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One American Tradition and the Top 10 Lessons to Surviving Life in France
By: Samantha VérantImagine. You are an American celebrating your first Thanksgiving in France. You have to improvise some, but find most of the ingredients you need for the feast. You have everything. Except for the turkey.
You walk over to the local butcher two weeks before the big day and ask if it’s possible to order a six-kilo bird. He laughs in your face, and says he’ll give it a shot, but turkeys are small this time of year. Plus, you should have asked him to order this elusive bird one month in advance. He’ll call you tomorrow. You go home. Frantic, you contact your expat friends. You get the name of a butcher who is used to dealing with crazy Americans. This butcher says, sure, no problem. He’ll get you your six-kilo bird. Don’t worry. You hoof it into town and cancel your other questionable order just to be polite.
The day before the big celebration, you pick up your turkey. The butcher displays it proudly, explaining it’s from a farm. It’s fresh, see? It even comes with its head and neck, displayed right at its side. Your upper lip twitches. Et voila! The smiling butcher wraps up your turkey, hands it over, and rings up your once feathered purchase. There’s just a slight issue. The butcher has promised you a six-kilo bird. This one weighs nine. And he costs ninety Euros. This ain’t no Butterball. Unfortunately, there are no smaller turkeys and you have invited guests coming over to celebrate the tradition of giving thanks. You’re stuck.
You thank the butcher and leave his shop with the enormous bird. When you get home, you place Tom in your tiny oven to make sure he’ll fit. You breathe out a sigh of relief! He does! Then you get to work. You unwrap Tom from his white paper sheath. Tom’s head flops onto your kitchen counter, and he’s staring at you, one eye closed, the other open. A dot of blood drips from his beak. You scream. Like a banshee. Tom’s head and neck aren’t tied to his body, as you’d thought; they are attached.
You raise your fist to the ceiling, cursing your error. You scream again. Because you don’t have time to get back to the butcher (this turkey definitely needs to brine), you race to the shed in the garden and grab your husband’s electric saw — the quicker to end the pain, the better. While screaming and sobbing out curse words in French, as in Putain! Putain! Holy freaking putain!, you cut Tom’s head and neck off. Like Dexter. Turkey splatters onto your kitchen walls. Right about now, becoming a vegetarian and canceling this meal is an option.
Your French family, though, is looking forward to this American tradition, so you put on your big girl pants, along with a thick pair of plastic gloves, and reach into Tom’s cavern, dreading the worst. The turkey situation turns from Dexter into Freddy Kruger. The bloody parts you are pulling out? They are not giblets. Is that a heart? A liver? Your screams reach decibels of the alien kind. You throw unidentifiable objects into the trash. Tom’s head? Well, it’s in the garbage can too. And he’s staring you down.
But there is no turning back now. What’s done is done. You say a little prayer for Tom. And then you try and block the nightmare out of your memory. It’s only four o’clock, but you pour yourself a glass of wine. A huge American-sized glass of French wine. That night, while Tom is brining in a bath of salt, orange juice, and Armagnac, you won’t sleep.
I am an American expat and this is the very recent account of what happened when I tried to bring a piece of my culture to my table in southwestern France this past Thanksgiving. The story may sound horrifying, but there are quite a few lessons any expat will benefit from, as well as a very satisfying conclusion. Without further ado, here are the top ten things I’ve learned while adjusting to life in a foreign land, and what cooking up this American ultimately tradition taught me:
1) I’ve learned to do my research. I didn’t find everything I needed for the Thanksgiving feast, like fresh cranberries. But I wasn’t about to beat myself up, or stress out over a side dish. There are much bigger issues in life. I did a little research and found an online store that carried American products. They had canned whole cranberries, and they were on sale fifty centimes. Bingo. Add the French’s onion topping for my green bean casserole and a couple of other products I was craving and the minimum order was met.
2) I’ve learned to improvise. Along with the ingredients, there were materials I couldn’t find, like a large aluminum roasting pan. After spending ninety euros on a turkey, my budget was more than shot. So I used what I had. I made a rack to place the turkey on by using vegetables, celeries and onions to be precise, and baked the turkey in the oven’s roasting tray.
3) I’ve learned when the going gets tough we expats have to push our comfort levels up a notch. So I had to cut the head off a turkey with my husband’s electric saw? Big deal. We expats have tougher dilemmas to face, like going to the prefecture to renew our carte de séjours or getting or driver’s permits, waiting in line for hours on end. I’ll take a Dexter-like situation over a government institution any day.
