Last week we had a family of French friends staying with us, which led me to reflect on the subject of houseguests. This time we were exchanging bisous by the hundred with my oldest friend, her husband and their three children, the youngest of whom is my gorgeous eight-year-old goddaughter. Although we usually meet in France, they have been to stay with us in London before and although it’s a little cosy fitting five extra people into our average-sized house, they are the perfect guests. I lost count of how often they said they were having a lovely time.
We’ve been lucky in the other direction too and in the last months alone we’ve enjoyed the generous hospitality of friends in Brighton, Yorkshire, Brooklyn and Las Vegas. We always try our best to behave. The qualities of a houseguest are obvious, surely? Good guests are considerate and respectful, fitting in with the hosts’ set-up without completely disrupting their routine or treating the place like a hotel. A good guest shows appreciation, not necessarily with lavish gifts or by paying for dinner (although feel free) – simple gestures like a bottle of wine, an offer of babysitting or help with the cooking and clearing-up are just as thoughtful.
So why is it that we all seem to have at least one houseguest horror story?
I have enough for a novel, never mind a blogpost but I was curious to hear about others’ experiences. When I first mentioned it on Twitter there was silence, but it seems people were merely summoning the strength to relive past traumas and for the next few days stories poured in. Space doesn’t allow me to use them all and in the interests of diplomacy, all remain anonymous (as requested by many!) Warning: Some of this stuff is of rather questionable taste – if you are easily offended, maybe you shouldn’t read on. Then again, maybe you should, if only to feel relieved that you haven’t had these particular guests to stay…
I’ll go first.
My early experiences were of being a houseguest, on the many foreign exchange visits I was sent on – not always willingly – from the tender age of twelve. I was not a very charming youngster, nor was I always the ideal guest. When staying with one French family, I broke a swan-neck bathroom tap and denied it until I was blue in the face when an expensive repair was needed. The lady of the house was lovely, but her nurturing instinct was more of the intellectual than the nutritional variety. Towards the end of my stay I was driven by hunger to point out that the yoghurts we were offered at the end of each awful meal were so out of date that the lids were blowing up. That didn’t go down too well, but at least I was never rumbled for pretending to go to mass when in reality her son was teaching me handbrake turns (in her car) on the local university campus (it could’ve been worse.)
Fast forward to my undergraduate days, when I had a penpal from East Germany (that dates me in so many ways). As the end of my year in West Germany approached, I went to visit him taking a caseful of comestibles not available in the eastern bloc. My baggage was so manhandled on the long train journey (eventful in many ways – I was concealing subversive western magazines up the sleeves of my coat) that the only thing still intact on arrival was a pineapple. My friend’s mother proceeded to cut it into about fifty chunks then invited everybody from their apartment block to come and taste it – they had never seen one before. It still touches me to recall that – it was a fascinating visit.
But who would have guessed that the iron curtain was about to fall? A few years later the same friend asked to visit us, bringing his girlfriend. What he didn’t tell me was that they’d already spent two weeks in Italy, sleeping in the car to save money. They weren’t greatly enticed by the bright lights of London. All they really wanted to do was have sex in our house, audibly, day and night. When I did manage to drag them out, they expected us to pay for everything. (We were so broke at the time we could barely afford to feed ourselves.)
Sadly it would appear that many a friendship has foundered on the rocky shores of hospitality. My own final story is a topical one, for it took place on Bonfire Night many years ago. Our guests, a couple with two youngish children, arrived to see the fireworks with us, have dinner and stay the night. I’d spent the day cooking something delicious to come home to but when the display ended I first had to collect our younger child from a friend’s. By the time I returned, all of twenty minutes later, our guests had practically polished off a bottle of Sancerre from my wine stash that I hadn’t planned to serve. This set the tone for the whole evening, when they got very drunk and were breathtakingly rude to me. When eventually I stomped upstairs in a fit of barely concealed fury, they didn’t even notice.
The next morning I took an unnecessarily long walk to buy the Sunday papers in the hope they would have left before I got back, but it was as if nothing had happened. They thought it would be nice to stay for lunch, and when I said we didn’t have enough food, a convivial walk to the local shops was proposed. It was five hours before they left. Delicacy prevents me going into detail about the scene which awaited me in the loft bedroom, other than to say it looked like the aftermath of a particularly nasty stag night. There was only one bodily substance not in evidence.
Over to my sources who shall remain nameless. How about…
The grandmother who comes for Christmas… and helpfully decides to let you, the exhausted young parents, have a lie in on Christmas day, waking up to find your three-year-old has already opened all of his presents.
The (un)welcome-outstayer… who arrives for a week and stays for a year, not without expecting you to change your daily habits and mealtimes to suit them.
The purveyor of assorted clutter… you stand helplessly by as your guests schlep half their worldly goods onto your property, cracking only at the sight of a 14 foot wooden propeller.
The entrepreneurial couch surfer… just an acquaintance down on their luck who needs a place to crash for a few days. All fine, until you find out they’re bringing a different stranger home each night. For money.
The hygienically challenged… we’ve all experienced the discomfort of a long, hot journey causing us to reach our destination in a less than fragrant condition. But to remain unwashed for a further two days really isn’t the best start.
The kitchen rebel-without-a-clue… who little suspects that loading the dishwasher with the forks facing the wrong way is making you want to plant one deeply in their arm. All items will be returned to the wrong cupboards and even after they’ve left, you’re still burning (your toast) with resentment because they’ve adjusted the settings.
The gastronomically demanding… who load your supermarket trolley with luxury food, and when you explain it’s beyond your budget, tell you that as they’ve had the expense of travelling, it’s your duty as host to lay on a decent spread.
There were heart-warming stories of successful stays too – but nowhere near as many!
I’d love to hear your tales of being and receiving houseguests, whether delightful or disastrous. Thanks to all contributors.
The image accompanying today’s post is a papercut of my house by my talented friend Vanessa Stone. She hasn’t asked me to promote her work, I just think she deserves it. She works on-site and from photographs and you can discover more about her here.
Next week: Combined book review and event report – Donna Tartt’s new novel The Goldfinch. I’m reading it now and looking forward to seeing her at a reading on 12 November.