Ah, Thanksgiving. This American holiday is less than 2 weeks away. As a child, this day was the last step, the last box to check, before the magical 30-some days of the Christmas season began.
All that remained in my Halloween candy pail were the off-brand gummy bears and the Almond Joys. It was dark before dinner, and I had started wearing my winter coat to the bus stop. The commercial breaks during TGIF and ABC Saturday Morning displayed flashy new toys and next year’s edition of popular video games. I scrawled Christmas gift ideas on notebook paper and kept my list tucked under my bed so my siblings wouldn’t see it (you never wanted to receive the same gift as someone else).
A Slow Appreciation
My Thanksgivings started out at my great Aunt Pat’s house, where three generations of 40 people squished onto a mix of wood dining room table and plastic folding chairs in front of a long table full of comfort food. There were two different kinds of turkey meat, bowls of thick breadcrumb stuffing and candied sweet potatoes, and at least 15 pies that ranged from lemon meringue to mince. When Aunt Pat passed away, we gathered at my grandparents’ house, and as my grandparents and their generation started to age, we broke into smaller Thanksgivings at different houses. By the time I was in college, Thanksgiving was with my grandparents and my immediate family at my parents’ house.
It was during college that Thanksgiving became less of a stepping stone to Christmas and more of an actual holiday in itself. All that was left of the fall semester were the last few edits to my final assignments followed by my final exams. Nearly a week at home offered some much-needed days of rest before I returned to campus for two weeks of late-night studying and holiday parties. Plus, my high school friends were also home, so the evenings, especially Thanksgiving Eve, turned into a string of highly anticipated reunions.
A Twist on Tradition
A year after college, I was teaching English in Paris during the Thanksgiving holiday. It felt strange, spending the day in a city that wasn’t celebrating. It felt stranger to be away from my parents.
Without realizing it, I’d spent every Thanksgiving with my parents, except for the one when Dad was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany for work.
One of my American colleagues, likely feeling the same way, saw an advertisement for a Thanksgiving Day Dinner at the American Church in Paris and suggested we buy tickets. The dinner was scheduled for the Saturday after Thanksgiving. “Traditional Thanksgiving,” the flyer read, and included, “turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.”
I was skeptical, having never seen half of these items, like cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, in Paris, or even in France. Turkey, though available in France, wasn’t popular in restaurants. Potatoes were a regular side, but they were often pureed or chopped and roasted.
My two American roommates and I agreed that although the food was questionable, attending the dinner at the American Church would help us properly acknowledge the holiday.
The Holiday Abroad
On the actual Thanksgiving Day, I took the train to my high school in the southwest suburbs of the city, and taught lessons on the American holiday. I shared the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth and introduced new words like cornucopia and feast. We watched a short video on the legend of Pocahontas.
That Saturday, after a glass of wine at our apartment (otherwise known as an apéro, or happy hour, in France), my roommates and I walked the few blocks to the metro. We switched metro lines once, arrived at metro stop Invalides, and took a short walk to 65 Quai d’Orsay along the River Seine. The American Church in Paris was easy to recognize among a mix of residences and corporate buildings, with its seafoam green steeple and stained-glass windows. It was tall, with high ceilings, and majestically cold, with smooth, stone walls. We ended up in the wood-floored recreation room in the back of the church, where there were several long card tables covered in plastic red tablecloths.
We filled our plates with food from the buffet table and toasted to Happy Thanksgiving. We drank red wine that we brought out of plastic cups, and laughed about how this 3-euro wine was probably better than anything we could ever find for that price (roughly 5 dollars) back home. At our table, we were joined by an American colleague and an attorney from Belize.
The food was underwhelming, but in thinking back, I realize that I didn’t notice the food at the time. Instead, I noticed Americans, gathered for a holiday.