The Art of the Hospitality and the Holiday Home

After my last post, you know that my friend Els is a creative person, gifted at the art of hospitality.  I couldn’t resist posting a couple of pictures of her home, decorated for the holiday and ready for guests.  Lovely!

Easter Table

Ready for Guests

An Easter To Remember

Lovely Gnomys from Annekebouke

Lovely gifts: Gnomys by Annekebouke

Today I remember an unusual Easter, 21 years ago, in a Dutch village far away.

We were young and living the grad student family life in Lawrence, Kansas, with a 2-year-old daughter and another baby on the way.  My husband’s studies were nearing an end and he accepted a job offer – in the Netherlands.  I had traveled out of the country only once, and the thought of an international move was daunting.

We were heading to the unknown and this was pre-internet, so my resources consisted of a few books about Holland at the local library.  A Dutch acquaintance offered to introduce me to a “relative of a relative” who happened to live near the town where my husband’s office was located.  I wrote a letter introducing myself and asked questions about midwives, housing and a few other concerns and sent it air mail to Holland.

A few weeks later, the phone rang.

It was Els.

She had located a midwife and made an appointment, found all of the information I needed regarding housing and answered my other questions.  “I noticed that you arrive the day before Easter.  I always have a brunch and will come by to pick you up at 9:00.  Ok?”

At 9:00 on Easter morning, Els arrived in her van and transported us to her home.  The entire day was a bit of a blur, with an Easter egg hunt in the garden, a wonderful breakfast with extended family (and very welcome strong Dutch coffee) followed in the afternoon by a boat tour around the canals of Leiden.  We didn’t leave until bed time and by the end of the day, we were exhausted.  But Els understood jet lag and although I could barely keep my eyes open I thanked her later!

She also understood moving to another country, and we discovered that we lived not so far away from each other in the U.S. for a few years.  She understood raising a family with lots of creativity and limited means and donated furniture when she realized we had left almost everything behind.  Els adopted us like her own family from the moment we met.

This morning we had a quiet brunch with just the three of us at home.  Els had a houseful of visitors, decorating with her usual creative flair and hiding the eggs carefully in the garden for the little ones to discover.  We’re far apart but I was there in spirit, remembering a wonderful Easter so long ago.

Festive Weekend: Lunar New Year and Mardi Gras!

Lunar New Year

You may remember my pitiful post last month about my non-existent social life.  I’m happy to say that with some initiative and a positive attitude, life has improved and this weekend I enjoyed two celebrations in one day!

Saturday started with the Lunar New Year at the Chinese Community Center, an annual celebration featuring dance, music, food and cultural traditions from the many Asian communities in Houston.  This year is the Year of the Snake, and in addition to the familiar booths and activities we sampled tea and admired the bikes that the Chinese Motorcycle Club had on display.

Lunar New YearLater I spent a wonderful Mardi Gras evening eating crawfish etouffee and spending quality “girl time” with my fun-loving friend and two new friends.  It was great to listen to music, tell stories, laugh hysterically and just have fun.

Mardi Gras Festivities

In another city on another continent, my daughter donned costume and mask and she and friends joined crowds in the streets for Carnival festivities.  Today I saw the photos (love Facebook and digital photography) and could imagine the excitement she felt as she took part in this celebration for the first time.

New Year, new moon and spring is in the air.  Join the celebration!

Around the World in 50 Plates: The Christmas Edition

Paella

The day began with a brisk walk and a trip to revolutionary France (we saw Les Miserables at the local cinema).  This evening I spoke with my brother, we journeyed to Madrid via Skype and enjoyed paella with a glass of Rioja.

Simple.  Bliss.

Gifts from the Heart

giving hands

Are these hands giving, or are they receiving?

This holiday season, and every day for any reason, share these gifts and enjoy many happy returns.

  • Attention – take the time to put other things aside and to truly focus and listen.
  • Laughter – appreciate humor and laugh until you’re in tears (I do it regularly).
  • Sharing – most of us have more than we need – keep resources of all kinds in circulation and share your time if you have nothing else.
  • Growth – keep learning, exchange knowledge and invest in yourself and others.  Recognize and nurture potential, mentor and encourage others.
  • Warmth – Stop for a moment to see those around you and share a smile, a kind greeting or a hug.  Become a bright spot in someone’s day  or a radiant beacon.
  • Patience – Take a deep breath.  Instead of impatience and anger, offer assistance.
  • Forgiveness – This is the most difficult, but the best gift to yourself.  Let the anger go, or use the energy to help others through your experiences, wisdom and understanding.

These gifts cost nothing but time and intention, are easily shared and make a lasting impression.  Share freely and watch the results!

