Le Carnaval de Dunkerque

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In the above photo, the mayor of Dunkirk is tossing shrink-wrapped fish out of the window of town hall, into a cheering crowd of intoxicated, disguised Dunkerquois (and their friends). As far as I know, fish-tossing is an exclusively Northern France tradition. Out of the whole weekend in Dunkirk celebrating Carnaval, this was the moment when I realized that I was seeing something I would never see anywhere else in the world.

A little background: my housemate Dana works at the Language Resource Center at the university where she also teaches English. The director of that center invites all the lecteurs who work with him to Dunkirk every year to experience Carnaval with his family and friends. His mother has a huge and beautiful house where everyone gets a bed, and his sister’s family hosts a party (une chapelle) before the ball. Because there were extra spots, Dana invited Laura and I to come with them!

The unlucky few who had to take the train (me, Laura, Dana, and Jeff) left at around 3 PM, to arrive in Dunkirk around 5 PM. We had some preparatory Ruby on the train.

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When we arrived at the house where the pre-party would be, we donned our costumes and put on make up (after a last minute run to the costume store, which was teeming with shoppers).

Here are some before and after pictures.

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Our man friends were required to respect the Dunkirk fishing village tradition of men dressing like women for Carnaval. As the story goes, Carnaval was a celebration before all the fishermen went out to sea for a very long time, and they disguised themselves as women to avoid having to go. We decided to dress as men in solidarity. A trip to the Ressourcerie in Val before leaving was all we needed to acquire 50 cent crazy ties and a 6 euro blazer. Our artistic lectrice friend did all the makeup.

The chapelle was full of dancing and eating (croque monsieur, yum) and drinking and merriment. There were a large dog and several small children running around, which made it sometimes hazardous to be on the dance floor, but everyone had a blast. I was surprised to see some teachers from my school amongst the family friends of our host’s sister! Turns out, his sister’s husband is one of the teacher’s brother. Crazy coincidence, crazy small world…

Around midnight, we left for the bal de Dunkerque, which was in the exposition hall of the town.

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As you can see, it was quite the party! Everyone was dressed up. Like Halloween plus. 

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Here we are, sweaty and tired mid-ball!

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We were dancing in one of the rooms when suddenly a different tune started to play, and everyone linked arms and started walking around a large centerpiece in the middle. We got caught in the crowd so we turned with the rest of them, and almost got knocked over and trampled in the fray! Eventually we got out and watched. This tradition is called le rigodon, and it happens at every carnaval.

We left the ball at the respectable hour of 4:30 AM, returning home to eat onion soup (another tradition) and sleep for a few hours. 1 PM was the official wake up time on Sunday, and we had a feast of meats and patés and cheese and bread and nutella and jam. And lots of coffee. Then, we took to the streets to see the daytime festivities.

The streets were covered in costumed people. There were thousands of them, just as there had been at the ball. We were a little more conspicuous this time, having not re-donned our smoky, sweaty costumes from the night before. Touristes!

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We also walked by the port, which was beautiful. The air was full of the sea and crisper and cleaner than air I’d breathed in other parts of France. It brought me to tears with how homey it felt.

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Every so often, I have a weekend that reminds me why I came here. Carnaval was a huge moment of “I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else in the world right now,” and that is one of my favorite feelings. I couldn’t help but grin stupidly in the crowd as I reveled in the ambiance, and tried not to get hit by a fish.

Le Carnaval de Dunkerque

TFH Part 4: Ringing in the New Year in Lyon

The fourth and final installment of Touring France for the Holidays (TFH) is about New Year in Lyon! Here’s a map of the continuation of my journey…yes, I did indeed basically cross France, again.

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I arrived in Lyon to find my two friends, Dana and Jeff, who had just come from Christmas in Caen, in Normandy. We were all exhausted, so after meeting at Starbucks (of course), we headed to our Air BnB and ordered some Dominoes pizza for dinner. In fact, American brands were everywhere in Lyon, so we got our Burger King/Apple Store/Starbucks fixes in before the next 4 months in the North. Starbucks even had Lyon-themed mugs!

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The next day, and the two days after, we did some city exploring with Matt, who had invited us in the first place. It was COLD. Here are friends on a bridge:

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One of my favorite sights was the Basilica Fourvière, on the top of a hill. We took a special little metro car to climb it at night (the Funiculaire), and were rewarded with a stunning view of Lyon by night!

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The cit by day was also pretty lovely. Atop the hill is the silk weaver’s district; Lyon used to be a textile city, and it shows in the architecture. In particular, all the houses have little chimneys sticking out to air out the factories, and the weaving quarter is full of narrow staircases used for transporting textiles while sheltering them from the elements.

