Expat Ninja: How to be an Amazing Host in a Foreign City
So you live Abroad:
Chances are, you live in a place that your friends and family would like to visit. This is all well and good - there are few joys in life that rival that of introducing your adopted city or country to your nearest and dearest - but there are a few things a host should keep in mind in order to ensure an enjoyable and restful holiday for all involved. You may think that it goes without saying that hosting a visitor in a foreign country is somewhat more tricky than hosting a visitor in their native country, but I've done my fair share of hosting and traveling and have found some shortcuts that, with the proper preparation and communication, have proven invaluable sanity savers. I've divided them into the following categories: Preparation; Communication and some suggested ground rules; and Dealing with the Language Barrier.
Just like a boyscout: always prepared
Most guests, especially if they're traveling some distance, will make some effort to coordinate with you. If someone shows up on your front stoop with no warning, bless you and good luck - at least they won't be expecting anything. But given warning, there are a few things that should be made clear:
1.) Will you be meeting them at the airport? This can be complicated if you work or take classes, as holidays (academic or otherwise) don't often line up across international boarders. I live in Turkey and this mismatch has caused not a few inconveniences. Fortunately, unless your guest is unusually demanding, this shouldn't be a problem. However, providing excellent directions to your house or office is crucial. Most guests will be dealing with language barriers, travel exhaustion, awkward baggage - and whether they get to you or not can be a crap shoot. Best to do everything in your power to give them all the tools they need - a stressed guest is a stressful guest, and no one needs that!
2.) Take note of any particularities in the visa-acquiring process. In Turkey, a US tourist visa can be acquired without too much hassle - provided, of course, you knew to get one before standing in the passport control line, and you knew that they require cash and do not give back change. It's easy enough to remind your guest, in such a situation, to keep a 20 dollar bill with their passport and for sanity's sake to please get the visa before standing in the passport control line for half an hour. If your guest is a Turk visiting you in Switzerland, however, letters of invitation will be required and the visa will have to be approved in advance. Tricky tricky.
3.) Make sure you have an appropriate berth. Couch, air-mattress, dog bed - or a guest room, if you're really fancy - just make sure your guest knows what to expect. Do they need to bring a sleeping bag or do you have extra sheets? A towel? Specification of this nature can save much needless worry, even if your guest is super chill. Imagine, for example, how pleased your grandmother will be when she asks your cousin where on earth she'll be sleeping and she answers, unhesitatingly, "On the couch, of course!" or "Don't worry, I've packed my sleeping bag!" Hand-wringing forestalled, and you are awesome. There will be something special in your stocking this year, you model host you.
4.) Buy a guidebook, for heaven's sake. Especially if, for the vacation mismatch reason mentioned above, you will not be able to shuttle your guest around all day every day. A map would be nice, but that's icing.
5.) Although technically also icing, nothing says love like a spare set of keys and some starter tokens or whatever your city uses for transportation. Istanbul has a fantastic "akbil" system - a rechargeable electronic dealio that can be used on Every Single Type Of Public Transportation. I cannot tell you how fantastic it is to be able to hand a guest a key and an akbil on arrival; I feel like it's a simultaneous welcome and encouragement of independence.
And on that note:
A Word on Independence
This is also a fantastic thing to establish from the get-go: will you be acting as tour-guide for the visit? Or would your guest prefer to (or have to) do some solo sight seeing? Less of an issue for a short visit (say, a weekend), this is absolutely crucial for maintaining sanity over the course of a longer visit (say, 5-10 days). As a host, you may feel responsible for your long-term guest. You are. But "being responsible for" and "nannying" are two very different things. After a couple days, your guest should have her bearings and would probably like some quiet time to explore. If you and your guest have been reasonably diligent about the preparation bit, she should have everything she needs to be more or less self-sufficient.
