This American Thursday: Celebrating Thanksgiving Abroad
With her head held high and neck elongated as only British schoolchildren are trained, her words unwrapped: “And here, of course, is your Thanksgiving Brownie!”
Our host presented both this news and the brownie itself with the prideful flourish of a culturally aware ambassador and rehearsed rhetoric of a stadium rock band playing the “surprise” encore of their early 80′s megahit. She was in fact so earnestly pleased and excited that none of us had the temerity to explain: The Thanksgiving Brownie… that’s not a thing. In fact, as a foodstuff for a feast holiday that includes literally hundreds of possible iterations — family specific appetizers, seasonal side dishes, and a host of customary desserts — a brownie was one of the few rare things nowhere to be found.
But by this point in the meal, we could no longer feign surprise. A group of American artists, training abroad in London, we wanted to be sensitive, encouraging and appreciative of the lengths to which she had gone. We also did not want to feed into the image of the coarse and ravenous American. Nonetheless, we itched under our skin, mumbling to one another, “But seriously… there is going to be pumpkin pie, right?”
There weren’t many rules to this holiday, but she had somehow managed to break them all… if not in spirit, then in scope. However, is it not the very decadence and ritualized details of a feast-custom that makes it fulfilling? We had prepared ourselves to go without our mom’s stuffing or uncle’s famous, albeit inedible, Depression-era jello/pineapple/cream cheese “dish” — the kind of concoction that would be thrown out of a Mormon engagement party.
We were even alright when the turkey was served — two reasonably moderate slices, as would be expected from this restaurant, or any white-tablecloth joint any other autumn night. But as the brownie was announced, a silent cue to the end of our meal, we realized… this was to be the entire serving: a sliver of turkey, skosh of gravy, and a small ramekin of what amounted to cranberry chutney, really. There might have been coleslaw.
This was the challenge of living abroad on Thanksgiving, an American creation myth of sorts, one of the country’s few holidays that evades both flag-waving jingoism and abrahamic perniciousness. Of course, themes of gratitude and gluttony are universal, but for me in London, and for friends abroad in France, Egypt and Italy, we woke with the exhilaration of Christmas morning to a populace who saw it as nothing more than a Thursday. These are their stories of bringing Thanksgiving to foreign lands, or of their international friends trying their best to bring the holiday to them.
* * *
We’ll begin with Lizzie Lewis, whose family had moved to England for a few years in her childhood, and was now facing their first Thanksgiving abroad.
Instead of trying to have some sort of normalcy, my parents decided the best thing to do would be to go to Southern France… for Tapas…
My mother and brother Richard hated being in London, and my mother was lamenting the lack of Turkey and cranberries the entire time. After this long, awkward wake of a meal, my dad decided to give my brother and I a whole lot of Francs to go out on the town. So we went to this bar, with a “Ricard” flag, and decided it would be a really good idea to “Souvenir” the flag for my brother. Just then — as if in cahoots with the electric company — the power went out. And my brother lept out of his seat to grab it. Mid-reach, the lights flicked on again and he jolted back into his seat, flag in hand. We rolled it up, put it down his pant leg and exited the bar.
We continued on this debaucherous path till 4 am when we returned to our hotel room, promptly passed out, only to be awoken by our irate mother at 7 a.m. Evidently my father too had decided to go out, and ended up getting so inebriated that he couldn’t get into the hotel room and fell asleep outside like a hobo. My mother, worried all night, was going to the reception — to contact the police — when she saw him on the ground, passed out under the stoop of the Hotel Lobby.
* * *
In a small apartment on the other side of Paris, Ariana Jackson, rejoined her traveling academic parents for what they hoped would be an eclectic French Thanksgiving:
My family had lived in France for two years when I was younger and subsequently spent all our summers there, so Paris was already a second home to us. Out of the blue, two friends of mine (really more college acquaintances) decided they would also head to Paris for Thanksgiving, so we invited them, as well as a good friend of mine studying in France. Plus my parents had cultivated an odd mix of ex-pat friends and French people over the years.
Soon it became clear to Ariana’s mother that finding a whole turkey, in France — before Christmastime, would be near impossible.
Turns out, my mother’s underground network of American ex-pats, all trying desperately like us to celebrate our strange little holiday on the sly, located a bird. We had heard it was small, but when it arrived, it was still covered from beak to toe in feathers… with the head on, just the neck snapped. The philosophy seemed to be: “We break its neck. You do the rest.” But somehow, in this New York bachelor-sized apartment, with only an economy-sized stove and minimal counter space, my mother pulled it off.
The spirit of being grateful for the people in your life, the things you have, and generally being at peace with the world for a few hours of good food, good wine, and good conversation was somehow heightened immensely by getting to share it in and with another culture. Ten people huddled around a table for four in an apartment built for one, stuffing our faces with dishes that probably seemed crude and unrefined to the Frenchies. Luckily, we outnumbered them, and in fact spent most of the dinner marveling at the absurdity of the French people and their customs. But the real Thanksgiving story is mainly about disparaging other cultures… So I guess we stayed pretty true to that.