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They call Lyon a mini Paris, and even from looking at the pictures I bet you can see why! Aside from the Paris-like bridges and Rhône river, it was also very culturally cool — it is quite obviously a young people city that has been home to many cultural movements.

Matt and I went to the Centre de Déportation, which is a museum of the Deportation of Jewish people from France during World War II, and it shed some light on why Lyon is a culturally rich city. For a portion of the period of the occupation of France, Lyon was unoccupied. It became a haven for those fleeing Nazi rule, who gathered to write and discuss and artistically render their wartime experiences. While it did eventually become occupied, Lyon remains a center for discussion and creation today!

Our other French cultural adventure was getting stuck in an elevator. Pro tip: don’t even try getting 4 people into a 3 person elevator. We were getting in at 1 AM after a lovely dinner with friends, and the elevator moved a whole 2 inches off the ground before jamming. All went dark. After a minute or two of trying fruitlessly to bang the doors open, we called the emergency service for the elevator to get them to send a technician. 30 minute wait. We waited 35, then called the fire department. Their response? “Oh, that’s not our job. Call the elevator people, they have a service for this.” Oh really, fireman? DO they???

We eventually got out (45 minutes later), and refused to take the elevator for the rest of the trip. It was cramped. Here’s our selfie:

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The hit French party song Les Sardines has never been more appropriate.

We welcomed in 2015 with some of Matt’s old friends and some new friends, all of whom gathered in Lyon at the home of a Lyon lectrice (a university english teacher, like Matt and Dana). We had a blast getting to know one another, sharing champagne, and dancing the year away. Here we all are, dressed in our 2014 finest.

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And, here’s a summary map of my break!! Lyon marked the end of my great tour of France, which only grew my enthusiasm for the country I call my temporary home.

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Happy holidays to all!

TFH Part 4: Ringing in the New Year in Lyon

TFH Part 3 : Bretagne, the Medieval Land of Mist & Mayhem

As promised, here are some adventure tales from my trip to Bretagne with Solena, in between the Three Christmases.

Solena picked me up with her mom and little cousins from the train station in Vannes, and we embarked straightaway for some sightseeing nearby.

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First, Arradon, which is far less desolate and rainy during the summer sailing season, when it’s home to sailing competitions and becomes a tourist destination. This was my first glimpse of the sea, though, and it felt like home!

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Then, a special treat: Rochefort-en-Terre, which is a medieval village in the hills that has a fairy light display for the holidays. It was beautiful, and put me in the Christmas spirit more than anything else had. Magic, right?

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After Rochefort, we went back home to Elven, which is nearby the larger city of Vannes. I asked Solena if we could tour Vannes, so after a day of watching the kids we went to walk around on the morning of Christmas Eve! I was obsessed with the ramparts and medieval architecture.

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[The Porte de Vannes (the door of Vannes), and the ramparts (with a view of the cathedral in the background).] Entering the city, I could see how imposing it must have been when it was fully walled and the ramparts were still in use. I imagine it’s what much of France actually looked like back then.

Solena and I picked up a passenger for covoiturage (carpooling — extremely cheap, easy, and popular in Europe) named Claude. We showed up and she was wearing a full length fur coat, a red beret, and gold sparkly eyeliner. She looked to be in her thirties, and talking to her in the car revealed that she was a Canadian musician stationed in Vannes to go to the music school. She was quite a character — she gave me advice to deal with noisy neighbors in France, which was to be as cynical and sarcastic and creative as possible. Example: her upstairs neighbors in Paris would not stop throwing parties, so she showed up in pajamas and tried to join in once. They got the message. (Instead of taking her advice, I moved. But more on that later.)

We dropped her off and finished our journey in Port-Louis, Riantec, etc., the towns where Solena grew up. This is where all the Christmas parties happened. I was blown away by the beauty of this old port city.

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Our beach walk at sunset….it was amazing. Standing by the sea, I instantly felt calmer. Something about water soothes me like nothing else.

This was the endpoint of our journey, and I honestly have not seen or experienced a place quite like it. I was welcomed into Solena’s group of friends, we danced the night away, and I learned 4 or 5 Breton songs and dances, as well as just how proud the Bretons are of their regional culture. I knew that France’s regions tended to have regional pride just like we have state pride, but now I think that the North is not a great example of that. Brittany is. There’s even been talk about secession throughout history.

I also spoke in French for about 75% of the time throughout this week of adventures, and that was a victory in itself. Most of the people I met did not speak English, and every time I have a fulfilling conversation with people who don’t speak English I reaffirm my reasons for having studied French! Now I get to study it in whole new ways.

