Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Host Like in Most

Most, I see, is a city in Czech, but it will do for my bad pun as Czech is in Central Europe. And today's HT of the D is Central European standards of hospitality, which I started thinking about again yesterday.

I come from one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and when you grow up in such a city, you naturally start noticing and cataloguing cultural differences. You learn not to take everything personally and also such lore as that whereas it is not necessarily a big deal if your Canadian boyfriend invites you to his fourth generation Canadian parents' place for supper, it is a big fat deal if your friend's boyfriend invites her to his Italian parents' place for supper. If the Canadian son of Toronto Italian parents exposes a girl to the eyes of his relations, that means he is serious abut her because otherwise he will never hear the end of it.

Canadian (and, as far as I remember, American) hospitality is warm, friendly and informal.The standard Canadian attitude is that you want to make guests feel at home. We usher them in and say "Make yourselves at home". We set a plethora of dishes on a buffet table, with plates and forks conveniently on one end and say, "Help yourself!"

The implication is that your guests can eat as much or as little as they like, with no pressure from you. You will not be mortally offended if they eat only a little. You will be gracious if the shrimp salad disappears before you yourself can have any. The guests are offered back that which the act of entering your house may have lost them: their autonomy.

Or so I tried to explain to two young Central European nuns when they came back to our convent, grumpier than damp cats, from some Canadian family's lunch party. (I was a lay boarder, just so you know.)

"'Help yourself'," seethed the chattier one. "'Help yourself!'"

The quieter one just sighed and shook her head sadly.

The fact that they were so shocked and offended at being told to help themselves very much surprised me as they were the merriest, friendliest, youngest nuns I had ever met. They spread cheer wherever they went; I would not be surprised if they won new postulants to their order with their attractive personalities alone.

However, I am a Torontonian born and bred, so I thought at once that there must have been some cultural misunderstanding. I asked them what hospitality looked like in their country, and lo.

In their country your host or hostess (mostly the hostess, I suspect) is transformed for the duration of the party into a particularly attentive server. She greets the guests; she takes their coats; she sits them down; she brings them drink and food where they are; she asks them if she can get them anything else; she refills their cups; she refills their plates; she dotes upon them like a mother welcoming her sons from home from the wars, or like a mother hen brooding over her chicks. She never says "Help yourself" because it is her job to help them. As the Poles say, "Guest in the house; God in the house."

After I heard this I very much wanted to go at once to Central Europe to be treated like God. And, indeed, I did later visit these nuns, who so badly wanted me to visit that they paid for my flight from Germany and met me at the airport and rented a car and spent an entire weekend entertaining and feeding me. (Their richer Canadian sisters shrieked with horror, sent them a cheque to cover the costs of me and then told me what they had done--which made me feel terrible.)

It also occurred to me that this might be why--as I had heard--Central Europeans aren't as casual with invitations as North Americans are. It must be awfully tiring to be a Central European hostess. It can be tiring just to host formal dinner parties in Scotland, which I do often, and very much enjoy. However, I think Central European standards of hospitality are admirable and worth emulating.

Of course, there is a right way and a wrong way to do this. The impression a hostess wants to give is of graciousness, not of a mother (unless the guests are twenty years younger) or a broody hen.

I can hear in my inner ear someone objecting that "But this isn't Central Europe and Central Europeans should just get with the program." However, I would counter that it is the first duty of a hostess to make a guest feel comfortable, and that means taking into consideration cultural differences. Very possibly the high value Torontonians place on considering cultural differences is what has kept the entire place from seething with constant race riots, Koreans and Persians and Czechs and Italians and Chinese and Serbs and Croatians and Indians and Pakistanis
all killing each other on the subway.

Meanwhile, I am still smarting from the humiliation of having heard from a Polish friend that she was invited to a flat of Scottish students for supper, and was not given anything to eat. This is especially terrible because Scots have an undeserved reputation for being cheap (and in Germany sales are called "Scottish" sales). And therefore I Seraphic, being married to a Scot, prefer to go a bit overboard when Central Europeans come to supper.


Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

This reminds me of a story an American lady told me once about some relatives of hers. I guess the husband was a farmer and there was some sort of cultural exchange whereby a number of American farmers visited Russian farmers (I think this may even have been in Soviet times). He came back and told his wife about Slavic hospitality (in my experience, Slavs are like this, and as a Slavic American, I try to balance the two). Well, Russians eat their big meal in the middle of the day, and Russian mamas will keep feeding you and feeding you - soup, salad, bread, meat, do you want more? here, have some - etc.

Well, then it was the turn of the Russian farmers to visit America, and when they got to their home, she put out a big meal midday, and the Russians were thrilled. Everyone else, they explained, had given them sandwiches like a picnic. It didn't seem that hospitable to them at all.

It's not just Poles who have this - it is still in most Slavic cultures, and I would guess this old style hospitality was in most cultures until fairly recently. My African host mother for a month studying abroad would always put more in my section of the shared plate the minute I made any sort of headway. I appreciated the spirit, so I try to be solicitous but not so pushy (real traditional mamas can get away with it - but I don't want to come off like a mama or a pushy girl).


berenike said...

Bit weird to invite someone to *supper* and not give them anything to eat. Perhaps it was some kind of concept event?

Kate J said...

Well, this clears up a lot for me. My ethnic background is mostly Czech/Polish, but I married a mostly English/Irish fellow. My first impressions of his family were that they did not care much for the guests, while his impressions of mine were that they were "way overboard" and food-focused. Yet, we have striven to meld the best of both worlds and have gotten along. I think it helped that I had been a foreign-exchange student in high school.