* * *
For France, by way of the Middle East, Foster Itter — an American teaching English who has spent five Thanksgivings abroad — began by recounting her Thursday in Egypt.
After a fairly dramatic Halloween party, at my host family’s apartment… on the holiest day of Ramadan, my friends and I decided that Thanksgiving would best be celebrated at a restaurant. Until a crazy Christian girl — 23, married, participates in bible re-enactments in full costume — organized a Thanksgiving celebration at the villa where I lived, which I thought would be nice to attend. But somehow, she ended up preparing too many sweet potato pies. As in, so many that she could not fit them all into her oven. So, her husband was going all around town, with more than five large sweet potato pies, requesting oven space. Meanwhile, my roommate and I were on our balcony, drinking tea with whiskey. We had started around 11 in the morning and finished around 3 — in time for a knock on the door from her husband. We were drunk. And suddenly we had Christian sweet potato pies in our oven… Lots.
Foster then recounted a more valiant attempt at tradition, buttressed by youth when she was seventeen, and living with an older couple in Viterbo, Italy.
Benito was named after, of course, Mussolini — and both Benito and Teresa still held his namesake in high regard. I had arrived in late august without knowing a word of Italian. I had learned fairly quickly, but as a seventeen-year-old, I was concerned with being thin and smart. Teresa was also concerned with me being thin, and untraditionally never served pasta at dinner, as it would make us ‘grassa.’ Teresa was a bitch.
At school, I was carefully preparing a community Thanksgiving, fancying myself as some sort of Martha Stewart, I gathered golden fallen leaves from the trees by the small train station and strung them from yarn to make special garlands and hung them in the sala grande at school. And everyone prepared a dish. I made coleslaw. Teresa stood in the corner of the kitchen, arms folded, scowling each time I added more mayonnaise. She would make this funny grunt noise. When I finally tipped the jar over the bowl, she could not contain herself: “This will make you molto grassa!” … I spent the rest of the evening in my tiny bedroom crying and clambering over the radiator and out the window to smoke cigarettes.
The feast at school was a success. I remember wearing a special Thanksgiving wreath on my head: you know, wired orange tinsel or something. One of my friends then implored me to come and help her cook a Thanksgiving meal for her host family — I can’t remember how she herself got roped into it, her host family may have missed the school celebration and felt denied a true American experience, and therefore asked Alexa to prepare a meal. This was a disaster. Alexa had no idea how to cook.
In lieu of the traditional turkey, we had a large chicken. The oven was not working, so I had to quarter the chicken in the kitchen sink… and I was seventeen… I had never quartered a chicken before.
I also had no clue how to make stuffing, and as I soon learned… you can’t stuff a quartered chicken. I phoned my parents, who explained that to achieve a perfect stuffing, I desperately needed sage and parsley. I asked Alexa for sage, and Alexa asked her twelve-year-old Italian sister, who in turn phoned a neighbor, and the neighbor brought fresh sage from his garden. At dinner, in my broken three-month-old Italian, I had to explain the story of Thanksgiving several times. I primi Americani sono arrivati.
* * *
A little farther South, George Jaramillo was studying with a number of other American students of Architecture, in Florence.
The really ‘off” part about the whole meal — to a bunch of architects — was that this intimate holiday, usually a family in their home around the table, was held in this extravagant former palace of Napoleon Bonaparte — a great hall in the center of Florence — with sixty people. And because they had acquired this ridiculous palazzo, they were beholden to use their elaborate caterer. I can remember all the Italians trying really hard to make our meal as ‘American’ as possible. But the bread… well, it was still that unsalted Florentine bread that turns into a rock thirty minutes after it has been cut.
Dinner was served over three courses with a slew of turkeys and mashed potatoes and gravy. I am not sure how they got Turkey and cranberry sauce into Italy, but it was all there and more than you could ever finish. And of course, at meal’s end… what looked like hundreds of Pumpkin Pies.
* * *
George’s story salted my wounds, as we sat there. Two chalky cakey chocolate triangles, jauntily perched askew, if not askance, a sprig of menthe, soon became not only gastronomically disappointing but a shibboleth of how misunderstood this holiday was. After whispers had spread, a spoon clinked a glass, and our host announced:
“For those of you who might want additional turkey…”
You could feel the gaffe shoot under your nails like bamboo. No, you don’t understand. We get to eat as much of this as possible… for hours… until we fall asleep at the table. Then we wake up, eat a course of desserts — pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, pecan pie, apple pie, possibly cakes, but never brownies… or if brownies — only on the side of Pumpkin Pie. After which we bide our time ’till we can make a second plate entirely — often in the form of a sandwich — from the leftovers of hours before.
Feeling the Sally Albright rise inside of me, and in the spirit of the holiday which commemorated and irresponsibly romanticized our country’s first great failure to bridge the divide between cultures — part of the very reason so many of us had gotten on that plane in the first place — we just said thank you.
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