It Started With a Simple Halloween Wish
Ever since I had children, I‘d always wanted them to have a real American Halloween experience.
You know, real trick or treating, walking door to door along suburban tree-lined streets like I did as a kid back in Swansea, Massachusetts in the 1980s.
Where scoring a full sized candy bar was cause for serious celebration.
And getting pennies (or raisins!) from the unprepared neighbor was a major bust.
Providing a “proper” Halloween experience for my own kids has proven difficult since my sons, ages 8 and “almost 6” were both born in Rome, Italy.
Sure, we would dress them in costumes for il nido (the nest: aka preschool) and if the expats were throwing a kid’s Halloween party across town, we would attend.
(*Ladybirds Playgroup in Rome organizes English-speaking activities for kids 0-5 and their parents.)
Every year I would stock up on Halloween candy in the hopes we might get a few trick-or-treaters.
And every year no one would come.
Well, except of course the one year I decided not to get any candy after seven+ years of Halloween night no-shows.
Somehow an Italian neighbor decided this particular Halloween to tell all her friends that she had “a real American neighbor.”
That’s how my German husband and I found ourselves hiding inside our flat from about a dozen chattering Italian kids in costume.
Yup. We became those people pretending not to be home!
They had already seen my husband get out of the elevator so really the jig was up.
We were humiliated as well as responsible for a minor international incident.
My neighbor even confronted me the next day with a wagging finger and demanded to know why we didn’t have any candy!
(Hopefully Italian/American/German relations have since recovered.)
So I’m not proud of how we left off with Halloween in Italy.
Last year we moved to Yangon, Myanmar and were actually very happily surprised that my favorite holiday was more popular here among expats and locals alike than it had been in Rome.
Our sons’ American International school (with a majority of local Myanmar kids mixed with foreigners) had everyone decked out in costumes.
They made a real haunted house, and all the kids did trick or treating around the various classrooms.
Halloween at my sons’ school yesterday. Wonderful, just like last year….
We were finally getting closer to an American style Halloween.
Still no trick-or-treating the moment it got dark, up and down the streets, hoping with all our might that we’d collect enough candy to last until next Halloween.
So fast forward to this year and Halloween 2017!
Time to go Dutch!
My friend Stephanie that I met last year in Burmese class also lives one street down from us in Yangon.
She told me she had spoken with “the Turkish ambassador” and we were invited to come trick or treating at their house, also not far from us.
The plan was that we would first go there, then a few houses over to her place (this would be the Dutch ambassador’s house) for some more candy.
Finally, we’d walk over with the kids to our house and do trick or treating at our place.
The whole thing was arranged a bit last minute, and I thought it would be a simple casual affair of just trick-or-treating at two houses and then going home.
It might even be a little bit like trick-or-treating in Massachusetts circa 1980-something.
Granted, my neighbors in Swansea were devout church ladies, retired high school janitors, Portuguese immigrants, and surly bikers.
But still, I insisted to myself… we were getting closer to a real American trick-or-treating experience, no?
So at 6:30 my sons got costumed up. We grabbed a flashlight and headed out to look for Stephanie’s house.
(She gave us the house number, but also told us to look for the orange signs that read “Netherlands” posted up leading the way for any wayward Dutch passers-by.)
As we got closer I heard barking street dogs in the distance.
Shoot. Maybe I should have brought my umbrella to wave at any would-be attackers, I thought to myself.
Finally, after passing houses each more grand than the last, we arrived to an illuminated driveway.
We could hear the roar of a large gathering of children.
It turned out to be the Turkish ambassador’s house.
We hesitated since we were invited, albeit by a friend of a friend.
Should we just walk in?
Their guard saw us hovering by the driveway and kindly waved us in.
I greeted him in Burmese and he flashed a brilliant Myanmar smile.
Lukas, my 8 year-old super hero and Nico my “almost 6 year old” pumpkin took my hands and we headed down the long driveway.
There were about 30+ kids or so by the doorway.
A smiling blond woman decked out in zombie makeup was gathering the troops.
The place was decorated to the gills for Halloween.
I thought of my sad plastic jack o lanterns and flickering candles at home. It was my very modest and cautious attempt at Halloween decorations in Myanmar.
I didn’t want to be too over the top, especially when anti –foreigner sentiment sometimes comes and goes in waves here in Myanmar.
I even made Michael, my husband, take his German flag down off our tree.
No need drawing undue attention to ourselves…
A Turkish Halloween Wonderland
But the Turkish home got an A+ from me for ambiance! It was like a Pinterest-fueled Halloween spectacle of hanging ghosts, intricately carved pumpkins, and woven spider webbed wonder. Everything was just so clever.
I spotted my friend Stephanie in the crowd with her three children and breathed a small sigh of relief that we found her after all.
Stephanie introduced me to her Turkish zombie friend who was incredibly friendly.
