Make yourself at home
Wooo – Happy New Year! Can I still say that? Is it too late? Well, I have done, so there. Hope it’s treating you well. Here’s my first post for 2011 – I aim to provide many more in the coming year 😉
As I walked towards the station on the 30th December, it dawned on me that I didn’t have the faintest idea what she looked like…
In true ‘African’ style (whatever that means), we were about to open our home to someone we’d never met before (the relation of a friend of a relation), for an as yet undetermined period of time. She’s from South Africa, so for some reason it seems less weird, though a little bit of the Britishness in me is creeping through and making me nervous.
In Botswana (and I believe in the rest of southern Africa), the general rule is that if you’re a female guest, you don’t stay with the men talking and drinking, you go and join the women cooking (and talking). It doesn’t really matter whose house it is, you all muck in. This is what I grew up with and it wasn’t until I went back and fell back into the pattern that I realised how much I missed it and remembered how uncomfortable it had been to get out of the habit in the UK. After many awkward incidents as a teenager, I finally settled on asking permission to assist the hostess, only if I knew her well and we were close enough for me to ask.
Going back to Botswana and once more being allowed to be useful felt so much more natural to me – so much more welcoming and normal than the reserve of being waited on in the UK.
Of course, that’s not what I was thinking about as I walked to the station. I was worrying about whether we’d make good hosts, whether we’d give her the ‘right’ New Year experience in Edinburgh, whether she’d have fun… whether she’d like us…
I don’t need to ask if it’s her, I can tell because she looks like The-Friend-Of-The-Relation. At least that’s one thing I shouldn’t have worried about.
“We’re going to the pub,” I tell her, because He’s there, and it’s on the way home. I think I sense some apprehension and I’m suddenly worried I’ve made the wrong decision. “Oh no! Have I just offended her? Maybe she doesn’t do pubs. Maybe we should go straight home? Or maybe I’m being paranoid. Sheesh! This is weird.”
We try to get to know each other a little on the way, we share a drink and try not to get stuck in small talk, we try to pretend that this is a perfectly normal thing that we all do, all the time. Everyone is very polite, and everyone fails to hide the fact that we’re all just a little bit tense. A short while later we arrive home. We settle her stuff down and I make a start on dinner.
“What can I chop?” she asks, and instantly I know we’ll be fine. I know how this goes – she helps out, makes herself useful and doesn’t have to worry about imposing, I know she’s doing something so I don’t have to worry about ignoring her and leaving her to be bored. Everybody wins, and we get dinner to boot.
We had a great few days getting to know each other and are firmly resolved to keep in touch and meet up again. I’m sure it wasn’t just the cooking, clearly we have other common interests, but that initial sharing of my kitchen, opening up our home for it to become hers, put something extra into the start of our friendship. It helped us both relax and be ourselves much more quickly than seems to happen when people have to play the roles of Host and Guest.
I know my time in Botswana will have altered me. Nothing so major and formal as a ‘Change’ but certainly an augmentation… There are a few things that are new, a few that had been forgotten but have now been remembered and I hope will stay with me this time. I hope this is one of them. So if you’re ever over for dinner take it as a good thing if I hand you an apron. And if you’re inviting me over, please let me chop!