Even before Chris and I moved to Paris, I knew that the hardest part about being abroad would be the holidays: Thanksgiving and Christmas and the glorious season in between. I live for all of the traditions and nostalgia and family gatherings that define the season, and I knew that it would be difficult for me not to feel a part of it, to be so far from home. Sure enough, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, it took everything within me to resist dropping a couple hundred dollars on a plane ticket, to be honest, just so I didn’t miss out.
Thankfully, even though we couldn’t be with our families this year, I knew we wouldn’t be alone. Chris and I had been invited a few weeks prior to eat Thanksgiving dinner with our new friends from church – a family of four originally from California – and another couple they knew from back home who would be staying with them over the holiday. They graciously offered us a seat at their table, assuring us that they would handle the meal preparations if we wanted to take care of dessert. That sounded like a good deal to me! But as the day approached and my siblings arrived home and I was still 4,000 miles away, I became less and less enthused. I was doing my best not to think about the upcoming holiday at all for fear of a breakdown – that is, until it was the evening before Thanksgiving and I still hadn’t fulfilled my dessert duties.
That evening, I got it in my head that I was going to do some baking. Side note: I am now convinced that during our time abroad I shouldn’t attempt to do anything the evening before, much less baking. But, despite my procrastination, I did want to contribute, and I surely wasn’t going to find a suitable Thanksgiving dessert at any store in Paris. My goal was a simple one: capture the essence of Thanksgiving in one heck of a dessert. Sounds doable. Pumpkin was the obvious choice because, what says Thanksgiving more than pumpkin? After a quick Pinterest search, I settled on a pumpkin tart with a gingersnap cookie crust, and Chris and I set out to collect the ingredients.
Perhaps if I had given myself a few days I could have pulled off the best pumpkin tart there ever was. I’d like to give myself the benefit of the doubt. But alas, gingersnap cookies were nowhere to be found that night. Nor, surprisingly, was cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves.
Without the time or wherewithal to seek out a different recipe, I retreated back into my melancholy, distraught and disappointed. Now look what you’ve done, I scolded myself. Our hosts are counting on a scrumptious dessert and now you’ve ruined Thanksgiving for everyone – including yourself! Chris tried to console me and suggested that we simply preorder an apple tart from our local boulangerie. I agreed that this was our best bet, but I still felt like I had failed. I knew deep down that my internal struggle wasn’t really about my inability to make a silly tart. Deep down, I was afraid. I wanted so badly for Thanksgiving to be special this year, for it to taste and smell and feel like it did back home. I wanted to be able to close my eyes and take a big bite of pumpkin tart and picture myself at Good ‘N Plenty Restaurant (our Thanksgiving tradition) alongside my family. But I was afraid that now it was a lost cause. Thanksgiving wasn’t Thanksgiving without a pumpkin something-or-other, after all.
The following evening, Chris and I took the metro down to our friends’ apartment, our giant apple tart drawing curious eyes even from within its box. I had settled down about the whole thing for the most part, but was still feeling depressed and lonely. Thanksgiving, so far, had been like any other day. Chris had gone to his French class, and although I had spent some time with another friend – a sweet Australian woman from church – I couldn’t help but to fixate on what I was missing at home.
But then we arrived and we were welcomed inside. The adults bustled and chatted in the kitchen while the two little girls played. There was music piped through speakers and the table was set. There were fresh flowers. Wine was offered in stemmed glasses. It felt warm, safe, friendly, familiar… but also new and different and that was okay.
And then, out came the food. I’m not sure how they did it (because cooking in a foreign place is HARD!), but the spread they assembled was perfect: fluffy mashed potatoes and homemade gravy, bread stuffing, tart cranberry sauce, green beans and corn and root veggies, a pear salad dowsed in a vinaigrette dressing, and, the pièce de résistance, a whole turkey they had found at a local butcherie. The jumble of savory scents was so familiar and comforting; we were reminded only by the crusty baguette, cheese, and bottles of French wine that we were far away from home.
When it was time to gather at the table, the youngest of the two girls insisted that I sit next to her. I happily obliged. We prayed over the food and our time together, thanking God for His provision and the gift of new traditions and friendships. And then we dished up.
I took my first forkful of stuffing with a bit of cranberry sauce, willing myself to close my eyes and be transported away, back to the front room at Good ‘N Plenty and surrounded by my dear siblings and cousins and grandparents and PA Dutch home cooking. But, in that moment, I realized that I didn’t want to leave – not even in my mind. Not that I wasn’t missing my family. Not that, if money wasn’t an issue, I wouldn’t have been on the first flight to Lancaster to spend Thanksgiving with the people I loved. But, in that moment, I realized that I loved these people too – these new friends who had opened up their home to Chris and me, who invited us to their table; these new friends who had, through their kindness, made us feel special and included and not so alone.
I enjoyed that first bite with eyes open, overwhelmed with a gushing thankfulness that lies at the heart of this holiday but that I hadn’t tapped into for some time. I wanted with everything in my being to capture it, to memorize it, to tuck it away so that I would never, ever forget our Thanksgiving celebration in Paris.
The rest of the evening was filled with laughter and stories and lots of wine. When it finally came time for dessert, we all ooh’d and ahh’d over the apple tart we had brought, plating it with vanilla ice cream. “There’s nothing more American than an apple tart,” Chris rationalized. It seemed like I hadn’t ruined Thanksgiving after all.