It’s common wisdom that holidays are a time to think about what’s important, and it’s no different in a foreign country. Being far from home makes me realize what I can’t do without. For example, when Thanksgiving rolled around, we realized something would be missing if we didn’t have friends over for a “big Thanksgiving dinner” with all our favorite traditional foods. So, we started researching recipes. It turns out that most things you make for Thanksgiving require an oven or brown sugar, or both. We had neither. We decided to make a little countertop oven our Christmas present to each other, and figured that maybe adding some honey to sugar would make it brown enough to make a good pumpkin pie. We also decided to skip a turkey (which wouldn’t fit into our little oven anyway) and buy a few of the succulent rotisserie chickens sold along the streets each night as people head home for dinner.
We spent the week leading up to Turkey Day pre-cooking and pre-chopping. As we went, we found more and more “basic” American foods missing from our grocery store aisles: powdered sugar. Oatmeal to make apple crisp. Canned pumpkin. Cranberries. The pumpkin pie I could make from a fresh pumpkin from our local farmers market, no problem. (Result: two burnt fingers and a pumpkin pie that was like eating soupy mush with a delicious flaky crust. Oh well.) The apple crisp I could make with cookie crumbs. (Result: it was pretty good.) The cranberry sauce was faked with cherries, lingonberries, dried cranberries and raspberry jam. The chorizo brioche stuffing was pretty good, too. Crowning achievement: a white wine-spinach-leek-wild mushroom bisque. Not entirely traditional, but served as a nod to my cousin Karin’s lobster bisque, which taught me the meaning of good holiday cuisine. Josh pitched in with roasted fennel green beans that have since been elevated to the status of family staple.
Thursday morning, getting up to go to work felt just plain wrong. It was almost painful to get dressed and leave the house instead of staying in my pajama pants, curling my hair in the bathroom with Erica, and watching the Macy’s Parade on TV. I rushed home from work (try teaching the word “thankful” to a room full of six year olds with no “th” sound in their language) to finish cooking and get the apartment ready for our horde of guests. Josh headed out to grab our rotisserie chickens and our friends started arriving.
An hour later, Josh was back. The other Americans had all had the same idea, and not a single rotisserie chicken was left within a twenty minute walking radius. So, minus the chorizo in the stuffing, we had a vegetarian Thanksgiving, and I, personally, realized that the turkey is the one thanksgiving food I’m perfectly happy leaving off my plate. Gives an excuse for an extra helping of garlic smashed potatoes.
After Thanksgiving, we started waiting for the Christmas lights, already hung, to be lit. Since Thanksgiving is NOT officially the start of the Christmas season here, we had to wait until the beginning of December. The ritzy shopping center was decorated and luminous long before Thanksgiving, but since that’s blatant commercialism, it doesn’t count. I like the lights here. Most streets have swags of greenery and twinkle lights swung across, with a star or a little icicle decoration hanging from the middle. Very simple and homey. The main “places” (my spanish soul still wants to call them plazas) have these giant nets of lights swooping from the trees like giant chandeliers, but I like our little side-street sparkle better. Cours Mirabeau, the big “main drag” of the town, has trees with the swoops alternating with trees hung with dangles of lit stars that look like earrings. My friends Kim and Jessica and I wandered around there last night, enjoying the lights, but REALLY enjoying the hot spiced wine and gourmet cotton candy (I now know from first-hand experience that peach-apple cotton candy is better than cherry-coconut). The Cours Mirabeau is home to our Christmas Market, in which the usual stalls of tablecloths and quilts and local snacks are replaced by little wooden-cabin-shaped booths filled with fancy gift items. It was fun to shop, but I can’t shake the hope that Santa passes by the jewelry and brings me a vacuum cleaner. That’s another something I realized I had been taking for granted back home. Hanging our area rug out the window and shaking it is romantically old-fashioned but not particularly practical.
Even if Santa doesn’t hook me up this year, I’ll always have my mom. Her box full of wrapped presents, apartment decorations, peanut butter, and oatmeal arrived the same day that we got . . . internet! HOORAY!!! It might become an official Kraut Family Holiday: December 15th, the day France Telecom and the Post Office both got something right. Tears ran down my face as I pulled out bags of Hershey’s Kisses and little wrapped box after little wrapped box. The packages are in a stack now, under our mini Christmas tree. Maybe it’s a bad sign about my maturity level, but seeing a pile of presents and knowing that my family will soon be getting a similar box in the mail makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. When Josh and I lived far apart from each other, presents in the mail were our best substitute for hugs and kisses, and maybe that’s why they mean so much to me now. Looking at the tree makes me excited to wake up on Christmas morning. That’s one holiday I won’t spend going to work. Hopefully we’ll get to video-chat with our family as they open their gifts, and then head out (or stay in) to spend time with our friends here, our little makeshift Aix family. That’s something that you just can’t have a holiday without.