Sunday, December 6, 2009

Giving Thanks From Bulgaria!

Last weekend was Thanksgiving for the Peace Corps Volunteers in Bulgaria. Bulgaria does NOT celebrate a holiday like Thanksgiving, so the volunteers have a normal work day on the fourth Thursday of November. But on the following weekend, the volunteers “cluster” together throughout Bulgaria to celebrate, and be with their new “family” during Thanksgiving. That is exactly what we did here in Plovdiv. There were 13 volunteers (about 10% of the total volunteers) in our small apartment. It was a GREAT time!

Those of you who are family know that for more than 20 years, Lynn and I always celebrated Thanksgiving by having both sides of our families come to our home. We would have a 20+ pound turkey and all the “fixings”. We would work the night before cutting, slicing, making stuffing, and getting the “bird” ready. On Thanksgiving Day everyone (even if there were 25+ people) would sit down at one long table for dinner. Thanksgiving was a very special holiday for Lynn and I. In 37 years of marriage, we were only home once at Christmas. But we were always home at Thanksgiving – and most people came to us.

When we moved from New England, and as the boys got older and moved away to college, our Thanksgiving tradition slowly diminished. One year Lynn and I actually went to a restaurant for Turkey dinner. But we missed the family, laughter, and shared work of our “Thanksgivings past”. All of the traditions, work, and joy returned to us this year here in Bulgaria!

But getting to this wonderful celebration was not without a “few challenges”! But our life here in Bulgaria is constantly an “adventure”, and Lynn and I look forward to each new twist in our lives.

The first challenge was getting the turkey! In the US, you have limitless options for turkeys at Thanksgiving, and you can get BIG birds easily. Not in Bulgaria! Turkeys are not plentiful, and generally the best time to get one is at Christmas. We did find some frozen birds that were about 9 pounds. But many of the local folks told us that we could order bigger birds at “this or that store”. We probably spent the better part of a week visiting those stores. But everything turned into a “wild goose (turkey) chase”. The message was consistent. Yes you can order a larger bird, but only for Christmas. So… finally, we found some frozen turkeys that were about 10 lbs each - - and bought two! But then we went looking for one of those aluminum pans to cook them in. NOT in Bulgaria! So… our counterpart said his parents had some big pans they used to cook holiday meals, and would get them. But would the two turkeys fit in the pans, and then would the pan fit into our “smaller than normal” oven. Measurements were made of the oven, and three pans arrived to test. One of them was perfect – and just fit in the oven.

OK – we had the Turkey (s)! But what about the pies? You can not have Thanksgiving without lots of pumpkin and apple pies! However, there were a couple of problems doing this. First, we have not seen pies here like the pies at home. In fact, we were having problems trying to find pie plates. We did find circular baking dishes, and decided to use them. All of our pies now became “deep dish”. Next was the challenge of making pie crust without shortening. A hundred years ago, they used pig lard. And, in the end, that is what we used. Lynn had to do a test of a deep dish apple pie. It was almost perfect. All of the men in my office loved it! The last challenge was the pumpkin pie. This was a little harder. There are pumpkins in Bulgaria. Well – at least there are very large “round with ridges” grey squash which they call pumpkins. They use machetes to cut them! We did not think they would really work. Thanks to the internet, we were able to learn that a butternut squash was almost a perfect match for a pumpkin. We have lots of those here! We had a recipe, but we did not have the tools to “puree” the squash, and then there was the issue of making a “deep dish” pumpkin pie. A potato masher, and lots of time “beat” the squash into the right consistency. Lynn added the spices, and we cooked it. Adding some “home (hand) beaten” whipped cream, and everyone thought we were back in the US.

We were not the only ones cooking. Everyone brought food, or made it here. Our little kitchen was always humming with people making something. We had foods like “spicy corn” (this is really good), salmon hors d’oeuvre, sausage dressing, apple squash, apple cake, gnocchi, mashed potatoes, along with plenty of wine and “rakia”. And, when everything was ready, we were all able to sit down at one long table to share the feast. During dinner, we all shared the stories of our favorite (or normal) Thanksgiving. It was interesting to hear what others had done. A few of our guests said that this was one of the most traditional Thanksgivings they had ever had.

For Lynn and I, it was doing what we had loved doing with family for so many years. We were able to bring back almost all of the traditions. We had guests the night before, and worked to get things ready. We went for a walk/hike up one of the hills in the center of Plovdiv before the big feast. Everyone shared in making the meal. There was the long table, and everyone able to sit at it. And most important, before sitting down we all joined hands, and one at a time told everyone what they were most thankful for.

What was even better was the new “traditions” that we added. After dinner and deserts, we stayed at the table and played UNO. Then we settled down for a movie projected on the wall. We watched a 25 year old film called Volunteers. It is a spoof about Peace Corps volunteers in 1962, and seemed appropriate. At breakfast the next day, we introduced the concept of eating deserts, and other volunteers introduced us to “turkey omelets” (they are very good).

Late on Sunday, the last of the guests left to go back to their sites. Lynn and I put the air mattresses away, cleaned up, listened to the quiet, and missed all the noise, hub bub, and excitement. But, many of the guests are already asking if we will do it again next year. The answer is YES – definitely!

Mike and Lynn


Anonymous said...

Great to hear that you're carrying on the traditions and introduced folks to a good old-fashioned New England Thanksgiving dinner. Reminded me of our time in CA when we would host Thanksgiving dinner for anyone that wasn't travelling home that year. I think creating a family environment is a strong Garrigus tradition! Our Thanksgiving was at Kristen's parents with mom/dad/Bry/Wendy, Kristen's family, and her brother Jim's in-laws (wife/mom/dad/wife's sister). Only weird thing was that our 2 boys were the only kids. Definitely felt weird not to have more kids.

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