Thursday, November 5, 2009

Staying with Friends

It's fascinating to me how we each approach the act of opening our homes and lives to a visitor, be he/she family, friend or new acquaintance. What is it to host? I was raised by a mother who opened our home every summer to a visiting French teenager, or to a family of five relatives on my father's side for over a week, or to the passing friend through NYC. We welcomed friends to our Christmas festivities. There was always enough food to go around, a spare bed or couch or a mattress on the floor, linens. It just wasn't that big an imposition.

Now, I suppose we had our unofficial guidelines. We preferred guests who helped with dishes, who were relatively independent transportation-wise, who were good company, but who could just as easily go out for a walk by themselves or pick up a book and read in a corner.

And when we went visiting, we arrived with gifts, we offered to make our own beds (if they hadn't already been made), we helped cook, carried babies, did dishes, had a stash of books so we wouldn't be a bother, went shopping with our hostess and purchased (this was my mom's thing) the groceries for the week we were there (particularly when visiting as a family in France). And yes, when the visit was concluded, we stripped our beds and brought the laundry to the laundry machine.

Whenever I go to the States for a meeting or conference, I check to see which cousin lives in town, give a call (or email) and of course I can spend the week. That's a given in our family. The response is always a strong affirmative. Hosting one of our cousins--as we are quitenumerous and we don't all know each other as well as we'd like--is a chance to knit together a stronger relationship with someone we are happy to know better.

When I lived in Arles the house was a veritable welcome spot for many a young cousin, au pair and friend. I remember one cluster of cousins -- all young men -- who from the moment of their arrival were a joy and a help. One took Leo on his lap and read him books, another emptied the dishwasher and set the table. And, before leaving, not only did they strip their beds, but they vaccuumed their room as well! I was amazed, praised these young men to their mother and simply sat back and wondered if ever I'll be able to raise my sons as well. Yes, we fed them great meals, and yes, I loaned them my car to go kayaking, got them maps, set them up for excursions, etc., But that's all part of it, right?

I think on all this as during the week I rented my house, I was a house guest a bit left and right. At the first home, the home of a relatively new friend, I clearly stayed one day de trop. And, I arrived with dog in a house inhabited by cats. Not a recommended act. Said dog was relatively well-behaved, and I, well, I came with gifts, tried to help, but out of sorts as I was, I was a weighty presence, not the helpful being I would like to think I can be (and normally am). I was clearly in the way by the second day. Two nights was one too much.

I then went on to Martine's, and there, I was put to work, and I was able to contribute and while I talked too much at times, I also shut up and simply worked in a zen state at other times. It balanced out. I also came with food, my rice cooker, and dog. The dog caused some issues with a neighbor, but was otherwise well-tolerated and well-behaved. We're still very close, and she is neither berating me for my stuck in my messed-up state-ness, nor does she seem weary of me and my current woes either. She is able to let me be where I'm at without it affecting her personal state too much.

My time at Mireille's was equally nourishing and warm. But there I heard stories of a childhood where friends weren't allowed further than the garage to play. Where sleepovers were unthought-of, and barriers set high. She's made a complete about-face from her upbringing, and whichever child is willing or absent sacrifices his/her bed to me willingly and easily. Warmth and welcome now come naturally.

For me, I think, the trick is not to take the act too seriously. I do what I am able to do. If I've 4 pre-adolescents at each other's throat, a broken-down car, and homework to get done with Leo, well, I'm not able to do much more than make up the mattress on the floor, pull out a towel, and perhaps serve a plate of fried rice. But, I'm okay with that. I have limits imposed on me by the house, the kids, etc., but I still have a spare spot on the floor of my room, and I'll do what I can do. I also have faith that the guest will help out too.

As such, I am perhaps not an elegant host, but I'm an easy host. I usually say yes, and will work it all out as I'm able. Only rarely have people over-stayed their welcome in my home. But it was an extreme case of three months of over-bearing presence, tactless behavior, minimal helpfulness, etc.,

I leave these thoughts unfinished. As they are and always will be. We each do as we can, linked to our cultures, our pasts, our traditions. There are the hosts who lay out the red carpet, and it is marvelous. But as I remember from my time in Japan, if you give too much the debt becomes too difficult to re-pay and the relationship tilts out of balance. But if this is the tradition you heark from, then that is the style of host you will likely be, and in this case, guests may quickly become a burden. ...

Yes, there's always more, and there is no right way. But the blending of styles and cultures will raise issues and occasionally, as when I over-stayed my welcome with my very generous and dear hosts... leave a sense of, oops, something's gone off.


Zuleme said...

When we had our first French student come for three weeks she showed us the information the program gave her explaining how American households expect guests to pitch in. That first summer we learned a lot, a group of students arrived after an unpleasant group of spoiled Spanish students (word spreads quickly here) and this was just during the brouhaha about France not supporting the Iraq war. So, when the bus arrived with two dozen kids, some of the families who were to take them, just didn't show up. Worse than rude, for a kid making a first trip to the US.
We did our best to help out and hosted a barbecue here for four boys who got to meet four American sisters. And they all hopped up with their plates and offered to help with the washing.
You are a very thoughtful writer and I enjoy these posts.

Madeleine Vedel said...

Good one you not to absorb those kids. It's not easy, but trite as it is to say it, it is enriching. We learn so much from others, and we help the world be better by sending them on to share and welcome in their own turn. Glad you enjoy what flows through my head. Take care,