A Fairfield Thanksgiving for visitors a world away from home

The front entrance of Michele Sullivan's Fairfield home was decorated with cornstalks, pumpkins and a turkey banner Thursday, welcoming her family and three foreign guests inside for a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast at her attractively adorned dinner table.

Sullivan has opened her home to international guests each Thanksgiving for the last decade or more, participating in an initiative introduced about 45 years ago by Ruth Steinkraus Cohen, founder of the International Hospitality Committee of Fairfield County. Each year, the committee encourages families in Westport, Fairfield and other area communities to open their homes during the Thanksgiving holiday to United Nations staff and diplomats, State Department-sponsored visitors, Fulbright Scholars and other international students.

"We want to show our hospitality to them and also learn about their countries, their cultures and their orientation toward the world. We want to open a dialogue and increase knowledge, understanding and tolerance of other cultures," said Bill Haas, president of the UN Association and International Visitors Committee of Southwest Connecticut. "We're citizens of the United States, but we're also citizens of the world," Haas said.

This year 15 families invited about 30 foreign guests to share in their Thanksgiving Day banquets, according to Barbara Jay, a member of the committee who matched students and families.

"Thanksgiving is the truly American holiday. So many people around the world celebrate Christmas but Thanksgiving is uniquely American," said Leigh Gage of Westport. "It's not supposed to be commercial. It's about family and friends."

Gage said she and her husband Jonathan Gage have lived abroad for many years and enjoy learning about other cultures. Their guests felt the same.

"It's great for me because I always wanted to know about different cultures and traditional practices," said Apurva Pandya, a visiting scholar from Vadodara, India, who is studying at Columbia University's School of Public Health. Pandya made a traditional Indian vegetarian dish, called patra, for the Gage's Thanksgiving meal.

"In China, we don't have Christmas or Thanksgiving. We only have Spring Festival. It's so great. I get to know the (American) festival and the people, and they are nice people," said Chunyan "Caroline" Ye, of Langfang, China, who helped Leigh Gage string green beans and stir gravy. Ye is studying English at New York University.

"Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It's all about giving," said Naomi Cruz Ciferri of Westport, a first-time participant in the initiative. She and her family hosted three students and made them feel right a home.

"We worked like slaves," joked Zuzana Kepplova of Slovakia, a student at Stonybrook University, a visiting researcher and Fulbright Scholar, who cut potatoes and helped Cruz's daughter Brianne Ciferri make candied yams in preparation for the holiday meal.

Before giving the students a taste of traditional American Thanksgiving fare, the Ciferris took their students on a tour of Westport. "We gave them a little taste of the town, a flavor of our New England town," Cruz said.

"It's very beautiful. I love the water. The idea of living so close to rivers and ponds and the ocean is very amazing," said Roksha Kumar of India, a journalism student at Columbia University.

Kishor Patel, from India, a Pace University student working on his master's degree in finance, has lived in the United States for three years, so this was not his first experience with the American holiday.

"I spent Thanksgiving with my American friends. We give thanks for what we have here and express gratitude for new friends," he said. Patel learned how to carve a turkey Thursday.

Cruz said it must be difficult coming into a stranger's house not knowing what to expect. But Kepplova said she had the opposite reaction. "I was so excited I couldn't sleep. Life on campus is a bit boring," she said.

"Something as big as this, that the whole country is celebrating, you want to participate in it," Kumar said.

At the Sullivan household, Martina Casagrande, of Italy, did the dishes and made dinner rolls.

"They didn't put us to work. We wanted to help," said Juliane Borchert, of Germany, a marketing student at CUNY.

"I think it's a great opportunity to learn the American culture, and be more involved. It's a good feeling. You feel part of a family," said Casagrande, a master's degree candidate in marketing at Pace University.

Lillian Zhao, of China, a communications major at Fordham University, said she spent last Thanksgiving with a group of Chinese students at an American restaurant. "It's not like here with an American family. I spent most of my time with my friends in the school dorms. This is a good chance to see what it's like in an American home," she said.

"This was one of the most wonderful experiences we have ever had as a family. We will continue to make this a Thanksgiving and Christmas tradition," said Cruz, who has already invited her Thanksgiving guests to return in December to spend Christmas Day with her family.