Celebrating a beloved national holiday in a foreign country is a somewhat alienating experience. Thanksgiving is especially difficult because it always falls on a Thursday and is, therefore, treated as a normal work day in the rest of the world.
I lived in Basel, Switzerland, for most of the 90s, and during that time, I celebrated many Thanksgivings in a state of homesick sadness.
During my first few years living among the Swiss, I attempted to recreate American holidays within my own home. However, it was always a challenge finding iconic holiday items, and a large Thanksgiving turkey was particularly difficult to come by. In fact, even finding pumpkins in Switzerland in the early nineties was next to impossible.
The Swiss eat plenty of chicken, but turkey isn’t on their list of favorites. So, finding a big, fat Butterball wasn’t an option unless I scouted out a frozen one at a specialty store in the city.
I think it was 1996 when I decided to venture into nearby France (the little village I lived in was right on the border of France) in search of a fresh turkey. Everything is larger in France, and I reasoned that the huge grocery stores there would probably sell fresh birds.
I was right, but finding a turkey was more difficult than I thought it would be, partially because I did not know that the French call it dinde. Despite living so close to France, I couldn’t speak the language. I already had my hands full learning the Swiss dialect and proper German.
The butcher at the Carrefour grocery store in Mulhouse only spoke French, but despite the language barrier, I managed to convey to him that I wanted a 10-pound turkey. He was outraged.
Using hand motions, he railed against the American practice of injecting turkeys with hormones in an effort to unnaturally enhance their growth. It was very clear that buying a big turkey was out of the question, so I meekly told him that I wanted the biggest turkey he had. It was probably four pounds tops.
He wrapped it up and handed it to me with assurances that the dinde I was buying was organically raised without drugs or hormones.
The shock came at the register when I learned that the bird I just bought would cost the equivalent of approximately $75.
Another surprise awaited me at home when I discovered that “Tom the expensive turkey’ still had legs and some feathers. Appalled, I called my grandma, who could remember plucking and preparing freshly-slaughtered birds back in the day, for advice.
Once roasted, it did turn out to be one of the best turkeys I have ever tasted. And the experience of buying it will never be forgotten.
For more stories about living in Switzerland and reporting throughout the years after 9/11, please check out my book, “Like It Was Yesterday, A Journalist’s Files Since 9/11.” Happy Thanksgiving!