Ellen and I hosted our seventh annual Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday. There were 17 of us, mostly ex-pats but also a sprinkling of wide-eyed Europeans, gathered for several hours of food and drink, American-style.
I never considered how uniquely American the Thanksgiving menu is until I started preparing the turkey-day spread in another country. Corn meal, brown sugar, cranberries, squash, corn syrup… these are incredibly rare commodities in France. They’re near-impossible to find and, when you can find them, you’ll often part with some serious coin.
As it happens, there’s a little boutique a few blocks from our apartment that specializes in American foods. Appropriately enough, it’s called Thanksgiving, and its shelves are stocked with Kraft mac and cheese, marshmallows, Crisco, Pop Tarts, root beer, etc. It’s sweet and sentimental at first glance, sheer profiteering when you look at the price tag. Last year, I saw a bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice for sale for, no kidding, 14 euros (around $18).
Turkey is more readily available, but the trick is the size. Any self-respecting French butcher will tell you that you’re nuts to ask for a 20-pound turkey (I shudder to think what would happen if we asked for a turducken). He’ll tell you that it will be dry and flavorless, that it won’t fit into your oven, and he’ll try to steer you to two or three nine-pounders instead.
In truth, that’s pretty good advice. But Thanksgiving just isn’t Thanksgiving without a big bird, so every year, we order our turkey a week in advance. We flatter and cajole our butcher and, eventually, we come away with our prize, an enormous turkey at 5 euros/kilo, or about $3/pound.
All of this, of course, is part of the adventure, and the extra legwork makes us appreciate the meal even more. It elevates the nostalgic enjoyment of the day and conjures thoughts about what we miss most about home.
One of the great benefits of living abroad is the perspective that it gives you on your own country and culture. It surfaces the things that you like best, as well as the ideas and traditions that could use some improvement. I’m not talking grand philosophy here, but more about the trappings of everyday life and the way that people interact with each other.
The things that we miss most are generally little things that we never really thought about until they were gone. A sampler:
- Peanut butter
- New York taxi cabs
- Mexican food
- Sunday newspapers
- Index cards and manila folders
- Buttered movie popcorn
- Air conditioning
- Personal space
- Restaurant delivery
- Shoe stores that carry men’s size 13
- Free (1-800) customer service lines
- Super Bowl parties
- Frank’s Red Hot hot sauce
Our friends and family back home top the list, of course; we miss them terribly. But as we looked around our table on Thursday night, we were grateful to have discovered such a wonderful family here, too.