Ann Schneible says trying to assemble a Thanksgiving dinner in Italy is an adventure.
Asked about her most memorable moment, she said: “For me, it was having to transport a 15-plus pound turkey across Rome on public transportation, only to discover after I’d brought it home that the head was still attached.”
The Virginia-native was a student at Rome’s Pontifical University Santa Croce for several years, and Thanksgiving could be a difficult time.
“For most of the year, the daily experience of living in Rome as an expat is chaotic enough to distract from homesickness: I think any major holiday that’s spent away from family is difficult, since it’s during these times that we slow down and think about the family we’re missing. On Thanksgiving, this can be especially challenging,” Schneible told Crux in an e-mail interview.
In Italy, Christmas is still Christmas. If you are away from your family, Italians know it’s a difficult time, and will often try to cheer you up.
But Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is just a Thursday in November. No one even realizes it’s an American holiday.
There are thousands of Americans in Rome. Many of them are students, like Schneible was. Most others work in the city: As translators, tour guides, at the United Nations, and at international firms. The Vatican has several American employees, and hundreds of American priests and religious work and study in the heart of the Church.
For all of them, celebrating Thanksgiving takes some effort.
The North American College hosts an annual dinner
The Pontifical North American College – the seminary in Rome training priests for the United States, popularly known as the NAC – hosts a Thanksgiving dinner every year, to which many of the clergy are invited. Each seminarian can usually invite a guest, which makes it one of the most sought-after tickets in town.
The dinner features skits and speeches, along with a full Turkey dinner, complete with homemade – well, at least seminary-made – pumpkin pie.
Yet even the American seminarians – in their carefully constructed enclave of the United States within Italy – have to face certain realities: The students don’t attend classes in the NAC itself, they go to the different pontifical universities in Rome; and Thursday is a school day.
So the entire student body at the NAC plays hooky for the day.
One seminarian confirmed they exchange notes with another national seminary for the day, and cover them on their national holiday.
But if you aren’t a seminarian, or a seminarian’s good friend, getting a traditional Thanksgiving dinner is not so easy.
Finding a turkey, and discovering some sweet potatoes are sweeter than others
There are options, especially in the past few years as the American student population has grown in the city. Several pubs and restaurants have started offering Thanksgiving Day dinners at often exorbitant prices.
For this, you usually get an overcooked turkey breast, something resembling gravy, some mashed potatoes, and a first course of pasta (because in Italy, every important dinner involves a first course of pasta.)
Although this may be fun if you are on a semester abroad, or if it’s your first time away from home, it’s not the same as a real Thanksgiving dinner.
“We always celebrate as authentically as we can,” said Christopher Owens, who lived outside Rome with his wife, Anna, for 2 ½ years.
“And the more, the merrier. Sometimes we have had as many as 15 or 20 people around the table,” he said.
Owens was doing graduate studies at Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas (the Angelicum), while also teaching at St. John’s University’s Rome campus. He moved from Italy to California earlier this year.
The Owens family had spent a decade in Europe, also living in Britain and Germany, and always faced problems when explaining Thanksgiving to their neighbors.
“It is difficult for Europeans to really grasp the purpose of the celebration. Most important holidays in Europe are religious, and so to them the historical origins of Thanksgiving do not seem important enough to celebrate in such a way,” Owens said.
“But then, none of the American holidays are ‘holy days,’ and so this does seem to be an aspect of celebration which is unique to American culture,” Owens said.
But Rome presents its own unique struggles, mostly dealing with food.
Although a European capital, Rome is still very provincial when it comes to cuisine. Finding the ingredients for a traditional Thanksgiving can be, as Schneible said, an “adventure.”
Anna Owens said the biggest problem was finding cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes, and “finding a turkey smaller than 20 pounds.”
You can’t really “find” a whole turkey in Rome, you have to order them from a local butcher. And no matter how much he assures you it’s “no problem” when you order a 10-pound bird, when you go and pick it up the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, he’ll hand you a 21-pound turkey with a slight shrug of his shoulders. And yes, you will be charged the full price of the larger turkey.
This isn’t just a crisis of leftovers: Most ovens in Rome – especially if you are renting an apartment – can’t fit a turkey that size. At least not without a lot of pushing and twisting.
Sweet potatoes are another challenge, because they are rare, and they are often not what they seem.
Owens said, “One year, we accidentally picked up the wrong ones!”
They turned out to be white. The white “sweet potato” is also not as sweet as the varieties in the United States.
“You can’t have candied yams with white sweet potatoes. So, we added food coloring. Before getting the color balance right, at one point they were beet red! But, they ended up looking alright in the end,” Owens said.
For cranberry sauce, the only option is usually Castroni, the vastly overpriced shop in Rome which seems to have a monopoly on foreign food. A small jar of cranberry sauce can cost over $5. It’s also the place to get pumpkin, evaporated milk, and pecans (nearly $10 for a small bag just about big enough to make one pie.) But you must plan ahead, since Castroni is notorious for running out of essentials days before Thanksgiving actually takes place.
Seeing Thanksgiving through the eyes of non-Americans
Since Thanksgiving is a family holiday, Americans in Rome often invite the only family they have: Their friends and colleagues.
“They think it is an obscene amount of food,” Owens said.
“It’s also always fun to experience an American Thanksgiving through the eyes of our European friends,” Schneible said.
“Most years, when I had the space and resources, I tried to celebrate Thanksgiving with an open invite to any American with nowhere to go for the holiday,” she told Crux. “A few times we had well over fifty people, which was a challenge, but a rewarding one.”
Some years the crowd grew so large, a local parish let Schneible use their dining hall and kitchen. On one Thanksgiving, she hosted a dinner at a pilgrim center (not that kind of pilgrim) in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood.
Both Schneible and Owens have returned to the United States, but Monica Charles celebrated her first Italian Thanksgiving in 2016.
Her new husband has lived in Rome for six years, and attends the Angelicum, while she teaches.
“Last year for the first time ever I worked on Thanksgiving! It was so odd telling my students I was celebrating a holiday and for them it was just any other day,” she told Crux.
Last year she went to dinner at the Owens’ house; this year she is hosting Thanksgiving dinner.
“I will be cooking my first turkey this year!” she said.
She and her husband have invited their non-American friends to bring traditional dishes from their own countries, to create a truly international Thanksgiving.
“The best part is probably how excited the non-Americans are to celebrate with us. This will be their first Thanksgiving celebration and it is something they have only ever heard about,” Charles said.
When asked about other positives about celebrating Thanksgiving outside the United States, Charles said, “It is helpful that all the stores are still open!”
When asked the same thing, Owens came up with another plus about Thanksgiving in Rome: “The wine is better!”