THE BLOG

Summer Houseguests

07/26/2013 08:34 am ET | Updated Sep 25, 2013

2013-07-26-SusanEMJ1.JPG My Barnwell SC cousins, Susan and Mary Jane.

"Hospitality is making your guests feel at home, even if you wish they were."--Anonymous
"Staying with people consists in your not having your own way, and their not having theirs."--Maarten Maartens
"Visits always give pleasure--if not the arrival, the departure."--Portuguese Proverb
"For, after all, put it as we may to ourselves, we are all of us from birth to death guests at a table which we did not spread."--Rebecca H. Davis

Absalom* simply would not leave . . .

. . . and, having lived in, and passionately loved "my other hometown," Athens, Greece, for some three decades at the time he showed up for his visit, I could sympathize with him. How does one leave Greece?

My empathy, however, was fraying. At the time he arrived, in the middle of a Greek Orthodox monks' protest march on the Albanian Embassy, I was newly engaged, living with my British fiancé in a stunning apartment looking out over the American Embassy and, beyond it, hyacinth-hued Mt. Hymettus, and I wanted one fewer inhabitant in my Dimoharous Street flat, sooner as opposed to later.

The odd thing is that Absalom, whom I have known since age 19, a charming fellow Southerner who may well be an Anderson County, S.C., cousin several times removed, was . . . the perfect houseguest.

Perfect in every way, except his continuing presence amongst us, after over a month. (In fact, he had broken his Athenian stay to visit Mount Athos, where few are permitted to enter and, then, only for a rigorously enforced maximum stay of three days, only to return to us again . . . bearing gifts handmade by the monks.)

My error -- one I would never repeat -- was in failing to determine, before my friend's arrival, precisely how long he planned to stay.

Truly, if Absalom had told me, in advance, that he hoped to remain in Athens for two to three months, if not forever, I could have kept him two weeks and then made happy, alternative arrangements for the duration of his stay. It was "the not knowing" that did for his visit. It was the fact (so obvious to the two other semi-permanent residents of the apartment) that Absalom would just simply prefer to stay with us forever rather than return home, that finally made his visitation unbearable.

I took my utterly civilized and long-suffering "Intended" aside one day, saying, sotto voce, "You simply must speak to Absalom about leaving."

Understandably, I was met with, "But, he's your friend. Shouldn't you be the one?"

"I can't," I said, helpless.

And so, it was finally Arthur who spoke to Absalom, who was hurt by the query. Had he not repaired our pistachio-green toilet seat, cooked gourmet dinners for us to enjoy, ensemble, on the Hymettus-side verandah most weeknights, spent the lion's share of his time sightseeing as opposed to hovering about the apartment? Yes, he had. But the time had come for us, like Garbo, to be alone. So Absalom, somewhat miffed at me, departed . . . and then, unexpectedly, we missed him.

So, it was true, just as the great Country & Western lyricist, Dan Hicks, surmised when he wrote, "How can I miss you when you won't go away?"

...

Being a successful houseguest, or its mirror image, a beloved host, I have learned from long study, requires in-born talent, adherence to tried and true rules, and quite a lot of dumb luck.

Just for example, it has been my fate to fall seriously ill just the day after arriving at very old friends' homes, and be rendered incapable of departure, à la Bronte's Catherine and Austen's Marianne. Very bad summerhouse-guest form, altogether, but not to be helped at the time.

I have also overstayed my welcome on several occasions, especially when in my 20s, and invited to such seductive destinations as Manhattan's Park Avenue and Athens, Greece's Kifissia. (I hope my hosts have finally forgiven me.)

However, by my late 20s, I had been knocked into shape as a guest by my Southern mother and, in my 30s, I finally made the transition to a sensible, sensitive host.

I cut my teeth on my so-called "adopted grandparents," Bernhard and Cola Heiden, whom I met on Mykonos in the mid-1970s. Much older and wiser and Middle-European than I, Bernhard and Cola invited me to visit them in their winter home in Bloomington, Indiana, where Bernhard, a renowned classical composer, was Emeritus Professor of Composition and Cola, a concert pianist, taught piano but, more important, maintained a "salon" in the Old World sense at their meticulously kept, child-free home.

I was to sleep in one of the couple's music rooms, and was given my marching orders, by Cola, in writing (if you please), well before my arrival.