Touring the west made me want to live there. I’m exploring options for working there next year, and I’ll be super excited if that works out.

Yer’mat (cheers!), Bretagne. Until we meet again!

TFH Part 3 : Bretagne, the Medieval Land of Mist & Mayhem

TFH Part 2: The Three Christmases

On Monday the 22nd, my journey through the west continued via train to Vannes, where I met up with Solena, my second former native speaker friend! (For those who don’t know: I met both Solena and Lise at Whitman, where they were Native Speakers and lived with me in the French House).

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Solena invited me to spend Christmas with her family before I even knew for sure I’d be coming to France, and I was so excited to get to know her homes and families and experience a real French Christmas! Little did I know, I’d be celebrating three of them…

Christmas 1:

I spent Christmas Eve with Solena’s mother’s family in Elven, near Vannes (post on Bretagne to come). Here’s a breakdown of the evening’s festivities:

6 PM: Start getting ready by getting dressed in Christmas best

7:30 PM: Christmas Mass at l’Eglise d’Elven, full of songs and small children. The small children made it that much more entertaining, because we all agreed that it dragged on a little…but it seems like Mass is a pretty widely attended pre-Christmas celebration and I wanted to experience it firsthand.

9:00 PM: Get home from Christmas Mass, indulge the children’s fevered cries to open presents (Père Noel came while we were gone).

10:00 PM: Begin Christmas dinner with an apéritif — Martinis, vegetables and dip, and a variety of nuts.

IMG_060111:00 PM: BeIMG_0599gin the first entrée course — Fruits de mer (seafood) and vin blanc (white wine). This was a big vocabulary lesson for me. Pictured are some of the entrée options; there were shrimp, crayfish, spider crabs, oysters, clams (live), and some kind of sea snail. I tried everything!! I still love shrimp, and crayfish are delicious, but I had more trouble with the raw oysters. They tasted a little too much like the sea for me.

I think 12:30 AM: Second entrée course — Foie Gras on toast. I also tried some of this. I think foie gras  is really delicious, it’s just sometimes a psychological struggle for me to eat it.

Sometime after 1 AM: Main dish! — Poulet marron (chestnut chicken) and vin rouge (red wine). I had never tried this dish, a Christmas specialty, before, and it was DELICIOUS! It’s my new favorite. Unfortunately at this point it was getting really difficult to eat anything due to fatigue and stuffed-ness.

After that: Fromage — cheese! I skipped this course accidentally because Solena’s 4 year old cousin came to sit on my lap and I couldn’t reach the cheese (at least that’s my excuse…)

3:00 AM: Dessert — the traditional French Christmas dessert is ice cream cake, or Buche de Noel. It’s in the shape of a Yule Log. Ours was an atypical flavor: mango passionfruit! The most common is chocolate.

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4:00 AM: Not over yet! The last course: coffee and chocolate. I had hot milk for fear of never again being able to sleep if I ingested caffeine. Although I bet it would’ve been absorbed before it hit the bloodstream…

BEDTIME!

The next day, we got up and packed and drove to Port Louis.

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Port Louis will be featured in my Bretagne post as well, but here I will talk about Christmas meal number 2! This time, it was Solena’s father’s family, and it began around 1 in the afternoon. I’ll just briefly describe the menu:

Apéritif: a variety of toasts with mystery seafood spreads (her grandmother had us guess what was in each one), and champagne!

Entrée: Oysters for most people, but another woman and I split the cooked palourdes (clams) with garlic, parsley, and butter, because neither of us like oysters. They were delicious!!

Entrée: Coquilles St. Jacques. These are some of my favorite, favorite things. It’s basically a variety of seafood treats in a deliciously rich beschamel-style sauce, and it was served to us in a shell. Homemade by Solena’s grandma and grandpa!

Main Dish: Poulet Chataigne. The same dish with a different type of chestnut, and I liked this variation even better. I ate a lot of it this time.

Fromage: I ate this this time.

Dessert: Chocolate Buche de Noel!

Café and Swiss chocolate rounded out another delicious meal.

This meal ended around 6 PM, and Solena and I went for a walk by the sea for digestive purposes. A beautiful end to a beautiful day.

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The third Christmas dinner, I will be brief about, because the company was more important than the food. We dined with Solena’s family of friends the night after, for a soirée that lasted from 7 PM til 4 AM and was full of joy and laughter and friendship! To me, that is what Christmas anywhere is all about: family and family-like friends, coming together and eating and drinking and enjoying each other’s company. I was so grateful that I was welcomed with open arms into these families when I couldn’t be with my own! I have a hard time really putting into words how much I enjoyed the love and joy and Christmas spirit that I encountered on this vacation…here are some pictures of new and old friends instead!

