During our 20 years in Cleveland, houseguests were such a rarity (I can’t imagine why) that Rich and I spent days preparing the house, weeks planning ways to entertain them and months afterwards writing to apologize yet again for the dog chewing up their favorite pair of blue jeans. Each visit was a seismic event in our lives. Now that we live in Seville, where we’ve entertained more than 100 guests (although to be fair, a few did stay at a hotel around the corner), we’ve fallen into a practiced routine, like veteran B&B proprietors. One of our checklist items, right up there with sheets, towels and guidebooks, is establishing a departure date.
And before I go any further, let me say that most of our visitors have been perfectly delightful, embracing their brief stay in Seville with enthusiasm, enjoying every activity suggested for their entertainment, amusing us with lively conversation, and being considerate of our time and resources in every possible way. We hated to see them go and hope they’ll return soon, and often.
In some visitors, however, we have not been quite so fortunate.
We’ve hosted couples whose relationship had reached the bitterly acrimonious stage, elderly friends sliding fast into senility, people whose mood-altering medications had recently been adjusted in unfortunate ways, families in shock from ghastly visits with in-laws, and sullen, eye-rolling teens. No matter how disturbed their state of mind, a guest is a guest, and Rich and I strive mightily to be considerate hosts, even on those occasions when, as the saying goes, “Hospitality is making your guests feel at home, even though you wish they were.”
Occasionally this has backfired horribly. Twice we’ve had houseguests come for a weekend and stay for nearly two weeks, demanding full-time guest services every day. They kept saying blithely, “I know we had planned to go on to Cordoba, Ronda, and Granada, but you’re just making us so comfortable, we simply can’t bear to tear ourselves away! You don’t mind if we stay another few days, do you? This is such fun! What shall we all do today?”
Raised as we were with stringent standards of hospitality, Rich and I felt we could not simply chuck them bodily out into the street. We gave in with as much grace as we could muster, and they stayed on and on until their non-refundable airline tickets finally forced them to pack their bags and head for home.
One Spanish friend, confronted with this problem, found a solution that was so simple, so elegant and so effective that I can hardly wait until the next guests overstay their welcome so we can try it. In case you’re ever in this position, here’s what he did:
This particular houseguest had spent weeks sleeping on the sofa in the tiny one bedroom apartment where my friend and his girlfriend were living. Despite increasingly broad hints that he move on, the houseguest couldn't be budged. Finally my friend announced he had to go out of town; the houseguest’s suggestion that he stay on, sharing the apartment with the other’s girlfriend, was met with a steely-eyed glare. Reluctantly, the houseguest gathered his things to leave. My friend packed a suitcase, escorted the houseguest to the bus stop, kept walking until he was out of sight, then circled around, went home to his apartment and got on with his life.
See what I mean? Brilliant.
The Wisconsin parents. Photo courtesy of Reddit / IMUGR / Facebook
As a teenager, I could not have imagined many fates more excruciating than having my mom and dad post embarrassing pictures of themselves where my friends could see them. Apparently this has occurred to some of today’s harassed parents, who have resorted to using Facebook as a form of punishment. In one now-famous incident, when a Wisconsin teen “got fresh,” her parents decided confiscating her cell phone wasn’t enough and decided to post a bunch of goofy photos of themselves on her Facebook page. Her brother, who sided with the parents on this one, released the story and one of the parental photos to the world. Articles instantly appeared on the Huffington Post and everywhere else on the planet. Public response ranged from “Way to go, parents!” to “Publicly shaming your child? Shame on you!”
“By giving people the power to share,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once remarked, “we’re making the world more transparent.” Yes, but just how much transparency do we really want? How would those Wisconsin parents feel if their daughter posted embarrassing photos of herself on Mom’s company website or Dad’s Rotary Club Facebook page?
To me, the whole transparency issue is kind of like nude beaches. When I was a college student – about the age Mark Zuckerberg was when he revolutionized social media – I once went to a nude beach, feeling terribly daring and wildly cool, and wondering why everyone didn’t want to join in the fun. Three decades later I found myself in Marbella, on the southern shore of Spain, where I was gobsmacked to discover a sea of 70-year-old tourists – men and women – sunbathing in nothing but skimpy thongs. I admired their courage, if not their leathery skin. But – and this is my point – I was very glad that I had the freedom to choose how much of myself I was going to reveal to the world.
