Travel: It's time to return the favour

THERE'S NOTHING like staying with the locals. Next week I'm going to visit a mate in Calabria, where his mother, I strongly believe, is going to prepare a series of meals comprising ham, melon, pasta, antipasto, meat, fish, pizza, ice-cream, fruit, dessert, cheese and coffee for the foreign guest.

I'll have two helpings of every course, and my hostess will be so appreciative of my appreciation that the pleasure will be as much hers as mine. She'll exclaim at my appetite and I'll exclaim at her melanzane parmigiana. The net happiness of the world will increase on two counts.

Machiavellian, moi? But it's true isn't it? Visitor looks hungry, family cooks. Visitor smiles, family gets warm feeling inside. Visitor gets free lunch, family bust out of tedious, humdrum monotony of daily existence. Tell me honestly: where's the catch?

The formula works best in places with fewest visitors. In some countries it is impossible to walk down a street without being invited into people's homes to eat a freshly killed sheep, to sleep in the main bedroom, to use up the entire village water supply, etc. While travelling in, say, Iran, I was invited for almost every night of my stay. Right across Asia, in fact, there are people to whom I owe a skewered sheep or three (not to mention hours of social time).

Of course I may be kidding myself that there was anything mutual about the pleasure. Perhaps my hosts have always been too polite to say no. Perhaps they actually wanted to put a frozen curry into the microwave and watch a video, not idle away their time listening to the broken platitudes of some half-witted Englishman who thinks that, say, Uzbekis always eat whole roasted goats served on platters of rice.

But let's assume that people do enjoy hosting foreigners. You still have to ask: am I planning to reciprocate the favours? Am I planning to host, say, Italian families in London, putting aside hours of my time to prepare them genuine British meals of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding? Or did I always plan to extract the maximum advantage out of people before fleeing scot-free back to England?

I admit it hardly seems fair. After all, what Italian would really choose my cooking over his mother's? All the same, I am determined not to take people for granted. Hosting good honest tourists from around the world cannot be a one-way affair. All those Russians, Spanish, Italians, Turks, Japanese, Iranians, Turkomen, Uzbeks, Chinese, Arabs and Pakistanis who have hosted me over the years, take note. (But one at a time please.)

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