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Friday, August 24, 2012 - Page updated at 03:00 p.m.
If summer goes, why won't the house guests?
By JOYCE WADLER
The New York Times
Megan Murphy Schwab, a marketing executive in suburban New Jersey, was seven months pregnant with her second child when a friend asked if another friend, who had just arrived in New York, might spend a night at her home to escape the summer heat. Schwab had met the woman, who seemed nice enough, so she and her husband, Jeff, an accountant, agreed to put her up.
That one-night invitation was immediately interpreted by the visitor, an architecture student in her early 30s, to mean two nights, a surprisingly common error when the weather is steamy. And her first words, upon arrival, were that the color of the roof (gray) was wrong for the house (which was also gray). She drank most of the bottle of wine she had brought for her hosts, then made her way through "multiple" bottles of theirs, Megan Schwab said.
Overnight, the Schwabs' 2-year-old son got sick. He cried much of the night. The guest, coming down the next morning dressed in her hostess' clothing, which she had found in the guest room, complained that the crying had kept her up. She also complained that the clothing did not fit. Jeff Schwab's suggestion that she might want to wear her own clothes fell on profoundly deaf ears.
When Megan Schwab returned from taking her son to the doctor and told the guest, who wanted to go sightseeing, that she could not accompany her because her son was ill, the guest responded like a surly teenager, slamming doors, driving off in a huff. This did not prevent her, later that evening, from telling her hosts that she was enrolled in a 12-week program in the city and planned to spend weekends with them.
"My husband and I just look at each other," Megan Schwab says. "I don't like confrontation. My husband says, 'You can't stay here for the next 12 weeks; my wife's having a baby, and we have summer plans.' She says, 'Well, can I have a key to your house when you're not going to be here?' "
Jeff Schwab, thinking creatively, tells her that as a homeowner he is not comfortable with that. If something went wrong when a guest was there and the homeowners were not, he is not sure their insurance would cover it. The Schwabs do, however, give the guest permission to park her car in front of their home for the summer. On Sunday, Megan Schwab drives the guest to the train station.
"As she's getting out she says to me, 'Oh, yeah, I didn't have time to get to the cash machine, so I went to your purse and took some cash,' " Megan Schwab says. "It was basically everything I had taken out of the ATM the night before, $100."
A sad story and one that is repeated, though usually to a lesser degree, throughout the summer: You invite someone who seems nice enough to your house in the country, a house that is supposed to be your retreat from the cares of the workaday world, and the visitor drives you crazy. True, you could snatch one of the soggy towels left on the newly finished floors of the guest bedroom, hold it firmly over the guest's mouth and nose, and bring your misery to an end, but the courts frown on such behavior and you'd have the problem of getting rid of the body.
Houseguests, too, sometimes find themselves in circumstances so awful they would gladly swap their accommodations for a $400 hotel room — which is to say, very, very bad circumstances.
And so that hosts and guests alike might enjoy these waning days of summer with a minimum of bloodshed, a few last-minute tips.
IF THEY DIDN'T GIVE YOU A DATE, TIME OF ARRIVAL AND MAP, IT AIN'T AN INVITATION
M. Paul Friedberg, the Manhattan landscape architect who designed the waterfront plaza at Battery Park City and owns a home in East Hampton, N.Y., astutely observes that Americans, in particular, often don't mean what they say and don't say what they mean, and this can create problems on the most basic level.
"It's like saying hello or goodbye," Friedberg says. "We really are not sincere in the invitation. It has nothing to do with you getting together, it's more or less a way of continuing the friendship without obligating yourself to physically connecting. This happened to a close friend of ours; she's Bosnian. Some people said, 'You've got to come see our house in Maine.' She thought in order to cement the friendship she should go, and when she got there it was awkward. Her English is good; however, her reading of English is quite different."
Granted, some people — like the Schwabs' grabby guest, whom the hostess eventually did tell off — will never comprehend the language of hosting, forever confusing the words "one night" with "stay for as long as you like, wear our clothing and ask us to move our car out of the garage so you can move yours in." (Yup, the guest did that, too.)
