Overseas For The Holidays—Part I
This week, it’s hard not to be distracted by the holidays…
With Thanksgiving under our belts and December now upon us, I like to think we’re all a little starry-eyed… we’re looking forward to the marathon of family engagements, office parties, seasonal foods, time off work, and general merry-making that’s upon us come late November. Everyday life has taken something of a hiatus, as have our run-of-the-mill commitments.
This time of year, I perennially ask myself: For those of us who have set ourselves up far from where we hail, what do the holidays mean…?
Forgive me for dwelling on Thanksgiving this week, I know it was celebrated days ago and everyone has already moved on to the next biggie. But as I write this week, my big dinner is still ahead of me. This evening, I’ll be joining friends and their family—one American among a bunch of Australians—in celebrating the Aussies’ first Thanksgiving dinner.
My friend had her mother import for the occasion some boxes of stuffing, cornbread, and gravy mix on a recent visit, and she’s hunted down pumpkin and pecan pie fixins’. She won’t bother with a turkey (Parisian kitchens weren’t built for this kind of massive beast), but plans to buy six or so roast chickens—just as good in my book.
I was put in charge of cranberry sauce, which I’ve never made from scratch before but look forward to attempting. I found a few bags of cranberries in a local fruit market and will set to work on them once I’ve finished this dispatch.
Harry and I did celebrate on the day, and celebrating as a twosome is special, but it doesn’t feel quite as meaningful, so I think of tonight as our real Thanksgiving.
Nevertheless, on the day itself I made a pancake feast for brunch—both blueberry and chocolate chip. One of my pregnancy cravings since the first trimester has been pancakes… I try not to overindulge in these high-sugar, low-nutrition treats, but I figure Thanksgiving is a day to spoil oneself.
And we had a dinner reservation at Joe Allen, one of the oldest American restaurants in Paris. It serves a Thanksgiving menu to hungry Americans every year over three days, along with a handful of other American restaurants in the city. As we waited to be seated, we eavesdropped on the conversations of those around us… when you’re a foreigner living abroad, it’s sometimes nice to be in a sea of your own language, surrounded by familiar accents.
“I’ve been here two years with my French husband and… it’s going well. I like it here,” one lady shyly explained to another she’d just been introduced to. “I’m originally from New York, what about you?”
“I’ve lived in Paris for 10 years, and this is my fourth Thanksgiving at Joe Allen. I moved from New York, but I’m originally from Charlotte.”
A few tables seated one Yankee and one Frenchy—couples whose American component had dragged their French partner along for the not-to-be-missed holiday dinner.
Some were packed with 10 or more people, all talking and laughing raucously, clearly enjoying the company.
The table next to us happened to seat Ken Burns and two of his daughters, apparently passing through the city on the momentous day.
Kids wandered the restaurant, playing games of their own devising, dressed in their parents’ favorite holiday garb—little velvet dresses, patent leather Mary Janes, sparkly headwear… corduroys, cable-knit vests, white button-downs, complete with little ties.
The bar was packed with those waiting to be seated, all sipping the drink special of the day: incredibly overpriced eggnog.
The holiday atmosphere was undeniable. Walking across the restaurant was like being privy to a dozen different families’ personal holidays. Everyone was making the most of the day, making it special in one way or another.
Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. For a country that has inherited more from others than it ever had in its own right—people, customs, religions, foods, arts, all these things imported and adopted throughout our young country’s short history—Thanksgiving is one of the few things we Americans have that really was born in America.
Yet for those of us who have moved overseas, it didn’t stay in America.
Paris is home to a couple dozen restaurant- or organization-provided Thanksgiving celebrations… Panama City likewise had a number to offer, as I’m sure many other American-populated cities across the globe do. But even if you’re in a city that isn’t as well-equipped for us Yanks on Thanksgiving, it’s a holiday that never ceases to be celebrated. Folks get together whatever foods they can—traditional or local—and they invite any other Americans, foreign, or local friends they have to share in the day.
Or at least the event—because the other thing about Thanksgiving overseas is that it doesn’t necessarily have to take place on its rightful day. The restaurants here typically offer the meal over three days, knowing that not everyone can make time for the holiday on Thursday, seeing as it’s not actually a holiday here.
I spoke with one American woman last week (who’s going on 30 years in Paris) and she had celebrated with her adopted Paris family the week before. She tried to schedule a call with a friend back in the States on the 28th, and her friend had to remind her that it was Thanksgiving—she’d be otherwise occupied. “But I guess when you’re overseas you can make Thanksgiving any day you want, huh?” she surmised.
I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and that’s where my grandmother and extended family still live… but I haven’t spent much of my life there, nor the majority of my Thanksgivings there.
I’ve spent seven in Ireland, five in Paris, two in New York, and five in Panama… give or take a couple that I may have forgotten along the way. That’s roughly 20 out of 30 away from “home”…
I’m amazed that I myself still feel the need to recognize the holiday—after all, my track record is more foreign than American.
But there’s something about Thanksgiving that we expats just can’t overlook. It may mean nothing in our new home, not understood or appreciated by our new friends or non-American partners… but we can’t resist it. It’s not just about food and football—it goes so much deeper.
Maybe it’s nostalgia… sentimentality… maybe it’s just an excuse to spend a few hours preparing a meal for people you want to spend time with, then spending real quality time with them…
Whatever it is, we Americans overseas take it with us wherever we go… for what is it for most of us other than a set of precious memories that we want to hold on to, remember, and add to once a year.
Whether it’s a week early or late… in a restaurant, church, or your home… with turkey and stuffing or roast chickens and rice… we manage to make Thanksgiving one way or another.
To misquote Hemingway, “If you are lucky enough to have had Thanksgiving as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Thanksgiving is a moveable feast.”
Wherever in the world you hang your hat, I wish you a belated Happy Thanksgiving, and I hope you have taken it with you and shared it with others. For that, I believe, is the true meaning of Thanksgiving for an expat.