By Miranda Metheny
There are a lot of reasons why people get scared about studying abroad, and missed holidays are pretty high on the list. I’ll be honest — it’s not always easy. Even the most stubborn expats are more likely to find their thoughts wandering homeward as their families post pictures of the Thanksgiving turkey.
The truth is that this is one of those times you have to make a choice and a trade off… you have to leave something to find something new. Things won’t be the same outside of U.S. borders, but if you’re willing to be brave and open your mind, you’ll find that, for this one year, replacing the familiar with the new and exotic can be fascinating. Sometimes the same holiday is eerily similar, sometimes strikingly different… sometimes smaller, sometimes bigger… sometimes our American holidays pass by without a trace — and sometimes you stumble into a festival you’ve never heard of back home.
So how does a year at home compare to a year abroad, holiday for holiday?
Forget provocative costumes, themed parties, trick-or-treating and haunted houses. This year’s Halloween was genuinely spooky, no special effects needed.
I was in Galicia, Spain’s rainiest corner, and during a “red alert” storm weekend as well. We nibbled on the seasonal Huesos de Santos (Saints’ Bones pastries) for breakfast and thought that would be the closest we came to Halloween for the year. Then, as we ran back into the center of the small town of Muros to escape a downpour, things got a little weird. In the weather, the street was abandoned except for what appeared to be half a dozen lifeless bodies.
One was thrown into a corner, one was slouched down into a chair, one had fallen across a table and one was even hanging from a signpost. The only thing separating it from a scene from “The Godfather” was that all these bodies had pumpkins for heads. Nearby, a pay-phone was broken, its internal mechanisms open to the wind and rain and shaking as they continued to ring and ring. We walked down the street to the bus stop to that broken sound and the empty stares of the jack-o-lantern men…
That was a day I won’t forget any time soon… but I confess, I still missed the tacky commercialism. America: 1, Europe: 0
This was a toughie. Thanksgiving is as All-American as our holidays come, and in Spain no one blinked as the day came and went.
Things probably would have been easiest if we’d all just agreed to ignore it, to let it pass like any other fall day. Instead, I spent the day listening to the other American exchange students moan about their grandmas’ perfect pumpkin pie and reading “wish-you-were-here” emails from home.
The worst, though, was the International Center’s offering to us for the holiday. They called it “Spainsgiving,” and, expecting some sort of amusing fusion of traditions or at least cuisines, we signed up in droves. “Spainsgiving” turned out to be a wholly unremarkable Spanish-style dinner for twice the restaurant price, and Ida from Finland wearing a Native American headband.
Can I go home now? America: 2, Europe: 0
If you can’t remember how you celebrated your San Fermin Txikito last year, don’t worry too much. This patron-saint holiday is only celebrated in my adopted Spanish home-town of Pamplona.
Pamplona is famous worldwide for the “real” San Fermines, which takes place in the middle of the summer and includes the Running of the Bulls. But San Fermin should traditionally be celebrated in the fall… and today that’s when they hold San Fermin Txikito (Little Saint Fermin), which is much less famous and remains a community affair. The townspeople show up in traditional Basque costumes, the streets are full of music, the Gigantes (or giant sculptures) go through town in a magnificent procession, and you might even be able to catch the children’s version of the running of the bulls, where the “bulls” consist of horns mounted on wheelbarrows and run through the city by volunteers!
An easy score for the other side of the pond! America: 2, Europe 1
So, I made it home in time for Christmas Eve. As far as I know, none of MU’s study abroad programs make it particularly difficult to do so. Still, there’s no way around the fact that you do miss a certain amount of the familiar… Christmas carols in the malls and helping your family put up the tree. Those who study abroad in Europe, however, can take heart — our friends over the pond take the holiday even more seriously than we do.
During the cold winter nights leading up to Christmas, Pamplona’s center lights up and becomes a cozy, warm hive of human activity. In the market square you can eat churros (freshly deep fried cinnamon sugar sticks) with Spanish-style hot chocolate (literally melted down chocolate) while shopping for presents for friends back home and watching processions of traditional dancers and the strangely frightening Basque christmas spirits.
One part cozy, one part exotic, three parts delicious… America: 2, Europe: 2
A birthday is a birthday, right? Yes and no. While 21 is the big year for coming of age in America, in Germany its just another year older. To make matters worse, I turned 21 within a week of my arrival here, before I had amassed enough friends for a proper party… or so I thought. I ended up celebrating with a crowd of more than a million people on the streets of Cologne — although some of them hadn’t gotten the memo and seemed to think they were there for “Carnival!”
Karneval was awesome, but I’ll never have the chance to turn 21 in America again… America: 3, Europe 2
Last year, I dyed eggs with a few friends in my dorm room. This year, I attended Easter morning services in the beautiful Strasbourg Cathedral and then wandered for hours through the Easter Market of the picture-perfect French village of Colmar, where fresh spring flowers decorated balconies and canals and fluffy black sheep baaed from their pens. Enough said.
Easter in France looks like a page right from a storybook. No contest!
America: 3, Europe: 3
In America, we usually get a day off school. People mostly use it to catch up on end-of-semester work… or maybe a family barbecue if they’re lucky. In Finland, though, it’s time for Vappu — one of the year’s biggest celebrations and rich with quirky university traditions. Students take to the streets in their traditional overalls and caps, and party into the night and through to the next morning, when everyone gathers for picnics that blanket the city parks.
Fun fact? The traditional Vappu drink is mead. Yes, like in Beowulf. I basically think that’s awesome! America: 3, Europe: 4
Since I’ll be studying hard for finals while my compatriots back home set off fireworks and gorge themselves on barbecue and summer sunshine, I’m going to go ahead and call the Fourth of July for America, bringing the race to a tie. So I’d be lying to you if I told you this was always easy. During my year abroad, I’ve missed a Jack-o-Lantern, Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas tree, birthday cake, and Easter basket — and I’ve gained a lifetime of stories, experiences and insights. I’m pretty okay with the trade-off.