Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It’s a time of family and food and celebration and the hot summer weather is finally over and it’s replaced by the beautiful fall colors and the cooler weather.
It was late summer 1976 and I was going through a breakup after a 6 year relationship with Joni, a lady I moved to Chico with from LA. She was a very nice lady and I still loved her very much but I was still a young man and going to Chico State where there were a lot of distractions. After getting drafted at 19 years old and two years in the army including one in Vietnam, I felt like I needed to be free. Joni and I were both very busy going to school full time and working and not really spending a lot of time together when one September morning she told me it would be better if I moved out. It was very painful but I found a room a couple miles away and we both started going out with other people.
I met a lady named Sybille one night while dancing with some friends at LaSalle’s. She had a very pretty face and bright blue eyes and long blond hair. She was on a student exchange program from Freiberg, Germany, a city close to France. She had a great laugh, a cute accent and a sexy body. Because of her accent I didn’t realize her name was Sybille. I thought she said “Zabella” with the emphasis on the Z and that’s what I called her until she finally wrote her name down on a piece of paper and I realized I had her name wrong but I couldn’t help myself, I still called her Zabella anyway. At first she didn’t like it but I think after a while she got to like it cause she just laughed every time I called her that. We started going out and doing all the things college students do together like skinny dipping in the creek and biking and jogging through Bidwell Park and spending a lot of time together getting to know each other.
A couple of weeks later she asked me to go with her to an Oktoberfest in San Francisco. “Oktoberfest? What’s that?” I asked.
“Just come with me and I promise you, you’ll have a good time. You’ll love it”
At the Oktoberfest the beer was flowing and the music was blasting and we were polkaing like crazy and drinking German beer and eating schnitzel and pretzels and noodles and drinking more beer. We had a great time and when the Oktoberfest was over, Sybille asked me, ”What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”
“Well, that’s a good question. I don’t really have any plans.” Wondering if I was going to trust my old 1961 VW bug to make the 500 mile drive down to LA to see my parents and my brothers and other relatives when Sybille said, “Good, let’s you and me celebrate Thanksgiving together.”
“Ah…Okay.” I answered and then I asked, “Do you celebrate Thanksgiving?”
“No but I know you do so let’s do it together.”
“Okay.” I said again but I felt a little strange realizing that this would be my first Thanksgiving without being with family except for the time I was in the army and those were not especially fond memories.
“What do you want to do for Thanksgiving? I asked Sybille a week before.
“I’ve got some friends I’d like you to meet and I’ll invite them over and, don’t worry, we’ll have a good time.”
“What should I bring?” I asked.
“Bring some good German Beer.”
“Okay.” I answered wondering if Lowenbrau was good German beer.
Thanksgiving day came and I went over to Sybille’s small first floor apartment. The kitchen smelled good as I handed Sybille the Lowenbrau and she looked at it and said, “What’s this?”
“Ah, good German beer, no?”
She looked at me, put the Lowenbrau down and handed me a beer with a label I couldn’t read and I took a sip. “Whoa, this is some strong stuff. What is it?”
“Ah, it tastes a little bit like bananas.”
“Yes, that’s good, huh? You like, no?”
“Oh, yeah, it’s very good.” I answered as I put it down because I don’t like the taste of bananas and I went looking for the Lowenbrau.
“So, where’s everybody else? Are your friends coming?”
“Well, I’m not sure who’s coming except for this one guy I know named Abdul. He said he’ll be here for sure.”
“Yeah, he’s from Saudi Arabia and I think he likes me.”
“Oh… that’s nice… What ya cooking?” I asked.
“Oh, this is a special day so I’m making a ham with apple strudel and weisswurst and frankfurters and green beans with onions, lots of peppers and lots of garlic.”
“Oh… No turkey?”
“No, this is much better for a special day.”
Sybille handed me another Weihenstephaner and turned on some German music.
There was a knock at the door, Sybille asked me to answer it and this stocky guy in a dark brown suit and bright red tie came in holding flowers. He looked blankly at me and said, “Where’s Sybille?”
I opened the door wide and the guy walked in and handed the flowers to Sybille and hugged her and kissed her on the cheek and told her how beautiful she looked. She introduced us and handed Abdul a beer. We started at each other and both knew that we had some competition for Sybille’s affection.
Sybille was cooking in the kitchen as Abdul and I tried to talk but his accent was so thick that I couldn’t understand him especially when he and Sybille began speaking in French with his thick Arab accent so I opened another Weihenstephaner and watched the football game on TV.
“Okay, dinner’s ready. Come to the table.” Sybille said.
Abdul asked what it was and Sybille said, “It’s ham with apple strudel and weisswurst and frankfurters and green beans with onions, lots of peppers and lots of garlic. All good German food.
