Saturday, April 24, 2010

Three breasts and guests

The three breasts thought comes courtesy of the UK journalist and commentator India Knight who was being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour this week on the topic of guests. The discussion was in the context of having guests extending their stay indefinitely courtesy of the Icelandic volcano. My mother is fond of quoting the ‘guests and fish going off after 3 days’ saying, but India brought a new comparison to the microphone that has completely captivated me in that she felt that in numerical terms guest nights could be compared to martinis and breasts, one is not enough, three too many, but two is just right. In between pondering the issue of three breasts, the whole discussion made me consider the starring role of guests in the life of an expat.
In the words of that well known biblical passage from Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a season” …/, “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance”. As an expat I would be tempted to add “and a time for guests” to the list. Based on experience no matter what remote region of the world you may land up in, you can be guaranteed Aunty Flo’s friend’s nephew is just about to arrive on a round the world trip and would just love to drop in, (code for stay for at least a week).
I can chart our life overseas together through the occupation of our spare room. We moved to Sydney, for the first time, in our twenties. We arrived a couple of weeks after our wedding and at that point the spare bedroom was occupied on a revolving door basis by relatives, friends, acquaintances, and indeed relatives of friends and acquaintances. In fact we began to feel like Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh in terms of the number of friends and relations we both seemed to possess. The majority of our guests at this point were young singles and backpackers and they stayed for periods ranging from a couple of days to months. The record went to my brother in law who ended up staying for 13 months. In hindsight I must have been a much more tolerant person at that time of my life, bearing in mind we were just married and we all lived together in an quasi open plan flat. If memory doesn’t fail me I think we ended up buying him his ticket back to the UK once life in the family ménage a trois began to pall.
In Hong Kong with a small baby in tow, we had lots of people dropping by for a meal but far fewer spare bedroom inhabitants – just as well as they would have had to sleep in a room lovingly decorated in the style of first baby frenzy. Guests tended more to the business trip whiz throughs – and the odd school party including one group of teenage boys on a choir tour who nearly expired on the spot when they politely enquired when the baby was due, and I blithely replied “Today”. There was a palpable atmosphere of 16 year olds mentally checking the availability of boiling water and towels.
Back in London for five years we had a steady stream of Antipodean friends touring Europe and popping in. They acted as a constant, bronzed reminder that there was another life and world outside Wandsworth, small children and the tube.
By the time we got to New York, we were a family of five and rented a wonderfully expansive house that lent itself to visitors in terms of proximity to Manhattan and picturesque town and setting, and we had stacked up bookings for family groups heading our way. The house’s clapperboard charm never failed to delight the eyes of first time visitors – however in the winter it tended to loose its attraction as an ideal holiday destination once the inadequacy of the heating system became clear. We must have been the only family in the neighbourhood to regularly defrost the dishwasher with a hairdryer on cold mornings. The saving grace was that the guest bedroom was on the third floor and given the rising quality of heat was much the warmest place in the house. Even so I once caught my parents sitting under the duvet, fully clothed and wearing their fleeces. I don’t think it is any coincidence that Christmas presents from my family during our New York period included hot water bottles, sheepskin slippers and heated teddies.
Now in our forties and back in Sydney, the guest bedroom has played host to the usual parade of friends and acquaintances – including a gorgeous couple of girls on their post student gap year, one of whom revealed she ran an internet edible underwear company – husband nearly choked to death on his suddenly inedible spaghetti when she offered to model some for us.
The old faithfuls on the visiting front – though I am not sure if they would care to be described in this manner, have to be the parents and in-laws, who have nobly followed us round the world. As with most expats I occasionally torture myself that I have ripped my children away from all their relatives, family heritage, and the opportunity to learn national dances and eat haggis at regular intervals. However they have benefited from significant chunks of time spent with their grandparents. Australia is such a haul, that given time is not pressing for them, we find a month to five weeks is the usual stay for grandparents which gives everyone plenty of time to relax into a relationship, (and for me to have a nervous breakdown as my inadequacies on the housekeeping front become blindingly obvious, as all the objects stuffed into cupboards to make the place look tidy burst out and it becomes painfully apparent that my repertoire of family meals is somewhat limited).
When I look back over our intermittently kept up visitors book, it reminds me of how much our guests have enriched our lives. Having people to stay gives you the opportunity to relax and talk properly, in a way that attendance at a couple of dinner parties never does. One of the Drama Queens was in fact named after a childhood friend who came to stay and who was the ideal guest.
Being a fabulous guest takes effort, imagination and enthusiasm. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s like being married, hard work at times, but when it goes well great fun and when it goes really badly, divorce or guest eviction may be the only answer. I should add here that I am aware I am far from the perfect hostess; guest towels don’t match, meals tend to the irregular and what could be politely termed “interesting”, my children bicker, my husband and I have tight lipped hissing rows that we fondly imagine are inaudible to any guest and we have a dog with a fetish for stealing underwear.
Having lived through the waves of singles, backpackers, couples, and couples with children, we are now about to enter a whole new phase of guest life and it feels rather like waiting for a tsunami. Between us we have ten godchildren and twelve nieces and nephews and I think it is a fair bet that over the next ten years a fair proportion of them will decide Sydney looks like an ideal destination and jumping off point for the rest of Australia. In many ways I can’t wait, I can make up for those years of absence on the godparent/relative front and forge an adult relationship with them beyond the annual exchange of cards and the odd guilt ridden postcard of a kangaroo.
In the interests of the youthful tidal wave approaching the house, here are some of my top tips for being a great guest, that actually apply to guests of any age.
Go surfing not channel surfing. Don’t endlessly and mindlessly lie in front of the TV or computer and channel surf whilst simultaneously complaining at the standard of local television. Have a go at things you never get a chance to do at home.
Don’t complain about the cost of everything. Even if you think the place is expensive and/or a dive, try to find something positive to say about it. Most hosts like the city and country where they live and feel proud of it, they want to hear that you love it too.
Do be yourself, be happy to talk and share your excitement and experiences, but pick your moments. Husband who is not an early morning star, is still recovering from one guest who followed him round the house, talking to him with such intensity that he trotted into the bathroom behind him and chatted away whilst husband shaved.
Be independent, most hosts will have guide books, maps, and lots of good ideas but have some ideas yourself, be enthusiastic and don’t expect everything to be organized for you.
Do offer to cook a meal, hang out washing, wash up, load dishwasher – you will gain huge amounts of brownie points. The little things like buying your hostess an impromptu $10 bunch of flowers make a huge difference.
Do take yourself off at times, everyone needs a break, particularly if you are a long term guest.
Do be interested in your host and your host’s children – but in one of those immortal lines from Dirty Dancing “keep your hands off the daughters”.
Be tactful – I once overheard a female guest admonishing her children crossly with the immortal words, “If you do that one more time we’ll have to say you’re behaving like a little Ling.” Hard for me to pin my Martha Stewart perfect hostess face on after that one!
Finally, send your hosts a post card or email to thank them and to let them know you are still alive once you leave their door and if you feel like calling your children after us – well that would be great too!


  1. Great post! Being far from my homeland we often have guests for a week or two, and family members for longer. The hardest thing I find is that everything stops for me - no bill paying, schedule management etc. I should be a little more selfish and ask guests to entertain themselves once in a whie. I know they wouldn't mind at all.

  2. I also have to say I do find we all relax into a commune type mentality when I have long term visitors and I find I am bereft when they leave. Sydney airport is going to be forever associated in my children's mind with their mother snivelling uncontrollably