A simple invitation can unleash a Shakespearean drama of chronic indecision, says Alessandro Tom’.
A simple invitation can unleash a Shakespearean drama of chronic indecision, says Alessandro Tomé.
Sitting here on yet another gloomy winter day, I am contemplating a conundrum that could best be summarised by the Clash’s song ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’. My puzzlement is about being a Guest. You see, I don’t do Guest, at least not readily or willy-nilly. And so each time we do get an invitation to go somewhere, the Clash start playing in my head.
Should I stay or should I go? To do Guest or not to do Guest, that is the question. At first, up until somewhere in my mid-thirties, the answer was always, ‘Yes, I would love to’. You got to leave your parents’ home and its attendant troubles behind or flee from your shambles of a flat and go somewhere new. Once you got there, all expenses were covered and you were onto a great freebie. Local transport, food, beverages, smokes were all on the house. Beds were made, clothes picked up and cleaned. Entertainment was provided by other guests. Sports and other outdoor activities might even be included in the package.
And then, at some indefinable point in your thirties, it all starts to look very different. You had done Guest now quite a few times, and some of these occasions had been less enjoyable than others, and so you became more circumspect. It is then you begin to realise that accepting an invitation involved a conundrum.
For starters, leaving home is no longer an escape, as your parents aren’t there anymore and the place is quite tidy. Packing is always a problem, particularly if the brochure – sorry – invitation, is not clear enough. If UK airports are involved, then street warfare training is now de rigueur. Once on the said plane, sitting on the tarmac for endless hours waiting for a slot is probably one of the quietest times you are going to have all day, so enjoy it.
Rail travel is just plain scary, what with the possibility of leaves on tracks, if the tracks are actually functioning in the first place, while road use is only possible in either a tank for protection or a cow shit-powered nano-car in order to meet emissions controls, both of which require you to leave a week or so early to make it for dinner.
With this initial skirmish now over, you can prepare for the real work, being a good guest while enjoying the freebies. But by this point you’ve realised that the invite is as much of a freebie as easyJet’s cheap fares are cheap: read the small print. Firstly you must arrive with a rather nice present, as you do want to impress, don’t you? So I usually make it something I think may make the stay a little nicer for me, like Riedel wine glasses, in the hope they will be filled with equally nice wine (I will even provide the wine occasionally just to make sure). Cashmere blankets or hot water bottles have also come in handy; novels in the hope of quiet times, and various foodstuffs and cookbooks, but those invariably land me in the kitchen to be put to good use.
Then, while food and drinks are provided apparently free of charge, kitchens are usually well guarded, particularly against late-night raids. I said ‘apparently free of charge’, as most of their loss is recouped by your hosts when they suggest it would be more fun to eat out than in, and there is this fabulous local that happens to be Michelin-starred and eye-wateringly expensive, where they haven’t been for some time. No point in trying to convince them you are rather tired and would love a quiet night in. That is not why you are there.
The English are undeniably consummate guests. They are stoic travellers: no queue, no shanty town airport, no pigsty of a train or mother of all traffic jams flaps them.
On the clothing selection front, under the guise of understated chic, they wear the same things over and over again, breakfast, lunch or dinner, while the gifts they proffer are often ‘recycled’. Nobody can out-converse an English house-guest on any subject. How they manage to memorise so much information about history, geography, politics, economics, movies, gossip, royalty and current affairs leaves me speechless.
Thankfully, before you know it, after two or three restless nights, you can get ready to head back home. And somehow, when you finally get back there to your own bed and lie down, you nearly always experience a great sense of relief. And it is then that you will know whether you should have stayed or should have gone. For if you made the right choice, that sense of relief at being home will be sprinkled with a dusting of gratitude for the time spent with good friends which is one of the few things in our increasingly senseless world that brings warmth to our heart and soul.
And it is that sprinkling that stays in my mind and helps the conundrum re-appear every time an invitation arrives. And thankfully, if progressively more selectively, we still end up going. Which leaves me with a whole new, irresolvable conundrum: why would anybody still want to ask me?