It would be delightful, I was told, if, after waking, I could leave no evidence of my being there.

Knowing the Heidens as well as I did by the time of my first visit, which coincided with a gala performance, at the university, of Bernhard's opera, "The Darkened City," I knew precisely what was expected of me. I was to be seen, not heard, unless witty. I was to be helpful, but keep out from underfoot. And all my chattels were to be stowed, invisible, from the moment the house stirred in the morning till the principals retired for the night.

In exchange for adhering to these rather punctilious norms, I would be . . . welcomed into the Midsummer Night's Dream that was the Heidens' world. I would sit with them in their box at the opera, meet their voice and piano students, visit with the great musicians who were their friends, and share in their truly matchless conversation. I would stay fewer than seven days, sleep very little, eat even less, and return home bowed down with invisible riches.

Cola told me, years later, that I was one of the very few "guests" she and Bernhard could long tolerate in their home. There were several reasons why this was true, but I feel that it was Cola's limpid clarity about what she expected of me as a guest, and my absolute willingness to abide by her needs, that made my rare visits a success.

...

And, when visits have not gone so well, in years past, I know it is, for the most part, because boundaries and expectations have not been well expressed, on both sides of the host/houseguest divide.

One disastrous visit, in which my spouse and I played host, for several long weeks, to a married couple and a bachelor friend -- all close friends of ours -- simultaneously, was anything but a success.

For one thing, Fritz, the husband of my closest European friend, is German, and has inflexible requirements when it comes to food. The timing of meals, and their composition (First Breakfast, Second Breakfast, Afternoon Cake and Tea -- I kid you not), were a revelation to us all. When it came to what he ate and when, Fritz's rules and regulations were absolute. It did not stop there. Air conditioning, in house or car, was not to be abided, even in the sweltering August heat of northern New Jersey. And any time at all Gisela and I had planned to share privately -- without Fritz also in attendance -- was deemed verboten.

Add to this unstable mix of two married couples -- Gisela and Fritz; my long-suffering spouse, Dean, and bemused I -- was Karl, an outspoken, large and energetic New England artist quite content to accept the blow-up bed in our attic and do absolutely anything and everything anyone wanted, at any time. Read: Karl was the easiest of guests, and the most accommodating but, when it came to Fritz, he would use any tool at his disposal to take the mickey out.

Fritz, a master of passive aggression, when asked if we could all pick up more and specific groceries for him, would always demur and, for the first few days, we took him at his word, until utterly all the milk, butter and bread would disappear before four of us got to the kitchen in the morning.

Gauging Fritz's "houseguest style," Karl, Dean and I took to sneaking out and ferrying back in vast amounts of designer bread, milk, cream, yogurt, etc., etc. With two fridges stocked to the brim, all of us had food for at least our First Breakfasts.

One night, we asked Fritz if he'd like lobster. Of course, consistent, he responded, "No," and so we shopped for just enough lobster for the two avowed lobster-eaters, Karl and Dean. Karl, expecting a reversal from Fritz, once the lobsters were prepared, headed things off at the pass. Retiring to the basement, he boiled the crustaceans there, set up a table, with all the fixin's, for himself and Dean, and the two of them feasted while we, upstairs, ate salads and sandwiches, Fritz fuming. In retrospect, it's all rather amusing.

By the end of the long visit, Fritz was not getting high marks in "Plays well with others," but at least those who were departing departed on civil terms. Gisela did remark that, perhaps, it might be better if she visited me on her own in the future. I concurred.

...

2013-07-26-EssoClubDEandT.JPG Dean, I and Ted Balk at Clemson SC's Esso Club.

As I write this, Dean and I have just returned from a 12-day sojourn at the home of our friend, Ted Balk, in Central, South Carolina.

Now, 12 days is a long, long time for a married couple to park themselves in a bachelor friend's guest room, but Ted and I discussed the visit at great length in advance and, unless I am deceived, we will be visiting him again, and he us, with joy.

For the most part -- experienced summer guest and summer hostess that I am -- I tried, in advance, to talk him out of keeping us for as long as we stayed. I told him that having a musician and a writer, let alone an unavoidably-sometimes-bickering married couple in residence, might try his patience after the first three days or so. However, since South Carolina is such a beastly long way from New Jersey, we couldn't just come for a weekend and then depart: our stay would be protracted, of necessity.

