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Lessons From a Thanksgiving on Both Sides of the Pond

Monday, November 20, 2023

My mother proved by example that a life abroad is both a lovely and lonely experience.

By Olivia Blanco Mullins

A few weeks ago, our neighbor, Annie, who has been babysitting for us for nearly ten years, asked me about my background.

“How did you end up here?”

After more than two decades in the United States, I’m used to the question. I was born and raised in Spain, and people don’t often understand why I traded a beautiful, lively, dynamic country for a life in suburban Philadelphia.

“My mom was from New York,” I explained. “She went to Spain for a semester abroad and fell in love with the country. After she graduated college she went back to Spain and fell in love with my father, who is a Spaniard.”

“That’s the dream,” Annie said. “All my friends want to meet someone from a different country and move there.”

It’s a familiar dream, but a complicated one. Over the last few years I have seen a spike in the number of young women who emigrated from the United States to Spain, or elsewhere in Europe, for a change of pace and quality of life. Their social media depicts thought-provoking cultural observations, hilarious lost-in-translation faux pas, and a healthy dose of comparison between countries. Most of them can’t help but betray their bias: they tend to favor Spain instead of their home country.

Who could blame them?

But they don’t show the other side of the coin. That is, how lonely a life far from home can be—especially during the holidays.

I moved to the U.S. when I was 19. I came for college and I always expected to move back to Spain, but I never did. In my 20s, distance from my friends and family was exactly what I needed. This brought independence, a sense of adventure, and a chance to reinvent myself. But as my life in the U.S. became permanent, the distance was harder to deal with.

When I was young, my mother could only speak to her brothers every few months because we couldn’t afford the costly international phone calls, or the visits to America that she so craved. After three decades in Spain, she only made a few long-term friendships, mostly with other foreign women. To compensate for her homesickness, my mother always bought a massive turkey for our small Spanish oven to celebrate Thanksgiving on the Saturday after the U.S. holiday, hoping she could somehow recreate the feeling that she’d known and loved.

My mom roasted the turkey and made her favorite side dishes: mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. She made pumpkin pie with cans of pumpkin puree she bought on her seldom trips home and saved for the holiday. Most years it was just the four of us. My sister and I helped her set the table with the fine porcelain dishes she inherited from her mother and had shipped to Spain. We waited for my dad to come home from work and had a quiet, yet meaningful dinner.

I moved to the U.S. when I was 19. I came for college and I always expected to move back to Spain, but I never did.

I still remember the first time I made the journey to the U.S. for Thanksgiving; I was 17 and visiting New York with my mother. We were having dinner with my extended family, people I had met only a few times in my life. Aunts, uncles, and cousins crowded around a table, where I saw all the same dishes my mother had prepared in Spain, but also many things I’d never seen before: casseroles, pecan pie, cheesecake, angel food cake.

It was boisterous and full of love. I understood why my mom had missed it so much. She’d done a great job giving us a Thanksgiving celebration on the other side of the Atlantic, but that evening at my aunt and uncle’s home felt like a sketch I’d seen on television come to life. My mother, who hadn’t spent Thanksgiving in the U.S. in more than decade, had come to life as well. She was deeply nostalgic, but after all those years away from her family, I could see that it was possible to truly feel at home again.

One of the most difficult times in my life was being away from my mother when she became sick with frontotemporal dementia. I was in my late 20s, recently married, and I spent four years living in limbo between both countries, wanting to take care of her, but needing to have a life of my own.

She was well taken care of by my father, and her small friend group helped out the best they could. But I still wonder about what would have happened if she were back home, in New York, during her time of need. Would she have had a better outcome?

I never imagined she wanted to move back to the U.S. permanently. Although she always maintained that she was a New Yorker, she loved Spain and had settled there as well as anyone. As my parents’ finances improved, she was able to visit the U.S. several times a year. But that all changed when she started showing symptoms of that terrible disease.

It’s been almost nine years since my mother passed away, but the holidays always bring many memories of her, especially of the effort she put into raising bicultural children who would be able to belong both in Spain and in the U.S., even if that meant living with a permanently broken, but also full, heart.

The way that I’ve seemed to switch places with my mom—as the second generation of my family living abroad, in a reverse migration—has always amused me. But I’ve learned so much from her experience. Every June, I pack my bags and go to Spain for six weeks. I eat all the Spanish tortilla, olives, and seafood I want, and I spend one evening with my high school friends, which feels like a breath of fresh air. I have coffee in terrazas, enjoy long lunches prepared by my father, and watch my kids use the Spanish they have begrudgingly practiced with me all year.

I feel so fortunate to have experienced living in two countries and moving between two cultures so effortlessly. I want my children to have the same experience. It’s truly wonderful. But living abroad isn’t just the idealized life we see on social media. That’s why, when Annie repeated that adolescent dream of meeting a partner from a different country and moving far away from home, my heart tightened a bit. My advice to her was to travel and move to a different country, but never sever ties with your home or forget where you came from. And always keep an eye on the calendar for the return of the holiday season.

I miss Spain almost daily, but in the fall and winter I am so grateful to be in America, where I also feel perfectly at home. And incidentally, this year my Thanksgiving will look very similar to what we used to do back in Spain. My extended family will be busy with sports and other commitments, so my kids and I will prepare dinner, set a nice table, get dressed up, and wait for my husband to come home (he’s in the hospitality industry and works on the holiday). And just as I’ve learned to do over the last 20 years, we’ll go around the table to say what we’re grateful for. At the top of our list will be family, good food, and the memory of my mother.

Olivia Blanco Mullins is an award-winning journalist. She is the host and producer of the Spanish-language podcast Es Éxito, and the accompanying newsletter where she writes about life between the U.S. and Spain. She grew up in Madrid, has lived in Massachusetts, Texas, and Kansas, and currently lives in the Philadelphia Main Line with her husband and two children. Olivia is writing a memoir about hope, love, and joy after her mother’s life and death with Frontotemporal Dementia.

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