“Entertaining At Home… It’s Like a French Kiss” and Other Odd Thoughts
When I got to Baku, I was on my own so I enjoyed entertaining in my flat. It was a way of making connections and feeling a part of the community. Though not palatial by any means, I loved the large rooms in my chosen home. And it was perfect for entertaining.
I hadn’t really thought how much I enjoyed having friends over until I began my fall cleaning yesterday, getting ready for the holiday season and the parties that we’ll be having for friends and family.
I came across a magazine article entitled, “Martha Beck Rescues You From Holiday Houseguest Hell”. What??? As an expat who would have sacrificed anything to have family visit, I can no more imagine this than being on the moon! Who are these people who view houseguests that way? Wow.
Martha posited that, “Entertaining at home, bluntly stated, is equivalent to a French kiss. Opening your house, like opening your mouth, exposes you to myriad ills.” A rather odd thought, but being open-mouthed, er, open-minded I continued reading… “So before anyone crosses your threshold, you’ve got to immunize yourself against various threats to your system.”
As expats, repats, and others who love to gather friends and family, especially at this time of year, I’m sure you are smiling at this piece of dubious wisdom from having survived some of the most interesting experiences around the world.
Case in point: our conglomerated international-bring-what-you-want (or who) you can Thanksgiving in Baku. It was put together at the last-minute and turned out to be one of the best memories by far. And no one had to be inoculated or resuscitated!
It started out when I was invited to our former Ambassador’s home for Thanksgiving. Jaye & Stan had returned to Baku after retiring from the Foreign Service and planned to have a welcome back Thanksgiving event for friends and family. They had two sons who were also still in Baku so their family would all be together, with significant others.
Ben & Taraneh were close friends in the NGO (PVO) world and I was by divorced by that time so I got tucked in to these events as well. We were expecting about 12 in all. They had a turkey coming by express delivery and had leased a local house with a proper kitchen- this would be the inaugural event, so to speak. All they needed was to get their furniture and household goods delivered… you can see where this is heading, can’t you?
Jaye & Stan had contracted with a reputable freight forwarding company in Florida without knowing that their man on the Baku side was just coming under scrutiny for defrauding a cultural program supported by the US Embassy- not a smart move! With their shipment in limbo, and arrival in doubt, Jaye worked on Plan B. I gladly volunteered so the event was moved to my place.I had a large dining room that connected to an even larger living room so space wasn’t an issue for any number of people, but table space was a concern as my dining room table only sat 8 with the leaf in. I had a little prep table in the kitchen, so I hauled that into the dining room and added another 2. Still short by a couple, I needed to get more creative.
Looking around at anything flat, the kitchen shelves were shaping up as a good option. I emptied 4 shelves of the canned and boxed goods, but without the little prep table, the only thing I could do was stack everything on the floor- not optimal in an 8×8 kitchen where a Thanksgiving dinner needs to be prepared… but if this worked, it might save the day.
I laid the shelves across the tables spaced just far enough apart to make a wood “bridge” with a couple of lumps on the ends- but it was sturdy enough, so we went with it. I now had enough space for the 12 guests. But not enough chairs- so we made this a BYOC party and everyone brought his or her own chair- a first for me, but hey, so was everything else about this!
In my little kitchen, I had a tiny gas stove that was 24″ wide with European “gas marks” instead of the Fahrenheit degrees I am used to. So I set about researching which “gas mark” would equal the degrees I needed to cook this turkey that Jaye & Stan were bringing. Jaye also notified me that one son liked giblets and the other couldn’t stand them so we needed to make two kinds of stuffing and gravy to accommodate each. Ok, can do!
Ben & Taraneh said they were bringing Jalapeno cornbread in honor of their time in Houston, as well as a family favorite, Iranian rice pilau (plov, pilaf) with potato “tadiq”, the crispy bottom pieces much-loved as the best part of pilau. This was a very international Thanksgiving for sure!
Potatoes were everywhere in Baku so that was easy. We could get butter and boxed UHT milk at the market for making mashed potatoes, salt and pepper were on hand too. (The only glitch was when Jaye walked in and found my kitty up on the countertop eagerly licking our stick of butter… Oops!) Gravy was possible if we had enough turkey juices, but enough for two kinds of gravy? That might be a challenge. I found some Maggi bouillon cubes in the Continental store and figured we could do anything with that on hand as a backup.
Lettuce was not something we saw in Baku very often. Only in the Ram Store occasionally from Turkey. So there would be no American-style salad, but vegetables were staples on the Azeri tables, usually in the form of peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, parsley, basil and garlic, among others. I missed yams or sweet potatoes but nobody else seemed to, so we were ok in that department.
By the time everyone brought their own chairs and silverware, it looked like we would make it fine. I had plenty of table coverings, even without resorting to printed bed sheets!
On the way over, somebody saw Michael walking on the street with his 3-year-old son who he had brought back from the UK for a visit. “Come over about 2:00- we’re having Thanksgiving at Jonelle’s flat- Bring whatever. Oh and bring your own chair!” Michael and son showed up at the appointed time carrying a tub of Iranian ice cream, “Bubble Gum” flavor… well, ok then. It was what his little one wanted to bring, so they did. And it fit right into this strange and wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. To resolve the new table space issues, we added the nightstand from my bedroom, propped up on books to bring it to table height, as one does, right?
Less Indian & Pilgrim thanks, but more grateful we could not have been. To have all these friends as family, it was truly a sight, and truly gratifying. The turkey was a little unorthodox-trial and error will do that, but we all got full and got happy (in a good way).
That day we laughed and talked, drank Azeri wine, Aussie beer, Iranian juice, and French Evian /Italian Pellegrino waters along with American Turkey. It was make-shift and make-do. But do we did. We made the too soft ice cream into milkshakes and settled into an afternoon of talking about football- since we couldn’t watch it on Deutsche Welle or Al Jazeera, the only two clear channels that day. (BBC would have been showing “futbol” anyway- soccer to us Americans).
So when Martha Beck starts jabbering on about how to “feel jolly about welcoming in every relative looking for a bit of holiday cheer,” I’ve got three words for her: Be An Expat! Then see how welcome a visit from family would be!
People who have never been deprived of family and friends, sacrificed to be able to contribute something good and noble, will never know the joy of making do so friends and family can spend a few hours or days with you once again. How we hang on every word of news from home, or treasure the magazines you stash in your luggage instead of trashing them at the airport.
I don’t know about being like a French Kiss, but it certainly is like love to me. Martha Beck says, “Entertaining at home, bluntly stated, is equivalent to a French kiss. Opening your house, like opening your mouth, exposes you to myriad ills.”
As I see it, either I’m kissing the wrong people, or she is entertaining the wrong ones!
If that thought doesn’t bring a smile to your lips when you answer the door to your holiday guests, I don’t know what would… Just a thought. XOX! Happy gatherings!