We’ve all heard of Southern hospitality. But have you heard of Mediterranean hospitality? Wow. What a difference.
I grew up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, of Egyptian-Greek descent. I took for granted how nice my mom was to all my friends when they came over after school, before a game, or for a sleepover. The kitchen was always stocked and she was quick to whip up a quick lasagna for the gang. She would do the same if anyone stopped by – plumbers, electricians, clergy, guests. It was an art to watch, which I took wholly for granted. One of my fondest memories was in college at the University of Virginia. I came home one weekend with a friend to ski. Maria loved the piles of fruit my mom would stock on the kitchen counter. Before we left on Sunday afternoon to drive the hour-trek to Charlottesville, Mom loaded Maria down with about a half-dozen mangoes. It was a small gesture, but one Maria never forgot. With a smile, a baklava piece and mug of tea, Mom managed to put anyone at ease who walked through her doors.
My mom, perhaps innately, perhaps taught, understood the art of being a good host and making all feel welcome. I thought I did, too. By the time I was in my mid-to-upper 20s, I had a professional career as a consultant and then in corporate finance. The guests who came to my home, I offered a drink. I usually said something along the lines of “can I get you a drink?” Which 99% of the time would prompt my guests to politely decline. I dropped it at that and we got on with the “business” at hand – be it installing cable, fixing a water heater pump, or flipping open the laptops to work on a PowerPoint deck.
Fast forward a few years and I found myself on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea (funny how life works sometimes, isn’t it?). Once I got over the brilliant sunshine 300+ days per year, the dazzling blue waters a couple of miles away from my house, and the insanely, naturally beautiful men and women around, I began to learn the culture.
Firstly, pop-ins are not only acceptable, they are wholly encouraged! My home in Cyprus was located on a quiet street in one of the closest suburbs of the city, a stone’s throw from the private English school where my children, and many of our friends’ children, studied. My home became the resident “pit stop” for many moms/dads, if they had to pick up one child at 3:30 PM (normal school closing), but then the other child had an extracurricular activity until 4:30 PM. Pop-in time! This happened at least twice per week, and my kids loved it, as they had a chance to play with a friend for an hour; while I had a chance to catch up with a friend.
A few things I learned while living in Cyprus – both popping in and others doing the “popping in” to me (does that even make sense?!)
- I worked while in Cyprus. My children would go to school, and I would follow them out of the house. Most days, breakfast dishes were waiting for me when I returned at 3:30 PM, with the kids (and perhaps some friends, too) in tow. If possible, sit in the lounge or on the deck, away from the mess if it is distracting to you.
Your home doesn’t have to be clean! No one cares if your home is a mess, if it’s dusty or if you hadn’t done the dishes. No one is looking, and if they care, they should call before they stop in.
- Within the first 5 minutes of arriving, offer food and/or drink to your guests! Allowing a guest to go thirsty or hungry in your home is a huge no-no in the Med. See below for suggestions on what to serve.
- Always offer a drink – coffee, espresso, tea, lemonade, wine. These were my staples. And I wouldn’t take a polite “no, thank you” decline as an answer. The best way to handle this is to make a drink for yourself. This automatically puts your guest at ease. In the summers, I would pour tall glasses of handmade lemonade (I pressed the lemons into a syrupy squash and it sits in the fridge for weeks, months. All you need to do is add a bit, top with water to taste. Fantastic.) I can provide a lemonade squash recipe in a future post. In the winter, something warm – we brought in Starbucks beans from the States, and they were always a hit for our friends in Cyprus. Make a fresh pot, chatting with friends on my balcony overlooking the Med, and enjoying the aromas of a fresh brew – those tickled most of our five senses and we connected.
- Pull out some food for guests to nibble on. This was a learned trait. It is not part of our culture in the West, yet the simple act of sharing food is innately critical to building relationships. Unlike my mom, I wouldn’t cook a meal for an unexpected guest. However, I did make sure that there was something stocked in my pantry, fridge or freezer that I could use at a moment’s notice. In a pinch, I had a pre-made cake for when serving coffee, espresso or tea. In the warmer months, I would pull out fresh strawberries, dried fruit, or a plate of olives and cut cheese.
Yes, none of this is necessary; but it is really, really nice. Like cranky babies, aren’t we all more pleasant to be around if we are not thirsty or hungry?