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Merry belated Christmas to friends and family, near and far!

Next up: Bretagne, the tourist post!

TFH Part 2: The Three Christmases

Touring France for the Holidays: Part 1

I’m back!

Honestly I thought I’d have a lot more time to write on the road…silly me. I don’t think I got my computer out for more than ten minutes the whole time. That is FINE by me, though! Now I’ve got a lot of adventure stories so I’ll try to spread them out.

Part 1 : Enquête Exclusif à Rennes

My journey began on Saturday morning at 5 AM, when I woke up to catch my train from Valenciennes to Lille. In Lille, I caught my train to Rennes, for my first cross-France journey. Here’s an estimated map (because I took a train instead of a car!).

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Rennes is the capital of the Bretagne region of France, and a notorious student city. Roughly one fourth of the population is students, actually. It makes for a great night out — or so I’ve heard, but unfortunately I arrived the day all the students left for the holidays. Lise said that there was a marked difference between Rennes with students and Rennes without.

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The city wasn’t destroyed in the war like most of the North and some of the West…so there are still buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries everywhere! Historical charm: check! It was also misty and rainy and mild most of the time, which fit my image of Bretagne (I figured the west coast is the west coast everywhere…I felt right at home).

On my first full day, we did one of Lise’s favorite things — the Planetarium! There’s a science center in Rennes with a fully functional planetarium, and we watched a 3D tour of the galaxy. It was so unexpectedly meditative. I almost fell asleep, and when I got out I felt incredibly calm and peaceful inside. When you see the galaxy like that….it’s impossible not to feel like the smallest thing in the universe, and that’s a really relaxing thought. If we are small, all our problems are even smaller. Perspective!

We emerged from the pitch black peace machine to find ourselves in the Foire d’Hiver — the winter fairground. French fairs are much like American ones: total overstimulation. To go from drastic understimulation to drastic overstimulation so suddenly made us laugh. All we could do at the fair was people watch and stare at all the terrifying-looking rides…

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Later, we went to another of Lise’s favorite places… A Vos Mousses, a self-serve beer bar. Stick your card on the sensor, and you can fill your glass with as much beer as there are euros of credit (and as it will hold, obviously). What a genius idea for a bar, was my thought — you can imagine the money to be made when a bunch of intoxicated people get their hands on a self-serve beer card. We only had one, this time ;).

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We stumbled across a light show on the way home. This is one of the things France does during the holiday season: they have light shows projected onto buildings, usually the city hall, that are strikingly realistic. Lyon has a famous Fête des Lumières which I eventually hope to see, but apparently Rennes has one as well! They’re quite a spectacle.

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The next day, we went to the park! I love French parks. This one has been around for ages, and used to be the leisure activity scene for the bourgeois elite of Rennes. Its elegantly groomed grass and gardens and fancy fountains betray its high-class past. It was a lovely escape from the city!

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Now for the Enquête Exclusif  reference: one of the nights, Lise and I watched a TV program that was discussing American universities and the hazing, alcohol, and prostitution which characterize them. It went on for almost an hour on the seedy sides of university life, interviewing an idiot kid on spring break and numerous women who’d chosen to become escorts to pay for school. At the very end, it said “the university system has some positive aspects as well,” talked for 15 minutes about research, and ended.

I have two conflicting reactions to things like this: “wow, some things that happen in my country really make us look bad,” and “how dare they only look at the negative.” News is biased, but that doesn’t mean that these things don’t happen. It’s one of the challenges of being in a foreign country: you see your own with brand new eyes. My goal is to never become too critical of one or the other. All countries are extremely diverse and have good and bad aspects…and I don’t ever want to dislike the U.S. or dislike France. They’re just different.

I had a BLAST catching up with Lise! It’s been about a year since I’d seen her, but for foreign friends…we’ve seen each other once a year since we’ve met, which is pretty great. Sending our love to the former French house and friends, we missed you! And a big THANKS from me to Lise for being such a great hostess!

Next up is Part 2, concerning two friends and three Christmases in my new favorite region.

Touring France for the Holidays: Part 1

Bummin’ Around in Belgium

I recently discovered that aside from my “chatty” and “angry” neighbors, I have another neighbor who is much worthier of being visited: BELGIUM.

Some of you may have already seen my post about Ghent with Dana. That was my first Belgian adventure. In the two weeks since Thanksgiving, I’ve been there twice more.

A trip to Belgium from Valenciennes involves:

1. Taking the city bus from the train station to “Frontière,” the last stop on the line which is right on the Belgian border (30 minutes).

