When my grandmother came to stay for the holidays, she would sweep up the driveway in a champagne-colored car with huge tail fins. Wearing rhinestone-studded sunglasses and an ancient fur coat, she’d spring from the car and shout, “Darlings! I’m here!” And then proceed to turn the entire house upside down, organizing extravagant shopping expeditions and surprise visits to the ice cream parlor. She’d been a silent film star and famous beauty in her day, and she always felt that if you’re going to do something, you might as well go too far.
Much as she enjoyed disrupting our sedate daily routine, my grandmother understood the fundamental social contract between hosts and houseguests. She believed it was the responsibility of all concerned to work diligently toward the mutual goal of creating a pleasant visit – with luck, an enchanting and memorable one – and to avoid the kinds of hideous disasters most of us have suffered through at one time or another. I’ve done my best to carry on her tradition, modernizing her principles into what I call the seven habits of highly considerate houseguests.
1. Read the invitation carefully. During the initial exchange of emails, your hosts have probably given you vital social cues. Don’t ignore them. For instance, I always make a point of mentioning to incoming houseguests that Sevillanos rarely speak any English, hoping to avoid those awkward moments when my guests stand at the bar shouting “Beer. Beer! BEER!” and eliciting blank stares from the camarero.
2. Be clear on the length of your stay. The laws of hospitality make it difficult for your hosts to specify time restrictions in a graceful way, so this part is up to you. More than once, I’ve had people arrive for a weekend and linger on for nearly two weeks. If not for their non-refundable plane tickets, they might be still lying on my living room couch, asking where I was taking them for tapas tonight.
3. Ask your hosts if there is anything they’d like from your part of the world. Although you can now occasionally find good chocolate chips at a few high-priced specialty stores, and vanilla extract can be mail ordered from Amazon, I'm still thrilled when guests show up bearing these hard-to-get items.
4. Start a common trip fund. Throwing matching amounts into an envelope and using that to pay for group activities saves all sorts of fuss.
6. Respect your hosts’ time, electronic devices, and financial position. Your friends and relatives are not on vacation and no doubt have responsibilities clamoring for their attention. Pitch in and help with housekeeping (doing the dishes is a great start) and avoid tying up their computer for hours playing solitaire. If they’re on a budget, don’t place them in the awkward position of spending more than they can afford on restaurants and sightseeing so that you can have the trip of a lifetime.
7. End on a high note. Treat your hosts to a wonderful dinner, a great bottle (or case) of wine, or something else you’re sure they’ll enjoy.
With luck and a bit of effort, we can all be the kind of houseguests that people actually want to invite back for another visit.
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So yesterday I was making my rounds of the shops in downtown Seville, collecting last-minute essentials such as gift tags and stocking stuffers. I was buzzing along towards store number five, thinking that I was doing pretty well, when I glanced down and realized that I had the last store’s plastic shopping basket slung over my arm, filled with ribbon for which I had neglected to pay.
I skidded to a halt, did a u-turn, and raced the two blocks back to the store, sure that at any moment I’d feel a policeman’s beefy hand on my shoulder. I burst through the doors, heart pounding, trying to remember the Spanish for, “It was an honest mistake!” and “Let me call my lawyer!” Everyone proceeded to ignore me completely. No alarms sounded, no staff members looked up, the other shoppers paid me no heed whatsoever. I could have absconded with my loot unmolested, pulling off the Great Ribbon Robbery of 2014. Instead, I went to the register and paid up. Which I’d intended to do all along – honest, officer!
It’s easy to get a bit frazzled during the holidays and to feel there aren’t enough hours in the day. To give us all a bit of break, I’m making this post very short, and taking next week off from the blog. I will be back before you know it.
In the meantime, may you be wildly successful with any last-minute shopping you may be doing.
May all your meals be feasts in the company of people you love.
And may this season be full of warm memories that will last a lifetime.
One December, while having lunch in Seville with a British friend, I mentioned that I’d just finished composing my annual holiday letter, and he looked at me in astonishment bordering on horror.
“You actually do one of those?” he said.
“Well, yeah. It’s a great way to keep in touch with friends and family in the old country. I take it you don’t?”
“I can’t imagine anyone who would want to read about my year,” he said. “Except possibly my mother.”
I started writing Christmas letters 28 years ago, when Rich and I left California for Cleveland, Ohio. “I hear our old friends in San Francisco are referring to us in the past tense,” I told Rich. “Let’s remind them we’re still alive and kicking.”
When I moved to Spain, I yielded to the convenience of sending electronic letters to faraway friends and family, but to date I have resisted the temptation simply to email them links to my social media. I’m sure future generations will find the idea of sending an email with a pdf attachment impossibly quaint, and wax nostalgic about the olden days when there were facets of their lives that weren’t auto-posted online as they occurred.
If you’ve never received an American-style holiday letter, let me explain that they are a very mixed bag. The good ones make you laugh, cry, maybe feel a bit sentimental. The bad ones are excruciating – dull, self-aggrandizing recitals of the accomplishments of the entire family, including pets. “Snowball won a prize as the best little volunteer in the Smooch-a-Pooch booth at the cancer benefit . . .”
A holiday letter is a fun way to keep in touch, but there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about such details as content, tone, style, and the whole point of the exercise. Here are a few helpful hints I’ve gleaned over the last 28 years.
