A Thanksgiving Away From Home   

The most wonderful time of the year has begun. Turkey, pine cones and family are the first things that come to mind. There’s Halloween and then Thanksgiving, the best time of year in my opinion because I just get to eat and spend time with loved ones, and then Christmas (or Chanukah for my fellow Jews). All of these revolve around three things: food, family and blessings. No matter who you are, I think we can all appreciate taking time for these things once a year. But what if you couldn’t? Imagine if home really was a state of being, and not a place because it’s just physically too far.

Well, for many of the students at the University of Florida, this is the reality — because they are international students who are thousands upon thousands of miles away from home. It makes me feel bad for ever complaining about my short four-hour drive back to my childhood home in Fort Myers, Florida. (It's only 246 miles from my apartment to my parent’s house, according to Google.)

I wanted to know what it felt like to not have a home that you could go to. Like what do you do for almost an entire week when the whole town is gone (and I do mean the entire town being that Gainesville is really a college town, so when the university is out, so are its students). I decided to turn to my friend Victoria Salamon, a sophomore public relations major, to get a better idea of what this felt like. I met Salamon this past summer as she sublet from my roommate, and she completely opened my eyes. She reminded me there’s an entire globe out there that I, despite my efforts, constantly forget about. She also reminded me of my blessings that come with being born in the United States to an American family and still living here now. Salamon came here with hopes of receiving a good education and creating a life for her family to benefit from after she graduates. This is a virtuous act of someone so young, something I can’t imagine choosing and figuring out how to do myself at this age. Along with this weight she holds on her shoulders, she is 1,655 miles away from her home. Almost seven times as far as mine! Take a moment to think about that. It’s about a six hour flight just to get home, as opposed to my four hour drive.

This will be Victoria’s second Thanksgiving break away from home at UF, but she’s been lucky enough to not spend it alone.

“It was sort of sad because I had plans with a friend [last year] and I was going to go to her place, then at the last second she cancelled so I was like, OK, I’m going to have to stay in my dorm,” Salamon said. “But then my friend that lived next to me invited me to go to her place. It reminded me more that I didn’t have a family, though I did feel super welcomed.”

Back home in Caracas, Salamon said they don’t really have anything like Thanksgiving. They kind of celebrate Halloween, but not to the extent that we do in the U.S.. heir calendar basically just skips from Halloween straight to Christmas. Imagine the haters there, so much for “Did you just forget about Thanksgiving?” when the stores start decorating for Christmas and playing holiday music.

“So I would say like November we already start putting up Christmas decorations. Although we do celebrate Halloween, but it’s not as big.” Salamon explained. “I mean there’s some events that go on, but [during November we] mostly focus on religion. Advent calendar start at the end of November. It’s just like the whole month focuses on your family and cleansing your spirit for Christmas.”

Salamon cannot go home, not just for economic reasons, but also because of the current political state of Venezuela.

“Since the whole dictatorship situation it's even tougher,” Salamon said. “The fact that if I go home I might not be able to come back for college.”

Venezuela identifies as a democracy, but many would argue it acts more totalitarian. Many airlines refuse to fly to Venezuela, and there’s a constant fear that at any moment Venezuela could close its borders. It’s possible, Salamon continued, that if she flew home, she could be stuck there and unable to return and finish her degree.

“November is a very family oriented month back home, and so is December.” Salamon said. “And it was just like wow, another Christmas away from home.”

This longing for her family and home has taught Salamon a lot, lessons many of us may never even learn or experience.

“There’s nothing more amazing than another family inviting you into their home,” she said. “At the end of the day you're alone, and if it wasn’t because somebody else invited you into their home then you would be alone.”

Despite all of this, Salamon continues to feel very lucky and loved as she’s found new things to appreciate.

“Now I have stronger bounds,” she stated. “Like friends that love me and consider me like a family member. It’s a really special thing, because you know that friends are like the family you choose.”

Salamon said the experience has showed her she has a second family here that she chose, and they chose her. It’s taught her that even without her family, there are people that care about her and want her there with them as equals at the dinner table.

“I think just like knowing that you have those special bonds,” Salamon continued. “You have a relationship that’s so special that they want you with them at the dinner table with their family. It’s an incredibly special feeling.”

Salamon concluded by saying how Thanksgiving is special every single time now because her friends work hard to make it special for her, which in turn is what makes it special. And these people that have showed and shared the holiday traditions with her are very important people in her life.

Writer’s note: Victoria will continue having a place to spend the holiday this year, as I asked her to spend the holiday with me and my family because she has made such an impact on me. My family has also completely fallen in love with her after meeting a couple of times.