How Thanksgiving In Switzerland Became Far More Than A Meal
“What exactly is Thanksgiving?” my UK mom friend asked. She was sitting down at our long table in our old rental home in Switzerland. It was decorated for Thanksgiving dinner with my mom’s China purchased before I was born in Michigan. “It’s funny, but I’ve never really known,” she added.
“Don’t feel bad,” I said pouring her a glass of champagne. “Lots of Americans forget the meaning of the holiday. That’s why it’s nice to have new people to share it with.”
I explained that though Thanksgiving traditionally celebrates the first feast shared between Native Americans and Colonial settlers — for my family, having lived in California, then Connecticut, then Switzerland, the holiday has become far more symbolic than a family colonial feast. It’s a time to give thanks, but also a chance to reach out of the comfort zone, perhaps especially to the one coming from elsewhere. It’s a season to consider how we all connect — what we can share.
This Thanksgiving, though we wanted to invite all of our expat friends, and I did wish my extended family were also here in Switzerland, we purposely invited only a handful of diverse families to come to our home. We had one family who had survived atrocities in the Ivory Coast, Algeria and Libya; another family from Eastern Europe living here in asylum; a family from Denmark; one man from South Africa; three people from the UK; and a family from Holland. We had no American guests for dinner.
Each adult brought a dish from his or her own country, and together we shared stuffing, potatoes, sweet breads, pie, scones, roasted chicken (which we served instead of turkey,) Dutch Poffertjes, a dutch “stampot”, a type of eggplant moussaka, Danish Frikadellen with red cabbage, and a Danish apple dessert.
Most of whom we invited didn’t knew each other well, if at all. So when our friends walked out of the wet leafy weather into our home, I sensed a bit of awkward shuffling, searching for words, of wondering what all this Thanksgiving business is about. Our dogs were tied to the banister so they wouldn’t escape the constantly opening front door, our cats skittered about, and even some of the fourteen kids who arrived retreated to corners, tripped over the dog leashes, and wondered what to do next.
As I tried to figure out how to greet everyone while warming all the dishes in my tiny European oven, I wondered if my vision had been off. Perhaps this would be too much for people to swallow in one night (no pun intended.) Maybe Thanksgiving should be maintained as a familiar, predictable celebration. Some might think it should be more perfect. But then the celebration took over — on it’s own.
“Do you like Xbox?” my son asked. Then a line of boys appeared, and up the stairs they traipsed.
“Let’s go to my room,” my daughter hollered. And off a line of girls dashed.
“Your job sounds similar to mine,” I heard one husband say a little later at the table. And on they chatted.
“I’m struggling to learn German too,” I heard a whole section of the table say. And funny stories were tossed about.
“Finding meaning…it’s tough as an expat,” a mom on the other side of the table said.
“It takes patience, which I’m not so good at,” I agreed.
I said a prayer, hoping I wasn’t offending anyone with it, and then we ate, we chattered on, clinking glasses, laughing, and eating far too much. We talked about the economy in flux, complex work schedules, biking, illness, school dilemmas, how best to teach kids, how to adapt to the more structured vibe of Switzerland. We shared tales of home, we traded seats, we sipped tea and coffee well beyond many of the kids’ bedtimes. After dessert, though I could barely keep my eyes opened, we spoke German, trying to muster through conversation in our new “home” language, giggling at how little we still understood.
In the end, Thanksgiving came together just as it might with a family who’d been celebrating for years. It wasn’t the table setting that made it work. It wasn’t even my quinoa lentil French bread stuffing. It was the awkward way we fit together— we humans, tripping along, discovering that no matter the person, we each have loads and loads to share.
“Isn’t it incredible we found each other?” I asked my friend beside me. “Oh that’s God,” she said. Perhaps there were several versions of God in the room, but I was certain she was correct.
And so we gave thanks.
Article by Amy Aves Challenger.
Amy Aves Challenger is an American expat and writer of essays, poetry, and and a novel forthcoming. She leads creative writing workshops in Zurich. Visit Amy’s website here.
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