When my grandmother came to stay for the holidays, she would sweep up the driveway in a champagne-colored car with huge tail fins. Wearing rhinestone-studded sunglasses and an ancient fur coat, she’d spring from the car and shout, “Darlings! I’m here!” And then proceed to turn the entire house upside down, organizing extravagant shopping expeditions and surprise visits to the ice cream parlor. She’d been a silent film star and famous beauty in her day, and she always felt that if you’re going to do something, you might as well go too far.
Much as she enjoyed disrupting our sedate daily routine, my grandmother understood the fundamental social contract between hosts and houseguests. She believed it was the responsibility of all concerned to work diligently toward the mutual goal of creating a pleasant visit – with luck, an enchanting and memorable one – and to avoid the kinds of hideous disasters most of us have suffered through at one time or another. I’ve done my best to carry on her tradition, modernizing her principles into what I call the seven habits of highly considerate houseguests.
1. Read the invitation carefully. During the initial exchange of emails, your hosts have probably given you vital social cues. Don’t ignore them. For instance, I always make a point of mentioning to incoming houseguests that Sevillanos rarely speak any English, hoping to avoid those awkward moments when my guests stand at the bar shouting “Beer. Beer! BEER!” and eliciting blank stares from the camarero.
2. Be clear on the length of your stay. The laws of hospitality make it difficult for your hosts to specify time restrictions in a graceful way, so this part is up to you. More than once, I’ve had people arrive for a weekend and linger on for nearly two weeks. If not for their non-refundable plane tickets, they might be still lying on my living room couch, asking where I was taking them for tapas tonight.
3. Ask your hosts if there is anything they’d like from your part of the world. Although you can now occasionally find good chocolate chips at a few high-priced specialty stores, and vanilla extract can be mail ordered from Amazon, I'm still thrilled when guests show up bearing these hard-to-get items.
4. Start a common trip fund. Throwing matching amounts into an envelope and using that to pay for group activities saves all sorts of fuss.
6. Respect your hosts’ time, electronic devices, and financial position. Your friends and relatives are not on vacation and no doubt have responsibilities clamoring for their attention. Pitch in and help with housekeeping (doing the dishes is a great start) and avoid tying up their computer for hours playing solitaire. If they’re on a budget, don’t place them in the awkward position of spending more than they can afford on restaurants and sightseeing so that you can have the trip of a lifetime.
7. End on a high note. Treat your hosts to a wonderful dinner, a great bottle (or case) of wine, or something else you’re sure they’ll enjoy.
With luck and a bit of effort, we can all be the kind of houseguests that people actually want to invite back for another visit.
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. We've recently completed a five-month Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture — and our own.
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