Ditching the Turkey: Thanksgiving Memories (and Misadventures) of Reporters Abroad

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Ditching the Turkey: Thanksgiving Memories (and Misadventures) of Reporters Abroad

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When you’re a Times journalist spending Thanksgiving outside the United States, the day isn’t exactly all turkey and football. Improvisation replaces tradition, family is where you find it, and work comes first. We asked a few of our international correspondents about memorable holidays past.

Motoko Rich, Tokyo bureau chief

A few months after we arrived in Japan in 2016, my husband cooked a turkey. We were lucky to have an oven large enough to accommodate a small bird and invited Japanese friends of my parents’ generation to Thanksgiving dinner, offering culinary gratitude for the support they had given us when we first moved to Tokyo.

We shopped at a Western-style supermarket for brussels sprouts and imported cranberries, shutting our eyes to the exorbitant price. We mashed potatoes and toasted bread for stuffing, though it ended up too crunchy, like croutons. My Japanese godfather said they were his favorite part of the meal.

Our friends also brought Japanese side dishes: homemade pickles, plump inari (sweetened rice wrapped in fried tofu skins) and marinated enoki mushrooms. The flavors mingled on our plates. Our friends, who speak little English, managed to communicate with my husband and children, who spoke little Japanese. The following year, we dumped the turkey. The inari rolls and pickles stayed.

Vivian Yee, Cairo bureau chief

Thanksgiving 2019 fell on the one-year anniversary of my leaving New York for Beirut, Lebanon, where I had started covering the Middle East, and where I knew almost no one.

New York Thanksgivings, seven years running: a friend’s parents’ place on the Upper West Side, glugs of red wine, beagles barking, arguments about movies. Beirut Thanksgiving, Year 1: Unclear! I’d have to make it up.

Dinner for 10 other Americans and friends-of-Americans became dinner for 22 and then 30. Terrifying. Fortunately, my not-New York apartment could handle it.

Three of us ransacked the American Store, which deserves its nickname (a wall of imported cereal, a shelf of canned pumpkin). I spent the week beforehand immersed alternately in the antigovernment protests consuming Lebanon and in menu planning, enjoying the power to ban marshmallows. The day of, I considered a meltdown but decided against.

“Think quantity,” I pleaded to guests. Alex and Rami brought two turkeys, Helen and Felix cheese from Paris, Carly and Claire all their forks and knives. Chinese sticky-rice stuffing — my aunt’s recipe — thunked onto the table alongside Hwaida’s Lebanese meghli pudding, Signe’s Danish rye and Colin’s Irish whiskey, plus versions of all the classics. Eleven nationalities squeezed around four tables. Some of us danced.

Soon after that, I found out I was being transferred to Cairo, where I arrived, two weeks ago, with five suitcases and no turkey plans.

Make it up.

Jeffrey Gettleman, South Asia bureau chief

On Thanksgiving Day, 2002, I got a call from my boss, The Times’s national editor.

“Hey, Jeff, how are ya?”

“Um, fine, I guess …” (I suspected he wasn’t calling on one of the biggest holidays of the year just to say hi.)

“How would you like to go on a cruise?”

“You serious?” I asked, knowing there had to be a catch.

“Yes, I am. We need you to take a cruise to write about the Norwalk virus.”

The Norwalk virus! At the time, this stomach virus, like a faint prequel to Covid-19, was waylaying the cruise ship industry, sickening thousands of people and spreading a sense of paranoia across the Western world. The top symptom was diarrhea. And now my boss was asking me to intimately cover it!

But I’d just been hired by the paper and was game to do anything. So I started packing and soon left my family for a 10-day Caribbean cruise. I was one of the youngest people onboard, and I was instructed not to shake hands and to use lots of hand sanitizer.

And guess what? No one got sick. My big opportunity to cover a serious outbreak turned into a very soft feature story that ran on Page A37. So much for easy glory. I learned then there’s no such thing.

Image
Credit…via Jeffrey Gettleman

Alissa J. Rubin, outgoing Baghdad bureau chief

As a foreign correspondent, I have spent every Thanksgiving for the last 20 years overseas, mostly in war zones where finding a turkey is pretty much impossible. Still, I don’t give up easily, and when no turkeys were readily available in Baghdad about 15 years ago, I decided to look in Jordan, the country we all stopped in for a day or two on our way into Iraq.

Since I was flying into Baghdad on a rotation in early November, I purchased a frozen 16-18 pounder at a Jordan supermarket right before boarding my flight, putting the bird into a plastic bag and then shoving it into the rucksack I always traveled with.

I settled myself in my seat and an Iraqi businessman sat down next to me. He spoke a little English and we exchanged cards. The plane pulled back from the gate, taxied to the runway and stopped. There was dust in Baghdad; we would have to wait until it settled. The plane began to get warm. Jordan can be in the 80s in November. Baghdad is even warmer.

After about an hour of sitting on the runway, the businessman turned to me and said, “Do you feel something wet?”

I looked around. “No,” I said.

“I think something just dripped on me,” he said, reaching up until he touched the overhead compartment.

I realized the turkey was defrosting. I looked up and saw a droplet forming just at the edge of the plastic where the lid of the overhead compartment clicked closed. I lunged up and brushed the drip away. The man was now staring at me a little nervously.

“Well, it’s not coming from up there. It’s dry,” I announced a little firmly. The plane was crowded, and there was nowhere he could move. If he had checked overhead, he might have realized it was defrosting meat — and not even halal.

I sat back down nervously watching for the next drop to form, preparing to lunge again. I did that one more time and then miraculously the plane took off.

As we spiraled down into Baghdad several more drops fell on my traveling companion, one landing on his temple, the other on his suit (I don’t think he felt the second one).

Finally, he got up to leave, waiting politely so I could go first. I shook my head firmly, pretending I needed to pack up my notebooks, opening and closing them busily, but really I didn’t want him to see me pull the sodden rucksack dripping with a defrosting turkey out of the overhead bin.

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