Let me be clear: this article is not intended as a criticism of any of my guests, past, present or future, and nor do I wish to belittle the importance of hospitality when you are abroad. I have always been happy to welcome guests to my home, wherever I am in the world, and would do anything for them. However, there are a few issues associated with guests – any guests – that I would like to highlight, because they become an intrinsic part of your life as an expat
The unwelcome guest can become a real millstone that can drag you to the slimy depths of forced hospitality. Believe me, what I am about to write in response to Dreaded Question 4 comes not only from personal experience, but from discussions with countless expats who have all, at some point, received friends in their host country. So please do not be offended, dear guests, but try to understand that for people living abroad, particularly in prime destinations, the question of hospitality takes on a special significance. In my role an expert expat, I feel obliged to discuss it here. With heartfelt fondness, and as always, a large dollop of humour!
Translated and adapted from Italian by Paolaex
Living abroad is a great opportunity, not only for us, but also for our friends and parents, who can get to know a country in a very different, more meaningful way from your average tourist. The value of staying with people who live in the country is inestimable: they understand its reality, know how to get around, know what to show you, what to tell you, and above all, are willing to accommodate you. You don’t have to go through all the hassle of logistical hurdles, and on top of it all, the economic advantages are not negligible. And all this applies in particular to ‘difficult’ countries, or those which are well known for their natural beauty and cultural and artistic sites.
This is a hot topic amongst expats all over the world. You’ll often hear ‘I’m sorry, I can’t make it, I have guests’, or ‘I can’t mange it this week, my mother-in-law is staying.’ Dreaded Question 4 is actually more of a Dreaded Pronouncement. Let’s have a look at all it entails. It’s the one that goes ‘Hm, I think I’ll come and visit!’
It’s dreaded, among other things, because it doesn’t only come from close friends and family, but from other categories of people too: old school friends you had lost touch with (or thought you had), people who may have attended a yoga class with you or accompanied you out for a pizza once in a while, but who don’t really fit in the ‘friend’ category. Usually, your first reaction when you know someone in this category is coming to stay, is to say ‘Oh, but he’s a nice guy,’ or ‘Well, I haven’t seen her for a while; it’s a good opportunity to get together…’ but you know, deep down inside, that you’re just trying to convince yourself.
A quick aside here about relatives. It’s really hard to say no to relatives. I hope your family is as lovely as mine is, but it can happen (I know this for a fact) that you have one brother/cousin/siter-in-law/aunt/uncle who really is not your favorite person in the world. If this person were not family, you would happily tell them to stay home.
Then there are ‘vague acquaintances’: the milkman’s son you knew when you were a child, the choir-mate you haven’t seen since 1980, a colleague who worked with you for two months thirty years ago, your mother’s neighbour’s son who is coming to your host country to do some volunteer work … he could perhaps stay with you until he finds a more permanent arrangement, the friend of a friend who happened to be in your area … such a lovely person…a bed for a couple of days would be most welcome… and so on.
If all these people turn out to be as wonderful as promised then good for you. You will have added a new contact to your already vast circle, and you never know, what goes round may come round for you. But you may rather end up with a shackled, in which case, I hope you find some comfort in this article.
What happens when guests arrive
First of all, you need to get organized logistically. Guests need a bed and a modicum of privacy – both for yourself and for themselves. So you have to clear the guest room (where you probably store all your canvases and brushes if painting is your thing), you need to make the bed, clean the guest bathroom, and while you’re at it, clean the entire house, because you want to give your guest a reasonable impression.
Guests rarely actually come to see you (except for grannies: they genuinely come to see the grandkids, and haven’t the slightest intention of going to check out the famous cathedral). They come to visit the country in which you live, and are particularly happy if they can tour with you.
One more proviso before I continue: many guests can’t – or won’t – go about independently. They expect you to be with them, to organize their days, their tours, and even their meals. They might not say so straight out, but it’s a fact. These guests are the ones who show up in the kitchen in the morning, settle down to their coffee and toast, and never get up again. Or at least not until you (fed up with this prolonged breakfast) get up and say, ‘Hey, shall we get moving?’ There’s a delicate balance to be maintained here between not exacerbating the situation by ignoring them, and not being totally exploited. If you are skilled, you can alternate your tour guide periods with time slots for relaxing, by choosing destinations your guests can cope with autonomously – dropping them off and picking them up, for example, or sending them with a friend who happens to be going somewhere interesting.
Then there are the heaven-sent guests who only consult you for the absolute essential information, after which they organize their days independently.
Below you will find classic behaviors of unwelcome guests:
- Your guest knows your country better than you do. He’s studied the language, practices on everyone he meets, and keeps spouting ‘truths’ that he has learnt: ‘Oh yes, people in X are definitely miserly!’
- Your guest has the best music and wants to share it with you. You’re off to see the sights for the nth time, so you’re trying to get a moment to yourself to read the paper or your emails before you head out. In comes your guest with her i-pod, and sticks an earphone into your ear: ‘Listen to this one, it’s amazing!’ And there’s no cheating: you will be quizzed afterwards.
- Your guest wants to cook. Rather than letting you prepare something quick from the ingredients you have in your fridge, he will say generously: ‘I’m cooking today! My treat! Seafood cataplana with saffron, vermouth and sorrel. Delicious! We can stop and buy the ingredients on the way home.’ Your heart sinks. You can only get fish at the port, which is an hour’s drive away, smelly and crowded; you have one precious bit of saffron remaining in your larder; since you are in a Moslem country you can only buy vermouth at a special warehouse which is packed on Saturdays (today is Saturday); and as for the sorrel, what the hell is sorrel?
- Your guest is never ready to go out. When you have turned off your laptop, put away your book, made all the calls you had to make, prepared your bag and picked up your key, she’s still whistling away in the bathroom, drying her hair. ‘Oh, am I late? Just coming!’…and half an hour later, if you’re lucky, she appears.
- Your guest adores your kids. He’s interested in them. Back home in the evening, he’ll approach them as they’re happily watching TV or doing their homework, and will bombard them with questions, after which your kids hold it against you for the rest of your life, because you’re the one who put them in this position.
- Your guest wants to record every moment of her stay. ‘Smile!’ she’ll say, every five minutes, pointing her camera lens at you, or worse, stopping the first hapless passer-by and handing him the camera, grabbing you and grinning inanely.
But, as I mentioned earlier, some guests are heaven-sent. Your heart soars when they come into the kitchen, and you feel sad and empty when they leave. What is it that makes them so lovely?
- They understand that you aren’t on holiday, and that you therefore can’t turn your entire routine upside down every time a guest arrives
- They are happy to accept your suggestions and advice on what to do and see, but they already have some idea of what they want to do before they come
- They don’t get offended if you tell them you prefer not to accompany them to Harrison’s Cave because you’ve already been there fourteen times in the last two years
- They respect your time and your commitments, even if you don’t have a fixed job, and they are genuinely interested in the experience you are living in your host country
- They can differentiate between when you need a hand and when they should just sit and chat
Personally, I love it when people drift into our expat lives, bringing with them a whole different reality. And I’ve also discovered that there’s a great way of avoiding tension and misunderstandings: just talk. It might seem complicated, but it isn’t. It can actually be a relief for the guest to have the air cleared. You are right to expect guests to behave in a certain way, but you can’t expect them to understand all the ins and outs of living (and hosting guests) abroad. However, if after the chat your guest seems incapable of putting things into practice, you simply have to grin and bear it, and start the countdown to D-Day!
Happy hosting to everyone!