Nine years ago my husband and I owned a new home in a suburban community. We had two cars that dependably carted us up and down the highway during our daily fifty-five minute commute. Our two children, a boy and a girl, were healthy and happy. We hosted Sunday dinners with grandparents, organized birthday brunches, and called for impromptu s’mores in the backyard with neighbors. Our doors were always open to those around us.
Eight years ago we traded all of that in.
Our cars were sold within a matter of weeks thanks to Craigslist. I sorted through clothes, toys and books holding massive garage sales along the way. We got rid of the cardboard boxes stacked in the basement filled with the things of our young marriage. We rented out our house, thinking we might be back one day. We kept a small amount of furniture stacked away in the basement of my parent’s house, but otherwise packed our lives into 18 bags and headed to Brazil to join the teaching faculty of an American school in Sao Paulo.
We arrived to a three-bedroom high-rise apartment. The school had given us a few things to help us settle in. The couches were hard and the kitchen table small. The white tiled floors looked empty without rugs to warm them. Our home had transformed into a college dorm. I was embarrassed to have people over. Until that moment, I had always associated my home with matching furniture, painted walls, and pictures hung stylishly throughout the rooms. The first round of holidays – Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas – were awkward and depressing. With only 18 suitcases coming with us to Brazil there just wasn’t room for Halloween costumes, Christmas stockings and ornaments, and we could forget trying to make a turkey dinner in Sao Paulo. Stripped of the trimmings and the spirit of the holiday, I was almost lost.
I had no idea how to open up my home when it simply didn’t feel like my home.
Our first Christmas in Brazil, our fake tree strung only with ribbon and star fruit from the market down the street, I felt completely inadequate and reluctant to have anyone over. In my head I could only think of the traditions we’d left behind and the family gathered around the fireplace without us. My self-pity prevented me from even getting over myself enough to open the door to others.
My definition of hospitality was so fixed and concrete that when my home and world no longer matched the monthly Pottery Barn catalog, I was lost.
For a long time I stayed that way. I remained stuck in my primitive thinking about hospitality for quite awhile. It is only now, as we are finishing our seventh year overseas and preparing to move to our third country that I can see what hospitality means for my family as expats living in a foreign country. For me, it’s no longer about opening my doors to friends and neighbors. Instead, I see the the pieces of the culture that were so lovingly cultivated in our hearts by others who were willing to open up their country to us.
In Brazil, hospitality was friends teaching us how to muddle limes and crushed ice to make the perfect caipirinha. It was waiters who patiently listened as I attempted to order dinner in my gringo Portuguese. Hospitality is the Brazilian birthday song we still sing before the candles are blown out. It’s the warm pao de queijo and chocolate brigaderos my children long for.
In India it’s the smile of the rickshaw driver when he picks me up and takes me across town. It’s the school girls, with their neatly plaited hair and matching uniforms, that shout hellos as they cross the street. It’s the shopkeeper who knows my grocery order before I even speak and the woman at the fruit stall who saves the best mangoes for my five o’clock pick up.
True warmth and openness have been found in the way these countries, and the other twenty we’ve traveled to, continuously offer up warm receptions to foreigners like us who’ve made our lives overseas. In my experience, hospitality abroad is made up of small gestures and often compact, but no less meaningful events than the ones I so carefully crafted back in the States. A decade I ago I had a vision of hospitality that was based solely on my experiences living in my home country. And while I know that opening up my doors is one way to offer hospitality, now my expectation for feeling welcome is predicated on much bigger doors than the one to our home. Being open to to receive the warmth and love from the bigger world can be a challenge but its reward is incredibly sweet. Like most other things in our expat life, the memories and experiences of hospitality abroad run deep and yet remain portable, just waiting to be packed up and carried with us no matter where our next stop takes us.