Wednesday, 22 October 2014

40 Days Pt 4

A Belgian submission for Drunk Furniture

Wednesday. It's last minute shit-we-forgot-the-geography-project night ("no, maybe don't include the Wikipedia cannabis page") and last minute Halloween biscuit night ("NO I WILL NOT REROLL THE ARSEING DALEKS THEY ARE FINE JESUS WHO PUT THE OVEN ON GRILL WELL THESE CAN GO STRAIGHT IN THE BIN??") and I am still in total neck spasm and keep having to stop writing to lie on the floor. On the upside, I didn't have to wear tights and uncomfortable shoes or speak to strangers with insufficient warning. I spent about ninety minutes in blissed out staring at the wall this morning. Then I ate a packet of Cadbury's Halloween novelty biscuits. A winner, overall.

Ok, tonight, perhaps you can help me out with a problem, which is something I feel I need to learn for the forthcoming decade.

My question is this: how do you get good at hospitality? By which I mean, how do you carry off having people round for food or to stay or whatever? I am shit at this - truly, so bad - and it's clearly a massive problem, because (i) I feel inadequate (ii) my children never see people other than family members at weekends so they will end up deeply flawed humans like me (iii) this is not how adults behave (iv) it's embarrassing (v) only 4 people will come to my funeral.

I mean,  I don't think it would surprise anyone to hear that I'm fairly introverted (see above: bliss of staring at wall). But I do like people (no, honestly) and I would like to be able to invite them into my house without dying of awkward. I rate myself on the hospitality scale somewhere around the deeply depressed lady who lodged me and my friend Kate on our gap year in Florence feeding us stewed radicchio in baleful silence. I don't have an incontinent cat and my house does have a lavatory door, but that's probably my only advantage over her.

I know the problem is that I make it all about me due to idiotic anxiety. I do know it is not about me. That is the whole point of hospitality. IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU. IT IS ABOUT YOUR GUESTS. But how does one achieve this zen-like state of welcoming the other? I have been to the homes of people who are considerably younger than me who can manage this. How? What is the secret? Have you cracked it? Does it come so naturally you don't even know how you do it?

More specifically:

- Simply having people round for their dinner: how does one approach this? Why do I make such a meal (ha ha) of it? The last time, I provoked a fight about GM crops, about which I didn't know I even had an opinion. It's not the food - I'm confident I could make something edible (not nice, but edible), but I would then hover and make anxious eyes rather than relaxing and pouring wine and laughing. Can you get better at it? How?

- If you know very disparate groups of people should you throw them together? How much effort do you then need to make if they are not gelling?

- Where should the line be drawn between not being the person who forces you to have the fourth pint of wine and seconds of pudding and being me, ie. too shy to offer anyone anything in case they feel obliged to accept, leading to feelings of deprivation and joylessness?

- What if all the glasses come out of your dishwasher looking as if they are filthy so you are ashamed to have people round and your children insist on putting them in the dishwasher when you are not looking?

- Where is the line between charmingly mismatched and 'student house disgusting stolen canteen plates'?

- How do you not get unmanageably sad when you invite people and they don't come?

- If they do come, HOW DO YOU MAKE THEM GO HOME?

These are all variants on the same question, I realise. Also, I sound a bit like a horrible man I met in group therapy who used to dissect every minute social encounter out loud in precisely this unhelpful fashion. HELP ME UNDERSTAND YOUR WAYS, people who are sociable. Or recommend a book I can read about it, fellow introverts.

NB: I am not planning a birthday party or anything, this is just a necessary life lesson.

Shit, M has just shown me this reconstruction of Tutankhamun and now NO ONE WILL EVER SLEEP AGAIN.


Anonymous said...

I would say, as I do with anything, start small. Really small. One person for tea, perhaps. Or one school-friend per child after school but not for dinner. Tea is totally manageable, right? And mismatched crockery makes you seem charming! And you can eat biscuits! All of them! The trick to having people over is to do something you are already comfortable doing.

As you get more confident, perhaps the spawn-friends can stay for dinner. Make sure it is an easy, child-friendly dinner. This is not the time for experimental casseroles. Pasta is always a winner. Book club is also a good choice--you like books, all you have to do is serve wine & dessert and everyone leaves at a sensible time if you have it on a weeknight.

Eventually (EVENTUALLY) work your way up to a party, by either increasing the # of people OR the complexity of what you attempt each time. Just not both at once.

