Every good adventure here has started with a search for a public bathroom. Not all of them have ended in a French Thanksgiving dinner.
I found myself with a full bladder while totally lost in Suresnes, France, on Sunday. On the western edge of Paris just a bus ride away from the 8th arrondissement, I felt like I was hours away from the apartment. The suburb was quiet and full of small houses and little garden gates. The roads were calm and the people relaxed. And I had no idea where I was going.
I was supposed to meet my new friend, Rafaela, at her church to partake in a Thanksgiving feast (“I’m not religious. Is that OK?” I asked her when she invited me. “Oh, sure,” she replied, “I just thought you’d like to come because you’re American!”). But my GPS had other plans for me — to lead me cluelessly through the small and lovely town.
The wind was cold as I crossed the clear streets looking for an open shop. Many places were closed, as they are all over France on Sundays. I spotted a big restaurant where lots of people from the town were eating. But going in there would mean having to pay.
Too proud to pay to pee, I continued on. The main avenue was busy with shoppers checking out vegetables at open storefronts and making their way to a big outdoor market. I followed the flow of foot traffic past stalls of sweaters marked 15 euros and a small building that I hoped was a bathroom, but, of course, was not.
About to give up and head back to the restaurant for a coffee that would buy me my toilet, I turned. I then saw that the outdoor market led to an indoor one. I crossed into the sprawling warehouse full of meat, cheese and ready-to-eat curry. My bladder was giving me warning signs as I paused to scope out the curry. I walked the perimeter, faster now. Is that hallway a bathroom? Does that door lead to a toilet?
The answer, unbelievably, was yes. I rushed into the metal stall, happy that my search for a place to pee had brought me through the market. Of course, there was no soap in the bathroom, but tant pis. Beggars can’t be choosers.
I wandered back through the market as my phone, which had died from the cold, turned back on. Then it was back to my GPS and finding my friend’s church.
Rafaela had somehow found herself a church with services in English and French. It was full of bilingual families — couples who came from different countries and wanted to keep worshiping in English. With so many people moving in and out, the group was warm and friendly. No one had been rooted here too long and they knew what it’s like to be new here. There were also plenty of Americans — so why not celebrate Thanksgiving every year?
I finally found the church, and caught some of the service. The minister spoke in an Alabama accent about giving thanks. Hiding under the radar in the crowd of believers, I was moved all the same by what he said: “Give thanks in every circumstance.”
Just over a week ago, Paris was hit in six places by attacks that have sparked a global discussion on terrorism. On Monday, I sat cowering in the metro when it stopped for 30 seconds. Each time I heard a siren sounding on the street, I sensed Paris pausing, waiting for something terrible to happen. We were all scanning the news, reading about the police raids in Saint-Denis, about the attacks in Mali, and about the state of emergency in Belgium.
But a week has gone by and nothing more has happened in Paris itself.
“That’s how we can continue to live in a place like this,” the minister said. “By giving thanks in any circumstance.”
The choir came up at the end of the service and sang the same words in different languages: merci, salamat, thank you. I think everyone there was thankful just to be sitting there listening to a choir, the tenseness of the past week lifted, even if just a little bit.
Then, a French minister came up and translated the American’s words: and now, what we all came here for: it’s time to eat.
In a matter of minutes, the hall was full of tables covered in red cloth and leaves. Pumpkins full of soup sat at the table ends. Rafaela and I sat down with a married couple from Brazil and France, talking in a mixture of French, English and Portuguese (my friend is from Portugal).
The soup was delicious and hearty, with Fresh pumpkin, herby croutons, and plenty of cream. We poured small glasses of wine and took bread from a basket, some of us placing it on our plates (the way I had grown up doing it) and others setting it on the tablecloth (the French way).
We got up table by table to get spoonfuls of mashed potato and sweet potato, both fluffy and rich with butter. There was creamy gravy, soft stuffing and canned cranberry sauce (my table mates asked me what foods the sauces were supposed to go on and why the cranberry sauce was in such a stiff round shape. I explained where it came from). We ate small pieces of turkey, cooked to perfection in herbs that lent it a smoky flavor. And, just like at home, there were green beans in sauce with crispy onions on top.
My friend and I went back for a second plate. Needless to say, it was delicious.
This is the first time I have eaten a Thanksgiving dinner away from my family. Later today (for them), they will dig into their own piles of stuffing and watch football and go for an after-dinner walk around the cold pond at my grandmother’s house. I miss them. I don’t miss the football. But it felt good to be around people who were so welcoming and who had no qualms with the French of two foreign au pairs.
Stuffed and sleepy just like at any Thanksgiving, I took the bus back past the market and tranquil streets of Suresnes. Rafaela wanted to see the Christmas market on the Champs-Élysées. We walked past the Arc de Triomphe and down the frozen avenue past designer shops and chain stores until we reached rows and rows of twinkle lights shining on stalls selling hot wine, roasted nuts, and waffles.
Also just like any Thanksgiving: after the big meal was done, all eyes turned toward the next big holiday.