I'm a city girl, through and through, Manhattan born and bred. But last weekend, I had an opportunity to experience life in what I have previously (and inappropriately) termed "fly-over" country. I spent the weekend in Northern Mississippi. Which of course inspired me to reread the Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris, and to contemplate the concept of hospitality and what it means to be a guest. Coincidentally (or not, as this is my life we're talking about), the first entry in the Argeneau Vampire series also deals with the issues related to the correct way to treat guests. Apparently, there's a lot more to it beyond telling those who visit to "make themselves at home." Of course I knew that, but these books and my recent visit have really brought the point home, so to speak.
n Dead Until Dark, Sookie Stackhouse and her grandmother, Adele, are poor but proper. When they plan to entertain, the house gets cleaned from top to bottom and the best dishes, linen and flatware are taken out for use. In the south, only the best will do for guests. Moreover, there is an unwritten code of generosity that underscores the hospitality—no matter how much or how little one has, it is shared with guests.
I experienced this kind of hospitality when I lived in Israel. I was privileged to visit many homes, some prosperous, but the majority humble. And no matter where I went, I was offered tea and something to eat, and in ways large and small I was made to feel not only welcome, but that my presence in the abode was a distinct honor, regardless of whether they'd met me before or knew me from Eve. Didn't matter—I was treated to the best chair, the best place at the table, and the best morsels of food. If my visit was expected, it was clear that an effort had been made to create a beautiful table for my pleasure, and that the everyday accouterments were replaced with the special fare saved for guests. Which, of course, made me feel special.
It was the same in Northern Mississippi. Our hosts were the parents of one of my close friends, and they had clearly gone all out for us. When we arrived the table was laid out with gorgeous dishes, fine silver, and a resplendent buffet, to sate our hunger after our journey. Fresh flowers graced the fireplace in our room, and an assortment of toiletries were provided lest we had forgotten something essential. What a far cry from my own (Northern) ‘etiquette’ of pointing my visitors to the linen closet and instructing them to find whatever they needed.
In so many different ways, our hosts’ actions let us know that great effort had been expended to ensure our every conceivable need was met even before we were conscious of it. Normally, this level of attention and generosity makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable—beholden – like I'd put people out, been a burden, owed a debt I didn't necessarily initiate borrowing. It's different in the South. Despite the obvious effort that had gone into preparing for our stay, and the energy required to host us at such a level of hospitality, my friend’s parents never made it appear as a burden. To the contrary, they made us feel like it was their privilege and pleasure to entertain us in their home. Neat trick. Wish I knew how they did it.
In truth, it seems like a skill specific to Southerners, like our hosts, Sookie and her grandmother. Or maybe the skill belongs to a more gracious era, like Marguerite Argeneau in Lynsay Sands’ entertaining vampire series. I also think that authentic gentility stems from a genuine pleasure in being a host—being proud of one's home and heritage and the desire to share them both with others. I think for me, all of this falls into my severe domestic goddess deficit, about which I’ve written before, and my complete inability to cook, clean, decorate or garden. Makes it harder to be a gracious host.
But it is good to be the guest of someone who knows how to do it up right. I felt like the most important person in the world, and that I'd made these people's day by showing up to their home, sleeping in their beds and eating their food. I felt valued and wanted. And how lovely is that? I was the gal who warranted breaking out the good china, the one who inspired fresh flowers to be cut from the garden, and for the best linen to be ironed and used on the table. I was offered the best wine in the house, and someone made a run to get me coffee when they discovered that there wasn't any because I love my morning Joe.
I’m home now, eating takeout on our everyday china with a paper napkin. But it's nice to know that I don't have to travel back in time to party with the Argeneau Vampires or to Bon Temps, Louisiana to experience true hospitality and gracious living. It’s reassuring to discover that such gallantry exists outside of Martha Stewart's magazine. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be able to up my etiquette game to the level I found in Northern Mississippi right here in little old Annapolis.