My family’s typical Thanksgiving involves about 15 family members in a New Jersey dining room. This year, tradition was thrown to the wayside when my sister moved to South Bend, Indiana to work for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. We’ve been excited to visit her for months, but with a family’s worth of crowded schedules and conflicting vacation days, it only made sense for six of us to pack our bags and fly to the Midwest for a three-day tour of Kayla’s new home over Thanksgiving.
Before leaving the east coast, my cynicism was starting to build up. Work has been especially non-stop. The weather is getting colder and bleaker. The news cycle is unrelenting. I knew I needed a few days of vacation, but I didn’t realize the perspective that would come from leaving New York and visiting a mid-sized Midwestern city. I started to remember how freeing and how fun it is to unabashedly, unapologetically, enthusiastically enjoy your surroundings.
In South Bend, they love their parks. We attended the ribbon cutting for a renovation of Howard Park. I’ve seen pictures of ribbon cuttings — a group of maybe 30 people gathered with oversized scissors — but over a thousand people showed up to celebrate this $18.8 million project. We ate food truck tacos where the shell was covered in Parmesan. We sat and spun (and surprisingly, didn’t fall off of) chairs made like tops. The crowd surrounding the ice rink cheered like it was 1988 when Brian Boitano skated on to the South Park song based on him. And I, a self-proclaimed anti-firework proponent, stood in awe of the most elaborate firework display I’ve seen, where every minute seemed like the grand finale.
South Bend also enthusiastically backs their mayor. When Brian Boitano ripped open his jacket to reveal a “BOOT EDGE EDGE” shirt, the crowd went nuts in a way you would expect to see from Harry Styles tearing off his shirt. In New York, we hate our politicians for sport. We elected our mayor and started trash-talking him, barely taking a breath in between. In South Bend, signs of love for their mayor were in “PEGGS for Pete” t-shirts in a diner, “South Bend for Pete” posters in a dive bar, and a three-story tall mural on the side of a building celebrating his presidential run.
I saw how South Bend loves their neighbors. At the farmer’s market on Small Business Saturday, we saw stands from nearby Amish and Native American communities, farmers and crafters. They love a good hot chocolate on a cold night. Live music in almost every bar. The animated River Lights, an art installation under the Jefferson Bridge. Every stop we made added new layers of appreciation for the people, places, and things around us.
On a cold weekend, the moments with the most warmth were on Thanksgiving Day when Kayla’s coworkers organized a potluck for all of those staying town. People of all ages, from all corners of the country, gathered in her building’s common area with our all-star dishes. My family drank wine and La Croix and got to know the de-facto family our sister is spending all of her time with 700 miles away from her Jersey roots.
I love New York with my whole heart, but New Yorkers take pride in conditioning that love with a layer of contempt. We revel in complaining about our daily subway commute while loving the flexibility to travel around the city for $2.75. We embrace the energy around Christmas while hating the foot traffic it brings to Rockefeller Center.
After our flight landed and we were in an Uber back to our apartment, I could feel the cynicism creeping back – you took the tunnel instead of the bridge?? But this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for South Bend and the optimistic Midwestern lens it lent me to view my own city.