I assured him that we would grocery-shop, cook, assist with home repairs (and there were some), bring him Japanese Maple seedlings from our garden and, in general, make a conscious effort to be sensitive to his schedule and eccentricities.

Arrival and departure dates were set. Goals for the visit were discussed. Towels and sheets and a shower curtain -- and even a coverlet and shams ("What is a sham?" asked Ted.) were mailed down for the guest bedroom and bath. Ted had just moved into a new house, I reasoned, so everything would be in flux for him: what were two more variables in the mix of all that was novel and new?

Largely, it all turned out as we had hoped, and the visit went well. We look forward to Ted's coming up to New York--for the museums and the opera--this autumn. But I do now acknowledge that having a couple visit is more challenging than hosting a single friend: the dynamics are harder to predict and the possibility of unanticipated mayhem (well, we did manage to pull down both shower rods, cum curtains) increases geometrically. Only hosts living in palatial, British stately homes can invite multiple guests--let alone, Horror!, guests with children -- and continue blithely on, their usual routines undisturbed.

...

. . . which brings me to hosting friends with children or, alternatively, single adolescents.

I cannot do either. I lack the skill set.

Having stated this so unequivocally, I must admit of an exception to the rule, in the form of an unmarried couple, Jasmine and Ralph, and her three adolescent boys.

I can see some of you blanching visibly as I type that. Three. Adolescent. Boys.

But, in fact, Jasmine, being the sort of Commander-in-Chief who might have stepped in (back in 1943) for Generals Eisenhower and Alexander and taken Sicily in a fortnight, and Ralph, one of the best of our friends, as well as being an engineer, an Eagle Scout and a gentleman, wrangled their boys like a tame flock of tiny, housebroken ducklings. We hardly knew they were here, except when they were fixing our computers, fine-tuning our software, or exiting, quietly, Stage Left, for days of self-entertainment in the city (the bus to Grand Central stops just outside our house).

As I've told Ralph, they're all welcome back at any time . . . as long as Jasmine comes, too.

...

All in all, being a gracious host and a valued guest involves living up to or exceeding expectations, on both sides. After years of experience, as one or the other entity, I've compiled a short, short list of the rules of engagement. They may, or may not, be helpful, but I offer them up for your perusal.


Rules of Houseguesting

1) Visit, and/or invite, only friends whom you truly wish to see, and whom you would not hesitate to tend through an illness, introduce to any and all other friends, and share space and resources and perhaps even your favorite chocolates with without the slightest hesitation. Host, or visit, only those whose presence in your life you find welcome.

2) State (preferably in writing) any hard and fast "Rules of Engagement," as far as you can determine them, well in advance of a visit. If you can only bear "others" for a maximum of a week (or even three days), let this fact be known. If you are struggling with poverty, have any specific dietary or life-style requirements, or are in the midst of a noisy divorce, custody battle or mental meltdown, make that known as well. Do tell friends with, say, multiple animal allergies if you live with multiple animals: this will be a deal-breaker.

3) When hosting, pamper your guests as you would like to be pampered. Clean your house. Give up one bathroom for the guests' sole use, if possible. Supply clean sheets and towels, extra pillows (with or without shams, Ted), reading material, toiletries, maps and guides to your region, etc., etc., etc. Supply a candy dish of good chocolates. Make your guests welcome. If you are a guest, come bearing gifts. Take your hosts out to dinner. Bear the brunt of food expenses. Estimate what your stay is costing your hosts, and pitch in. Strip your bed on the day of departure, and carry sheets and towels down to the laundry. Leave your shared spaces better than you found them.

4) As guest, or host, try to find some special, unique way to bring joy into the lives of your temporary companions. Jeanne loves bead-stores: I took her to one. Ted and Dean adore barbecue: we ate in as many BBQ joints as we could. My Barnwell SC cousins' homes are decorated with oils painted by their late mother, my aunt Bessie: I photographed them, made prints, and created greeting cards for Mary Jane and Susan featuring one of Bessie's works.

5) Actually "love" your neighbor -- visiting, or being visited -- as yourself. It really, truly boils down to . . . just that.

...

Note: ""Real Simple" offers some helpful tips on being better hosts: http://www.realsimple.com/home-organizing/organizing/houseguests-prep-checklists-00000000000956/index.html; "Cozi," providing balance, tells us how to be better houseguests.

*I have, as usual, changed most real names to fictitious ones in this column.