Getting ready to have guests again

The pineapple:
a traditional symbol of hospitality
As we slowly emerge from lockdown, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to offer hospitality to friends and looking forward to having them back around my table at last. The French writer J-A Brillat-Savarin once wrote that "to receive guests is to take charge of their happiness during the entire time they are under your roof." That’s quite a responsibility, I know, but I also think it’s a privilege. We “take charge” of someone’s happiness when they have trusted us with it.

When my partner and I got together, we decided we wanted our home to be somewhere people felt able to show up uninvited, where they would always be welcome, regardless of the circumstances. It was a principle I was brought up with. Back in the days before phones in every home, when families couldn’t arrange a visit as easily as we do now, my Mum kept a stash of tinned ham and salmon in the back of the cupboard, ready to be turned into a sandwich supper at a moment’s notice should family or friends come round. I find myself doing the same now, with tins of pâté, jars of olives and bottles of wine. The foods have changed, but the principle’s the same.

The thought of guests arriving unannounced will fill some readers with terror. Perhaps you can’t bear the thought of people seeing your house untidy or think it disrespectful to receive guests into a home you haven’t cleaned. Making sure your home is clean and tidy is an important way to show respect for guests. Of course it is. When we visit people, though, we don’t look for an immaculate house, filled with the smell of lemon and spring flowers. We look for a warm welcome: open conversation, a 2-way sharing of news and a little refreshment. Unless the place stinks of putrefaction, I probably wouldn’t even notice, still less care, how clean the floor is or when the mirror was last polished. I'll save the cleaning for the days I've planned something special and relish the spontaneity of unexpected visits.

What should we do on those special days, then? Everything depends on your own tastes, interests and talents. You can’t take charge of someone’s happiness when you’re so far out of your own comfort zone that you’re no longer yourself. I love to cook, and I feel more relaxed in formal situations, so the best way for me to entertain is with a planned dinner. I can happily spend a day or two shopping, making ice-cream, baking pastries and laying out a beautiful table, but I hate the pressure my friends put on themselves to do the same when we visit. If informality is your thing, have the confidence to serve up a vast pot of vegetable curry with a sharing-platter of pakoras, dips and other goodies. If you hate cooking, buy in pizzas and set out a board game. Or host an impromptu gin festival by cutting up a selection of fruit, veg and herbs, buying in some posh tonics and telling everyone to bring a gin they think no-one else has tried.

A Bond-themed murder mystery
There’s a lot to be said for “making your own entertainment.” Music has such power to bring people together. Think how many of your friends listen to several of the same bands as you? My cousin plays guitar and lacks nothing in confidence. Family parties often involved him leading a singalong. His repertoire has changed little in 40 years, but there are now four generations who know the family take on what passes for backing-vocals to “The Boxer” and who get a little glassy-eyed remembering my aunt’s, slightly tipsy, dance to “Jamaica Farewell.” (I’ll pass over her mime to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot!”) If you don't sing, then throwing back the carpet, sticking on iTunes and having a dance can be very freeing. My Mum learned ballroom dancing in the front room of their small terrace house, and I was once taught a little flamenco at a party in a student house in Liverpool. For those who enjoy dressing up, there are various scripted murder-mystery kits on sale. You’d be surprised how well shy people respond to being someone else for an evening. Simple role-playing games like Werewolves can be fun, or you can organise a card school if you prefer a more focused style of game.

I’ll finish by coming back to my Mum. She once told me that there are two types of people: those who offer hospitality and those who wait for it to be offered. “Be one of the first, Paul,” she said. “They’re the happier ones.” Hospitality doesn’t have to be any more stressful than the pressure we put ourselves under. Good hospitality is simply a matter of inviting people whose company we already enjoy, to share time with us, doing the things we like, in our own home.


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