B said...

That is partially untrue. I have been to large and small gatherings at your house and come away every time wishing I could be as gracious, funny and charming as you.

(Also, as someone who does, as you know, host frequently and with a lot of joy (and anxiety), drinking is the key. Moderation optional and entirely dependent on anxiety levels.)

Anonymous said...

My mantra, from Julia Hippogriff: "This has been a realization that took me forever to assimilate but has been incredibly liberating: people (big and little) just like being together and appreciate hospitality in pretty much any form." So true!
Re food: take your cue from Julia Child and NEVER apologize.
Re mismatched crockery: there is a hilarious section in Margaret Drabble's "Realms of Gold" (sadly not available for Kindle - whyyyy?), something about elderly professors having to eat from plates featuring Babar the elphant, and the hostess sort of minding but not enough to actually go out and buy matching dishes, convincing herself that "the brilliance of her conversation" makes up for it. See? It's all in the mind.
Can't help you with big groups of people who don't know each other - I fear those myself.
Good luck!

ganching said...

I have to disagree with B about drinking. You must drink nothing stronger than Lady Grey tea while ensuring your guests get so horribly drunk they remember nothing about the visit other than that they probably boked all over your soft furnishings.

Xtreme English said...

I bleed for you. I would think that getting an invitation from you to come around for a cuppa or to share your ordinary supper would be a BLAST. I am not outgoing at all, but I've been lucky to have a couple of really great friends from the past who love to come to my place for dinner. why? because, they say, they "don't have to be ON here." These are really bigwigs in their field, but they like to come over here cuz the place is "cozy," they say. Translate: messy. And I do love to cook (mainly because I love to EAT). never trust people who don't like to EAT. I mean it. The secret is to find things you LOVE to cook and eat, then ask people over to share it. start with one or two folks. don't drive yourself crazy. it's enough to have two wonderful people over who DO have a great time. Give it a try.

redfox said...

I don't exactly know how to any of it, except that if you do it quite a bit more often and... slap-dashly, I find both help a lot. A certain amount of chaos is good because it distracts me and shortcircuits some hovering or balefulness. I also regularly serve food to all sorts of people on EXTREMELY informal dinnerware much in the Babar vein and no one seems to mind.

Margaret said...

Anonymous #1's advice is brilliant. Do that! And maybe put some nice music on in the background.

the auntologist said...

As a raging introvert with nuclear-level social anxiety, I have ideas about this! 1) lay out a spread of all sorts of food options so nobody has to ask for anything, buffet-style. Interesting nibbly things. 2) same with the drinks. 3) put food in multiple locations so people can move around. 4) benzodiazepines are excellent for crippling social anxiety, even in teeny tiny doses. .5 mg lorazepam. Give it a try.

Anonymous said...

I also find Anonymous #1's suggestions helpful, although --- because? --- I could have written this post, I fear entertaining more than public speaking or doing my taxes.
The filthy glasses! Mine are more filmy than filthy, actually. Belgium seems to have very hard water.
I have broken into a sweat out of fear that guests would not leave but am thrilled to report that thus far they all have, eventually.

Anonymous said...

Don't invite French or other food-purity obsessed people.
Mismatched crockery in the spirit of times; no one actually cares.
Prepare everything 2h in advance, except the final pasta, and it will lower your anxiety.

Anonymous said...

I'm never very relaxed until the cooking bit is done, so something you can pretty much have done before the guest arrives is good e.g. a one pot, slow cook thing.

Try to make it less of a big deal by just thinking of it as a friend or friends coming over to eat some food with you, rather than it being a 'dinner party'.

Your friends come to see you and have fun. They don't care about silly formalities so try not to worry about them. If you're worried about whether people want more, put all the food in the middle of the table in big dishes and encourage people to just help themselves.

I agree with the advice to start small and low-key. I wouldn't start with groups of people who don't know each other. It can be amazing but it can also be hard work. Depends on the chemistry, which is hard to predict.

I think very few people enjoy startched, formal dinner parties anyway. It's just about enjoying food with people you like.

Z said...

It all got too difficult to arrange anything but parties, because my husband wasn't well, but what I did find myself able to manage was impromptu suppers. So if I bumped into a friend and we had a cheerful conversation, I could say 'what are you doing tonight, come on over,' and that made it clear I wasn't going to have tidied up and I knew they would come if they wanted to but it would be easy to get out if they couldn't or didn't want to.

