You Are Welcome Here
In my mind’s eye I’m always well turned out — dressed in a smart little skirt or dress and John Fluevog shoes. My eclectically decorated, shabby chic apartment is tidy but comfortably lived in, and there is always good, soft light streaming through the windows and interesting music filling the air.
The olive oil bottle, salt cellar, and pepper grinder on the counter beside the stove are always half full (a sign that they’re frequently used and frequently replenished), and the bowl on the island holds heads of garlic with several cloves missing, onions that have not had the chance to go soft, and citrus with a swipe or two of zest peeled away. The fridge is never without a bottle of sparkling wine ready to be corked.
There are flowers in a vase on the coffee table; they look relaxed, with stems starting to bow, and one or two petals might have already fluttered to the floor. A small stack of good books and magazines is piled next to my reading chaise and my living space smells pleasantly of lemons and basil, my two favourite scents to simmer together in an essential oil burner.
In other words, I imagine a life characterized by confidence, style, and joie de vivre. I imagine days fuelled by food, art, and beauty. I imagine a living space always ready for welcoming guests, a place where they will be surrounded by an easy grace and feel contented and well cared for, nourished, and engaged.
In reality, I do wear Fluevog shoes but I’m terrible at keeping them polished and buffed. My apartment never looks quite the way I’d like it to, and damn it if I can’t keep the floor consistently free of the dog’s hair and sand from our walks down to the beach. I routinely run out of olive oil and peppercorns in my grinder (for whatever reason, refilling the pepper mill is my most detested kitchen task — I can never seem to do it without pesky little balls rolling off in all directions), and the nice lady who runs my local flower market always knows when my mom is coming to town for a visit — it’s generally the only time I think to put flowers out. On the bright side, I do tend to keep at least one bottle of chilled sparkling wine on hand. Because you just never know…
In other words, there’s a pretty substantial gap between how I imagine my life and what it actually looks like. And I often use that gap as a rationale for why I don’t open my home to friends and family more regularly. Once I figure out what to do with that awkwardly furnished corner I’ll have people over, I think. I’ll host a cocktail party once I get a haircut. Once I get the china cabinet stripped and restained, I can really start to live it up.
They’re all silly excuses, of course, and I know the rebuttals to them all: Nobody’s coming over to look at your dirt and dust. It’s the company that matters, not the objects in the room. Stop imaging the life you want and start living it.
I know these things. I do.
But change is hard and once we’re set into a routine or way of thinking it can feel impossible to step out of it. It takes a significant event to shake us free of habits and tendencies that keep us — sometimes with our full, even if begrudging, participation — in their grips. An event, perhaps, such as a breakup.
Since May I have been living alone, the first time in twelve years. I bought a slip-covered couch and a chaise lounge. I framed three pieces of art that have languished in a cardboard sleeve for years. I put a pin-tucked duvet cover on the bed and I play classical music while I’m cooking dinner. I’m buying things and doing things that I haven’t for a long while because they weren’t someone else’s taste or because I just never got around to them.
It’s hard work, this change. Learning to live a different way — even if it’s a way you’ve wanted — means breaking down walls, overcoming fears, and reversing set patterns. For me it means remembering who I was before I became half of a couple, finding out who I’ve become after having lived in that coupling for over a decade, and discovering and determining who I’ll be as an individual. I have innate characteristics that will remain constant (I’m stuck with this competitive streak, outspokenness, and born-of-being-an-only-child need for periodic solitude), but I see this time as a rare opportunity for cultivating those traits and qualities I imagine myself having in that idealistic picture I hold in my head but have not yet brought to fruition.
One of those qualities is being a warm and welcoming hostess.
For someone who loves to cook and feed people, I entertain shockingly little. For a long time, something always seemed to be in the way: busy schedules, dusty floors, perceived lack of space, lack of coordinated, mutual desire to open up the house to others. Every year my silent resolution, to fulfill my potential for giving guests good food, good cheer, and good friendship, would elude me. And it’s left me uneasy, perhaps because it goes against my roots.
“There is a long-standing tradition in Eastern Europe of welcoming guests into the home,” writes Silvena Rowe in The Eastern and Central European Kitchen. “The hardships of daily life are of little consequence. No matter how small the apartment (and they are usually very small), there is always room for a guest. … The saying ‘When a guest enters the home, God enters the home’ … unites people of all the countries of this region.”
Interestingly, Eastern Europe takes after Spain, Greece, and Turkey in its penchant for sitting convivially at a table of small plates. Blini and caviar, cured fish and meat, pâté, pickled vegetables, cheese, and pastry collectively are called zakuski, which translates to “a mouthful to swallow with a drink,” and it is never too much trouble to lay such a spread out over a family’s best linen tablecloth and consume it alongside shots of the region’s proverbial vodka. (Incidentally, Rowe tells a story in her cookbook of dropping in unannounced at a home in a small Georgian village. The hostess, unfazed, produced a fresh, hot batch of khachapuri for Rowe. They ate it companionably outdoors in the sunshine.)
At the height of summer, in the hot and unforgiving sun, guests arrive parched and limp, and to revive them before the feasting begins it is customary to offer a cold glass of water accompanied by a teaspoon of preserves. Brought to Romania by conquering invaders from Arabic countries (there an interesting historical tracing of the tradition by the Culinary Anthropologist), this tradition sees the guest dip the thick preserve — called a fondant, or ?erbeturi — into the water, eat it, then drink the water to chase it down. The preserve can also be stirred through the water to flavour it before drinking, and favourite fondant varieties are made from fruit, rose petals, hazelnuts, and even coffee.
I like this idea of a small, sweet mouthful and a tall, cool sip to start a gathering of kindred spirits. It’s a tradition that honours the trouble people have taken to visit and hints that there is more to come from the host’s well-stocked pantry stores. Plus it’s a good prompt for pulling out the good glasses and using those special, tiny teaspoons that otherwise sit at the back of the drawer. It’s an elegant gesture, one that jibes rather well with the image I hold of myself of being the gracious hostess from whom everyone loves an invitation.
My life may never be as glamorous and chic, hip and intellectual, beautiful and exciting as I imagine. But it is going to be, I hope, warm and friendly and more me than it’s ever been. There will always be a glass of cold water with a teaspoon of rose preserve perched atop to offer you. It will let you know that you are welcome here, in my home and in my life. And more important, so am I.