Same goes for social media. I love the endless, crazy, eclectic, rambunctious, billion-voiced conversation that goes on every day. But I am often flabbergasted by the things people choose to post: lurid details of their divorce, rants about people none of the rest of us know, photos I wouldn’t even share with my sisters let alone the blogosphere, character assassinations in 140-character spurts aka trial by Twitter. In the early days of Facebook, I felt a certain cozy security that only my family and close friends could see what I posted, but with the ever-changing privacy rules, I’d be surprised if even Mark Zuckerberg always knows who’s allowed to see what and pass it on to whom. So I now adhere to one simple rule: never post anything on the Internet you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.
And that goes double when I’m talking about my husband. Rich is a tremendous good sport, but there are limits, and I would never want to embarrass him by doing anything to compromise his privacy or his dignity.
Photo by Hotelstvedi
In last week’s post, I wrote about grisly stays in flophouses and soulless chains, but for annoyance and discomfort, it’s hard to beat the night I spent in Newark Airport. Our flight from Spain had arrived late, somewhere around midnight, long after our connecting flight had departed. In our naiveté, Rich and I thought it would be a simple matter to book a room in a nearby hotel, but 45 minutes on the phone convinced us there wasn’t an available bed within 20 miles. “I guess we’ll just have to spend the night here,” Rich said, eyeing the plastic benches with disfavor. That’s when the security guard came up to us and said, “I’m sorry but we’re closing the terminal. You’ll have to leave.”
Leave? And go where? I pictured Rich and myself outside, huddled on the concrete, pressed up against the darkened building to absorb the last vestiges of warmth. I imagined us roaming the parking lot, searching for a car window carelessly left open that we might crawl through to spend a few precious hours in the comfort of a back seat. Maybe we could ask the guard for some sheets of cardboard and old airline blankets. But in the end we were herded, along with a gaggle of other stranded passengers, into the adjacent terminal’s food court. There, I pushed three wooden chairs together, stretched out with my head on my suitcase, and fell into a fitful doze in the gentle glow of back-lit fast food logos.
Hanging around Newark, Heathrow, O’Hare or any major air transportation hub is tedious at best, nightmarish at worst. But with nearly one third of all flights experiencing a delay, sooner or later you’re likely to find yourself in an airport with time on your hands. And new, innovative businesses are springing up to entertain you during those hours. Strolling around Heathrow recently, I discovered the No. 1 Travel Spa, an oasis of comfort where you can get a massage, a hot shower, a nap in a real bed, that overdue haircut or bikini wax, or simply a hot meal in congenial surroundings. You don’t have to be a member; if you're a walk-in, you'll pay £35 for basics including food, shower and use of the lounge, and/or you can book individual spa services, such as a massage (£60/hour). If your budget doesn’t stretch to that kind of pampering, Heathrow also offers the free “play me” piano. This little upright is discreetly tucked away in an obscure corner far from the maddening crowds, so no one can hear how badly you mangle Benny and the Jets or La Bomba. Knock yourself out.
Next time you’re booking a flight, go online to check out the airport’s entertainment options. A few international transportation hubs offer athletic diversions, such as Hong Kong's golf course or Singapore's rooftop swimming pool. Many US and European facilities offer kid-friendly play areas and free wi-fi zones. Dallas Fort Worth, determined to become "the healthiest airport in the country, if not the world," has built a yoga studio and a walking path that’s seven-tenths of a mile (1100 meters). Some airports are edging out fast food chains and souvenir shops in favor of Wolfgang Puck, Gucci and, in Heathrow’s T5, an 11,000-square-foot Harrods.
