Recently, friends from Montreal (a married couple) came to stay with me for one night on their way to see relatives in Virginia. When they called to let me know they were running late due to a delayed flight, I said to them, as firmly as I know how, “Now, listen guys, I have gin in the freezer. Your martini glasses are chilled and waiting, so don’t stop for anything. Don’t buy me anything. Just come directly here.” I said this because they visit me often, and I know their houseguesting M.O. all too well.
Was I surprised when they arrived bearing not only a bottle of expensive gin, but flowers and other gifts as well? Not really. Nor was I surprised when they insisted on taking me to dinner. In the morning, they snuck out before I woke up and brought back coffee, bagels and lox, fresh strawberries and a newspaper—even though by that time I had a pot of coffee brewing and was more than prepared to whip up mushroom and feta omelets.
Now, these are old and wonderful friends, and of course I felt pampered and loved and grateful to them. But I have to confess I also felt a little bad. I felt dehostified. The couple took care of me the whole time, rather than the other way around. And while guest largess may seem like an absurd thing to complain about, considering all of the stories we hear about horrible houseguests (people who arrive without warning, stay too long and never send a thank you)—these guests were so overly generous that it made me feel like a horrible hostess.
It is often a delicate balance, this dance between host and guest. Hosting and guesting, like almost all forms of human interaction, is a yin-yang thing. You can’t really be a good guest unless you allow the host to be a good host; you can’t be a good host if you don’t let your guest contribute in some way. Whenever I have a visit from my Montreal friends, I definitely feel that the balance is out of whack.
On the one hand, it’s nice that I don’t have to entertain or take care of them when they come. On the other hand, I am frustrated I can’t do more for them—not only because it is my house but because it simply feels good to make others happy. People can forget that it is generous to let others give to you as well as for you to give to others. Sometimes, when a host says to her guest, “I do wish you would allow me to take care of that,” she really means it.
But do I really mean it? Do I really want my beneficent over-nighters to take it down a notch? Maybe my friends are actually responding to signals I am unaware I am sending. Like most New Yorkers, I tend to suffer from TMHS (Too Many Houseguests Syndrome) which can make me a more jaded, less eager-to-please host than I might otherwise be. Manhattan hotels are so expensive that many people who come to stay with New Yorkers are coming primarily because they need a place to stay; seeing the host is frequently a secondary thing. I suspect that years of these “favor-based” sleepovers have made me a more careless host. And it’s a carelessness I am not proud of. For one thing, I should be the one getting up early and bringing home the bagels, not my guests. I know a D.C. woman who will drive 30 miles to the fish market in the middle of a heat wave to buy a bushel of crabs, just because one of her guests mentioned she had a hankering for them.
Perhaps, after all, it is I who needs to become an overachieving host. The next time these friends come to town, I swear I am going to pick them up at the airport in a limo and hand them their chilled martinis as soon as they step inside the car.
They won’t know what hit them.
Originally published in The West Side Spirit, November 30, 2011