Since Russell died, I've had small, cheerful groups of nice people round for meals and kept it pretty simple. I rather like having people over with their children, it makes it quite certain that there won't be arguments about politics or anything, which I find unutterably tedious and which makes me anxious. Right now, it would also make me cry, which wouldn't be good.

The simple truth is that you only get better at it by doing it. It doesn't matter if you feel anxious, we all do. I serve out the first helping and then leave the dishes and the cheese and some bottles and tell people to help themselves. When you want them to leave, start a bit of clearing away, someone will take the hint. But honestly, JFDI - the advantage is that you get invited back, which is nice, the advantage of being sociable without the work.

frau antje said...

I was raised by an extremely social man, and a woman renowned for how nice she perhaps don't worry too much about the kids. Don't know if their course is set, but other than informing children of the pesky rule of law, I'm not sure how much one can effectively do (or not do).

Fi KP said...

The wise Alanna (@southlondongirl on Twitter) once said when she was having people over for dinner, ARSE, I forgot to clean the house. Never mind. I am going to turn the lights right down + hand everyone a huge Negroni as they walk through the door, + no-one will notice nor mind. Et voila.

Anonymous said...

Dear Waffle,
I am eagerly reading all these wise people's advice on entertaining. ;)
In other news that may or may not interest you, the EU competition lawyer competition was announced today. If it's not your cup of tea (and I fully understand it might not be, in which case sorry for bothering you and go ahead and delete this) then maybe you have some friends or acquaintances that would like to apply.
Anyway, the info is here:

Nimble said...

It's hard and I hope to crack it in the next decade too. (Sorry not to carry the torch of enlightenment but I am older than you and haven't got it yet.) I will offer one suggestion on just one aspect. Having got your guests to the dinner table you can position the wine and extras within reach and tell everyone at the start that you worry about putting pressure on people or starving them so they must be in charge of their own refills/seconds/etc. I think that is a perfectly good disclaimer and I would find it charmingly self-deprecating too.

Syll said...

I will certainly come to your funeral if you manage to write your own eulogy ;-)
As for having people at your place, it's easy: just channel your inner Nigella :-P

MargotLeadbetter said...

I am going to weigh on on the DRINK PLENTY side. If you are anxious it will help you relax and maybe even have fun, and what is the point of all this if not to have fun?

Simon said...

If you invite me I promise to come.
And I promise to go home again. After the second serving of pudding.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry I can't help you, but just wanted to say thanks for helping me. Everyone I know manages charming & gracious hosting so I thought it was only me who did all those things. I've been doing it a lot longer than you and it hasn't got any better, except that now I try to think about it the same way you would a physical problem as in I know chocolate gives me terrible indigestion but I'm still going to eat it because on balance it's more gain than pain.

Lola said...

I recognise myself in everything you have written about 'entertaining'. My solution thus far has been to avoid it as much as possible. I have an additional handicap of a husband who behaves with guests in a way that I consider to be inappropriate and occasionally rude, making me even less inclined to have people over.

I have read through the suggestions, and I think the key will be to start small with people I am VERY comfortable with. That might work.

greatbiglizard said...

OK this is the scant wisdom that I have accumulated on this subject:

People like a bit of chaos, as it makes them feel better about their own chaos, so don't worry about being particularly tidy.

Always make people wait a bit longer than is ideally necessary for food. They will be drunker and hungrier and will consequently think you are the new Marcus Wareing.

Aim to be one glass soberer than your soberest guest.

Leave things out/in easy reach so people can help themselves to seconds/thirds without (much) asking.

Have a pre-prepared reason why people have to leave. "I'm afraid I must go to bed as I have to get up early to go to the post office/feed the unicorn/emigrate to Vanuatu"

The level of guest disparateness possible is proportionate to the size of the gathering. 2 people in your house who turn out not to get on is a life sentence. Above about 4 people you can distract potential enmities with people more to their taste. Be prepared to manage conversation, however clumsily. Nice people will understand what you are doing and go along with it even if they really want to have a raging argument about the Common Agricultural Policy.

You never stop worrying if people are enjoying themselves/the food so just take that as a given. You won't get a straight answer if you ask, so don't. If you enjoy yourself then they almost certainly will have too but the reverse is not true. You can have a total nightmare and people can genuinely not notice and rave about the evening.

Finally: everything Anonymous post 1 said.

I very much hope that one day H and I can avail ourselves of your nascent hospitality

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