Two years ago, I spent my Thanksgiving holiday at a tiny French restaurant in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, cramped at a three-by-three table with four other American expats. It was not where I’d expected to be on one of the biggest U.S. holidays of the year, but then again, all my expectations had been erased or exceeded during my time in Paris. In a few days, I would be leaving beautiful France to begin a wayward, three-country, four-city tour of Eastern Europe, and a few weeks later I’d be back in New York; but on that fourth Thursday in November, me and my American acquaintances found ourselves en Paris, and feeling slightly homesick.
We initially intended to cook our own Turkey Day feast, but we quickly discovered that not a single Parisian supermarché sold any of the traditional ingredients necessary to make that happen—not to mention only two of us had stoves, and nobody had an oven. Determined to celebrate, we scoured the Internet for restaurants serving Thanksgiving-esque meals, but many had filled their reservations. Luckily, we stumbled upon a small, modest-looking restaurant advertising their authentique cuisine Américaine, situated a few cobblestone streets back from the Arc de Triomphe. Sixty euros got us a plate of dry turkey, flavorless mashed potatoes, soggy stuffing, and a sliver of a something akin to pumpkin pie. Each plate looked identical, and was served in an assembly-line fashion by waiters determined not to speak English. It was the worst Thanksgiving meal I’d ever had, but–as I found myself saying many times during my stay in France–at least the wine was good.
Despite the food, my comrades and I found joy swapping stories of family traditions, fights between siblings, secret ingredients, and memorable feasts. We laughed, drank, and even picked optimistically at the array of questionable dishes in front of us. Although we came from different backgrounds, states, and even decades, there was still a palpable sense of community that stemmed from being American in a foreign country. It was also one of the the few Thanksgivings I’ve experienced that wasn’t about excess. It wasn’t about how much food we could stuff into our faces, who prepared the best dish, or even who had traveled the longest distance to be there. When we stripped away the familiarity and the things we often took for granted, it became a totally different experience. It was about tradition and celebration. It was about honoring our history, background, and culture no matter where we were in the world. It was about taking stock of what was truly ours in that moment instead of what we were lacking. Sure, the food was terrible and overpriced, the table was too small, and we barely knew one another. Yet there we were; five people from different walks of life, managing to cross paths for long enough to enjoy a meal together in one of the most beautiful cities on Earth.
Today, I experienced a very different Thanksgiving scenario. I sat in front of the fireplace in my childhood home, watching my mother make matzah ball soup and prepare the turkey–it’s Thanksgivukkah after all–while my brothers rooted for their favorite football teams. Every half hour or so, my phone would light up with a new message from a friend or family member wishing me a happy holiday from all corners of the Earth–Istanbul, Zagreb, Seoul, California, New York, and Paris–and I was reminded of that chance Thanksgiving two years ago, when me and four other Americans shared our lives, stories, and laughter in an attempt to be one another’s family, if just for a day. These people make me even more thankful to be back at home with my real family, and especially excited to meet those who will become like family to me in the future–because who knows where or with whom I’ll be next November.