Confessions of an expat hostess

The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Bubble guy

I’ve always loved having people come to stay. Because I’ve spent my entire adult life living “away from home”, having visitors has always meant two things:

1)    A chance to spend some proper time with people that I love but get to see far too infrequently.

2)    An opportunity to show people around a place that they may not have visited before.

The older I get, the more I love playing hostess and tour guide. I decorate rooms. I draw up itineraries. I plan menus. I seem to have completely outgrown my old “let’s just book a flight and see what happens” holiday ways, as it seems to me now that if you just wait to see what happens, more often than not, nothing happens at all. I used to think that planning was the enemy of serendipity, but now I find that spontaneity arises more easily out of a loosely structured plan than out of a fog of optimistic indecision.

There are times when my planning works out well for me, and, I can only hope, for my guests. When M and I were living in Israel it was incredibly easy to show people a good time. After a trip to Masada, a dip in the Dead Sea, a day or two of discovering the historic sights and souks of the Old City of Jerusalem, and a walk along the sandy beaches of Tel Aviv, we’d suddenly find that a long weekend had passed with eventful (and sometimes even educational) ease.

There are other times when circumstances conspire to make me a less than relaxed hostess. Take the last year, for example. I would have thought, before moving into probably the biggest and most beautiful house that I’ll ever have the good fortune to inhabit, that welcoming guests into such an abode would be a doddle. And I’d have expected that living in the midst of the extraordinary beauty of Savoie would make it easy to decide where to take people. And that having easy access to some of the world’s finest food and wine would make catering for guests the biggest pleasure in the world.

Unfortunately it didn’t really work out that way and I can only apologise to the people who have come to stay with us in the Chateau de Collonges. Do you remember that scene in Groundhog Day where Phil and Rita built a snowman? In his frenzied desire to show what a fun-loving, likeable chap he is, Phil comes across as something of a weirdo. Let’s have some fun! he giggles. Come on! Ha, ha, ha, ha! Hey, here’s a humdinger over here! Hey! Wasn’t that great?!

I’ve been a bit like that.

Isn’t it beautiful?! Let’s go and see this amazing place! I know you’ve just flown from the other side of the world but forget about your jet lag! Stand right there to pose for a photo! No, not there! There! You love this fine French food I’ve found for you, don’t you? You don’t? But how could you not! It’s great! Yum! I love everything here! It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Ha, ha, ha! Aren’t we having fun?!

I blame the hormones. And the lack of alcohol. And I thank those of you who have visited from the bottom of my heart for saying that you’ve had a good time in spite of my frenzied regime of enforced fun.

Thankfully, there are also times when everything works like a charm in spite of my obsessive planning and feverish quest for amusement. Last weekend, when seven members of my family flew in from Inverness and Amsterdam to help M and I celebrate my birthday, was one of those times. Everything was so simple and so beautiful. My nephews, who are at ages where society might expect them to be sullen and withdrawn, were curious, interested, charming, intelligent and gracious. My niece, who at nearly-three could be forgiven the occasional temper tantrum, was cute beyond any reasonable expectations of cuteness. M and my brother-in-law coped valiantly with the inevitable emotional intensity of any gathering of my family that involves more than one person. And my siblings… Ah, they were my siblings. Having two of them around made me miss the other three even more intensely than I usually do, but apart from that, having them here, walking my Daily Walk and talking our incredible talks was the most fantastic of birthday gifts.

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There were many perfect moments over the three days that they were here but two, I think, will stay in my memory forever. The first was when we happened upon a guy on the shores of Lake Annecy who makes a living out of blowing giant bubbles. Using two sticks, a bit of old rope and his own secret-recipe solution, he creates what my sister Luli gorgeously described as magical trees in kaleidoscopic bubbles. He’s made sticks to suit people of all sizes so everyone got to have a go, as M and I stood back and watched the smiles of our family and of every single casual passer-by. I’ve had over a week to think about it now and still I can’t think of a better way to earn a living than by making big bubbles and beautiful smiles. Thank you, bubble guy.

The other moment was during our lunch in Annecy. I’d planned to make confit de canard for dinner that night, so rather than having anything heavy for lunch, we just bought sandwiches from one of Annecy’s fantastic sandwich stands. We had planned to eat and walk, but somehow, without discussing it, all nine of us ended up stopping at various points along a bridge across one of the canals that give Annecy the nickname of Venice of the Alps.

It was cold, and all of us, apart from my unbelievably hardy Scottish nephews, were wrapped in coats, scarves and gloves against the chilly wind. I looked across from my vantage point on the bridge and saw eight people that I love, quietly eating their sandwiches and taking in the gorgeous sights of this historic town. My twelve-year-old nephew was feeding crumbs to the seagulls, which swooped over our heads, their wings like sails taking them across the water and on towards tourists with tastier treats. Occasionally a couple of us spoke. My sister Luli, also recognising the gorgeousness of the moment, at one point took a little video of the scene. But mostly we all just stood there. Quietly. Just being in this beautiful place. Eating our simple delicious sandwiches and watching some of the people we love being together and apart and cold and warm and quiet and contented.

