I’ve long loved the way streets are deserted on Thanksgiving evening and Christmas morning. The world stops. To go anywhere alone down these eerie roads means you are running on an empty heart or a full stomach, neither particularly satiating, leaving the coziness of home perfectly definable. Family priorities feel so real and clear as the world folds itself into the indulgence of the holidays.
But my mom and I spent this Thanksgiving in Paris, wide boulevards already awash with the jewel tones and twinkling lights of Christmas. It was my first time in the city, despite having studied French since I was young, and my mom had only visited for a few days twenty years prior. It was a long overdue true vacation for us both. We ate our Thanksgiving dinner at a small brasserie across the street from the Louvre — I laugh, remembering my ridiculous art-history nerd exclamation in a gallery: “Mom, I’m so excited to see the ‘Gates of Hell!’” I had that one line from Abba’s “Our Last Summer” stuck in my head as we “walked along the Seine, laughing in the rain,” despite the barren trees and brisk breeze. We poked fun at overzealous selfie-takers even as we struggled to get a photo both of us liked; I translated phrases we saw as we walked, trying to teach my mom basic navigational words: right, left, straight ahead, stop, oh-my-god-what-is-that-driver-doing-don’t-get-run-over.
The brasserie was poorly lit by yellow light, smelling of exhaust, cigarette smoke, steak and liquor. My mom and I were curious props in the dance of prim waiters carrying white wine. I felt steeped in the most bizarre blend of youth and age in this stale yet proper establishment, brought to life by the palpable buzz of the city. Even home, I feel a little less young than I did at this time last November.
Our waiter and I switched between French and English as we ordered; turns out he would be going to the U.S. in two years — his second time ever — to complete training to be a pilot. Mon père était pilote, I told him. Vraiment? Quel petit monde. I felt no weariness at sharing old stories, a small world indeed.
My mom and I kept asking one another: “Can you believe it’s Thanksgiving?” The obvious answer was no — what even is Thanksgiving, without feasts and massive crowds at Costco, bizarre family disputes and the infamous post-gorge nap? But despite being in the heart of France, surrounded by Parisians going about their usual Thursday evening activities, “yes” was my undaunted response.
I had my mom right in front of me, after the longest stretch of time in which I hadn’t seen her. We soaked in not just the touristy delights of restaurants and museums but the rich, bone-warming homeyness of nights spent sprawled on the hot pink hotel carpet, listening to Gary Clark Jr, Adele and Sinatra. We laughed and laughed at my terrible packing skills as bubbly conversations from the street below wafted up to our window until the “wee small hours” of the morning. Nights would end in dark chocolate, and I would find myself near tears, not with my usual stress but with joy. Ah, so this is happy. What a feeling. I haven’t valued laughter enough recently.
Joy and gratitude are inexplicably intertwined, in a way I hope I’ll one day understand. For the first Thanksgiving in as long as I can remember, in a country that doesn’t even celebrate the holiday, I grasped gratitude with the palm of my hand. I poured my heart, not into a communal cornucopia of plenty, but the small beloved space between my mom and me.