Thanksgiving Abroad

Written by admin on November 1, 2009 – 3:42 pm -

Many Americans are in the process of making plans for Thanksgiving. Families traditionally gather over turkey and all the fixings to give thanks and catch up with relatives. It’s frequently a multigenerational gathering under the best circumstances. Americans tend to live in different parts of the country because the days of the nuclear family are pretty much a thing of the past.

Many consider this holiday a time for reflection. Even if their lives are a bit bumpy (OK, the economic data are better—do you hear that?), it’s a time to give thanks. Invariably, there are collections of food for families who are less fortunate. Some begin the day by going and serving turkey dinners to people in shelters or soup kitchens. Perhaps, because it’s a holiday with a muted religious significance, it isn’t loaded with do’s and don’ts. And realistically, aren’t we paying homage to native Indians who taught the first inhabitants of the new continent how to physically survive?

If you’re an American living abroad, Thanksgiving poses a different type of challenge. It’s your holiday. But it’s not one in the country where you’re working. The fourth Thursday of November isn’t even a day off or a leave-the-office-early day. On the other hand, you may not have to work some days when your U.S. colleagues do, such as La Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) where people honor the dead, and it’s not just an excuse for a Halloween party—and trick or treating. For the French, it is a religious holiday, and of course an excuse to take a long weekend.

Children who attend American schools most probably will be on vacation. But their parents won’t be. Some families opt to band together and celebrate the holiday because, if they plan to return home, it’s usually during the Christmas break when everyone is on vacation.

Expats may leave their home countries, but they take their traditions with them, and holiday traditions often become more meaningful to those living abroad. Because of this, groups such as the American Club and many others sponsor holiday events. Americans who are traveling and find they won’t be home for the holidays can contact various groups and pay to be included. Many hotels that cater to Americans offer a special meal. If you look in the English language newspaper (or call the American Church), you’ll find numerous choices. But, if you’re in Paris, don’t wait for your invite from the American ambassador to France. The Rivkin family is undoubtedly busy.

Preparing the traditional turkey dinner can also be a challenge, unless you’re stationed on a U.S. military base where it’s easier to “live American,” and Butterball turkeys are available at the PX. Those who are entitled to buy at a U.S. commissary don’t have to pay a small fortune for such exotic products such as canned cranberry sauce or jelly, Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix, and tiny marshmallows to bake on top on the sweet potatoes. They can even buy cans of puréed pumpkin so they can whip up pies in ready-made pie crusts. Don’t tell your French friends.

Thanksgiving has always been meaningful to me. I’ll never forget the first year I lived in Paris (we’re talking 22 years ago) and my mother came to visit. Her luggage included cans of Ocean Spray’s finest tucked into shoes, and unpacking her suitcases was an experience in itself. It was a true treasure hunt.

These were the days before France discovered and started marketing turkey as the “white meat.” The largest turkey anyone could buy was a bird only marginally larger than a chicken. A few butchers in the 6eme, 7eme, and 16eme arrondissements (where most Americans tended to live) were willing to order large turkeys for their clients. But everything had its time… and that time was Christmas.

Being resourceful and ignorant of French agricultural regulations, my mother imported a real honest-to-goodness Butterball in a Styrofoam container. Gee, it had to defrost anyway, and what was wrong with doing it in transit across the Atlantic? When the customs inspectors asked what the trunk contained, my mother who spoke little French but had a dazzling smile, explained it was for her daughter and Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey and she were waved through security and, yes, it was a memorable dinner.

We invited all of our American friends, who were amazed by the Butterball caper. We also included French friends and professional colleagues who weren’t overwhelmingly impressed by the caliber of the food. Who could blame them? Thanksgiving meals simply aren’t haute cuisine. It goes without saying they were incredibly polite and saved the evening by bringing chilled champagne. We were all feeling less pain by the time dinner was on the table.

Big turkeys are readily available now, but because they’re free-range, they cost a fortune. After you’ve tasted a farm-raised turkey, you’re spoiled for ones that have been raised in incubators, even though they may look juicier and considerably plumper.

I’ve come to relish Thanksgiving dinner with family, American friends, and French friends. The evening probably doesn’t begin until 8:00 p.m. But we have a wonderful times bonding over food and an American tradition. And lots of wine. Isn’t that what life is about? And something to be thankful for?


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