It came as a bit of a shock to us, back in 2012 and traveling in Mexico, that there were no outward signs that our favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, was taking place back in the US. Nope. We moved right from the Day-of-the-Dead to Christmas songs in the markets and grocery stores, simple and elaborate Nativity tableaus, and lighted decorations on the streets. That may have been our first clue that we were carrying some ethnocentric baggage with us as we moved from country to country. Over the years, we like to think that we’ve managed to shed some of the weight of those preconceptions as we’ve learned about other traditions and holidays. Interestingly, while mentioning Thanksgiving here in Portugal might get us a blank look, everyone knows exactly what the signs for Black Friday sales mean. It appears some cultural mores cross borders easily.
The weather changes so gradually that there isn’t much to mark the passage of summer to fall to winter in the Algarve. Portugal observes Daylight Saving Time so darkness comes earlier and mornings and evenings require a sweater or light jacket. And, instead of Thanksgiving heralding the holiday season, the Algarve Region has its own time-honored tradition: the annual Festival da Batata-Doce or Sweet Potato Festival. Taking place in nearby Aljezur (population 6,000) over the three-day weekend at the end of each November, the festival features the handicrafts and products of the Algarve and pays tribute to the sweet potato as part of its cultural and culinary history. In fact, the Aljezur Sweet Potato Producers Association goes out of its way to demonstrate that not all sweet potatoes are equal by guaranteeing Aljezur’s tubers with a Protected Geographical Identification (PGI) stamp on each bag.
The humble sweet potato is one of the earliest vegetables known to man with depictions of the root vegetable that date to prehistoric times discovered in Peruvian caves. They were among the various new foods that Christopher Columbus brought back to Spain during his voyage of 1492 and the Portuguese explorers are credited with carrying the sweet potato to Africa, India, Indonesia & southern Asia. During our time in the Algarve, I’ve developed quite a liking for the Aljezur sweet potatoes. However, it took a little persuading to convince Richard that we should go to the Sweet Potato Festival as he stubbornly maintains an aversion to the tuber being honored. In the end though, curiosity won out.
As expats, we love discovering festivals and learning about the cultural history of our adopted country. But, we also carry our Thanksgiving traditions in our hearts and each November we practice our own version of gratitude no matter where we are. This is the time of year we miss our son and grandson most and we’re thankful that they’re both happy and healthy. We take stock of our own health and, surprisingly take note of the fact that neither of us have had so much as a cold during the two years we’ve lived in Portugal. As Americans, we’re particularly grateful that we have health care when, for millions back in our country, this basic human right is either absent or under assault. We’re thankful that we have a comfortable home here in Lagos because many of the residents of our former home state of Texas and elsewhere, are still living in hurricane devastated communities, storm-damaged homes and makeshift shelters waiting for help from a government that’s reluctant to throw out more than a few rolls of paper towels. We’re thankful, too that we can safely walk the streets of our adopted country in daylight and after dark, and go into a theater, shopping center, concert hall and church without apprehension. And lastly, lest our love of our home country be questioned because we live as expats and speak freely of our deep concerns for the future of the US, we’re grateful to have come from a country with a rich tradition of welcoming all religions, ethnicities and races. We’re proud to have come from a country that’s provided sanctuary for those fleeing violence and oppressive regimes, offered a helping hand and safety net to our poorest, disabled and elderly and worked together with other nations for a better world for all. Our major contention with those who advocate for the ‘make America great again’ movement is – we happen to think, despite all its shortcomings, it’s always been great.
By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash