Celebrating an American holiday co-opted by Canada in the company of French-speaking Colombians and Cubans
It was Maybel’s first turkey…not because they don’t have turkey in Cuba, but because they don’t have Thanksgiving there. In fact, it’s pretty common to find turkeys on poultry farms there. Everyone eats a lot more chicken in Cuba, since the government usurped ownership of all the country’s cows. True story.
The recipe she used called for bitter orange, which is easy enough to find in Cuba but here in Québec, unheard of. She used lemons, instead.
When we arrived, she was busy in the kitchen with Annielys and Veronica, who is three months pregnant but you’d never know. The guys were all watching YouTube videos of roller-coaster rides, made with a Go-Pro or some homemade version thereof. Their shouts rose and fell in coordination with the track.
I was poking fun at them, thinking it was just little-man foolishness, until I took a good look at them–they wore the entranced expressions of children watching an animatronic display.
“Have any of them ever been on a montagne russe before?” I asked their wives.
“No,” was the answer.
I shut up and tried to make myself useful.
Francisco is clearly the life of the party, even more so because his French is almost as weak as mine. He uses it as an advantage, petitioning help with completing his sentences. People coach him to success like watching a particularly big three year old slug it out in the Pee Wee league.
Laurence is a French-to-English translator, but she has no trouble understanding the Spanish. She informs Francisco and his wife that even if they give their kid a Spanish name, it won’t be half as weird as some of the québecois names that are vogueing now, such as Spatule and Caribou.
Laurence’s husband, Samuel, normally quiet, becomes what I think they call a “card” in a big group. He points out to Francisco and Veronica that one of their possible girl names–Belén, which is the Spanish translation of “Bethlehem,” as in the birthplace of Jesus–is inadvisable for a child growing up in a francophone country. Everyone whispers the word to themselves with a French accent–it sounds like baleine, the word for “whale.” Even while laughing, Veronica grips Francisco’s hand and earnestly thanks Samuel for alerting them to this.
In Colombia, they tell us, it’s not uncommon to find children named “Georgewashington,” “Usnavy” and “Onedollar”–parents see these words and think they are auspicious American terms. The recent fad of the show “Beverly Hills: 90210” also brought a generation of Brandons and Dylans into existence.
Maybel says her English professor blushes when calling on her in class–the “y” doesn’t get as hard a pronunciation in French as it’s meant to in Spanish, and as a result, it sounds as though he’s calling her “my lovely one” every time she raises her hand.
I’m surprised by how much more at ease I feel, with the excuse of having everyone else’s third language as my native tongue–it means I can just watch, and listen, without someone asking, “Why are you so quiet?” I’m surprised by how natural and easy it is for everyone to be different from each other while being in the same room. I think I’m the only self-conscious one here, and because I’m the one with the least French, nobody knows it.
I was listening to CBC earlier today, and they were interviewing immigrants about their thoughts on what Thanksgiving means, whether it’s worthwhile. The people whose answers they played all sounded like it was a novel concept, fairly unnecessary, but pleasant. Here, it’s called l’action de grâce, or in Spanish, acción de gracías. “Action of thanks,” in other words.
This term seems to overcomplicate the idea, compared to the fairly simple concept of “giving thanks.” Armchair linguist that I am, I wonder why they don’t use the French word for grateful, reconnaissant, which is a construction of the word “to recognize.” Thanksgiving is a day of recognition of our blessings–that’s what I’ve been brought up to understand. A little bit random, this one day picked out of the year, we stop and take a good collective look at what we have and say a conscious “thank you” for it.
Maybel says (after Instagramming her turkey–some customs know no borders) that she likes this holiday, new to her, but it’s no different from every other day. Every day, she says, feels like a day for giving thanks.
But the fact is, this isn’t every day. Today we did something special about our thankfulness. We pulled out the things we’re thankful for–family, friends, food, knowledge of how to cook weird things like turkey, football, YouTube, laughter–and do something with them. It’s more than giving thanks. It’s a recognition through action.
We can’t have a feast every day. But we can recognize, over and over, when the same things whose use we valued yesterday are present today. Tomorrow, they might not be. The government might have taken ownership of all the cows, by tomorrow. Or you might start school and suddenly have the name that was special and meaningful to you come to mean something that people make fun of. Whatever you have that’s worth having, it’s good at least to recognize it.
I’m thinking about this a little more than usual, because I’m leaving Québec tomorrow.