One of the most ghastly surprises of my expat life occurred during a convivial country barbeque shortly after we’d moved to Seville. Without warning, a Spanish friend called for attention and announced, “Now our American friends, Karen and Rich, will sing.”
This was horrifying on so many levels. I’m the least musical person on the planet, and (I say this lovingly) Rich is even worse. For a second I expected to look down, notice I was naked, and think, “Thank God, it’s only a nightmare.” When that didn’t pan out, I briefly considered hitching a ride to the airport and repatriating to America. But in the end Rich and I managed a hideously off-key rendering of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and everyone gave us pity applause and told us to keep our day jobs.
Incredibly, these same friends (clearly gluttons for punishment) continued to ask us to sing at other parties. It turns out that in Seville, as in many traditional societies, every guest is expected to contribute something to the evening’s entertainment. You are literally meant to sing for your supper — or tell a story, make a joke, juggle, or provide some other form of amusement. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be great, it just has to keep the evening rolling along.
Nowadays, meal-sharing apps and websites offer unprecedented opportunities to dine with locals in their homes. On such occasions, bear in mind that your social obligations don’t end with providing a valid credit card number. Don’t worry, you’re not required to juggle the dinner rolls or tap dance with a glass of water on your head (although if you do, I hope I’m there to see it). Most hosts have more modest expectations: that you’ll arrive with good manners, a friendly attitude, and a few entertaining ideas.
Tell a Joke
Are you good at telling jokes? I’m hopeless. I love storytelling and tossing out wisecracks but have a hard time remembering the kind of elaborate knee-slappers that start “these three nuns walk into a bar.” If you do tell jokes, consider your audience’s sensibilities and grasp of English. You’ll probably want to skip that hilariously raunchy political zinger you heard on Last Week Tonight and go with a more general crowd-pleaser like this classic.
Ask a Question
As you may have observed, if you get people talking about themselves, they’ll often emerge from the conversation thinking that you are a brilliant dinner companion. You might start by saying something nice about their city (“They’ve done a lovely job patching up the bullet holes in the main square!”) and asking if the region has changed much in recent years.
If it feels comfortable to shift to more personal topics, try out some of “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love” used in a scientific study on establishing intimacy.
Listen to the answers, ask follow-up questions, and pour more wine, because the conversation is going to get interesting.
You never know what you’re going to learn about your dinner companions. Rich and I once signed up online for a Palestinian meal served in a private apartment in Barcelona. We arrived to find the other guests were Germans visiting a relative who now lived in Barcelona with his Spanish wife. As dessert came around, one brother said, “Before we conclude the meal, why don’t we each tell a story?” He led with a humorous account of meeting his wife, another spoke of his travels, and then it was the 93-year-old grandmother’s turn.
She told a sweet tale of falling in love with her late husband when he was a young man in the service. “We were separated for many years, but we wrote each other and never lost hope…” I did the math realized with a start that her beau had been a soldier in Germany’s Wehrmacht during WWII. Now that was a granny with some serious backstory.
Sometimes our entertainments take us into deeper waters than we were expecting. And that’s part of the adventure of connecting with people from other countries. Reaching across the cultural divide opens the door to vivid new experiences, and sometimes the ones we find most challenging turn out to be the most gratifying.
Many years after the barbecue incident, that same group of friends took us to visit a nursing home in a Spanish village, and when we got to the main lounge, they announced to the assembled residents and staff, “Now our American friends will sing.”
As usual, this came with no advance warning, but by then Rich and I were always ready. Knowing that call-and-response songs work best, we taught everyone the fa-la-la-la chorus and launched into “Deck the Halls.” In no time, everyone was clapping and singing; a few even let go of their walkers to dance. No one cared that we couldn’t carry a tune or that they were singing a Christmas carol on a sweltering afternoon in August. Within minutes, the pleasure of raising our voices together transformed us from strangers into a circle of kindred spirits. And isn’t that the whole point of connecting with locals when you’re abroad?
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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