I was very spoilt for my birthday and was given many gorgeous gifts. And of all them, that moment was the one that I’ll keep inside and enjoy forever.

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My Old Man’s a Dutchman

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs
and returns home to find it.

George Augustus Moore, The Brook Kerith

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My dad’s more of a philosopher than a scientist but even so it seems that he may have found a way of avoiding jet lag. To ensure that you’ll hit the ground running after a 24-hour journey across the world, all you have to do is emigrate from your homeland, live in a foreign country for 60 years, learn a new language, raise six kids and reluctantly retire. Then 60 years later when you fly back to the place where it all began, you’ll be so full of joy at being back in your mother country that the concept of jet lag won’t even occur to you, and you’ll spend a week running around the country with the energy of a man a third of your age.

OK, so the evidence may be apocryphal but that’s the way it worked for Dad when he flew in from Australia last week to spend four days in his hometown of Amsterdam and then travel south to see a live performance by his favourite musician in his hometown of Maastricht.

Last Monday morning at 6:00, I was waiting at the arrivals gate for Dad’s flight to come in from Perth via Kuala Lumpur, having myself flown in from Geneva the night before. This was to be the first time I’d seen Dad since I’d spent a month with him in Australia after the sudden death of his second wife eighteen months earlier. I knew that he was a little nervous about travelling alone so I was not just looking forward to seeing him but also anxious to make sure that he was OK after the long journey.

Passengers coming out at Arrivals 2 could exit from one of two doors, so I was standing back a little to ensure that I had a good view of both when a man approached and spoke to me in Dutch. Embarrassed as always about my linguistic incompetence I confessed that I don’t speak Dutch, at which point he seamlessly switched to English and said, I hope you don’t mind but I’ve been watching you since you were sitting over at that café earlier. Your face is so full of love, anticipation and excitement, I just had to come over and ask who it is that you’re waiting for. They’re very lucky to be so well loved.

Soon the man’s wife arrived, as did one very much loved Old Man, and I was relieved to hear that all Dad needed to recover from the flight was a nicotine fix. As we headed outside Dad filled me in on the details of his journey and I realised that I should never have had a moment’s concern about him travelling without a companion; a man of Dad’s charm and chattiness will never travel alone. People had gone out of their way to help him along the journey, showing him to his connecting flight and waiting with him as he collected his luggage at his final destination. Ah yes, I remembered, people are kind.

Once the fix was in we took a train into Amsterdam Centraal and then a taxi to the houseboat I’d got the keys for the night before. The taxi driver entered the one-way street on one side of our canal, the Prinsengracht, and was about to cross the bridge to go back the other way on the side of our houseboat, when Dad joked to him that he could just let us out there and we’d swim across. OK! said the driver, slamming on the brakes and waiting for us to get out. Ah yes, I thought, that Dutch sense of humour! I remember it now!

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I’d thought that Dad might be keen to get some rest after his epic journey across the world but the first thing he wanted to do when we got to the houseboat was unpack a gift he’d made for me and carted all the way from Australia. When we were kids, Mum and Dad had a nativity set that they’d set up every year in the fireplace of the house that we all grew up in, the house where Dad still lives now. (By some amazing coincidence of the orientation of the earth, it’s only at Christmas time that a small, rectangular shaft of sunlight shines down the chimney each year and falls directly onto the little baby Jesus in the centre of the scene. To six little Aussie kids in the seventies that seemed like something of a miracle.)

Now that Dad’s finally given in to the joys of retirement one of his hobbies is making nativity sets reminiscent of that one that we all loved as kids. I knew that he was making one for me and I also knew that he was going to the trouble of making it flat-pack so he could carry it in his suitcase. What I didn’t know was that he’d based the structure of my nativity set on the photographs he’d seen of the house that M and I are renting in France. Within minutes of our arrival on the houseboat, Dad had constructed an instantly recognisable Petit Chateau. We left it set up on the kitchen table for the four days we were there in Amsterdam, so that every time we got home to our little houseboat in Holland I also got home to my little house in France.

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Once the Petit Chateau was constructed, Dad was keen to get out and soak up some of the vibe of his old hometown. Within minutes of stepping off our houseboat we’d seen the famous Skinny Bridge and stumbled upon the De Magere Brug café-restaurant, which immediately became our local. It may only have been ten o’clock in the morning in Amsterdam but Dad was on Perth time and four o’clock in the afternoon was certainly not too early for his first Dutch gin of the day! It was also his first proper opportunity on this trip to chat with people in his mother tongue; at this little café and in every place we visited in the days that followed, I watched as Dad’s town and its people re-embraced him as one of their own, laughing with him and enveloping him in a warmth and solidarity that’s surely reserved for a returning prodigal son.

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One of our first intended ports of call after that liquid sustenance was the street that Dad’s family had lived on until they commenced the five-week-long boat journey that would lead to a lifetime’s stay in Australia in 1952. Dad remembered from his childhood that we could take a No. 13 tram from somewhere near Dam Square. When we looked around for a while and couldn’t see a tram No. 13 Dad started to wonder whether his 60-year-old memories might be muddled, so we got on another tram going vaguely in the right direction. Dad rapidly realised that we weren’t heading back to his old haunts, however, and after a long walk and a short journey on a metro train we were eventually led back to the correct tram – the No. 13 – which took us right to Dad’s old door.