4) I’ve learned from my mistakes, which are typically language related. When I first moved to France, I was afraid to open my mouth because I was afraid people would laugh at me. I call this my mouse voice phase. But, now, even if my words come out in a garbled mess, or if I misunderstand something important, it’s fine. To learn a new language, you have to speak up. The next time I celebrate Thanksgiving in France, I’ll know to ask the butcher to remove the turkey’s head and insides. Yep, you live and you learn.
5) On the above, I no longer have fear of the phone. That second butcher? I actually called him. He actually understood me. I’ve learned to be proud of my accomplishments, no matter how small they appear to be.
6) I’ve learned politeness gets you everywhere. In France, we say bonjour, merci, au revoir, and bonne journée to everybody. This includes the bus driver. This is also the reason I walked into town to cancel my order with the local butcher. I would have called, but I forgot the name of his shop, and didn’t want to risk him giving me nasty cuts of meat the next time I make a boeuf bourguignon. He was surprised when I told him I’d found a six-kilo turkey. The next time I see him, I’ll tell him it was nine! Oh, the laughs we’ll surely have.
7) When I first moved to France, I made the big mistake of not reaching out to other expats. Homesickness set in. Big time. (I went back to the US that first Thanksgiving). Finally, after four months of flying solo without English speaking friends, I posted a greeting on an expat blog. Today, I have more friends than I’ve ever had in my entire life. Putting yourself “out there” is crucial. I’ve learned to open my heart up to starting anew. And I’ve learned to count on my friend’s expert advice. (The friend who gave me the name of the butcher for the turkey apologized; she’d thought she had this butcher trained, as in no extra parts for Americans, and the other day we had a huge laugh at lunch).
8) I’ve learned to take a deep breath and to breathe. There are solutions to any problem. Yes, in this case, I solved my turkey issue with an electric saw. So be it. C’est la vie. Pfftp.
9) The French pour small glasses of wine, the goal to compliment the flavors of a meal. I’ve learned sometimes it’s okay to pour yourself a huge American-sized glass, especially after cutting the head off a freaking turkey with a saw. Just don’t do this at a dinner party unless you are with family or good friends. Integrating into a new culture comes with a few rules. Don’t break them. Learn to adjust.
10) But the most important lesson I’ve learned is that when you place your perfectly cooked turkey in front of your family and friends, the nightmare is over. It’s a moment of awakening and celebration. Like me, you may realize how far you’ve come along living in a foreign country. You can now speak and understand a new language, even if you miss a word or three. You know how to improvise when things aren’t panning out the way as planned. You know how to make the most of everything that you have. You’re integrating into a new life. For that, you are thankful.
As for the turkey, and I hate to admit it, but it was the tastiest damn bird I’ve ever had.
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Contest Comments » There are 7 comments
SARAH HAGUE wrote 9 years ago:
You've nailed it, Sam. Every wannabe expat should read this post to know what it takes not to go nuts when living abroad. I'm glad that turkey was a success, and well done for finding one in time for Thanksgiving. Working with Americans as I do, I know it's quite a challenge!
Matthew MacNish wrote 9 years ago:
Great story, Samantha! I'm not sure I could drink wine like that though. LOL.
Elle Strauss wrote 9 years ago:
Thanks for sharing - the 10 tips are great. I live part of the year in Germany so I've had to learn to adapt in many ways myself.
Jessica Bell wrote 9 years ago:
Oh my gosh. What a fabulous story! And, though I may not be able to relate to this turkey incident, I can certainly relate to this--DAILY--in Greece: "I’ll take a Dexter-like situation over a government institution any day." :-)
Bex wrote 9 years ago:
I like that: "To learn a new language, you have to not be afraid to practice it" - yes, it's so true. It's nice to see an American's version of life in Europe. Thanks Samantha.
Ann Ormond Fennell wrote 9 years ago:
Loved your rendition of the expat. I too am an expat. As a young teenager leaving the US for Ireland and then as an adult leaving Ireland for the US. Trying to get the ingredients for an Irish Christmas is an epic tale in itself. And strange as it may sound, I too dealt/deal with a language barrier.
Breadispain wrote 9 years ago:
Um...I just cracked up at this. Big girl pants indeed! Reminds me of the first time I "butchered" a whole squid - my husband could hear me screaming from the garden. You are a brave lady!