Abdul looked at the food and got some green beans and some strudel and looked around at what else he may be able to eat.
“Don’t you like the food? Sybille asked.
“Ahh, well, I don’t eat pig.” Abdul answered.
“Oh…” Sybille said looking confused. What about you, Phil? I mean, I just remembered you’re Jewish and maybe don’t eat pork either.”
“Oh, I’ll eat whatever you make. You know that.” I answered.
“Good.” she said as she piled more ham on my plate and smothered it with lots of sour kraut and mustard.
Abdul ate his green beans and put some sour kraut on his strudel and tried to drink his beer but he didn’t eat or drink much.
“Sybille, would you speak in German? I’d like to hear what you sound like in your mother tongue.”
“Oh, I’d rather not.” Sybille answered.
“Please. I’d really like to hear you speak German.”
I looked at Sybille and realized I’d never heard her speak German either.”
“I’d really rather not.” Sybille said again.”
“Please. I’d really love to hear you speak German.” Abdul repeated.
“Okay.” And then Sybille said something very quietly and very softly in German and I smiled at her and felt my Jewish hackles rise up on the back of my neck but I only smiled at her as I ate my ham and sour kraut and drank my German beer.
Abdul looked at her and smiled and then Sybille began speaking louder and with more confidence and she smiled and went on for a few more sentences.
Suddenly Abdul blurted out, “Oh my god! You sound just like Hitler!”
I about crapped my pants. I couldn’t believe he said that, even though I must admit I was thinking the exact same thing.
“Sybille immediately stopped speaking in German, lowered her eyes, bowed her head and said, “Oh, please don’t say that.”
I felt sorry for Sybille but I didn’t know what to say as I felt the hackles on the back of my neck finally going down while I looked at Sybille’s pretty face tearing up and I held her hand and hugged her and just felt very uncomfortable not only for Sybille and the evening there but at how my life had changed in the past few weeks. I wondered what Joni was doing and I must admit I wondered what I was doing.
The rest of the evening was quiet and uneventful.
Sybille and I kept seeing each other until summer when the school year was up and it was time for her to go back to Germany. When I drove her to the airport and kissed her goodbye she asked, ”Will you come see me in Freiburg?” she asked.
“Ah…Freiburg?” I answered wondering how that would be and how I’d be able to afford it.
“Yes, please come. You’ll love it. It’s very beautiful and I can show you my home and the Black Forest and we can travel all over Germany and France. Please come.”
“Ah, sure, I’ll be happy to visit you in Germany.” I said as I looked at her pretty face and wondered if I’d ever see her again.
We wrote letters to each other and she asked me when I was coming to visit her. I wrote back that I’d try to do that soon. The following summer, after the school year was up I applied for a writing scholarship to Schiller College, a German school on Paros Island which is a Greek island in the central Aegean Sea. It’s in one of the Cyclades island group. I was accepted and spent the summer in Greece and traveling through Europe. When I got to Freiburg I found Sybille’s house and I excitedly knocked on her door hoping to surprise her. A guy answered the door and said, “Sybille left last month. She won’t be back until late September.”
“Oh.. Where did she go?”
“She went to America.”
Oh…Do you know where?”
“Yes, I told you, she went to America.”
“Ahhh… Do you have her address or her phone number?”
“Well, would you please tell her Phil stopped by?”
He looked at me, shook his head and closed the door.
My ticket back home was for September 23rd. It was a special rate ticket that couldn’t be changed.
I flew home and never saw or heard from Sybille again.
That November I drove my old VW bug to LA and had Thanksgiving with my mom and my dad and my brothers and their families and I wondered what Sybille was doing. I chuckled and smiled to myself thinking she’s probably eating ham and strudel and weisswurst with lots of sour kraut and drinking Weihenstephaner, that banana tasting beer.
My mother looked at me and said, “You look happy, Phil. Are you seeing anyone, Phil”
“Oh… no one in particular.”
“What ever happened to Joni?”
“Oh, she’s still in Chico.”
“Well, why don’t you two get back together? You were both so much in love.”
“Oh…well… she got married last year.”
“Oh, she did? To who?”
“A guy name Robert.”
“Robert? Not your good friend Robert?”
“Yeah, my good friend Robert.”
We were both quiet for a moment and then my mom said, “Why’d you ever let her go?”
“Well, you know how it is. I guess it was just bad timing.”
My mom just looked at me, smiled softly and said, “Well, it’s good to have you home, Phil.”
I looked at my mom and said, “Yes, it’s good to be home, Ma.” and I thought of Sybille and Abdul and the strangest Thanksgiving I ever had and smiled and chuckled to myself some more.