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  • Alex Hitz for Avenue Magazine

Houseguests Hints

Practical advice on How to Keep The Invitations Flowing.

Now that summer’s here, and you’re planning your trips to Capri and Greece, Southampton, Laguna, and Maine, odds are you’ll find yourself on one side or the other of the guest/host relationship. Good luck on either count. Although these roles can be filled with joy, each one is really hard. The successful completion of either responsibility is exhausting. When it’s good it’s very, very good, And when it is bad, it is horrid!

Like everything else in life, manners and rules exist for the houseguest and the host. Follow the rules, and you’ll be successful. Don’t and you won’t. It’s as easy as that. Movies, plays and books have hinged on this delicate—and sometimes hilarious—balance. Edith Wharton, Henry James, William Shakespeare, and even Ben Stiller have made franchises out of it. Make sure not to miss “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Between Monty Wooley, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, there is really very little for me to say on the subject, and I won’t pretend to catapult any of these pundits’ conceits into existentialism. Consider my words the Cliffs Notes of the Cliffs Notes. I merely offer some of my own humble observations and advice learned over a short lifetime of being either a guest or a host. I come from Scarlett’s world—the land of cavaliers and cotton fields. To not understand the subtleties and not-so-subtleties of guest/host etiquette down South ensures an express ticket to what the Greenbrier Hotel euphemistically refers to as the “Holly Table.” In other words, dear one, you’ll dine alone.

When you accept an invitation to stay, I guarantee these few rudimentary rules will keep harmony for your summer sejour:

Don’t stay too long: Houseguests, like fish, begin to sink after three days. Truth be told, those three days should be liberally considered. Two nights and three days (the same duration that “The Price Is Right” used to award their winners in glamorous Acapulco) is more like it. We had some houseguests years ago in France who arrived unannounced. When my mother asked them their plans, they replied, without any hint of irony, that they really couldn’t stay any more than a week.

Hands off the husband or wife: This idea is fairly self-explanatory. Although it does still seem to happen, there is no surer guarantee of misery than to commence an affair with your weekend host or guest, especially if he or she is already taken. Conversely, it’s probably not a good idea to accept an invitation from a couple either party with which you’re having an affair. No need to write Cosmo for confirmation of this. Ask any girl.

Bring a present: And don’t send a bill for it. Douglas Cramer, an acute social observer and host of steeplechase proportions, weighed in on this idea. Years ago, Cramer built a lovely ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley of California. A group of New York and Beverly Hills swells came for dinner to inspect the recently finished estate and, in Cramer’s words, “Michael Taylor had just left, and the group, Jerry Zipkin amongst them, went through every closet, cupboard and drawer. They finally pronounced the house finished and inhabitable. Jerry said it lacked just a couple of things. Some small generic plastic shampoo bottles, for example, for the guest rooms, so that no brand name product would be seen. He said he would send me some. They arrived several days later. With the bill.” Few things assure a repeat invitation more than a tin of caviar. The bigger the better.

Your dietary restrictions are your problem, not your host’s: Deliver me from the latest fad, “allergic to wheat!” By accepting an invitation to stay, you are neither booking a table in a restaurant nor a room in a hotel. Don’t try to change the system in place. And don’t, I mean REALLY don’t, fax or email exactly what you will and will not eat prior to your arrival. Your host has surely pre-arranged some kind of meal service, however grand or humble. Don’t upset the apple cart. If you can’t eat what is offered, never underestimate the power of a Balance bar. If you’re still hungry, it’s probably best to leave and go home. You might’ve stayed too long. Refer to Rule #1.

Don’t poach the help: In any land this is the custom of the country. There is no interpretation by which staff-stealing is considered good form. If there is no staff, you’ll know. Don’t ask where they are. If they’ve been around the household for a long time, you can bet they’ve got the ear of their employer. It would not be happy news for your host to discover your espionage. Along these same lines, when you’re put out that your hosts are only into raw food (refer to rule #4), it’s probably best not to complain to the staff. A host never likes an ungrateful guest, and even the most constructive of criticism can be misconstrued.

Don’t commandeer the telephone: Really. Don’t use it except in case of dire emergency. Nothing wears as thin as fast. Chances are you have a cell phone. Even if you don’t have service, and you’re in the middle of the biggest deal you’ve ever done in your life (which is, undoubtedly, why you’ve been invited in the first place!), it can probably keep for one or two nights over a weekend. If not, maybe you shouldn’t go.

Smile and laugh: I know I sound like Pollyanna, but it’s 100 percent true. You’re there to provide and experience joy. Never forget this. Leave your cares somewhere else. Your host has enough of his own. I once had a friend who went to stay with some of her other friends for a weekend, and then proceeded to have a nervous breakdown. Not to diminish my friend’s troubles, but that behavior is really not acceptable. If you can’t put your best face forward, try not to go. An affable and agreeable guest is always welcome. Wouldn’t you want one, too?

Happy Houseguesting!

- Alex Hitz

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