Thursday, January 3, 2013

Hosting Lessons from Germany


The French aren't the only ones who understand comme il faut. 

French women get all the credit when it comes to throwing chic parties and entertaining.

Perhaps one of the most familiar gurus of French living is Mireille Guiliano, author of “French Women Don’t Get Fat.” This book was released in 2004 and quickly landed on the New York Times bestseller list. Clearly, we fat Americans are hungry for some cultural nourishment.

Yet most of my experience in living well comes from my German relatives. My mother's mother, Gertrude, immigrated from Germany in the summer of 1948. Fortunately, I still have relatives in Germany that I visit every few years. These visits are what kindled my interest in travel, culture, language, beer, food, and so much more.

One of the things that I remember about my grandmother, who passed away when I was 10 years old, is her understanding of there being a "right" way to do things. I was too young to identify whether or not she was a perfectionist (my mother would probably say yes, yes she was), but I remember things were done very deliberately in her home. There were certain expectations and unwritten rules to follow. A lot of these rules revolved around how you treat other people when they are in your home. Although I have many memories of how Grandma (we did not call her Oma) liked to do certain things, there are two very important concepts that I especially remember and that I try to practice today.

Your home should be clean and inviting. There should be places for your guests to sit, without having to shuffle papers or relocate piles of clutter. I don't know where Grandma kept her random papers or miscellaneous items. Perhaps there weren't any-- a reflection of the old adage, "A place for everything and everything in its place." I suppose if something is truly important, then it's not miscellaneous-- and therefore should have its own location where it belongs. Everything in Grandma's house was also meticulously clean. I can imagine nothing that would make a guest feel more uncomfortable than having to sit in filth. I remember one time when my mother brought me and my sister over to visit and we found my grandmother downstairs washing the cellar floor. Although this may have been taking things to the extreme, the importance of a clean and orderly home has always been, to me, a very German concept.

If you have guests, offer them something to eat or drink-- especially if they're men! Men like (need) to be fed! This may be an old-fashioned piece of advice (especially when it comes to gender roles) but Grandma was born in 1913, so I suppose it was rather fitting at the time, However, in 2013, I must say that I still find this tidbit of wisdom to be true! If you have someone visiting you in your home, it is not only polite, but also necessary to offer them something to eat or drink, especially if they will be staying for a bit of time. Even if the visit is short, your guests may have taken time out of a very busy day and may not have been able to rest for lunch. A small snack or a cup of coffee may be most welcome. When my parents were married, they saved the top layer of their wedding cake in my grandmother's freezer. On their first anniversary, they stopped by to get it, but it was missing! What had happened to the cake? Apparently my grandmother had some unexpected visitors drop by one day. She didn't have anything on hand to offer them-- except for cake. So, Grandma's guests got to enjoy my parents' wedding cake.

Even if company is unexpected, a truly gracious host or hostess knows how to make visitors feel welcome at all times. By maintaining a clean and orderly home, one can avoid the last-minute scramble to clean up or the awkward excuse (and I am guilty of having said this), "I'm sorry, I wasn't expecting company." Guests may be unexpected, but they should never feel unwelcome.

Every proper German beer garden has a sign that reads, Herzlich Willkommen!  It is a hearty welcome-- my mother once translated it to me as, "Entirely welcome!" Although this may not be a direct or completely perfect translation, I've always liked this interpretation best. To me it signifies a sincere and honest welcome that says that you will feel comfortable and at home. No need to rush or put on airs-- just come in, rest, enjoy the food and drink, and have a wonderful time. So while the French may be touted as being perhaps the most elaborate hosts (what with their hors d'oeuvrs, cheese courses, apéritifs, and digestifs), to me, it has always been the Germans who say "Welcome" the best.

Photo was taken by me at the Mathilde beer garden in Bavaria, Germany in 2011.

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