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After Dad and I had spent four beautiful days in Amsterdam, the holiday got even better when one of my four gorgeous sisters flew in to join us from her home in Inverness. One of the first things she commented on was that the woman sitting at the table behind us in the airport café looked exactly like Dad’s sister. It was true; everyone in Amsterdam could easily have passed as one of my sisters, my brother, an aunt, uncle or grandparent. The twisted diphthongs and guttural consonants of the Dutch language were a strange and beautiful music to our ears too, reminding us as they did of our childhood.

When my sister and I checked Dad into his room near the Vrijthof Square in Maastricht, we sat around chatting and at one point got onto the subject of passports. I became a British citizen about four years ago but haven’t got around to getting my British passport yet so I still travel on an Australian one, and I also have a Swiss Carte de Legitimation. Dad also has an Australian passport, having decided just before his fifth child was born in 1970 (me, as it turns out), that he should be naturalised Australian to avoid being dragged away from his family in the (however unlikely) event that war should break out in Europe. And my sister, having been born to a pre-naturalisation Dutch father, has been able to claim on that heritage to get a Dutch passport. The irony is that Dad, a fluent Dutch speaker and the most Dutch man you’ll ever meet, is no longer able to get one of those, having renounced his citizenship all those years ago, although I have no doubt that with a few quiet words and a joke or two in the right ear Dad could manage to rectify that.

My now Dutch-Scottish-Aussie sister, (let’s call her Kalinka here, as Dad does), has decided that there’s something other than a nativity set that she’d like to have created for her in Dad’s wood-making workshop. Just as we were leaving Maastricht on our last morning in the Netherlands, she saw some ornamental Amsterdam houses in a shop window, and realised that there could be no more fitting gift from Dad than a symbol of his beloved homeland. She put in her request to Dad and he assures her that when he gets back to Australia her wish will be granted.

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I made a wish before I left the Netherlands too, though I’m not sure who will ever be in a position to grant it. My wish is that when I return to my hometown of Northam in 35 years from now, which will be 60 years since I first left, I’ll be welcomed back with the same warmth, joy and enthusiasm that Amsterdam offered to my Dad during our wonderful stay there last week. I think to have any chance of this wish ever being granted I’ll first have to ask Dad for some charm lessons… Oh, well. Happily I have  a few years to work on it.

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All that bumbles isn’t a bee

Beware the barrenness of a busy life.

Socrates

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Chewing the cud.

My father is a very hardworking man. Even now, a few months before his 75th birthday, he struggles to say no when work is thrown his way. When my siblings and I were kids, Dad was determined to instil this work ethic in us as well, and he found it infuriating if ever he came home during a mid-morning break from work and found us still lounging around in our pyjamas. His determination on this issue bore fruit, too; none of his six kids could ever be accused of being workshy. My problem now, though, is where to channel that work ethic when I’m not working. Where is the line between enjoying an unexpected period of affordable unemployment, and becoming, to use my dad’s vernacular, a lazy good for nothing so and so?

On the last couple of days, when I’ve gone on my One-Hour Daily Walk, I’ve had the irritating feeling that I should be using my walking time constructively. Yesterday and the day before, I stuck my headphones on and listened to French podcasts as I walked. This morning, when I didn’t feel like walking, I realised it was because I wasn’t in the mood for studying French. OK, I thought to myself, I’ll use the time to think about a tricky plot point I’ve reached in a story I’m writing instead. So I headed out the door, my usual sunhat replaced by a serious frown and an ill-fitting thinking cap, and realised about half an hour into the walk that I still wasn’t enjoying it as much as I usually do.

Then the thought occurred to me. It’s OK just to be at peace.

Much of the average life, it seems to me from this lofty position of unemployment, is consumed by the sense that if we’re not crazy busy, running around and seeing people and getting stuff done, then we’re not achieving anything. But how much of the stuff that we fill our time with is actually necessary or worthwhile? Should we really be complaining that ironing the tea towels is stealing away our leisure time, or should we just not bother to iron the tea towels? Do we have to be doing something specific with our brain during a daily walk, or is a daily walk constructive enough in itself?

When I was teaching English in Japan, an easy way of starting conversation classes was by asking people what they’d done on the weekend. One woman, whose children were growing up and becoming slightly more independent, often detailed all the housework chores she’d managed to tick off the list. On one particularly busy weekend, she’d managed not just to wash all the inside walls, but also to clean every individual picket on the white picket fence surrounding her house. Really? People do that? Another woman almost invariably said that she’d spent Saturday morning shopping for clothes. When I commented that she must have a lot of clothes, given the amount of time she spent shopping, she said that most weeks she ended up taking back the stuff that she’d bought the week before! We truly are all busy fools!

My Dad’s getting much better at chilling out these days. Next week he and I are meeting up in Amsterdam and we’re going to spend a week wandering around the streets of his home town, drinking Dutch gin and waving to the locals from our house boat. And I’m confident that not once will it cross my mind that I should be doing something more constructive.