Everyday Gifts: 10 No-Cost or Low-Cost Ideas for the Holiday Season

Ornaments

It’s the holiday season, and the pressure builds to buy.  So that we may give.  But giving does not always require a purchase.  In fact, when I look back over a lifetime of friendships and family and giving, the most memorable gifts have been from the heart – not from a store.

Here are some ideas for low-cost or no-cost gifts that make a true impression.

  • Original Art.  Frame a drawing, painting or simple sketch or scan, print on high quality paper and make holiday cards.  An abstract painting on thick paper can be cut into bookmarks (with an inspirational quote).
  • Children’s artwork.  See above!  Kids’ artwork and photos can also be incorporated into simple and memorable ornaments.
  • Love of reading.  Read a good book lately?  Share with a friend that has similar tastes and have a book club for two over a cup of tea.
  • Instant garden.  Pot a few plants from your garden that can be taken inside for the winter.  An arrangement of a few small succulents potted in sandy soil becomes an instant garden.
  • Seeds for the future.  Save seeds from your butterfly plants or vegetable garden, dry and package in ziplock snack bags.  Wrap in a square of decorative cloth and tie with a ribbon or tuck into an inexpensive cloth bag (you can find mini tote bags or gift/favor bags  at the dollar store).  Gift tags can include a drawing or printed picture of the future plant, fruit or flower.
  • Cooking inspiration.  Share a few of your favorite recipes and include the finished product or a few hard-to-find or exotic ingredients.
  • Make mine a double.  The next time you bake, make a double batch and share with a friend or neighbor.
  • Home sweet home.  Furniture, kitchenware or other items not in use are a welcome gift for someone just starting out, a student or friend in need.
  • Mr. (or Ms.) Fixit.  Offer to share your skills and talents with someone that needs assistance.  Rake, shovel, repair, or do some computer maintenance – your time will be well spent and much appreciated.
  • Songs and laughter.  Organize a house concert or talent show and share the gift of music and companionship.  The price of admission can be a drink or snack, a willing voice and plenty of applause.

Fear of Festivals

I have a confession to make.  I’m not very good at holidays.  Taken to extreme, fear of holidays even has an official name:  Heortophobia.  Not wanting to be bound by obligation disguised as tradition, I’ve veered a little too adamantly to the other extreme of unpredictability.  Spontaneity seemed better, somehow.  Brighter and freer.  My kids asked, “Can’t we just have turkey dinner like everyone else?” when I proposed some new and exotic menu.  I thought I was rescuing them from the horrors of green bean casserole (sorry, Mom – I confess that it was never a favorite).

Recently, a comment from a new Australian acquaintance made me think.  He noted that in workshops that he leads, he would ask participants to raise their hands if they were indigenous.  Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders would raise their hands confidently, while white people would sit still.  “Everyone is indigenous to some place, but white people seem to have forgotten their past.”  He continued to talk about the importance of names, family and clan/kin/tribe, connection to your origins and knowing your traditions.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since.  It’s probably appropriate this time of year.

Festivals

Diwali – Festival of Light

Now I read with curiosity and slight longing when I discover posts about others’ joyous traditions.  For example, I just happened upon this wonderful post about Diwali on Kiran’s Cooking Club site.  Diwali is also known as the “Festival of Light” and it is India’s most important annual holiday.  The name Diwali refers to the clay lamps that people light outside their homes, symbolizing inner light that protects us from spiritual darkness.  Originally a harvest festival, Diwali is a time when Indian people (regardless of faith) seek the blessing of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.  The holiday is celebrated with family gatherings, lamps, lights and fireworks and traditional sweets.

“Zie ginds komt de stomboot…”

When we lived in Holland, we enjoyed the arrival of Sinterklaas (otherwise known as Saint Nicholas) with his crew of Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes – Moorish helpers) by steamboat the third week of November.  The Sint rides his trusty white horse and “Petes” engage in all sorts of mischief.  Children leave shoes out each evening, and if they are lucky they will find small presents in the morning.  December 5th, the Eve of Sinterklaas, is celebrated with gifts, rhymes and sweets.  Typical treats include pepernootjes (small spice cookies), speculaas (more spice cookies!), large chocolate letters for the first letter of the child’s name, marzipan figures and chocolate coins.

Other harvest festivals and fall and winter celebrations draw me in with their family time, sense of belonging, music and fun.  We spent 8 of the last 20 years living in The Netherlands and London, far from home and family holidays.  This year, we’re divided.  Extended family is far away as always and two daughters are studying abroad, leaving a small group of three to celebrate a quiet holiday.

What will we do?

Will we celebrate my husband’s Spanish background with a feast of tapas and traditional dishes?  Should  we explore my English/Scottish/Irish heritage and perhaps rediscover the rituals of the Winter Solstice?

Or shall we stick to tradition and try something completely new?