2. Walking across the border, down the street which consists of nothing but Tabac shops (bulk tobacco, booze, etc. for much cheaper than in France), and end up at the grimy and desolate, not to mention closed down indefinitely so we can’t actually go into it, station. (15 minutes)

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3. Catching the train from Quiévrain (the border town) to St. Ghislain. (20 minutes)

4. Catching a train in St. Ghislain to basically anywhere in Belgium (1 hour to Brussels, where you can catch another to Ghent, or about 1 hour to Tournai)!

In other words, it takes me about as much time to get to Belgium as it does to get to Seattle in traffic at home. My friend even worked out how to get to Luxembourg or Aix-la-Chapelle this way.

I had Tuesday off this past week, so Matt and I went to Tournai.

The belfry, which is the oldest one in Belgium

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The view from the belfry (cue intense feeling of vertigo)

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On the main square

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Then, this weekend, my friend Laura and I went to Brussels, having heard about their amazing Christmas market. It definitely lived up to our expectations.

Inside the market rows

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Bison burger (!? they invited Québec to do a few stalls) and vin chaud (mulled wine)

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Smoked salmon! 

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Sometimes (all the time), a change of scenery does wonders for one’s mentality. There is nothing better than arriving in a brand new city with a bunch of new things to do and see and feeling like every little victory (navigating a new metro system? finding the grande place?) is a championship achievement.

Also, I loved the Brussels Christmas Market because so many of the stalls contained things I would never be able to get anywhere else in the world. It was mostly a visual feast, because after I got some Christmas presents there wasn’t a reason to spend more money…but the number of beautiful artisan home decorations, jewelry, food, etc. we saw was insane! The market went on for blocks and blocks, and we got lost several times…but it was a GREAT day.

Goal of the year: visit every Belgian city worth seeing? 🙂

Bummin’ Around in Belgium

The First Thanksgiving(s)

~ WEATHER UPDATE ~

It is so frickin’ COLD! Literally ordered a new (North Face) coat online this week.

Anyway, Here’s what I’ve been doing besides turning into an icicle (annecicle): 

Last week, I celebrated my first Thanksgiving away from home…or should I say ThanksgivingS, because we did it big and had three of them.

First, on Sunday, there was a potluck hosted by a friend in Lille. All of the traditional Thanksgiving foods made an appearance, including pumpkin pie with good old American canned pumpkin! My love affair with sweet potatoes began when I was a baby (it was my favorite treat when I was toothless), and our sweet potato chef did them justice. Two friends and I were responsible for the turkey, and the “alternative” recipe we picked out (because it’s hard to find whole turkeys to roast in France) turned into the best turkey I’ve ever eaten. The ambiance, created via numerous American Flag displays (see Dana’s post on patriotism…and for some cute pictures) and “traditional Thanksgiving music” (Turkey in the Straw) was a complement to a wonderful day giving thanks for friends. 

The day of Thanksgiving dawned weirdly — because I had to get up at the crack of dawn to go to school. I hadn’t realized how ingrained “Thanksgiving Break” was into my yearly routine until having to work caused some major cognitive dissonance. I wrote “Happy Thanksgiving” on some of the classroom whiteboards and tried to explain its significance…but my discovery was that it’s difficult to explain what a holiday “means.” For instance, Thanksgiving is technically a celebration of a peace between the pilgrims and Native Americans, but considering that it was followed by years of discord and massacre it can’t really be a “celebration” of that in my mind. I think it has become more symbolic — it’s a holiday of gratitude, of family and friends, of taking a break to appreciate the things we have. It’s like pre-Christmas.

After school on Thursday, I shopped and cooked and headed over to Thanksgiving #2, at a friend’s house in Val. It was larger and even more internationally influenced than the previous one — we had Costa Rican tuna salad, Chinese fried rice & tea eggs, and a host of other culinary treats, brought by people from all over the world. This is the true beauty of Thanksgiving Abroad: it is necessarily a cultural exchange. I explained to a German person and two South American people, in French, the story behind the holiday… obviously not something I’d ever have had to do at home. Our British friend did a lovely performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to round out the evening, to which other British friends responded by putting on “God Save the Queen,” beginning a musical Revolutionary War… 

The third Thanksgiving was quite a party, and it was a fitting climax to the week of celebrations. I can safely say that Thanksgiving this year was more patriotic, intercultural, drawn out, reflective, and definitely more of a party than it ever has been…and I hope to experience it abroad again someday.

And now, we can officially start setting up for Christmas! Lille already has 🙂

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The First Thanksgiving(s)