Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Thanksgiving from Afar

             During the past week, most Americans, at least those who still have jobs, knocked off work for a four-day weekend of eating, drinking, parade watching, football spectating and power shopping.  Thanksgiving, celebrated in the United States, Canada and by American expatriates around the world, is the traditional start of the holiday season.
            An ideal Thanksgiving Day – think YouTube video by Norman Rockwell – might begin with Macy’s Parade, featuring high school marching bands, elaborate floats, giant cartoon character balloons and Santa Claus.  This is followed by a gathering of family and friends to partake of the annual feast, which usually includes some form of turkey and stuffing, cranberries, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and numerous other culinary delights. 
            After some strenuous overeating, drowsy-eyed men settle themselves in comfortable chairs in front of the television to watch a football game or two, while the women gather in the kitchen to wash the china and silver in preparation for round two, with should include sandwiches of sliced turkey, stuffing and cranberry relish, not to mention several additional helpings of dessert.
            In less traditional households, such as mine, the men help in the kitchen, but this is my ideal Thanksgiving, so I see myself napping on the sofa with only passing interest in the National Football League game spread-out before me in high definition.  Speaking of football, why is it always the Detroit Lions who play on Thanksgiving Day?  Shouldn’t the game be between the New England Patriots and the Washington Redskins?
            According to Kathleen Curtin, Food Historian at Plimoth Plantationn (sic, or yes that is spelled correctly), and History.com, “in 1621 the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast which is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.”  They say “one of the first” because there is some evidence that the Spanish held the first celebration in what is today St. Augustine, Florida.  Personally, despite being a native Floridian, I’m sticking with the Pilgrims.
            We are also told that the Thanksgiving “harvest meal has become a symbol of cooperation and interaction between English colonists and Native Americans.”  This was certainly a rare moment of cooperation, because over the next several hundred years the European colonists and their descendents did everything possible to annihilate Native Americans from the continent.
            Today, of course, there is no ideal Thanksgiving.  Like everything in our culture the holiday is observed in ways that range from the highly spiritual to the commercial, to the cynical and on to the obscene.  This season, for example, I received an e-card in the colors of autumn with a heartwarming message; numerous promotional materials encouraging me to buy, buy, buy; a copy of William Burroughs “Thanksgiving Prayer,” a political poem about the racism, bigotry and hatred that is still very much a part of our country; and a vulgar cartoon of a pumpkin-headed man producing pumpkin pies.
            This year, however, my holiday was a Thanksgiving from afar, because this is the third year I have celebrated Thanksgiving outside of the United States, experiences that have given me alternative perspectives on this traditional American holiday.  In 2002, we lived in Scotland.  Last year we were in Mexico, and this year we are in France.  During each Thanksgiving abroad, I have been fascinated at the lengths to which Americans will go to recreate their unique holiday in a country that does not have a clue what it is all about. 
            In Aberdeen, where there are a fair number of Americans because of the North Sea oil, Marks and Spencer’s gourmet grocery provided the essentials.  In San Miguel de Allende, where one in ten residents is a Gringo, we dinned at a local hotel where the meal, although billed as a Thanksgiving feast, was prepared by a chef who had no idea what made a good Turkey Day dinner.  And this year, in Saint-Pierre-de-MaillĂ©, Cindy prepared an exceptional meal for a table of five, five people that included three vegetarians and a good hostess.  I was the odd man out.  Personally, I think vegetarians should give themselves a day off once or twice a year and not pretend that tofu turkey tastes good.
            Despite heroic efforts, expatriate Thanksgivings just never seem to achieve U.S. standards.  How can they?  In France and most other foreign countries, there are no Butterballs, no deep fried turkeys or newly stuffed turduckens.  There are no sweet potatoes covered with marshmallows, and no pumpkin pies.  The only cranberries I found, and I looked really hard, were cranberry cough drops.  I suggested melting them and pouring the liquid over raisins, but no one seemed to like the idea.
            There were no parades, no football games and no Black Friday on which to max out the family credit cards.  One benefit of being in Europe was being spared having to watch my alma mater, Florida State, turned into mincemeat by the Florida Gators.    
             What seems odd at an expatriate Thanksgiving is the fact that in a world where America has been exporting music, movies and contemporary culture for decades, where so many aspects of American life have become international, this particular holiday remains unknown outside the borders of North America
            Thanksgiving is uniquely American, and personally I think that is a good thing.  One of the reasons I enjoy travel is because it offers me the opportunity to gain difference perspectives of the world, discover celebrations that are rarely observed in the United States – such as Mexico’s Day of the Dead and Britain’s Guy Fawkes Day.  Travel provides an appreciation of things that I might never know anything about if I lived my entire life in Iowa or Alabama.
            As a traveler, I think there should be new and different experiences for those who visit the U.S. from other countries, unique and authentically American experiences such as Thanksgiving.  It all comes down to what my French neighbors might explain simply as, “Vive la diffĂ©rence!”.   

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Eleventh Hour

It was approaching the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month as I walked to the War Memorial at the center of Saint-Pierre-de-Maille, the little village in France where I am currently living. It was the 91st Anniversary of the end of World War I -- Armistice Day in France, Remembrance Day in Britain and Veterans Day in the US, but interestingly it is not celebrated in Germany. I guess this is a day for the victors, not the vanquished.

I wondered if there would be any type of official remembrance. In some villages, I understand, they still read the names of those who died in the war. In one particular village near the eastern border, the names that are recited are mostly German, because during the war that village was part of Germany.

On this day the monument in Saint-Pierre was decorated with French flags and fresh flowers, and La Poste across the street was closed because it is a national holiday, but, when the church bell chimed the eleventh hour, no one came. It seemed that the only one who wished to remember the meaning of this day, in this village, was this American historian who has long been fascinated by World War I.

On the monument are the names of the sixty-seven men from this village who lost their lives in World War I. By comparison, ten died in World War II. I know that in Britain there are those who say that because of the enormous loss of life during the First World War, military leaders made a concerted effort to limit the number of casualties during the Second World War. I wonder. I have visited war memorials in Scotland, Wales, England, and France, and I have always found the number of individuals killed in World War I to be significantly higher than the number that died in World War II, so perhaps it is true.

The Great War, as it was once called, was the world's first modern war, the war where technology began to play a significant role in the destruction of human life. It was, one might suggest, the beginning of the military-industrial complex.

Standing alone, looking at the single stone soldier standing guard, I found it sad that no one joined me at the monument. Perhaps this lack of interest helps to explain why we continue to fight so many wars. We are quick to forget the human suffering involved – the men, the women and children who are the victims of war.

During the Twentieth Century, well over a 100 million people died in war. It is a sad commentary, especially as we look at the prospects for the future.