Gotham Diary:
Giving Thanks
24 November 2011

At breakfast this morning, a Danish gentleman told me, in lightly-accented English, that he had only just learned that today is “a holiday for you.” “That’s why we’re here,” I said. “You’ll get to experience the meal — the turkey and trimmings — but you’ll be spared the rest of it.” The ‘rest of it’ is the folly of bringing a lot of people who have “history” and “issues” with each other together, on one special day, for the sake of playing “Family.”

But that’s not, in fact, why we’re here. We’re here, actually, to avoid the meal. Neither Kathleen nor I can look back on years of horrible Thanksgiving holidays. Dull they might sometimes have been, but never actually unpleasant. (Except, arguably, during my adolescence, when I was militantly unpleasant to everyone.) What seduced us into bailing for Thanksgiving, ten years or so ago, was the difficulty of deciding whether to have our own dinner for eight or ten (once, in our country house, we seated sixteen), or whether to accept an invitation to partake of someone else’s feast, and, if so, which one. We share a deep dislike of the traditional Thanksgiving menu — all of it. (Except for cranberries, which we enjoy throughout the colder months.) A good turkey is like a walking dog — impressive, but absolutely a lot less delicious than a good chicken.

Which reminds me of the experience that Kathleen and I had, in 2003, of Thanksgiving at Taillevent, the celebrated restaurant in Paris. Read the story here; it won’t take long. I was telling it to Ray Soleil the other day — for one reason or another, he had never heard it before — and he quickly showed me that I hadn’t understood what was going on before my very eyes! The big table with only two diners! (What big table, you ask! It’s proof that I didn’t understand the story when I wrote it down, two years later! Surely the strangest part of the story — two people seated at a table for eight, in perhaps the most exclusive eatery in town — got left out of my account because it didn’t seem integral!) An entire turkey, from which only a few slices of breast were removed! Well, said Ray — and I couldn’t believe that this had never occurred to Kathleen or to me — the older guy had clearly invited his family, or some other group of intimates, to meet his new girlfriend, and had decided to egg the lark (so to speak) by offering a custom-devised American Thanksgiving menu to his French relations. Being French, they stood him up, presumably too late for him to cancel the shindig. What bravado it must have called for, to go on with the show! No wonder the waiter who murmured, “Non, monsieur, he is not American,” seemed so shocked.  

Aside from that dinner, and an opulent lunch at La Grande Cascade in the Bois de Boulogne that also yielded some amusing anecdotes, Paris did not have much to offer in the month of November beyond some very gloomy weather, and the idea of spending Thanksgivings in Paris was dropped. For a few years, we went to Dorado Beach, in Puerto Rico, and then, in 2006, after that resort was turned into a golf condominium, we came here, and we have come back every year save one.

I give thanks for the love and companionship of my wife, for the luck of having a lovely family and many wonderful friends, and, if not for good health, exactly, then for the medical resources that allow me to simulate it. I give thanks for a mind that has given me more pleasure, and made the world a more interesting place for me, year after year. I give thanks for all of that every day, and today as well.

Today, I offer special thanks that I don’t have to eat turkey.


So, at lunch (fried chicken), there were these attractive ladies of a certain age (plus ten) sitting at the next table, over Kathleen’s shoulder. There was something about the one who wasn’t wearing a floppy hat that caught my eye. Then held it. The hair above her forehead had been colored in bands. A little “natural” (brown, but certainly just as dyed as the rest) and then a little “blonde.” Bands about a half-inch wide receded from her brow. When I finally managed to get Kathleen to take a look (without gaping), I was shocked to hear that this is a style that Kathleen has seen in the magazines lately, but not in person. So it must be very, very stylish. It is also very, very ridiculous, and I call it the “Ruth Madoff.”


You will pity me when I say that I was doing laundry on Thanksgiving, but don’t; the laundry room here is quiet and very cold. There was nobody but me, and plenty of room to lay out the Pléiade edition of Flaubert’s Oevre I (dont Madame Bovary), so that I could go back and forth. I’m not reading everything in the original, but just the passages (of which there are plenty) that strike my curiosity. How did Flaubert say that? Sometimes — rarely; let’s get real — I think that Lydia Davis might have handled things better, but mostly I’m just quietly amused by the difference between the two languages, and in one instance I stumbled upon an utterly untranslatable joke.

Charles Bovary, the dolt, has jumped on Rodolph Boulanger’s offer of a horse for exercise.

“Why won’t you accept Monsieur Boulanger’s suggestions? He’s being so gracious.”

She looked cross, contemplated a dozen excuses, and finally declared that it might seem strange.

“Well, I really don’t care!” said Charles, turning on his heel. “Health comes first. You’re quite wrong.”

“Well, how do you expect me to go riding, if I don’t have a riding habit?”

“You must order one,” he answered.

The riding habit decided her.

Of course it would. Although Emma’s carnal attraction to Rodolphe is quite genuine, it is the offer of a new suit of clothes — it would be a pair of Christian Louboutins in our day, or really any old bag from Hermès — that induces her to cross an otherwise well-policed border between propriety and im-. Emma’s a material girl, all right — in two ways at once. Flaubert’s mockery is both delicious and stunningly cruel; we can see, perhaps, why the initial installments of the book in the Revue de Paris prompted the public prosecutor to seek prior restraint. The information that it was the offer of a riding habit that decided Emma Bovary to put herself in the path of almost certain adultery is a secret that nobody really has the right to know, not, certainly, in the real world. There is a tremendous violation of privacy here. That’s what novels are for, you might say. And, if you did, you might begin to understand why there was so much resistance, in the Nineteenth Century, to the reading of novels. I had to know what “riding habit” was in French, and here’s the great joke: it’s amazone.

L’amazone la décida.

I have no idea if Flaubert’s term was facetious or slangy, or if it is really what equestrians of the day ordinarily called a riding habit for women. I’ll look into that later. But presumably the term was readily comprehensible when the book was published; Flaubert didn’t expect readers to tap their neighbors and ask “what’s an amazone, eh?” The joke is that Amazons are, if not virgins, then certainly women who prefer to avoid the company of men. An ironic vestment for Emma Bovary! And an untranslatable  bon mot.