Experiencing a foreign culture forces you to view your own customs and traditions through a new lens. For all the years I had celebrated Thanksgiving in the United States, watching football with my friends during the day, gathering with family over a turkey and a multitude of pies in the evening, I had never really stopped to reflect on the origins of the holiday itself. I had evidently taken several U.S. history courses from elementary to high school so I knew the version presented by history books. It was a celebration between the pilgrims and Native Americans, a melding of cultures on the basis of a newfound friendship. However, as my host mom asked me to describe Thanksgiving, I realized that I wasn’t struggling for a response for lack of translation, but rather because I found it difficult to bypass all of the negative aspects of this holiday as so many of my childhood history books had. Since learning about Thanksgiving in school, I had also learned about the slaughters of Native Americans by the “New Americans” and how the holiday we celebrate today is born more from Civil War time cultural propaganda than anything else.
As I prepared to go to the Thanksgiving dinner hosted by IES in a French restaurant, I felt a twinge of guilt. Here we were in a room full of French families and professors, presenting the holiday once again as pilgrims and Native Americans holding hands and singing kumbaya. An American representative flipped through a PowerPoint presentation as we all sat around long tables, finally reaching a slide labeled, “Critiques” which made up about a minute of his twenty-minute presentation. With these thoughts running through my head, I struggled to remember what I loved so much about this holiday. This was until two of our American classmates went to the front of the restaurant, one at the piano and the other standing, and began singing “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton. As soon as the first emblematic notes rang out through the brasserie, I saw friends smiling at each other, faces lit up with excitement. All of the Americans, and even a few French teaching assistants, belted out the lyrics from start to finish. Looking around the room, I felt an impalpable sense of conviviality. For me, this feeling had always marked the Thanksgiving holiday. That and, of course, the food.
While the Terrasse au Stade had attempted to recreate a few classic Thanksgiving dishes, I couldn’t help but think of the pumpkin and pecan pies sitting in my dining room back in Baltimore. I will say, however, that the effort put into these dishes was evident. From a pumpkin tartare to a roasted turkey with sides of stuffing and sweet potatoes, I could see the mélange of French and American cuisines.
While it certainly wasn’t the pant-unzipping feast I was accustomed to, I felt fortunate to have this celebration at all. Our program certainly was not obligated to arrange this dinner for us but did so anyways in an effort to honor our traditions and make us feel welcomed. While we cannot forget or cover up the dark portions of American history, there is something beautiful about being able to sit across from someone of a different culture and have these discussions.