Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving, chez nous

Thanksgiving, I am convinced, is best celebrated abroad.

Okay, there are a few disadvantages, even beyond the obvious absence of family and friends. Canned pumpkin, for example, is almost impossible to find beyond our borders except in world capitals boasting a large American expat community, and even then it’s a brutish Hobbesian struggle to get your hands on any before limited supplies vanish. Ditto cranberry sauce. And then there’s the stubborn refusal of foreign governments to recognize our four-day weekend – unless you’re self-employed, you have to take a vacation day in order to wallow in the overstuffed hung-over bliss of the Friday after.

But the advantages far outweigh the shortcomings. For a start, living abroad means there are no expectations, apart from calling your mother. Don’t like those candied yams? Does anyone? No matter. Don’t like Aunt Margery? She’s thousands of miles away. Daunted by spending a week picking over leftover dried out turkey meat and battling the supposedly mythological but all-too-real L-tryptophan induced stupor? No worries. As long as you don’t invite any other Americans, you can just roast a chicken. No one will know the difference. Celebrating Thanksgiving abroad means you can honor the traditions as selectively as you like. You can even make up a few, although from personal experience I would advise against trying to convince your six-year-old that Santa Claus has a less-talented brother known as Turkey Claus. Being ridiculed by a six-year-old is not pretty.

So, unshackled from the burden of tradition and constrained by Sebastian’s school schedule, we had our Thanksgiving Thursday dinner last Sunday at lunchtime. Since one of the other pleasures of celebrating the holiday abroad is initiating foreign friends into the tradition (or such bits of it that you choose to observe), we invited David and Claire over with their children, Chloe and Theo.

Having French people over for a meal is not always easy. Most of our neighbors are old-fashioned rural French, and are uncomfortable with being invited over for a meal with someone they aren’t related to and haven’t known for at least 30 years. For an aperitif, maybe after a few years of saying “bonjour” at the bakery, but even that is a stretch.

And then there is the food issue. The French, for all their love of great cuisine, are not terribly open-minded when it comes to foreign food. To vary the ingredients of a traditional dish is heresy, and to serve something outside the accepted French canon is for many, well, beyond the pale. Start waving marshmallow-covered sweet potatoes at them and they are likely to run away screaming. As, quite frankly, they should.

But Davie and Claire are both grew up in more cosmopolitan parts of France and are mercifully flexible. While the kids played and the chickens roasted, we sat down for a drink and I explained to them exactly what Thanksgiving is about. I ran through the history, aided in large part by having watched the Peanuts TV special so many times, and proudly described how it is perhaps the one holiday almost totally unspoiled by commercialism. And if I am guilty of having sidelining some of the darker details – the subsequent war and genocide against the Native Americans, the grotesque spectacle of shoppers throttling each other in the Friday sales – let’s just say that this holiday is about being thankful for the good, not dwelling on the evil. It’s already enough that they braved the succotash.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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