Thanksgiving abroad: Celebrating an American holiday in Scotland

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Lauren West/Staff

For many Americans, Thanksgiving represents a gathering together of  family to eat good food, dance around awkward political conversations and remember — somewhere among the potatoes and the turkey and the family tension — why we’re grateful for what we have in our lives (crazy Aunt Berthas included).

This past Saturday, five out of seven students in my UC Education Abroad Program, or UCEAP, cohort — myself included — got on the train at Leuchars railway station in St Andrews to meet up with almost 200 other students who were studying abroad in the U.K. We aimed to bring the tradition of Thanksgiving to Browns Restaurant in Edinburgh as best we could.

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Seated together, we had adorable little place settings that included Christmas crackers, a British holiday tradition that my family has carried back home. Christmas crackers come in all sizes and colors, often in beautiful, festive wrapping paper, with a thin strip of cardboard inside. You and your neighbor are supposed to hold onto this cardboard, take each side of the cracker and pull — as if it’s a wishbone — until it pops open. Whoever pulls away the bigger piece wins the cracker and the prizes inside. Most of my American friends had never seen Christmas crackers before, so I was happy to show them how it’s done. It was exciting to share the gospel of Christmas crackers with American newbies and to lean over and help them pop those gold-wrapped cherries. It was this sort of melding of traditions that made dinner fun.

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One of the best parts of the night was when everyone was just sitting around the table wearing paper hats and smiling like big children at a birthday party. Since this meal wasn’t going to be the typical potluck-style meal that many holiday dinners are, we ordered our food ahead of time with traditional options as well as less-traditional choices for those who would rather skip the turkey this year.

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Personally, I was happy to have turkey and roast potatoes, another British tradition my family indulges in. You can’t go wrong with roast potatoes. (Unless you’re in a certain dining hall where they serve roast potatoes that are not cooked all the way through or remotely crunchy and are kind of really upsetting.)

Admittedly, it’s funny to know that everyone has (more or less) the same meal back home but also has very strong opinions on how certain parts of the meal should be done. Here, we were at the mercy of Browns, but overall, it was the whole experience that made it worth it for us.

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As we sat there, one of the students from UC Santa Barbara spoke about how grateful they were to be studying abroad. That was something we all could agree on. For all its ups and downs, we’re very privileged to have the opportunity to study in Scotland and to have this time dedicated to learning in another country. We only have about one more month left, and it’s amazing to consider how fast the time flies. Whether or not you have a chance to leave Berkeley to go back home with family this Thursday, it’s good to take a moment to contemplate all the things we have to be thankful for.

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The rest of the day flew by. We went on group tours of the city. Ours was a “Harry Potter” tour because we were in the city in which J.K. Rowling wrote much of four of her seven books. The lovely tour ended at the King’s Theatre to watch a production of “Shakespeare in Love.”

As we returned to St Andrews after midnight, I felt a rush of gratitude for the people at UCEAP who prepared the day for us, for the students I traveled with and befriended, and for the time we had left in the city of St Andrews.

Contact Lauren West at [email protected].