1. It’s OK (preferable, even) to write opening sentence that doesn’t put people to sleep. Every year, millions of these missives begin, “Wow! Another year has come and gone!” or “One of the blessings of the season is the chance to connect with friends and family!” Seriously, everyone on your Christmas card list already knows these things. What’s the zippiest part of your message? The story about your kid falling off the stage during the talent show and finishing her tap dance in the aisle? Start with that, and people will stay awake to read on.
2. It’s unkind to scare your readers. Few people want every gruesome detail of your grandmother’s gallbladder surgery, Fluffy getting neutered at the vet, or your divorce. If you must mention sober events, warn people in advance and keep it brief. “And now for the sad news. We lost our beloved canine companion, Mr. Snuffles, after thirteen years of good times.”
3. This isn’t the place for flagrant bragging. Yes, we all want to mention the year’s highlights, but keep it light, even a bit self-deprecating. “Thank goodness Betsy doesn’t take after me when it comes to technology; I can barely send an email, and she is now heading Google’s nanotech research. Whatever that is.”
4. Unless your readers are all professional psychics, avoid obscure references. “Bitsy and Scooter ... the City of the Tsars ... a case of greyana rakiya ... Need I say more?” Well, yes, you do. Who are Bitsy and Scooter? What and where is the City of the Tsars? And does a case of greyana rakiya require antibiotics or a corkscrew?
5. Leave ‘em smiling. The holidays are meant to be a cheerful antidote to the dog days of winter – those shortest, coldest days of the year. Your letter can be a way of wrapping a metaphorical arm around your friends’ shoulders, letting them know that they are not alone in this world, reminding them that they are loved. And that, as far as I am concerned, is the true meaning of the season.
Here’s wishing you all a mailbox full of wise, witty, and well-written holiday letters!
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During my long-ago vegetarian phase, I visited friends in Alabama and happened to be seated next to an avid hunter at a dinner party. He talked in a sweet, lazy drawl about his father showing him how to stalk, kill, and skin animals in the woods, and about how he was now teaching the basics to his little girl. I was too polite to pick a fight at my hosts’ dinner table, but I remember sitting there with a fixed smile and gritted teeth, simmering with unvoiced self-righteousness, knowing that murdering innocent creatures for sport was vicious, cruel, and utterly abominable behavior.
Then he added casually, “Of course, I eat everything I kill.”
And I suddenly saw hunting from his point of view, as an honorable way to put food on his family’s table, as taking responsibility for the killing that supported his life. I had grown up eating animals that other people had slaughtered, and I was sitting at that very dinner table wearing leather shoes. My misplaced sense of moral superiority evaporated in a split second, and I have been grateful to my dinner companion ever since. No, I haven’t started stalking my holiday turkey in the woods with a bow and arrow, but I now understand why good people might.
Surrounding ourselves with nothing but kindred spirits and likeminded people is comfortable, but it’s also dangerous, making it entirely too easy to view everyone else with disdain and then suspicion. I have friends who live in gated communities and exist in a state of constant, low-grade fear of everyone outside the walls. It’s as if they had chosen to retreat to a medieval castle and worried, every time the drawbridge went down, that the woman delivering the dry cleaning or the guy mowing the lawn was in the vanguard of an invading force. These friends live in constant, barbarians-at-the-gate vigilance, trusting, it seems, fewer people every year.
Getting out and meeting strangers – whether they’re from another country or just the other side of the wall – is the best way I know to let go of that kind of paranoia. As Mark Twain put it, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”
Spending time with strangers lets us explore the question: Are we really so different from one another? But how can we meet strangers in a safe and congenial environment – preferably with a glass of wine in hand?
One way to do it is through trendy, non-traditional dining experiences such as food tours, home restaurants, underground supper clubs, and pop-up eateries. "Best thing about Paris was not the Eiffel or the Mona Lisa," my friend Lindsay told me. "It was oysters and white wine in the Bastille district at 11am with a local." She found her local culinary guru through Vyable, a worldwide organization offering travelers (and locals) unique experiences in 900 cities. Researching an upcoming visit to England, my husband, Rich, discovered The Secret Supper Society, an in-home restaurant in North Oxfordshire offering informal, bring-your-own-wine gourmet meals, and The Underground Supper Club, which provides family-style dining in a decommissioned 1967 Victoria Line underground carriage in Walthamstow. For more ideas, check out Travel and Leisure's World's Best Secret Dining Clubs and Delish's Secret Dining Societies. Obviously these places aren't very secret anymore, now that they're on such high profile Internet sites, but many still manage to offer a speakeasy ambiance that spices up the meal with a little clandestine thrill.
Breaking bread with strangers – whether in our home town or on the far side of the planet – is often an enlightening experience. Not every chance encounter will revolutionize our thinking about hunting, eating, or any other subject, but by the time the dessert tray rolls around, we may have discovered something new about our companions, the world, and/or ourselves. I'd say that's worth the price of a dinner!
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I have not included any dining clubs (or indeed any products or services anywhere on my blog or website) due to sponsorship of any kind. The places and organizations mentioned here are ones I thought you might find interesting and useful in planning your own adventures.
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About Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. We've just complete a 161-day Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture — and our own.
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