By Suzanne Pollak
There are myriad reasons you might become a guest in someone else’s home. Are you passing through town and merely need a place to stay for the night? Perhaps you are visiting along with your family, or you are one of several people who have been invited. Maybe you have a friend in need and would like to spend the night during your visit. Believe it or not, the rules are different depending on what kind of stay you are anticipating.
The Overnight Guest
If you are begging a room in a major city, it is not lost on anyone that you are trying to save money. So your appreciation needs to be in proportion to what you are asking. You are not the first person to think longingly of the homeowner’s capacious guest room and you in it while mentally reallocating the money you are saving toward fancy restaurants or gifts for your children. People with lovely, roomy houses are asked favors all the time. It will be your job to tread lightly and leave a pleasant experience in your wake.
If you have a purpose for coming (your niece’s graduation, for example, or a job interview) make it clear, so that your host will know that you are not planning to be entertained during that time. Check with them about their obligations as well, and pick a time when you can do something together. This is an excellent time to follow your instincts. Maybe a specialty cocktail taken into the den is enough of a departure from the norm. Or, it's entirely possible that your host may want you to cook them dinner. Just be sure you don't stick them with the bill or serve them something they do not eat! You are responsible for the shopping, cooking, and cleaning. For less than four people, this is not that difficult. No one expects you to cater a dinner for eight because you are a houseguest.
We love house parties. But what constitutes a house party? What a house party is not is when your best friend, her husband, and their kids visit. It’s super fun, but that overnight stay is slightly different again.
Multiple couples and families all meeting in one destination for several days creates a temporary bond that instantly infuses the occasion with giddy fun and expectation. It’s akin to being back in a dorm. Your host will have gone to considerably more trouble than when you’ve popped in for an overnight. It’s your job to be enthusiastic. However, since there is a larger group, you don’t necessarily have to attend every activity on offer. Use your common sense. If the host has gone to great expense on the group’s behalf, such as chartering a fishing boat or organizing a round-robin doubles tournament or a private tour of a nearby attraction, you must attend. You will want to, because, if you opt to nap instead, everyone will discuss how churlish you are in your absence.
Sometimes you will be invited to a country setting where everyone is under the same roof. Long leisurely walks, maybe some skeet shooting or hunting, communal meals—these activities define house parties in South Carolina. Leaving may be either difficult or unnecessary, but perhaps you will have time and find yourself interested in the surrounding area. Rent a car and use the daytime hours to explore and sightsee.
The glue to all house parties is the communal dinner where everyone gathers to cook, eat, and relate the tales of the day. This is when the house party links back to dorm life. Some people have shopped, some people have hiked, and some people have read, but everyone comes back ready to report and celebrate as a group. Dinner attendance is mandatory.
Dinner, with wine and cocktails flowing and stories being told, is certainly fun. But you might be surprised to find that breakfast can be even more fun. You are rehashing last night’s revelries and making new plans for the day, so the meal is suspended between the past and the future. Nowadays, an enormous breakfast is a total rarity, but aren’t some of our most favorite foods—sticky buns, extra crispy bacon, blueberry pancakes, coffee—served at such a time? Everybody is put in a better mood by the smell of frying bacon and the sight of scrambled eggs, whether they want to eat or not.
House parties create a forced intimacy that is rare today and will forge relationships that strengthen bonds in business, love, and every other aspect of your life.
A Friend in Need
Being a houseguest is not always about being a guest. Sometimes it’s about trying to help bring equilibrium back into the house, whether it’s celebratory, as when your daughter has had a baby, or sobering, as when your best friend is receiving chemo or a loved one’s loved one has died. When life throws us major shocks, the need for routine domesticity is most crucial and yet still difficult to achieve. It’s time for you to step in and use your skills to run someone else’s house. When a person’s life is completely derailed, the rituals of family life are most comforting. Even if the recipient is barely able to eat or join in the conversation, simply sharing meals and witnessing that daily life goes on helps light the way through a crisis.
Be sensitive about your length of stay, but be overly generous on what you are providing. Some cheer, plenty of good food, and a stocked freezer left behind will make all the difference. Never be afraid to step in and help someone who is grieving for whatever reason. Everyone is buoyed by extra love, and you will never regret giving kindness to someone in need.
Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal “Mansion” section and Town & Country magazine.