Photo by chrismar
All that helps while away the time, but the best antidote for the airport blues is moving on to your destination. Or at least, a destination. Once, en route home after a volunteer work assignment in the former Soviet Union, Rich and I were delayed coming through Paris and raced to our connecting flight, arriving just as the doors were closing. We urged the staff to reopen and let us board; to be totally honest with you, it’s possible I may have expressed my sentiments with unbecoming vigor. The manager arrived and said sternly, “Madam, we will put you on tomorrow night’s flight to Cleveland. You have no alternative but to spend the next 24 hours in Paris.” I was drawing breath to resume battle, when I suddenly realized what he had said. Mais oui! Within the hour Rich and I were sitting at a sidewalk café sipping vin and watching tout Paris stroll by. Knowing that at that very moment we could have been juddering around in a plane 35,000 feet above the earth, or, worse, spending the night at the airport, made that wine some of the sweetest I’ve ever tasted.
I have nothing against five star hotels – a little creamy elegance and fawning service never hurt anybody – but given a choice, I’ll always go for small, quaint and unusual. Give me a converted windmill, rice barge, convent or olive farm any day over a cookie-cutter corporate chain. There’s so much more to talk about afterwards. Once, when I asked a woman I know how she was enjoying her stay at one of Seville’s premier hotels, she said, “OK, I guess. The bathroom had all the complementary toiletries you’d expect.” That’s nice, but how do you parlay free shampoo and shower caps into a sparkling anecdote or a cherished memory?
Of course, quaint and quirky can definitely go to far. Once in Bhutan, we had a bare-bones room in a guesthouse, and to reach the outhouse I had to cross a courtyard, climb a ladder, go over the garden wall, climb down another ladder and make my way through the scrub brush. Luckily, there was a full moon that night, but still!
And then there was the Hotel Maya, a large roadside establishment catering mostly to long-distance truckers in the Punjab. Our little group arrived there after a grueling 18-hour bus ride from New Delhi, and we were underwhelmed to discover sticky floors, electrical wires dangling from holes in the walls, squat toilets and rock-hard beds with stained sheets. Eyeing the sheets, one friend whispered, “I’m not sure I’m getting undressed.” Another muttered back, “Undressed? I’m not even taking off my shoes!”
The facilities were pretty basic at the Maya.
The proprietor led us back out into the shadowy corridor where a small spigot poked out of the wall. “And if you want hot water, it’s right here in the hall!” He turned the handle with a proud flourish and sent a stream of water cascading over the floor. I was pretty sure complimentary shampoo and shower caps were out of the question.
What is the ideal balance between McLuxury and checking into a flophouse for nightcrawlers? How do you find affordable places with character and hot showers?
I often start by consulting such savvy travelers as Karen Brown and Rick Steves. Their websites and books are full of well-researched recommendations for small, charming hotels. Trip Advisor provides customer reviews, which are enormously helpful but do need to be taken with a grain of salt. Once, after booking a small, inexpensive B&B in Rome, we later read a scathing review and rushed to cancel our reservation, only to find we couldn’t. With considerable annoyance and trepidation, we showed up … and decided the review had seriously overdramatized the drawbacks. It might not be the Four Seasons, but it was a long, long way from the Maya, and we’d certainly stay there again.
The hot new phenomena is AirBnB, which lets you rent a room directly from individuals in their private homes in an informal (and some say questionably legal) type of bed and breakfast. If you’re on a tight budget and your privacy and comfort requirements are more flexible, there’s CouchSurfing, in which locals let you stay on their couch or in a spare room or even their entire apartment for free or a very modest sum. Both Air B&B and CouchSurfing seem to work surprising well in most cases, although one couple I know booked someone’s spare room over the Internet and arrived to find a dingy, squalid atmosphere that sent them running for the door so fast they almost tripped over the empty beer cans scattered around the floor.
And then there are the new, improved, not-for-youth-only hostels, such as those shown on Hostels.com; they’re so respectable now that Rick Steves and Karen Brown include them in their listings. Hostels still offer the cheapest beds around, but many have now added private rooms with en suite bathrooms to attract more upscale travelers, and you’ll often see Volvos as well as walking sticks parked outside the door.
Small hotels, informal B&Bs and hostels offer a great way to meet locals and experience the regional culture. Of course, be sure to read the reviews and the fine print to make sure you’re not expected to scale garden walls to visit an outhouse or wait in line to use the hot water in the hall. With a little basic research, we have discovered many delightful, out-of-the-way places over the years. Some of them even offered complimentary shampoo and shower caps. All of them offered moments I'll never forget.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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