Remy didn’t care one way or the other about Thanksgiving. Since he never experienced it growing up, it simply was another day on the calendar for him. However, as it entailed a great quantity of food and wine, he was game to celebrate.
My first Thanksgiving with Rémy was slightly more memorable than the others, isn’t that always the way? Up until that point, I had spent years trying to perfect the damn holiday (Thomas) or years having to endure it (Albert.) So when Rémy and I vacationed in Meiringen that first November, I assumed the day would pass without incident.
Things started out well enough, Rémy and I had been skiing all day – and by skiing I mean sipping brandy in the hotel – when I was somehow reminded that my beloved United States was celebrating Thanksgiving. I mentioned this to Rémy who, being both French and quite drunk at that point, mistook my mere mention as nostalgia for not being able to enjoy my American tradition with my countrymen. Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth – I was bathed in the fire’s glow, 100-year-old cognac and a pound of the finest chocolate I had ever had, who needed cranberry gelée? However, when Rémy got a notion in his head, he would move heaven and earth to see it through.
He whisked us back to our rented chalet. The household staff that came with the chalet were put into an absolute dither trying to figure out what proper “Turkey Attire” was (I always wondered if those poor folks thought Rémy meant for us to be dressed as turkeys because I swear, that was the result.) Once bedecked in our Thanksgiving finery, we headed in search of a restaurant that would have the closest semblance to the American Thanksgiving meal. I didn’t think finding a turkey and some potatoes was such a stretch, but when you are driving around a remote resort destination in what would likely have been called the later evening hours, turkey and potatoes are not quick to come by. After stopping at the few restaurants open and not finding our quest, we came upon a promising little place with its lights on and the most heavenly scent pouring from it. Rémy shouted for the driver to arête! in such a commanding voice, the poor man almost put us into a bush. Grabbing my arm, Rémy marched us both to the door of the bistro and threw it open as if he were Henry II returning to Chinon. The proprietor’s wife, who was cleaning a small table, was thrown into the fire grate from fright, sending cutlery into the air. Rémy, always possessing more charm than sense, walked briskly, righted her and kissed her generously upon both cheeks. Grasping her shoulders, he boomed out that we had decided to honor them by sharing our very important celebration with her and her establishment; only he said it in French and she, quaking, responded in German.
I may not need to mention this, but drinking does not actually make you into the linguist you think you are. Rémy spoke to her in what I am sure he thought was German and pointed to the table enough that she caught on that we were looking to dine. She nodded and set the table with fresh linens. As we were settling into a glass of wine neither of us needed (does one ever need wine?) the proprietor himself came in. He looked tired, overworked and very surprised to see last minute patrons seated by the fire. I waved from my seat as balance had taken its leave of me for the evening and Rémy offered the same greeting he had bestowed upon the proprietor’s wife. An absolutely useless exchange of German and whatever language Rémy had settled on took place before our lovely hostess returned and explained our situation to our host. When she paused for a breath, Rémy gave them our order. Quickly deducing that relying on Rémy’s “German,” for our food was probably ill advised, I tried to outline a turkey in the air with my hands. Our hosts looked interested but quite confused. In a flash of inspiration, Rémy began acting out his best impression of a turkey, replete with head twitch and a gobble that he kept deep within his throat. Unused to the sight of my distinguished husband in his Sunday best pantomiming a turkey, I started to giggle, which only encouraged him. He jumped up on his chair and attempted to lay an egg, with a squawk that rattled both the shutters and our hosts. Desperation sent them to the kitchen while we waited by the glow of the waning embers.
What came back to us was sausage. Next to the sausage was a shredded leafy vegetable that looked the wrong color for sauerkraut. Rémy was dumbfounded – how could these restaurateurs not have understood his magnificent turkey impression? He had even gobbled. Our host looked a bit put off, at first, but soon nodded and hastened back to the kitchen. He returned with a bottle of stone ground mustard. Rémy thanked him for the mustard but pointed to his plate once again; balling his fists as he pointed to the vegetable selection. The perturbed host came over and, with a fork, spun the shredded bits like pasta into little balls. He pointed to the plate with an open hand as if to say, there, you now have what you want. Rémy looked to me with furrowed brow.
“Well, this looks delicious!” I proclaimed loudly and grabbed my glass, “To our hosts! Happy Thanksgiving!”
Rémy followed suit so our hosts nodded hesitantly as they took chairs against the wall, whispering to each other and never taking their eyes off us. Because of this, Rémy and I exaggerated our movements in an attempt to show our appreciation of the meal.
“Good Christ, what am I eating?” Rémy whispered while smiling broadly and rubbing his belly.
“It must be some form of animal, let’s pretend it’s turkey and this is revenge for all the turkeys slayed on American soil for Thanksgiving feasts.” I said, throwing a hand to my cheek in mock astonishment.
“I am not touching the ball of brined root matter.” Rémy said to his plate.
“You have to,” I responded, “They’re watching us.”
After eating enough so as not to appear rude, the platters were cleared and out came the magical scent that had led us here in the first place; slices of delicate cake swimming in a pool of fresh cream. To try to express our true delight in contrast to our prior phony delight, Rémy and I gesticulated wildly. Our hosts made to rise more than once, perhaps fearing their food had brought on some bizarre medical condition in us. At one point, after Rémy aggressively pointed to the cream on the plate, the hostess lifted a milking bucket and we understood they meant to tell us they milked the cows here on the property.
Odd they would have that in the restaurant dining room, though.
I gave my surroundings another look. “Say, darling,” I began, “have you noticed we are the only ones here?”
“We discussed this, ma chére, it’s late. Just think how thrilled these lovely people must be to get to celebrate this holiday with us.” Rémy responded, waving his fingers at our hosts.
“Well, yes, but have you noticed there is only one table in this entire restaurant? That’s a bit odd, isn’t it?”
Rémy looked about. He took in our little table, the freestanding coatrack that held our coats, the two-person couch by the window, the smallness of the room itself, the family portraits on the wall, what looked to be an urn on the mantle…
“Rémy, my love, we’re in someone’s living room.”
“Non, surely not. Look at this repast and the wine and the – embroidered place settings – oh ma chére! We have ambushed this poor couple just trying to go to bed! What do we do?!” He asked.
I began to giggle again. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
“Non, non, non – Naomi, we have taken over these poor people’s house; quel dommage!”
His panic made me laugh.
“Ssshhh, do not laugh, ma petite.” He said in a loud whisper. “This situation, we cannot la… “ but then his voice broke.
I tried to stop but couldn’t, choking on my own attempts. Rémy also attempted to hold in his laughter, failing and barking out a hearty guffaw. Our poor, confused hosts, shot up and gathered our plates. When they returned, a standing Rémy embraced both as a unit. Still thinking he was speaking German, he apologized profusely for our error and thanked them for their incredible hospitality; they looked like mice caught in a trap. Rémy let our hostages go and produced several bills from his billfold, holding them out to the couple. For the first time, the husband smiled, shook his head and pushed Rémy’s money back into his chest. Patting Rémy on the shoulder, somehow the husband and Rémy had found an accord. Perhaps the gentleman understood what had happened, perhaps he saw a way to get rid of us but he guided us to the door, handed us our coats and not-so gently nudged us out the door.
The following morning, a few heads of prime milking cows were presented to our German hosts with no explanation. To this day, stoneground mustard makes me giggle.
Happy Thanksgiving, my darlings, no matter where you spend it or who you impose upon to do so.