She mentioned it was her first Halloween in Myanmar and she was grateful to be able to link up with a few houses to do trick or treating. (They were actually going to go to more beyond our neighborhood using cars.)
I understood her to be either the wife of the Turkish ambassador or the ambassador herself. (I didn’t want to assume anything based on gender after all…)
She began giving out what can only be described as a night’s worth of candy by Swansea standards to each child in a thoughtfully crafted individual Halloween pouch!
As we chatted a bit more, I realized with growing horror that this entire hoard of kids was going to come to our house later as well.
My palms began to sweat. I had only planned for 5-10 kids or so!
As we started to now all head as a gigantic group to Stephanie’s house, I fumbled for my phone.
My husband Michael was home watching TV and enjoying the silence, expecting nothing.
His only “job” was simple: Open the door, fling a few Mentos and butterscotch candies from the two bowls I had set up, close the door, and call it a night.
How foolish I had been! I originally thought I actually had too much candy.
Who was going to eat it all, especially after the bounties my sons had brought home from school?
I tried calling him to see if he could prepare something in advance.
His parents often sent our kids too many marshmallows, gummy bears, and chocolates from Berlin in each care package. Surely we still had some put away in a cupboard, no?
He wasn’t answering.
Shoot! Was his phone charging upstairs?
We got to Stephanie’s home. It was actually my first time there.
She had joked that she was not as organized as her Turkish friend and I felt a little more at ease.
But then I saw that her house too sparkled with flood lamps and Halloween décor. It was magnificent.
She skillfully led the kids on “a haunted tour of her backyard” while her husband, the ambassador, prepared water cups (for hydration naturally) and candy packets for the kids presented in little pumpkin basket pouches.
Cripes! I was the American here and I had not planned any activities or individual pouches of Halloween goodness.
I was going by lame 1980s Swansea Halloween standards apparently!
My heart started beating faster.
I tried calling Michael again.
My kids collected the candy and the hoard already began moving towards our house with us trailing behind.
“Do they even know where they are going?” I thought.
I spoke with the Turkish zombie (ambassador?) again.
“Shoot! You all did such an amazing job. I was only expecting a few kids. I hope we have enough candy.” I offered with some exasperation.
“Oh! No problem.” she replied cheerfully. “We have a whole basket of extra candy left over. We can stop by my house and grab it on the way to your house.”
“Really?” I asked incredulously. I couldn’t believe it. Was I saved? “Thanks so much!”
We made our way down the dark streets and eventually my son Lukas ran to the front of the pack to excitedly show our dozens of guests in.
Our gate was locked.
It’s never locked! At least, not by 7PM.
Nico and I finally caught up to everyone. I wrestled with the lock but realized that it needed to be opened from the inside.
My husband heard all the kids, popped outside with a very surprised look on his face, then ducked back in to find his key.
Our Burmese neighbor and helper Ko Thet Cho peered out at the hoards of costumed expat children from inside the garage. He didn’t know we were with them so he didn’t know if he should just wait for the crowd to go away.
I tried to wave him over, but it was dark and the children’s voices drowned mine out completely.
Finally he must have gotten up the nerve to approach us just as Michael emerged from his bunker with the key.
One of them finally got the lock open and whoosh…
The floodgates opened and the children ran into our house after Lukas who had run inside.
“Michael’s going to kill me!” I thought. He cringes at having unannounced guests, let alone almost forty of them.
Somehow we managed to convince the kids that waiting outside was better.
And somewhere in the chaos an extra basket of candy found their way into my hands like a modern day miracle.
The Candy Multiplieth
I quickly added our candy to the Turkish zombie’s basket. I still tried to save some face with the expectant children before me, letting them know that they could “grab as much as they wanted.”
(I was envisioning a handful, but they were envisioning three handfuls…)
So after about 30 seconds, spotting the rapidly emptying basket… I called out, “Who didn’t get any candy yet?”
I made a path for about five more kids, and somehow everyone got just enough.
Flustered but not yet beaten, I went back out to speak with our adult guests who were already gathered in the driveway planning to go on to the next houses on their agenda.
“Thank you so much again!” I said to our Turkish zombie savior.
Then, for no real good reason I said “Hi. How are you?” in Turkish. It’s my default gesture of international friendship to say something in someone else’s language.
I then explained sheepishly, “I wanted to say ‘thank you’ in Turkish but don’t know how.”
She laughed and taught me how to say it. (Sorry! I already forgot. Will have to look it up again later..)
As she turned to leave together with Stephanie and the masses of children she said, “I’m not actually Turkish by the way.”
“Ah! Russian.” I beamed. “Spaseba! (Thank you.)”
“You know, Russian was my husband’s first language. You should come over some time.” I added.
“I’d love that!” she said with sparkling zombie eyes.
And she went off into the night to spread more of her international Halloween good cheer.
As Tiny Tim would say, “God bless us everyone!”
(*Don’t worry. I won’t even get started on doing Christmas abroad…)