Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday. It's non-commercial, inclusive, and contains two of my favorite things—a great meal and football. And celebrating Thanksgiving while I was living abroad made me appreciate it even more. Ex-pat Americans tend to cling particularly closely to their native country's traditions, so Thanksgiving was always a special treat when I was living in Central Europe.
The holiday details, however, can be a bit more complicated. And that is why every Thanksgiving, I think of Ella. Without the unwitting help of the then-small baby, we might not have been able to complete our holiday meal.
The main tradition of Thanksgiving, of course, is the turkey. This is not an exotic bird, but finding and cooking a turkey in another country can be challenging. I was living in Hungary in the mid-late 1990s, and while Hungarians ate a lot of turkey, they didn't eat whole turkeys. Asking about buying and cooking a whole turkey brought baffled stares. You might as well say you're going to cook an entire cow. So whole turkeys had to be ordered specially from a butcher.
Then, there was the problem of the oven. Most Hungarian apartments had small ovens, certainly nothing like the RadarRange I was used to using. Americans in the Foreign Service were spared, since (at the time at least) members of the Foreign Service were guaranteed an oven big enough for a turkey. A friend at the embassy, a man in charge of arranging housing for incoming Foreign Service workers, was touring a potential apartment and overheard the landlord talking to a neighbor about the odd Americans considering the rental. "These Americans," the landlord said, "once a year, they have to cook an entire turkey. I think it's the law."
I was not in the Foreign Service, so like the rest of the journalists and consultants who made up much of the American community in Budapest, I had an appliance that was just a few notches above an Easy Bake Oven. I had ordered a turkey from a quizzical butcher at the local covered market, but I would have no idea how big it was until I picked it up Thanksgiving morning. "Ten or eleven kilos," the butcher had predicted he'd find for me. I ordered it, and started off toward home. Then I turned back. "How big is that?" I asked. He shrugged, then held up a turkey leg that was the size of the limb of a teenage gymnast. I was getting nervous—what if the 20-odd guests showed up at my apartment expecting a good Thanksgiving meal, and I couldn't fit the turkey into the oven?
Once home, I ran the dilemma past my neighbor, Heather, a Canadian married to a Swede (both of whom were part of the multi-national force invited for Thanksgiving later in the week). We tried to imagine how big a 10- or 11-kilo turkey would be, in terms of mass. We looked at Ella, not even a year old and happily playing on the floor. "Well," Heather said as she watched her child bang a wooden spoon on the floor, "Ella is nine kilos."
I want to make it clear that we did not put the baby into the oven. That was too much, even given our predicament. We did, however, gently place Ella into a roasting pan, moving her little arms and legs around to see how something that size might fit. She did—barely. And so, I learned gratefully that Thursday, did the more than 10-kilo turkey.
Ella's a teenager now, and I wonder if she's in therapy, unearthing buried memories of the day her mother and her mother's friend put her in a roasting pan. I wonder if Hansel and Gretel gave her inexplicable nightmares when she was in kindergarten. But mostly, I think of how special it was to celebrate Thanksgiving in a foreign nation. When you have to work harder for your traditions, they mean more. And the thanks we all gave that Thursday were all the more sincere.