To some extent I became the perfect house guest out of necessity. During my childrearing years, I and my family could rarely afford the luxury of staying in a hotel. Consequently, my children considered staying in a hotel one of the most thrilling events that could occur on a vacation. For many years they believed that only rich people stayed in hotels. Money was not the only factor contributing to the rarity of our use of hotels. I have always preferred to stay with friends or family because it’s more fun and contributes to a more satisfying visit with people.
Returning to the infrequent hotel scenario for a moment, if we stayed in a hotel, we all slept in one room with two double beds. (Like the time our van broke down in Willows, which consists of six raccoons, a drinking fountain, and, lucky for us, a hotel.) As the children got bigger, we had to be creative to cram everyone into one hotel room. Sudi, being the youngest, often slept on the floor in a corner. Using all my ingenuity, I could make him a comfy nest out of seat cushions, jackets, the ice bucket, shoes, and a lampshade. I am proud to say that no one ever spent the night in the bathtub. Just being in a hotel room turned the 10-point excite-o-meter on my boys to level 11. If jumping on hotel room beds was an Olympic sport, my boys would have a dozen gold medals. Meanwhile, my daughter would systematically go through every channel on the TV to sample what was showing as if our TV at home only got two channels, which it did for many years before the advent of our satellite dish. (We lived in a forest, but at least my children didn’t think a toilet was a novelty.) The children would read the menus from nearby restaurants (provided in a binder) as eagerly as dogs in a butcher shop (and with nearly as much drool) and then beg to order in. Sudi would get so wired from being in a hotel room that he wouldn’t go to sleep. The rest of us would be lying there in the dark for hours listening to him singing to himself and throwing shoes into the ice bucket. The way my children behaved, you would think a hotel room was the best ride at Disneyland.
But, as I said, we rarely stayed in hotels. We usually stayed with friends or family. I had a bit of the wanderlust in my youth. Ron did too. And then people we knew spread out to places all over the country (and in foreign lands) to settle down. By the time our children came along, I had a friend in every port. So I planned family vacations around geographic locations where we could stay with someone we knew. Truthfully, I enjoy visiting with people more than anything else when traveling. Museums are lovely. Natural wonders are awesome and inspirational. Destination sites are fun. Activities are entertaining. Panoramic views are spectacular. I will take a day at the beach whenever possible. But nothing beats spending time with great people I don’t get to see very often, particularly if they have children around. (And if I can spend time with these wonderful people at the beach, of course, then my life is complete.)
Staying in people’s homes while on vacation all these years, I have perfected the art of being the flawless house guest. While I need to economize by avoiding staying in hotels, and while I personally prefer to stay with someone I know, I realize that it can be stressful for people to have a house guest. So I strive to make my stay as easy on my host as possible. Therefore I make a point of cleaning the kitchen after meals, making the bed after myself, emptying trash cans, cooking meals, and generally taking over management of the house during my stay. By the time I leave, my host cannot find a single thing in her kitchen anymore, the bedroom I used has been repainted, the children refuse to go to sleep without a bedtime story from me, all the incandescent bulbs have been switched out for fluorescents, and there is a brand new compost pile bacterializing (wow, is that a word? if not it should be) behind the garage. When I traveled with my children, I hope that my guestly help made up for the fact that during my stay my children devoured all the cereal in the house, broke the handle off the bathroom door, lost the Frisbee in a patch of poison oak, fed the dog corn chips, played a lot of Aretha Franklin loud on the boombox, and collapsed the posts that held up the hammock. My children were always well-behaved, but they were, of course, children. Some things go with the territory.
In an effort to make my stay easier for my host, I bring my own towels and sometimes even my own sheets so my host will not have a lot of laundry to do after I leave. In the event that I use my host’s sheets and towels, I put them in the washing machine before I leave in the morning. And depending on how long we linger over breakfast, I might have them dried and folded before I’m finally out the door. Once, Ron and I were watching an episode of the TV show “Monk” in which Monk went to stay with a friend for a night. Monk (who is germaphobic) brought several suitcases of supplies with him. As he was unpacking, the friend pointed out that she owned sheets and towels she could provide. Monk replied, “Well, as long as I brought my own, I might as well use them.” Ron busted out laughing because he had overheard me say the exact same thing only a few months before.
Last week I asked a friend if I could stay at her house while traveling. I told her I didn’t want to inconvenience her. She laughed and said that I was the easiest house guest ever since I brought my own sheets and towels, did the dishes, and cooked for her. I’m beginning to think that when people need to have some work done on their house, they invite me to stay over. Being the perfect house guest is a family tradition. Once, when my oldest child was a toddler, my mother came to visit. She shooed me and Ron out of the house and promised to look after our daughter. We went to dinner and a movie and came home many hours later. Four or five months after Mom’s visit, I glanced at the kitchen ceiling and realized it had been washed. Not just washed, but scrubbed. The grease film that had covered it was gone. I called my mother and asked her if she had scrubbed the ceiling while we were out at the movies that night. “I wondered how long it would take you to notice,” she replied.
In recent memory, my son Akili mentioned to me that he and his wife were going somewhere for the weekend. “Oh, do you know someone there?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “Where will you stay?” I asked. “In a hotel,” he answered. “I know someone who lives there. An old college friend. Do you want his contact information? I’m sure you could stay with him,” I offered. “Mom, we’ll stay in a hotel. That’s where normal people stay when they go on vacation,” he told me. He says he felt deprived as a child because he rarely got to stay in hotels. Go figure. Now Airbnb is all the rage. People stay at Airbnbs in the homes of perfect strangers. I’m thinking of giving trainings in how to stay in someone’s house for the Airbnb traveler. Lesson one: bring lots of food (if traveling in California bring water too), trim their hedges, darn their socks, reorganize their kitchen cupboards, hang wind chimes on the deck, increase the speed of their internet connection, and wash out the barbecue grill.