Friday, November 28, 2014

A French Friendsgiving

Some people get worried about being abroad for holidays. But I think this is one of the most enriching experiences for a traveler. It immediately bonds you with other expats from your country and allows you to really consider why the holiday exists (especially when people outside of your culture start asking questions about it). Plus trying to hunt down traditional dishes in a foreign country, even developed ones, can be full of challenges and surprises. (For example, a small can of Libby's pumpkin puree will run you about 5€ each.) 

The thing about being an expat is, you feel like preserving the traditions of your homeland become your sacred duty. Without you, how would the world ever know about the Pilgrims and Indians, or the copious amounts of food and football we consume? (Let's be honest, everyone knows how much Americans eat.)

Being an young, single expat amongst other young, single expats during homeland holidays also automatically entitles you to celebrate together, thus making the question "So what are we going to do for Thanksgiving?" far less awkward when I posed it while sipping café au crèmes with my friend Reagan at a sidewalk cafe two months ago in Montmartre.

Never to do anything halfway, the two of us concocted a plan to leave Paris behind and travel to the countryside where we would cook our homemade American feast in style in a French farmhouse. Now only to find that farmhouse... The requirements were simple: big dinner table, fully stocked kitchen with stove and counters, bedrooms to sleep 6, and access to a train station. Oh, and cute. It had to be cute. Because we are American girls, and we need cute. Easy, right?

First problem: location, location, location. Because we are all au pairs, none of us have cars, so we are dependent on public transportation. And we learned that most French farmhouses are not sidled up to a busy train station.

Then there was the kitchen. The much-coveted cuisines américain only started appearing in French homes within the past 20 years. What we Americans think of as a typical kitchen includes many things that rarely appear in French homes: big ovens, deep sinks, miles of counter space. With six cooks and a Thanksgiving feast to prepare, the kitchen could not be scrimped on.

After weeks of searching, we found the perfect place, an old country barn renovated into a bed and breakfast, just a short train ride outside of Paris. A few days later, six American expats (well, five Americans and one honorary Brit--love you, Emma!) boarded a train bound for the French countryside to celebrate Thanksgiving.

To our relief, we found upon our arrival that our host was not the seedy, dreadlocked 30something hanging around in the rusty sedan outside the station. He was, in fact, Gilbert Chabert, the most warm and charming Frenchman one could imagine, and a petanque world champion. He loaded our things into his minivan and drove us directly to the local supermarket, where he helped us find local cuisine and offered ingredient advice to help us recreate an American dinner in France. And then, finally, we arrived at Les Tres Fountains.

This charming little home was situated right in the middle of the tiny town of Sergines. We cooed choruses of ooos and ahhs as he showed us through the house and the yard, which was every bit better than the pictures. French country homes have such an unmitigated charm to them unlike anywhere else in the world. The kitchen was stocked, the table was vast, and more than anything, I was in a real house for the first time in three months! Paris sure does make you ready for being thankful!

Our hosts were more than kind, showing us where we could get cornbread baguette (it's like the local boulangerie knew we were coming) and inviting us to harvest from their private herb garden for our meal. Just in case we needed fresh herbs, ya know.

Now, although the kitchen was very large and fully stocked, we were dealing with a French-sized oven. A gas oven to be exact, meaning that we had to light it up close and personal with the little matches we found, something none of us privileged Americans girls had done before.

After a series of many little girl screams while trying to light the dang thing (I'm amazed we didn't blow anything up), we mustered all our pioneering spirit and successfully lit the gas oven. We gloried in our advanced survival skills, thinking we would have made Squanto and William Bradford proud. Thanksgiving had commenced.

It took about 3 hours, but we had amassed an impressive feast and table setting by 4pm, with only a few mishaps during the portrait shoots with our dishes. (I am not bitter whatsoever toward the unnamed parties who left my green beans forgotten in the back of the stove.... Charcoal crisps, anyone?) We said grace, and have thanks for all our blessings, and then scarfed like the perfect ladies we are.

Once we could stir from our turkey-less comatose state (the turkey coma is a myth... We did just fine passing out after rotisserie chickens), we made up a couple plates to take to our hosts, who lived in the little house across from us. We found to our surprise that they were busy making crepes for us! We were invited to sit in their salon while they offered us sea snails, olives, and pink champagne. We found out then that they both worked for the Senate, and offered to give us a private tour if we wished. Quel generoux! The rest of the night passed peaceful, other than the random marching band parade that promenaded past our house after dark.

Everyone had their own bed, with duvets and comforters galore. One by one we trickled off to our rooms, happy and exhausted. Sleep was sweet and quiet. Ah, le campagne.

My bed... I was out like a light!

The next day, we woke up to the lovely French sunshine and perfectly sunny weather for our adventure to Provins. After finishing off the leftovers (FYI: crepes and homemade cranberry sauce are a divine morning-after duo), we set out with our host for the little medieval city. Monsieur Chabert kindly took the time to drive out and show us the river Yonne on the way.

I sat shotgun, happily chatting with Chabert in French, and taking in the vast rolling green and yellow hills.  He drove us right up the Provins Tourism Center, and walked us in to make sure we would know where to get our train home and how to buy tickets to access any of the sites in Provins. The Chaberts truly made our Friendsgiving above and beyond anything we could have dreamed it to be with their hospitality (proof that the hosts are the make or break for Airbnb). To all you families who worried about your girls over the holidays, we were in good hands.

The city of Provins was very quiet on that early Sunday afternoon. Barely a soul stirred the ancient streets. Most the sites were closed, but we did managed to visit the old church and scale the 13th century ramparts that still stand around parts of the city.

The climb was worth it for the view....


The sun was setting, and our p'tit weekend was coming to a close. We trailed down to the station on the other side of the town, and drifted into a blissful post-feast drowsiness on the train ride home. Here I had been worried about living abroad, being alone on holidays, and missing out on traditions. Yet here I was, surrounded by good friends, making memories to last a lifetime, parading about in the French countryside, while all my friends and family back home slept safe and sound. I can't think of a better way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. And I don't know if I will ever have a Friendsgiving that could compete with medieval towns and petanque champions. But then again, what else would you expect from a Friendsgiving in the French countryside?

1 comment:

  1. I am loving this!! You write so well! I am jealous, yet so happy for you on this adventure. Good for you living your dream. That, my friend, will preach!!