I think we have all heard of the Spanish greeting “mi casa es su casa”. In Arabic there is an exact same proverb which goes something like this: bye-tee bye-too-keh (my house is your house). And in English we have the all-encompassing “Make yourself at home” to mean something similar. Why then does the old Italian adage liken house guests to the ichthyological species with its “Guests are like fish — after three days they smell”? There is more than one way of looking at this statement but it does rather put the house guests in a bad light, whichever stance you opt for. What was the reason for such Italian surliness? Was it an outright lack in social graces and hospitality …. or?
The way I understand it, travelling was a slow and arduous task before trains, motorways and aeroplanes oiled the ways of geographical meandering. Visits from friends and family might not have been so frequent and thus would have been truly cherished. This would have meant going out of one’s way and bending over backwards to make the honoured guest’s stay as enjoyable as possible. The guest would need to be pampered and slaved over and served only the very best. I think that it was a hostess’s duty (let’s face it, it was always the women who had to work the hardest) to make sure all the stops were pulled and that the family, as a whole, made a good impression on the guest(s). All this to say … it would have been bloody hard work! Work that the hostess wouldn’t have minded undertaking if it were for people she loved – but imagine if the guests in question were of the formidable kind! Yikes! Think Jane Austen. Think nasty mother-in-laws! Think of all the cleaning and preparation even before the guest arrived, then the non-stop entertainment and looking after the guest in every possible way. It would have been all rather intense. And three days would most certainly have been the healthy limit.
This is not a proverb I grew up with, although I certainly heard of it. It applied more, I think, to an older generation that had to respect social markers and behaviour very strictly, with little or no room for casualness. For us, instead, guests were welcome and fun! And that was also because guests would be expected to fall in with the family’s commitments and lifestyle, and not be treated like royalty. Things got a lot more casual after the 1950s and routines could be stretched to make a guest’s visit enjoyable for all concerned, much more relaxing in terms of expectations.
When a few months ago, I looked at the calendar and realised that we would be having various friends to stay, non-stop, from May 3rd to June 2nd, I drew the conclusion, and not for the first time, that I might have missed my calling for the hospitality industry. I’ll be the first to admit I get my knickers in a twist just before a guest is scheduled to arrive, lots of things need to be planned and implemented and there is also the extra physical work. But then … isn’t that true of any valuable and pleasurable human endeavour? Even making love can take it out of you …
I love having friends to stay because … well … I have NICE friends, you see, who seem to like the same things I do, and that includes eating and drinking. They bring good cheer and stories and excitement. They ‘force’ me out of my routine when they stay with us and I get to do a bit of sight-seeing too. My to-do list does pile up but … in the end … I always seem to catch up after they leave. Having to look after guests means having to live in the near-and-now, and taking time to smell the roses and enjoy the moment. It is also thoroughly exhausting because more energy is required of us. It is sad when they leave. It is comforting to make a mental note of the many more memories added to a life album of shared experiences.
Anyway … all this to say that my friends don’t smell like fish at all. They actually BRING fish! Take a look at what friends from British Columbia (Canada) brought over with them a few weeks ago: Pristine, gorgeous Pacific prawns. We boiled them briefly and delved into a bit of 1970s nostalgia, preparing home-made mayonnaise to which we added tabasco, tomato ketchup and a little bit of brandy. I have the book “The Prawn Cocktail Years” by Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham, you know ! Nothing like gastronomic time travelling now and then! They also brought Pacific wild caught salmon. Call me a spoilt so-and-so but that’s all I will touch these days (even if it means I only get to eat it once a year). And my friend poached it in the oven, and served it with a dill yogurt and mustard sauce. (oh, and you can’t get dill around my parts so she had to bring that over too!). Simply divine. And then, one evening some time later … we were in Tuscany. And another friend joined us, this time from Boston. And look what she brought us! Lobster …! only it was cooked and not ‘live’ as it said on the special travel box it was packed in. Just look at these lobster tail beauties! Flowers on the kitchen table … Lobster salad being prepared to start with … Lobster pasta to follow ….!And there was still another tub of lobster left over.
We had that with an avocado salad the following day. Tuscany, friends and lobster. Could life get any better?