jump to navigation

The Journey and the Host – Noël in Alsace January 2, 2011

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Place.
add a comment

“Make yourself at home,” commands the host in the United States. The intention is to help the guest, the invited one, relax and feel comfortable. But in practice, it’s hard to know exactly what this means. I naturally adapt my behavior to the surroundings and to the people who are present. If I were in my own home, I would not necessarily be relaxed and comfortable. I might just as readily be rushing around doing laundry, washing dishes, paying bills, or trying to clear the clutter off the dining table. Or, I might find myself drawn to the computer looking at Facebook, shopping on line, reading my email, or writing this blog. I also consider that one of the true pleasures of traveling is getting away from these chores and everyday activities in my own home. Traveling means washing a few things out in the sink maybe, not starting your Saturday morning with three loads of laundry. On the other hand, I am usually too inhibited to for other “at home” behaviors like singing in the shower or dancing around the room in someone else’s home. How can I make myself at home, just like that? It takes time to feel that comfortable.

Recently we traveled to Alsace for the Christmas holiday for an overdue reunion with friends. We are “les invités” although frankly, we invited ourselves to join these friends and their family hoping to add to their pleasure but knowing that we also add to the work and expense of the holidays. In French, hôte is a role that applies to both host and guest, so not surprisingly, we fight over who has the right to pay the bill at the restaurant when we go out to eat. We are told not to bring anything with us when we eat at our friends’ home, but we do anyway. Our conversations are sometimes in English and sometimes in French because we all want to practice our language skills. My husband makes great strides in the new language because he never hesitates to try it. He tends to use whatever French words he knows to replace their English counterparts in his conversations. Sometimes he composes complete sentences in French.

Though I am thousands of miles away from my actual home, I do feel immediately “at home” once we are with these long-time friends who will almost always understand my lazy French accidentally sprinkled with Spanish words and US phrasing. It’s not so much that I “make myself at home” but that these friends make me feel that I truly belong with them and among their family as we celebrate Christmas together. So I relax and am comfortable. We are nine in the house for dinner on Christmas Eve with ourselves, our friends, their adult children and their partners and my friend’s mother, who was my host mother for that summer after high school when I lived with their family in Strasbourg. This was the woman (and her daughter) who endured my tears and complaints when I didn’t yet feel at home, when the culture and way of life here seemed strange and even “wrong” to me. They didn’t hesitate to argue with me about small things like the fact that I wanted to shampoo my hair every day, or show impatience when I made them late, but they also never hesitated to include me in family circle. I was simply one of them, and my fondest memories include the many moments when I felt that strong connection.


Strasbourg, France at this time of year calls itself the “Capitol of Christmas” and it is easy to get into this spirit. The air is filled with the citrus and anise scented “vin chaud” or hot wine that is sold for 2 Euro in many of the Christmas market stalls here, alongside ridiculous holiday hats in the shape of storks, delicate glass Christmas ornaments, gingerbread cookies and advent calendars. Buildings are decorated with lights and ribbons, stuffed bears, stars and glass balls. There has been some snow and more is expected. Christmas carols – often American tunes – are played, and children dressed in animal hats or hoods with mittens recount long stories to their parents who gently pull them through the narrow streets. The gray and foggy days end in darkness at 4:30 as the Christmas lights come on in the city as we step carefully on the snow-covered cobblestones. The narrow streets, the cathedral, the snow and decorations all seem to come from a much-loved fairy tale where magic still exists and the princess always gets her prince. We know that life is not always like this, but we set aside those thoughts for a while and let ourselves be drawn into the atmosphere.