Thanksgiving has a certain smell for me. It’s roasting turkey and cornbread baking and the sweet-sour tang of cranberry sauce boiling on the stove. It’s the sound of familiar voices in rhythmic chatter, the irruption of laughter, the contentment of greeting after a long absence. It’s the warmth of a fire and the crackle as it hisses and transforms. Thanksgiving. It’s America, our values and culture all wrapped up into one festive day.
Here in France, the sounds and smells of Thanksgiving are a strangely familiar variant of their former selves. The smell of rising cornmeal and roasting turkey are constant, but the chatter is in some other language and the voices not quite as familiar. And, to be sure, there is no football announcer’s voice murmuring play-by-plays in the background, such a strong memory from my childhood Thanksgivings.
Last night, one of my American friends who works at the Embassy had a Thanksgiving feast chez elle. Much like if she was back home, she spent the day basting a turkey and baking pumpkin pies. Of course, we did this whole to-do on Thanksgiving Eve because the French have to work today even the expats, except those at the Embassy which is closed for the holiday. So after a little clean up this morning, my friend will get to enjoy her day in peaceful thanks of being American. I mentioned last night she also might want to throw in a little thanks for living in France for it was for that reason she had Wednesday off too – like so many French women, for elementary children don’t go to school on Wednesdays in France – to prepare for the feast.
I offered to bring my great-grandmother’s cornbread dressing and a dozen devilled eggs as my contribution to the festivies. I woke up early to head down to the outdoor market – truly my favorite part of living in France. In my neighborhood, we have one in the center square on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday mornings. I bought the few ingredients I was missing to complete my recipes: a head of celery, a dozen fresh eggs and then I asked my trusted dairy vendor what she recommended as a buttermilk substitute (lait fermenté was the answer). I watched in silent horror as a foreigner walked up to the produce and began to pick her vegetables by hand. Upon seeing her, the vendor stopped serving another client in line and told this unsuspecting lady to unhand his clementines. (Remember, in France you normally wait in line to be served by the vendor!) After purchasing my few items, I promptly came home to start on the cornbread. (By the way, I’ve added a slideshow of the steps to making the cornbread dressing on the Canadian Thanksgiving post).
Last evening, we were a group of about 20, both expats and French compatriots. We dined on devilled eggs, homemade mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce. And then pies and more pies. It was delightful and an ideal time to catch-up with some other expat friends I don’t get to see very often in the normal routine of life.
As few Parisian apartments or homes are large enough to house a party of 20 seated guests, Thanksgiving this year took on a French air as an aperitif dinatoire. It reminded me of the days when we used to have BBQ parties at my parent’s house and everybody would grab their plate piled high and cop a squat somewhere, anywhere. It was a lot like that last night.
This marks the third Thanksgiving I’ve celebrated in Paris, of my seven years here. Some Thanksgivings have come and gone without much more than an email home with love and my best wishes. But for the third time, yesterday was a memorable reminder of how close home can be, even when we’re thousands of miles away.