As with many holidays abroad, I was tempted to let this year’s Thanksgiving pass unnoticed, just another day of the week. I also thought about buying some sort of pre-roasted chicken from the supermarket, a box of stuffing mix, and cooking a faux-Thanksgiving dinner for my new flatmates in Wellington. I was, after all, new to the city come the last week in November, so it could have potentially been a good way to get to know the flat. But that was it precisely – I was new and I wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving, if I celebrated it at all, with people who at least knew who Squanto was.
So I went where I usually go when in search of, well, anything – Google. Every aspect of the summer I spent in Boston was determined by the world’s largest search engine (incidentally, did you know their annual revenue exceeds $22 billion?) – my internship, my apartment, my church, even daytrips outside the city. “How did you hear about/find us?” I was asked by a number of people. “Google,” I would promptly reply. This year, though, I remembered how the Thanksgiving service I attended in London had been put on by the American Expat Society. I figured there must be something similar here, some New Zealand equivalent to the organization that I could connect with.
Well…there was, amazingly enough, the American Women’s Network in New Zealand. They were hosting a Thanksgiving dinner with a menu that I just couldn’t pass up:
Turkey and gravy
Mashed potatoes and stuffing
Creamed spinach with fried onions
Green bean casserole
Sweet potato casserole
White cheddar macaroni and cheese
Tossed salad and bread rolls
Even my frugal self didn’t mind paying the non-member’s price of $35 for such a line-up of Thanksgiving dinner all-stars. It was exactly what I wanted – a taste of familiarity served in an adventure, spending my favorite holiday with strangers. Just what would the evening hold?
I didn’t want to be too on-time, certainly not early – nothing like a new girl showing up early to scream desperate. I left my flat at what I considered to be a little late – and as the stop I needed was at the end of the line, I figured I’d definitely be running behind schedule by the time I arrived. But wouldn’t you know it, the bus dropped me off at 5:29pm, the dinner scheduled for 5:30pm. So I took my time walking the three minutes from the bus stop to the Pines, a function hall set at the edge of a cliff with an incredible view of Houghton Bay. The sun was just beginning to dip a little, the dark blue waves dancing in the buttery, dusky light. It may have been different but it was definitely the most beautiful setting in which I’ve ever spent Thanksgiving.
I walked into the Pines center only to find myself one of about five people there, including the president of the group who was checking everyone in and, more importantly, taking their payment. I was directed to table #1, which I assumed would prove to be a prime spot come time to line up and go through the buffet. I wasn’t alone for long before a slightly overweight man with a Kiwi accent sat down. He was, of course, not who I was exactly expecting to meet first at an American Women’s Network function (being neither American nor female). I wasn’t sure if I was being rude or nosy or just stating the obvious when I asked him, “So, uh, what brings you here, Ross?” Apparently he knew Zelicia, the president, and she invited him along.
When the next two guys sat down, one of whom was saying, “This doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving at all. I’m wearing short sleeves and there’s no football on TV,” I was pleased to see this time they were mildly attractive and younger-looking Americans. I began to think that maybe the night wouldn’t be too bad after all. I hadn’t known what to expect, but I don’t think “fun” had really been on the list. The general sort of questions were asked, state of origin, length of time in New Zealand, job, etc. When I asked the two new guys what they did, they answered, “We work for Weta.” I, in all my inglorious ignorance, wasn’t sure if this was short for something, some kind of code, or just a mysterious government organization, but from the way another woman looked at me, I should’ve known instantly. “Lord of the Rings?” she says with an implied ‘duh.’ As it turns out, Weta is Weta Digital, the visual effects production company who can claim none other than Peter Jackson as one of its founders.
Alex and Frank both work for Weta and I was immediately intrigued. Their specialty is lighting and they’d just finished up work on Avatar. When I asked what else they’d been involved in, the lists they both rattled off were the coolest resumes I’d ever heard. While mine lists nothing but your usual retail and hospitality posts, their work experiences come from the movies they’ve worked on. My CV says restaurant, supermarket, bar…Theirs says Madagascar, Harry Potter, and The Day After Tomorrow. You as jealous as I was?
As the conversation went on, though, we realized several tables had already started filing through the buffet line. So much for table #1 going first. “What if they don’t replenish the buffet?” Alex worries aloud, growing concerned. “We’re not in America, you know.” A woman at our table tells us Zelicia had to give the staff at the Pines most of the recipes as they’d never heard of many of the dishes. It became clear the quality of the food might be another area of concern. We obviously wouldn’t be having our momma’s cooking this year. And just when our stomachs were on the verge of collapse, our time in the line arrived – as if ordered according to some Biblical “first-shall-be-last” principle, table #1 was the last to go up. This wouldn’t have been an issue, save that there was no stuffing left by the time I went through. I tried not to let it ruin my day and stocked up instead on dark turkey meat and more cold macaroni and cheese.
Frank finished first and as we marveled at how fast his plate had disappeared, Alex says, “He’s loud, jolly, and he eats a lot – he’s the perfect American.” Zelicia finally sat down with us as well, everyone finally checked in and in place. She didn’t look too happy, though. “They’ve run out of turkey,” she says. She may be from Virginia, but she had the look and demeanor of a native New Yorker. “I told them 80 adults and there’s only 72 of us. I don’t get it.”
“Well…did you tell them we’re American?” Alex asks, my hero of the day, because it’s lines like his that make the night for me. It’s lines like his – making fun of the very things we love most about our collective homeland – that I think I knew subconsciously why I wanted to be around other Americans on Thanksgiving, not my Kiwi flatmates or any other randoms. It’s one thing to spend Christmas with friends from other places, but Thanksgiving – being such a culture-specific holiday – should be spent with Americans. That being said, my mother spent Thanksgiving this year in Bangkok with an American family we’re old friends with, who in turn invited twenty or so friends to dinner from all over the world. I suppose I myself was just in need of a good ‘ole dose of Americana – of playing up the stereotypes and putting away a serious amount of turkey.
After the dinner had finished, Alex and Frank invited me over to their place for a few drinks from where we picked up their South African housemate Brian, also a Weta nerd, and headed into town. We ended up in a place called Motel, one of those bars you have to know exists in order to go there. It’s tucked away on an alley that shoots off a side street off Courteney Place, the main street where bars are located. Only a small square sign reading “Motel” hangs above the doorway – not out of your league, just out of the way. We sat around a circular leather booth, sipping vodka martinis and smuggler’s rum concoctions, and munching on popcorn – yes, popcorn, which the bar serves free by the bowl-full – and I thought to myself, this is the last place I expected to end up on Thanksgiving, a reason enough alone to celebrate the day and give thanks for all the crazy new places this year has taken me.
Every Thanksgiving, I’m used to the typical post-gluttony location being passed out on the couch in front of the television, not some swanky downtown cocktail bar. But, I suppose, there’s a first time for everything….