When we travel, to a destination far from home, or just down the street to a friends house for a meal or a party, there is protocol to be observed.
As simple as it seems on the surface, to be a guest, or to entertain a guest, requires some consideration. What makes a good guest, or a good hostess? How should we behave if we would like to be invited again?
Books and columns have been written over the years on the art of etiquette. Since we have, in so many ways, reduced ourselves from paper to internet technology, many forms of etiquette are becoming a lost art. Without it, entertaining will become a lost art also. No matter how you look at it, entertaining is an art form. It requires a palette of guests who will blend, and still shine on their own. Food, décor, perhaps music, and even lighting, are chosen with care to create the ambiance the host/ess wishes to impart for a party.
And then there is the house guest. A house guest is more than a dinner guest who has stayed too long. For a house guest, the comforts of the bedding, linens, bath accessories, meals, daily entertainment, must all be considered. The host/ess prepares the house, the guest room, the meals, the entertainment, the comfort and well being of the guests. The guests arrive, they stay, they eat, they drink, they loll, they leave. Perhaps they have brought a gift, say a bottle of wine; they have probably consumed several from the wine cellar. Should they make, or strip, the bed when they leave – do they ask or do you request? If they break something should they offer to repair or replace it? If you offer them a robe for their stay, is it permissible for them to pack it up and take it home to keep? If they prefer your teapot to theirs, is it polite for them to sneak it into their suitcase? How should we handle these situations?
Recently I had a couple as house guests for two nights. The used five bath towels, four hand towels, two washcloths – one of which was used to remove eye makeup and red lipstick and will never be white again; and of course there are also the bed linens . They consumed one pound of espresso, various cheeses, crackers and French pate, four bottles of wine, three bottles of sparkling water, one four course dinner, one brunch. Prior to leaving, they packed two breakfast sandwiches, two lunch sandwiches and two bottles of sparkling water to go. One of the evenings, I took them to a cocktail reception, after which they very kindly bought me an appetizer and a glass of wine. That was it – no house gift, no thank you note, no return invitation forthcoming as they don't entertain. These things we chalk up to experience – but the next time they are coming home from their resort vacation and want place to stay along the way, I will be busy.
All sorts of issues abound: what does r.s.v.p. really mean; should you always take the hostess a gift? And some weighty questions – what do you do when an extremely large person comes to dinner and your dining room chairs are antique and will self-destruct with excessive pounds perched upon them? Is it polite to limit your guests to a certain number of towels? I found myself in a towel situation when a friend invited me to her lake house one summer and gave me one thread bare towel for a week. After it hung in the damp bathroom for a few days I noticed a nice green sheen on my legs from the mildew.
I find that the host/ess is rarely the guest, and visa versa. I also categorize guests into two categories – those whom you have actually invited, and those who ask if they may stay “along the way”.
How about this one, from a friend?
“My cousin came to visit me this past summer. I was excited about seeing her and spending time with her. We hadn't been in each others' presence for years. Everything was fine until I heard her in the spare guest room chanting and burning what smelled like candles. I asked her what she was doing and she told me she was calling the Voodoo Gods. I was afraid to tell her not to chant again in my home and as a result I went through the weekend afraid to come out of my own bedroom. What would have been a discreet way to tell her to knock off the Voodoo without getting hexed??!!?”
The questions are complex, interesting and often humorous to one party or the other – but probably not both. Entertaining is a way to form a better bond with your guests, or a trip on the train to the end of friendship.
L.A. Plume is a writer – and consummate hostess – living in Beaufort. She would love to hear from our readers with their questions, quandaries and amusing observations about the endangered art of entertaining. Ms. Plume may be reached through email@example.com