Before my parents acquired ownership of my grandparents’ rustic mountain cabin, and my mom cleaned out its wondrous assortment of tchotchkes, a sign hung in the lower level bathroom, giving fair warning to house guests who might have a hankering to overstay their welcome in the beautiful Rocky Mountains. It ran thus:
Even though cabin guests were frequent, Grandma had strict rules about what could and could not happen while there. For the most part, food was to be consumed outside on a rickety picnic table with peeling paint. The possibility of splinters on bare legs and arms stood at one hundred percent, should eating and the diner’s movements become too active. The large, black ants who occupied the kitchen were akin to animals at the zoo: observe, but do not feed. No items of furniture could be moved or rearranged, and no complaints about the threadbare condition of towels, blankets, or pillowcases were welcome. What did it matter that the mattresses dated to the 1950s? No mention was required about the one-inch-in-diameter spiders who crawled up from the bathtub drains and made nests in the overhead rafters. Everyone knew they were there; be on your guard. This was a cabin, and to Grandma that meant close proximity to the Great Outdoors without needing a tent.
Those rules, combined with the tactile warning nailed to the bathroom wall, made me swear off ever imposing myself on someone else’s home territory.
Which is why, when a friend repeatedly invited Dr. K and me to his seaside aerie perched on a hill at the opposite end of the country, I hedged. After a while, the invitations stopped; I think he sensed a lack of interest in visiting, when in fact, the opposite was true. The lure of plentiful and cheap lobster and easy-going days near the water tugged at me — and yet, I worried about the actual stay.
It’s not that I’m a hermit on vacation. Over half our yearly vacation time is spent with friends, either sharing the costs of a rental house, or traveling together on an organized trip. At its best, traveling with others takes leisure time adventuring to a new level, adding different personalities to the mix, guaranteeing there will be that much better stories to tell about it down the road. And at the very least, eating breakfast with friends in their pajamas, before the first cup of coffee has taken effect, assures everyone’s best behavior. Otherwise, you don’t get invited back for the next group trip.
The key to group vacations is everyone pitches in to pay for their allotment of space, be it a bedroom, a couch, a corner, or the left half of the motorhome. But when you are a house guest, you own nothing.
Finally, though, the lobsters won, and I asked my friend if the invitation was still good. Somewhat surprised, he said it was. That’s when I began developing a list of rules for the rotten house guest.
1. Invite Yourself to be a House Guest
Google the standards for good “house guesting” and you’ll end up with 436,000 results, ranging from cranky singles in Paris to Miss Manners to BuzzFeed quizzes. Although it’s deemed perfectly acceptable to hint to a friend that you’re going to be in their vicinity in the near future, and to state your wallet is slim these days (a hopeful statement, one site assured, that promises a free bed) every site I read shoots nails at the person who dares invite herself outright to be a guest.
I disagree, with provisos.
If you haven’t corresponded in years, you can’t simply email someone cold and announce you’re on the way. But, if there have been previous, yet to date unaccepted discussions regarding the possibility of bunking down in someone else’s home, that’s tantamount to an unspoken invitation, even if the discussion has grown mold.
This is not to say I wasn’t nervous about our upcoming trip, particularly when an acquaintance (who had visited the mutual friend) noted we were staying at the sanctum sanctorum. Outwardly, I smiled and nodded, hoping my silence implied, “Won’t it be fun?” when what I really wanted to say was, “What the heck was I thinking?”
Nonetheless, off we went to Maine.
2. Arrive Empty-Handed
All the sites I reviewed stated an acknowledged imperative: when you arrive at someone else’s home, whether for dinner or a pillow, you must arrive with gift in hand. I say that’s not so. The first thing out of my mouth after I hugged my friend and his girlfriend was the announcement, “I don’t have a gift for you yet!”
It’s true the dinner guest without a wine bottle, flower, or offering of chocolates is viewed as a boor, and yet, when you appear on the threshold to stay for four nights, your good taste will always remain in question if you immediately hand over a prized, hand-crocheted afghan. While you may believe decorating with holey blankets indicates style, your friend may not be of the same mind. It’s best to take a look at their tastes, and while visiting, purchase a gift to reflect and enhance those.
Keep in mind the number of nights of plunking down together, the number of meals shared, the amount of space allotted, and the squares of toilet paper you may be inclined to need when determining the cost of a host gift. It’s also good to remember that your host is saving you the cost of renting a hotel room, so treating for a meal out (or two) is considerate.
3. Wear Blinders and Bring Ear Plugs
All the sites I visited while trying to learn what is okay and what is not for house guest behavior lectured on the need for discretion, to the point that anyone less than Martha Stewart need not dare attempt house guest status, lest a towel be left askew or a pillow unplumped in your room. Moreover, appropriate garb was stringently required at all times, which leads me to think that my brief run up the stairs clad in only a bath towel wasn’t the most proper of actions, and yet, did I have to drag full outfits of clothing into the bathroom to make that six second dash, particularly when I hadn’t figured out what to wear yet? Besides, everything was covered. Discretion may be the better part of valor, but speed and turning a blind eye works equally well. Reciprocate and allow your hosts their time together. It is their house. They should not be made to feel they are running a convent.
4. Discussions About Life Issues are Okay
Several sites advised that it was not acceptable to pull out your cellphone and peruse its contents during the visit, and yet the first thing out of my friend’s mouth (after asking me what I’d like to drink) was information on how to access the WiFi. My phone had already found it and logged in, how, I dare not guess, other than it felt at home. How is one supposed to travel cross country, leaving work and children behind, and not check in and check up for status reports?
It was also recommended that no serious discussions ensue. After leaving religion, politics, sex, and your opinion of how crazy work can get on the doorstep, there is little else to talk about other than the weather. Luckily, the four of us shared a mutual affection for Lewis Black, a comedian whose monologues leave no topic unmolested; after watching a couple of his YouTubes, the ice was broken and any subject was fair game.
Inadvisable? Possibly. But the peals of laughter from those three days still ring in my ears.
5. Go Play — And Invite Them to Join You
Many sites suggested that a host is merely there to provide clean sheets, towels, and a coffee maker. Never assume your host wants to go along to sightsee territory he already knows. Make yourself as scarce as possible; remember, you are only there on the slender threads of hospitality. Don’t sever them.
Maybe that was true, and yet, we all had a marvelous time visiting restaurants, enjoying gourmet home-cooked meals, and made opportunities for shared silence while everyone worked on various projects in order to head out and explore.
The time spent kayaking in the Damariscotta River was memorable, particularly when I became trapped sideways in between a narrow row of oyster cages, one of the hazards of curiosity and wanting to know how they “farm” those bivalves, and was pushed free by one of our friends. Seeing a teenaged eagle was special, too.
And then there are the Pemaquids, a liquid refreshment concocted by our host, comprised of fresh lemon juice or muddled strawberries, a shot of St. Germaine, topped with vodka and soda, in remembrance of our leisurely after-breakfast exploration of the rocky outcrop girdling the shoreline below the lighthouse at Pemaquid Point.
We’re back home, but I text back and forth in our Words with Friends game, making plans for their fall visit to our town, and designing yet another version of the Pemaquid (made with a seasonal orange-cranberry muddle) which leaves me to think that this friendship, created by rotten house guests, will be a perennial one.
Like this blog post? Subscribe to my newsletter so you won’t miss out on future blog posts!
Award-winning author Emily Kemme writes about human nature, illuminating the everyday in a way that highlights its brilliance. Follow her on her blog, Feeding the Famished, https://www.facebook.com/EmilyKemme, or on Twitter @. Life inspired. Vodka tempered.