Thanksgiving Abroad

The first Thanksgiving I spent abroad, we were living in Tainan, Taiwan, and I was eleven years old. My dad, career air force, commanded a military installation and coordinated with the American-trained Republic of China Air Force. At the time, Chiang Kai-shek was still alive and head of the Kuomintang, which ruled Taiwan. Martial Law—not that I was aware of it—prevailed. Two women worked for my mom, keeping us fed and our house in order. Both were Taiwanese, and both refused to work whenever my parents threw parties that included Chinese guests. The elder of the two, a woman who ask us to call her Ann, suggested that the Japanese occupants, pre-WWII, had been better liked than the Chinese.

Days before that first Thanksgiving on the island, we received the delivery of a turkey, a gift from one of the ROCAF generals Dad worked with. It was a live bird. Ann installed it in the large, screened-in porch above our carport. A sturdy and no-nonsense woman (“housegirl” to our elitist, expat community), Ann found my insistence on keeping the creature as a pet, laughable. She didn’t hide her contempt when I gave it a name. (Oh, I cannot tell you the many and frequent ways I earned her contempt.) “There’s no way we’re going to eat it,” I said. I was sure my mom would agree.

Dad knew turkeys well. “Dumbest creatures on the planet,” he’d say just about every Thanksgiving as Mom pulled a steaming, skin-crackling carcass out of the oven. During the Great Depression, his parents had raised turkeys for a little extra income and put him in charge of their keep. His experience, of course, was with the domesticated, white bird—quite unlike our scrawny porch guest with its long neck and brown feathers.

The day after the bird’s arrival, I rushed straight to the porch after school to find the space empty. “Where’s (bird’s name)?” I asked Ann, who’d followed me upstairs. She crossed her arms and said, “Your parents gave the turkey to Lee. He lives on a farm. The turkey is happy now. It lives in the country.” Lee was our gardener.

I’m sure I started to cry. I knew better than to believe the turkey would survive the chopping block.

On Thanksgiving, it was pure relief to see a fat Butterball turkey from the base commissary going into the oven.

Kaiserstuhl, Switzerland, twenty years later: Markus and I invited his family, thirteen adults and children to join us in giving thanks. Weeks earlier, I’d gone to the local butcher, located in a village a thirty-minute walk away, and asked if I could order a turkey. My request excited the butcher, a stylish man fashionably bespectacled; his wife, who worked alongside him, was equally stylish and fashionably bespectacled. “Of course!” he said. “When do you want to pick it up? It will be frozen, by the way. Is that okay?”

“No problem!” We agreed upon a date.

Because Thanksgiving isn’t a Swiss observance, there was no way to invite family over for a late Thursday afternoon meal; no one had the day off, so I scheduled a Saturday feast. There would be no (American) football to watch—actually, we didn’t own a TV, anyway—and I would be in charge of the whole meal. No one would be saying, “I’ll bring the mashed potatoes!,” “The broccoli in cheese sauce is on me!,” or “I make a killer pecan pie—my grandmother’s recipe. Interested?” Yes, yes, yes.

The butcher and his wife proudly presented me my frozen turkey. And, good grief, it was the real deal: a Butterball. I didn’t know it then, but it would be the last turkey I’d buy for my Thanksgivings abroad that included the giblets. Oh, how I’d plea for a neck and giblets to be included with all future, locally sourced birds; oh, every year’s disappointment. I quit buying birds from one farm because the farmer trimmed off the tail and all that flappy skin I needed to sew in my stuffing. I couldn’t convince the man to leave it on for me.

The Butterball purveyor, wrapping up my bird, said, “That’ll be two hundred and fifty Swiss francs, please.” In US dollars—I was still doing conversions in my head—my perfect turkey came in around $200.00. My knees buckled. Why hadn’t I asked the butcher how much he’d be charging me? What would Markus say to a bird worth its weight in gold?

He didn’t blink an eye, and a gorgeous, golden-brown bird came out of the oven. I presented it to the family Rockwellian style, placing it before Markus, seated at the head of the table. He stood, picked up the carving knife, and sawed off an entire leg. Holding it up, he said, “Who wants a leg?”

Well, how was he to know how to carve a bird in Thanksgiving style?

Thereafter, our Thanksgivings in Switzerland have been more international, with friends from the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Romania, and Switzerland. Some have grown up. Some have moved away. Some have passed away. We remain thankful for great meals, to have known those who are gone from our lives and those who continue to enrich them.

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