I get the same responses from just about everyone when I tell them I went to school in San Diego:

That’s so far! Did you miss your family?”

“That’s so far! Did you hate your family?”

“Why did you come back?”

The looks of incredulity and expressions of jealousy are part of the reason I went to the West Coast after eighteen years in a small Jersey Shore suburb. See also: year-round beach weather. Blonde surfer classmates. Poolside studying. The academics weren’t so bad, either.

To say it wasn’t a difficult transition would be a lie. Despite the refrain from others, I loved my family. Even in 2007, flights weren’t cheap, so I had to choose my visits carefully. Christmas break and summer were the longest stretches of time, so I sacrificed the other holidays throughout the year.

One of those holidays was Thanksgiving, and early in October I resigned myself to a meal of Frosted Flakes in the dining hall with the handful of other campus loners. I knew my homesickness, which had subsided in the exhilaration of new experiences, would flare up like a dormant flame each year I was subjected to the loss of tradition and turkey.

I was wrong. My first two Thanksgiving holidays away from my family were both completely opposite and completely wonderful in their contrasting ways.

Freshman year: it was only Tuesday afternoon when my dorm suite started to resemble an abandoned ghost town. My roommate and I wandered into the common room, two displaced souls amongst a tornado of clothes and books our suitemates discarded in their packing. We didn’t have a family to celebrate with, or even a kitchen, but Georgina had one thing I didn’t: a car.

Thursday morning, while my family was watching football and preparing vegetable casseroles, we were packing sunscreen and towels to give thanks to Poseidon in traditional San Diego fashion—by laying on the beach until dusk. If I couldn’t be home, I could take solace in the pure envy my friends and family would feel when they saw the unending pictures of the 70-degree beach in November.

The sun and sand was our last ray of hope for salvaging the day away from our families. We had just started home when Georgina’s car died. Two hours later, a shady mechanic was telling us the $400 repair couldn’t happen until Saturday. With the last of our money (broke college kids, remember?) we split a cab back to the dorm.

In our respective rooms, we each had a mini-fridge. Unfortunately, my mini-fridge consisted of three bottles of water, an apple and a bottle of mustard. Georgina had an empty box of rice and 3 packets of Splenda—hardly the makings of a Thanksgiving meal. The care package I had eagerly anticipated from my parents hadn’t arrived; instead, Georgina found a slightly crushed Harry and David’s box from her boyfriend’s mom, and we sat around our water-warped coffee table to split a pear, a block of cheese, and stale crackers.

If this sounds like a disaster, it wasn’t entirely. If I had been alone, it might have seemed like a tragedy that no amount of time could fix. But having Georgina to share in the misery and hilarity of our situation made it more than bearable—we actually had fun (eventually).

Looking back, I think that first year became more treasured over time because of how completely different our next Thanksgiving turned out to be.

Roommates again, this time in a 2-bedroom apartment with two other girls, Georgina and I were determined to do Thanksgiving right. We had a kitchen! We had jobs! Her car had a new and functional battery! This night was not going to end in stale crackers.

Though our roommates were going home, we knew a handful of people staying on campus, and two of Georgina’s high school friends were coming to stay with us. Armed with hostess duties, we decided to take full advantage of that kitchen and cook for everyone—all 15 people.

It sounds like a disaster waiting to happen—but it wasn’t. We pulled off a 20-pound turkey, all the drool-worthy sides you could imagine, three different pies, and handmade rolls. One friend’s mom even came to eat with us—which meant we got a few bottles of wine to go with the meal.

To this day, Georgina and I reflect on both Thanksgivings with the same amount of laughter, gratitude, and love. We were two holiday-homeless students, far away from our hometowns, making new traditions.

And if you’re wondering how the next year went, it didn’t—I was studying abroad, and they didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving there.