Thanksgiving doesn’t exist in France. For the French, this particularly American holiday means nothing. Some French think of it – if they ever do think of it – as one of those quaint American celebrations vaguely centered around an excess of food that is curiously “over there” and another reminder of the differences between the ways of life of French and Anglo-Saxons (the French consider most English-speaking people to be somehow Anglo-Saxon regardless of their particular ethnic heritage).
Toward the end of my stay in France that first year, my friends Georgia and Catherine asked me to join them for a Thanksgiving dinner at their apartment in the 14th arrondissement on the charming rue Victor Considérant, which ends at rue Froidevaux, which parallels the Montparnasse Cemetery. Georgia and Catherine had invited other Americans in Paris (and some non-Americans too, in the spirit of inclusiveness) to take part, many of them longtime transplants who still clung to keeping a flame of their childhood traditions flickering abroad.
Thanksgiving is a normal weekday in Paris, so those Americans wanting to celebrate it organize a dinner around their daily Parisian lives. Because Thanksgiving is also so personal, built around certain particular food memories, some of the guests insisted on preparing their own special dishes. Jim, for example, made his family stuffing, which was apparently a sort of Midwestern delicacy (he hails from somewhere near Chicago) that seemed to me to be made up mainly of ground beef, which certainly wasn’t a stuffing with which I was familiar from my own childhood Thanksgivings, but apparently only one youthful memory at a time could be accommodated for the courses at this dinner.
And because Jim, a longtime resident of Paris, is fluent in French, Georgia had asked him to order the turkey from her local butcher on the Rue Daguerre, near Georgia and Catherine’s apartment. Turkey is not rare in France, but American Thanksgiving-sized turkeys are uncommon and must be special-ordered. Because Georgia’s French could be so uncertain (at least she didn’t consider her French up to ordering a bird at the butcher, though she told me later that she did perfectly well when speaking at the hairdresser), she left it to Jim. Georgia had also realized that he preferred to demonstrate to others – those of us not yet fluent, perhaps – that he knew his way around town. He managed to procure for her and Catherine a gigantic turkey.
I wasn’t asked to bring anything – my childhood traditions were, I believed, considered to be irrelevant, since I was a relative newcomer among this crowd of guests, and so it was maybe more important for some of them to maintain their tradition of hearth and home than it evidently was for me, who’d only been in France for about six months. I wasn’t away from home long enough to miss Thanksgiving, in any event, nor did I want to fashion a simulacrum of a holiday that means nothing in the country where I had chosen to spend a good part of the year. I love this particular holiday, but I didn’t feel the need to mark it then and there. Paris might be a feast, but I felt then that the feast of Thanksgiving should pretty much stay in America.
Still, I took part in the dinner (I was asked to carve the turkey). Apart from the ground-beef stuffing (an acquired taste, one you had to grow up with, perhaps), it was your usual Thanksgiving fare, and it was different from a typical Parisian dinner only in that the cuisine was more American than French (even if the turkey was “made in France”), the talk was in English with a smattering of French expressions, and the subject of the conversation revolved around Thanksgiving memories. I was glad to be there and, in Thanksgiving spirit, grateful to be among these guests.
Another part of the conversation centered on New York, which brought out a bristling undercurrent of my unspoken sense of superiority related to a proprietary ownership of New York. All of the other guests had spent time or lived there, and Michelle had been born there, though she’d been living in Paris at that point for about a decade. As the only current resident of New York (and part-time Parisian), I was amused by what I decided were everyone’s outdated opinions on my city – the happening neighborhoods, the energy of the town, the best restaurants, the locals. The guests could just as well have been American tourists talking about their experiences of Paris, than American transplants recounting their visits to New York as if they’d been homegrown Parisians.
I didn’t agree with most of the opinions that the Thanksgiving invitees expressed about New York, feeling they were somehow biased by a lack of the kind of understanding I presumed one acquires by actually living in rather than merely visiting a city. And then I realized that I myself had been collecting impressions of Paris as someone who had chosen to live in it rather than visit it, and that my own biases or lack of understanding were similar to what I believed the others had felt about the New York I insisted only I knew perfectly.
A city such as New York or Paris belongs to everyone, and everyone’s opinion is valid, since everyone’s experience is individual and cannot be the experience of either the guidebooks or the smug residents or even the visiting know-it-alls who insist that their version of the city is the only true and authentic one.
And so what if a particular bias about a place leads you to think one way, one that’s at odds with what someone else thinks who claims to know the city better than you? What I thought at that point about living in Paris was just as valid as what Georgia thought, or what Jim the longtime resident thought about it, even if he could order a turkey more efficiently at a butcher than I could then. And what any visitor to or former resident of New York believed about my hometown was a point of view that couldn’t be mine, even if I disagreed with it. Or even if I admitted to agreeing with it on some level.
So I realized that this Thanksgiving in Paris wasn’t that very different from many of mine in New York, even if I had considered this one somehow inauthentic for not being in America, but then who decides what’s authentic or not about a holiday whose meaning is so personal? In any event, people voiced opinions I might not agree with but nothing I would say would convince them otherwise. Nor should it. That this Thanksgiving took place in Paris rather than somewhere in the United States ultimately didn’t matter, either, since I had chosen to spend time celebrating it here with people whose company I actually enjoyed, whose generosity trumped my pettiness, whose idiosyncrasies I realized I needed to tolerate, and whose opinions I needed to acknowledge as valid. At home or abroad I was beginning to sense how much more I had to learn.