It is true that now and then a guest may luck into an invitation from a hostess like the actress and author Barbara Barrie, who has a six-bedroom house on Fire Island and has never had a breakdown in guest-host communications because she spells out the house rules: no cellphones, iPads, computers or electronic devices of any sort in the living areas after breakfast; no wet or sandy clothing in the house; beds must be stripped when you leave. And because Fire Island is short on food stores, she gives guests a grocery list.
"People bring you house gifts you don't want," she said. "You need another tray? I say, please bring fruit and a pound of butter and five bagels and a jar of jam. And people love that because they know exactly what to bring."
But tragically, in many cases hosts are vague, guests are clueless and broken friendships line the Long Island Expressway like summer roadkill.
EVEN IF THEY SEND A CAR, DO NOT SPEND A WEEKEND WITH A COMIC
A colleague who begs anonymity was invited with her husband to spend the weekend with a humorist and his girlfriend in Sag Harbor, N.Y. Believing that good guests are not always underfoot, the couple made arrangements to have lunch with an elderly friend who lived in the area. But when they told their host, they realized they had violated his understanding of guest etiquette. He became "sort of passive-aggressive," she remembers. "He got very gruff and stopped making eye contact."
The host's mood did not improve that evening when he showed the couple a videotape of his comedy work, although the visiting couple watched and laughed appreciatively. In the morning, when the guests offered to make pancakes, his mood was even worse.
"There was a definite chill in the air," the guest recalls. "There was not even pretending to be friendly or cordial or host-like. It was like, 'This weekend is over.' Not even, 'Let's get through this and we won't ever talk to each other again,' just barely muffled anger. Of course, we beat the traffic back. We were leaving nine hours earlier than we planned."
Guests and host never spoke to one another again. But the guests did learn through a mutual friend what their final insult had been: When they watched the host's video, they had not laughed hard enough at his jokes.
WHEN CONVERSATION LAGS, REMEMBER: NAZIS BAD, ALLIED FORCES GOOD
"I was teaching the history of architecture at Columbia," recalls Barry Bergdoll, now the Philip Johnson chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
"A French curator who was couriering a work of art from her museum to a New York museum asked if she could stay for a night. She stayed for a week — that was the first surprise. One night I made dinner and she launched into this whole thing about how terrible it was growing up after World War II because American military brutality devastated the landscape and architecture of her beloved native Normandy. It was not the standard story I had heard about the Normandy beach landings. I said, 'Excuse me, I think your country was occupied by the Germans at the time,' and she got more and more hysterical on the subject. I said, 'I think we should switch topics or it could be disastrous for our friendship.' She just wasn't having it. I was completely dumbfounded. I thought when you are a guest and realize that your opinions are deeply offensive to your host, you might cap it."
Are they still friends?
INTO THE WOODS
Julian Niccolini, the co-owner of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, and his wife, Lisa, who has worked in hotel and restaurant management, never have to worry about badly behaved houseguests at their little two-bedroom house in Bedford, N.Y., because guests don't sleep there — they sleep on a bed in the woods. It is an antique wrought-iron bed that sits on a wooden platform, with a blow-up mattress, bedding and a mosquito net. There is also an outdoor shower. Of course, guests are never invited when rain is forecast.
How did they come up with this idea?
"I don't like to let anybody sleep in my house," says Julian Niccolini, who is famous for teasing his restaurant guests, particularly the very rich ones. "First of all, maybe these guys are making noise at night, they are having sex, you don't want to hear. They have too much wine and they keep drinking. So we decide it is better not to get involved."
How do guests react when they are told they will be sleeping outdoors?
"Oh, don't worry, after they have a few glasses of wine, they are extremely happy," Julian Niccolini says. "A little Champagne, a little rose, then a red. By the time they have the limoncello they don't know which way they are going. Everybody thinks it is seventh heaven."
Lisa Niccolini adds: "They have a choice, they can either come or not. My daughter's boyfriend got so angry when he figured out there was no bed for him to sleep in inside the house — he had a little too much to drink — he had a fit, he was infuriated. He was screaming."
