick-your-own back country apple orchards. So it was that, despite California's sun-kissed reputation, some part of me was still disheartened and disoriented by the lack of frosted panes in Berkeley's brightly colored cottages. Instead, flowers bloomed everywhere, their heavy scent blanketing the sidewalks. It mingled with the fog that hung on the eaves and lampposts, along with purple King's Mantle and fuchsia bougainvillea that bloomed ferociously even as fall wore on.
October–the Bay Area's famous Indian summer—was beautiful but no less strange. Just when I expected the darkness of winter to begin its advance, I would come outside in 80-degree weather to find a flaming red tree or bush losing its leaves exactly as if it were a crisp fall day. As an East Coast native, I had believed that trees lost their leaves as a result of the cold weather, not biological habit. The effect was disorienting and, in upending my assumptions about the rhythms of the natural world, made everything feel deeply off balance.
What might have normally helped me find my bearings—food or language, compasses of "hereness" and home—gave me little comfort. The produce was dizzyingly diverse; Bay Area pizza often featured olive oil instead of tomato sauce and, perplexingly, corn. Instead of my beloved Bostonian "wicked," my classmates exclaimed that it was "hella" hot outside and had a confusing tendency to flip the ends of their sentences up like questions. I hadn't imagined I'd feel culture shock at home, but that's exactly what it was.
In another country, all of these departures would have been new and fascinating, even welcome. Instead, I felt adrift. I had expected to slide easily into my new life. I wasn't supposed to mix up bus stops and get utterly lost; I wasn't supposed to be overwhelmed by the chaos of the supermarket. I wasn't supposed to sit in my apartment missing Spain so much that my chest ached and the room swam.
It was in one of those moments, trying to make sense of my conflicting sense of loss, loneliness, and frustration under an improbably hot Halloween sun, that I understood my overseas obsession with celebrating Thanksgiving. My nomadic life had been possible entirely because I was anchored by that idea of home, a constant in an existence filled with newness and change that I could both look back at and forward to. Having an anchor back home meant never having to drop one wherever I was. Strictly speaking, my new West Coast escapade looked an awful lot like the adventures I had enjoyed in the past, but I wasn't prepared to be so adaptable now that California was blurring the definition of "home" that had kept me steady. Where, or what, was my anchor now?
It seems only right, then, that my first Thanksgiving back in the U.S. was the moment that compelled me toward a more flexible attitude. Looking forward to a day of stability in a season of newness and uncertainty, I imagined beloved holiday traditions: blearily watching the Macy's Parade over cereal and coffee, snitching apples coated in butter and brown sugar from the bowl as my father prepared his famous apple pie, and watching my aunt mix her signature stuffing with spring onions and raisins. But instead my parents flew west from Boston to celebrate in Berkeley with longtime family friends. It was time for new traditions, they said.
We planned a buffet Thanksgiving picnic in Tilden Park, a tangle of old-growth greenery spread out over Berkeley's hills. My father's childhood best friend and his children came, along with their partners and friends. Under a 70-degree sun we ate butter-smothered mashed potatoes, classic candied sweet potatoes with molasses, and the requisite turkey with gravy—all on picnic tables under the shade of pine trees. The weather was uncannily gorgeous, the setting stunning. It felt bizarre.
Someone had prepared two kinds of quinoa; another guest had brought a massaged kale salad; and on a separate table a flotilla of pumpkin pies waited, creamy golden and beautiful. Three separate guests had made the pies, and throughout the meal everyone exclaimed over them, remarking on their extraordinary hues and scents of nutmeg and cinnamon. My father had even made an extra pumpkin instead of his usual apple. No one else had made an apple pie, either. Instead, along with our pumpkin pie we ate Meyer lemon bars, glazed and shining; Meyer lemon cake topped with chocolate frosting and pomegranate seeds; and fresh figs from someone's front yard. It made sense, I told myself, my chest constricting. After all, I knew at least five people with lemon or fig trees on their property.
In spite of everything I knew I was lucky to have; in spite of the love surrounding me and the rich opportunities that continued to present themselves, Thanksgiving didn't feel right without apple pie. In the days that followed, the profusion of Meyer lemon everything became an apple-pie-shaped hole, somehow symbolizing the things I didn't yet have on the West Coast: the friends I hadn't made, the ease I couldn't grasp, a cure for my constant cravings for café con leche.
I didn't want to feel like this, so focused on my frustration and loneliness. I wanted to understand what was keeping me stuck. In this beautiful new world, why could I only see what I didn't have? To try to get some perspective, I called Hannah, a friend who had also recently moved back to Ohio from Spain. The advice she gave me was illuminating. After living the unfamiliar for so long, my idea of home had become powerfully linked with an oversimplified image of American life. If "home" meant "America" and "America" meant "near," in my mind that meant I would arrive in the U.S. and fall back into old routines, feeling settled and grounded right away.
But I realized dividing the world into "near" and "far" erased some of its beautiful complexity. It didn't do justice to the diverse shades of home or to the subtleties of homesickness, what Spaniards call morriña, the nuances of which meant that you could ache for a crowded Spanish street at twilight or an absent apple pie and actually be missing the same thing. Such a divide didn't acknowledge that I wasn't the same person who had left to travel and live abroad. And it didn't honor the fact that, as unfamiliar as it had been, I had made a kind of home in Spain.
In fact, it was that stable certainty of the U.S. as home that had fostered my personal growth there. The rhythm of Spanish late-night dinners and afternoon naps hadn't come easily to me; greeting friends with two kisses and shopping for produce at the grocería were habits that had initially felt alien and uncomfortable. But in reminding me of who I was and where I had come from, that sense of home had afforded me the confidence to domesticate what had at first been wild.
"Home is a process," Hannah told me on the phone. I was alone in my bedroom but batted tears away, frustrated that I couldn't jump ahead a few steps to feeling settled and at ease. Still, she was right: Moving to a familiar country instead of a new one doesn't mean a free pass excusing you from that slow domestication, the work that making a home requires. New friendships deepen slowly. Routines grow up like vines around our days. A new home takes a while to get under your skin.
As Hannah and I hung up, I thought back to Thanksgiving afternoon in Tilden Park. After our meal, a few of us wandered along a path through the redwoods and evergreens to Lake Anza. After Thanksgivings on the East Coast, we would sometimes take a walk in the darkness and freezing temperatures to settle our stomachs. That afternoon, nobody had shivered; I had even taken off my sweatshirt walking up the hill. My father and a few others invited me to walk around the lake with them, but an old ankle injury kept me from joining in. As they disappeared down the sun-dappled path, I had sat for a moment watching the ripples on the water and regretting the missed chance for a little more beauty, a little more time with loved ones.
I thought about the Tilden celebrations that stretched into the future. I wanted to be thankful not just for the homes I had had but for the new home I was still creating. I made a mental note for next Thanksgiving: "bring ankle brace" and "make apple pie."