Smiling blonde woman opening front door to welcome guest

The art of hospitality

Many years ago, during my final year in high school in Italy I won a competition: the prize was a three-week study-vacation in Brighton, organised by an English language school.

I was very excited about this opportunity, as I was going to live with a British family for a while, and learn all about the English way of life.

On the day our group travelled from Italy to England, Alitalia lost my luggage. As it happens, I was the only one among 300 or so passengers whose luggage had gone astray.

The group of students and course teachers had to make their way to Brighton, they couldn’t wait for me to sort this out, so I was left on my own at Heathrow airport to report the lost luggage.

To this day, I don’t quite know how I managed it. I vaguely remember sitting down in front of a man in a uniform who was filling in a form and was asking me to describe my suitcase.

The language school had at least organised a taxi for me, so  I finally arrived at my destination in Brighton around midnight. I was exhausted and hungry.

Sheila, a woman in her thirties, opened the door. I smiled, and she said, “You’re late.” No Hello, no Welcome, but just “You’re late.”

It was true, I was late. But was it my fault?

And, I was in my teens, I’d just arrived in a foreign country… I could have done with some form of human contact maybe. A handshake? A pat on my shoulder? A hug? None of that happened.

As soon as Sheila let me in the house I perceived a strong smell of animals. And as we walked up the stairs I could see animal hair glued to the carpet, and bits of it along the banister.

Sheila invited me in the kitchen and asked if I wanted a cup of tea. I hadn’t had any food for 12 hours, so I asked if I could have something to eat instead.

She sighed. She opened the cupboard door, got some rice and boiled it in the microwave. Then opened a can of chopped tomatoes and poured it over the rice.

No olive oil, no cooking the tomatoes first, no condiment. Boiled rice and chopped tomatoes… here we come.

I don’t normally eat tomatoes straight out of the tin, but on that occasion I did.

Sheila showed me the house, her five year old boy was sleeping in his bedroom. She told me that she loved animals and proceeded to show me a range of creatures such as: two cats, her dog, rabbits, birds, and some other unusual animals inside small cages, that sort that you only see in documentaries. I didn’t even know their name in Italian! That was the room that emanated that strong smell.

The next morning I was brutally woken up by Peter, the five year old boy. He started to jump on my bed and spray me with his water pistol. In fact, it wasn’t even a pistol, it was a bazooka, considering the gallon of water it had produced. Still half asleep, I asked him to stop, but he wouldn’t.

This morning routine continued during the first week at Sheila’s.

While we were having breakfast, on my first morning, Sheila started to prepare my packet lunch: a sandwich, and a bar of chocolate. She told me that she didn’t eat meat, so she was making a vegetarian sandwich.

I thanked her and when I went out for my first day of classes, I unwrapped my sandwich, curious to see what she had put inside: raw onions and cucumber slices. Nothing else.

My packed lunch turned into a lancio del pacco (launch of the packet). I just couldn’t stand the smell of raw onions and cucumber, and this ended up in the bin by the bus stop.

Mamma had given me some pocket money for this trip, so I bought myself a ham sandwich on the way to class.

I enjoyed my first day of English lessons. I started chatting with other students, and they all seemed to have found good families. Maybe it was just the first night that hadn’t gone well for me. I was hopeful.

I was looking forward to coming home that evening, and have a heart-warming home-cooked British dinner and get to know my host family better.

For our first dinner together, Sheila had cooked a very spicy dish. I don’t quite know how to call it, but it was a mix of vegetables in a bright coloured sauce, with brown rice. Every time I’d try a mouthful, it would burn my tongue and I’d almost choke on it. It was like eating fire. I asked if I could just have the boiled rice in the end.

While we were eating, Sheila told me she was divorced, and then stopped talking.

I tried to carry on with the conversation - after all, I was there to learn to speak better English, but she just wasn’t interested. Her boy, Peter, would only talk to the dog.

After dinner she and her boy disappeared and I was left on my own in the living room. Actually, not totally on my own. I could enjoy the company of those noisy and weird animals. I put the TV on, but as I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying, I just went to my room and read a book.

I think that was the only meal Sheila cooked from scratch in those three weeks. The other dinners offered were a selection of soups from a tin, baked beans, boiled or scrambled eggs. But I never left the table feeling… satiated, so to say.

For lunch, I started to make my own sandwiches. I would buy the ingredients myself from the local supermarket. This too was eating into my pocket money, which meant less cash for treats. By ‘treats’ I mean the occasional gelato on Brighton pier.

It was clear to me that Sheila didn’t like to cook, but she did cook for her dog.

In those days, they used to have these big bags of pasta for dogs. If you’re old enough, you may remember these.

Sheila would cook the pasta for the dog every night and I would look at that pasta, while it boiled in the saucepan, with some form of fascination… “Gosh, life has got to be pretty bad if you end up craving dog food,” I would tell myself and then try to snap out of it.

The only time I had pasta during my stay in Brighton was when I cooked it myself. I made spaghetti alla carbonara one evening, when Sheila and her boy had gone out. I made lots, and I even shared some with the dog, who seemed to appreciate it. I don’t think he’d ever eaten pancetta before!

Many years have gone by since my Brighton experience.

When I tell  my English husband about this adventure, he laughs and wonders how I wasn’t put off entirely by Britain at that point. 

Luckily, this experience didn’t spoil my memories of Brighton. I remember the lovely walks on the pebbled beach, the laughter with my school friends along the pier, the fun English lessons. And being hungry all the time 😉 

Hospitality is sacred where I come from. In Sardinia especially, you tend to treat your guests with great care, and you always try to make them feel at home. 

So, to keep with the theme of hospitality (or lack of), I created a word search for you, titled: l’arte dell’ospitalità.

Italian Word Search about hospitality

I hope you have fun with it. You can play with the word search here

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