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If Memory Serves: Thanksgiving Overseas

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If Memory Serves chronicles moments from my dining past, perhaps explaining why I'm so damn warped.

Even in tough economic times, working Americans take fewer vacation days than any other people on earth--although I believe this oft-cited bit of information ignores farmers eking out a living on the Sahara's fringes and those always-on-the-job Somali pirates.

If true--and it must be--this means any sanctioned time off has a defined value. For instance, the December holidays are for gift getting (some would say giving) and Super Bowl Sunday is for Chex Mix with friends. But Thanksgiving is the holiday we reserve for family.

Of course, while I was living in Europe, the whole family gathering thing was a bit too expensive. Instead, expats tend to seek each other out this time of year, linking up for communal dinners at hotels or chain restaurants or any place catering to Americans by putting together a turkey dinner.

In Prague, I spent Thanksgivings at a pub called Jama (pronounced Yama). Actually, I spent part of almost every single day at the place--in part because it was between work and home, in part because expats of all nationals tended to congregate there. It's owned by an American and was one of the first pubs to introduced burgers, burritos and American-style service after the "Velvet Revolution."

An aside: the owner, Max Munson, once told me about the day he trained a Czech chef in the art of burger grilling, back around 1993. The hamburger came out fine, so Munson asked the guy to make a cheeseburger. What arrived at the table was a bun with partially melted cheese (studded with black bits from the grill) in the middle, but no meat.

Makes sense. If a hamburger is ground meat in a bun, then a cheese burger should be shredded cheese in a bun.

Anyway--to some extent, expats are loosed from whatever behavioral constraints they live by at home. And so, at Jama, I watched a 40 year old directors from a prestigious organization engage in 'shot of beer a minute' contests and a father send his teenage daughter through an impromptu "spanking machine" on her birthday--thereby allowing old men and strangers to whack the crawling girl on the ass. Then there was the day some vacationing Brits came in, one guy outfitted in chaps...but nothing else.

On Thanksgiving, Jama devoted itself to the American holiday. They set up long tables and their chef tried his hand at turkey (brilliantly), stuffing (he did pretty well), clam chowder (which tasted like Elmer's) and pumpkin pie (reminding me of the scene from Coal Miner's Daughter where whats'ername used salt instead of sugar).

Food didn't matter, however. People--not all of them Americans, but almost all expats--filled the pub for a taste of Thanksgiving camaraderie.

Those were wonderful gatherings. You could sit for five or six hours and never notice the time passing.

Other places--the Hilton, the Four Seasons--served fancier meals. But Jama had that communal feel...and one additional advantage. It was perhaps the only pub in all of Europe to own a working Armed Forces Network satellite receiver. Therefore, it was the only place where you could eat turkey and watch the Cowboys.

And watching football is what Thanksgiving is about, at least in my family.

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