Illustrative personal anecdote: My venerable grandmother visited me in Istanbul at a slightly awkward time (I had just signed a rent contract but not yet moved into the apartment, and had just started my first year in an MA program with a hefty commute). Although she had made it clear that she did not expect me to escort her everywhere - she had been to Istanbul sometime before and is an experienced traveler - I managed to stress myself out about it pretty thoroughly for the first couple days. But once I adjusted to her tempo (and learned to avoid crowds and to scout ahead for stairs with railings), we had a magnificent time. When I met her near her hotel after classes, she would tell me about the people she met in the park and all the cool things she saw. And on my free day, she and I took a ferry out to the Islands for a tour on horse-and-buggy and a fantastic fish dinner. Quality time, baby, and perfectly suited.
Important, no matter what the Beatles say:
Another word on (Financial) Independence
Nothing sucks like a guest out of money. When you know how long your guest will be with you, provide a (generously) rough approximation of what the following are likely to cost:
- transportation (public, taxis, to and from the airport)
- food (meals out, street food, and will they be staying long enough to make a grocery contribution the polite thing to do?). I've had fancy guests and not-so-fancy guests with vastly different gustatory expectations. If under normal circumstances you eat out once a month or so and your guest is expecting to go out, this is something you both should budget for.
- museum entrance fees
- evening entertainment
If your guest is on a serious budget, let her know honestly what to expect and where she can cut corners. Guests who are in serious tourist mode will have a much harder time with this than those who are visiting to some sights, but mostly to see you, and would be happy spending most evenings in.
In any case, at the end of the day your guest's budget is his or her own business. You can offer guidelines and suggestions, but unless you've arranged otherwise you're not responsible for filling in the holes and it's best not to let yourself get guilted into paying for things you can't really afford. I once had a guest who was too broke to pay for her own food but managed to buy a rug. My husband and I ate nothing but lentils for the rest of the month. I'll say it again: lingering resentment lingers and that stuff is toxic.
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Communication: No Feelings Get Hurt
If everything is clear from the start! If you have to work, say so. If you have homework or a project or anything else that requires quiet-time at home, say so. The earlier the better. My husband has to get up at 7am for work every day - this *will affect our guests' visits*. If we didn't say anything, it would affect our marriage. Priorities, people! Your guests will understand. I promise. While mandating complete silence after 10pm might be a little crazy, suggesting a nearby bar or cafe (or a book, if they want to stay in) would not go amiss. This is especially useful if, say, it's a school friend of mine visiting - we get some quality time together, she gets to work off her jetlag a bit, and my husband is still able to teach six hours the next day. Hurrah!
On a similar note, if the guest is not a mutual friend, be sure to consult with your room-mate/spouse etc. before she arrives about what boundaries, if any, need to be laid down to ensure domestic harmony. Would he feel better about sharing his space if your guest brought a nice whiskey from duty-free? Is he going to need some quiet-time alone or with you? All of these needs are easily met if they're vocalized in good time. Residual anger is just, well, residual.
One tricky thing about living in an exotic vacation locale is that sometimes people forget that while it's their vacation, it's also the site of your Real Daily Life. Mostly, I encounter this particular misconception when I'm visiting family and friends back in the US over summer break, but that's a topic for another day. As a host, I've only had to deal with this once - but it was memorably awful. No need to let others suffer when the fix is so simple: talk openly about your schedule and when you will be available for your guest. As long as you aren't aggressive (or passively aggressive) about it, and your guest is a human capable of empathy and reason, this will be painless for all involved.
Dealing with a Language Barrier
No one is going to learn a language for a week-long visit. Or even a month-long visit. But having a couple phrases memorized or written down can be the difference between a helpless, needy guest and an adventurous explorer of unknown territory. When my brother came to visit me during his semester (or was it year?) abroad, along with fantastic directions from the airport (and my address, just in case) and a helpful couple of sentences about the visa acquisition process, I emailed him a list of Turkish phrases spelled both correctly and phonetically. While my phonetic interpretations were a source of great amusement, they were nevertheless useful and allowed my intrepid brother to interact with people on more or less his own terms.
It's nevertheless important to empathize with the unseasoned traveler's trepidation about being unable to communicate as easily as she may be accustomed. I've found that a couple phrases and some sincere encouragement (don't worry about sounding or looking like an idiot - you will never see these people again, etc.) really helped - not to mention that it's rarely too difficult to find someone with enough English to get you pointed in the right direction. Foster a sense of adventure - it's good for 'em.