I was considering the triple meaning of Thanksgiving in the USA the other day, before the holiday. This came in handy as, not wanting to spend the holiday alone and wanting to share the best of the three, and of course the most abstract and generalizing of the three, meanings, I invited favorite friend (you know her) out to an “expensive” dinner with me on Thursday. I asked her about a week before. She wanted to know the meaning of the holiday and I told her this should be our Thanksgiving dinner discussion when we went out to dinner and she said she thought this was an excellent idea.
I took her to Sol e Luna. For three reasons:
1. This is the place I know most well and that we could even walk to. But, in the true spirit of the holiday, I asked a driver to take us instead thinking that this was even a part of the treat for her. I have little to give but this I can give.
2. I crave the pizza there like crazy. Seriously, this is the best pizza I know outside of Rome, and I have said this before. So, even if I were at home I would be craving this pizza. I even knew which one I would get…
3. She loves the pizza there as well, though it is not a part of her Rwandese flavor pallet. She still wants it. She told me she has eaten there twice in the 8 years she has lived in Kigali. The last time was two years ago. I said this is TOO LONG! She completely agrees.
So, we go on Thursday evening for this dinner. She perused the menu of 89 pizzas and got uncomfortable. She asked me what she should order. I asked her what she remembers getting before and based on this I advise her, she should get the 04 – Nobile pizza with ground and spiced beef over oyster mushrooms and onions and garlic and tomato and tomato sauce with goat and mozzarella cheese. It is one of the more expensive items on the menu. She LOVED it. I knew she would. I told her the name of this “flavor” of pizza means lord, like king. She seems proud of her taste as I tell her she should be.
I order the 26 – Beatrice. “Ground” or more like shredded, to the extent that you can, salmon over tomato and goat cheese and mozzarella and tomato sauce. I ask for shredded basil on the top even though it will cost extra. They come and tell me that they are out of salmon. I could have cried. I got “thon”, tuna, instead. The pizza was good but you can never substitute tuna if you want salmon nor the other way around. My friend asked what Beatrice means. I tell her it is only a muzungu woman’s name but explain that the origin is in Latin, which necessitates the basic history of the west in order to explain, and that the base root of the word means “good” as in “beatitudes”. She likes this and thinks that yes, she is noble and I am good. I feel pleased.
I order a glass of the house red wine, the cheapest, and I end up drinking three glasses. She orders an orange Fanta but sips some of my wine. She has not had a good red wine before. I explain to her before to ready her tongue. That this is not like other drinks. She said she tried another alcohol before but that it made her tongue feel weird. So this time I prepare her. How do I do this:
Rwandans do use vinegar for things. Various things. Like cooking cabbage or for a salad. But while Nicole was still here she and I went in on the price of balsamic vinegar, which is REALLY expensive here. My friend thinks this is the best vinegar and is complicit in me drowning my salads in the stuff. So, I tell her, think of the taste of that balsamic vinegar. It's so good, right, but not something you would like to drink. She agrees. I tell her that red wine is similar and even has a similar preparation process but that it is sweeter though not sweet and therefore is best served with food. I tell her especially with her beef she should take a bit of food and then a sip of the wine and enjoy it. She says, then why don’t you just put it on the food instead. Hmmm, she really is so smart.
Anyway, she asks me shouldn’t I drink more, at the end of our meal, because I cannot eat more (she thinks I eat too little!) and at Thanksgiving, as she understands it, is a time of excess. I agree but it's too expensive and three is plenty. Then I explain about body weight and drinking, particularly in public. Again she tells me I am like a soldier. I am coming to really appreciate her comparison of me with a soldier.
Anyway, I explain to her over dinner about the three levels of meanings of the American version of Thanksgiving. First, what children are taught: the lie about the pilgrims and the “founding” of America. She argues that wasn’t it a war that started America? I say yes but that was the founding of the government, the USA and that was about 150 years later. I tell her what children learn and what they do in elementary (primary here) school in the USA for the holiday – arts and crafts! She thinks this is so nice for the children and also for the story.
Then, I tell her the second version of the story that people generally learn, but in not so many correcting words, in high school or so, though nowadays usually in college in my generation or older: the truth. Genocide, disease, religion (freedom and oppression on both sides), etc. and the history of the Native Americans. I explain that it was like the Twa. They were here before the Hutu and Tutsi. I explain that it is like the Hutu coming in and saying, yes we are friends, and then stealing their land and giving them diseased blankets because they believe that the Twa are savage and from the devil because they do not believe in Jesus. She gets upset, and rightfully so.
Then I explain the third level of meaning. What does Thanksgiving mean now? It means to be so thankful because you make WAY too much food, usually of a Native American variety and I talk about turkeys and how many people they can feed (she thinks there ought to be more turkeys in Rwanda) and all the rest. She says it sounds delicious. And also alcohol or games or whatever and family and friends. The tradition is all to get together and to thank god and each other for what you have. Both in terms of food and drink and time but also to be thankful for each other. She says that she thinks that Rwanda should have a holiday like this.
At the end, I thank her very heartily for being my best friend and confidante in Rwanda and for taking care of me just like she cares for her own family. She thanks me for being her friend and for being so “giving” in her words and also for taking her for dinner.
When we arrive home I ask her to translate for me to the night watchmen here, with whom I have shared so many silent (he doesn’t speak like ANY English) and yet meaningful moments, about the basics of Thanksgiving and then to thank him personally for me for all that he does here. He shakes my hand rapidly and heavily and says repeatedly, after this translation, “murakoze, murakoze, murakoze, cyane cyane” (thank you thank you thank you much much).
I walk back to go to sleep in my room and at last my friend gives me a big hug and says to me, “You know how I love muzungus? Well, I love Americans best. And don’t ask me why, because you are always asking. Good night.”
She is right. I am always asking why. But, I am happy for this. I am thankful to both of my parents and the rest of the Mitchells in particular for encouraging my questions. Those questions led me here. And I am happy. Thanks.
The soundtrack for this post includes the following song, in particular my aunts will like it I believe: The Avett Brothers – The Weight of Lies. Here is the link on youtube:
What I most thankful for about being in Rwanda, apart from my friend, that I was truly running to something for the first time in my life and not also running away.