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An Expatriate Thanksgiving in Italy

Nov 9, 2007
Thanksgiving arrived. Like the 4th of July, much to the dismay of the kids, it was just another day in Europe. No fanfare and worse, it was a school day.

Steve and I, however, set about the business of preparing a turkey dinner. A week before, I had ordered a "tacchino grosso, abbastanza per sette persone," (a big turkey, enough for seven people). I still wasn't very good at converting pounds to kilos and I was concerned that the butcher's estimate would be too conservative. The Italians I know do not serve an entire intact turkey, and the dainty pieces of sliced breast of turkey they do eat from time to time are consumed in reasonable portions without the contemplation of overeating to bursting and days of leftovers, so traditional of Thanksgiving.

Our friend, Marc, was coming into town from the U.S. and was used to the usual Thanksgiving excess. We had also invited Barbara and Fiorenzo to join us. They had invited us to many parties filled with guests from her native Germany, Fiorenzo's Italian friends, along with English-speaking friends to round out the evening. Thanksgiving represented an invaluable opportunity to share with them our version of an international festa.

"It will be big enough," the butcher had told me when he saw the tentative expression on my face. Then, the day before, I stopped by to confirm my order. "Don't worry," Signor Ripoli told me, "it will be here tomorrow by 11 am."

I passed by the butcher on my way to yoga on Thanksgiving Day. "I'll see you at 11," I waved and smiled. "It's already here," he responded. "I suggest you bring the car. It's not going to be that easy to get home."

Italians are always underestimating women, I thought. "Don't worry. My husband will come get it," I said. "Prenda la macchina lo stesso," he said. (Bring the car, all the same.) I was beginning to wonder whether I was supposed to have specified a dead turkey and whether I should have warned Steve to bring a leash.

When Steve and Marc went to pick up the turkey, they called me from the butcher. "I don't think this turkey is going to fit into the oven," Steve said. I could hear Marc chortling in agreement in the background. "Sure it will," I said with my telepathic/cellular-powered vision. Silently, I congratulated myself that I had adequately conveyed to the butcher a truly large turkey. "I hope you're right," Steve answered. "It weighs 15 kilos." (approximately 38 pounds).

When I got home, Steve and Marc were leaning against the oven door trying to contain the poultry beast. "Let me see it," I said. "Stand back!" Marc exclaimed. "If I let go of this door, the oven is going to explode." "That's hilarious, Marc," I said, shoving him aside.

I opened the oven gingerly all the same. The sight left me speechless. The turkey was the size of a small horse and what's more, the ends of the legs were so large they resembled hooves much more than turkey leg nubs. Although the rack was on the bottom rung, the breast was barely two centimeters from the top of the oven. The legs, a few feathers clinging to them, barely cleared the sides.

"I couldn't understand why the butcher was beating the top of the turkey before he threw it in this box," said Steve, pointing to what appeared to be a used fruit box, "but now I understand it was so that it would clear the top of the oven. "We'll be eating at midnight," I moaned. Marc was an American friend we've known for years and I knew he would cope, but what would our new Italian friends, Barbara and Fiorenzo, have to say about eating dessert first and turkey last?

By the grace of the patron saint of Varese, and for reasons unknown to me, the turkey took a mere 5 1/2 hours to cook. It looked strange when it came out, the legs singed by their proximity to the side of the oven and the top tilted to the side. The meat under the apricot and prosciuto-glazed skin was bruised from its post-rigormortous beating, which gave it the appearance of having been in a drunken brawl. It was tender, though, and we had a Thanksgiving story under our belts funny enough to reminisce about over the next several decades of Thanksgiving dinners.

Barbara and Fiorenzo were very complimentary about the odd mish-mash known as 'Steve's stuffing.' The sweet potatoes sold here as 'American potatoes' were also a big hit. Before dinner, we had each written on a separate piece of index card, one thing we were grateful for in each of the people present. Each card was sealed and labeled 'To' and 'From' and placed before the Thanksgiving altar, a cardboard painted turkey that Alex had made out of shoe boxes.

During a welcome break between dinner and dessert, we each received a pile of cards with our name on them and one by one, we read them aloud. "I'm grateful that Dad's knee healed," read one. "I'm grateful that Barbara likes to bake more than she likes conjugating verbs," read another. "I'm grateful for new friends and old ones. "I'm grateful that we didn't need a leash."

When it was time for dessert, we invited our new neighbors from the adjacent apartment for a quick taste of American pie. They were having two of their friends over for dinner and they joined us too. As these guests spoke no English, Steve, who still spoke only a little Italian, and Marc, who spoke none, politely nodded now and then in an effort to stay engaged. I struggled for two hours translating sporadically and by midnight our neighbors and their friends looked more comfortable in their chairs than when they arrived.

By midnight I began to wonder despite my spiritual state of gratitude when I would have the opportunity to thank our neighbors for coming. "I need to go to sleep," I whispered to Steve and Marc. Marc turned to Steve. "Is she kidding? She's not going to leave us, is she?" Then Fiorenzo, bless him, said, "Wow, look at the time!" and the crowd began moving in the direction of the door for the Italian departure sequence. Our neighbors lingered in the foyer for another half hour after Barbara and Fiorenzo left.

When I finally closed the door behind them, Marc dove onto the couch, having shown the most incredible restraint by not unbuttoning his trousers an hour before. The kids went to bed exhausted, but glowing, telling us that yet a second American holiday, although not on American soil was "the best we ever had," which just goes to show you, first, that a family tradition is transported in the hearts of those who carry it forth no matter on what soil they are located and, second, that you don't have to have the day off from school to have a good Thanksgiving.
About the Author
Denise Hummel has written a book, "SPEAK MILK. DRINK WINE. Redefining the American Dream" a story which recounts the life-shaping experience of moving to Italy with her husband and two sons.
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