Being a good guest pales in comparison with the hardships of being a good host, argues Alessandro Tom’
I have just broken one of my cardinal rules: I am staring at the rather stunning scenery from the comforts of a wonderful house on the Norfolk Broads – and it isn’t my house, which means I am here, of all things, as a guest. I have given myself all the excuses in the world, for this is as good as it gets when it comes to being a guest: the hosts are wonderful friends, living in a very recently rebuilt house where everything works, and which is big enough for all attendant children and the animal menagerie to be parked suitably far away as to not interfere in any meaningful way with adult human life. And there is the additional perk of an incredibly nubile hostess.
I not only get to pick my room, but also other (carefully vetted) guests’ rooms, and have an inordinate amount of input on food, wine and general entertainment. As I said, I have given myself all the good reasons, but still I am a guest. With the summer dawning upon us, and with all those friends waiting patiently for your invitation like barbarians at the gate, ready to unleash their hordes upon you, I felt I would share a few thoughts on the pleasure and pain of a host’s life from the relative calm of my hosting retirement.
A few years back when my mother was feeling either richer or more generous, or perhaps when she thought I was nicer and more to her liking, she very kindly lent me her summer house in Greece for a period. And looking back now at my only and thankfully short-lived spell as a host, I can only admire friends like my Norfolk hosts for their courage, kindness and generosity, but most of all, their patience.
I guess there are many types of hosts, but I would certainly say that I clearly started off as the control-freak, bossy and over-eager-to-please type. For a start, I didn’t know how long this lucky streak would last, and so I invited just about everybody I knew for that first summer. We were packing them in like battery chickens, and as soon as one lot left, within hours the next lot landed. All had to be given strict travelling instructions, encompassing specific flight choices, maps, compass, food pack and other survival elements, such as a recommended-presents list.
But still they couldn’t get it quite right and proceeded to unravel the best-laid plans, invariably failing to deliver anything from the list. On arrival they were issued with an additional set of timetables, loosely based on Swiss Railways matrixes, to ensure punctuality for all meals and extra-curricular activities, as well as efficiency in the deployment of staff.
Most importantly, a schedule of ‘quiet’ hours and evening plans was also attached and blatantly ignored – and they all persisted with the appalling habit of reading the newspaper before I did, in spite of numerous oral and written reminders and threats. Needless to say, I don’t know how much fun was had by all, but it was mostly at my (rather significant) expense.
Armed with that experience, things mellowed out over the next four summers I got to use the house. But what lessons in the art of hosting did we learn in the meantime? The primary one, if you really insist on being a host, must be to make your choice of guests very carefully: not so smart that they give you headaches, but not so dumb as not to be able to learn how to play Hearts after three days; not so overly familiar that they feel they can take over, but not so unfamiliar that you don’t remember why you asked them; not so friendly as to be sticky, but not so self-centred that you to wish for the malfunction of their floating device when they are meditating alone in the pool with weights on their ankles; not so independent that you keep on having to send out search parties for them, but more importantly not so co-dependent as to need to be told the when, how, where, who and why of every portion of every day.
Finally – and perhaps the most important piece of the jigsaw – there is the factor of how much time. After studying the habits of habitual hosts and guests, from the cuckoo bird to the island-owning Greeks, I feel I can save you a lot of time and hassle. The answer is four nights, five days. It is long enough to enjoy your friends and mostly for them to still enjoy you and for all to avoid getting on each other’s you-know-whats; and if you got it wrong, the countdown until they leave is short enough to control that urge to stab someone – usually.
And so good luck this summer, in the hope that these few words will have helped you turn the barbarian hordes into well-selected and well-trained angels, eagerly waiting at the gates of your personal Heaven.