Armchair travel

The beauty of being an Airbnb host (and I am not writing a promo here!) is that you get to meet people from all over the world and share stories, meals, laughter and life experiences. Living in Australia means that most overseas travel is medium to long haul; you certainly can’t nip off to Europe for a weekend. So bringing a flavour of those countries and customs into your house can be the next best thing.

I’m always fascinated by different customs and ways of living: toast with jam no butter (my Italian guests); toast with peanut butter and jam (the Americans); eating toast and bread off a slice of kitchen paper rather than a plate (the Americans); rinsing a clean cup before drinking out of it (the Chinese); shoes off before coming into the house (the Malaysians); and – no surprises here – wall to wall pasta with pesto (the Italians).

I asked the first people to enquire about my room lots of questions before accepting their reservation. If guests have not completed their Airbnb profile or got reviews from previous hosts, it’s a bit of a blind date. So I gave Cinzia and Giulia the third degree! After all they were due to arrive in the early hours of the morning and let themselves in to my house. Needless to say the sisters, who hail from Sulmona in the Abruzzo region of Italy, were warm-hearted and very easy to get to know. So much so that I soon had an invitation to go and visit next time I am in Europe. I’d never heard of Sulmona, the birthplace of the poet Ovid, but am now excited about exploring this small medieval city surrounded by mountains and packed with historical interest. I can just see myself sitting in one of the bustling squares, sipping a glass of wine and people watching.

Cinzia and Giulia kept very late hours and didn’t get into the Australian habit of eating early – no ‘When in Rome do as the Romans’ for them – but we did manage to share a meal together one night. They cooked a rich and flavoursome mushroom risotto and I made baked peaches with almonds.


As I have written previously my American tandem-riding guests, Dan and Vicky, were also a lot of fun. They were with me over Christmas and New Year and we went out for a special dinner on Christmas Eve, shared downtime around the house with Dan helping me with lots of ‘honey-dos’ (see xxxx), and took in a few movies and beach walks. They invited me to their home in Denver, Colorado, next Christmas and – to cut a long story short – I am saving up. Too bad that Bertie won’t be able to come too.

Last week I had my first Chinese visitors and what a delight they were. Chester and Janice are first cousins, both twenty years old. Janice is studying in Sydney and Chester came over from Guangzhou (he taught me how to pronounce it properly as Guanjo) to check out Monash University. They sometimes got into a bit of a linguistic tangle and would dissolve into giggles, which I found most endearing. They were extremely quiet and considerate around the house and cleaned the kitchen so thoroughly that I could hardly tell if they had eaten or not. What’s more they gave me a beautiful blue and white Chinese bowl with a picture of a fish, a symbol of abundance.

They cooked Western style while they were here and made me, an English woman, American-style pancakes with maple syrup one morning. As I said in my Facebook post, it was yum without the cha! To return the compliment, I cooked dinner one night. A friend asked me if I had included rice in the menu. That would have been ‘Coals to Newcastle’ so I made rack of lamb with quinoa salad with feta cheese, spinach and cherry tomatoes.


They found the salad ‘interesting’ and the lamb delicious but are not used to eating such a big meal at night. Their parents’ business is in dry foods that go into special medicinal soups. As anyone who has visited a Chinese herbalist or doctor will know, cold straight-from-the-fridge foods are a no-no, as is iced water. Warming teas, soups and rice-based meals are the go. I learnt that there are special soups for women who have had a baby, women who have just menstruated and much more. But this was a ‘when in Melbourne’ occasion and we broke all the rules. We started with a celebratory drink of Scotch whisky and soda on the rocks, ate pinkish lamb with the’ interesting salad’ (cheese is not common in China and quinoa probably non-existent) and then finished with a special dessert they made out of cooked tapioca, coconut milk and mango.

We used to get tapioca pudding at school and we all struggled to eat it, complaining that it was like frog spawn. It’s true that the tapioca pearls do have a spawn-like appearance and they are somewhat gelatinous. But I really savoured the feeling of the cool jelly-like baubles in my mouth on Sunday night. Mixed with coconut milk and mango, it was the perfect dessert for a 33-degree summer’s evening.


It was hugs all round when they left the next morning and I got to eat the tapioca pudding leftovers that night. This week I have a Malaysian mother and son staying. Who knows what we might eat, do or learn from one another? Meanwhile, I’m doing my best to take off my shoes before coming into the house!