I rarely traveled at Thanksgiving. Jockeying with millions of other travelers held no appeal, nor did sky-high travel costs. But in 2001, Berlin was irresistible. Reservations plummeted after September 11, and airlines responded by slashing prices. I could fly from Seattle to Berlin for less than it would cost to fly to Philadelphia. Yet it was the people I would see in Germany who tipped the scales.
The idea was to spend the holiday with three German friends—Ansgar, Markus, and Johannes—who had been exchange students on graduate fellowships at the University of Washington the year before. We had bonded over a shared fascination with politics and a love of the television show The West Wing. We piled into my living room many a Wednesday night to watch the show, following the rapid-fire dialog that most native English speakers found challenging to track. Talking politics with peers from outside the United States who were also political science students well versed in our political system was enlightening. That year, I played the role of beaming older sister to my dashing and beloved younger brothers from Europe.
That academic year flew by, and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, they had all returned to their respective schools, so I had not seen any of them for a number of months. It was a flipped script: an American packing her family recipes to prepare a Thanksgiving meal in a country that did not observe the holiday. On top of that, my arrival was a surprise for Ansgar, schemed in e-mails with Adam. Adam had been an exchange student that same year and would now fly from his native London to join us in Berlin. We were giddy from plotting our friendly subterfuge.
The plan unfolded without a hitch. Ansgar’s flat in the Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg brought grandeur to our Thanksgiving meal. Though the kitchen was compact, high ceilings accentuated a large, sumptuous main room with windows overlooking the tree-lined street. Happy ghosts from Berlin’s golden age in the 1920s glided approvingly from room to room. In any other city, the flat would have been beyond the reach of graduate students, but Berlin was still fighting its way back to economic health.
Many friends were invited in the spirit of a Thanksgiving table that can always fit one more. We spent much of Thanksgiving morning navigating wintry Berlin, food shopping for potatoes, butter, cream, pumpkin, and other fixings on our list. The city that had been severed was now almost twelve years reunified. My friends were boys at the time of reunification; now half their lives had been lived in an era of integration and new national identity. Sleek trams hummed down thoroughfares, linking former East and West neighborhoods. To my untrained eyes, the old divide between Berlin’s halves was invisible. The city felt whole, not merely reconnected. Our expedition was complete when we found a turkey that would fit in Ansgar’s shoebox of an oven. Home we went, and the kitchen commotion began.
I was air traffic control, put in charge of divvying up tasks because of my previous Thanksgiving experience. Potatoes were boiled and mashed. The turkey was seasoned, baked, and basted. Cheeses were unwrapped and arranged. Wines were uncorked to breathe. Side dishes seemed to appear out of thin air—as did a few pies.
A blanket-as-tablecloth covered the floor of the main room, turning Thanksgiving into a picnic. Plates were filled, then filled again. Some guests sported snappy vests and ties, fitted wool skirts, or cashmere sweaters—I was charmed by their sartorial finery. Johannes queued up a playlist after dessert, and the blanket morphed into a dance floor. Our bodies fizzed to the music for hours.
I went to Berlin anticipating a lavish Thanksgiving, never expecting to find equal bounty over breakfast. I woke up each morning and made my way into the kitchen to find an array of breads, jams, eggs, sliced cheeses, meats, yogurt, applesauce, and baked goods. The teapot whistled. Hot coffee perked. I know these morning meals were likely embellished for my benefit. I do the same when entertaining by flipping pancakes, folding omelets, and baking muffins with the best of them. However, those mornings in Germany drove home that a breakfast banquet only requires a stocked fridge and maybe a quick visit to a local baker for fresh bread. This was a meal of abundance you could sit down to daily.
There were many moments in Berlin where I wanted to bottle time. Seattle had been a catapult for all of my friends, and they were on exciting career trajectories. During that Thanksgiving in Berlin, though, I still played the pace car, taking one more lap before releasing the field. We ate, then accelerated forward, delighted by our speed.
For more Thanksgiving inspiration, check out A.V. Crofts on the Foodal podcast, where she discusses international cuisine & customs and shares some of her expert pie-making advice!