When you’re invited to an American home for dinner, you can arrive in the happy confidence that little more is expected of you than praise for your hostess’s cooking, a few carefully chosen quips about what’s wrong with the world, and, if enough wine flows, one or two of your more amusing stories. In other parts of the world, however, it often turns out you are, quite literally, expected to sing for your supper.
This is bad news for people like Rich and me, who are among the least musical people on the planet. It’s worse news, of course, for our poor hosts and fellow guests. Together with our friend Phil, Rich and I once cleared an entire karaoke bar in Kobe, Japan, in less than 15 minutes. After that, I decided to confine my singing to the shower. But when we arrived in the Republic of Georgia in the late 90s, we soon learned that during those lean years, entertainment was almost entirely homemade, and we were expected to do our share. Before we could say “karaoke bar,” we found ourselves belting out Yellow Submarine, followed by Help!
Several years later, when Spanish sisters invited us to a barbecue, we were still wiping the pork drippings off our chins when one of the sisters suddenly announced to the two-dozen assembled amigos that the Americans were going to sing. For a second I half expected to look down, notice I was naked, and think, “Well, thank God, it’s only a nightmare.” Unfortunately, it turned out to be real life, and I couldn’t refuse without appearing exceedingly ungracious. Rich and I floundered through “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and let’s just say nobody asked for an encore.
At least, not then. But these same sisters, obviously gluttons for punishment, have frequently ambushed us by making similar announcements to various other groups. The last one included the very elderly and infirm residents of a small town’s “third age” home. But by then, I had a strategy all prepared. “The song,” I said in Spanish, “is Deck the Halls. You will all sing ‘fa-la-la-la-la’ ... like this.” Soon everyone was singing, and fragile old ladies and white-haired men in drooping sweaters were dropping their canes and dancing (in some cases, lurching) around the room. Others kept time by banging their walkers on the floor, and soon I was making up new verses as I went along. No matter that it was a hot June afternoon, we really embraced the spirit of the season.
Finding ways to entertain your hosts and their friends without the aid of electronics is one of the civilized arts that may someday be lost altogether. But it’s still alive and well in much of the world today. On our travels we often carry puzzles, picture games, flip-books, simple magic tricks, and other props for promoting general merriment. But sooner or later, it usually comes down to singing for our supper. Because in every culture, it’s the simple pleasures – like watching people make fools of themselves – that transcend all cultural barriers.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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