How old was their daughter at the time?
"She is 28; it was last year," Lisa Niccolini says. "He was about 34."
And it's so romantic out there under the trees, the reporter says. We hope she dumped him.
"She did," Lisa Niccolini says.
'DO NOT SLEEP NAKED' IS NOT CODE FOR 'I INSIST, WHATEVER MAKES YOU HAPPY'
Earlier this summer, an American writer living in Shanghai, who requests anonymity out of deference to the feelings of an old friend, had one of the worst houseguest experiences of her life. The problems began as soon as her friend, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov (obviously, not his real name), arrived for a three-week visit.
Though Raskolnikov had a history of back trouble, he insisted on helping some women with their bags while he was traveling, thus throwing out his back and necessitating — or so he insisted — that he spend the first few days of his visit in the tub. Summers in Shanghai are hot and Raskolnikov was taking medication that made him perspire profusely. So after a few days, when the writer and Raskolnikov finally ventured out, he put on a sweatshirt with cutoff sleeves that was, as his writer friend puts it, like something out of "Flashdance."
"I explain to him that the Chinese culture is extremely modest," she says. "You wouldn't see a man in the street with his shoulders exposed like that. When we do go out, I realize he is walking with extremely jerky movements. He says that he gets vertigo in crowds. I say, 'Well, if you don't like crowds, Shanghai is the wrong place for you, there are only 24 million people. Every time you walk down the street, it's a crowd."'
Two weeks into the visit, Raskolnikov has a gout attack so severe he takes to bed screaming. His gout medicine has been lost. The host takes him, moaning, sweating and stumbling, to a doctor who prescribes more medication.
"We are now into the third week," she says. "We have been nowhere. He has seen nothing. He has gone from back pain to sweats to vertigo to gout. Finally, with about three days to go, he says he is feeling better and would like to take me to dinner. I come home and he has the flu. You might say perhaps I wasn't as sympathetic as I might have been, but I was tired from working all year, and since I don't know that many people, quite looking forward to having somebody to take to drinks at the Glamour Bar on the Bund. We never even took a walk on the Bund."
Early on in the visit, the host had discovered that Raskolnikov slept unclothed, when she happened upon him one morning on the couch. So she reminded him that the Chinese culture values modesty, and that her housekeeper was a Chinese woman. But the morning before he left, she walked into the kitchen and discovered that Raskolnikov had not been paying attention.
"I see the housekeeper at one end, in a paroxysm of fear, standing by the iron trying to iron, and I see him sitting on a stool, wearing a towel and nothing else, and that was the last straw," she says. "I just lost it. I screamed, 'Leave this room immediately, I cannot believe you are in here like that!' "
Have she and Raskolnikov spoken since?
"Yes," says the writer, who happened to be flying to the States the day before her guest left. "It was raining when I left, and he helped me with my bags. I didn't know quite what to say, so I said, 'Well, it was certainly an amazing visit.' You know, he came 12,000 miles and he did not see one thing."
So is the friendship OK?
The writer thinks about it. It is an old friendship, she was not at her best either, and in old friends one accepts many things.
"It is OK," she says finally. "I won't be inviting him to stay anymore."
WHATEVER HAPPENED WITH THE GUEST WHO TOOK $100 FROM HER HOST'S WALLET?
Oh, right. The guest left her car outside her hosts' New Jersey home and at the end of the summer called to see if the husband could come to New York and help her move out of her dorm. When he said no, she called his wife and asked if she would help.
"I said no and, by the way, you still owe me $100," Megan Schwab says. "She ignored that and asked how our child was and then said, 'I don't know how you guys live there.' I said, 'Listen, I don't know you, we're not friends, I feel like you used me, you still owe me money, you used my house like a hotel and a parking lot, and how you behaved is unacceptable.' And that was it. She once tried to "friend" me. I have no idea whose life she is ruining, but it's not mine."
Has the experience changed Megan Schwab's attitude about whom she invites to stay in her home?
"Absolutely. Family and my closest friends. But no acquaintances."
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company
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