Staycation, with company: Recessionary rules for being a good houseguest

Summertime in a recession. My friend Melissa was bemoaning it just the other day. Many of her extended family members and friends can’t afford to go on vacation, so they’re visiting HER instead. “The first year we lived here  no one came to visit,” she said. “But now we’re spending so much money feeding our house guests that we can’t afford to go on vacation ourselves!”

It’s a phenomenon I know all too well. Here in Roanoke, I don’t have as many visitors as I did when I lived on Tybee Island, Ga. — where distant cousins of ex-boyfriends of fifth-grade best friends tended to rear their heads on my ocean-view veranda, thinking that a six-pack of beer and a bucket of KFC would net them free lodging for the week.

But this summer, we’ve already hosted three separate groups. We’ve done a fair amount of freeloading ourselves, too. Week before last, I showed up on a cousin’s doorstep in Los Angeles for a homemade meal and a next-day sight-seeing tour (never mind that we never made it past the bar where Janis Joplin had her last meal).

Over the Fourth of July, my family overtook my mom’s small Ohio condo, with the boys sleeping on opposite ends of her L-shaped couch and their stuff strewn in every corner of her meticulous house. We even took her bed! (In our defense, she insisted.) Still, I could feel her sighing as we backed out of the driveway.

So I’ve decided to develop a list of houseguest do’s and don’ts. Feel free to send it to the next incoming invader — er, I mean guest. And, please, I hope you’ll feel free to add your comments and suggestions to the list.

1. Follow the fish rule: After three days, you start to stink. (Even if you’re staying with your own mother. OK, especially if you’re staying with your own mother. If you don’t like the way she makes coffee — meaning, it’s so weak that you can see through it all the way to Indiana — take your own. If you don’t like her cancer-in-a-jar creamer, bring your own Half-n-Half, too.)

2. If you’re the visitor, bring a gift. At the very least, offer to take your hosts out to eat. Melissa said she spent $400 in one week feeding all the people in her house.

3. One name: Cathy Armer. She was a friend of a friend who stayed with us several years ago on two occasions. At the time, she called herself a professional houseguest, flitting cross-country as she did from one town to another, usually staying with friends or friends of friends. She set the house-guest bar high, by following these basic tenets:

4. She helped around the house. When we came home from work, she’d have supper started. She said things like, “Why don’t you guys go out to a movie, and I’ll watch the kids tonight?” She did her own laundry — and ours too. She pitched in for groceries. 

5. When she left, she put her sheets in the washer on her way out the door. And, seriously, we begged her to return.

6. Our pals Jenna and Jane, who stay with us sometimes to work on the documentary they’re producing with Tom, set the bar pretty high themselves. When they arrive from Blacksburg to work on editing their film, “A Gift for the Village,” they bring a cooler full of vegetarian food, which they share. Jenna, an elite cyclist/white-water rafting guide/[insert-extreme-sport-here], also brings her mountain bike — and doesn’t even mind going slow so I can keep up.

7. Lab puppies and small but lovingly tended gardens: Don’t even think about attempting that again, Uncle Mike. (Although the plant gift certificate you sent later as apology was really quite nice.) After three years of babying, that oak-leaf hydrangea that Ollie nibbled down to an inch finally bloomed this year.

8. When you click with a new friend and she invites you not once or even twice but several times to bring your family to her cavernous Upper West Side apartment in the fall, put her on speed-dial immediately. And follow the above rules to a T.

9. Which brings me back to the gold standard. We hadn’t seen Cathy Armer in years, wasn’t even sure where she’d landed. But when a mutual friend found out we were moving to Cambridge this fall, she informed us that Cathy was now living in Boston and married with a young child — pretty much the same formation we were in when she first stepped so gracefully, with duffle bag, into our home.

I friended her on Facebook immediately. Weeks later, when Tom and Max went on a fact-finding mission to see our new digs, Cathy was there to pick them up at the airport. She gave them a place to lay their heads for three nights, cooked for them and generally treated them like kings. They’re still bragging about her beautiful little girl, Ana Lucia.

10. Whether you’re freeloading or hosting, remember: It’s all about karma.

Which is why we plan to have Cathy and her family over for dinner as soon as we settle into our new place.

I’m not even going to let  her do the cooking, I swear.


A picture of our fold-out futon in Cambridge. But we want you to visit us, really, we do!

A picture of our fold-out futon in Cambridge. But we want you to visit us, really, we do!